The room was an unremarkable room, as rooms go. It was faultlessly, antiseptically spotless, with the light grey linoleum floor tiling faithfully reflecting the harsh glare from the fluorescent lights above. And in the middle of this room, wearing a flexible shiny silver-grey jumpsuit, Tunde Adeleye stood preparing for an historic flight – a flight whose success would change the story of human transportation forever.
The idea had first occurred to him one sunny afternoon fifteen years ago while he was still in university. He was walking back to the hostels with his friend, Amaka. As they walked, they watched a kite soar round and round in the clear blue sky, and she remarked wistfully how wonderful it must be to be able to fly.
“Is that your problem? All you have to do is to go to the airport and book a flight.”
Amaka turned to him in mock annoyance. “Come on, Mr. Zzzmp, you know what I’m talking about. I mean, fly like that. Without any thing between you and the sky, suspended in space, free to go wherever you want, however you want.” She spread her arms out and began to spin around.
Tunde grinned; this was why he liked Amaka. She was carefree and spirited in contrast to his studious and methodical nature, and he liked how, because of this, she made him think differently about things. He had known her since they were children growing up together and going to the same secondary school in Surulere. Initially, there had been antagonism between them; she had delighted in mercilessly teasing him because so he was so quiet, preferring the company of books to people. One day, fed up of her teasing, he had cornered her and asked her why she did so.
“Because your face looks funny anytime I say ‘Mr. Zzzzmp’”, she giggled, miming the act of zipping a mouth shut.
“What are you talking about? I don’t look funny,” he replied indignantly.
“See, see, your face is looking funny again,” and she burst into merry laughter.
That evening, he had contorted his face into a myriad different grimaces as he studied it in a mirror, but he was none the wiser as to what made Amaka laugh. He then decided that he would smile the next time she teased him; after all, smiling wasn’t funny.
His plan didn’t quite work; she still continued to tease him. But he noticed that there was now a softer, friendlier tone to the teasing, and he found that he began to actually enjoy smiling at her when he saw her. Even the dreaded name, ‘Mr. Zzzmp’, became something of an endearment. Before long, they had formed a friendship which had endured for the rest of their stay in secondary school and had continued when they both started at Unilag together. This was despite their very different degree choices; he had chosen mechanical engineering, while she had opted for business administration.
“Hello? Earth to Tunde! What private calculations are you performing, now?” They were now taking a path across a patchy lawn which led directly to their hostel, and she was still twirling around.
Tunde shook his head. “It’s nothing. I was just getting dizzy watching you gyrate like a masquerade. Be careful that you don’t collide into someone.”
Amaka stopped spinning and looked up again at the sky.
“That’s the point. Here on the ground, you can bump into this person or stumble into that gutter. But in the sky…” and her voice trailed off with a deep sigh.
They walked the rest of the way in silence, but the idea had taken root in Tunde’s head. He would not act on it for several years, but in the intervening period, it would be fed and nourished by his vivid imagination and his brilliant mind.
There was a knock, and a narrow head with tousled sandy hair poked through the door.
“Steve, what’s up?” Tunde turned round to look as the lanky frame of Stephen Jackson, chief engineer at Aeridio, inserted itself into the room.
“Nothing, boss,” Stephen said, grinning. “I was just checking that you were ready. The press and the rest of the team are all ready, waiting for the first public demonstration of directed personal flight, so no pressure at all.” They were all currently assembled at the location that the company leased for their test flights; a large fenced-off field adjoined by a car park and a few squat buildings, one of which housed the room that Tunde was in.
“They’ve waited for this moment for five years; I’m sure they can wait a few minutes longer. Tell them not to sweat it; they’ll get their big event. I just need some time to prepare myself… mentally.”
Stephen jammed his hands in his pockets and stared levelly at Tunde.
“Last minute butterflies, or serious doubts? It’s a bit late for that.”
“No, no doubts at all, Stephen. This is going to work; we’ve all worked hard to make it work, and we’re all going to be very rich when it does.”
Stephen switched his smile back on. “OK, boss. We’ll be waiting.”
Tunde had finished his degree in Unilag with a first class distinction, to the delight of his family and friends. One person, however, was unimpressed – or at least, was acting so.
“Big deal,” Amaka said. “So you got first class.” She had finished the year before, her course being one year shorter than his, and was calling him from Makurdi, where she had been posted to for her youth service. “Everyone knew you were going to get first class. If you had not got first class, the Student Union would have organised an Aluta, and I would have been at the head of the protest!”
Tunde laughed. “Thank you for preventing my head from swelling too much. The only thing everyone has been doing is to sing my praises; it’s nice to hear something different for a change. So how is life treating you in Benue?”
“It’s OK, but I don’t think I will stay beyond my service year. Lagos is where all the action is, now. What about you? You were saying something some time about going for postgraduate studies. Is that still the plan?”
“Yes o. That’s still very much the plan.”
There was a sigh at the other end. “I’ll miss teasing you, my quiet, intelligent friend. But don’t mind me – I’m sure I’ll find someone else to tease.”
In the silence that ensued, Tunde realised that perhaps he didn’t want her to find anyone else to tease. He was in the process of realising a lot of other things when Amaka’s voice brought him back to the present.
“And how is the plan going?”
“Well, I’ve begun to look around for scholarships, but I don’t know how that will go.”
“I don’t know how that will go,” mimicked Amaka. “Tunde – of course you are going to get a scholarship. Of course you are going to mesmerise people abroad with your high IQ. How can you not know?”
“You know that I don’t just want to go to any old school. I’m looking for one that has a good Masters’ degree program in aeronautics or robotics.”
“Haba, Tunde. Are you still thinking about that old idea of flying like a bird?”
“It’s not just an idea, Amaka,” Tunde replied. “It’s your idea. And I think that, just like the heart of the person it came from, it’s a beautiful idea.”
There was a brief silence as Amaka digested what she had heard. “So I have a beautiful heart, eh? Heh, Mr. Zzzmp – I didn’t know your mouth was sweet like this o!”
“It’s not just your heart that’s beautiful, Amaka,” Tunde pressed on. “It’s every part of you; the way you laugh when you’re happy; the white teeth you show when you’re laughing; the full mouth that those teeth are set in. When I think of all your beauty, and it makes my heart soar, like that kite; it makes it soar with love.”
Amaka was certainly astonished by this declaration by Tunde, even though she wasn’t at all displeased by it. Still, it took a few months of persuasive wooing before she progressed from being his friend to being his girlfriend. They were still physically separated – she was back in Lagos as planned, and had got a very demanding job as an account executive at a bank, while he was now doing his youth service. Fortunately, he had been posted to Ijebu-Ode in Ogun State, so he was able to make frequent trips to see her.
He also continued his hunt for a scholarship at a good university and nearly a year after graduating, he was successful in getting one for a Master’s degree programme at Bristol University in the UK. He was glad it was Bristol, because their aeronautical engineering department was reputed to be very good. Amaka, on the other hand, was not so sure about the move; she was worried about what the distance would do to their relationship. She voiced her concerns during a lunch date that he had arranged.
“There’s nothing to worry about,” said Tunde with an easy smile, cutting away at the chicken on his plate. “Resign your job and come to Bristol with me. I’m sure there are also work opportunities for you over there, and even if it wasn’t, the scholarship is generous enough.”
Amaka was unimpressed. “You think the British High Commission will give me a visa just because I’m your girlfriend?”
“No, I don’t think they will.”
“So your idea needs more work, then,” she said, lifting another forkful of jollof rice to her mouth.
“They won’t give you a visa as my girlfriend. But they will give you one as my fiancée,” he said, smiling as he brought out a small box from his pocket. And as the rest of the patrons in the restaurant cheered, Tunde publicly invited a surprised but joyful Amaka to spend the rest of her life with him.