The many creek villages around Bonny and its Bight exist on fishing, so that night, many Ijaw fishermen were out on their canoes. They had heard the sound of the burning plane overhead and seen it crash into the water.
‘My brother, look at the aeroplane that had fire in one side. It will soon be under water’
‘True O. Many people go dey inside. Make we go help. They will pay us for helping’
‘Maybe. Begin row’
Two canoes rowed by Periebi and Samson made for the fire lit spot where the plane crashed, when they came across the bloodied and hurt David Wilkes. He was dragged into one of the canoes, while Chidi and Ngozi were rescued into the other, before the men began heading for the shore. Chidi couldn’t stop crying and the fishermen were very gentle with them but then became grave for when Ngozi was examined, the little girl had died. Chidi looked back out at sea and saw the Constellation in its dying throes.
The canoes beached on a creek close to Bonny Island and as the injured were taken off, Chidi prayed to the Gods and looked for a memorial to her sister who was now covered under some fishing nets.
The rescuers and rescued sat under coconut trees, watching the flames in the rains, three miles away at sea. With remarkable presence of mind, Chidi took off her Swiss army knife and in the dark began carving her sister’s name and her allotted number 127 onto the trunk of a mangrove tree with an arrow pointing to where the plane now sank.
David Wilkes stared at this young girl with her knife, then switched his gaze into the distance thinking about the huge wealth that had just sank.
Excel Care Home, Miami Florida
‘How y’all doing today?’ The care assistant asked, as she wiped the drool from the side of the man’s mouth.
As expected, there was no answer, for as much as the patient’s eyes were alive, his body was paralysed affecting his speech as well. The care assistant chatted on ‘Weather is in the high eighties today and as soon as my shift finishes, I could murder a beer. What would you want for dinner today before I close, Mr W?’
At almost seventy years old, David Wilkes was one of the younger residents but his mind was as active as ever. Forty years ago, after he was rescued by the Ijaw fishermen with those two young girls, he was handed over to Nigerian federal authorities. Badly injured, he was deemed to be a mercenary working for Biafra and sentenced to two years in the notorious Abakaliki prison. In the most abject conditions, he kept his mouth shut about the gold shipment on the plane. Deported immediately after release, he headed back to the USA planning on coming back soon to try and salvage the gold, now at the bottom of the Bight of Bonny or Biafra before the name change.
Colonel Ojukwu heard almost immediately about the shoot down but could not organise a search, as the crash area was now in Federal hands. Informed that the plane went down into the sea, he closed the book on the gold.
Even in paralysis, David’s mind went back to March 1980.
Opobo March 1980
A new civilian government had just emerged in Nigeria, as US citizen Daniel Whyte led three tourists into Port Harcourt. Passing through immigration, Daniel felt uncomfortable under the stare of the security officer with the reflective sunglasses. Daniel Whyte was David Wilkes and with a team of three divers, had come to locate the gold in the sunken plane. Gold prices were soaring and the bullion would be worth about seven million dollars now.
‘David ..sorry Daniel, you sure you know where this plane is located? Jim the lead diver asked.
‘Yeah, I kinda think I do. If not, I remember the names of some of the fishermen that saved me…Samson..yes…that’s one of them. That is, if he’s still alive after that fucking war they had round these parts. They don’t know what was on the plane..’
‘Gotta say, man, that security goon was really looking at you. You sure you aren’t on a watch list?. They might be watching us. What’s the security service here called?’
‘The customs guy didn’t understand what was in the boxes, so quit worrying. Besides, I’m paying you guys a lot of money for coming here, as well as a share of the booty’
The four checked into the quaintly named Best Night Sleep Hotel in Opobo. It was no more than a shanty building but enough for their needs. Next morning, David set off on the streets to search for Samson. Opobo, fast changing into a boom town awash with oil money and expatriates, David and his crew did not stand out, as they searched beer parlour after another. Samson, a common name in the parts, threw up many men but not the one they sought. On the second day of searching, they gave up and rented a tired looking forty foot cabin cruiser with a single engine in the back. The owner was Opuowei, known as Opu.
‘Boss’ Opu said ‘I can come with you and help you search for the oil equipment, you say you are doing. In the Bight, it is quite deep, maybe two to six hundred feet. My boat is the best for that at $30 a day.’ David didn’t haggle but Opu’s presence was not part of the deal.
Later, all four stood on the dock staring at the sad looking boat they had hired for the week.
‘This piece of shit will get us out there?’ Jim asked
‘I’m sure it’s ok ’ David replied ‘Lets load up with our equipment’ Through the owner’s contact, a store man for an oil organisation had provided them with diving gear. They unpacked the boxes from the USA and installed the sonar. Sonar helps detect submerged objects by sending a sound wave downwards and when it makes a contact, will bounce back registering the object on a display, hopefully, the long lost plane.
‘Does the local navy have a patrol that checks up on vessels? Remember, we will be diving in broad daylight and people can ask questions.’
‘True, but I’ve got forged documents saying the oil ministry has approved us to dive for lost drilling gear. That and some bribe or dash, as the locals call it, should put people off our trail.’
Next day, the sonar was pinging away and whenever they had a solid hit, the divers suited up and went over the side led by Jim. The water was murky and they had to feel objects by hand. The team had studied diagrams of the sunken plane, so knew what shapes to look for.
‘Jim, how come we haven’t found anything? It’s the third day and all you guys have brought up have been junk. Nothing recovered so far has anything to do with aircraft’ David said.
‘Hey, back off. It’s not our fault. We are only here because you said this is the area . Everything the sonar has picked up we’ve checked. How many square miles have we searched?’
‘Almost twenty so far. I couldn’t be this far wrong, just couldn’t’
‘You are, jackass’ thought Jim.
‘Let’s expand the search towards the shore’
‘Ok, you’re paying’
After eight days, they had found nothing. Jim had another conversation with David.
‘You paid us for ten days which runs out on Wednesday. If the cargo isn’t found by then, you either pay us more or we are off back to the US’
‘Then do more dives daily’
‘Listen, diving to two hundred feet with regular air is stretching safety. Also, going down is not the problem. It’s the ascent that we have to take very slowly otherwise, we can have the bends. You know about the bends?’
‘Yes, I have scuba dived’
‘This is different, we are commercial deep divers and go deeper. The answer is no, we will not do more dives than safety allows’
With no sign of the plane three days later, the divers returned to the US, leaving David in Opobo. Stuck in a quandary, he decided to dive by himself, with Opu, the owner of the cabin cruiser as his mate. He had scuba dived around the Caribbean on holiday and thought this would be easy. Breathing regular air from his tanks, he had his first dive. And last. There was a rope linking him back up to the boat, which Opu monitored. Down in the depths was another world, oil slicks went by and when he looked at his diving watch, he was at one hundred feet under. Sonar had showed there was a natural shelf at about one hundred and fifty feet. His foot touched the edge of the shelf as he peered into the dark. Suddenly his foot hit a hard object. He felt downwards and was elated to be holding onto a weed and mud covered gold bar, probably the one he held on to when he jumped out of the sinking plane eleven years earlier. Joy went through him and he thought ‘Success, I’m rich. Rich’.
Putting the bar into his divers’ bag, he pulled on the rope to let Opu know he was coming up. As he slowly ascended, from the midst approached a hammerhead shark, prevalent in these waters. David panicked and swum for the surface faster than he should have, expecting the shark to attack. The shark lost interest but David, ignoring every diving rule, burst to the surface within five minutes. He was bleeding from every orifice and his spine had contorted due to nitrogen saturating his blood. Opu dragged him out and recognising the dreaded bends, set off fast for the shore but not before removing and hiding the gold bar. On being examined at the local hospital, he was found to be paralysed completely. His family in the US airlifted back there. Hospitalised for the last twenty years at the Excel Care Home, he had been unable to speak or move.
‘Madam, please you must sign the vouchers before you go on leave. It will cover all the department expenses and salaries before you return’ Isioma requested.
The madam sighed ‘Alright Isi, but when I return, I will carry out an audit on the payments and if I should find one kobo missing’ Leaving the unspoken threat hanging in the air.
‘There will be no problems. You must be looking forward to seeing your children’
‘Yes, it’s been almost five years and they have bought me a ticket and arranged my visa. Did I tell you I have grandchildren I have never seen?’
‘Indeed, many times!’
Chidi Okafor leaned back in her seat and stared at the ceiling. As the Head of Department for Fiscal Affairs, she occupied a powerful position in state government. She was giddy with happiness about her impending US trip to visit her two children, Francis and Ngozi. The latter named after her sister who had died during the plane crash. That traumatic period in a refugee camp in Opobo until the end of the war and the eight months it took her to find her parents. The bittersweet reunion, when they had believed, all in the plane had died. Her mother, with child again, had fainted saying a ghost had returned. Her interaction with her father was different. ‘Father, the knife has looked after me but now we are together again, I have no need for it. Here…put it back on your neck’.
‘Thank you, child. The knife was given to me as a farewell gift by the old district officer when I was his servant. I was 15 at the time’ Clement smiled with tears in his eyes, as he took back his lucky charm and life began anew for the Okeke family.
Clement started a car spare parts business which flourished, enabling Chidi to go to University followed years later, by her brother Benjamin. She married, had children and became a widow as a result of a car accident. Her children, like many of that time, saw their educational and indeed much of their future in the USA. Once there, the two had invested in a care home business which allowed them a solid financial standing. Chidi now was going to see them and her grandchildren.
‘My goodness, they are so big! All I have in my memory are them as babies.’
‘You are my grandma! You are my grandma!’ shouted the twins in unison
‘Yes indeed. So nice to see you and you, Chima, you look so much like my sister’
‘Where is your sister, Grandma?’
‘She is in heaven resting’
‘Maybe you will tell us about her’
‘I will, not now but I will. Give me more hugs. Grandmothers love hugs’
‘Welcome home mother, Francis will put your bags in your room. You are here to rest‘
‘Thank you Ngozi. Let me tell you both again how proud I am of your success in America’
‘Thank you, mother’
‘I have gifts for all of you from Enugu. I could not come here empty handed. Take me to my room, biko’
Ngozi asked ‘Mother, how did you get that Swiss Knife through customs because since September 11, they would never have let you have that on board a plane?
‘I would never leave this lucky item behind. Since your grandfather’s death a decade ago, this knife goes with me everywhere. My mechanic managed to remove all the knives and tools in it. All it is now, is just a case. However I had taken it off in Lagos and put in into my checked in luggage at the airport’
Half an hour later, they pulled into the car park of the care home as Ngozi explained to her mum ‘It’s cost us a lot of money but we reckon it’ll pay itself off in about five years. Come, Mother, I will show you all over our facility, introduce you to staff and maybe, patients’
Chidi, flanked by both her children walked proudly through the doors of the Excel Care Home.
David Wilkes had wet himself again but the nurse was not due by for another twenty minutes so he would have to wallow in it. However his eyes were quite alert.
Wilkes heared voices as the door opened. Two women came in as he thought ‘Thank God she’s here early and can change my sheets’
‘This is Mr Wilkes, one of our long term residents. According to his medical notes, interestingly, he got injured in Nigeria, Opobo back in the early eighties, I think’
‘Oh, that’s where your aunt died but that was during the war’
‘Good morning Mr Wilkes. I hope you’re well today’ Turning to her mother ‘We don’t think he can hear us but we hope he can.’
Wilkes looked at the two with a blank stare, and then his eyes caught sight of the Swiss Army knife on Chidi’s neck. For the first time in almost two decades, David with a struggle, raised his right arm pointing it to Chidi. His eyes bulged, as he saw the Swiss army knife hanging around her neck. The last time, he saw it, was by the shores of a creek around Bonny. A little girl crying her eyes out and carving an arrow on a mangrove tree which pointed to where his gold was.