They were married shortly after they arrived in Bristol. They settled down quickly, with Amaka getting a job as a bank teller while Tunde threw himself into his postgraduate studies. After a year, he had finished with a distinction, and he had an offer to stay on as a research assistant.
“They have this project where they’re collaborating with Rolls-Royce. It’s about improving the fuel efficiency of aircraft by developing intelligent engines,” Tunde explained to Amaka over supper. “The idea is that if the engine is equipped with sensors that give it information about the direction and size of forces being exerted on the aircraft by the air, the other engines and gravity, it can determine just how much fuel should be burnt to provide just the right amount of thrust and no more. I think that they want me to stay on because my Master’s project is related to this work.”
“They also want you to stay on because they can see what a brilliant mind you have,” replied Amaka with pride. “But it’s also a modest mind, so you won’t blow your own trumpet.”
“Tunde shrugged. “Well, it’s unusual to be offered the position. But whatever the case, I’m glad for the offer. The pay is useful, and it keeps me plugged into a field of research that I’m interested in.”
Amaka frowned. “The sense I get is that it’s not exactly what you want.”
“Well…” Tunde clasped his hands and looked up. “What I really, really want to do is to develop a means of personal flight. You know, like the soaring bird. I think the knowledge I will gain from working on this project will be useful, so I’m not complaining.”
“Why don’t you suggest it as a project that they might be interested in working on? At least, you’ll get funding.”
“Two reasons,” Tunde countered. “One, I have hinted at it, but everyone in the department seems to feel it’s not possible. And two, more important, I don’t want to share the achievement with anyone. I have a personal attachment to the idea; I would love to be able to dedicate it to you if I am able to make it a reality.”
Three years passed pleasantly in this fashion. Then Amaka began to notice that Tunde was spending longer hours than usual at the university, frequently arriving back after nine at night. When Amaka asked him about it, he would say “Oh, it’s nothing. Just extra work that the project needs me to put in. It’s just for a few months. Sorry, darling.”
But the longer hours did not go away, and one day, after another late return, Amaka made it known that she was not happy.
“Do you really need to work that long?” she asked, arms folded. “I was chatting with Suzie the other day, and she said that as far as she knew, Mike was still coming home at the usual time,” she said, referring to colleague of Tunde’s, and his wife.
Tunde bristled. “So you’re now spying on me? You don’t believe me?”
Amaka met Tunde’s angry stare with a calm one of her own.
“Just tell me the truth. That’s all I ask.”
After much hemming and hawing, Tunde reluctantly revealed that he was actually working on a personal project. Amaka was unsurprised to learn that it had to do with personal flight.
“Most personal flight systems haven’t solved the problem of how to accurately control the direction of flight, even though they have propulsion systems for getting the person airborne,” Tunde explained. “I think that if I can build a propulsion system which receives information about the forces acting on the person who is being propelled, and then calculates how much to propel the person, and in what direction, then I can solve this problem. You know, just like the Rolls-Royce engines,” he added, gesticulating for effect.
Amaka shook her head. “This is great, but I am wondering why you didn’t feel comfortable enough to share this with me.”
The defensive curtain came down again. “I didn’t think that you would be very supportive. I noticed that the last time I mentioned my idea of personal flight, you were somehow dismissive.”
“I am not dismissive of your work, Tunde. I just want there to be some balance. I don’t want you to become so obsessed by it that you forget about everything else.”
Tunde drew Amaka to him in an embrace. “Darling, I’m sorry if I kept this from you. I will try to keep what you said in mind, but I can’t lie – I am very, very passionate about this idea.”
A year after, Tunde was headhunted away from the university by a large multinational defence contractor. The pay was much better, Tunde remarked; that would enable him to pour more money into prototyping the ideas that he had developed on his side project.
Amaka wasn’t happy hearing about this; they had discussed starting a family, and one issue that Tunde had raised was the need to be financially secure. “If you are earning more money, isn’t that the financial security that you’ve been talking about?”
Tunde shook his head. “Financial security isn’t just a bigger salary; it is being able to earn income without having to work. If I can succeed in the idea of personalising flight, then the company that we set up can make so much money that we won’t need to work ever again.”
But Amaka just stared at him in sadness. “Is this really about us, or is it about you?”
“Ah-ah, Amaka, why now? Of course it’s about us. Trust me, I want us to have a wonderful life together where we don’t have to ‘manage’ at all.”
A couple of years later, on a sunny, breezy Saturday, Tunde was driving with Amaka to a farm field on the outskirts of the Bristol. The prototype had been finished, and they were on their way to try it out. Whatever reservations she might have had during the development of the prototype, Amaka was genuinely excited.
Tunde had explained to her already that he would wear a suit with sensors and a propulsion pack to fly. The direction of flight would be controlled by specific arm and hand gestures; the energy for propulsion would be supplied by batteries, which would power rotors to lift him off the ground. According to Tunde, it was only recent developments in battery technology that enabled so much energy to be stored in batteries that were only the size of a book.
Aren’t you worried about falling?” she had asked.
“The propulsion pack should be intelligent enough to determine when that’s happening, and slow down the fall so that I’m let down gently. But we’ll see what happens,” he said, grinning.
They arrived at the farm, and neatly parked the car by a barn. Nearby, the farmer, a stocky man with a grizzled chin, leant over a fence chewing away at something.
“Are you th’ feller who booked th’ field over th’ phone?” he asked.
“That’s me,” replied Tunde, stepping out of the car.
The man shrugged his shoulders and unlocked a gate in the side of the fence, while Tunde unloaded the suit and various pieces of equipment out of the car. When they were done, the man said to call him when they were done; he had other matters to attend to, and he walked away leaving them by themselves.
Several minutes later, Tunde was suited up and standing in the field, ready to go. The breeze was much stronger than what they had experienced on the way. It was making Amaka’s red dress flutter furiously, and she had to shout to make herself heard.
“Are you ready?”
“Yes… give me a countdown from ‘three’”, he shouted back.
On her ‘zero’, for a moment, nothing happened.
Then slowly, magically, Tunde started to levitate.
Amaka jumped up and down and screamed with excitement.
There was a great big grin on Tunde’s face as he began to gesture with his arms and hands, then his body was oriented from a vertical to a horizontal position, and he smoothly and rapidly accelerated upwards.
This is like being a superhero, he marvelled.
He banked just before the edge of the field and executed a smooth U-turn, taking him back to this starting point. He flew in zigzags. He described a perfect figure-of-eight pattern. He soared upwards, round and round in circles, just like the kite from his memory of long ago. He looked down, and he could see all of the field, with the buildings adjoining it and the roads nearby. He could just about make out Amaka as a tiny dot of red.
So this is what it must be like to be a bird, he thought. This is fantastic – I could do this all day lo–
Suddenly, his musings were cut short as he plunged to the earth, his terrified scream trailing his path to descent.
He was in hospital for two months with several broken ribs, multiple fractures including a broken left thigh bone, and serious concussion, amongst other injuries. He was lucky that there had been a bale of hay that had broken his fall, but even a bale of hay can only protect someone so much when they fall from over 200 feet.
Needless to say, Amaka had been alternately crazy with grief when she reached him, and crazy with relief when she found that he was still breathing. When the ambulance had arrived, she had told the paramedics that he had jumped off the barn doing some silly stunt, not being sure what they would say if she had said that he had fallen out of the sky.
“I wonder what went wrong,” he said, on one of her visits to the hospital.
Amaka turned on him furiously.
“How can you be thinking about what went wrong when you were almost killed? I hope you are not thinking about resuming flying in that contraption?”
Tunde turned to face her from where he lay; his leg had been set in a cast and suspended in a sling, so he did this with difficulty.
“Amaka, that is exactly the point. I don’t plan to fly in that contraption again until I find out what caused the problem, and until I fix it.”
Amaka’s eyes brimmed over with tears, and she burst out sobbing.
“Do you know how I thought my life had ended when I saw you lying there as still as death? And you want to put me through all that again? Tunde, you are a heartless beast!”
Tunde was torn. He could lie and tell Amaka that he had changed his mind; but he knew that he could not live up to the lie.
“Amaka, I’m sorry. It must have been the pain medication that I’m taking that made me say that. Look, let’s not talk about this now. Let’s discuss it when I’m better. Right now, I can’t even think about walking, talk less of flying.” Yes, Tunde thought. He would postpone the day of judgment for now.
The day of judgment came, as Tunde had known it would eventually come.
He returned from work one day, several months after his discharge from hospital. It was 9.30 pm; he had begun returning late again, but Amaka had not commented, so he thought she was OK with that. He called out to Amaka to let her know that he was back.
He scratched his head, puzzled; Amaka was usually back by this time, and if she was going to be late, she let him know. He went upstairs to check their bedroom in case she was sleeping, grunting as he went; he was yet to regain full mobility in his left leg, and it still hurt when he over-exerted it.
The empty shelves and wardrobes that he saw told him the whole shocking story, even more eloquently than the note that she had left on the dresser.
Tunde staggered to a chair and slumped down in a daze. After he had been discharged, he had tried… but there was no way he could keep away from the project. The feeling of freedom, of lightness that he had experienced being up in the air that day had hooked him; he had to find a way to get back to that place again. Perhaps subconsciously, he had thought she would come round, seeing how passionate he was about the work. Or perhaps he had thought she would just rant and rave. But this – this was unexpected.
The note told the rest of the story; she had indeed found out, and it was too painful for her to contemplate going through another experience like the day of the ill-fated flight, so she was moving out. She didn’t know when or if she would be back. She still loved him deeply, but if he loved his project more than her, she would not force him to choose.
Tunde dug out his phone from his pocket and tried several times to reach her, but each time it went straight to voicemail. He ended up leaving a message, begging her to reconsider and return, and then he slumped back in defeat. Minutes passed as he slouched motionless on the chair, then he stood up wearily and made his way downstairs to his car. Perhaps the prototype would take his mind off his sadness.