Captain Malcolm opened the throttle, the plane shot down the runway and lifted off into warm spring sunshine. To our left, the gilded waters of the estuary bounced back reflections of the sunlight. To our right, six lanes of traffic threaded along the grey tarmac of the motorway. And on a back road, heading away from the airport was my sister. She didn’t stay to see me off, she never does. She doesn’t like goodbyes. It doesn’t matter if I’m going away for a week or two months, as I am now, she hates the separation.
Once, about twenty years ago, she was seeing me off on a coach. I was going back to my ship after some leave and was going away for six or eight months. Poor little sis was bereft. She was also going back to her ship a few days later but that didn’t make it any easier for her. In a show of strength, she scrubbed the tears from her cheeks and as I looked down from the coach window, she gave me a brave smile. I swallowed the lump in my throat and smiled back. Just then, a tiny nun of about four-foot-nothing, put her arm around my sister and led her away. The nun had also been seeing someone off and had watched our sad parting. She stepped in and comforted my sister and the last view I had as the coach pulled away was of my taller-than-average sibling being led away by this tiny woman with a big heart.
There have been many comings and goings since then. My sister never fails to cry. And she never fails to text me after I’ve left and ask, ‘Where’s a nun when you need one?’
Once the coach or train has pulled away, or the plane has left the runway, I can put the temporary sadnesses away and look to my immediate future. Only today, I worried that my immediate future might be cut short. The pleasant seeming young man who I was sitting next to had a nervous tic; he kept stamping his foot every few seconds. This was quite annoying – for him too, I should imagine – then it became alarming. Was it a nervous tic? Or was he a shoe bomber trying to set his device off?
By the time we landed at Leeds – Bradford, I’d satisfied myself that it was a nervous tic and relaxed back into my seat. We didn’t have to leave the plane, Mr Stampy and I, we were flying on to Aberdeen so all we had to do was sit and wait for the new intake of passengers. Sit and wait with the bloody plane doors open. Yorkshire was not warm. It was grey, drizzly and miserable – and that was just inside the cabin. Then we had to listen to a radio station called Flybe Unplugged. Now that was just plain cruel.
I lost sight of Stampy at Dyce Airport where I joined my flight to Lerwick. The weather was getting grimmer and the planes were getting smaller the further north I went but it was a pleasant flight and a party of English folk on their first visit to the Shetlands filled the cabin with their excitement.
It wasn’t until we’d landed and I made my way into the arrivals hall that I discovered that someone was meeting me. Me and two others who had flown up from the West country on the same flights to join the same ship… At least we did finally meet, I suppose. Even if it was at the far end of the journey.
The beautiful, treeless, grey-green landscape hunched its shoulders against the horizontal rain as we sped towards Lerwick and our new home. My two new shipmates chatted away in the back seat and I stared out at a land I haven’t visited for about ten years, until the blue and white countenance of our ship rose before us and the taxi came to a halt on the quayside.
Faces passed before me. Some spoke. I didn’t take in all the names – I’ll get that right tomorrow – and then my kit bag and I arrived in my cabin.
It’s a nice cabin, very nice and better than I’ve been used to for some years but alone at last, with the door closed, I felt rather lost. This is the point when I feel sad and lonely. It passes, it’s just the nature of my job, but it’s not a nice feeling. To lift my spirits, I crossed to the window and pulled back the curtain. I looked out at Lerwick harbour with its huge sky and its encircling countryside. I looked down at the water. A seal broke the surface and looked up at the ship. That’ll do, I thought. That’ll do.