Part of the job role as a Station Support Assistant is to do two weeks of night shifts. Two weeks of nights, followed by three weeks of days. A night shift starts at 10pm and finishes at 7am. It involves three rounds of checks – making sure that nothing is flooded, nothing is on fire, that the generators are running, and that certain science stuff is going to plan (including checking the temperature of the freezers containing thousand year old ice cores, & waking up the sparky if there’s a problem). There’s also a 15 minute listening watch in the Ops tower at 12pm, 3am, and 6am – these are the designated times for field parties to contact the station should they need. In between those checks there is cleaning to do, some random jobs, and usually a bit of fun. Describing it as a night shift at this time of year is slightly misleading though; in an Antarctic summer it never gets dark. I’d often go out for a run, sometimes around 2am and it would still be perfectly light. In many ways it’s the best shift to see the changing colours of the sky, and because there are only ever two others working it can feel like you’ve got the place entirely to yourself. The stillness, the storms, the thinning of that layer which often makes us feel detached from the natural world. These are some of the moments I’ll never forget, but they are also the moments that are the most difficult to define. A wordless beauty; not just concerned with how things appear, but how they actually are, and how they make you feel.
You do begin to crave a little more human interaction though, a little more conversation. I remember sitting around at breakfast at the end of one particular night shift listening enthralled to Ernie telling me the exact dates and times of his last seven dental appointments. Felt like the best thing I’d heard in a long while, and I was having none of it when he said, “how do you know I haven’t just made all of that up?!” I think that working nights might temporarily do something a little bit odd to your mind – either that, or it’s your normal mind but with less restrictions. I’ll often leave notes in peoples offices, and always leave one up in the tower for the Ops team. I’m kind of hoping that these might get archived; classified as Antarctic heritage. One of these notes includes my theory that everything in the world (going right down to neutrinos) is made up from elephant seals and onions. Another documents a dream I’d had after eating some stilton. Vivid dreams are reportedly a thing down here. I’m not sure if there’s a scientific explanation for it – I reckon that we are just more attuned to them as we are not constantly bombarded by the internet and mobile phone stuff. I was up in the Ops tower, and for some reason there were a few other people there as well. They told me about this night watch check that I should be doing, that no one had told me about yet. All I had to do was to open a door and look through it, and when I looked through it I would see the world for the very first time. That pretty much blew my mind – just about the coolest dream I’ve ever had. There’s actually some truth to it though I think; that each time we see the world it is for the first time (because it has changed since last we looked). And in that sense you could argue that it’s getting newer rather than older. Which is all very well for most things, but when it comes to the Dairy Milk recipe and climate change I wish we could go back a bit.
Speaking of vintage Dairy Milk; I did come across a stash of it one night in Fuchs (the Field Guides building), best before 2006. I spent a good few moments just looking at it in awe, and then started to wonder what I could possibly offer in return for a bar. Like for like I suggested a Toblerone, but then I branched out to slightly different ideas. I had the beginnings of a conspiracy theory about elephant seal poo and crop circles which I thought might be of interest, but failing that I added to the bottom of the note that I still have 2 kidneys. The following night there were three blocks of Dairy Milk left out with a message attached; ‘Leave a kidney in the Nido jar.’ I took the chocolate but recognised that I now had a bit of a problem if I was to honour my deal with the field guides. I wondered briefly if there were similarities here to people who sell their soul to the devil, and then realise that they don’t really want to fulfil their end of the bargain. Anyway, I came up with a genius plan and left a return message. ‘Thanks so much! I’m sorry, I might have deceived you about the state of one of my kidneys – but here it is!’ Next to it I sellotaped a cashew nut. There has been no retribution. Yet. Other fun night watch activities included a delayed game of noughts and crosses with Blair on the whiteboard in Fuchs. At least, I thought I was playing against Blair but after a conversation about it, it turns out I was mostly playing against myself. That whiteboard was also used to exchange quotes with Tom L about magic, and to write a suggestion list of words that might help you fall asleep in 20 seconds. There is a guy on station who has apparently trained himself to fall asleep in 20 seconds; I’ve not watched (that would be weird), but I do believe him. You need to block everything out by focusing on just one word. I gave it a good go, but could never decide which word I was using which I suppose defeats the object.
The way the rota pans out means that you work the first week of nights with one person, and the second with another. For me that meant being on shift with Lynsay, and then with Jules. We’d also find ourselves declaring a few folk as honouree night watchers; those who’d often be around for a bit after 10pm and help us out with a few odd jobs. It’s as much the chat and the company that’s the lovely thing; you get a bit of a catch up about what has happened in the day, and it’s always good to start your shift on a positive. Bav is one of the best for this, and also Tom L, both of whom have a late night habit of eating epic sandwiches. Bav is also great at helping out with the kitchen laundry, even if he does steal the oddly satisfying job of untangling all the apron strings. Most night shifts are fairly standard, but every now and then you’d find yourself doing something that definitely wouldn’t be classed as ordinary back home! These things tended to happen when I was on shift with Lynsay; no real reason for that other than perhaps that she’s a little bit mental (in the best of ways). There was the night we tried to move what seemed like a ton of chocolate from one building to another using a plastic sledge. We then had to mount a retrieval operation for all the boxes of Snickers that had fallen off into the snow. On another occasion we were tasked by the Station Leader with a top secret mission – the details of which cannot be disclosed other than to say that it definitely falls into the category of ‘things I didn’t imagine I’d be doing whilst in Antarctica!’