Long Distance Land Surveying

Student life in the eighties was hard.

When I was studying in London, attempting to balance a new found love for booze with my land survey degree, I always felt like I was forever digging myself out of a hole.

I was one of the last lucky few students who got away with a free University education. Like many of my fellow blessed students, we were the first of our family to attend University. We’d already made our parents proud by grasping hold onto a degree, but graduation was just around the corner and we needed to produce results that would guarantee us a job in the challenging financial times we were about to head into.

Long days were often spent outside, learning the ropes from tired looking professionals who already had enough to worry about without having to teach hungover students for half a day. On one of these particularly gruelling days I found myself in the front of a Ford Transit with Ian – a land surveyor of 20 years who had a reputation for taking the most remote jobs possible.

I’d drank a lot the night before meeting Ian in a frosty car park outside of Sidcup. It was a Friday morning, my brain was clawing to break out of my skull and all I could think about was making it through this day and getting to the weekend. The bags under Ian’s eyes looked deeper than they usually did, each deep saggy pouch was flecked with blue veins making me wonder if he hadn’t been out drinking himself.

“You look awful – best get some sleep in the van, we’ve got a long way to go.”

I didn’t need telling twice.

The van journey slipped by in a comfortable haze of dusty car heating, drive-time radio and husky murmurs from Ian.

When I woke, it was cold in the van. The driver’s side door was open, letting a harsh breeze in that blew fragments of snow into the cabin with me. Ian’s theodolite sat next to me on the middle seat, along with his high-vis jacket, but the man was nowhere to be seen. I grabbed his things and jumped out of the cabin, thinking that he must’ve gone ahead without me and found myself on the edge of a wooded glen in a deserted car park with wood chips on the floor.

He’d not said we were coming out so far and I was struggling to remember where we were even going. A single path led away from the car park into the dark of the forest – with no other options, no mobile phone and no keys for the van, I picked up the gear we needed to do the topographical land surveys and heading into the darkness.

Ian had never struck me as the skittish type, a little dopey, but never the type to simply run off without a word. However, the further I delved into the forest the more I started to doubt myself.

I found the van keys at the end of the path, precariously balanced on a cairn in front of cave. Very little light managed to penetrate through the forest, the darkness from the cave almost felt like it was spilling out from that foreboding hole.

I’d already climbed out of enough holes that year and I wasn’t about to jump into another one.

Sometimes, when I find myself driving to a particularly remote job, I think about Ian and how deep that cave must’ve been to¬† swallow him, then I shake of that nagging feeling of regret and remember that I was one of the lucky ones who didn’t have to pay for his degree.