It will be of no surprise to you that I can recall with astonishing clarity a girl who passed me on the elevator at Chalk Farm tube station in 1959 but cannot remember where I left my reading glasses five minutes ago. Among the choicest souvenirs in my mind’s cluttered ephemera are images of girls I never even spoke to. I remember a girl in the choir at St Stephens in Lower Norwood that inspired the purist of loves in a 12 year old schoolboy. Later there was a girl in a café in Gothenberg whose perfect Nordic beauty bordered on imperfection.(1) And then there was Number 16. Number 16 and her fiancé were the sixteenth couple programmed to be married one Saturday morning in the Mairie of Paris’ 15th Arrondissement. Clutching my ticket number 17, I was standing a few steps below her on the marble staircase with my own fiancée and small wedding party, just one degree of separation from the blonde, Polish beauty in front of me that I should have been marrying. The time to bolt was right then instead of in 5 years time, but I delayed and delayed as we moved slowly and steadily up the staircase, past a bust of the Phrygian-bonneted Brigitte Bardot, until suddenly there we were signing the register under the bored gaze of the tricolour-sashed Mayor himself. And then there was the “coup de foudre” that hit me at 11pm on 26th October 1977 when I was sitting in the departure lounge at Orly-Sud Airport.
I was looking at the owner of a cloud of ash-blonde hair and a pair of cornflower blue eyes, a tall woman, “bien en chair” with strong features and a rash of freckles; a stranger with a face I felt I had always been expecting. In contrast to most of the women in the room pretending to look bored by the prospect of transatlantic air travel or tired at the late hour, she looked bright and expectant. Her eyes may have swept over the 35 year old accountant but if they did they found nothing to arrest them. The lounge was packed for the flight to Rio and as usual the ground staff of the carrier, Varig, seemed incapable of restricting many of the 380 odd customers to a single item of cabin baggage. I’d been on this flight several times over the last months, and when boarding was finally called I made my way to my preferred spot on the aisle at the back of the bus. I had hardly settled in and nodded briefly to the man occupying the window seat next to me when the girl from the lounge came down the aisle. This time our eyes met as she passed by and settled into a seat a few rows back in the central block of seats. Eventually the DC10 began to roll. I was not a white-knuckle flier in those days and already had my head in the Herald Tribune as the plane gathered speed. At some point the ride began to get bumpy and it seemed we were taking forever to lift off into the night sky. My neighbour, who had been gazing idly out of his window, suddenly burst into life, “Jesus Christ the f*****g engine’s on fire!” I leaned over; sure enough the starboard engine was enveloped in flames. Just as the cries of panic and alarm began to spread throughout the cabin the pilot threw all engines into reverse. The backward thrust of the two functioning engines (the DC10 has an engine in the tailplane) began to slow us and (as I learned later) we had not quite reached V1, the point when the ‘plane must take-off, and so we sailed on, over the end of the runway, through a bank of landing lights and across the grass until we finally ground to a stop metres from the fence that separated airfield from motorway. Later I learned that the plane had been over-loaded, a tyre had burst and we had been rolling along on the metal undercarriage, sending shards of metal and sparks into the starboard engine and causing it to ignite. Twenty three years later a similar accident occurred when a piece of metal left on the runway at Charles de Gaulle burst the tyre of a departing Concorde resulting in a punctured fuel tank. In this case the Concorde pilot had exceeded V1 and was obliged to take-off; the plane crashed minutes later, killing all on board. A few seconds longer on the runway and that would have been our fate.
Meanwhile the panic intensified. Further down the cabin a hostess opened an emergency exit only for the chute to inflate inside the cabin where it was hacked away by frantic passengers before they jumped. I grabbed my hand luggage and headed towards the rear exit. The girl from the lounge was groping in an overhead locker. I helped her down with her bag (strictly against emergency procedures) and propelled her to the rear exit where we slid, almost together, down the chute. When we reached the ground, cabin crew pulled us to our feet and pushed us off into the night, telling us to get as far away from the aircraft as possible. A hundred metres from the ‘plane we sat on the grass, watching the fire engines douse the burning engine and the ambulance crews dealing with the broken limbs of the passengers who had jumped. A bottle of duty free whiskey was produced and we settled down to wait for a lift back to the terminal. I don’t believe in fate or the supernatural, just luck, good or bad and the extent to which either strikes just depends upon the random cocktail of the hour. To the chance encounter, to whatever it was in a stranger’s face that drew me to her, had now been added the shared experience of danger. It was a powerful combination. The face before me when “the bolt of Cupid fell” belonged to Audrey Guy, a ground hostess working at the Air France terminal at Les Invalides and on her way to see a friend in Sao Paolo. She was a divorcee, a committed Basque nationalist and that rare jewel, a French Anglophile.
Eventually the buses arrived to round up the scattered passengers and we were taken to the Orly Hilton where we were offered free accommodation until the next flight, scheduled for the following evening. I suppose there must have been brief envelope of time, perhaps a nanosecond, when I decided not to go home and not to telephone my wife. Such a decision, with its possible long-lasting repercussions, seemed to require no internal argument at all, no assessment as to whether this was right or wrong; I would spend more time choosing a ball-point pen. By the time I reached the concierge there were no more single rooms. I asked Audrey if she would care to share a double. She would. In the anonymity of the hotel room there was an absence of awkwardness and an air of expectant intimacy, but within minutes of hanging a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door, Audrey was violently sick and immediately fell into a deep, drunken sleep. I cleaned her up and slept chastely in the other single. Audrey was unable to find even a jump-seat on the flight the next day, but eventually we met up in Brazil; it was the beginning of an affair that lasted 3 years and which ended where it had all began, at an airport, although this time it was Linate.
Thirty years later my friend Pierre-Jacques, at home in Paris, was reading “Les Miracules du Ciel” a collection of personal accounts from survivors of air disasters (2) when he recognized a story entitled “Catastrophe, Miracle et Histoire d’Amour” (Disaster, Miracle and Love Story). Audrey had contributed her account of the Varig incident and the beginning of our affair. Some of the facts had been changed. In the book Audrey and I were sitting together; she is also described as an air rather than ground hostess, using her expertise to open the rear exit door, something apparently beyond the capabilities of the Varig cabin staff. Furthermore, the Audrey I knew was not the person described in the book as someone who “hardly ever touched alcohol”. Once, in the back of a taxi on our way home from a bout in a Rio night club, she was sick into my jacket pocket, but I loved her at the time and so didn’t really mind.
1. Tennyson’s Maud was “Faultily faultless, icily regular, splendidly null.”
2. “Les Miracules du Ciel” by Jean-Pierre Otelli. 1998, Editions Altipresse.