Benjamin Shaw, Aberdeen Quayside, 2003, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
The man I was meeting worked on the Brent Field. He was a kind of Typhoid Mary, having worked on the site of several accidents, always escaping unscathed. He was staying in a large, anonymous hotel behind Holburn Junction. The lobby was a columnar space several floors high. Its windows were covered in a kind of mesh, which muted the daylight and cast everything in a cool, neutral gloom. I took a booth, upholstered the same indeterminate shade, and waited for him to appear. There was some splashy abstract art on the walls, and a long, curved reception desk at the back of the room. People were moving about in the shadowy recess behind it, like stagehands in the wings of a theater. No one showed any inclination to come out.
The meeting had been arranged by a mutual acquaintance, and this connection, coupled with the blandly corporate look of the building, made me feel as if I were the one being interviewed. After a few minutes, a man stepped out of the elevator. He was small and powerfully built, with red hair and a full red beard. His cheeks were round and rosy, and his teeth pushed against his upper lip, so his mouth didn’t quite close, giving him a look of breathy suspense. He sat down opposite me and rubbed his hands together, in what might have been an expression of anticipation, or an attempt to get warm. The weather was hot and humid, and the air conditioning was turned up high.
“So you’re the writer?” I nodded shyly.
“I’ve often thought I should write a book.”
“You should,” I said. “Why not?”
This was my default response to a statement I heard at least once a day, sometimes more, and the opposite of what I thought. What I really thought was that if people knew how difficult it was, no one would attempt it, that there must be a conspiracy of silence among authors, since this misconception that everyone had a book in them was so widely held. Usually, at this point in the conversation, the person talking about writing would say he didn’t really have the time, I’d agree that it was time consuming, and the subject would be dropped. But this man surprised me, by pushing three cellophane packets across the table. They were three stories from his life, that I could use, or not, as I saw fit. It had taken him several days to write them up, but he’d found the process curiously therapeutic, so in a way, they’d already served their purpose.
“If nothing else,” he said, “they might give you a laugh.”
I thanked him, and tucked them into my bag. I asked where he was going that afternoon. The Brent Charlie, he answered, with a grimace. Two and a half hours in the chopper. Three, in an oncoming wind. If you had the misfortune to be sat next to a big guy—and for some reason, there were a lot of big guys on the Brent Field—you’d spend the flight perched on the edge of the seat. From the Charlie, he’d fly to the Alpha. He was a plumber, and the role was peripatetic, so over the course of one trip he’d work his way around all four platforms.
“Which one’s your favorite?” I said idly. I was thinking out loud, as I did more and more these days, but he surprised me a second time, by treating the question with more seriousness than it deserved.
“Probably the Alpha. It’s small, there’s not so many guys on it, and it’s just been done up. I used to like the Delta. It’s going through decommissioning just now, so the legs will be cut off in six months’ time. And then the Delta will be no more.”
“Which one’s the worst?”
“The Charlie’s got the most people on it, and only a tiny wee gym. The Bravo’s bad for arseholes.”
His voice was low and sleepy, as if lulled by its own susurration. Some of his sentences petered out into nothing. At other times he’d pause, before picking up where he left off.
“The best rig I ever worked on was the Lomond. The atmosphere there was always good. The Tartan was probably the worst. On the Tartan, the cabins had two bunk beds and a cot, for a fifth person. You had three guys on days, two on nights, and one bathroom between the two rooms. Ten people to a bathroom. It was wet the whole time. I’ve worked on the Claymore as well. That’s a disaster of a rig.”
I wondered if his choice of words was deliberate.
“James said you were on Piper Alpha.”
“I was. Only one trip. I was twenty, and very excited to be earning one pound eighty an hour. It was a massive platform, an old rusting bucket, even then. It’s like stepping off a bus, then seeing it go off a cliff. You think, ‘I was on that place and now it’s at the bottom of the sea.’ There but for the grace of God, you know? You read the names, looking for someone you know. My old foreman Jim McCulloch … he was on there.”
He sighed, and looked past me. A waitress had emerged from the back of the room. She was dressed in a drooping dark tunic, and trousers so long they covered her shoes, so she looked as though she was gliding about on casters. She took our order and slid back across the room, towards the desk. Once she was gone, he started talking again.
“There’s a veneer of safety now. But the way a multinational views safety off West Africa is different from the way it views safety in the North Sea. You see pictures of guys welding with cling film wrapped around their eyes. If someone gets injured out there, it won’t make the news, it won’t affect share prices. Or is that too cynical?”
“You’re asking the wrong person.”
He smiled, displaying large, rounded teeth. Many of the men I’d met looked worn out by the physicality of their work, but this man emitted an air of wholesome good health. He must have been in his late forties, at least, to have worked on Piper Alpha, but in the dim light of the lobby, he appeared almost ageless.
“We’ve had a lot of deaths on the Brents over the years. We had the Chinook disaster forty-five people who’d left the Brent Delta. There were two guys killed down the leg of the Brent Bravo. During the last downturn.”
The man explained that oil companies were expected to deliver nominations—specific quantities of oil and gas—to the grid. Failure to do so incurred penalties. But there is a constant tension between production and compliance. Platforms become fatigued over time. Battered by the elements, their structures need continued maintenance. Routine maintenance often puts operations on hold, and during downturns, companies will deploy quick fixes. In 1999, it was alleged that Shell had a protocol known as TFA: “Touch Fuck All.” Permits apparently came with TFA scrawled across them, meaning workers should leave equipment alone, rather than risk a shutdown. Shell commissioned an internal audit, which corroborated the allegations and recommended immediate intervention. But the auditor was transferred, and the report did not surface again until 2006, shortly before a fatal accident inquiry into the Brent Bravo deaths.
One day, the man said, two workers were sent to the bottom of the Bravo’s leg to investigate a leaking pipe. At that point, there were many leaking pipes on the platform. Many grazes and abrasions in its fabric. The bottom of the leg was a stinking, horrible place. Poorly lit and dank. The men had to stand on a metal grate above a stagnant pool of bilge and patch the leak up with a piece of neoprene and a hose clamp. What they didn’t know was that the clear, scentless substance leaking from the pipe was liquid hydrocarbon, which is deadly when inhaled. As it hit the grating below it began to evaporate, swelling back around them in a doughnut cloud.
The alarms activated and the valves designed to divert gas away from the plant and up toward the flare meant to burn it off kicked into gear. All except one, which failed. The system hadn’t been tested for a while. To test is to touch. The men tried to make it up the stairs but they were too far down. They were asphyxiated in minutes.
Shell pleaded guilty to safety lapses and was fined £900,000, a little less than it earned in an hour.
The man paused and looked out toward the street. People were walking past, pale silhouettes against the mesh. The traffic at Holburn Junction was a faint hum.
“There was another one,” he said. “A few years back now. On the Delta. A man filled his pockets with tools and jumped off the side.”
I stared. My mouth hung open in sympathy with his.
“I’ve heard that story so many times. I assumed it was an urban myth.”
“Oh no. It really did happen. I saw him half an hour before. I passed him in the corridor and said, ‘All right Jimmy, how you doing?’ He never took me on, just walked right past. I didn’t think anything of it. Then they started putting calls out over the loudspeaker, asking him to report to heli admin. I said, ‘Maybe he’s jumped off the platform.’ As a joke, you know? Can you imagine how I felt afterwards? When the alarms went off: ‘Man Missing.’ Then the story came out. He was very money-orientated. He worked a lot of overtime. This is only what I’ve heard, mind. But he was the tightest guy in the world. Money was king. I think that played a part in it. His wife was leaving him, and she was going to get the house. It drove him mad. Perhaps he thought that with killing himself, she wouldn’t get anything. Insurance doesn’t pay out for suicide.”
“Divorce does funny things to people.”
“Aye.” He moved back in his seat to make space for the waitress, as she set our drinks down. “That it does.”
Tabitha Lasley was a journalist for ten years. She has lived in London, Johannesburg, and Aberdeen. Sea State is her first book.
From Sea State by Tabitha Lasley published by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins. Copyright © 2021 by Tabitha Lasley.
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