Welcome to the Jungle
The front edge of the wing looked wrong. I squinted against the reflected tropical sunlight and focused on the area where I’d seen something move. I hoped it wasn’t real. Maybe a hallucination, a flashback, like they said happened sometimes when you’d dropped acid. I looked away, squeezed my eyes tight shut, and then looked again.
No such luck. One of the aluminium plates vibrated up and down. Another rivet popped out, and a bigger section of the wing worked itself loose. If I hadn’t seen that rivet fly, it wouldn’t have been worth a second glance. The wings always flapped and bent around, and nothing ever happened, on these journeys from home in Zambia to school in England and back.
I grabbed one of the cabin crew by her arm as she passed. She turned quite sharply, but my face must have showed something, as she said, “There is a bag in the pocket here, if you want to be sick.”
“Oh, thanks no, I’m fine, but could you take a look out the window? I don’t think the wing is supposed to have loose pieces. I mean there're some rivets missing.”
“I’m sure it’s nothing. There is just some turbulence, that’s why the seat belt light is still on. The wings are made so they can bend, so the plane is more stable. I am sure they checked everything while we were refuelling in Brazzaville.”
“Well, I know, but this isn’t normal.”
As we watched, several more rivets gave up, and the loose plate started to move even more. She put her finger on her lips in a shushing motion, and walked away towards the front of the plane. She reappeared with a youngish man with gold braid on his shoulders. After he’d examined the view of the wing for a bit, he spoke quietly to her, and went back to the cockpit.
“Would you mind to change seats? There is nothing to worry about, of course, but we want to keep an eye on things, and this window is best for that,” she said. “Would you like a snack perhaps? We have chocolate ice cream and fresh strawberries in First Class.”
So of course I went and sat further towards the front of the plane, next to a tall lean man with a military haircut and a bristly brown moustache.
He turned in his seat and reached out his hand, “Lucien Versteeg. I am with the United Nations force in the Congo. Pleased to meet you.”
“Peter Fitt. Just going home to Zambia, from school. Well actually, I’m done with school now, so I’m going to work for the Agriculture Department for a while, and then I’m going on to University.” We shook hands, and then my promised ice cream arrived, together with a glass of whisky on ice for Lucien.
We watched as another of the cockpit crew strolled through the passenger cabin. He happened to stop and look casually out at the view by my old seat.
I explained what I'd seen out the window, and Lucien shrugged and waved a dismissive hand.
"Nothing to worry about then. So Peter, you live with your parents in Zambia? Your father is with the big mining company, or a farmer perhaps?"
"Not a farmer. He, well my stepfather actually, he works in the Ministry of Agriculture. My mother is dead now, so there's just him and my younger sister and brother. We have the same mother, had I mean, and Henry and mum married after dad died, when I was quite young."
I thought, ‘Babbling. Must be actually quite nervous. He couldn’t be interested in all that family history crap.’
"So that is why you have a job in the ministry. I see. Do you have other relatives in Zambia?"
‘This guy’s really making an effort to keep me talking. Maybe he wants to practice his English’ I thought.
"Well, Henry, my stepfather, has a sister in Salisbury, in Rhodesia, two hundred miles away. It seems further because that's another country, and they have those political problems. My real dad's family are all down in Capetown, in South Africa. That's a long way from Lusaka. I haven't seen them in a long time, but I expect we'll meet when I go down there after Christmas." I dug into the ice cream.
"Salisbury? That's where I am going. I've been offered a contract. Training their security people. Of course there are some problems lately with those insurgents. You know, typical communist trained troublemakers." He swirled the liquor in his glass and watched as the ice cubes twirled and settled.
"Red revolution is what the Russians and the Chinese want, you know. The colour of blood. The more heated a war becomes, with more turmoil and hardship, the easier it is for their people to get into top positions, into power."
He put his glass down on the tray and looked directly at me. "They don't care about the people, or if the place is called Zimbabwe or Rhodesia. Just about power, to push out the British and extend their own influence. Forget about freedom and everyone having equal rights and all that liberal stuff. Democracy does not work in Africa. Power comes from the gun. Believe me, I have seen things in the Congo. You know what they like. One man one vote, maybe. But only once."
I noticed Lucien was keeping an eye on the activity up and down to my old seat, as the crew all nonchalantly strolled through in turn, while he'd kept me busy talking. Worth worrying about, then.
I scraped up the last ice cream and licked the spoon. "I don't know about all that. Of course there are a few power freaks, but Zambia is doing just fine with the elected Parliament. I mean, there aren't many jobs or industries except the mines, but we are pushing ahead with modern farming methods, what they call the Green Revolution. That way no-one will go hungry. After all this is nineteen sixty seven you know, and it's time for people to realise peace and love are what everyone wants."
Lucien smiled with his lips pressed tight, and then concentrated on his glass.
The 'buckle seat belts' signs lit up, and the cabin crew bustled around collecting everything loose and checking everyone.
The blonde stewardess took my empty bowl and Lucien's glass, and folded my tray up. Lucien took care of his own tray, and then buckled his seat belt. I followed his example.
The plane banked into a steep turn, and the overhead speaker announced, “We are going to land again, as there are still some maintenance tasks which were not performed on our stopover in Republique du Congo. Nothing important, but our Air France safety people are particular about these things, and so we are going to land again at the nearest airport.”
Of course the same announcement was made in French, which produced quite a reaction from one passenger.