Friday, 5 March 2010


Yet more snow tempted two of us oil wives out for another lake-top ski. As we slid across the crisp expanse of white, the peace was broken by a familiar, far-away hum. It became louder and louder, and soon there was a chopper drumming overhead, a fat helicopter belting its way home with a bunch of rig-spent oilmen.

‘Quick, give them a friendly wave!’ I cried. ‘They’ll think we’re two gorgeous, fit young Norwegian girls out skiing. They’ve been off-shore for two weeks...they’re not fussy. They’ll be really impressed. It’ll cheer them up no end.’ We waved frantically at them, and then got back to work, piling along the ski tracks in a goddess-like manner, like we did this every day.

Those choppers. They are a daily part of our lives here. There isn’t an oil-wife on the planet that doesn’t look up at those things with very deep, intense feeling as they carry their precious cargo to and fro from the rigs.

As we realised this one was heading home, we knew how it would have smelt. The interior would contain a near-toxic mix of wildly-clashing aftershaves and deodorants as our gorgeous partners returned to their wives and girl-friends after a couple of weeks of sweaty, monastic rig-life. We knew they’d be sitting up there in that chopper rehearsing their Ps and Qs, preening their feathers and polishing their digits, toning down the bad language, swotting up on civilized conversation and reminding themselves not to put their elbows on the table at home.

I have often wondered if people in this industry ever become used to the continual round of partings and reunions that is inevitably involved. Whether they are on a rig or away in Houston, Siberia, Baku, or PH (Port Harcourt), it’s not necessarily easy for those left behind. People find different ways of putting up with it.

There is an old house in Stavanger where two wally dugs used to sit in the window. A pair of ‘wally dugs’, otherwise known as matching china dogs outside Scotland, were quite the thing when it came to gracing the interior of many a well-kept home in Britain and beyond. But this particular pair were famous. They sat with their backs to the street, but they carried a potent message. The sight of them meant the master was at home and all was well with the world. However, from time to time, the dogs were turned around, so that their spaniel-faces were gazing out to sea. Now they were waiting for the master to return from his latest fishing trip. Everyone knew this..... apart, it seems, from the master himself.

They represented a means of survival. For this charming home, with its dainty steps and elegant windows, was known as a ‘house of ill-repute’. If the master was at sea, the dogs implied an open invitation to those who sought a little comfort while their own partners were similarly inconvenienced. The dogs were a subtle sign that it was time to party.

This was way back, when Stavanger’s main industry was fish rather than oil, and the wally dugs are long gone. But the memory lingers on. Any town or village that made its living from fishing required methods of surviving the absences the industry imposed, albeit this particular habit was the choice of the minority and by no means universal. This was an upright, Lutheran population, after-all.

From the Viking era onwards, there have been times when women have had to be independent, able to survive for weeks, months and sometimes years by themselves, their incomes uncertain, with no knowledge of when their loved ones might be home. Nowadays, it’s slightly different. Separation is not without contact, and families can be left without wives and mothers, never mind their men-folk. There are women out there on that North Sea too, female engineers, drillers, geologists and everything else. It’s a very familiar story for many Scottish families where work has driven people apart. It’s not every relationship that can survive it. But if people can survive, it says something..... separation makes for a very strong-minded, close-knit, resilient population.

It’s hideously uncool to admit this, but.... after the lake-top-ski I was driving to the airport to pick up a certain oil man I happen to know, when the gravelly tones of Barry White started mumbling softly into my ear. ‘I never take anytheeuung for granted....only a foool takes theeuungs for granted....but you know, girl, I love you just the way you are.’

And so it is with these oilmen.

No comments:

Post a Comment