18th October 2001
Well, I suppose this is where my journey begins… It’s 5:40 am, My eyes are glassy and I have a prickly ball of emotion stuck somewhere between my Adam’s apple and my sternum. It jiggles impatiently and threatens to leap up and manifest itself in a very public display of emotion at any moment. As the train slides out of the station and through the tunnel I finally manage to swallow it down, and I begin writing on my laptop in a bid to distract myself and keep it there.
I have just said goodbye to Mum and Dad. It reminds me of the time when they dropped me off at University for the first time. I was choked when they left, but poor Mum cried all the way home; a journey of 7 hours from West Wales to Cornwall. She was crying long after I had taken a walk down to the kitchen at the end of my hall of residence and met up with some of the other students who were, like me, fresh and new to university life. She was probably still crying as I stumbled my way home from the nightclub that night, bursting with feelings of excitement and new possibility, high on life, cheap vodka and the intoxicating feeling of being in a new place.
I hate goodbyes, I guess that’s not unusual. It’s almost like grief, and I find that I am imagining all sorts of depressing outcomes from my trip which will end in loss, and indeed grief. What if somebody dies while I’m away? What if I die? I am about to head out to a particularly stormy part of the North Atlantic and put my safety into the hands of complete strangers, and the mercy of nature. I’ve heard that working on a trawler is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. I have to admit that the thought thrills and terrifies me in equal measure.
This all came about after answering an advert in New Scientist for a Scientific Fisheries Observer. I had little idea of what a Scientific Fisheries Observer was, and to be honest I still don’t, but the job involved travelling to Newfoundland and working at sea on a deep-sea trawler. That sounded very exciting so I applied. A few days later I was surprised to get a call asking me if I could go to Poole in Dorset to complete a Sea Survival course the next day, and then on to Kensington in London for an interview. I got the job! That was last week, and now find myself on a train back to London before flying out to Newfoundland tomorrow, and getting on a fishing boat for god knows how long and do god knows what.
My train slid along lengths of railway track which had been placed end to end all the way from Redruth to London in a continuous unbroken line, right to the platform. I had to haul my luggage the remaining few hundred metres to the left luggage facility without the benefit of rails or a diesel locomotive.
After buying a cup of tea and a few extra books to buffer the 10 I had already packed, I took the underground to Regent Park where I would go on foot to my doctor’s appointment in Harley Street. I still needed a seafarers medical before I would be allowed to go sea. I dreaded that some previously undiagnosed condition might scupper my plans at this late stage.
The doctor’s surgery on Harley Street wasn’t like my local surgery. Like the offices where I had been for my interview last week, the building was grand and imposing. I rang a doorbell to be invited inside. The reception was like the front room of 10 Downing Street, or at least how I imagine it to be: High ceilings and plush burgundy carpet swallowed up every noise, and heavy antique furniture screamed ‘establishment’. Apart from the receptionist, there was nobody there.
‘I have an appointment with Dr Rowbotham.’ I said to the receptionist, by way of explanation.
‘Please take a seat Mr James and Dr Rowbotham will be with you shortly.’ She said it with an emphasis on the the hard Row-bottom not Row-botham as I had said. I had only been in the room 10 seconds and already felt my cheeks flush with embarrassment.
‘May I ask for a sample?’ she thrust forward a bony hand with an empty jar held between forefinger and thumb as if it already contained a pint of tramp’s piss. ‘You can leave it on the tray provided.’
‘Do you have a toilet?’ I said, regretting my choice of words immediately, and doubting that they would expect their patients to piss standing in the waiting room.
‘Ears.’ she said, and glanced towards a door. For a second I didn’t understand what she meant by ‘Ears’, but then I realised it was a very plummy way to say yes.
I produced my sample without further embarrassment; managing not to dribble wee on the label, and was glad to see that it wasn’t the humiliating saffron colour of early morning hangover wee, but a respectably hydrated lemon colour. Helped no doubt by all the tea I had drank on the train. I was grateful for the small mercy of not having to hand the lady my wee, and left it as instructed on the silver platter in the bathroom. Yes it really was silver.
Doctor Rowbotham was well dressed and well spoken, but he didn’t share his receptionists look of contempt. I immediately felt more at ease and we chatted easily. He asked what I had ‘read’ at university, and tempted though I was to list some of my favourite novels, I told him that I had studied Zoology. The examination was very thorough and took some time. I’d forgotten about my earlier awkwardness until on the way out the receptionists handed me an eye-watering invoice.
I had to dart across London to make it to the briefing in Kensington on time. There were several observers there, some of them I had met on the sea survival course in Poole.
The briefing went on for hours until we sat head in hands, brains addled and saturated with new information. We were each issued survival suits and equipment. I hadn’t factored in the bulk of all this equipment in addition to my own gear and feared that buying the extra books at Paddington wasn’t the best move.
We were all put up in a hotel near Paddington, and had to carry all our gear back through London on the Underground. Collectively we had so much gear that I think we would have filled the tube carriage on our own, but still we managed to pack in along with the rush hour commute. London commuters are not easily surprised, but I think a few eye-brows were raised in light of our unusual luggage, and the smell of fish and diesel it emitted. People were still nervous after the recent terrorist attack on the twin towers, and our strange baggage did nothing to set them at ease.
The hotel was pretty shabby and so I didn’t loiter there. I went out to find a phone to call Mum and Dad. I knew that it was probably the last chance to speak to them. Where I was going, there were no phones. The emotions I had battled with that morning came rushing back. Being aware that we might not be able to talk again for months made the conversation more awkward. I choked on the prickly ball, and all the things I would have liked to have said were replaced by a perfunctory ‘Right, I better go’.
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