It’s 11 December 1981 and a cross section of British Asians heading ‘home’ to India unexpectedly find themselves abandoned overnight in a deserted Heathrow Airport on the coldest night of the 20th Century at Heathrow airport. Long cherished resentments, dark passions, secret griefs and hidden prejudices explode as the temperature drops and tempers flare.
‘Would all passengers for Bombay please exit the aircraft.’
Alarm bells should have rung. Suspicions been aroused. Doubts raised and rats smelt. Several frustrated travellers later claimed that they had known something was not right from the moment they spotted ground staff silently return with the two recently abandoned wheelchairs. Not that it made any difference, because off they had all dutifully tramped. The moment the last of them stepped back into the Departure lounge around Gate 8, doors clumped shut, airlocks sealed behind them and the aircraft upon which, moments before, they had finally settled themselves, slowly drew back from the gate.
‘My God!’ cried one horrified passenger. ‘My flight!’ wailed another. ‘My bags!’ sighed a third, who had flown more frequently.
‘Sorry,’ said the delegated Air France staffer, clearly not. ‘You have missed your onward connection from Paris to Bombay. Hand me your tickets and boarding passes.’
‘Whoa there a moment, lady!’ cried Khadija Goddard, as those around her, dazed by the speed with which their plans had unravelled, reached obediently for their travel documents. ‘Why do you want our tickets?’
‘Because we will refund your money.’
‘No, no. We don’t want our money back,’ called out Joginder Sopal as his wheelchair was pushed through the crowd to Khadija’s side. ‘We want to go to Bombay. When’s the next flight?’
‘With seat availability, sir?’ asked the staffer, savouring the twist of malice, saccharine wrapped. ‘The 2nd of January.’
It was 11th December. Not only every Air France flight, but every single flight, scheduled, chartered, ABTA bonded or AITA licensed, departing any UK airport to anywhere within a thousand miles of Bombay had been massively overbooked for months. And the refunds now being offered were for their Bucket Shop tickets: hugely discounted and heavily restricted. Non-exchangeable, non-refundable, non-transferable, purchased for many hundreds of pounds less than their face value. A cracking bargain, but the refund each was now being offered back wasn’t within a thousand pounds of the full fare they would have to pay for a ticket this near Christmas, even if any could be found.
Of course, as with most other things that went wrong in England that winter, it could all be put down to the weather. Even foreigners, mystified by how the English managed to find their usually pretty insipid weather of such abiding interest, worthy of repeated, detailed and lengthy analysis, had to agree that just then it justified extensive discussion. Mid-winter, just west of London was expected to be chill, dank and unremittingly miserable. Frosty dawns, damp mornings, grey, wet, horribly short afternoons disappearing into interminable, dark nights that began at 4 p.m. and stretched on till gone 8 the next morning. A dismal twilight season, briefly enlivened by the festivities of Christmas and the New Year that just had to be accepted and suffered through or, better still, escaped.
But that particular winter would go down as the big chill of ’81, with the particular day on which they were booked to travel being the coldest day of the coldest December of the entire twentieth century. A fitting end to a weird year which in Britain had seen the fairy tale wedding of a virgin princess and inner cities ripped apart by vicious race riots. A year in which a Polish Pope and a film star US President were gunned down by lone crazies. A year in which the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted for the first time an unusual deficiency in the immune system of five gay men in California.
A year in which anything seemed possible yet everything felt friable. A time when old certainties seemed less absolute. A time of great change. Of momentous events unfolding. Many in Britain who had started the decade as wage slaves living in rented, local authority housing would end it as salaried property owners with small but growing portfolios of shares whilst their less fortunate, fleet or able neighbours would progressively see themselves marginalised and demonised in the final triumph of the burgeoning bourgeoisie.
And on the threshold of these great events, relations between the UK and India that year were defined by a rant about cricket.
How could India accept an English team which contained players with sporting links to the widely reviled and supposedly isolated apartheid South Africa? Why would England tolerate Indian objections to its choice of players? When would the winter tour be cancelled?
But on that day, it wasn’t politics, race, class warfare or cricket that dominated everyone’s thoughts as the mercury in thermometers shrunk like a guilty kid and barometer needles swung remorselessly towards Stormy. The temperature plunged to minus twenty-five, hiccoughed briefly then settled down, deep below zero. In homes and offices, on industrial estates and farms, power failed and pipes iced up and burst. Heavy snow fell through thick fog onto ground already frozen rock hard and stayed firmly put. Roads were blocked, schools shut down and hospitals closed their doors to all but emergencies — of which, through frostbite, hypothermia, car crashes, tree falls, skids, slips and trips there were record numbers. Normally temperate southern England was colder even than Moscow in deepest winter and at Heathrow airport, the busiest hub in the world, the proud boast of one plane landing and another taking off every minute of every day sounded decidedly hollow as whole expanses of the airfield were put out of action and incoming flights were diverted to Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Rome. Aircraft parked on stand, groaning beneath the weight of ice and snow building up on their wings, required extensive, noxious spraying and serious offloading before being declared safe to attempt take-off on the one runway all resources fought desperately to keep clear.
Hence their delay. Four hours and thirty-seven minutes. Not that much more than the running time of Sholay. Significantly less than that day’s play in the finally settled Test series. About the time it takes an averagely fit man to run a marathon. Not that much really, in the great scheme of things. Enough however to ensure that the daily flight from Charles de Gaulle, Paris, to Sahar, Bombay, was wheels up, wings dry and first peanuts served before the London–Paris city hopper scheduled to connect with it was even cleared for take-off.
The disembarked passengers looked at one another aghast as the implications of what was happening gradually sank in. The Departure lounge at Gate 8, designed to accommodate large numbers for short times, was as chill and cavernous as an abandoned public swimming pool and just about as welcoming. They looked out miserably at the rapidly retreating plane. The barrel-scraping special of all bottom lines grimly hit even the dimmest wit: they were not going to Paris. They were not going to Bombay. They were not going anywhere. A further still moment of stunned disbelief preceded a veritable explosion of protest as others finally caught up with Khadija Goddard’s reckoning and Joginder Sopal’s fears. Wedding celebrations. Funeral rites. Festivals. New births to record and past anniversaries to mark. Hotel bookings. Onward flight connections. Family already awaiting their arrival in guest-houses around Bombay. These things were time specific, locked down, cash purchased and location defined. Money back? What earthly good would that be? Give up on their journeys? No way! Some shouted. Several cried. Yet more shook their heads in horror and headed for the pay phones.
And two smiled.