Willie’s face looked grim. In all my life I had never seen an expression like it. His skin turned from ruddy to white, his lips tightened and his jaw set against the deceleration. I could tell his whole body was stiffened and braced. We glanced at each other across the central aisle of the aircraft. I must have looked the same. My mind asked “What’s going on? Is this normal?” There was no time to communicate and no chance of hearing anything other than the scraping roar which filled the plane.
His eyes gave me the answer. See Rouen and die.
There was blistering heat as the summer sun beat down on Rouen. The runway shimmered in my vision, partly due to the heat, partly due to Calvados at dinner the evening before. There were four of us; Les, Willie Perrier, our friendly Frenchman, Mike and myself working on business development.
“Push the boat out and sting the bastards,” Les said as we dined at a plush sea food restaurant. We were there to deliver our plans for the UK business to French masters. Les, I believe, was the only one who saw what was coming. “The last supper,” he named it. Les’s words were almost prophetic as it happens. He actually meant we were making ourselves redundant. Mike knew. Mike was in HR. I have an inherent suspicion that HR always knows much more about what’s going on than anyone else, except the man at the top.
I remember in minute detail that dinner. The delicious smells. The obscene number of oysters Mike consumed. The bottles of wine of all shades. The five pence sized crab which crawled from the salad garnish and took refuge in the ice tray. An introduction to Calvados. Walking back to the hotel through the warm night air afterwards, we chanced upon a perfect view of Rouen cathedral, the buff stone floodlit against a black sky. All four of us stopped in awe of the spectacle.
As we stood, Willie briefed us about the director we were to meet the next day. He said he was reptilian, a cold creature with a calculating stare and a handshake so feeble and cold it is almost impossible to sense life in its owner, let alone forge a bond of friendship. He said he would listen intently to all of our presentations, thank us. He would then tell us then how it was to be. I pictured a cross between Uriah Heap and Monsieur Defarge. To make matters even more uncomfortable that night I fell into dreams of the French revolution, imagining the guillotine above my head and crowds outside in the square dancing the compagnole.
The plane had problems. We waited and eventually French Regional Airlines flew in a replacement. It felt like an omen. The replacement plane looked an old heap, a prop for a black and white movie. Much later, when we were back home, the Air Accident Investigator told us we were lucky the replacement was an old Gulfstream. Only the solid fuselage of that type of plane would have retained its integrity. A flying Volvo my friends, he said in summary, and that is the only reason we are all sitting here together.
Eventually the pilot strutted out. He was worryingly young, disarmingly handsome and impeccably dressed, with an assistant and two female cabin staff at his heel. His strut was a performance designed to impress. Mike appraised him. “Cocky little French bastard,” was the summary as twenty five trusting souls followed him up the steps.
The French travellers were pushy, grabbing our allocated seats in an undignified free-for -all. My perception may be wrong, but I have noticed the surprised look that French women give when you hold a door open for them. From this I deduced that Frenchmen are not that chivalrous. Certainly, nobody wanted to sit by the engines. It was pointless trying to resolve anything as the pilot was engaged in flirting with the cabin crew, who were summarily distracted from their duties. At the time I thought if I was in his shoes I probably would too, they were pretty girls. We were left with the worst seats, next to the engines.
Soon we were high into the blue of French airspace. The engines throbbed with a varying wave of intensity, droning in and out as the plane laboured to the top of an imaginary hill somewhere in the massif centrale. I promised myself never to drink Calvados again. Conversation was not possible; voices seemed to be forced back into lungs with the vibration. I looked out of the window at the wings, checking the rivets. Every so often a puff of ice crystals came off the wingtips. In the distance the Alps came into view, with the majestic Mount Blanc standing clear amongst them. We hit turbulent air, which always comes as a surprise in fine weather, then the plane turned away and soon we were approaching Lyon Satolas.
The final descent was steep and fast. It felt too steep and too fast, but then you have to trust the judgement of the pilot. After all, he has a vested interest in getting it right. The outer beacon bleeped and the runway was beneath us. The angle seemed impossible. It was too late to pull back. The ground became a meaningless blur. Seconds after, the plane slammed down. That was when I saw Willie’s face, just before the cabin baggage hailed through the plane and piled up at the front. The plane lurched to the right and filled with a strange orange light. A deafening roar reverberated from beneath our feet, titanium on concrete. There was a smell of kerosene and burning brake linings. I expected life to flash before me but it didn’t. Instead I waited for some sort of pain, wondering if it would be from fire or crushing. I remember reading how a tortured mouse is anesthetized by its adrenalin. I wondered if that had happened to us. I prayed that it would not be fire that took us. The plane veered off the runway, turned over and suddenly we were dangling like puppets from our seats, jerking and swinging together in time with the plane’s final movements, all lit by the orange glow.
There was a strange silence for a second, except for the crackle of flames, then a metallic scrape which ran along the fuselage. Later we were told the wing had broken off, spun down the runway, eventually meeting up with the plane again. I had never realised the fuel is stored in them. In gathering smoke and almost darkness, seatbelts clicked and people thudded onto the ceiling below. There was no air to breathe. I held on to what breath I had and in the darkness edged toward the front of the plane, walking, tripping, crawling over bodies or baggage, I couldn’t be sure. Lungs bursting, I fought to hold onto the precious air inside them. I reached the door. It was jammed. Others were there kicking it, so I joined them. I reached the point where bursting lungs forced exhalation. I took a small gasp of new air, but it was too acrid to continue. Smoke! I hadn’t considered that option.
Suddenly, the door surrendered and moved about two feet, sufficient for bodies to wriggle through. We spewed like worms onto the airfield. I remember clutching the grass, using my arms to pull clear, taking that first breath of sweet air, choking, then stumbling and running with everyone else. Planes were still landing and taking off around us. We lay on the grass and looked back at the wrecked plane as black smoke billowed across the runway, before a sickening thud and orange flash came from the place we were sitting in minutes earlier.
I grabbed handfuls of grass and kissed the earth, French earth. It was a perfect summer’s evening. I thought of my wife and children back home in our village. It seemed a million miles away. We were swept away in a melee of police, fire, medics and press to hospitals. Some had broken bones and serious burns, but we had all survived. The irony is that the worst injuries occurred to the French passengers who were in the seats allocated to us. Mike lost a shoe and fractured his ribs. We all lost our luggage apart from Les who managed to cling to his brief case, smiling from behind crocked spectacles and producing a bottle of duty free Lagavulin from inside.
In our return we were treated as heroes. On reflection, at the time it seemed we had been gifted a new start in life. That was a deception. Within five years we were all redundant. I guess business is like that. You give your life, then you’re out and it all carries on without you.