Despite the speed of long haul aircraft, those 12 hours heading back to the UK seemed to drag and drag. I think we just do not realise still how much of the earth is a huge empty space, particularly the oceans. It takes nearly four hours before you hit Africa proper near Mombasa. Then you have the interminable stretch over the Sahara before crossing into the Mediterranean at Benghazi. And then even parts of Europe – heading up the Italian peninsula and crossing rural France, seems to take longer that it should. When you have a reason to get home as fast as possible, those distances are plain cruel.
Crossing the Nile on the way back from Mauritius – on a happier trip home
It was early evening when my landlady and good friend Vicky picked me up from Heathrow’s Terminal 5, a cold, dark, October evening so contrasting from the hot balmy weather in Mauritius. She’d cooked a meal for me and I went to bed early. Next morning the same suitcase I had brought with me was bunged in the back of my car and I drove up to Liverpool. My brother Robert had been there a couple of days already; we both went in later that afternoon to the Royal Hospital above the centre of the city. Although Mum had told David to ask me to come, she had not been told I was on my way, so there was a mixture of surprise, joy and a realisation in her face when she saw me there. Even in the first couple of hours of my first visit, several of her closest friends turned up and tried to act normally. But the woman in the bed was hardly my mother. Robert had warned me but it was still a deep shock to see how much weight she had lost, the lines on her face deep, her hair a ghostly white.
There were a series of practicalities do deal with during the week which helped to deal with the tiredness from travel and the emotions of the situation. The forecast was that this was just a bad incident – mum had swollen up once more with excess fluid on the abdomen causing all sorts of complications with her digestive system, but now this was drained the plan was to send her home again in a week or so. To make her comfortable, we had to convert the dining room to a bedroom for her; she was not going to be able to tackle the stairs. This meant ordering a hospital bed that could be easily adjusted into different positions (currently mum was most comfortable perched up to about 45 degrees). A commode was also needed. Robert had to go back to his work in Norwich for at least a few days, and my brother Christopher who lived with mum in Liverpool also had his work to go to. So I was in the best position those few days to help sort out these issues; we moved the dining room table into the Living room, which meant a rearrangement there too, an NHS van turned up one day and a man assembled the bed and ensured it would work. I went out and bought a freestanding lamp – due to the curious arrangement of our house, the only light switch for the dining room was in the adjoining kitchen. We tried to turn the dining room in to as comfortable a bedroom as we could – at least she would be able to see out the window into the garden she had perfected over the years and watch the myriad species of birds play on the various feeders.
Over the years, I went on several of the bird monitoring walks that the conservation group had to do. The RSPB programme was intense; because apart from the wideawakes,the number of birds was so low, almost every nest was being counted regularly. They not only looked for evidence of nesting, but needed somehow to monitor the progress and success rate of the laying. Over a period of 6-12 weeks, dependent on the species, they would have to visit the same nest 3 to 5 times. Where a new pair had set up a nest, they looked first for evidence of eggs, then the chicks at various stages of development, up to the point where they get their flight feathers and fledge (i.e. fly away). This sounds like a simple progression to monitor, but the reality was much more complicated. The species monitored might have up to three chicks at different stages of development, some eggs may never hatch and the nests were still susceptible to predation by rats and frigate birds, or the chicks would die because of some clumsy accident or neglect from the parents. Evidence of seeing a fledgling one time and an empty nest the next was generally seen as a success, but almost any other combination of results – empty nests too early in the cycle, or evidence that a second egg laying has happened (by the same pair or another pair of parents) were all counted as failures.
Graham and Margaret – Third and fourth from right – with the other Conservation team members – 2005
Almost all the nests were on secluded coastlines a tough walk away from any vehicular access. So the effort to monitor the birds was immense, and the conservation staff were few and pressed into many other activities. Fortunately, there were a merry band of volunteers who also helped out at the Conservation Office. Two of my favourites from all the trips were the Cripps family. Graham was the Legal Secretary for the Government and had an office just along the corridor from the Conservation Office. His wife, Margaret, was a keen volunteer for Conservation and helped out on tours, at the little display room and shop, and on the bird monitoring side. On my way back from St Helena on the first trip, I was delayed several days. On arrival on the RMS, I had already been expecting three days wait for the next plane home. The schedules were not synchronized in any way and you had to build that in. But worse was to come. I was totally phlegmatic about the air bridge having been delayed nearly two days on the way down. My fellow passengers from the RMS were not so relaxed. They were mostly billeted in the Obsidian Hotel with me, and even if I did not eat at the restaurant every night, I would usually end up there for a sundowner at the Anchor Inn there. Most had rushed round the island trying to pack in all the sights while they had the three days, and were pretty much ready to board the flight and head to the UK. The rumours came in on the second day we were there that the southbound flight to the Falklands had not come in that morning. More rumours started circulating that the jumbo jet had been involved in an accident on the apron at Brize Norton. Someone driving the air stairs up to the door had missed and driven into the fuselage, making a hole right through it. The jumbo would be out of action for over a week while it was repaired.
Calculations started going on in my head – I had been away already for over six weeks, one of my longer work trips. The Obsidian Hotel was the best place to get the most up to date picture, although you realised mostly they were getting it from the same rumour mill as everyone else, just more efficiently. They told us that an RAF Tri-Star was being laid on to do the route, but it still had to go all the way to the Falklands and back before picking us up for the UK leg. That added another four days to our stay in Georgetown.
Almost half the people had gone and the makeup of those who were left was much more civilian biased. Edsel and I decided we were hungry so headed to the hotel’s restaurant. I say restaurant, but in fact it was like an army canteen run by the NAAFI – the Navy Army and Air Force Institutes. To me the NAAFI were an anachronism I remember from old post war black and white British films. But here it was brought right up to date. To me, the food was edible but nothing to fuss about; sausages, steak and kidney pie, heaps of chips and baked beans. For Edsel he was not used to this kind of filler cuisine, and since he had chosen years ago not to eat any pig products there was not that much left on the menu. I poured myself a glass of orange juice that turned out to be the sort of weak cordial that I remember from school dinners – tasting more of chemicals than fruit.
That nightmare out the way we returned to the TV. It was here I got my next induction into military ways. I had thought I had been watching ITV – the UK’s old commercial channel – where X-Factor came from, but now they were watching something on BBC1…. and the channel was the same. In fact there were only two channels on this TV. BFBS 1 and BFBS2. The British Forces Broadcasting Service pump amalgams of various programmes from various broadcasters on these two channels, with the occasional self made programme such as their forces news. It was like I had moved in to a parallel world, where elements of my old one existed but in a new form.
We were given an update on our flight early in the evening. The plane would leave Luxembourg at first light and be at Brize Norton at around 6am. We should expect to be called at 5am to head to the terminal. Given this news Edsel and I retired early. Although we had been vegetating around the hotel for most of the afternoon, the uncertainty of what was to occur had exhausted us. But I found it difficult to get rest – there were still planes coming in and out of Brize, the noise from the lobby rose into our room and my mind was still whirring about when we might or might not get off and what impact that was having on our proposed work programme on Ascension Island itself.
I must have eventually nodded off because the next thing I remember was a screech from the old speaker above our heads and a brusque female voice telling us that those on the Airbridge flight to the Falklands should be assembled in fifteen minutes at the front of the hotel to board the buses. From a supine groggy start this was a demanding timetable, but really we both just had to have a quick shower and brush our teeth and pack the few things we had in our carryon bags and we could leave. There was no time to use our breakfast vouchers – the NAAFI did not open for another hour fortunately.