The journey was almost at an end. I was surprised by how effortless it had been and smiled to myself on the good fortune of the upgrade to business class on the first and longer of the two flights between Perth and Manchester. There wasn’t enough time for a film so I started to play backgammon; my mind was too jittery to concentrate on reading my book. I had the shade of the window partially closed to keep the glare of the sun from my eyes. A flash of metal, something flew past. Close. Too close.
‘Ay look. A jet fighter,’ the man in front of me, broad northern accent, shouted excitedly at his wife.
I squinted out into the glare. A jet fighter indeed. It flew alongside our plane. I assumed it was doing some sort of ‘manoeuvres’ and the sun was so bright it hurt my eyes. I lowered the blind almost to the bottom and continued with my game.
‘It’s right close,’ he continues. ‘Bloody circling us.’ The man’s wife leant across his seat to get a better view, her hand on the backrest knocked my tv screen. I’d stood next to her earlier in the toilet queue. She was loudly complaining about the smell as she berated everything and everyone. I was so annoyed at being drawn into her negativity that I mentioned I’d been upgraded on the earlier flight. It had the desired result of her being more furious. I managed to escape into the cubicle before she could grill me on how I had obtained the upgrade. Perhaps I could have elucidated to her the merits of being positive, friendly and polite.
I withdrew further into my game and heard the thump of the wheels dropping. We must be near to landing. The flight attendant was walking up the aisle checking for unfastened seat-belts and blinds that weren’t open. I glanced, once more, out of the window. The Pennines were still below and Manchester had come into view. There were clouds, but no rain. I had rarely landed in Manchester when it wasn’t raining, no matter what season. This was now a standard joke with my sister who lived there for many years.
The reverse thrust of the engines announced we were approaching the runway. I saw the Ringway terminal buildings rush past as we touched down and even though we slowed we still appeared to race forward. When we turned onto the skirt of the main runway I could see the flashing lights of approaching emergency vehicles. It appeared there was some drama up ahead. All was calm within the plane, but we came to a standstill at the far end of the runway. The small windows made it impossible to see more than an arc of about 120 degrees. A four-wheel-drive with flashing lights drove parallel with us although some distance away. I could no longer see the other vehicles.
‘This is your captain speaking. We are not able to go to our parking spot yet so could you all remain seated please.’
It was too late. All those in the central seats had assumed we had reached our gate and were about to disembark. A scramble of people reaching for their luggage in the overhead lockers, impatient to get off. The male cabin crew attendant pushed his way through the isle becoming impatient as passengers chose to ignore his request for them to be seated. I was a little surprised by his tense jaw and nervous expression. He had lost the fixed smile. Reluctantly people sat down again.
I looked once more out of the window. The runway was ominously quiet. Didn’t a plane land or take off almost every minute in this busy airport? Nothing had landed after us or taken off. In fact, the only sign of any movement was the flashing light on the emergency vehicle. I turned and pulled an inquiring frown to the Irish girl next to me. ‘There must be something happening ahead of us,’ I said, still refusing to believe that it might be our plane that had the problem.
The minutes ticked by. The passengers grew restless, impatient and indignant that we had travelled so far only to be left stranded amidst bushes at the end of the runway. What was happening? People began to reach for their phones.
‘Sorry this is taking so long.’ Once again the captain spoke. His voice was clear and calm. ‘We should be making our way to the terminal in a few minutes. Please bear with us.’
My travel companion and I exchanged glances. She looked at her watch. ‘I have a connecting flight. I hope I don’t miss it.’
‘I’ve got a train ticket booked, but I allowed a couple of hours,’ I said, ‘just in case.’ I pulled a face. Had I somehow preempted this?
We’d been sitting there almost thirty minutes. This wasn’t about a parking space. I wished I had internet on my phone, but it wasn’t working. I texted my sister. We are going to be late, I explained. The girl next to me received a phone call. It was her mother. We were on Sky News. A Qatar Airways aircraft had been escorted into Manchester Airport by a fighter jet.
I looked at her in disbelief then around the plane. Many people had phones in hand, calling and texting. The news was obviously out. A gentle murmur as passengers passed on their news and tried to confirm its authenticity. But on board everything seemed normal still, apart from the fact that we were still sitting alongside the runway.
At last the plane crept forward. There was no loud cheering, but the relief was palpable. ‘We are going to stop at the terminal and some people will get on board,’ the captain said. Nothing else.
‘I wonder what this is about?’ my neighbour asked.
‘If there was a real problem surely they would have got us off straight away?’ I said.
‘Why the jet fighter?’
‘The flight attendant looked worried.’
‘But the captain is calm.’
‘Maybe someone has the Ebola virus.’
In the absence of information we made random guesses. We were not scared as such, but I texted my husband for the second time and let the thought flicker through my head, ‘might this be the last communication I ever had with him?’ I didn’t contact my elderly parents. No point in worrying them.
We drew to a halt in between a car-park and a Fedex plane. This was not a gate or anywhere near one. Those near the windows saw this, others twisted their necks to see out, but got more information from the confused and concerned expressions of those who could see the row of emergency vehicles that had followed.
We were immobile again. A hush prevailed. The air felt heavy.
A finger points and we see the policemen walking towards us. They stopped at a forward seat and calmly arrest a man, a very average looking white-man, who was sitting next to the aisle. A hand on his head as he stands. Their guns holstered at their sides. He took down his bag and they march him off the plane. It was almost an anticlimax.
But still we sat. Was it all over? Why were we still on the plane? Was it safe? Could it be a bomb? What was happening? Can we please get off now? We’ve all had enough.
‘Thank you for your patience. Except for rows 12, 13 and 14 you may now all disembark.’ His row.
We shot out of our seats with relief and jostled into the aisles. Moments later we had reached the door to exit the plane. An armed guard with a machine gun, cold black metal, stood at the top of the stairs. I felt lightheaded as I hurried down the steps. I clutched the rail, unsure of my footing and climbed onto the bus. My forehead was clammy. The bus doors closed with a hiss and the bus moved a few metres then stopped. Once again we were in limbo. What could possibly be wrong now?
Another ten minutes passed. Maybe longer. Since landing almost an hour and a half had passed without knowing what was happening. Rumours flew around the bus. It had been a bomb, a suspicious device. So then why were we stuck only metres from the plane and why had they not let us get off quicker?
The bus lurched forward and people grabbed at the rails. I dared to hope that we were almost at the end of the ordeal. We drove across the tarmac towards the terminal. A few passengers laughed and joked. I smiled too. Then I felt a shiver run through my body as I realised why the jet fighter had been there. There was only one possible reason.
To shoot us down.