‘Pressure turns carbon into diamonds; given enough time anything can happen.’
In the Shadow of Piper Alpha
By Iain Maloney
Published by Tippermuir Books
Incheon Airport, Republic of Korea, June 2013
I need to run.
The ground beneath my feet, granite hardness, taut muscles stretching out, flexing and tiring before the next flight, eleven hours of stasis, the world circling below, night and day passing. Already the fatigue like mercury in my veins. My hand against the shower wall, I grabbed an ankle and pulled, feeling the strain in my thigh. Maybe I could run through the terminal, run against the travelators, run from gate to gate tracing the outline of the airport. The urge like electricity. Run.
Maybe not. With terrorism and whatever’s going on with the North, someone running could be a threat. The firepower on display. How did people ever get used to being around guns? I asked Ash, she’s American, she should know.
‘You rationalise it, Carrie. You push it aside, try not to think about it. Humans can get used to almost anything given enough time. Given enough pressure.’
Pressure turns carbon into diamonds; given enough time anything can happen.
She was dozing in the lounge. She could sleep anywhere and in Seoul they made you comfortable. Each time I came through Incheon I thought about moving to South Korea. I loved Seoul, loved the food, Seoul food. I could live on samgyetang chicken every day for the rest of my life, but I could never leave our home in Hawaii, the house I shared with Ash, the view of the sea from the front, the mountains at the back. For the first time in years I had a home, a fixed centre even when I was in Japan, in the Philippines, in Chile doing my research, when Ash was in New York. There was always a conference, an invitation, a seismic event. Jetsetters, both of us. But Hawaii was our heart. Where we met. Where we fell in love.
Take this time. She’d been in Hawaii, I’d been on Aogashima, a volcanic island south of Japan. So we met in Tokyo, her direct, me by taxi, boat, aeroplane, my suitcase snaking behind me on a broken wheel, then onto Incheon, Amsterdam then Aberdeen. Scotland. Home.
From Hawaii to Scotland, every way is the long way round.
I wrapped up in a fluffy white towel, fabric-conditioned into cloudlike softness, and towelled my short red hair, pulled on cargo pants and a strappy top, gave my hair a quick muss with mousse, spiking it loosely, dumped the wet towels in the basket and swung my new backpack into place. It didn’t sit right, too high up my back, the straps too narrow.
It was a birthday present from Ash and I didn’t like it. I hadn’t been ready to call time on the last one, a khaki canvas bag I’d had since I was a PhD student in Durham sixteen or so years before, a present from a girlfriend, Anna. It was stained and smelled of rot and damp, the stitching frayed, but it had circumnavigated the Pacific Ring of Fire, scaled active peaks, been buried in ash and was once stolen by a boy on the back of a motorbike in Vietnam before being dumped minus valuables in a puddle. We’d been through a lot together and when Ash presented me with this new backpack…over the years I’ve become good at suppressing emotions.
She gave me a sleepy smile, ‘Hi.’ Her long auburn-tinted hair was all scuffed around by the chair. I loved it when she was relaxed and scruffy, when sleep brought her to my level of grooming. She was my first partner of either sex whose fashion sense wasn’t some variation of ‘grunge’ or ‘nerd’. She was a lawyer, expensive suits and salon hair. Me the scientist, practical hair, tomboy clothes. Somehow we worked.
‘It’ll be fine.’
‘I swore I’d never go back.’
‘You swear too much.’ She sat up and lifted an eyelash off my cheek. I blew it and wished. Kissed her, the scent of her, coconut.
‘Let’s find our gate.’
Ash would be asleep before we crossed Chinese airspace. She viewed sleep like an accountant views money: profit and loss. Long-haul was her way of making up the deficit. Some parts of life are worth sleeping through, she’d say.
I can’t sleep on planes so I had prepared ahead, my backpack full of work- related good intentions. Papers to read, marking, draft correspondence, funding applications. One thing they never tell you when you start out in academia: for every rung on the ladder you climb, the level of correspondence doubles. I spent more time writing unfortunately at this time…than I did talking to my PhD students. I padded down the aisle, slipped my laptop and folders into the seat pocket, wrote a post-it to-do list and thought how much more organised my life would be by the time we landed.
They closed the shutters and turned the lights off, like it was nap time. In the window seat, Ash took a Valium with her wine and closed her eyes. The aisle seat was taken by a middle-aged Japanese man who plugged in his iPhone headset and also fell asleep, little trills of maybe Schubert counterpointing the thrum of the engines.
The carbonara sauce sitting badly in my stomach, not mixing well with the coffee, I opened two files on my laptop. The first was my paper for the conference at the University of Aberdeen. The paper was fine and if it were to be delivered anywhere else I wouldn’t even look at it again. Aberdeen was where I’d been an undergraduate, where the oil industry was everything and the oil industry reps, many of whom would be in the audience, would be asking questions, hostile, loaded questions, about my conclusions.
This wasn’t an average conference. This wasn’t an average paper.
Aberdeen was where I grew up. Where my father was.
In the Shadow of Piper Alpha by Iain Maloney is published by Tippermuir Books, priced £9.99.