This happened to me in the early nineties when working at Gatwick Airport. While I freely admit it reflects M.R. James, it is as true an account as any recollection of a past event can be….
Shadows in the Fog
By Nigel Hillpaul
Back in those days of youth and vigour, when you could feel the earth tremble beneath your feet, I was a Dispatcher. To some, a giant among men, to others, an Alexander who could cut the Gordian Knot of aviation to ensure that planes arrived, were turned around and departed on time.
To my wife of course, I would always be an eejit.
One November morning before dawn, I went to meet a Philippine Airways 747 that had come up from Manila via Singapore and Frankfurt. The usual brief about what was onboard the aircraft wasn’t available. This would give you the number of passengers, VIP’s and the halt and the lame, but as importantly, what was in the baggage holds. Customs having been known to keep an aircraft all day if the paperwork wasn’t available.
A modern airport can be haunted by a number of things, but is usually well-lit enough for the shadows to be kept in the corners. Some mornings, spring and autumn, you wade through fog thick enough to close the airport and for shadows to weave through gloom in a way that MR James himself would shudder at. This day there was a cold, clammy blanket knee-high that parted reluctantly as you strode through it on a stand lit by the weak, twilit dawn.
The arrival procedures were all ticked off, the plane came to a halt and for a brief moment, all you could hear where the ticking of the engines cooling and the engine fan blades gradually coming to a rest. After I had put the airbridge in the aircraft, checked for the signal from a toothy face inside the window and opened the door. At which point the absence of paperwork became a problem. No paperwork for cargo.
Now, passengers step on an off an aircraft without a worry because they are in an eight-foot wide tube some kindly soul has driven onto the aircraft so they don’t get cold, wet or have to bother with stairs. They don’t know that there are engineering stairs attached to the outside for ease of access for workers.
As I was negotiating in pidgin English with the Purser, I heard footsteps banging up the stairs and turned as the access door was wrenched open by a white-faced loader with wild eyes, who when he saw me, pointed an accusing finger and cried in a hollow voice: ‘The monkeys are loose in the hold! And there are….things!’ He then turned and disappeared the way he had come, slamming the door shut.
I turned back to the toothy Purser who kept smiling and nodding uncomprehendingly, paused, sighed and followed him out the door.
It’s always darkest before the dawn. Unless you do shift work or are an insomniac, you never realise quite how bleak a statement that is. The light had dimmed, the mist had thickened and the shadows had crept from their corners to lick around your boots. Passing under the vast white belly of the aircraft, the weight bearing down on me I passed in disgust, the loaders in the cab of their flatbed, clinging to each other and crying in terror and went to the rear of the aircraft.
At 30,000ft when you are sipping at your drink and wondering whether your food will be recognisable, let alone edible, your mind distracted (if you’re lucky) by the view out the window or (if you’re unlucky), by your fellow passengers, do you wonder about the plane you’re in, with all the spaces you are unaware of? In an unfamiliar environment, the minds focus tends to narrow and shrink to your immediate surroundings. Your seat, the seats around you. Do you think you’re on a split-level tube, that there’s as much of the plane hidden under your feet? If you do you might wonder how you get into and out of those areas. Most jet planes have a hold in front of the wing, a hold behind it and a smaller hold under the tail called the bilk pit. The two big holds you might have seen baggage bins and containers going in and out on massive flatbeds whose platform rises and sinks the 20ft the massive hold doors.
The bulk pit is accessed by what is commonly referred to as a rocket launcher, a flat-bed with an extendable conveyor belt which goes up at an angle of forty-five degrees 30ft in the air, and in the old days had no guardrails so it was a balancing act on something three feet wide to climb up.
Did I also mention it was dark, and misty, and cold? Your hands and knuckles starting to stiffen, those shadows creeping around the aircraft and the mist deadening all sounds apart from your breathing until you reached the top and face the sealed door to the bulk pit, condensation forming and trickling down its sides. To open the door, you press a central button with both thumbs and two latches pop out, you spin them clockwise and push the door up and in and peer into the gloom, the shadows inside seeming to spill out and merge with the ones washing around outside. But inside the shadows you can see things you shouldn’t, not just bags, sacks of mail and boxes. Things. The corpses of three or four monkeys, stiff with swollen tongues and the rictus grin of death and then you start to hear things. Noises; clicking, chittering and hissing as the shadows now start to move together and apart and then as dawn came over the horizon, the pale watery light was reflected back off eyes. Dozens of eyes all focussing in the light and turning in your direction. And then as your mind was struggling to absorb the horror, your limbs turned to jelly. just above your head around the edge of the door, came limbs.
Noises; clicking, chittering and hissing as the shadows now start to move together and apart and then as dawn came over the horizon, the pale watery light was reflected back off eyes. Dozens of eyes all focussing in the light and turning in your direction. And then as your mind was struggling to absorb the horror, your limbs turned to jelly. just above your head around the edge of the door, came limbs.
I can’t call them legs: knobby-jointed, bristly hooked with evil-looking, stained claws reaching around the frame in a grasping motion, but long, very long and powerful. Transfixed and powerless to move, watching the edges get closer to my face and the awareness that on the other side of the door was something keen to get out, to hide in the shadows outside of its hole. Something on the other side of the door that was big, bigger than it should be, and desperate to introduce itself.
Suddenly a voice cried ‘Oi’ from below and the spell was broken. I yanked the door back into place and spun the latches, the legs withdrawing at the last minute. One of the two loaders, his conscience and manhood pricked, had come to check that everything was alright. I still couldn’t move, my limbs trembling, I told him to set the belt in reverse, but slow, mind, and let it carry me back down to the ramp where the mist and shadows were dissolving in the brightening dawn.
The plane had come up from Manila with an incorrectly manifested cargo of spiders, had picked up the monkeys in Singapore and somewhere between Frankfurt and Gatwick, the monkeys had let themselves out and gone exploring, released the spiders with the results I had seen. I called Port Health who sealed the aircraft and gassed the hold. Three times. You know, just to be sure; just in case.
But two things stick in my mind. Shadows, I can never look at shadows flowing around without thinking of long, bony legs reaching for me out of the shadows, eager to caress me. And the other thing which we never did find out. As I pulled the door closed, I saw in the corner of the pit, nests. Three or four spiders nests with what looked like pearls but were eggs. I hope the gassing worked, because if not, there’s a 747 flying around the world with shadows scuttling around in the dark.
Like the biblical character I have gone to and fro in the earth, and walked up and down upon it. A historian trapped in the world of aviation. Or more prosaically, an aviation family meant a peripatetic upbringing, and a modest degree meant I enjoyed myself. I have been overland from Jerusalem to Istanbul, down the Nile, and every continent except Antarctica; but there’s still time. A Welshman in Horsham, beer and books, hearth and cat.