Any airport in a storm

Baxter and I are at it again, puttering southwards above the clouds. No. Above the fog. We can see it a thousand feet below us, in the Channel; a tanker is tiptoeing through the Straits of Dover but all we can see is the funnel and superstructure, silently breasting the fog like a man parting the hair fallen over his lover's face.

Mid-Channel, right along an arbitrary line dividing the London and Paris Flight Information Regions, the fog clears. It's always the way. It's always the way back, too: you can tell when you're entering British airspace: a sudden thump of updraft and you're in thick cloud and drizzle. Right along the line. Of course Britain is Great; God himself drew our boundaries, and marks them with a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of cloud by night, fire being frowned upon these days for environmental reasons.

The sky is full of Germans, being given short shrift by a harassed controller. Callsign, position, height, ETA ... but these people want to chat. "Ve are inbount." "Ve hev Dover in sight." "Ve are in a formatzione of tsree." "Ve are approadjing tse coast." "Times have changed," says Baxter. "Fifty- five years ago, they wouldn't have mentioned it. Good thing too. I wish they'd keep schtum now, let the white chaps get a word in."

The clouds clear and we change frequency to Calais, running up the coast to Ostend. It's a pleasant hour's run, delivering a new autopilot computer for one of Baxter's old cargo 707s, hunkered down on the ramp there while Captain Insh'Allah and his Sudanese crew snooze in their downtown hotel. They need their rest; they hand-flew the old beast all the way up from Africa in turbulence and storms. Even the Loadmaster took a turn at flying. The Loadmaster can't fly, but you do what you can when George is on the blink, sulking in his rack down by the nosewheel, out of action, on the fritz, inop. I know how George felt. I get like that. Inop. Inop. Do Not Use.

Little big airports are fun. We land at Ostend behind a pretty red Virgin 737 full of holidaymakers. Ostend? I don't know. But there's a good brothel there, and a tram, and seafood, and the Kite Festival starts tomorrow. There must be something about Kite People because the arrivals hall is packed with young women in punitive shorts, all legs and wren-bone wrists.

Nobody takes any notice of us. None of your British bollocks, your immigration bollocks, your customs bollocks, your fine-thing-if-everyone-did-it, how- do-we-know-you're-not-wogs? bollocks. Nobody cares. We left our little Piper parked next to the 707, dwarfed, like a roller-skate in a lorry park, the new auto- pilot computer snug in the luggage compartment. If you didn't know what it was, you'd think it was a bomb, part of a bomb, part of an atomic bomb. Nobody cares. Why would we bring a bomb to Ostend? Little big airports are fun.

At the crew hotel, a Belgian woman of a certain age is waiting in the lobby, dressed to the nines, with her poodle and husband. You can see her nipple-rings through her lurid blouse. "Versace," I say to Baxter. "Eurotrash, Grade III." Four thousand miles away, a flat-eyed whore is looking at his street map and loading his gun.

The crew are getting ready for their night-flight to Khartoum, in and out of each other's rooms. Like all Arabic men, they instinctively form a huddle wherever they are. It's like a little tribe, reassuring and safe, and I drift into a doze, surrounded by beaming and shouting and the comforting smells of toothpaste and duty-free cologne, waking only when Baxter tries to steal my beer.

Back at the airfield, the engineer fits the new George and pronounces it fine. We load the old one into our little roller-skate, along with what appears to be a munitions-box. Nobody takes any notice. It's my turn to be in command. We drift off into the evening haze, saying goodbye to the crew over the radio as we turn away for England, transients, men of the air.

The fog-banks are building over the Channel, worse then before. We ask for the forecast for Southend. "Not too good, I'm afraid," says the controller, "visibility 100 metres in fog, ceiling 100 feet, borderline sky obscured." The sun is drifting down behind the fog-banks. I start thinking of places to divert to, places where I know people, women who will be pleased to see me, but Baxter vetoes them all. "We'll go to Southend and have a look," he says.

We are perfectly comfortable. It's warm in the cabin, the air a soft hazy purple, the thick fog wrapped over the south and east coasts; England has been obliterated but here we are, safe. But you can't stay above the fog for ever. Sooner or later, the fuel runs out.

Baxter calls Southend. All we can see is an 800ft chimney, poking through the fog like a watchtower or an eyrie for wicked monks, but he calls Southend anyway. "I can't see my car," says the controller there. "What about Biggin Hill?" I say. Baxter calls for the weather. The controller says it's fine there. "But be advised Biggin Hill closed half an hour ago." We come up with a few more notions: fogged in, closed, closed, fog. "Bloody ridiculous," says Baxter. "What's he want us to do? Stay up here till morning? We're going to Stansted."

Ten miles out from Stansted, the weather clears. I turn in to final approach, reduce power, descend towards the runway. The lights, designed for big jets, are dazzling in our little roller-skate. We park miles away from the terminal; a little bus comes for us, our details go into the computer. That'll be pounds 157. Baxter yowls in horror. Not fair. Won't pay. pounds 157 for the fog? Hah.

But we're safe. We'll argue later. You can't stay above the fog for ever. Sooner or later the fuel runs out. Can't live with her, can't live without her? Hate the job but need the money? Boss persecuting you, wife hates you, husband beats you, children on heroin, taxman on your tail, dying of sadness in a suburb by the sea, in love and out of hope? You can't stay above the fog for ever. Sooner or later the fuel runs out. Land where you can, and argue about the bill later. !

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