Seat 21C was the aisle seat five rows down, Kemi took it. Chioma and the others occupied the three rows in front of her. Kemi smiled when she noticed that Maimuna was seated across the aisle from her; who wouldn’t want to keep a close eye on a stranger – even if she looked entirely harmless – who had your beautiful son? Kemi shifted Kamsi to a seating position on her lap and saw that he was already fast asleep. Asleep, the little boy looked every inch the cherub he was. When Maimuna pulled a camera out of her bag and started taking shots – of the sleeping Kamsi, her husband with the girls who looked to be twins, the elderly lady and the other three members of her family – Kemi wished she would stop; she feared the noise of it all would wake the child in her arms. But the joy on Maimuna’s face was so spirited that she couldn’t say the words; Kemi assumed the camera was a new one or travelling together wasn’t something they did very often.
Kemi looked down at the sleeping Kamsi and saw that his neck was bent at an angle that promised a crink; she gently righted his head. Still deep in sleep, the child snuggled closer to her belly and stuck his thumb in his mouth. Kemi felt that tug deep within the recesses of her womb. If she had her way, the next three months would fly past and she’d wake up to the morning of Saturday, the 1st of September…her wedding day. She could feel the satiny lace of her wedding gown on her back and hands and the gliding weight of her train; she had fallen in love with that gown the moment she saw it five weeks ago in Paris. Everything had been set up, the hall paid for, guest lists drafted, invites dispersed, even the honeymoon arrangements were as good as completed. All she had to do was sleep and wake up every 24 hours until September 1. She sighed and closed her eyes.
“He’s a beautiful chap”
Kemi snapped her eyes open and looked to her right from where the voice had come. He was elderly, probably early 60s but he had a killer gap-tooth that took years off his face when he smiled. He wore matching navy-blue jumper and bottoms, dignified but simple, hand-tailored to fit.
“Err…yes,” Kemi answered, “but he’s not mine” She pointed a discreet finger in the direction of where Maimuna sat across the aisle.
He nodded. “I know,” he said, “with all the fuss she’s made, the entire plane probably knows too”
She laughed along with him at his good-natured derision.
He looked down at the sleeping Kamsi again, then reached down and ever so gently pulled his thumb out of his mouth. Kamsi did no more than moan and snuggle closer to Kemi but the thumb stayed out. Her elderly neighbor was definitely an old hand.
“How many do you have?” Kemi asked him.
He looked up at her as if embarrassed to be caught at something. But he didn’t hesitate to answer in a voice laden with nostalgia. “Six” He grinned. “And two grandchildren”
No surprise there, Kemi just nodded and reached down to right Kamsi’s head again.
“Do you have any yet?”
She had expected the question so Kemi simply smiled and raised her left hand so he could see the ring on her middle finger. “Engaged”
He smiled again – it seemed to come too easily to him. “Congratulations are in order then. Yours won’t take long in coming you know, you’re a natural”
Whether it was the sincerity she heard in his deep voice or the convinced look of an experienced ‘player of the field’ he wore, his words touched Kemi deeply. “Thanks. I’m Oluwakemi Somolu”
“Ah, forgive my manners,” he apologized. “Celestine. Professor Celestine Onwuliri”
They shook hands. A short while later, flight commencement was announced over the plane intercom. Air hostesses moved along the aisle to ensure all was as it should be. Kemi struggled for a while to strap on her seat belt without waking Kamsi but after a couple of unsuccessful attempts, she gave up and turned to ask the professor beside her for help. But he had settled back in his seat, head laid back and eyes closed. Kemi had already concluded that he had fallen asleep before she noticed the white rosary beads that were slowly moving through his fingers. Kemi was impressed, her recollection of professors from her university days was of rigidly-principled men who often were sadistic and self-acclaimed atheists, or at least claimed to be. Professor Onwuliri beside her here was an exception.
Across the aisle, Maimuna was cooing to the little baby in her arms trying to put him to sleep; Kemi glimpsed her husband doing the same with their daughters beside Maimuna. She signaled for one of the waitresses to come over and help her buckle up.
“…Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen”
Professor Celestine Onyemaobi Elihe Onwuliri, husband, father and grandfather, dutifully prayed his rosary, eyes closed. He didn’t open them even when he felt the almost undetectable lurch that told him the plane had lifted up into the sky. He knew he’d be in Lagos in about an hour and fifteen minutes, give or take a couple. He continued praying.
“Glory be to the father and to the son and to the holy spirit…”
Twenty minutes later, he was through. One of the air hostesses passed by and he asked for a bottle of water and nothing else; he had missed breakfast in order to attend the 9am mass but after the heavy brunch Viola had made him eat thereafter, he couldn’t possibly eat anything else now. The beautiful young hostess returned with his water; he unscrewed the cap and swallowed a mouthful. The nice lady seated beside him – he had forgotten her name – was sleeping, her shiny ebony-hued skin and the fair skin of the young toddler who was equally sleeping in her arms contrasted unobstrusively.
Celestine leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes again. These moments where he had to sit doing nothing were the ones he detested most on his flights. It might have helped if he had brought his copy of the NUC draft proposal along but he had checked earlier in the airport waiting lounge and it wasn’t in his bag. It served him right for insisting on packing his suitcase himself; Viola would never misplace or forget to pack anything. She had offered to pack for him after setting out his meal but he hadn’t wanted to stress her much further. Her job as Minister of State for Foreign Affairs to the Jonathan-led administration was just as tasking throughout the week as it was on Sundays. Yet she never asked to be let off of any of the tasks she called ‘every good mother’s job’. That was his Viola.
Even in their early days together as students of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, she took care of him, pampered him so much that a number of his close friends nicknamed him, ‘nwa Viola’. Six children and two grandchildren later, that nurturing instinct in her hadn’t dulled in the tiniest bit. She had helped him dress up after his packing, then walked him to the door where she hugged and kissed him goodbye before hurrying back into the study to continue working on that brief. As usual, she had made him promise to call the moment he landed; his watch said 3:20pm so that time couldn’t be so far off now.
Celestine had just put down his watch-hand when the plane experienced a little lurch, almost imperceptible like the one at take-off. He thought he had imagined it until he noticed a few of the passengers – men mostly – darting inquiring glances around as well. The answer came in the form of the pilot’s calm voice over the intercom. They had only made “some adjustments”, the voice said, which entailed that they would be landing at the Muritala Mohammed airport in Lagos about fifteen minutes later than earlier scheduled. Everything was under control and there was no need to be alarmed. Celestine was in no particular hurry to reach Lagos so he just shrugged and settled back into his seat, it was all the same to him.
He was just dozing off when another lurch rocked the plane, this time much more pronounced. Every passenger in the Business class section – his sleeping neighbors included – seemed to have been roused by the second lurch. A wide-eyed Oluwakemi – yes! that was her name – turned to him. “What was that?” she demanded.
He didn’t feel any of the confidence he forced into the smile he sent her way. He patted her hand while straining to catch sight of a hostess or any other attendant who could give them some information. The plane lurched again then did a little jig to the right and left like the paper planes his children had played with as kids. Professor Onwuliri was ‘officially’ scared.
“We have a situation, ladies and gentlemen, but it is well under control,” the pilot’s voice boomed from the intercom speakers. “Please remain calm and buckled into your seats”
Maybe it was just him but the pilot’s voice didn’t sound so calm anymore. Even as he reached into his front pocket for the rosary he had put in there, Celestine had a really bad feeling deep in his guts. Something was terribly wrong.
As if to confirm his suspicion, the plane bucked again and tilted forward at an acute angle. They were moving too fast and he couldn’t detect the buoyancy characteristic of an engine-driven vessel; it felt like they were free-falling through the air.
The whole interior of the plane was riot with a cacophony of shrieks, cries and screamed prayers. People were yelling ‘Jesus! Jesus!’, others were invoking His blood and from one of the seats behind him, Celestine heard a male voice yelling in tongues. The fair-skinned woman across the aisle reached over and plucked her son from Oluwakemi’s arms, she was already shedding profuse tears. Celestine watched with a sinking heart as her husband tried to calm her down while attempting, albeit unsuccessfully, to gather her and their four children into his arms. They continued to free-fall.
Oluwakemi was bent over in her seat, coiled into herself and rocking herself like a baby. Celestine recognized the early signs of shock so he reached for her shoulder and shook it vigorously. She bolted up as if she had been hit and stared at him, dry-eyed and mouth agape. He didn’t say anything, just reached for her right hand and held it tightly in his left. She covered their hands with her left hand and Celestine caught the gold flash of her engagement ring. His heart broke for her.
The noise in the plane had by now risen to a tumultuous level. Men shouted, women screamed, children cried. The first tears dropped from Oluwakemi’s eyes. Celestine just stared at her and said nothing. What was there to say? She turned to him with huge eyes and enunciated in slow, deliberate words, “We are going to crash.” His heart beat wildly in his throat as the reality of her words fully sank into him. He swallowed hard. And nodded.
He had always thought that the time of death was a time when one saw flashes of one’s life before one’s eyes. Even when he closed his eyes, he didn’t see any flashes or visions. He only felt this hunger deep down within him to do everything one more time – to hold Viola, hug his children, kiss his grandbabies, look into the young ambitious eyes of his students, stand at the altar of that church they had all built together in FUTO, eat roasted ukwa, watch soccer – just one more time.
He heard Oluwakemi break out into loud heart-breaking sobs; she was trying to sing Amazing Grace but her tears and all the noise made it sound like garbles and nothing more. Professor Onwuliri’s heart raced wildly, his hand in Kemi’s was cold and clammy, his head felt light. He shut his eyes tight and tried to pray…but only the song came to him. He swallowed hard one last time and sang…
Lord, lift me up…and let me stand,
By faith, on heaven’s table land,
A higher plane than I have found;
Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.