Well, how did I get here?
Over the Barents, Sometime in Winter, 1997
'Devyatnoster cheteary sto dvatsat ah-din'. I hear the pilot through the static, maybe it's the co-. It's nice to know I've logged the number correctly. I'm reading it off the Tu-95's tail, 94121. Through one of the few windows in the fuselage of the aircraft I'm flying in. It's his bort number. I could look this kite up in a chaotically organised reference folder and find out where it's based. But I know anyway. I laugh, as I always do, when I read BBC just above the number. The letters are cyrillic: they stand for Voenno-Vozdyshnye Cily – Military Air Force, more or less.
The aircraft is the second of a pair. A report will be sent off and someone will scramble from one of the Scottish bases and see the intruders off somewhere over the North Sea.
And I ask myself if anyone will still be doing this in 20 years time. My job, I mean. The Nato Codename for the massive Soviet plane is 'Bear', it's a Bear F in fact. A great big multi-engined turbo-prop monster that can fly from deep inside Soviet Territory to the UK, carrying who knows what. Well, I know what, actually. Versions of this monster have been flying since the beginning of the Cold War itself. This one carries a cruise missile in its guts. A very deadly Bear indeed.
At my workstation I have scribbled notes for stories, poems and bien pensées, ha ha. There are barely three pages of radio transmissions; all I've got to show for five hours eavesdropping. One day I'll look back on all this and wonder if it was worth it. One day there'll be no 'Bears in the Air' outside of bad films about CB fanatics. Tucked in my flight bag down by my feet there's a copy of Pravda from a few weeks ago. I get it out. The Bear is long gone, we're on opposing headings, after all.
There's a dry article about some apparatchik called Putin being appointed deputy chief of Yeltsin's Presidential staff. This appointment was months ago. It says he had retired as a Lieutenant Colonel, but doesn't give any military service details. Probably ex-KGB. I'm surprised he's not at the FSB. Russia has a long history of changing the names to protect the secret services. From Derzhinsky's Cheka onwards. It's interesting that they bother with this article at all. He's written some academic paper or other. Well, he'll have his work cut out as Bingeing Boris's minder, it's a fact.
I look out of the window into the grey sky. No-one's going to be doing this job in 20 years. I feel a nudge at my elbow. It's the flight engineer with an old-fashioned metal teapot and a stack of paper cups. The tea will taste awful, I don't think the boiler in the galley's been cleaned since Bleriot crossed the channel. Of course, I take it. It's all about fighting the boredom, after all. The Eng points with the spout at Putin's picture then leans down to shout in the vicinity of my headset ear-piece.
'Miserable looking twat!'
The Eng sees me laughing, and figures 'job done'. I see everybody takes a paper cup all the way down to the flight deck.
In the Guadalhorce Valley, April 2014
Outside on the terrace, the sky has few clouds, but the summer's heat has yet to arrive. A neighbour has dropped off a copy of the Daily Mail. I don't like to be rude so I don't turn it down, besides, he says there's something interesting inside. Interesting for me, that is. Flicking through the stories about immigrants, rabid Moslem preachers and property prices in the UK, I stop at a picture of a Russian aircraft. I turn my laptop on, to read the story online. There'll be more pictures.
I look across at the Sierra Chica and its bigger sister, the Sierra Gorda. The hills are still green after winter's rain. The sky is like that of a different planet if you compare it to the grey over near-Arctic waters. A song comes into my head, Talking Heads, David Byrne's frenzied outro to 'Once in a Lifetime,'
'Same as it ever was'.
Someone's still doing that job, somehow, somewhere, 17 years later, so I guess they – or somebody – will be doing it in 3 years time. I'm just glad it's not me.
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