Thursday, 22 October 2009

The Mystery

It was my mother's birthday yesterday - an ever-youthful and enchanting 55 - and so I popped to Dingwall for the day to wish her well and to witness the ongoing ageing process. In the evening, the family went to Fortrose, where my brother now lives, and feasted in a bar/restaurant called "The Anderson". The food, and I can't overstate this, was excellent, and my starter dish of a savoury bread-and-butter "pudding" was perhaps one of the best starters I've ever had in my life. Complementing the meal was copious amounts of fine real ale, for which The Anderson is noted for its vast selection, and so you may imagine that by the end of the night nobody was entirely sober, except my poor sister who was driving - but as she's unemployed she has to do something worthwhile with her time. My mother had a couple of glasses of champagne and was all over the place.

It was earlier in the day, soon after picking me up from the train station, that my mother told me of her recent mysterious happening. And while myself and my practical and unsuperstitious family rule out supernatural explanations, we can't quite figure out the actual one. There are some possibilities, I suppose, but all seem too unlikely. But as Sherlock Holmes once said, "...when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?" and so no doubt an improbable explanation lurks somewhere.

As I may have mentioned a few times in the last while, my mother this year has embarked upon some fairly significant changes in her life. Mainly, quitting her job as a teacher, after many years of suffering at the hands of children, and selling her home of 25 years and buying a smaller, cosier house, still in Dingwall. It is this new house that is the scene of our mystery. For a few months now, it has been undergoing extensive renovation by my mother's manfriend, Richard. who she's been with for about a year. Richard is extremely handy and capable with a set of handtools, and has filled both a large van and garage with them: the garage he built himself, from scratch. He has installed a new bathroom, heating system, and has basically stripped the entire house back to a shell so as to reconstruct it as a fairytale home for his princess.

And, as we know, every good princess should have a lovely kitchen. The kitchen still has a way to go and is very bare and empty, with only a sink, a makeshift cooker and just the other day an old unit/worktop for basic food preparation. Nothing else at all. It may be a complete red herring, but the old worktop was until recently in the shed, but had originally been in the house before Richard stripped the kitchen back to nothing. As my mother needed somewhere to work, it was taken back into the kitchen.

And so the other day she was at the worktop, making a sandwich or cutting something, just a couple of hours after it had been put back there. And she noticed suddenly, on the bare concrete of the floor, was a small slip of paper. She picked it up, and had to put on her glasses to make out the small print. It was a newspaper cutting, a death notice from the "births, marriages and deaths" section of the local Press & Journal.

It was the death notice of my father, from ten years ago.

Needless to say, my mother was rather startled. Not upset or anything, but a little surprised, and wondering where on earth this cutting had come from. From the reverse of it, it was clear it was from the Aberdeen edition of the Press & Journal too, not the Highland edition Dingwall sells. My mother has her own cutting of the notice, but it's in a known location, from a Highland edition, and cut neatly whereas this cutting was a little haphazard. The slip of paper was in good condition, not faded or worn.

As the only change in the kitchen had been the introduction of the worktop, it has been put under most scrutiny. But nothing from that angle makes any sense. Perhaps the cutting had been stuck in a corner of the worktop and happened to flutter out, but there was no obvious corner for it to be stuck in, and it seems more likely it would have fluttered out when the worktop was originally ripped out and taken to the shed. But assuming it had been the case, why would the previous occupant of the house - an elderly woman who died this year in a nursing home - have had a cutting of a death notice of a man she didn't or barely knew (as my father was well-known in the community she surely knew he was, but they didn't know each other per se)? Perhaps, it has been suggested, she kept lots of such cuttings, and it just happened to be my father's that got wedged in the worktop... but all this leads to quite fantastic coincidence and seems too improbable, especially given it was an Aberdeen edition it was taken from.

So the worktop might be a red herring completely, in which case somebody else has knowingly or unknowingly left the cutting there. My mother has spoken to everyone who has been in the house recently, but all deny knowledge and seem as surprised as she is. For someone to have knowingly left the cutting there would seem very strange - it would be a vaguely sinister act, and my mother is far too pleasant a woman to have enemies, least of all anybody who has been in her house. So that would mean it had been left there unknowingly. Perhaps someone had the cutting in their wallet or purse and it had fallen out onto the floor. But it's a strange thing to keep in your wallet (a photo maybe, but not the death notice) and was in too good a condition to have been carried about regularly. And as I say, nobody my mother has spoken to has any idea where it came from.

My mother laughed at the suggestion of it being a "message from the grave", saying my father would never be so cryptic. Sherlock Holmes would eliminate this impossibility, and so it's being treated as a curious mystery to be solved, but so far all real-world solutions seem very unlikely. I think the level of coincidence of it being from the previous owner of the house is simply too great, and so I have to believe it's from someone who knows my mother. But then... how, and why?

Sherlock would surely figure it out, and perhaps the wise readers of this blog too, but I've obviously a bit too much of the Dr Watson about me and am a little mystified.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Eric the Charity Dog

Look at this fellow, just a little bit outside of Marks and Spencers:

Ok, I know that's not really the best of photos. I'm not quite sure what my phone camera was up to. Let's try again, taken from a different angle (I'd make a terrific spy):

Can you see him? Here:

It seems you'll have to trust me on this, but he's a pleasant seeming fellow, honest and tries hard, but perhaps endures more than his fair share of ill luck. Yes, he's a little hapless. And he also happens to be one of these charity guys, who pounce upon you with colossal grins during high street shopping and use numerous forms of trickery to get you to pay £10 or £50 or whatever per month to some bunch of deserving unfortunates (or the homeless), and take a healthy commission.

As many of you may know, I'm not by nature an overwhelmingly sympathetic person, especially to these very irritating faux-charity grinners (and especially not to the homeless). But in the last couple of days, I've been feeling a little sorry for this fellow.

I'm a man of vast amounts of free time: my employers haven't forgotten about me but seem to not trust me on oil rigs these days so instead send me away on mini boat trips. This suits me fine, and I get to fill my free time with idle pursuits and routines, including pacing about my enormous flat, striking snooker balls with great force, wearing a selection of housecoats (five new bought in Edinburgh a few weeks ago), reading weighty tomes and melting candles on my coffee table. And also, daily strolls to Marks and Spencers at 11.50am to buy a chicken wrap and Belgian chocolate milk drink for my lunch.

This week, each lunch-time amble, I have seen this chap, let's call him Eric, looking a pained mixture of desperate and forlorn in the square outside Marks and Spencer. It's like watching an eager dog looking for a friend, and the sad look in his eyes when the world refuses to befriend him. While Eric's two colleagues, a squat dude with dreadlocks and one of a variety of "wacky" (but pretty) females, seem to successfully attach themselves to a series of shoppers, and bounce, chat, grin and laugh maniacally with them, poor Eric is alone. They are the fine pedigrees - Eric is the rancid mongrel. And nobody wants a scraggy, mangy, dirty dog.

But Eric isn't a bad dog; no. It's his very niceness that is his undoing. He doesn't grin, he just smiles nicely. While his colleagues force themselves upon others, like roaring hyenas on prey, Eric smiles politely, steps nervously towards a shopper, and accepts with grace when they ignore him or just shake their head. Then Eric looks down, looks sad, loses another piece of the essence of his being, before quickly bucking himself up, looking up, and stepping nervously towards another uncaring civilian.

And it's heartbreaking. I've seen him every day for three days, when both entering and leaving Marks and Spencers, and the frequent other times I pass by the square, only minutes from my flat. Perhaps that's twelve times in the last three days. And each day, Eric is alone, or being spurned, or today managed to have some very short conversations with a couple of people - but just old ladies who'll speak to anybody, until they realise they may have to part with their money.

I think a significant reason Eric has managed to tweak the usually inflexible strings of my heart is because his forlorn hopelessness in a job he is obviously unsuited to reminds me of myself. No, not in my job now, which makes me blush with joy every time I think of it, but in a godawful job I had many years ago. I've had a number of really terrible jobs in my time, such as working behind a safety-grill in a Haddows in Northfield, collecting glasses in the internationally-condemned Amadeus nightclub 10pm-3am Thursday to Sunday, and washing dishes in a place called Girvans in Inverness, with idiot chefs who enjoyed country music - but the very worst was with a company called Universal Energy.

Universal Energy deftly pounced on me one day when I was in the job centre. With promises of vast fortunes to be made, and remarkable incentives for those capable, I was caught like a greedy fish on a hook, or a 13-year-old groomed via the internet. With a host of other young males, I went on a three-day course in a glorious country mansion, enjoying free food and yet more promises of everlasting success. Only slight niggle at the back of my mind - what did the actual job entail?

It was door-to-door sales, trying to convert non-Hydro Electric customers back to using Hydro Electric. Maybe it would save the customers money, but only a matter of pounds each year. That was glossed over, of course. I was chucked out into some grim outskirt of Aberdeen, with a gigantic list of addresses to visit and hassle, and with a well-rehearsed conman routine ready.

For it was sheer trickery. To go to doors and ask people upfront to change their electricity company just doesn't work. It's not a good sales technique. Instead I had to masquerade as a kind of meter-reader, with a torch and clipboard, and a smooth patter to enable myself to get a foot in the door. Then, still under pretence of being "official", I would have to seem concerned about the reading, and then explain how by converting to Hydro Electric they could be making all kinds of savings.

I very quickly realised that I'm not a good salesman, and that the job was an absolutely miserable way to make a living. Stranded in the suburbs with nowhere to go but your next house, your next attempted con followed by rejection, and with hours and hours stretching ahead, it was awful, and completely exhausting. I only made one sale in two days, but many times got into people's homes. It was only then, when I'd gone through my patter, perhaps by now with a cup of tea in my hand, and brought out the papers to sign, including the direct debit section, did it dawn on my hosts quite why I was really there. I can remember the looks of their faces, and the many (mostly polite) excuses they made to quickly get rid of me.

Two incidents remain vivid. The first was during the first morning of on-field training, accompanying a guy called Alan, who was experienced and one of the best. He managed his way into the home of an old lady, everything was very friendly, and he'd totally fooled her into believing he was doing her a massive favour by getting her to sign these papers. But before she signed them, she'd have to check with her husband, she said, and he was out for the morning. Alan wasn't wanting to accept this, and his mood soured, and his attempts became more aggressive, and the lady - in her 80s and fairly frail - obviously wasn't comfortable. She didn't sign, fortunately, but Alan was clearly very annoyed, and insisted he would be round the next day when her husband was back (he didn't). It was very unpleasant.

The other occasion was alone, and into someone's home with the usual patter of lies. The chap, in his 40s or 50s, was very friendly, and had a very disabled son with Down's syndrome. He went upstairs to get something, leaving me with the son, who couldn't talk, for a few minutes. I attemped small talk anyway. When the father came down, he showed me something, his recent electricity bill I think, and I did my pretend ummering and erring and moved onto the subject of how he might be able to save some money, as I took out some papers. The penny immediately dropped with the guy, as he realised I wasn't a real guy from the electricity board, I was just a salesman. His face hardened, and he was visibly furious, absolutely furious. "Get out" he said bluntly. I hesitated, and he said again, "Get out, now."

The true salesman, in cold sales at any rate, has to be able to plough through life and its potential customers without pause for reflection, and certainly not regret or pity. I realised very soon into this job that I was never destined for sales, and especially not door-to-door with an electricity company, and quit on my third day and went back to doing dishes. A dirty dish never looked so welcome. And so when I see Eric, trying his best in a job he's clearly unsuited for, seeing his pathetic eagerness in the face of an uncaring public he's on commission to hassle, and knowing exactly how he's feeling as his very soul is slowly evaporating, I do indeed feel very, very sorry for him.

And feel very, very relieved that these days I can drink coffee on a boat for a living, and studiously avoid people like Eric during my free time at home.

Sunday, 11 October 2009


Tip for the day: when drunk, do not take a plastic cup full of vegetable curry to bed with you.

Monday, 5 October 2009


I am on the Vanguard.

That is, the Caledonian Vanguard, somewhere west of Shetland, bobbing up and down not quite as violently as the last few days, but still enough to send me careering high speed down a corridor and into a wall if I neglect to remember my surroundings.

I've been here since Wednesday, when I strode manfully on to this large stand-by safety vessel on yet another "data" mission. This is one of these jobs where, in essence, I chuck a big lump of metal into a random point in the sea, and then make some prayers. If these prayers are heard, I will not only have located the correct location, via GPS, in a seemingly infinite stretch of waves, but my sonar will be speaking to another sonar 500m underwater. I'm a deeply irreligious man, as you may know, but my prayers often seem to be answered, so I can only imagine that God thinks I'm "pretty",

The boat I'm on, the Vanguard, is actually rather nice. My experience of these kind of vessels might not be authoritive, but I've been on enough to know that I don't fancy being a regular seafarer. My usual experience is of relatively clean ships, with friendly enough crews, and surprisingly good food, but always there's an absolute lack of contact with the outside world. Save perhaps a satellite phone, communication is nil - no TV, no regular phone, no internet. You have the sense you could sail back into a post-apocalyptic land and say "Oh, when did that happen?" Cut-off from the normal world may seem quite appealing if, say, you're alone on a lovely island with a long-limbed lady, but on a battered boat with some brusque and burly gentlemen the appeal is not so great.

But this boat is set up for TV and internet, so I've been able to watch the football, the news, and flick through the six channels wondering why nothing is on. The internet means I'm still in touch with all my beloveds, and that work can repeatedly contact with me yet more demands and stern orders... it's ok, I can just pretend the connection is "down" again.

I also have a one-man room, which is a luxury never before experienced in my three plus years of oilfield experience. As you can no doubt imagine, I have been spending a considerable amount of time fully naked. Yes, fully.

The crew of the boat are a mixture of either slightly depressed/autistic or Rangers supporters, but are not entirely hostile and have been perfectly helpful and cooperative. The captain is great though. A pleasant and well-spoken English gent, it seems as though he should be sailing a small yacht with his delightful wife and has just somehow strayed onto this big boat. He's been ever so friendly and eager to make sure our stay is comfortable, and is a most genial host, but I can't help but feel it's a great shame he's not quietly enjoying a Mediterranean sunset at sea with a glass of wine, because on this big muscular supply vessel he seems awfully confused. He wanders about with a cup of tea, swaying masterfully with the boat's rocking, and seems rather baffled about what's going on. I don't doubt his ability on the sea, and would trust him implicity with our yacht should I be his wife, but his grasp of anything resembling modern technology leaves him stranded. Even - or perhaps especially - email. A simple request for him to email the nearby FPSO (a kind of rig) for a Permit to Work (required for our sonar stuff) became a jumbled world of complexity. I would compare it to trying to explain to my grandfather how to operate a computer, except my grandfather is quite good at computers these days. "How do I send this thing?" or "Where did that file save to?" followed by a ten minute trawl through folders looking for a file, the name of which he's forgotten. Or the most ponderous possible scrolling up and down looking for an email sent two days prior, or the horrors of watching him trying to send an attachment. In one sense, it's quaintly charming, in another it's tear-your-hair-out frustrating, especially when it delays your time-limited work by an hour-and-a-half.

It also becomes somewhat concerning when you watch three other crew members gather round to show him how to operate a console that sets the ship's location, and he keeps exclaiming "Oh!" while pressing the wrong thing.

Nevertheless, on Friday and Saturday, our allocated days of work, we correctly got on location and, after a small delay, were able to commence work. When I say "we" I mean myself and my colleague, known here and elsewhere as The Mud Shark. The Mud Shark is not a typical colleague in the sense of some "youth" I've got to order about and discipline, and teach spanner grips or how to photoshop a nice pressure graph; no, The Mud Shark is a very experienced software engineer who designed most of the stuff we run, and was also the first ever employee of the company! Crikey. So I could trust him with all the fancy computer stuff, while I dealt with the seas, tightened a few nuts and bolts, and wrestled with the crew.

The details of the next 36 hours have been saved for the official report and job log, which you must trust me doesn't belong on a jaunty blog such as this, but featured toils, tribulations, but ultimately was successful enough. Initially, weather conditions were gentle, but getting the actual data was troublesome and took all kinds of tricks and shenanigans to acquire. By Friday night, the weather was picking up and by Saturday morning the boat was a-rocking all over the place, with crazy waves, and 50 knot winds (I don't know mow much a knot is exactly, but 50 of them are lots). The boat was straining to stay in position but our little 20kg sonar held out impressively, though I was in constant fear of a wire snapping and it being lost forever. One costs about £20,000 - that's almost a month's wage!

Eventually, and after getting to radio the nearby FPSO to demand they "turn off the gas lift - NOW", we started getting lots of lovely data, all of it in fact, and just before the Vanguard actually turned over and sank, we got everything set and were able to move from location. In howling winds and waves, the sonar was retrieved, and I was able to sleep for fitfully for almost 12 hours straight.

And since then, it's just been life at sea and life at leisure. The work is done, so now I'm just waiting to go home. The boat has a few little weather-dependent jobs to do, but weather is fairly calm right now and it seems to be doing them. If that goes ahead, then I hope to back in Aberdeen by Wednesday. And in true sailor fashion, I intend to get blasted on rum and sweet-talk a few shady ladies into compromising deals. So no change there then.