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Gary Keele

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.

‘What’s that?’

‘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.

Oh, Christ.

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.



THE AUTUMN SERIES