The first time I found my legs scurrying up into an aeroplane was on a hot, Sunday afternoon, during a holiday in Uncle Sam’s house at Enugu. I was nine, young and naive, but with head full of fantasies from Lantern book series. We had just returned from the church when Uncle Sam announced to my cousins and I that he would be driving us to Akanu Ibiam airport after lunch. He called it sight-seeing. It sounded like an ounce of adventure into my dull, sickening life the way he said it. The thought of sitting with fastened seatbelts; a pretty face smiling down at me with bright eyes and hairs matted in shiny, black threads like the lady in Bina series coursed funny, tiny flip-flops inside me. “Are we really going to fly in the air like Bina? I asked my oldest cousin, Nwanyibuife as we dressed up in her room and wished I did not because she looked at me the way Grandmama did when she wanted to smear it on one’s face that one was too daft for an answer. “Bina kwa?” She asked, running a shiny, colourless gel on her lips. “Yes. Bina in the Airport. Lantern books.” “Tuza-queen” was the reply.
Later, I would learn at the airport that people didn’t just ascend into a random aircraft and fasten their seat belts, expecting to take-off without at least, a ticket and a destination of some sort. I would also learn that flying was even more fun imagined than experienced. That it was the state government’s way of creating memories for kids during holidays – climbing into an aeroplane and taking snapshots. The second time I found myself in an aeroplane, it was me who imagined myself into it, other passengers too and a pilot announcing something before we took-off.
The evening Papa punched Mama in the face, pushing her against the railing in our balcony was the third. This time, in flesh and blood. This time, with real passengers and Mama sitting right next to me. She had called Uncle Sam to tell him that ‘Nwokeoma has gone mad again’. So, Uncle Sam said to leave ‘that man’ and catch up with the next available flight from Portharcourt to Enugu. The fare, he said would be given back to Mama when we arrived. We did not even start to pack our things like people who were really traveling across states, or people who did not know when to return from a journey of that sort. We just dashed out of the gate, Mama clutching my palms in one hand, her purse in the other.
Our street was a silent, unsuspecting lane with two-storey buildings sprawling down to our local church. We moved, our legs swift like that of ghosts in home videos and Mama’s fleshy arm quivering all the way. As we rounded a bend into the busy road, Mama started to wave at everything with four wheels that came our way. Her cheeks were slightly puffy as though she had tiny akara balls in them, eyes red and haggard, darting this way and that like a rascal with dwindling patience.
When a taxi finally pulled over in front of us, I heard her muttering something about God’s faithfulness. The driver treated her with a cool smile as she bent over. If he noticed her cheeks, he didn’t show any sign of it. “Airport.” Mama said, opening the door and shooing me into the green Passat at the same time. “I just carried one passenger like that from the airport.” The driver was saying as we drove into the expressway that led to the airport. “To somewhere along second artillery junction. You must have kept the person you’re going to pick for too long oo.” He spat out of the window, then cocked his head backwards. “Eeh? Madam?” Mama’s lips moved slightly, as if she was groping for words and I thought that I caught the driver’s gaze on my tangerine breasts from the rearview mirror. “Just take us to the airport.” She finally said, drifting her face to the window.
An airport in the day was quite a spectacular view. At night, it looked extremely picturesque, shimmering with glorious shades of bright lights. Somewhere people like Nwanyibuife would love to take pictures in different poses and still not think that they were Tuza-queens. Twice, I found my lips opening and clamping shut. There was this foolish urge to ask Mama a thing or two, but I knew they would be well off dismissed. “Here.” Mama said, handing the driver some crisp naira notes as we descended from the car. “You can keep the balance.” “Thank you, madam.” He said. She turned and started to the terminal with the grace of a tigress as the driver, money in both hands, beamed with buck-teethed smile. How Mama resolved the fare, I did not know, much less talking about keeping the balance.
There were several people, walking, talking, and laughing. Mostly men with suitcases on wheels who would later snake up into the plane with Mama and me. “We are lucky to have caught this flight.” Mama said after our preflight procedures. She walked towards a seat and I followed her. “But the flight tickets are just too expensive.” “Why is that so?” I asked. She paused to give me a knowing look. “This is just like a fire brigade service, you know?” Her lips compressed into a tight line. “And Sam giving me back is totally unconvincing. I know him too well. He’s my brother. The only thing you can trust about that your uncle is that his name hasn’t changed. Just yet.” I stifled a smile. She was talking from experience. Uncle Sam was like that most of the times.
As we sat down, I tried hard not to think about all the awful things that seemed to pop into my head at the wrong times. Things like Papa’s harsh words to Mama and me. The sneer on his face when I answer the door. His rough hands running through my woman’s triangle the night he crept into my bathroom. I didn’t wish to let them share a space on my mind. I just wanted to relish the moment, my first flight experience. Later, when we proceeded to the boarding gate, Mama smiled at me. “We’re going to be fine.” She said, taking my hand in hers and squeezing it the way we did when we assured each other of things we weren’t even sure about. But, something about her smile seemed to unite us with what I couldn’t put my hands on. Maybe one of those things we didn’t always want to talk about.
The cabin was well lit, smelling of harsh colognes that taunted my nostrils. Mama had rushed to a seat by the aisle. She said it was for enough legroom. Her long legs needed it, anyway. The feeling became euphoric when I saw the ‘fasten your seatbelts’ signal come on, succeeded by the pilot’s announcement. It just felt like the world was under my foot.
Mama asked for nothing when a hostess treated us to the things in her cart, smiling. She just flipped through the pages of a magazine as though she was looking out for something in particular. The hostess had short, curly, black hair that looked quite different from the one in my Bina novel. I wanted to ask her why, but I didn’t know how to; instead, I smiled back and asked for nothing too.
I had drifted into sleep when somewhere in-between my sleep I caught Mama’s voice. How long I had slept, I did not know. She was shouting something about the blood into my ears. “What blood, Mama?” “Start pleading the blood of Jesus.” She said, her voice quavering. “There’s a storm and we are likely to crash.” “Crash.” I said, trying to buy some time. Part of me believed that Mama didn’t know what she was talking about. I wanted to ask her to get some sleep when we heard a bang. Then, a lady sitting by the window started to chant some esoteric words. Occasionally she would press her forehead against the window as if trying to convince herself that the plane wasn’t so up high in the air. “Also confess your sins,” Mama said, making the sign of of the cross, “should anything happen.” By anything, I knew she was talking about death and dying was beside the point, I knew it.
I didn’t think that I wanted to die in spite of my life. I felt too young for that and I knew there were several restitutions to make too. I had neither returned my fine arts teacher’s water colour nor Nwanyibuife’s scrunchy that I had stolen when I was at Enugu nor did I tell Aunty Daluchi that I was the one who started up the fire in her house. Mama told me that she had forgiven Papa and even Aunty Lauretta who said to throw her out because she could not have another child. She confessed other things that I couldn’t organize because of her unsteady voice. I watched the crew members go from seat to seat, calming passengers, looking terrified as much as they tried to hide it.
Lights went off after the second bang, an acrid smell of burning rubber overwhelming the plane. Although passengers started screaming things in despair, I felt nothing. But, as Mama undid my seat belt and we started running to nowhere, I felt something; I felt everything an entrapped, dying teenage girl should feel. At that point, I knew Mama was my life’s heroine. Or not.
Miracle Nwokedi is a budding writer who loves to tell African stories. She is an alumna of the Young Professionals Platform, Lagos. Nwokedi’s works have been featured in platforms such as African writer, Brittle paper, The Naked Convos and Hub 201, In 2014, she was shortlisted in the JLF Creative Writing contest. Her most recent work is Sons with Roots, a collection of eight moving stories. She lives in Asaba, Nigeria, with her husband where she is working on creating a mentorship platform for young creative minds. She is an associate editor at Writewell.