“My whole family ghosted you know”.
Nicholson looked at his lap and pursed his lips. “I’m sorry.”
“Everyone; my wife, my kids, my parents, my brother. Why not me? I’ve listened to these various New Agey types giving lectures on “dimensional splits” and how some of us ascended and others couldn’t because their “vibration was out of synch”. What a load of bollocks! My wife was the sweetest, kindest person in the world! Why was she left behind? What’s more I know some right creeps who did “ascend”. He spat at the word. Where’s the logic in that!? Where’s the bloody justice!?”
Nicholson shrugged. “Well at least they didn’t Rep.”
It was just past lunch and Southsea was doing his routine tour of the hospital, stopping off in the main hospital lodges, the Women’s Centre, the West Wing, Theatres, to sort out any problems and give advice and encouragement; or just to have a quick cup of tea. The crews were a bit reserved after the recent vote, but the Portering camaraderie remained as unbreakable as ever, a salving foundation that underlay the most bitter of disputes. One of the late shift Porters phoned in sick so Southsea joined the Level 2 crew for an hour moving patients between the wards and the Orgone Clinic. He helped the nurses move the frail and elderly patients from their wheelchairs into the quiet and dark accumulator chambers.
“You said that your family were quite mainstream and average; you weren‘t brought up to think in unconventional ways. So when did you first know?” asked Nicholson.
“That the world was not what you thought it was.”
“Ah! Subconsciously I always knew it, but the first time I consciously understood was when I met a man called Charlie.”
(Possible chapter/section break here. Ed)
The last day of Bob’s life began normally. He washed, shaved and put on his uniform, the one in which Julie had been unable to resist him when they’d first met all those years ago. He ran his fingers through his greying hair wondering if he should swallow his pride and dye it. He kissed Julie on the cheek and she lay in their bed. She rolled over and murmured to herself, but didn’t wake up. Before leaving the house he paused to admire the hall photos of Gavin and Douglas, his grandsons. The picture showed the two boys dressed up for a school play, smiling for the camera. It was a cold morning; spring had come late that year and there was a frost in the air. The sky was fresh lilac, broken by the sharpest, tiniest pinpricks of stars. The eastern horizon was splashed with the maroon hint of sunrise. Bob looked up longingly, eager to immerse himself in it. He eased the car out of his driveway and onto the main road for London.
There was another terrorism scare in progress, an “Orange Level Alert” the third that year and it was only March. Soldiers guarded the gates of Heathrow Airport, strutting up and down in hero poses that could have been choreographed. Bob shook his head wryly as he turned off the Terminal 5 expressway and saw a tank parked outside the Departures door. What use was a tank against terrorists? He mused on the subject; a tank is a battlefield weapon. Do they think we’re stupid?
He forgot this and other conundra as he left his car in the staff carpark and headed for the briefing office. He felt the usual shiver of excitement as he flicked through his flight plan. Even after more than five thousand hours in the cockpit the thrill never lessened; in fact his retirement the following year was a bit of a gloomy prospect. After a mornings’ paperwork he ate lunch and then went to brief the crew. The security checks he had to endure before being allowed to board his aircraft got more and more tedious every year. He was fingerprinted, had his voice analysed by the ID computer and had his National Identity Card scanned. It took him fifteen minutes to prove who he was, even though he and the security guard conducting the test knew each other on a first-name basis. Finally he was permitted to meet his aircraft for today’s flight, a 747-400i. He ran through the checklist with Nigel, his twenty-five year old first officer. There were just two of them in the cockpit now. When Bob first flew 40 years ago the aircraft also carried an in-flight engineer, but that was in the good old days; Bob’s favourite vice, Nostalgia, flushed his system.
Bob instructed the cabin manager to begin embarking the passengers and cargo while he and Nigel started the engines and made their presence known to Air Traffic Control. Today’s mission would be a twelve-hour flight to Kennedy International Airport in New York City. Bob relished the prospect of an evening in the Big Apple and a night in one of the city’s sumptuous hotels before a flight home tomorrow. A tug pushed the aircraft away from the gate and the two pilots began their final checklist before takeoff. The control tower directed them along Heathrow’s twisting taxiways to the queue of planes waiting to hit the sky. Air Traffic Control cleared them for takeoff. This was the point where regret and longing for the past really ate into Bob’s soul. In his youth, takeoff had been a moment of pure exhilaration; pushing the throttle keys forward and feeling the engines roar beneath his touch. Then as the plane gathered speed, pulling back on the yoke to rotate the gigantic airliner into its initial climb. It was a magical Godlike experience… but it was gone. Today, Bob acknowledged his clearance and merely pressed a button on the autopilot panel. He and Nigel then just sat back, as passive and the passengers in the cabin behind them, as electronics drove the plane down the runway and into the air. Bob looked across at Nigel and pitied his young first officer. Nigel would have to fly his entire career in the modern pilots’ role: merely a supervisor to a tin box of wires; the only flying he’d ever do would be in the unlikely event that the hardwired redundancy-protected autopilot failed. Bob decided that when they arrived at New York he’d switch off the autopilot and perform a manual landing. He’d get a terrible reprimand for it, but he didn’t care. He smiled at Nigel. Enjoy it while you can, Son.
The airliner climbed quickly to its cruising altitude. “I tried to get out of this flight.” said Nigel. “I’m missing the cup tie. I was planning on driving up to Old Trafford and seeing if I could pick up a last-minute ticket.”
“Who’ve you got?” asked Bob.
“Leeds. They beat us in the third round last year.”
“Do you live, eat and breathe Man U?”
Nigel laughed. “Pretty much!” At least during the FA Cup.”
The aircraft reached its second waypoint over the English Midlands. As it rolled onto its new course Bob called Air Traffic Control. “Hello this is British Airways 4167 Heavy; request course change confirmation. Over.”
There was no reply.
Bob repeated the message and heard nothing back except background chatter from other transmissions. “ATC’s not responding.” Bob tried again. Nothing.
The two men exchanged worried frowns. In Bob’s early career it would have been easy to simply retune his aircraft’s UHF radio, but such equipment had been phased out over a decade ago and modern air communications was all digital and controlled from a single computerized switchboard. A minute later the radar beacon failed. Bob tapped his touch-screen display trying to switch on the back-up, but the system wouldn’t respond. There was no immediate danger; the plane was flying on its designated transit lane, but without radio and the radar beacon ATC couldn’t guide them through the complex convolutions of flight. Nigel flushed and put a finger inside his collar to loosen his tie. “Don’t panic, Nigel.” said Bob. “ATC will call a Code Tango and get the RAF onto us. They’ll find us with their search radar and scramble a jet to escort us down. A few minutes later the aircraft throttled down and began a descent. “Thank God for that!” sighed Nigel. “We’ve been put onto GO.” GO or “Ground Override” was a system where somebody at ATC could reprogram a flying aircraft’s autopilot from the tower control room and fly it from there as if it were a huge model glider. ATC was clearly aware of Bob and Nigel’s predicament and had taken over the controls. Bob made an announcement to the passengers over the PA circuit explaining the situation. “…We’re probably being diverted to an emergency landing at Birmingham or Manchester. From there you will all bee offered alternative flights to Kennedy International. On behalf of British Airways, let me offer you my deepest apologies for the inconvenience.”
But they weren’t heading for Birmingham or Manchester. The aircraft turned west towards North Wales. “Maybe they’re too busy.” said Nigel. “We must be putting down at Dublin or Shannon.”
Bob didn’t reply. He felt an instinctive chill of fear and doubt.
When the plane crossed the Gwynedd coast Bob expected it to level out at a few thousand feet and begin its stack into Dublin. It didn’t; it continued to descend. “What the hell’s going on!?” Now Nigel was scared too. Bob gripped the edge of his seat, his heart pounding. The plane carried on down and down. It passed six thousand feet, then five thousand. “That’s it!” said Bob. “I’m taking over! Sod ATC!” He pressed the switch-off button on the autopilot and seized the controls. Nothing happened. The autopilot display remained active. He pulled the yoke, but it refused to budge. He paused, the toggled the radio. “Mayday! Mayday! This is British Airways 1167 Heavy!” He could hear the terrified quaver in his own voice. “We are out of control and descending fast; position coordinates…” Nigel called the cabin crew and told them get the passengers back to their seats and break out the life-jackets.
The 747 finally levelled off at just 1000 feet above sea level and throttled up to full. Soon they were doing over four hundred knots and the overspeed alarm began ticking. Bob felt he was slipping on a tightrope. He could easily see the waves of the Irish Sea rush past under the fuselage. They flew past a fishing boat less than a mile away and the orange-clad sailors on the deck were plainly visible. “Where the hell are they taking us!?” hissed Nigel.
The plane banked sharply to the right, its wingtips coming alarmingly close to the sea, and steadied onto a northerly heading. A chorus of shrill voices of fright reached them from the passengers aft. After another few minutes the aircraft rolled around to the east and began flying back inland along the coast of North Wales. Bob felt the tension ease a touch. “They’re directing us to Liverpool or Manchester.” He tittered a Nigel. “You might catch that game after all.”
Nigel looked at the clock. “Too late. It kicked off ten minutes ago. Right now I couldn’t give a shit! I just want to feel solid ground under my feet. When we get down I’ll kiss it like the Pope… and then I’m going to kick the arse of the stool pigeon they’ve got at the GO controls!”
The distinctive skyline of Liverpool soon appeared ahead and Bob involuntarily winced and drew up his knees and they flew over the twin towers of the Royal Liver Building with just a few hundred feet to spare. The plane then followed the M62 motorway inland, the moving vehicles on it looking like tiny toys beneath them. The tight-packed rooftops of Manchester loomed in the cockpit windows. Dead ahead was a huge football stadium. “Hey, Nigel, isn’t that Old Trafford? Look down now and you might catch a glimpse of Man United scoring a goal.”
If Bob had known that those were to be his last words he’d have probably thought of something better to say.”
Next: http://hpanwo-bb.blogspot.com/2010/03/obscurati-chronicles-part-3.html )