This was an important meeting for the British UFO Research Association (Bufora). Would they ask me to justify my presence by relating a personal UFO sighting or, even worse, an alien abduction? Would I have to produce evidence of a rectal probe, an examination said to be a favoured by aliens?
The members, after all, had packed into a lecture room at the London Business School, near Regent's Park, to hear one of the movement's most important apostles, Travis Walton, the Arizona woodsman whose alleged abduction by aliens in 1975 is one of the organisation's most convincing cases, not least because six men supposedly witnessed it.
Mr Walton and Mike Rogers, one of the witnesses, were in Britain to explain their version of events and promote the Paramount Pictures film of their story, Fire In The Sky, which opens nationwide today.
At the venue, however, Mr Walton's seat was empty. This was ominous. I wondered if he had been abducted again. Aside from a few oddballs with unusual hairstyles and eccentric outfits, the members appeared a rather ordinary bunch - students, accountants, physics teachers. Some were trying to look weird (dark glasses, intense expressions, black clothes), while others were trying to look normal (and failing).
A couple of Bufora members, trainspotter types with anoraks, glasses and sandwich boxes, were talking behind me.
'. . . so anyway, I've only just got back . . .'
I looked for signs of abduction.
'It was lovely - Skegness, two weeks.'
One large man had brought his suitcase, as if he were ready for his disappearance. Only one man's disturbed looks suggested he had really been abducted, and recently, too. I sat next to him.
A man dressed as a member of the Eighties pop group the Buggles stepped up to the microphone and asked us to give 'a big Bufora welcome' to Travis Walton and Mike Rogers.
You knew immediately which was Mr Walton. It was his eyes. To no applause at all, the two men were led into the room and welcomed with the kind of hushed, sombre looks usually afforded prisoners being taken to the gallows. Members of the audience took photographs, as if Mr Walton were a freak on display - he had become the alien now.
He made a strange sight: someone on the public relations trail who received no obvious enjoyment from the attention. With his hard, weathered face and neat moustache, he looked subdued.
He and Mr Rogers ran through their version of events: the enormous glowing object, the bolt of energy hitting him, the spaceship zapping away, the panic.
After 'five days, six hours and some minutes', he regained consciousness and found himself naked, terrified and 'in terrible pain' at a highway service station. Memories included the atmosphere ('very hot, dry, stale') and the aliens ('hairless beings, large heads, chalky white grey skin, enormous eyes. Really terrifying').
To the dismay of the membership, Mr Walton confirmed that his descriptions of the aliens and their craft had been altered by Paramount Pictures to make its film more original and frightening.
'We're all disappointed to hear you say that,' one senior member said, as if he had been betrayed.
Other questioners seemed to imply that 'hey, buddy, I've been there, too'; but Mr Walton had no experiences of time-lapses to relate, no idea how he got back to Earth, and none of the memories of unusual physical examinations, implants, incisions or sperm-testing common among people who claim to have been abducted.
What the audience wanted, however, was something they could use, some new proof to help the cause. 'So you have no idea what happened the rest of the time?' one member asked querulously. Mr Walton said he did not - he was too busy screaming at the time, before passing out altogether.
'And you didn't ask them about their planet?'
'Or what they wanted?'
'Well,' asked one boffin brightly, 'did you get any unusual allergies after you'd returned? Or find magnetic fields affected you in some way? No. Oh, I see. Fine.'
As far as the Bufora members were concerned, Mr Walton's trip was beginning to look like a wasted opportunity; an opportunity he had wasted. They, after all, had probably spent hours working out crucial questions that they would ask the aliens when they were abducted.
One member, who said he knew a man aged 70 who had been abducted and returned unharmed because he was aged and infirm, asked Mr Walton: 'Why you?'
He had no answer to this either.
The odd thing was that the more Mr Walton said 'no' or that he 'didn't know', the more impressive he seemed. There were no psychobabble theories to sell us about aliens coming to Earth to stop nuclear war or cure cancer. In fact, like the aliens, Travis Walton didn't have any message.
He said that the six men who witnessed his abduction had spent years as pariahs, accused first of being murderers, then of being frauds, hoaxers or nutters. None had changed their story, and all recently passed lie-detector tests.
He said he had no doubts about what happened to him, but was coping now 'by trying to leave it behind me, shut it off'.
As a final sleight, perhaps, he said he did not feel privileged. 'Not at all. A lot of people might. The event could have happened to anybody.'
The way he said it, you could only feel glad that it didn't happen to you.Reuse content