I am flying over East Africa with a sack of letters in the seat directly behind me. My engine is working smoothly, there’s no turbulence, it is a delightful day and a luxury to be aloft, a pleasure to be so high over the world. Yet my business is official. I must deliver the mail on time. The sun has started to decline in the west. The light is softer. I seem to be gliding rather than powering my way towards the mountains. I will cross them soon and adjust my course as necessary. Before midnight I’ll be in Lamu and the mechanics will be swarming over my craft. Then I will stroll along the waterfront to my home, to a bed as deep as a cloudbank.
I set off from Kampala in a light rain shower. My goggles misted over and before wiping them clean I drew an asymmetrical heart in the condensation of each lens with my gloved finger. One for you, one for me. I knew I would be with you again before the next dawn, unless mischance interfered. I take nothing for granted. There is a ring in my pocket. At last I have decided to ask you to marry me. The time is right, it has probably been right for months but it is even more right now. The clarity of the view is extraordinary. My mind is clear too. My clothes have dried fully, the rain is only a memory. Now I must pull back on the stick.
Climbing gently, I nonetheless rapidly rise above the altitude of the highest peak. For the first time the engine splutters a little. The air’s thin up here, but I remain calm, breathing deeply and slowly. The DH.60M is certainly an improvement on the earlier Gipsy Moth model I flew last year. The fuselage is metal, heavier than plywood, but more sturdy and easier to maintain. It cools rapidly at this altitude, true, but I never stay very high longer than is absolutely essential. And here on the equator it is simple to warm oneself back up by losing a few hundred feet or even just by banking toward the sun. African sunbeams are molten gold.
Now I have levelled out. A small amount of vibration as I pass over the range but I am tempted to take my hands off the controls so I can turn in my seat and peer down at Batian, that magnificent tower of rock and ice, and Nelion, almost as high. As they glitter, I am reminded of your smile, then I remember that I am a pilot, not a poet, and I return my attention to the flight, my mission. Letters and parcels must be delivered. This is always of vital importance! Words scrawled in ink on paper are worth the rush and risk, it appears. Who am I to disagree?
When I arrive in Lamu, the mail will be transferred to another plane and flown to Aden. The pilot for that flight is already waiting, sitting in the mess, looking out onto the airfield. The waterfront of Lamu is across a narrow channel from the island where the runway is located. The dhows catch the soft breeze in their lateen sails, the sailors work the rudders, and spices in sacks are conveyed up and down the coast, across the ocean, part of the vast trading networks that radiate from this part of the world. Then I will be able to relax for a few blissful days.
The hours pass in a haze of anticipation mixed with nostalgia. It is rather idyllic. I picture the magical times of the past and project them into the future and observe how they are transformed. Now the sun is very low. I am far past the mountains, they have receded over the horizon behind me, and I note something intriguing below. A sparkle and shimmer on the edge of a village. I am near a point where the culture of the coast, which is quite different from the cultures inland, has finally spread like spilled coffee to overlap this thinly populated region. As my altitude decreases and my speed slows, I understand that I am witnessing a wedding.
The white canopy of the marquee ripples and the celebrants flow out around it. At last the drone of my engine attracts their attention. I am in a position to make a noble and chivalrous gesture. I move the stick from side to side, dipping my wings as I pass in order to acknowledge them, to wish them health and prosperity. I’m low enough to observe many details of the occasion, and I am surprised, just a little, when I see that the bride and her family are African while the groom and his family are Indian. There are more mixed marriages these days and that is a good thing. They wave up at me. I salute them as I pass and then I smile fondly.
It has occurred to me that in one respect at least there will be a clash of traditions down there. It is the African custom for the groom’s side to provide the dowry and the Indian custom for the bride’s family to do so. What will happen when the time comes for the transaction to take place? The woman will expect the man to pay but the man will be waiting for the woman to provide the gold, silver, bronze or whatever is used for money in the village. The end result? Nobody will pay anything and maybe they’ll be all the happier for it, as they will be on equal terms, neither obligated to the other. My fond smile turns into a boisterous laugh.
I am obliquely reminded of a ghost story that I was told a few years ago by a pilot based in Dar es Salaam. He had responsibility for the route between Madagascar and the mainland with a stopover at Comoros on the way. In the town of Moroni he was given a room in a hotel one night and he climbed his way up the creaking stairs of the old building. There were no lights because the electricity had gone off again and even candles were in short supply. He was so weary that he went straight to bed, pulled the one thin sheet up about his neck. A cool wind was blowing from the sea and it wasn’t as warm as it ought to be. Then he fell asleep.
In the middle of the night he felt the sheet slipping down his body. He reached out to grip it but the sheet kept moving. Some force was tugging it off him. It was dark in the room but not quite silent. A faint moaning was audible. With strength boosted by panic, he applied both hands and yanked the sheet back up to his chin. The moaning stopped. But only for a minute. And once again the sheet began slipping down. What followed lasted an hour or two and before long he was moaning too. It was a fight for possession of that sheet and he had the unreasonable feeling that if it came right off his body, something appalling would happen.
His arms were aching, his hands were cramped, and finally the first light of dawn seeped through the windows. The room turned from black to grey and it was possible to see the force he had been battling with. It was another man in the same bed, a man stretched out next to him but aligned in the opposite direction, with his head near the footboard. They were parallel but offset. This is why the sheet wasn’t long enough to cover both of them adequately, hence the tussle. Neither of them had suspected the presence of the other. They had assumed a phantom was responsible for the moaning and sheet pulling. A case of mistaken identity.
The other man turned out to be an airmail pilot heading in the opposite direction, from Dar es Salaam to Madagascar. The room in the hotel had been doubled booked and the management had failed to inform either guest. In the darkness the exhausted men had climbed into bed without checking whether the room was already occupied. Once in bed they had felt cold and the tussle with the bedsheet began. This tale was told to me as a humorous anecdote, a ghost story that isn’t one, but it bears a relation to the wedding below. Listen. This is a short report, the exact same number of words as the year in which those events took place.
Both men had regarded the bedsheet as rightfully theirs. As for the couple I had flown over, both partners had considered the dowry to belong to them. There must have been a similar pulling of expectations during the wedding celebration as in that hotel room in Moroni, as if hopes were sheets too, with a final equilibrium achieved when it had dawned on them, literally or metaphorically, that everything was fine and right. Neither side had relented or relaxed but it worked out well nonetheless. This is a comforting thought as I near the end of my flight, as Lamu island comes into sight like a purple jewel in the slumberous ocean.
I reduce my altitude yet again, turning to orient my plane with the runway of the airfield. I know you are standing now to observe my approach, your wait over. I land with no fuss at all, switch off the engine, unstrap myself and spring out of the cockpit before the mechanics can reach me. Time is short and I desperately want to see you. I enter the administration building, push open the door to the mess, and you are there and you receive me in your arms. I dip my hand into my pocket for the ring and drop to one knee. There is no hesitation. You are my true sweetheart and you are also the next pilot, who must carry the mail to Aden.
But there has been a mistake, you tell me. A clerical error. You have brought mail from Aden. You landed a few hours ago. You were told that it would be transferred to a fresh plane for the journey to Kampala. So both of us have carried cargoes that are going nowhere unless we exchange all the sacks of letters and parcels and I return the way I have come. We both are required to give something to the other, something of equivalent value, for the weight of your airmail sacks and mine are identical. Instead of two people pulling a sheet in opposing directions, we are throwing our own sheets over each other. There is no ghost anywhere.
No one should be surprised that you are a woman. There have been female pilots almost since the dawn of aviation. No one should be surprised that you are Indian and I am African, and when we marry you will attempt to give a dowry to me and I will attempt to give a dowry to you. Our situation will be ultimately the same as that other couple I flew over. Equilibrium. I thought I would only have a few minutes with you before you took off in your own plane. But the error will take a long time to resolve, and it’s no longer our responsibility. Thus we can stroll along the waterfront together, to our home, to a bed as deep as a cloudbank.