“We’ll have to pedal that bugger!” says a Lancastrian gesturing towards our compact plane as we idle in the airport gate holding pen. His phone rings. It is The Wife, as I imagine he calls her. Their septic tank is overflowing. “Well what the bloody hell do you want me to do from here?” he asks, not unreasonably.
We shuffle and fold onto the plane and pulp ourselves into our seats. Every time the plump woman in front exhales, her seat scrapes my knees. Behind me, an old lady in jogging bottoms launches into a programme of stretches aimed, I suppose, at preventing DVT. I feel like I am trapped inside an accordion.
I look around. There are pretty girls returning to Shetland with glossy carrier bags that have string handles, northern wages enjoyed on George Street. There are bulky men in fleeces with company logos on them, and a pair of polite Americans who bless a sneezer seven rows away.
This fleeting community in the clouds seems almost excited each time the air hostess reaches the space by the cockpit and draws closed her small corrugated curtain, before opening it again shortly afterwards. And for my next act…the drinks trolley. When she temporarily retires there is always the pursuit of looking beyond the droplets at what lies beneath. Sea, mainly, it turns out. We sink from the clouds and witness jaggy grey rocks, and fields and hills in Scrabble-lid green. A single road creeps around to remind us of the century.
Sumburgh Airport smells of bleach and is smattered with bored staff cackling and passing time. Our cloud community fragments into oil workers, and the rest of us. They are met by men in yet more logoed fleeces and disappear through a revolving door; we are left waiting an hour for the bus to Lerwick. I sit drinking from a metal pot of tea of the type whose lid you can manipulate with your thumb so it can talk (remember: I have an hour), and I delight in the melancholy of a rural airport. An advert on the wall reads: ‘In London they have Harrod’s. In Shetland we have Harry’s, Shetland’s Department Store’.
By the airport bus stop’s ‘No Waiting’ sign, in silent communion we board the number six. At times, the views are so ridiculously beautiful as to be obscene, all bays of drama and hills of content. At other times, two men in front of me are enthusiastically talking about Warhammer games, and a large malodorous chap in chef’s whites snores off a staff lock-in. Out of the window, Shetland winds blast hanging washing dry. When a litter of schoolchildren board, wind seems to remain in their hair, a breezy aura. We rattle through Okraquoy, Fladdabister, Quarff and Brindister. By Gulberwick, I would not be surprised should a helmeted-Viking board and ask for a single into town.
Passing King Harald Street we spin into Lerwick. On an impromptu feedback board in the bus shelter, comments include ‘shoot the bastards’ and ‘Why are elderly people waiting for buses in the lavatories?’, which sounds philosophical to me. At the harbour lollops a giant ‘boatel’ for oil workers. It is the shape of a fallen milk carton and the size of an abbey. As if it were not incongruous enough among the charming stones and colours of the bay buildings behind, the boatel is painted in black and white stripes, a dystopian CGI zebra.
The boatel means you have to put a little effort into finding a more palatable version of Lerwick. I drift among streets behind the harbour that siphon you up cobbled alleyways called Crooked Lane or Jimmy Col’s Steps. As evening drops it suits their ghostly comeliness. Sitting on a bench eating terrible fish and chips in the mist, it occurs to me that this place is a coloured-in Victorian photograph.
In a hotel bar I glance through a goldfish bowl window into the restaurant area. Thirty or so holidaying pensioners are eating. Nearly all are silent, though the smell of fish is loud. Over a pint I read about the Reverend James Ingram. He built the first Free Kirk in Shetland, I learn, and banned the playing of the fiddle on Unst, the most northerly inhabited island in Britain. In accents which are both speedy and soft, like machine guns shooting popcorn, two locals discuss the majesty of the word ‘peerie’. “It’s better than ‘wee’, and definitely better than ‘small’”, they agree.
The next day I walk to the top of the town. Displayed in a shop window are two funeral notices, for Harry Jamieson, and for Alison Margaret Thompson (Polly). I walk on and look out to sea. As I pause, an old lady very politely begs my attention. She stands while her husband sits behind on a bench. In her hand is an Orangina bottle. “Can you open this, son?”, she asks, “We can’t do it, now.” I look to the man, as if checking I am not undermining him. “Aye. Even Shetlanders go weak at the end”, he says.