Authors: Michael Palin
Tags: #Fiction, #General
‘Gertrude, truth is a very complex thing’
An Ideal Husband
eith Mabbut was a writer. Of that he was convinced. He lived in London on two floors of a red-brick, gabled house in Upper Holloway. He would have preferred to have lived nearer to the heart of the capital, but needs must and he was only a short walk from Finsbury Park station and on a good day could be at the British Library within thirty-eight minutes of leaving home. He lived with Stanley the cat, and Julia, his daughter, who was nineteen and known to all as Jay. He had another child, Sam, who was training to be an actor and didn’t live at home. Mabbut and his wife Krystyna, who was Polish, were separated. Mabbut’s father and mother had died quite some time ago, within a year of each other. He had an older sister, Lucy, who lived in Australia
Though he had made a career out of the written word, and indeed had a British Gas Award to show for it, he had reached the age of fifty-six with nothing resembling the success of his great literary heroes, George Orwell and Albert Camus, both of whom had died in their forties. Setting aside the clear, if unpalatable, correlation between genius and early death, he had formed the opinion that his best work was yet to come. And in a way he least expected, so it was
he atmosphere at breakfast in the Stratsa House Hotel was as overcast as the skies outside. Regret seemed to have the upper hand over expectation; yesterday, rather than today, seemed uppermost in people’s minds. This was certainly true in Keith Mabbut’s case. He had completed his history of the Sullom Voe oil terminal and his work on Shetland was over. In three hours he would be flying out of Sumburgh for the last time.
He examined the buffet. It was always the same but he lived in hope that one day a fruit compote might appear, or a thick Viking muesli, or just anything not in a packet. Today there was less than usual. Not even a banana. He slit open a small bag of Alpen, which he tipped into a bowl, adding some yogurt, a spoonful of raisins and a dried fig.
He ordered tea and took his usual corner table by the window, looking out towards the sea.
A middle-aged couple, two single men sitting separately, and a lone female with bobbed blonde hair and a very large book were the only other occupants of the thickly carpeted, curtain-swagged restaurant and bar known as the Clickimin Suite, named after a loch on the outskirts of Lerwick. One thing he’d miss about Shetland was the joyful exuberance of the place names. Spiggie, Quarff, Muckle Flugga, Yell and Gloup, the Wart of Scousburgh, the Haa of Funzie and the Bight of Ham. Beside these, Lerwick itself, derived from the original Norse,
, meaning ‘a muddy bay’, seemed disappointingly mundane.
Gales had blown hard across the muddy bay this last week, but had dropped quite suddenly overnight, and instead of the customary rattling of the windows, the only sounds in the Clickimin Suite this
morning were the buttering of toast and the low gurgle of the coffee machine. Up in his room, Keith’s bag was packed and ready to go.
Last night the oil company had given a party at Rani’s, an Indian restaurant at the northern end of the harbour, to celebrate the completion of his book, which was to be called
Triumph In Adversity. The Official History of the Sullom Voe Oil Terminal
. Commissioned by NorthOil, one of the consortium of ownership companies, to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the start of production at the terminal, the book had been the brainchild of the Edinburgh office, therefore never wholeheartedly endorsed by the local management, who preferred to get on with their work with as little fuss as possible. So the fact that Howard Michie, the chief manager at NorthOil, had a prior engagement was not unexpected, and it was his senior assistant manager, Kevin O’Connolly, who had been deputed to attend on his behalf. Mabbut didn’t like O’Connolly at all. He was a professional Scotsman, parading a hard-bitten Glaswegian mythology as transparent as glass. There were also familiar faces from public affairs – Harry Brinsley and Sheila O’Connell, both young, bright and woefully underemployed – as well as Roscoe Gunn from Planning, tall and tedious, Laurie Henneck from Accounts, Rob Taggart, who had been taken off development to co-ordinate collection of all the material Mabbut might require, and last of all, Mae Lennox from Human Resources, who was responsible for seeing that Keith was paid and housed while he was up in Shetland.
When he had made his first visit sixteen months earlier, Mabbut had been struck by how little was known about the terminal, whose input and output had, after all, transformed the British economy. In the local bookshops there were shelves devoted to fishing and birdwatching and local music; there were three or four histories of the Shetland Bus, an operation which had used the island’s fishing boats to assist the Norwegian resistance in the Second World War, but the few books on the oil industry were long out of print. The smart and comprehensive new Museum of Island Life, itself paid for by oil revenues, had several displays of Neolithic stone dwellings and only one devoted to the source of the windfall that had changed the inhabitants’ way of life. The Shetlanders’ reticence about their riches had rather encouraged Mabbut. Embarrassed at first by the lowliness
of the commission he’d accepted, he began to see a role for himself, not as a company man, but as an outsider who could write honestly and objectively about what Sullom Voe really meant to Shetland. Pretty soon he realised this was not what was required. Oil companies, traditionally secretive, were, after disasters like the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, compulsively paranoid, and NorthOil was no exception.
As security was tightened at the thousand-acre complex forty miles to the north of Lerwick, it was made increasingly clear to Mabbut that he was being paid to accentuate the positive. References to the chaotic early days of construction when an imported workforce was quartered on a desperately unprepared island, or the IRA bomb that went off on the day the Queen officially opened the place, or the two potentially catastrophic oil spills that happened near by, were discouraged or simply struck from his text. Some of the local managers had made their objections to the book personal. Not only was Mabbut seen as an outsider – what they called up here a ‘soothmoother’, one who had come into Lerwick harbour from its southern mouth – he also had form as that most despised of the breed, an environmental journalist.
Kevin O’Connolly prided himself on his informal, folksy style. He was a reformed alcoholic and had been a company man since his teens. As steaming dishes of biryani, murgh massallam and rogan josh were brought to the table, he clapped his hands for silence.
‘Before you all get stuck into your curries, I’d like to say thank you on behalf of NorthOil to Keith and all those who’ve helped him produce this book about what we’re all doing up here. Especially for those who were never quite sure.’
‘The oil business is blamed for just about everything these days and it’s nice to read some good things about ourselves, like the fact that we turned a peat bog into the biggest oil terminal in Europe within four years, and that we’ve kept it running day and night for thirty years. If the Greenies had their way, we’d be a peat bog again, but thankfully we have someone like Keith to tell our side of the story, and it’s a great story that we can all be proud of. So on behalf of the company, and I know our managing director would join
me in this, I’d like to thank Keith for doing a grand job – for a Sassenach . . .’
‘. . . in capturing the skill, the enterprise and the resilience that Sullom Voe has embodied these past thirty years. If you want to be reminded of how important our business is and how well it’s doing, this will be the book for you to read. And we all look forward to receiving our free copy.’
‘So thank you, Keith.’
He reached down and picked up something that Rob Taggart had slipped on to his chair.
‘. . . and from all of us at NorthOil, we’d like you to accept this as a wee token of our thanks.’
‘A lifetime security pass!’ shouted someone, which raised a good laugh; ‘a Scottish passport!’, which raised an even better one. In fact the present turned out to be an all-weather jacket, as worn on the rigs, with ‘NorthOil’ picked out in bold yellow capitals across the back of it. Not something Mabbut could see himself wearing to the next Greenpeace meeting.