Green Room and Plastic Ukulele
'Watch it mate!' More rebuke than warning - a taxi driver's shout - mere irritancy at having to slow down a fraction - a slight affront to the man's pride - not a serious road hazard. But in his urgency to get out of the way he misjudged his step over the eighteen inches of water flowing along the side of the road, grey slush melting beneath tyres on the road and feet on the pavement.
He cursed his soaked shoes, as a huge splash covered his lower legs from another careless driver...
What a difference three hours made. Waking early, in the blackness of a morning - anticipating the first glimmer of dawn - until the rising glow revealed a soft crisp, six inches of snow - a 'gift' of the skies caress during the long hours of darkness. Breakfast - before a slow four-wheel drive up the slope to the lane, carefully avoiding a slip into the embracing stone sidewalls. Concentration needed - as the car crunched through virgin white for five hundred yards until reaching the main road, already cleared by early traffic going to Salisbury.
Now Hilton - his thoughts distant from crossing the busy West London road - were eight seconds from writing off an aircraft, maybe himself with it, on a fine June day, eighteen months back in a clear blue sky - far from the darkening January around him. He shivered, drawing his lapels close together as a gentle dusting of sleet heralded a shower - it would at least, freshen the air.
Rod Hilton entered the studio with mixed emotions- devoid of the enthusiasm most would experience when about to appear on television. The approach had been casual - a friend of a friend; 'Do you want to be on The Box?'
Recognising surprise on Hilton's face...
'Something 'bout people who survived air crashes'
Sceptically, Hilton felt concern - not usually a regular viewer - despairing of endless repeats -predictable plots or implausible stories. He loathed the media, seeing only a drug pandering to popular fantasies- except to many it wasn't fantasy - the silly buggers often believed the characters were real...
The receptionist directed Hilton to the Green Room - his mind still recalling clearly the events that day a year ago... It began innocently enough - warm and sunny, a postfrontal high-.
It was rare for it to be so clear - as if he could see for ever...
Boringly facing yet another routine day - he had sat feet on desk - gazing wistfully at the sky.
It wasn't a day for the stuffy office - what he had really wanted was to fly
Now a year later - that was not what the TV people wanted him for - not about his flying - no they wanted to hear about his crashing
Many were desperate to appear on TV - whatever their cost in personal dignity. Hilton supposed his presence - drinking coffee in the Green Room - could be seen by some as an achievement - so what? Already regretting agreeing - he felt immersed in a game not of his choosing.
Coffee warming his numb fingers, he was ushered from the small waiting area to the studio, joining other guests patiently awaiting the proceedings. The others, a curious mixture - anxious, devoid of spontaneous excitement - notknowing what to expect.Huddled, seeking warmth after their cold journeys, expectantly hoping for ephemeral fame of sorts
Hilton remembered that long ago June day too well - Sue his PA, sensing his frustration, had suggested; 'you aren't really doing anything important today, why don't you skive off and fly your 'plane?'
His thoughts exactly - without hesitation he had driven to the small airfield in Elstree where he parked his two-seater aircraft.
Memories flooding back, sipping his coffee, he absorbed the studio scene. Thirty or forty others, sitting, self-absorbed rather than chatting. Mostly couples, obviously many traumatised; some scarred or disfigured, others with limbs missing or disabled. Their body language suggested dammage, not just physically but mentally - many not on terms with their experiences or happenings.
With that June day vivid again - Hilton recalled what happened - it was intended to be routine, landing at Booker, west of London, drink tea, eat a bun in the little airfield restaurant, then continue to Sandown on the Isle of Wight for more tea...
Easy, routinethings done many times before...
The girl sitting next to him looked normal, blond, about thirty, smartly dressed and alert.
'Hi...' Hilton was determined to be friendly '...my name's Rod.'
Terri replied 'Nice to meet you'
The crash had come suddenly, unexpectedly as they usually do. Engine stopping dramatically a mere 150 feet above ground when on his final approach to land. Nowhere else to go - unable to reach the runway with two choices for the eight seconds of flying that remained, either crash into a market garden, a wood or crash land into ripe wheat.
He couldn't reach the airfield
Neither option was attractive but the field was flat, wheat should be softer than bricks or wood.
Terri was speaking...
'... a stewardess for them... Landed short of the runway, the 'plane broke in two... Forty killed in the front - I was up-back and managed to walk out of the wreckage...'
'Although I wasn't hurt I've never flown since - never again...'
Hilton saw a young lady with a clipboard working around the various guests - questioning them. Dark, probably south Asian in origin, she wore heavy horn-rimmed glasses.
Obviously a researcher...
'They're sorting out the ones to speak to on the show said Terri.
'Doesn't every one say something?' asked Hilton.
'No - we are too many' she replied. Most are just audience - making up the numbers - only a few will be used by the presenter.
Remembering his training Hilton gently banked the Pup descending toward the field. He wasn't prepared for the noise - deafening, rending and tearing of aluminium as the plane somersaulted on its nose, destroying itself into a heap of crumbling metal. Stopping instantly, from the drag of the ripe wheat - breaking off the nose wheel, propeller spearing into the soft earth, turning the machine over.
Terri was talking to another youngster - one with part of her left leg missing, replaced by a prosthetic limb.
'Are most of us just being used?' he asked.
'We're all used...' she replied '...fodder for the God Television...'
Hilton returned with more coffees. The studio now becoming cloying and stuffy - air conditioning prematurely switched off in preparation for the show.
Hilton cynically believed the microphones around the room were still live - researchers listening to the audience's private conversations- ammunition for the presenters later
The impact had almost flattened the airplane, reducing headroom, almost crushing him. A smell of fuel had alarmed him; despite switching off everything, he'd been worried about fire. He'd managed to wriggle sideways and kick the door wider, leaving the cockpit...
In the eight seconds remaining, Hilton 'may-day-ed' the control tower... struggling to free himself fromall-enveloping wheat he spotted the approaching Land Rover crash wagon. He resembled a blood-caked seal emerging from a golden sea of wheat...
In the ambulance the cheery nurse remarked; 'Don't usually get live ones from Booker...'
Of his check-up in casualty - Hilton remembered two things - no tea and being made to promise not to drive for three days in case of concussion - the young doctor said nothing about flying! It was a contrast from his last time in hospital- blasted in the back by Bellingham after murdering his friend Mike...
'Thanks...' Terri took the cup, surveying the shabby studio '...bet important guests get real coffee from the Green Room...'
Hilton wondered whether Bellingham was still inside had his sentence been commuted
He recalled that hospital visit - the doctor carefully extracting the shot one by one from his back-fortunately they'd not penetrated too deeply thanks to his leather jacket.
In the studio, the researcher questioned a young man - his expressionless shiny, patched face struggling to conceal emotion,the cruel pain he was obviously reliving as she made notes thepresenter needed for a punchy interview.
Hilton was back flying one hour after he left casualty - but with a safety pilot lured from flying club.
It was his way of getting back on the horse...
'Are you OK Rod?' One of his employees - Dave, had driven to the airfield to collect his boss.
'Where' go? Home or office?'
Hilton gradually remembered... but it had not been that significant - not after it had happened... but now?
At least it was dry and warm in the studio - outside the sky would be drifting into early evening - lowering cloud, fading light - perhaps more snow, freezing. he thought of the journey home - would the snow thicken in the Wiltshire countryside - were the roads passable? Perhaps he should not have interrupted his winter holiday for the dubious attraction of appealing on TV?
The researcher was closer now... Hilton mentally prepared to tell the story he assumed they wanted to hear.
'Hello Rod - I'm Anjum.' the girl's over-familiar greeting - Miss Horn-rim had finally got around to Hilton
She seemed uninterested in the details - only that he hadn't been seriously hurt - just his pride. She wasn't even interested that he'd returned to his office - where he paraded his blood-soaked shirt, bandaged head - just another trophy - 'street-cred' for his young staff.
But she wasn't interested - not in a survivor so high on adrenalin, so excited he would repeat it for thrills if someone paid enough.
They were only interested in the broken and traumatised - wanting gibbering wrecks - emotionally and physically scarred - freaks for their millions of gawping viewers. Hilton, she said - was welcome in the audience - but he wouldn't be called
Hilton thought of real heroes - war wounded back in Wiltshire - injured, mutilated while serving their country - not self-pitying unfortunate travellers.
Real heroes - not freaks
His anger surged
Remembering the foul weather - driving all those miles just to be dismissed so abruptly
And it once seemed important
In a final, probably futile gesture he turned; In Victorian times - people paid to visit asylums and laugh at the unfortunates. Now you - your kind provide the freak show - and millions watch it!'
Then tears pricking his eyes 'Can't be part of it won't play your sick game just a requiem to stupid voyeurs played on a hundred plastic ukuleles'
The researcher watched as Rod, saying no more - hurried from the Green Room area - into the comparatively clean and fresh air of west London.
She couldn't understand why anyone would pass up a chance to appear on TV
P W Hunter 2011
New on Kindle - Peter Hunter's too late