Pen

The Best of Times Short Story Competition


Spring 2012 Results




Welcome to Luanda

Copyright © Lynnette Lounsbury 2012


As the UNITA rebels of Angola were inching closer to the capital city Luanda, swapping diamonds for grenade launcher as they travelled, I was climbing eagerly aboard a United Airlines flight from JFK. My grandfather’s flight points had bumped me up to first class and I was revelling in the luxury. Unlike the other wrinkled and agitated passengers I was secure in my position as a humanitarian and could enjoy the service and comfort without guilt. I was on my way to Africa, ready to serve the people – hell, I was going to save them. The sense of self-sacrifice made me heady and I pulled out a copy of the Declaration of Human Rights and studied it intently, hoping the attractive young woman next to me would notice. She did eventually, and asked me about myself. I humbly mentioned my appointment as Programs Co-ordinator for PLAN, the non-government Aid Organisation that ran out of West Africa. I was headed for Angola. Listed as extremely dangerous by most travel guides and host of the longest running civil war of the century. She was impressed. I clinched the deal with mentions of my previous – I omitted the words “brief and purely observatory” – experience in Kosovo, Timor and Afghanistan. She adored me. As our lobster thermidor arrived on fine china I asked her about herself. She was also headed to Africa, though much further south than myself. She was a doctor working with children who suffered from AIDS. I felt a little less godlike as her own angelic status was revealed, but was glad for like-minded company. Her honesty brought me back to earth somewhat.

“I should really by out here for years, but I only come for six weeks a year. I have friends and a house and you know…” She shrugged in her materialistic embarrassment. I sighed but couldn’t muster much of a response. I’d used most of my thirty kilos of luggage space on a Playstation. We lapsed into a movie-watching silence and as Kevin Costner slowly lost my attention I began to think about what was ahead of me.

I had been assured that Richard Maddox was the best country director in the world. I looked forward to meeting him. At sixty-one years of age he had a dossier worthy of a cold-war spy. Relief work in Chechnya, Bosnia, Rwanda, Angola, most of Asia and even parts of the South Pacific. He and his wife had left London on their honeymoon and never returned. He had been shot twice, held hostage for six months by Serbian rebels and had contracted dengue, malaria and sleeping sickness at different times in his life. Pretty much Nobel-peace material, had he stopped anywhere long enough to be recognised for his work. Usually he left a country before he was assassinated – relief work doesn’t always make you popular. I was ready to be taught.

Sleep hastened the first stage of my voyage and I groggily fumbled through an unfriendly South African airport. Apparently Americans are considered only a little less hideous than the British by the Afrikaans and I was reminded several times that my visa was extremely temporary and my connecting flight only an hour away. I was ready to leave.

A long walk over the liquid heat of the tarmac brought me to the smallest plane I had ever flown on. It was simply the pilot, a huge Ugandan man who looked like he may be involved in poaching or mercenary assassination, and myself. They were waiting for something so I stood with them imitating their silence. The Ugandan was a perfect specimen of man. He was the colour of expresso and the look he shot me gave the same jolt. I felt small, pale and yellow-toothed. They gestured me into the plane impatiently. Apparently it was me they were waiting on. I was too tired to explain myself and so I hit my head squarely on the entry-way, ignored the pain and looked for my seat. There were none. Just a floor. The poacher lifted a small folding chair from the rear of the plane, opened it into position and sat down, his muscles rippling through the faded blue and green plastic strips. I winced but followed his lead. He had chosen the good one. My folding chair refused to stay upright so I had to sit forward or risk collapse. Four hours of this. My enthusiasm began to wane. I was prepared for hardship – no Monday-Night football, no women– but a damn folding chair in a plane?

The engine sputtered to life asthmatically and as we rolled a few feet forward it listed violently to the side the poacher sat. He leaned towards the centre and the plane righted itself. I kept my eyes away from the window – the wing was leaking oil. We slowly built up speed and eventually, after a few attempts, leapt into the sky. My chair slid backwards and as the rear of the plan narrowed I became folded in half and wedged into the tail. The poacher looked at me in disgust, his hand held tight to one of two straps that were nailed to the roof.

It took me the better part of half an hour to free myself but my lawn chair was beyond redemption and I ended up in the lotus position on the floor. The minutes sauntered by. Occasionally the pilot would speak to the poacher in some language that hinted at disdain for stupid white people who got stuck in the tail of a plane. I watched my companion surreptitiously. I had completed a historical study on slavery in Senegal as part of my degree and I remembered a quote by a Portuguese explorer who had called the African men “black gods”. The man beside me fit that description perfectly. He was at least a head taller than me, his tightly knotted hair showing patches of shining black scalp. He wore a khaki vest that exposed most of his chest and all of his arms. Tribal tattoos tried desperately to reach all the way around biceps that leapt and twitched with each movement of the plane. His teeth glowed negative – not that he was smiling. I felt very small and domesticated. A house-cat in the presence of a cheetah.

I felt him turn towards my stare and I quickly turned to look out of the window. We were about the same height from the ground as my second story apartment back in DC. Trees and mountains caressed us on both sides. Sliding from wall to wall, my luggage made unhappy noises that spoke of travel insurance claims.

Finally the pilot announced in what can only be described as flawless English that we were above Angola and about fifteen minutes out of Luanda, the capital. His words were accompanied by a lightning bolt that shook the plane and cracked my head against the window. A screw fell from the wall and tinkled on the floor beside me – I hastily stuck it back in its slot. It fell out again.

Thunder echoed around us and within a few minutes the rain struck, pelting and shaking the plane. I couldn’t see anything from the window, let alone the welcoming twinkle of an airfield. We began a tight and sickening spiral downwards. Unable to contain my concern I spoke to the captain.

“Why are we circling?”

He sighed at my ignorance. “We have to circle to avoid UNITA missiles. They cannot lock onto a turning plane.”

I hastily tried to erase the conversation from my mind and rose to my knees. I grabbed the spare strap and braced myself against the wall. The radio crackled and a voice began to yell instructions to our pilot. He yelled back, obviously unimpressed. We roared upwards again and began the same slow spiral to the ground. I leaned forward. Obviously annoyed by my presence the poacher spoke to me in a condescending tone.

“He said there is too much water on the runway – we ….” His last words were lost in the roar of the engine.

I yelled back. “What?”

On cue the engine cut out completely and we floated in soft silence. He leaned over me menacingly.

“We cannot land yet.”

“Oh”. I sat quietly as we glided in fast tight circles.

“Is he going to turn the engine back on?” I questioned – I had to. The poacher looked a little concerned himself because he barked something at the pilot. The pilot spoke in English for my benefit.

“Out of gas. We’ll have to glide in.” He looked a little worried but not nearly enough for my liking.

“Shit.” I grasped the strap with both hands. It fell from the roof sending me back to the rear of the plane. I didn’t try to free myself this time I just curled up and waited to die. As we descended we swayed from side to side and through a far-too-wide gap in the panels of the tail I could see the wet runway ahead of us. We bounced and sloshed through the water for about three seconds before the tension of the water caught the wheels and flipped the plane onto its roof. Wedged upside down with my eyes tightly closed I felt the tarmac sliding by through the thin metal of the top of the plane. We leapt up as we hit a mound and flopped heavily into a ditch. It was silent for a moment but before I could allow my bruised ribs to expand in relief, a rush of brown mud-water began to fill the plane. I tried to right myself. The poacher, amazingly unharmed and unfazed kicked open the door with ease and we crawled through the mud and back onto the wet airfield. I sat in a miserable heap as he strode off into the night, alone in the fat and heavy rain.

Through the haze I began to make out the form of a building – possibly the terminal or hangar. A man was walking towards us. He glistened in the rain but his jet-black skin blended so well with the night that it wasn’t until he smiled that I could see where he was exactly. He leaned down cheerfully.

“Welcome to Luanda? How was your flight?”