During the interval of Hare and Brenton's 'Pravda' we went out onto the terrace of the National Theatre. As we drank, we noticed a shimmering in the sky above the Thames directly in front of the building. "Probably a UFO" we said jokingly, passing back inside to the comforting lights.
When we came out at the end, and walked to the car parked on Waterloo Bridge, we saw not one but two illuminated shapes, both hovering over Somerset House, but at different heights. Along the bridge, clumps of people were gathered, staring up at the sky. Passing cars would occasionally slow, winding down their windows to get a better view. There could be no doubt about the phenomenon's reality.
It was a perfectly clear night: the stars were everywhere visible. There was no sound on the breeze, so helicopters were ruled out. Airships had been a common sight that year, but this vague, watery light looked nothing like that. They were too high for flags or other objects tethered by a rope - and one had just moved even higher.
On closer examination they had the appearance of slowly pulsating or rotating objects. Sometimes patterns like figures of eight would appear. Mostly, though, the effect was constantly changing and indescribable. After a while, we went home, but soon returned, drawn back despite ourselves. Now there was only one light, much higher. Shortly afterwards it moved south across the sky. It seemed very slow; and yet in a few seconds it had disappeared over the horizon. It was a warm autumn evening but gradually a chill spread down our spines.
Ten thousand years of civilisation and rather fewer of rationalism told us that there had to be a sensible explanation. Most of the bystanders seemed able to accommodate the sight in their mental universe without difficulty. Try as I might, I could not share their equability.
Yet the alternative to glib acceptance was almost too terrible to name. UFOs lie so far outside the range of normal experience that they have been banished from serious discourse. People have been marginalised and branded mad just for countenancing the idea. Perhaps this is only natural: the implications of visitors from another planetary system would be such as to undercut every treasured assumption of ordinary life.
For example: if they had succeeded in making such a journey, their technology would be unimaginably more advanced than ours. Demonstrably losing our place as the acme of the universe would be a blow to our sense of self unmatched since Kepler, or Darwin. Moreover, galactic serfdom - in much the same way as the West has visited and vanquished the Third World - would have to be a strong possibility.
Standing on the bridge was like teetering on the brink of an absurd yet terrifying sci-fi film. But nothing happened, neither that night or the next day. There were no announcements, no news. Everybody went on as normal. And yet for me those events remained as true as they were inexplicable.