It’s late April, 1980 BE.* *Before Email
I’m in an office in London, not far from the Houses of Parliament. Listening for the stutter of an incoming telex.
Sending a telex is quite a skill, especially correcting mistakes. And I’m not very good at it.
A person types a message into a machine. In this case, a person in Boston, USA. Force is needed, the keys being stubborn.
The machine turns words into holes in a thin paper tape. The tape’s fed through a machine that converts the holes into signals.
The signals swim through submarine cables across the Atlantic.
A machine in London turns the signals back into words. And prints them on paper.
I’ve been travelling a lot for this job over the last year or so.
Every day I can choose from an array of duty-free perfumes. Some still unopened.
In the only shared social space of our north London flat – the kitchen – there’s a cupboard of duty-free bottles of booze. Gin and whisky, Cointreau and Benedictine, bought in airports while waiting for planes back home.
But, despite the cheap booze, travelling hasn’t helped my social life.
‘What’ve you been up to,’ friends say, when I find the time to see them (I often have to cancel because my work’s so unpredictable).
I don’t tell them any more.
If I tell them the truth – where I’ve been, for example – they put on, ‘here we go again, “I’ve been jet-setting all over the place,” she’s such a show-off,’ faces.
You see, no-one else is going anywhere. None of them travel abroad for their work. A train trip to a Manchester branch office is about as exotic as it gets. A holiday in Europe, if they’re lucky.
But I can’t help it, it’s my job.
And it’s all a big mistake.
You see, the guy who should’ve been flying around visiting digital telephone exchanges, driving French army tank simulators and taking notes in fibre optic cable factories – the man who hired me – he left one Friday afternoon and never came back.
I started the following Monday. Now I’m all that our Boston HQ has to keep the London editorial function going. And believe me, it’s not enough.
A history graduate, a rubbish one at that, the sole European conduit for news about telecommunications and defence?
But here I am, faute de mieux, (my French is improving), passport in handbag, as always, just in case.
And this time, there’s a really big trip on the cards. Three weeks in the southern hemisphere. Which is why I’m on edge, waiting for that telex, anxious, because for once I really want to go.
A colleague (let’s call her Sandra), who works on the exhibition side of things, has already gone. She’s en route, in Boston.
Yesterday the tension got the better of me. I braved the telex beast.
‘To fly or not to fly?’ I thumped out in dots on the tape. ‘That is my question.’
And now, the machine is chattering out the reply.
The message is simple and, as it turns out, somewhat prophetic:
‘Start packing, you’re going to suffer the slings and arrows along with the rest of us!’
It’s unnaturally chilly in London for April. I travel in a raincoat, wearing knee-length boots and a scarf.
Boston, too, is a little on the fresh side. But I’m not staying long and soon I’m on the first of two more flights.
As we stroll through Miami airport, my companion, a plump man of Middle Eastern origin, hands perennially flicking through worry beads (and who blagged us up to first class on the way here) chuckles.
‘Have you noticed people staring at you?’
It’s not my looks, it’s the raincoat. And the boots.
It’s warm, not to say hot, here in Miami.
I’ve put the scarf in my bag.
We board our second flight. Anxiety overriding my embarrassment.
My companion had already told me how many flights you need to have taken take before your risk of dying in a crash goes way up (congratulate me, I’m there!).
Now he tells me Caracas, the next stop on our route, is one of the most dangerous airports in the world. A shelf with a huge drop if you overshoot the runway.
We land. I keep my eyes shut. We take off. I keep my eyes shut.
I live to tell the tale.
As we approach Rio my calves are trying to fight their way out of my boots. By the time we’re in the airport I wonder if I’m going to have to cut them off.
But I don’t.
Soon I’m unpacking in the room I’m going to ‘share’ with Sandra.
The illusion of Sandra.
Because it’s now as clear as the mud coming out of the shower head, that my presence here has less to do with my superior conference organising capabilities than my mute loyalty to Sandra. Who, it seems, is really rather fond of my travelling companion.
Next: my conference organising capabilities are stretched to breaking point.
My feet turn purple.
And Sandra saves my bacon, big time …
And if you want a bit of amazement from 1933 here’s some ‘wing dancing’ (the planes are real that’s all I’ll say)