I get the call late – sometime between 5.00 and 5.30pm on Monday evening – as I drag my bone weary self homeward, plowing a lone furrow down Guild and up Union through the masses of people heading home in the opposite direction. A sudden change of plans on The Project has thrown the curveball that is being the designated short term relief in my direction, and being the young, unmarried bloke on the team I get first dibs at the possibility of catching a 9.30 am flight the next morning. With the prospect of performance reviews due in a mere two weeks, I’m not exactly keen to refuse an opportunity to demonstrate my ability to ‘handle changing priorities’, so I shrug inwardly, accept my lot and grumble all the way home.
It is nice and bright – and atypically sunny day for this time of the year – when I drag myself into a cab for the drive to the airport. By the time we navigate the final turn into the airport; the weather has taken a decidedly chillier tone. I find the departures lounge empty, save for a somewhat plump, dour woman, huddled over one of the terminals that line one side of the building. I clear my throat to attract her attention – and stammer a greeting when she looks up. She peers at me – the whites and browns of her eyes peeking out from the gap between her face and the glasses she has perched on almost the very tip of her nose. I mention I am due to catch a flight out. She asks for my details, but midway through attempting to phonetically spell my surname, I give up and fish out my company ID from the innards of my knapsack. It takes at least a minute of uncomfortable silence before she looks up again and confirms I’m on the passenger manifest. It turns out I have arrived a full ninety minutes before check-in for my flight is due to open, and I will have to come back in an hour’s time. I thank her again, shrug in resignation and head back out into what has become a howling wind.
I scan the terrain looking to find somewhere to set up shop whilst waiting – there are only the bus shelters and a couple of smoke shacks around. I chose the bus shelter which proves woefully inadequate protection. From the corner of my eye, I see more people head through the doors, ostensibly get the same response I got and head back out in short thrust.
There must be at least sixty people in varying stages of repose, slouched in the long red seats which fill the tightly packed waiting room by the time I return and manage to navigate the check-in. We all await the announcements of our various flights and the invitation to watch the safety video before that. The overhead screens have Sky News on – the continuing debacle that is Rangers going into administration gets several minutes, as does the endless analysis of the US Presidential elections, previews of the upcoming Champions League football, and all the other things which make up ‘news’. There is some pattern to the clustering – old friends and colleagues swapping loud stories of their off-work shenanigans, people leafing mindlessly through the newspapers and one person reading from his kindle. It is only my second time passing through this place but it is already becoming easy to spot the obvious first time flyers with their youngish faces, nervous hand motions, quieter dispositions and blank stares into the infinity of distance; far removed from the usual brash, borderline uncouth crowd that is more typical.
That context undergirds communication and modifies meaning is never more obvious than on these jaunts. In my time I’ve run into quite a few ex royal marines, members of the merchant marine, and techs who have come through apprenticeships at manufacturing companies. That, and the penchant for giving and taking banter that comes with knocking back a few brews at the local pub – and passionately following a football club – means that language that would make my chocolate dark mother blush is commonplace. One is as likely to get called a fat turd as a f*cking wanker in these parts – and four letter expletives are as commonplace as the faded blue jeans that appear to be the kit of choice amongst us all.
Underneath the crude talk, the borderline sexist language and the impression of crassness that you first get, over time I have gotten to know there is a softer, paternal, dare I say more responsible side to this lot. The last time out here I shared a quiet moment with Mark* as he ground his own coffee and kept an eye on the television who was genuinely worried about his son and his desire to protect him from the influence of three generations of cousins and uncles who have never worked. There was Brian* the opera aficionado, married for nineteen years, who was looking forward to his annual anniversary celebration which usually involved a trip to catch an opera in Vienna, a reenactment of his how-we-met story.
It is nearly 12.20pm before I get the call to board. The first leg of the trip is a forty five minute jaunt by fixed-wing aircraft northwards into ever more worsening weather to the windswept bareness that is SCATSTA; a World War II RAF base awakened from its post war coma by BP and North Sea oil. The flight is bumpy but sweets, coffee and biscuits help to ease the ever louder growling of my stomach as it protests yet another skipped breakfast. SCATSTA turned out to be a quick ten minute turn around, before the call to suit up, don a life jacket and clamber aboard the helicopter for the final forty minutes of my journey outwards came. My final destination is a rig on the very edge of nowhere, straddling the border of the UK and Norwegian sectors of the North Sea with nothing but grey skies and water all around for company.
I manage to snag a window seat on for this final leg, but the ever thickening mist that swathes us makes it impossible to see anything of note. Somewhere in between, lulled by the steady chugging of the helicopter’s rotors and the bland sameness of the view through the window, I nod off to sleep, like three quarters of us already have. I wake up with a start to the sound of the pilot announcing our final descent, and a warning. Gusts of wind reaching 35 knots are predicted for this sector, we will have to be careful whilst disembarking. I check my carry on items – a book and my wrist watch in my knee pocket – are secure and brace myself for the landing. In the distance the bright orange of the hull of the standby rescue craft is barely discernible in the mist. Around us, there is water everywhere…