The men interrupted their lively conversation abruptly. Exchanging quick glances, they stood up in unison, scampered across the verandah into the burning sun and disappeared behind the house.
Presently, the subject of the men?s hasty departure emerged from the end of the road, languidly dragging one foot after the other. When he got under the verandah, he dragged a weather beaten stool and sat on it, brow knitted.
He stood up almost immediately and gingerly touched the white tie which had turned a dull grey with age and use. He unknotted it and slung it across the thin line running under the wizened mango tree; he undid the buttons of the tattered shirt; it joined the tie on the line.
Still standing in the blazing sun, he bent almost double and unlaced the old tennis shoes. The stench, as he liberated his feet from the clutches of the shoes, was overwhelming. So pervading was it that his next door neighbour forbade him from returning to the verandah until he had washed his feet with soap.
“How selfish can you be!” Tayo exclaimed and instinctively held his tummy as his intestines rumbled painfully.
“Yes,” Tayo stammered as sweat bathed him.
“How?” Soji wondered.
“Who loaned me the scrubbing detergent with which I bathed this morning?” Tayo asked.
“I did.” Soji nodded slowly and cast a mournful look on the near-tattered tie lying forlorn on the line. The red shirt, whose collar lining was unsuccessfully held together by two rusty office pins, danced gently to the touch of a draught. When his eyes rested on the dog-eared file that exposed many of its paper contents, a sad smile played on his thin lips.
“Any luck today?” he asked.
“That is a stupid question,” Tayo shouted more out of frustration than anger.
“I am sorry,” Soji pleaded. “I should have known,” he added after a touching silence.
“It’s nothing,” Tayo said without taking his eyes off the slime that had accumulated inside the shoes. The stench was choking: it was one the reasons for his relatives? earlier hurried departure; the second reason was that they knew he would fleece them of their hard-earned money.
He did not bother to cover his nose as he scraped the smelly slime from inside the shoes: he needed to prepare his only pair of shoes for another job-hunting session the following day.
“The minister?s broadcast this morning could bring some relief,” Soji enthused.
Tayo smiled, but the pain in his stomach prevented him from voicing his reaction.
“What exactly is your area?” Soji frowned.
“Polymer. Polymer Technology.” Tayo replied feebly as another painful sensation shot through his stomach. He raised his eyes to ask Soji a question he considered pertinent but the concerned look on his neighbour’s face held his attention.
“No!” Soji was vehement. “You should not be jobless. Not when we are still searching for technological development, technological transfer. Your discipline is one of the bedrocks of technology. You should have a job!”
Tayo shrugged. He had heard such arguments before and had exhaustively discussed them. He beat the shoes together to remove the last of the slime.
“Can I have anything to eat please? I am hungry,” the torture in his stomach finally forced him to speak up. Soji hesitated a moment. When it appeared he had overcome the perplexity, he hurried into his room and returned with a lean packet of corn flakes. Tayo snatched it with trembling hands. He emptied the scanty contents into his palm and began to munch the dry snacks.