On My Return To the Middle of Nowhere

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Back at the heliport for a trip offshore – the first time since March – it feels like a lifetime ago. The last time there was the pressure of my counterpart from the government regulator looking over my shoulder to deal with, this time the roles are reversed as I am the one asking questions of others. Waiting to be checked in, what strikes me is how empty the terminal looks. Spending one’s days in an office which was only recently re-stacked has somehow shielded me from the reality of just how much more reduced offshore activity has been over the last year.

We go through the usual things – waiting, getting checked in, watching the safety brief and then more waiting – a monotony broken only by the joy of people watching. This time only a few things catch my eye, chief of which is a bit of banter between a group of men and a woman who appear to all be going to the same rig as I am. In sitting amongst them, she almost misses her seat, spilling a bit of her coffee. This leads to her being asked if she is sober. Only later, as I overhear another conversation whilst we’re offshore does that bit of banter make sense; she does have a reputation for being a lively, paint the town red kind of person, one which the latest escapades she regales the group with only cements.

Before all that, there is the small matter of an hour and some of flying time, whilst kitted out in one of these, not exactly the most comfortable of feelings. I do manage to fall asleep during the flight, the rhythmic chugging of the helicopter and having woken up at just past 4.00am all contributing, in my defence. Besides the boiler suit, I get the added ignominy of having to wear a green arm band, this being my first time out to the particular rig since the back end of 2014.

The series of meetings I am offshore for go very well, there being enough time over the course of the three days I am out to catch up with folk I haven’t seen in awhile. These offshore trips can sometimes be an exercise in politicking dealing with people, the overwhelming objectives being to not come across as an onshore boffin who is ramming things down people’s throats without thinking of the impact of the added work. This fine line of balance is never more obvious than when the subject of ongoing pay cuts come up. Word around town is that most of the folk I deal with directly have had to stomach a 22% pay cut over the last eighteen months with a few of the perks being pulled, like the option of an extra bacon roll at morning tea time. Not exactly the stuff morale boosting conversations are made of but I do my best we’re all in this together impression, a truthful one this time because the only reason why I am making slightly more money than this time last year is I have chosen to accept a contribution in lieu of a city centre parking spot.

Running into people I have met on other rigs in the four years and some since I began these trips is a recurring theme on this one. On arrival, I find out that the installation manager is a control room lead operator from a different asset I used to support who has risen through the ranks  – by way of a job elsewhere. The inspection team also includes two people who I have worked with in the past.  As we exchange life jackets ahead of hopping on to the helicopter for the flight out on Thursday, I run into another two folk from a past life. This all leaves me wondering if there is a wider meaning to all of these – have I spent too much time around these parts or is this just an indicator that one has done a good enough job, and stayed long enough to survive the impact of one’s decisions? I suspect it is a little bit of both.

The Weekend Diary – Of Trains and Stolen Things

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I realise the reservation ‘gods’ have dealt me a dubious hand within five minutes of coming aboard the 11.03 to Edinburgh Waverley. That is all the time it takes for me to spot the trio of old geezers parked in the pair of seats immediately to my right and be swarmed by the posse of loud, giggling women who breeze past on their way to the seats they have reserved a few seats behind me. Between them, they kick up a racket whilst the train loads up, from which I overhear that the men are offshore workers returning home – somewhere beyond Edinburgh – after three weeks offshore, and the women are headed to Edinburgh for a hen do.

Across from me, separated by the table I was so keen to get for my laptop, a lone man sits, head phones in, reading a book, a cup of Costa coffee at his side from which he swigs intermittently – between looking quizzically at the developing ruckus and peering into his book. I nod a greeting when I catch his eye and move the bags in the overhead locker to create space for my knapsack from which I extract my laptop and settle in to my seat.

By the time the train begins to roll towards the next stop, Stonehaven, things have quietened down a little, not before the (seemingly) oldest of the trio has offered one of the ladies a swig from his bottle of whisky. She demurs, insisting that 11.15am is a early, even for her, to kick off on whisky. She does drop herself into the seat next to the men for a quick natter – they talk about the football game which Aberdeen apparently won 5-2 on aggregate and she points out the bride to be – the wee lassie with red hair – is how she describes her, pointing.

I keep my gaze fully focused on my laptop screen – a good way to avoid unnecessary conversation I think, given these seem a particularly boisterous lot – and make a few updates to the spreadsheet I had been tinkering with before I left work, only glancing up when a blast of sunshine hits just past Montrose. The view is breathtaking – cliffs, beaches and lush greenery – one of the reasons why train journeys are my preferred mode of getting about in Scotland – and I inwardly congratulate myself on having chosen to take a forward facing, window side seat.

That ruse is not enough to save me from all contact – in the 2 and a quarter hours between Stonehaven and Edinburgh Waverley, I get called brother by the most gregarious of the bunch, get asked what I’m doing on my laptop, get offered a swig of whisky three times and get my head rubbed by him, all far too chummy and matey than I care for – but given the close quarters and the fact that we are cooped together for all that time for better or worse, I shrug it off, choosing to continue with what I am doing than make a big fuss.

Once through the barriers at Edinburgh Waverley, and into the bright sunshine that bathes the surroundings at Edinburgh’s Waverley station, that sense of returning recognition hits me. The last time I was here it was 2012, M was interviewing for a role up in Aberdeen at the time and had been on the phone a lot with me for insights into the personality of the hiring manager and tips to handle the interview. I had slightly more romantic interests. She got the job, my interests – misguided in retrospect –  didn’t quite pan out, to my lingering regret. All that comes rushing back to my mind as I navigate the steps from the station onto Princes Street and on to the test centre where my result sheet is to be amended, the main reason for this trip. That takes all of twenty minutes to complete, leaving me with a load of time on my hands and not even planned to do. I end up at Starbucks, with a large latte and carrot cake to clear my head, charge up my phone and plot my next move.

starbucks

It turns out I’m in luck, it is the final weekend of the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival. Crucially also, one of the Friday night sessions holds at The Jazz Bar which is a few hundred feet from the hostel I have booked for my overnight stay, as is a Nandos and a Tesco between which toiletries and dinner are sorted rather quickly.

The line at the Jazz bar when I arrive at a quarter to eight for an 8pm start is lengthening rapidly. Those who have been smart enough to pre purchase tickets are waved through whilst the rest of us who have left things till late wait to be ushered in in batches of five for standing room only. The band for the day – a Thelonious Monk tribute act of sorts – starts off slow, but eventually get the evening off with a passable if pleasing performance. In the end I enjoy it enough to make a mental note to drag one of my friends to the Blue Lamp when I return home.

I return and promptly fall asleep till woken up by the shrill shriek of the fire alarm at 3.00am. We never quite know what precipitated it but the fire service shows up in full fire fighting mode. An hour later with no real action taken – visible to me at least – we get the all clear and are ushered back in to the building. I fail to fall asleep so I read instead, taking the opportunity to catch up on the book I currently have on the go, the Cheryl Strayed edited The Best American Essays 2013. I find Marcia Aldrich’s The Art of Being Born, Walter Kirn’s Confessions of An Ex-Mormon and William Kelley’s Breeds of America particularly engaging.

Fully awake at 10.0am and checked out of my hostel, I have a wander about Chambers Street, finally settling on a tour of the National Museum of Scotland. Whilst waiting for the start of the free guided tour I have elected to partake in, I fall into conversation with a duo of girls from Spain (where it is apparently 40 degrees C that morning), an old couple from Texas, a father and son from Canada and someone from Alaska. When the tour guide hands out maps, she asks if I’m ok with an English one (there are other languages, apparently). I want to ask her if she’s got one in Yoruba for the heck of it but hold my tongue. That I have my jacket on in 18 degree weather probably has deceived her into thinking I am not from these parts.

The tour is an instructive one, I end up returning to the Millennium Clock, browsing the natural sciences section and coming up close to a stuffed African Elephant and end up in the World Cultures section where I’m particularly intrigued to see a commemorative Oba’s head. That the object sits in a Scottish Museum rather than in its rightful place in an altar in the Oba’s Palace is one of those artefacts of history I suppose – bitter sweet because its being here has probably allowed me see it, and means it will be better preserved than if it was in a Nigerian museum. Stolen goods then or taken for the greater good?

After the museum, there is just enough time to grab a bite at F&B and catch my train for the return trip home. Again the Waverley station is bathed in bright sunlight as I walk back in. Outside, the weather progressively gets worse – as stark a contrast to my outbound one as there could be. I arrive just past 5.30pm, to life and reality, the mist, settling in as we go past Montrose has become a thick, dense fog, like a noose around the sun’s neck that the passage of time as we speed along towards Aberdeen has drawn tighter till it has been extinguished.

Some things are what they are – chief of which is that I am reluctantly coming to accept that for consistently non-grey weather, one must look further south.

About town – Bunnies, Movies and perfecting the art of vanishing

In retrospect, it was the best weekend to have been away from work – but I didn’t know that three weeks ago when on a whim I decided I needed an extended break. It just so happened that Thursday morning, which was my last work day of the week, brought with it the slight irritation of an unwelcome work event that needed a response. That event ended up spawning a response that had burgeoned into a full-fledged emergency of sorts – complete with the mindless, headless running around centred on being visible and being seen to be doing stuff, however pointless – by midmorning on Friday, by which time I was sauntering casually down Links Road, up the beach Esplanade and then unto the Boulevard with the sun on my back, tempered by a cool breeze from the sea and the barely perceptible sound of the waves lapping the shoreline, the sound track to what was a very leisurely stroll.

The feeling was one of peace, of uninterrupted solitude and of at-oneness with nature, a feeling heightened by the rabbits scurrying about in the grass and the birds chirping merrily away. The plan was to amble on in a loop, back up Links road and then homewards, to my 2015 FM2013 AC Milan save, where as the precociously talented AJ McSedge, I was on the fast track to league, cup and champions league double number 3. Finding myself at Cineworld for a breather, with ads for the opening day of Iron Man 3 bang in my face, I made up my mind quickly and decided a pit stop was a no-brainer.

There were only three other people in the queue for tickets, served by just one attendant. Two of them – a pox upon them – had that love lust ravaged look of horny teenagers, seemingly less able to walk straight than keep their hands off each other in what was a very public place at the most unreasonable hour of 11am. The other person, a tall, fairly muscular bloke had on a jacket with splotches of what looked like carpet glue, my best guess being that he was a joiner or handy man of sorts looking to use some downtime to catch Iron Man 3.

It turned out three other people had already settled into their seats in the cinema for a grand total of seven. I found my way to the topmost row, slouched in my assigned chair and proceeded to slowly whittle down my pile of nachos alternated with sips of coke as the endless parade of trailers and ads rolled by before it was time for the movie. Iron Man was ok, the movie that is, when I could focus on watching it without the distraction of mumbling from the two lovebirds who ended up sat within a few feet of me.

In the end, I tacked on lunch at TGI Fridays, copping a seat with a view looking out to the now less sunny, but still miraculously dry, beach front, surrounded by scores of people doing lunch in pairs and threes with my steak, chicken and shrimp combo and an appletizer for company. My leisurely stroll continued after that hearty lunch, completing the loop I’d terminated at Cineworld.

It was nearly 5pm by the time I finally allowed myself to log back in to work email, ostensibly to assure myself nothing life threatening had happened. There were the usual back and forth, pointless work emails.. And one particularly snide one from my verbal sparring partner, sarcastically applauding me for perfecting the art of vanishing…

A big pox upon him!