Sunday, March 7, 2010

Novella: La Conferencia (Chapter 26)

The air-conditioner in the hall seemed rather too cold. Tara wondered why. She was one of the first people to arrive at the hall for the briefing. She took her time to admire the intricate pattern of the hall. The architect must have been very meticulous when designing the structure. It was so beautiful.
She had read about amphi theatres; she had even seen the picture of one on the internet. The hall had a similar form; only it was not as big as the regular amphi’s. She looked at her watch; it was a quarter to seven. Her mind did a quick back-flip; recalling the events of the previous day. The day had seemed so long, because so many pleasant things had happened.
Her life had been restored, and her heart was renewed. She owed it all to God, and to George, who He had used. At the thought of George, she looked back and scanned the hall. It was unlike him to be late for the briefing. It was one of the many things she had come to respect in him. He was time-conscious and was almost always early for the different line-up of activities.
She sad smile curve her lips as she remembered her mother. Her mother had never been early for a meeting; not once. She would always leave home at the time a meeting was supposed to commence, and would dash out of the house frantic. Tara wondered why her mother couldn’t be more organized.
She criticized her mother inwardly until she began noticing the same trend in herself. ‘God forbid, I cannot turn out to be like mother!’ she had said, chiding herself someday. But that hadn’t changed things.
When she came to the conference however, she decided to work on her promptness to programmes, and so far she had been doing a good job. She was proud of herself. Noticing George’s discipline with time had also been an impetus for her. She looked back again and didn’t see him coming.
She placed her bag on the seat to her right. She hated to keep seats for people, but she indulged herself this once. She knew George would want to seat in front, so she decided to reserve a seat for him. ‘I’m doing this for George’, she convinced herself. But deep within she knew there was another force at work. She actually wanted George to seat next to her. She smiled at herself.
‘You’re a silly girl, Tara’, she teased herself as she turned again. This time, she saw him, and he was walking in her direction. But even though there was still a distance between them, she knew something wasn’t right. She couldn’t place a finger on what it was but the fact was undeniable.
When he reached her, he greeted her with a smile. Tara thought the smile was forced. She ushered him to the seat next to her. When he sat, he became unnaturally quiet. She was beginning to get worried.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Nothing”, he said, without looking at her “Just a long night”
“Mm-hmm” he said, trying to look distracted.
“George, look at me”, she said.
He did, and tried to smile but Tara wasn’t fooled. His eyes were not the same. They were not the same eyes she had looked at when they had spoken for the first time, neither were they the same she had taken comfort in when he counseled and talked with her at different times. Something was wrong. He looked sad. He looked defeated.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Talk about what?”
“About what’s wrong with you.”
George laughed, but it sounded so strained. Nothing looked or sounded right with him this morning.
“I trusted you with my worst secrets, George”, she said, now sounding pained. “Why won’t you do the same with me?” She noticed that got his attention, but instead of opening up, he seemed to withdraw further.
“I’m not keeping anything unsaid that needs to be said”, he told her, but she could see he was lying. She decided to let it go. Maybe he didn’t trust her as much as she trusted him. And if he did trust her, maybe it was something he felt so pained or ashamed to talk about. She decided to give him some space if that’s want he wanted. She only hoped he wouldn’t let that burden grow till it knocked him out.
“It’s okay if you don’t want to talk about it, but please know that I’m praying for you.” Tara said, noticing a tiny glint in his eyes. She then knew beyond all doubts that something terrible was eating him up
George felt his eyes fill. He had to look away from Tara; it couldn’t bear to look in her eyes. The guilt was too much to bear. After months of being sober and clean, he had finally given in to his lust. He had walked into that toilet and consumed the magazine. He had feed his eyes to stupor. There was no turning point at that moment. Before he left the toilet, he had topped it all up. He had masturbated.
George blink, fighting hard to keep the tears away. He felt so terrible; so dirty. He had done it again. Looking at Tara had made him feel horrible; like a pig. If he could feel this bad, being with Tara, he wondered how he would cope with Fatima. He couldn’t even dare to think of God now; he hated to imagine the hurt and pain in God’s eyes.
He hated himself for what he had done. And yet, he knew it wasn’t over yet. Though he hated it, he still felt powerless to stop at the moment. He was sure he would pick up the magazine again when he returned to the hostel. That only made matters worse as he felt helpless to stop from killing himself, because that was what he was doing – killing himself slowly.
‘George, do you have to be such a fool?’ he chided himself as the Conference Director started addressing them. He was momentarily distracted from his thoughts. Something the CD was saying caught his attention.
“…there would be no group meetings today. We would all be going on a day-long mobile rally, advocating the rights of children. You will all go for your breakfast immediately after this briefing, and return to your hostels where you would be given your rally T-Shirts. We would commence the rally at 10’o clock. We would have different stops so we could rest, during one of the stops, we would have lunch. That should be around 2:30 at…” The CD looked at his colleagues for confirmation of the information.
“Yes, at the Central Park at Rukpokwu. We would return here at 5pm.” The participants murmured. They couldn’t imagine walking for a whole day. The Conference Director however seemed unaffected by their complaints.
“You won’t be the first to do it, neither will you be the last” he said. “You won’t die.” He paused, and looked at them a while. “But there’s some good news. After you’re back and you’ve had your shower, you would have dinner. Immediately after dinner, we would our O-Y-O night.”
He was pleased as he saw the confused looks on their faces. Only a few seemed to understand what he was talking about; possibly those whose siblings had been at the conference before.
“The O-Y-O night, meaning On Your Own is the night when there is no organized programme from our end. Every participant is free to do as he or she pleases. You could read, sleep, chat, or have informal group meetings. Just do as you please.” He then frowned. “Just make sure you don’t do anything stupid. If you’re caught, that will be serious O-Y-O for you o!”
Giggles littered the air. They understood what he was talking about.
He dismissed them almost immediately and George stood to leave, but Tara grabbed his hand and nudged him to sit down. George was bemused. “What’s the matter?”
“You’ve forgotten our meeting?” She asked.
“What meeting?” he asked back, but she just gave him that remind-yourself look. “Oh!” he said, slapping his forehead, “I forgot.” They had agreed the previous night to meet after the briefing. Fatima and the others would be joining them upfront soon. He would have been excited on a normal day to enjoy the company of other believers but today was different. George was afraid. He was ashamed.
Utibe’s ears tingled when he heard the CD mention that nobody should be caught doing things they ought not to. It was then he felt it would be a good idea to report the case of last night; believing and hoping that the organizers would send Stanley packing from the conference. He was a misfit and didn’t deserve to stay. Utibe decided to make that happen.
But first he needed to talk with Shade. He had a mission to accomplish that couldn’t wait one more minute. He had marked where she sat the moment he saw her walk in. He had been on the look out for her. When she walked with her friend, he could see she wasn’t herself; seemed more withdrawn than ever. He couldn’t blame her. But she still looked much better than he had imagined. He was glad she wasn’t been too hard on herself. He was sure she owed much of that to her friend, sitting beside her.
He stood up and started in their direction. As he walked, he noticed they were making moves to leave, so he quickened his steps. By the time he reached them, and looked at Shade, his mind went blank. He couldn’t remember all the apology lines he had rehearsed over and over. He just stood there transfixed.
He noticed Tunbosun excused herself; she knew the two needed to sort things out. Shade lowered her eyes but not before he saw the pain that still resided there. ‘This is all my fault’ he rebuked himself. “Please sit” he said.
She sat, eyes still down.
He went on his knees beside her. Her eyes shifted then and she looked at him in shock.
“What are you doing?” she whispered, the expression on her face unchanged.
“Shade, I am very sorry for what I allowed to happen to you last night”, he started and her eyes shifted from his and found her hands again. “If I had never touched you in the first place, Stanley would not have had a reason to do so. It is all my fault. I don’t know if you’ll ever forgive me but I won’t be able to live with myself, knowing I never apologized.” He paused and lowered his gaze too. His eyes were beginning to fill. “I’m very sorry, Shade. Please forgive me.”
By the time he looked back at her, tears were dropping from her eyes. His heart ached. It was like something was squeezing it tight. He didn’t know what to say as a tear made its way down his own cheek.
Most people had exited the hall, so they were not going to have many spectators, but even if the whole world watched, Utibe didn’t care. He knew he was doing what was right and he felt so right about it.
“I’m not asking you to remain my friend; that would be too much to ask. I don’t deserve it. All I’m asking is that you forgive me.” He stopped there and there was quiet between them for a while.
Shade then lifted her wet face and looked at him. “You did nothing wrong, Utibe; you did nothing wrong.” She shook her head. “I actually thought you would never want to see me again. I felt so cheap and dirty yesterday. Thank you for coming to my rescue. I would be most pleased to still have you as a friend”, she said, managing a smile.
Relief flooded Utibe’s face. “Thank you” he said.
“Thank you too!” she said and opened her arms for an embrace. It was a brief hug but meant the world to both of them. They wiped their tears and Utibe stood, helping Shade up.
“I also want to know your opinion about something”. Utibe said, but noticed Shade was looking elsewhere.
“Can we talk about it after the rally? I have a meeting now.” She said. “Hope you understand”
“Perfectly” he said, as he watched her walk towards her waiting friends.
Utibe felt like a new man. He had been in a terrible state since the night before. It felt as if he was just breathing for the first time in twelve hours. “I would have to postpone asking her about reporting Stanley till evening”, he said to himself as he made his way out of the hall.
They were all waiting for Shade. They welcomed her with smiles. Knowing they didn’t have much time, they motioned Fatima to proceed.
“Please, let’s pray” she said, and they bowed their heads in unison. The prayer was a very short one but not short of power. She employed them to sit as she shared something with them.
“I’m in the blues myself as to what God wants to do in and through us at this conference but I know it is going to be awesome”, she started, and noticed that they were all paying attention. “When I was meditating this morning, after my quiet time, the Lord dropped a scripture in my mind, making me know what His purpose for gathering us together was.”
She paused. It’s a popular scripture from the book of Isaiah; Isaiah sixty-one verses one to three” she said and began quoting it by heart.
“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; He hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn;
To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that He might be glorified”.
She repeated the verses again and did so slowly, hammering on words of importance. “God has called us to spread His love; to radiate His light in this place.”
She looked at Tara. “Some girls in this place have been hurt and are suffering like you did. God wants to touch them with His loving power as He touched you.”
Tara nodded, silently.
“God wants to use all of us”, she said. “He is not going to leave any of us out”. Looking at their faces, she saw what she had expected to see in some faces. Doubt.
“You might be telling yourself that you have nothing to offer anyone; that’s the biggest lie you could possible tell yourself.” She paused and took time to look in every eye. As she did, the look that gave her most concern was George’s. She had expected him to be the most excited; full of faith and expectation at what God was about to do, but he wasn’t. There was something to his look that Fatima couldn’t decipher. She would talk with him later. She had to deliver God’s message now.
“God assured me that He was going to amaze us all with the great things He would do through us.” Looking round again, she called their names. “Faith, Tara, Tunbosun, Shade, George, Uche…” She paused for effect. “God is counting on the seven of us. We cannot afford to let Him down.”
“How are we going to go about this?” Faith asked, with glowing eyes.
Fatima was pleased. She could feel God restoring Faith to her first love very fast. This was going to be very interesting. “I had been wondering about that myself, knowing we hardly have so much free time. But God amazed me again.”
“How?” it was Uche asking.
“I had to smile when the announcement was made. I felt like tickling God; He is just so sweet”, she said and anyone looking at the girl would know beyond doubts that she was madly in love with Jesus.
“The moment the Conference Director mentioned the O-Y-O time, I knew that was the time God had prepared for us to start”. As she said that, she saw understanding dawn on them.
“So, where are we going to use?” Tunbosun asked.
“I feel God leading us to the dining hall.” She saw some raised eye brows. She understood their concerns. “We have developed some rapport with the kitchen staff through our clearing the dishes. I trust God to grant us favour with them.”
“Who would ever have thought we would need them some day?” It was Uche saying, smiling.
“You’re right. That’s why it pays to do good at all times; just because it is right to do good. There’s always a time of reward.” Tunbosun said.
Fatima was impressed with her response. She could see God was doing a good job on everybody already. However she noticed Shade hadn’t said anything yet, neither had George. That bothered her a bit.
Not wanting to mention their names directly, she spoke out. “We need to be united in this. If there’s something anyone wants to talk about; a reservation, a fear…” she paused as she was about the say the third. “…or even an unconfessed sin, now is the time to speak up”. She waited. They all waited. Nobody signified.
“If we’re all good, let’s pray. But before we pray, please let us make sure we invite as many people as possible; just tell them we just want to have a small get-together in the dining hall immediately after dinner. Hope that’s fine with us?” she asked.
They nodded.
She then turned in George’s direction. “Please pray for us”, she said. For the first time in her years of knowing George, he seemed uncertain, even reluctant to pray. But he did anyway. And the prayer sounded shallow in Fatima’s ears.
A wave of panic hit her. She couldn’t afford to lose George to lukewarmness. She had to talk with him. She knew now was not a good time; she decided to fish him out during the rally and have a tête-à-tête with him.
She dismissed the meeting, and friends talked as they exited the hall.
Tunbosun had thought Shade would tell the others about what happened to her. When she hadn’t, she felt Shade probably still needed more time to heal before telling others. But the person who bothered her most was George. He had seemed rather withdrawn, like he didn’t belong among them. That felt so weird. She had been able to notice him because he was seated directly opposite her.
On another day, he would have smiled all through the meeting; probably winked at one or two people, including her, but she had seen none of that. Worse was that he was actually looking sick. ‘Maybe he has a fever’ she convinced herself. It was the only excuse she could give.
He indeed had a fever, but what Tunbosun didn’t know was that George had a fever of the mind; the worst fever ever known to man.

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