1. The Cage

sea smoke

Steam and fog over the sea formed by very cold air moving over warmer water,
typically in the Antarctic in spring, when sea-ice is thinning or disappearing, but
land temperatures remain low.

March, 2008. Before the cold, the heat. I am back in the cage. Officers sit at picnic tables. I eavesdrop on their tight-lipped conversations, spiked with words like deployment and operations. While the officers sit in their neat pressed chinos and designer shirts, the squaddies stand around in boisterous groups, arms crossed over their chests. I see paunches, tattoos, outdoor-rugged footwear, and a high bald head count.

We are all listless. We read magazines, or stare at some gadget or other, try to get signals on our mobile phones, even though we know there is no signal on Ascension Island.

I’ve joined the Army again, although I can’t remember enlisting. Ascension is a military airstrip, so any rules governing civil aviation and passenger’s rights can be smoothly cancelled. While the aircraft is refuelled we are all locked under guard in “the cage”—as everyone refers to this half-indoor departure lounge, half-outdoors picnic area, shaded by a corrugated tin roof and sealed with wire fencing.

A sign says Photography Prohibited, so I immediately take a few of the unmarked aircraft on the tarmac (there is no proof that renditions flights have landed on Ascension, but it isn’t completely beyond the pale—only the US and British military really know what happens here): murkily incriminating images that look like they belong on the Amnesty
International website.

Ascension would seem to have nothing to do with ice, located as it is nearly eight degrees south of the equator, on longitude 14.25 degrees west, a desolate meridian shared only with Dakar, Senegal, Iceland, and Tristan de Cunha. Ascension is not really a place at all, just the tip of an exposed volcano sprouted from the volatile seafloor of the mid-Atlantic ridge. It has no native population; St. Helenans run most of the businesses on the island. Otherwise only US and UK military personnel are allowed here; a few young tanned people in Desert Rat attire (beige shorts, desert boots with white socks) look after the airfield. The island is strategically important to the NASA space shuttle programme as an alternate landing strip, should the shuttle run into trouble and have to abandon its planned touch-down.

Ascension is also part of the quirky commute up and down the planet from the UK to the Falkland Islands and British Antarctic Territory. One of the most isolated islands in the world, it lies almost mid-way between Africa (1,600 km away) and South America (1,400 km). The nearest landfall from Ascension is St. Helena, 1,300 km to the southwest and we
have another 6,000 km to fly to the Falklands. As I sit in The Cage that March morning, I’m not sure these distances mean anything at all—they are just numbers. We are only very, very far away from anywhere else.