I pulled my Damsted folder out from under the dining table. Dropping it on my desk made a satisfying thud. I was already calculating I could butcher twelve hundred words from its contents. There were hundreds of hand-written notes, photocopied reports, website print-outs, newspaper clippings, the August edition of the magazine containing the article I had written, a programme for the parliament’s closing ceremony, the agenda for the “Environment 2018” and a one page Gala dinner menu the prime minister of Damsted had signed. Twelve hundred words from the existing notes was maybe optimistic. Leafing through the notes two times I couldn’t find what I needed. Finally I took up the bundle and holding it lightly like a baby , I shook it a little. One single flake of white dropped onto the carpet – Bo Sunde’s business card. And then my mobile trilled.
I could see it was Johnny calling again. The fourth time in five weeks? If it was urgent he would have called four times in an hour, or a day. I was guessing it was a low-level crisis – something manageable, that would be annoying and time-consuming to get involved. We had been down that road before and so I let it ring and go to voice mail. He wouldn’t leave a message. He never did.
I was a little hungover. Travelling back to London the night before I found a half bottle of whisky in my computer bag that I forgotten to gift to Bowen at the Arctic station. I drank two large measures quickly and the headache which had been threatening to escalate to a migraine for two days fluttered away, the muscles knotted in my shoulders and neck cautiously unraveled. After another swig I had felt sufficiently relaxed to pull a notebook from my laptop case.
I needed two thousand words and the piece on the Arctic wasn’t coming together. The bloody ice had decided to stop melting for over a year. As environment correspondent I dealt in trends, which was the honest way, while sceptics grasped anomalies. I wasn’t going to fuck up the narrative I had so carefully been constructing over ten years by giving column inches to a freak cold snap. We were arriving in London just inside four hours which meant I only needed to find five hundred words an hour. Looking at it that way it never seemed much. I did my one minute writing test – how many words could I get down.
I wrote, “Peter Stone. Journalist, travelling back to London from a long fortnight in the Arctic Circle. Divorced. Wife remarried. Girlfriend Amanda. Relationship shaky. Two kids. Steven, the eldest works as a voluntary teacher in Sierra Leone and his brother, my youngest, James, is dead.”
Forty-three words in sixty seconds. At that rate I’d have my two thousand words in just fifty minutes and still have three hours and ten minutes editing time before landing. In the end I didn’t write another word on the flight. I closed the notebook and stared out from my window seat, pouring myself one finger of single malt after another.
I was the sole passenger on the flight. There were no stewards and the pilots hadn’t remembered to turn on the cabin lights. Switching off my reading light I could look out into the night without having to shield my eyes.
It was a moonless night, a night so complete that I could only try to discern the horizon by exerting a rudimentary knowledge of geometry and cruise altitude. There were several moments when I thought I had managed it only to be corrected by a star twinkling from where I had imagined the ocean lay. With nothing to see outside I directed my eyes back to my lap and the notebook. It was only by chance that I glanced out again five minutes or so later, and spied an unfamiliar constellation. I sat up and trained my bleary eyes on it as it slipped behind. The little stars were a cluster of street-lamps. Two lines ran parallel to each other and a third dissected them both on a diagonal. At the end of the diagonal were more lights – more than ten, less than twenty, describing a square. Suddenly everything below me was obscured by the black mass of a night-time cloud. I scribbled a quick note.
It was over a year since I and another hundred journalists had been on Damsted to witness the closure of its parliament. It was a surprise to see the streetlamps in the capital Erikstad still burning.
I examined Bo’s business card. It was the sort you can set up and print from a vending machine at airports. Bo’s read simple ‘Bo Sunde, Pilot’ and included a telephone number.
I met Bo outside the conference centre at “Environment 2018” because he was a cigarette smoker like me. He didn’t look like any of the other delegates. Most of them were reporters, politicians and scientists but Bo was clearly a man with a practical job. In his mid-fifties, he had the demeanour of a fixer, of the sort that I had known throughout my career covering stories across the third world – a rugged type with blunt fingers, a weather beaten face and a cheap dark suit over workman’s boots. Giving me a light for my cigarette he asked me if I might like to fly around the island to see it for myself. It cost $300 the hour. I told him I had seen enough. I asked him if business was good and he explained that giving tours wasn’t his actual job. He had been contracted by the authorities to provide an air-link for sundry government business back to Denmark. The tours were just an extra, and unofficial, sideline. Dropping his cigarette on the hotel patio he gave me his card and told me to call if I wanted to fly.
I dialled the number on Bo’s card and midway through the first ring he answered with an impatient ‘yes?’ Describing our first meeting I explained who I was. He didn’t remember. He just wanted to know
“You need a flight there?’
‘Maybe. But first I just need some information.’
‘Information? On what?’
‘On Damsted. Do you know if anyone is still there? Is there anyone on Damsted?’
‘Yes. When do you want to go? What date?’ I heard the click of a pen trigger.
‘I don’t know. I don’t know if I want to go.’
‘Well, when you do, give me a call.’
He hung up. I rang back.
‘I might want a flight. I just need to know who is still there.’
‘I don’t know. I had a list. The flight will be five thousand’
‘Could you send me the list? I’ll make a decision on the flight later.’
He hung up again.
He hadn’t said when he would get back to me. I decided to give him the rest of the morning and in the meantime I could start harvesting words from my Damsted folder. I went online and accessed the August issue from 2016 and my original article covering my first visit there. Printing it out I highlighted all two hundred and fifty words of the first paragraph and sat back, pleased with my abrupt and significant advance. I would maybe make deadline after all.