Tuesday morning I’m leaning against the warm hood of my car, one hand tucked inside the pouch of my hoodie. I’m talking to my buddy Bram about my flight on his family’s helicopter while Mel is up in her house packing for the trip. We spent all day yesterday cooped up in the house, eating takeout, watching movies, talking, laughing and making out. We didn’t want to burst our bubble but we had to come up for air, reenter civilization, and replenish supplies.
I’m telling Bram that I’m bringing this girl over. Can he recommend a lodge where I can take her out to lunch before he sends a car to take us home?
“Sure, no problem,” he says. “I’ll arrange everything.”
It’s a small price to pay seeing how I’m running this errand for him gratis. I don’t mind though. There’s not much to do while I’m waiting to hear back on my interview. Everyone I know is either at work or busy with the new lives they created while I was away. Besides, I haven’t flown a helicopter in years and I wouldn’t mind dusting off my private license. The particular model of Bram’s toy is one I am excited to play with. It’s a magnificent machine, white, with a spacious cabin and a panoramic view. I find helicopters more fun to fly because I don’t have to wear a uniform. I can fly alone, do maneuvers in the sky with no one complaining to corporate about the smoothness of the ride, and I think best of all, I can bring whomever I want.
“Did you bring sunglasses and a hat?” I ask Mel as she comes down the stairs, an overnight bag in tow. “The glare up there is pretty strong.”
“And your swimsuit?”
“And your camera?”
She cocks her head to the side. “My one chance to get aerial views of the Rift Valley? I’d leave my nose before I left my camera!”
I chuckle. “All right then, let’s go.”
The plan is to leave my car at hers, grab a cab and head to Wilson Airport from where we’ll fly to Naivasha.
“So whose helicopter are we flying exactly?”
“My friend has a touring company which is what he intends to use it for. But there’s lots to do with it really. Campaign season is especially lucrative for helicopter owners,” I say. We’re at Muthaiga, joining Thika Road from Kiambu road. “I’d just got back last week when I pinged my buddies for a drink and Bram heard I was in town. He said, ‘Cap, I have a toy stuck at Wilson and my pilot is away. Si you bring it to me?’” I shrug. “I said sawa.”
The helicopter had been racking up parking fees at a hangar in Wilson since it arrived in Nairobi. His business partner, who is also the pilot, is in Switzerland working on relocating his family here.
“I didn’t know you could fly a helicopter,” she says.
“I started training to fly helicopters right after high school. I was obsessed, and I mean obsessed with the idea of joining the air force –”
“What? I was going to be a fighter pilot –”
“Yes me, me!”
She shakes her head in laughter and looks at me incredulously.
“Stop laughing. I didn’t always look like this you know. I was skinny when I came out of high school. My mom kept telling me, ‘You don’t have the bones for it,’ and I’d be like ‘What do you mean? What does that mean?’”
She laughs even harder. “I guess we know what she meant now,” she pinches my cheek and rubs my stubble with the back of her hand.
“So anyway, I started to get a little…”
“On the heavier side…” I give her a pointed look, “and whenever I contemplated the physical tests I’d think, mmmh…mmmmh…Why did I want this again?” We both laugh. “Around the same time my dad told me, ‘Hey, you’re smart, you can do anything you want. Why don’t you consider the commercial license?’”
“This was my mom’s dream for me. It was what she’d been saying from the beginning, but for some reason it only got through to me when Dad said it. You know how that happens sometimes? I think I was just resisting it because she was so passionate about it, I mean she was pushing hard. I’d fought her on it for so long, when I finally told her, ‘Mom, I’m gonna get the commercial license,’ she didn’t care. She’d given up. Even worse, she was mad coz I only listened when Dad said it to me the one time.”
“Why was that?”
“I don’t know. It wasn’t on purpose. It was just the timing of it I guess.”
We’ve joined Uhuru Highway now and the city is just as I remember it. Awake and humming, newspaper vendors selling yesterday’s bad news in traffic, commuters wearing the look of misery and insufficient sleep under their eyes… Yet here I am, going on a midweek, daylong date with this girl, feelings springing from a well I didn’t know was inside me. Man! What a time I am having! I haven’t thought about my fighter pilot boyhood dreams in a long time. How did she pull those out of me?
At the airport, her phone buzzes. She takes it out, glances at the caller ID and silences it. I leave her on the tarmac to go sign some paperwork but she’s still in my view. When I look at her again she’s talking on the phone with her back to me. Her shoulders are tense and she’s pacing, so that can’t be good. She smiles when I approach her, tells the person on the other line she has to go, and hangs up without ceremony.
She nods, and follows me to where the helicopter is parked.
“So this bad boy is an EC 120. It can fly from say, Kisumu to Mombasa in about three hours at cruising speed without stopping to refuel,” I tell her. “We’ll be in Naivasha in twenty two minutes after takeoff.”
I do my walk-around, telling her tidbits about the craft and giving her the passenger brief at the same time. She appears appreciative so whatever that phone call was about, it’s left her mind.
“Pretty neat, right?” I say. “It would set you back a few hundred mil to acquire. People in this country own these things and some rich boys won’t let us breathe on the roads talking about ‘Mama I made it’.”
She chuckles. “Is it like flying a plane? The planes you’re used to?”
“It’s closer to driving a manual car than flying a fixed-wing aircraft, for me anyway. Coz see it’s got these two pedals here,” I point at the anti-torque pedals, “this stick here is called a collective, there’s the throttle on that side and this joystick looking thing called the cyclic.”
“What does it do?”
“It eer… controls the direction, like a steering wheel of sorts. You’ll see it when I’m using it.”
“God, the way you’re breaking it down for me,” she giggles.
“It gets really noisy once I start up the rotors. I prefer to do this now instead of up there, when you should be enjoying the scenery and taking your pictures.”
She says, “It’s all right. I like learning.”
She climbs in the left side and I help her secure her bag under the seat and fasten her seatbelt. Then I close her door, climb in the right side and begin checking off items on the preflight checklist.
“Weight and balance, check. Passenger brief, check. Seatbelts secure,” I tug on both our seatbelts. “Check. Flight controls…”
This goes on for maybe twenty minutes after which we put on our headsets. I start the engine and the rotors start to rotate. I radio for the weather information which confirms that it’s drab and overcast, but safe to fly. Then I contact the air traffic control tower requesting departure, which is approved, and off we go. The helicopter rocks back and forth before lift-off.
From just a few feet off the ground, we can see the shore where the ocean of Nairobi National Park’s green struggles to keep the tide of human settlement from flowing over. She turns to me and does a happy shimmy with her shoulders. This is probably the biggest show of excitement I’ll get from her today, but I know she’s doing backflips on the inside so I’m content.
Shiny, iron sheets replace the dull concrete rooftops sprawling out from the city the further out we move. We see the Mai-Mahiu road carved into the escarpment, snaking its way on the floor of the Rift Valley. We see the folds in the land. The wrinkles on Longonot look like those of a matriarch elephant. Suswa sits in the distance, and Hell’s gate further out. Mel says it’s disorienting being in the air. Nothing is on the side you expect it to be. And the ground, even though it’s green down there, looks more brown and blue than green.
We see shadows cast by clouds on the ground. There’s even a section where it’s raining, all on its lonesome. She says it reminds her how small and insignificant we are; ants in an anthill. Lake Naivasha shimmers grey, Crescent Island stretching into it like a pirate’s hook. A while back it would’ve been lined with the pink of flamingoes, but things have since changed. Now it’s flanked by the white backs of flower farm greenhouses.
“Spectacular, isn’t it?” I turn to her.
“Yes,” she says, squeezing my hand. “It’s a lot to take in, in just twenty minutes.”
She brings the camera back up to her face and takes more shots. I can’t wait to see what she’s captured.
I land the bird on Bram’s farm without a hitch. He’s come out to meet us with refreshments on hand. Mel trails behind looking at pictures on her camera as Bram and I go over the minutiae of the airport hustle. I try to wind him up because we grew up together and I know he can talk for hours. More so now that we haven’t met in almost two years. I don’t want Mel to think I’m a bore. Is that even possible after a helicopter ride? Yes. Women are peculiar creatures and I have found that it’s best to never think, “I’ve got her.” You start to lose her the day you start to think that.
A while later we’re waiting for lunch at a lodge by the lakeside which is taking forever. I’m feeling edgy because I haven’t been able to shake Bram off, and he’s sitting here, chewing on tobacco and spitting over his shoulder every so often. It’s gotten to the point where Mel can’t hide her grimaces anymore. She’s left the table out of politeness, disgust, or both, and is now zooming in on some birds chirping on an acacia tree in the garden.
We’re seated on the terrace, and her phone starts going off on the table. I can’t get her attention, so I let it ring and figure she’ll call back when she gets back. Problem is, her phone won’t stop buzzing so I reach over and glance at the caller ID. It’s some chap going by Harry. I put it on her chair where it won’t buzz so loud anymore and as I’m doing so, a message pops up.
‘Babe, I’m sorry. Pick up. Let’s talk.’
I look up at her. She turns back. We lock eyes. She smiles and waves. I smile and wave back all the while thinking, Who is this woman?
Who is this woman?
Taste of Mel continues next week.19