Flight 361: by Jerry K. Ayodele

In the months before my mother died she occupied herself with the lives of her only sons. Spending what seemed like every waking moment asking questions about our relationships, would-be marriages and not-yet-born children. “Olusegun you will not be young and handsome forever.” She would bellow over the phone. “Is it that there are no good women in Belgium?” I always had a hard time answering her questions. Work meant I hadn’t had much time for issues of the heart. Gbenga was just out of law school and was in his words: “not ready to be anyone’s anchor”. So we stalled, sometimes sending her cheesy pictures we took with flings or sometimes colleagues, anything to get her off our backs.

I got a call from a woman I assumed to be my mother’s sister early that June, telling me through a series of long-winded proverbs that my mother had died. She spoke softly, her voice ravaged by what must have been long bouts of weeping. The rest of the call faded away as I stood still, staring wildly at nothing. The world I knew fell still in that moment, grinding to a suffocating halt. In my lush condominium I found myself drowning in grief, the ceilings seemed to close in on me that afternoon. The tears would come later when I had to tell my brother, over a Skype call, that our mother had died. In our last conversation she spoke of our identity and never forgetting who we were, a message I am sure she had relayed to Gbenga. In her own deliberate way my mother was a family crest. She was a noble reminder of our identity and vast heritage. Now she was gone.

Her absence at the wedding made it all the more unbearable for me. When nosy relatives would press me about the prospect of ascending my father’s throne when the time came, my mother would be on hand to shoo them away. She seemed to understand, more than most, that in moments like these I was a dying fish, struggling painfully out of water. To most who had the privilege of meeting her, my mother was a hard woman, whose mere presence made you stand straighter and speak clearer. To Gbenga and I she was our coach, historian and eager matchmaker.

***

The past few days had been tiring. Gbenga, my younger brother, had just gotten married. A wedding ceremony as obnoxiously lavish as it could be; my late mother would have wanted it this way. She had been mentally planning our weddings since we were in boarding school. “You are Ajani’s, we are of the first Lagosians.” She would say in her measured Yoruba, often beaming as she reminded us, Gbenga and I, of our heritage as Lagos royalty. “Everyone worth anything will be at your weddings, don’t worry.” I always worried.

Being the groom’s older unmarried brother brought added attention throughout the weekend. Crowds terrified me and for several reasons, chief being that my brother and I were sons of the richest traditional ruler in Lagos, we were always trapped in clumps of attendants. The constant attention was torturous for me; my brother on the other hand didn’t seem to mind.

***

As I walked out of the lobby of the Sheraton in Ikeja tugging my suitcase I wondered when next I would be in Lagos. The lives my brother and I had chosen meant we were only ever in the land of our birth in relatively fleeting time periods. The marble finish of the lobby floor with its golden shade reminded me of the days in the palace. The soft jazz playing inside served as a buffer for my daydreams as I waited for my driver by the door. This afternoon’s dream was set in a reality where I was king. Married with children, attending to… “Sah. Eskiss Sah.” My driver was here. “Ready to go?” He was a large man with balding hair and sturdy arms. He grabbed my belongings and swung them with oppressive ease into the boot of the dark grey BMW.

My flight to Brussels was not until late evening so I figured I would have time to loiter and people-watch in the Emirates lounge. The short drive to the Muritala Muhammed Airport was unexpectedly chastening. The afternoon sun was in full flow, the streets were packed; the city was alive. In the midst of the gridlocked cars were hoards of hawkers; some surely still toddlers, yelling as they advertised their wares, chasing customers in moving cars. The sweltering conditions didn’t seem to bother them, eagerly they moved about their way. Some wiped windows; some sold sweets others sold dried meat.

One particularly small hawker stopped by the car, as if feeling my staring eyes from behind the tinted windows she peered into the car. Pressing her frail sweating body against the car window she smiled, her face became clearer, she had deep tribal marks that seemed at home with her features. “Eysss, commot from here, we no wan buy!” The driver shouted, startling her. The traffic started to move again and I lost sight of her, as the car zoomed towards the airport road a strange sadness welled up inside me.

By the time I bid my driver, whose name I still didn’t know, goodbye it had already begun to get dark. The attendant at the check-in scoffed as he saw me wheel up. “Ha Oga, three bags? Na the whole Lagos you dey carry commot?” I expected this. I smiled and handed him my passport. “So as you are going, will you do weekend for us?” He asks in a hushed tone.

“Window seat, thank you.” I said, knowingly ignoring his request for a handout.

“Safe flight, sir.” He said, smiling sheepishly as he handed me my boarding documents. I made my way to the lounge, hopefully to get some quiet before the flight. My joints still ached from the weekend’s festivities.

As I thought of what the weather would be like back home I caught sight of a tall lady striding towards me, bringing with her a very distinct flowery perfume scent. She was dragging along two small children as she made her way towards the general seating area. “Shegs! It’s you isn’t it?” She asked spritely. I was dumbfounded. No one had called me that in years, actually not since university specifically. “Shegs Ajani.”

“Forgive me but I can’t say I recognise you.” I said sheepishly. She sat her two children down, dropping a small bag as she sat to face me. Her stare remained menacingly blank as she waited for me to remember who she was. A lush black hat covered a portion of her face, adding to her mystique.

“Veronica Sonekan.” She said finally. “I dated Gbenga at Leicester.” Suddenly it all came back to me. I looked at her features again and wondered what on earth had happened to her. She was still beautiful but now looked like life had happened to her several times over. “What brings you back to Lagos?” She asked. I thought to tell her the truth about Gbenga and why I was here in Lagos, but my little memory of her painted a picture of a rather intense, choleric young woman who didn’t handle bad news particularly well.

“Oh, I came to see some family.” I said with a forced smile, remembering the huge fit she threw when things ended between her and my brother. “What about you?” I asked, looking at her children who had occupied themselves with tablets.

“I live here, I have for a while now.” She said. “It’s holiday time for these munchkins so we are off to Paris.” Her son looked up and smiled wildly at her mention of Paris. As she patted his head of full curly hair I thought of the little girl from before; they would be about the same age. “Tell me about yourself Shegs.” She said with a smile. “What have you been up to?” It must have been almost a decade since we last saw, at a lazy hangout in the apartment I shared with my brother.

“Well I live in Brussels now, I have a Doberman named Lucky and I do not have any munchkins of my own.” I said looking at her now restless son. “Life is good.”

“That’s great to hear.” She said with a sigh. “We were really happy back then, weren’t we?” I thought of our time at university, the drunken raves, the missed lectures and botched romances. In those days we lived like it would never end, shortsighted hedonism. It almost seemed like those memories belonged to a different lifetime, such was the contrast with present realities.

“We didn’t know any better I think.” I replied, more to myself than to her. “To us there wasn’t more to life, you know.”

“But it was fun right?” She asked. “I sometimes wonder if that was it. The peak of it all.” Her pensive look drew me in. “Like that time in our lives was the movie and the rest is just end credits.” She let out a little laugh as she said this, pleased with herself.

“I certainly hope not, Veronica.” I said

“Emirates Flight 361 to Brussels is now boarding. Attention Em…”

The announcement cut my thoughts short. “I guess it’s my time to go, it’s been a pleasure Veronica.” I said, getting up. “Enjoy Paris little man.” Her son gave a quick smile then went back to his tablet.

“Keep in touch.” She said, as she stuck a card into my hands.

***

As I settled in to my window seat I wondered if I was missing something. If at thirty-one I had plateaued, not doing badly by any means but not great either. I had everything I thought I had ever wanted; a job at a great law practice, my own apartment, and Lucky. The feeling, that there could have been more to my life at this point, hung over me. I was aware that weddings did have a knack of highlighting and exaggerating one’s loneliness. This feeling seemed to be a bit more than that. In the middle of my thoughts I didn’t notice that a small woman holding a baby had taken her seat next to me.

“This is her first time flying.” She said with a nervous smile. Perhaps apologising in advance for the wanton tears and wailing expected from babies in transit. “I’m Anne by the way.”

“Segun.” I said, smiling briefly before returning my gaze to the window. The airport building began to slowly shrink as the plane moved away in preparation for take-off. The sun was fully out of sight now, leaving only the warm orange glow of late evening.

“I hear Brussels is great this time of the year.” She said in a distinct Igbo accent. “Her father talks so much about it.” She said, looking at her baby. Her eyes lit up as she spoke. “Do you know it well?”

“Yes. I’ve lived there for some time now, I think you’ll like it.” I said, turning to face her. “Your husband lives there?” I asked.

“Oh heavens no, we’re not married.” She said softly. “I’m a fancy type of mistress. You know? The ones who get flown out to fancy destinations.”

“How exciting.” I said, taken aback. She laughed again, noticing my distress. Her laughter woke her baby; she had dozed off when the plane began to taxi.

“I was kidding about being a mistress.” She said finally, presumably having had her fill of toying with me. “We aren’t married though.” Her smile was a full confident one, that of someone who knew they possessed great teeth and were often told so.

“Oh that’s a shame, I happened to be looking for a mistress myself.” I said jokingly. “I’m just a boring lawyer, no interesting secret life.”

We talked for a while longer before she dozed off. I soon followed her lead, falling asleep with my head cocked back.

The sound of a tussle woke me up. A flight attendant was trying and failing to restrain someone in the back. “Sir please. Sit down, the turbulence…” She pleaded. I just then noticed that the plane had begun to violently shudder, waking up most of the sleeping passengers. It was pitch black outside but I could feel the storm that was rustling the plane, causing terrifying tremors that in turn elicited screams from frightened passengers.

“We’re going to be fine right?” Anne asked. Her baby had been crying again, scared like the rest of us. “I never really liked this plane of a thing, too dangerous.” She said with a sigh. I wanted to tell her that statistically being in a plane was still the safest option for travel, but this was not the time for that.

“We will be fine.” I said, patting her shoulder to reassure her. “These things happen from time to time.” A small voice in my head reminded me that planes disappear from time to time as well. A woman in a row close to us began to pray loudly, exigently telling God to save us. Others joined her, praying fervently in different languages, all hoping for the storm to abate.

The din got more ferocious, the plane’s movement more erratic and the pleas for calm from the attendants grew louder. Anne’s grip on my knee had tightened; she was shaking, tears streaming down her round face. The captain’s announcement came some moments later, it might have been calming if I heard it; it was drowned in the screaming and crying. I had probably never seriously thought about dying up until that moment, I thought of how Gbenga would take it, of who would take care of Lucky, whether I would see mother on the other side or whether there even was an “other side”.

“I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die…” She rocked back and forth.

What seemed like an hour of turbulence was followed by calm. The storm had subsided; the relief was palpable. Songs of praise in varying dialects rang out through the cabin: “Thank you thank you God, Thank you God…” The impossible had seemingly been done; the chatter was at fever pitch. “They will call this the miracle of Flight 361,” one lady said.

“This is the last time I willingly enter a plane.” Anne said, tears still in her eyes. “Baby Nne is almost scared to death.” She patted her child’s head gently, as if expecting her to begin crying again.

“It’s usually not that bad.” I said with a soft smile. My hands shook as I spoke; my body betrayed the calmness of my words. “I bet it will be smooth from here on.” I said in a voice I hoped sounded bold. I beckoned a tall flight attendant walking nearby to bring any sort of alcohol that she had.

“I hope so.” Anne said, eyes fixed on her dozing daughter. “I barely kept my lunch in.” She giggled as she said this. I smiled back.

***

The praise songs proved to be immature; the storm that had plagued us so violently returned some hours after with greater intensity, this time meaning to really test the frame of the plane. As he had done with the earlier turbulence the captain sent out a message of calm, urging passengers to remain in their seats. The shaking now more vigorous than before sent shivers down my spine, my knees ached as I tried to calm myself. Anne had begun to pray loudly, hugging on her baby as tears flowed down her face.

Time seemed to slow down as the Emirates Flight 361 descended into the darkness, as if the pain and fear of imminent death needed more seconds to be meshed into one heavy blow. The wailing rang out again, mothers held their children, strangers clutching each other in this moment of utmost vulnerability. In my last lucid moments I thought again of my mother, of her smile and her warm embrace.


Jerry K. Ayodele (@OtunbaKSA ‏) is a Lagos-based writer who has spent the last year on unfunny tweets and a collection of short stories. His interests also include poetry and portrait photography. His work has not won any awards but his mother is very proud of him.

Related country: Nigeria

All rights to this story remain with the author. Please do not repost or reproduce this material without permission.