Gary Keele is a lazy coward who lost his confidence when his wife left him for another man. He’s since retrained in a vain attempt to prove to a). himself and b). anyone else who cares, that he’s not completely useless. ‘Tuggie’ has left the rat race for a new life without the pressures of his old routine. But he has no idea that the new skills he now has are about to cause him to be put under more pressure than ever, and this time lives are at stake.
‘All right, Tuggie,’ Keith Meade shouts across the carpark. The sun’s bright this morning. I have to cover my eyes with my hand to see him.
‘Morning, Keith. Good day for it?’
He looks up and around. ‘Just about perfect, I’d say,’ he says as he walks towards the office.
He’s right, it’s a perfect day for flying. It’s days like this that make me glad everything worked out the way it did between me and Sarah. If we were still together then I wouldn’t be here now. I’d still be living in our cramped terraced house in the middle of the city, spending long hours stuck in traffic and even longer hours stuck at the office. Most of the people I used to work with are probably still there, too scared to leave. And while they sit at their desks and follow orders and struggle to hit targets, I’m out here in the fresh air, sitting on my backside and occasionally flying. I’m making it sound like I don’t do anything around here, but I do – I work damn hard when I have to – but the thing is I enjoy it. It doesn’t feel like a job.
Shame we had to part on such bad terms, though. Everything happened within the space of six months. I had no idea. She went off with our financial adviser (who advised her he was worth a lot more than I was) and then, just as I was getting back on my feet, the bastards made me redundant. I had nothing to stay in the city for. We sold the house and I took my share and what was left of my redundancy payment and packed my bags and moved to the other side of the country. I got my pilot’s licence (it was something I’d always wanted to do) and then managed to get myself a job here at the Clifton Gliding Centre, towing gliders two thousand feet up into the air, then letting them go so they can drift back down to the ground. Easy. Life is good now. Simple, but good.
Three cars, identical in all but colour, pull into the car park. The sound of their wheels crunching the gravel shatters the quiet of the morning. This must be today’s visitors. There’s supposed to be eight or nine of them I think, sales reps from a company in town, sent here on a team building exercise. Noisy buggers. It’s only just turned eight and all I can hear now is them laughing and shouting. Why can’t they talk quietly? It’s probably just nerves. It’s good sport watching blokes like this – blokes like I used to be. They act all cool and relaxed on the ground, but I know they’re nervous as hell inside. As soon as they’re strapped into the gliders and they’re ready to go up, they change. All that bravado and macho bullshit disappears. When there’s just the hull of a flimsy little plane and two thousand feet of air between their backsides and the ground they shut up and drop the act. I hate all the corporate bullshit and pretence. To think, I used to be a part of that.
As the group disappears into the office to sign in and be briefed on the rules for the day, I get the plane ready. I can still hear the voices of the seven men and two women from the hangar. I climb into the plane, shut the cockpit and fire up the engine, drowning out their noise. I taxi out onto the airfield (which literally is a field here – no concrete runways for us) and move into position. Once we’re ready I stop the engine, get out, and walk over to where some of the other staff are standing in front of the hangar.
‘Do me a favour,’ I say to Willy who’s one of the regular glider pilots.
‘Give them a fright, will you? Scare the shit out of these buggers.’
He smiles knowingly. We have a mutual dislike of overpaid businessmen. ‘No problem. Anyway, Tuggie, five minutes of being dragged up behind you with your flying is enough to scare anyone! I’ll be shitting myself, never mind them!’
‘Cheeky sod!’ I laugh and Willy walks away, cackling at his own pathetic joke.
Willy and Jones (one of the ground staff) stand and wait for Ed (Willy’s lad) who’s towing the gliders out of the hangar and out onto the airfield. The tractor he’s driving fills the air with its chugging and clattering and with clouds of thick black fumes which spit out of its exhaust. I head back to my caravan to make a cup of coffee and wake up properly before the flying starts.
We move quickly while the weather’s good. It’s not even nine o’clock and three gliders are already up.
This is a simple job. The glider’s attached to the back of the plane by a cable. I take off and drag it up until we’ve reached around two thousand feet, then the glider pilot releases the cable. If conditions are right they go up, and I go back down. They usually stay up for anything between twenty minutes and half an hour. The flights might last a little longer today. The clouds are good and the sun is bright. There should be plenty of thermals to keep them up in the air.
We try to have four or five gliders up in the air at the same time. This morning the first three went up without any problems. Ed’s just attaching number four to the back of the tug plane. I watch the lads getting the glider ready in my mirrors. Ellis (the pilot) nods to Jones who gives me a hand signal and I start to move slowly forward until the cable is taut. Another hand signal and I stop. Behind me, two ground hands steady the wings of the glider. A final signal from one of them tells me they’re ready to fly.
And we’re off again. The plane bumps along the uneven grass for a couple of hundred yards before I give it a little more throttle, pull back the stick, and start to climb. The rumbling beneath me is silenced as the wheels leave the ground. Now the glider’s up too and we’re on our way. I can see the faces of the two men in the plane behind me. Ellis is talking ten to the dozen but his passenger isn’t listening. He’s bloody terrified! Idiot’s got his eyes shut! Bloody wimp.
Christ, the sun’s bright up here. It’s blinding, and there’s no escaping it when you’re in flight. It’s hot too, and it’s not like you can pull down a blind or open a window – you just have to put up with it. You know it’s not going to last for that long. A few minutes flying and then you can—
—Shit, what was that? Turbulence? Not at this altitude. No, I didn’t like that, something’s not right. I’m looking at the controls in front of me, but there’s nothing wrong with my plane. Everything looks normal. Shit, it’s the glider. Something’s happening behind me, but I can’t see what.
Jesus Christ, Ellis is losing control. We’re not even a thousand feet up yet and he’s lost it. I can’t see what’s happening and I don’t know if he’s—
—Oh, God, the glider’s rolling to the side. He has to release. If he doesn’t he’ll drag me back with him and . . . and I can’t see Ellis now. Bloody hell, I can see the passenger though. He looks like he’s trying to get out. He’s banging against the sides of the cockpit. Is he having some kind of panic attack?
The glider’s tipping again. We have to separate. I don’t have any choice, I have to pull the emergency release. If I don’t we’ll all be going down . . .
There, done it.
Had to do it.
I’m free again and I’ve got back control. I bank and climb and look down below me as the glider rolls and dips and begins to spin towards the ground.
I can’t watch. I don’t know what happened in there, but I know those two men don’t have long. It’ll be over in a couple of seconds. The difference between a plane crash and a car crash, my instructor used to tell me, is you’ve at least got a chance of walking away from a car crash. I just hope Ellis can try and get control and level out before he—
—Jesus Christ, what was that? What’s happening now? Fuck, another glider just dived right across the front of me. It could only have been a hundred yards ahead. Shit, another couple of seconds later and it would have hit me and I’d be heading down there with Ellis and . . . and what the hell is going on here?
For the love of God, no.
The planes are dropping out of the sky all around me. The four gliders we put up this morning are all either down or out of control. Keith Meade – a man who’s been flying these things longer than I’ve been alive – has lost control of his glider too. The plane is spiralling towards the hangar. I don’t want to look but I can’t turn away and I see the flimsy aircraft smash through the roof, its wings and body crumpling on impact.
My heart’s thumping. Sweat’s pouring down my face. I can’t think straight. God knows how I’m managing to keep flying. My legs are shaking with nerves and I can hardly keep my wings level. I’ve got to keep going. I’m approaching the airfield from the wrong direction but it doesn’t matter. There’s no one else left up in the sky. I can’t see anyone moving down there. Surely someone should have been out to help by now?
I have to leave my landing later than I’d like – what’s left of Ellis’ glider is strewn across the middle of the landing strip – and it’s a struggle to bring the plane to a stop in time. There are pieces of plane and God knows what else scattered all over the place. I can’t risk hitting any of the debris. I hit the deck hard and bounce back up but I manage to put the plane down in half the distance it usually takes. I kill the engine and sit and wait for the propeller to stop. I don’t want to get out.
But I know I can’t sit here all day. I slowly climb out of the cockpit of the tug and just stand there for a moment, listening to the loudest, most terrifying silence I’ve ever heard.
What the hell has happened here?
There are bodies at the side of the airfield. I find myself walking towards them. These aren’t people who were flying. There are a couple of faces I recognise – Meade’s daughter, young Ed – and the rest, I think, are the visitors who weren’t flying. They’re dead. They’re all dead.
Inside the office I find Chantelle Prentiss, our admin girl, slumped dead across the front desk. The phone is off the hook next to her upturned hand. It looks like she was in the middle of a call when it (whatever it was) got her. I pick up the phone and dial out but there’s no answer on any number.
The world is dead.
I’m up in the plane again now, flying around and trying to find someone else who’s left alive. There’s no one. No signs of life below me . . . The whole damn world is gone, and I’m all there is left.