As promised, I publish below the initial drafts of the first seven chapter of my new novel, SUZI.
Please note that all my creative work is protected by copyright, so while you are very welcome to copy these chapters for your own private use, I respectfully request that you do not publish any of this material in whole or in part in any other media outlet without referring it back to me first. Thank you and happy reading.
The Six Wives of Mobi D’Ark:
Book Two; “Suzi”
© Martin Andrew Bower, 2016
- Into the Sands
- A Hot Welcome
- A Nasty Surprise
- Leave it to Pete
- In the Heat of the Night
- Rules of the Desert
- Search and Rescue
SUZI is the second of six novels in a series dedicated to “The six wives of Mobi D’Ark”.
The novels are based on the life and times of a heavy drinking, much wedded and much-travelled English adventurer, who caroused and debauched his way across four continents, making and losing several fortunes along the way.
Mobi married his first wife in 1970, and his last wife, forty-four years later, in 2014.
“SUZI” commences in 1972, when Mobi moved from the tropical fleshpots of Lagos and Port Harcourt to the barren desert oilfields and all-male world of the newly independent Middle Eastern Emirate of Abu Dhabi.
It was an unlikely location for Mobi to continue his womanising and seek a new wife.
How he accomplished this and subsequently moved to Jakarta where he embarked upon a life of licentiousness in Sukarno’s Indonesia, makes for a tale even more incredible than his adventures in West Africa.
(This Introduction is incomplete and needs more work – it is just an ‘aide memoire’ for early readers/reviewers)
Abu Dhabi, December 1972.
Without warning, Arthur suddenly swung the steering wheel hard left. For a split second, the battered old Land Rover balanced on two wheels before slamming back down on all four wheels again as we hit the dirt track.
He braked hard, which caused the vehicle to skid and slide dangerously in the loose sand. The brakes locked and we did an about turn, finally coming to a halt facing the way we had just come.
In spite of the cloud of sand created by the flailing vehicle, I could still make out some sparse traffic on the four-lane highway we had just left.
It was a minor miracle we were both still seated; although my head had taken a nasty knock on a metal strut when we had bounced out of control at high speed.
“Gee Mobi, sorry about that.”
I rubbed my head, and found a trace of blood on my hand. “What the hell are you doing Arthur? If we’d rolled right over, we’d have ended up in hospital – or worse!”
“Aw shucks, don’t get mad. I hadn’t realised we were at the turn-off until the last moment. Too busy daydreaming, I guess.”
“Day dreaming? About what?” I demanded.
“You’ll soon see,” he said with a grin. He put the vehicle into four-wheel drive and manoeuvred it back around again so that we could resume our journey into the desert and away from the highway.
There was nothing but sand and dunes ahead of us. “Are you sure this is the right way? It doesn’t look like it leads anywhere.”
“Oh, it leads somewhere right enough, just sit tight; it’s not far.”
He drove the vehicle down the bumpy track with low dunes rising up on either side of us. We suddenly made a sharp left-hand turn into a blind bend where we all but had a head-on collision with a Mercedes Benz, packed with Arabs, coming the other way. The Mercedes braked hard and Arthur swung our vehicle to the right – into the soft base of a sand dune. We had missed the Mercedes by inches.
He started off again and I barely had time to recover from my latest brush with death, when we came to another sudden halt in front of a high sand dune in front of us.
I looked around. “Is this it? There’s nothing here except that bloody great sand dune.”
“It surely is,” the tall, lanky bespectacled Texan replied, “Come on – we walk from here.”
I was beginning to regret allowing myself to be talked into this little adventure.
The previous night, over a few beers at the guesthouse, the young engineer had spun a convincing yarn of what was on offer in the ‘sands’ as he called it. Well he wasn’t wrong about the sands, but I was yet to see anything of what was on offer.
We climbed out of the land Rover. I noticed a number of vehicles scattered around – either Mercedes 280’s or smart-looking Japanese off-road type vehicles. There was clearly something going on somewhere around there – but where? As far as I could see there was nothing but sand and dunes.
“Come on Mobi, we walk from here – over this sand doon.”
I was about to protest but the eager young American had already set off and was half-way up the dune before I realised that he was serious. I had little choice but to follow him up the hill of soft sand. It was so soft and fine that my feet sank in deeply. I was hot and sweaty and my shoes were full of sand. It was very uncomfortable.
This had better be fucking worth it.
Once we reached the top of the dune I could finally see some human activity. Hidden from view on the other side of the dune was a large crowd of Arabs in white flowing robes and others with swarthy complexions, dressed in a variety of drab Bedouin attire.
Some were sitting around on mats in the sand, laughing and joking with each other and smoking cigarettes, while the rest had formed long, raggedy queues outside two large marquee-type tents.
Undoubtedly everyone was happy to be there. The men in the queues looked like excited children lining up to see Father Christmas. It was surreal.
“God! Arthur! – where the fuck are they?”
“Where d’ya think? You stupid limey – in the tents.”
“But… you… mean… we have to queue up?”
“Sure you do, but trust me – it’ll be worth it.”
“You sure it’s okay for us to be here? Don’t the Arabs mind.”
“These Gulf A-rabs couldn’t give a sweet fuck, Mobi. The more the merrier. Look around you – no one has even looked at us.”
It was true. Nobody seemed to care. We waked towards the two queues.
“Are there only two of them to service all these Arabs? I asked in astonishment.
“Hell no – there’ll be at least half a dozen little darlin’s inside. Come on, let’s join the line over there – it’s shorter.”
He pushed me towards the second queue. We stood behind a couple of Arabs who seemed more interested in putting their arms around each other and touching cheeks than anticipating the joys of what lay ahead in the tent.
“What are they queuing up for?” I whispered to Arthur, “They’re obviously queer.”
“I don’ rightly know – maybe they’re AC/DC.”
This was getting more bizarre and unappealing by the minute; but having come this far, my curiosity to see exactly what was on offer outweighed my instincts to make a run for it.
“How long will we have to wait?”
“Oh, not long,” Arthur assured me.
He was right. The queue moved forward every couple of minutes or so. Something was puzzling me. What happened to the customers when they finished their ‘business’? There was no sign of anyone coming back out again. Then I noticed a man I had seen at the front of the queue earlier, walking in our direction from the back end of the tent.
There must be a back exit; quite a production line they’ve got going here…
I shuddered at the thought.
“Come on Mobi- it’s your turn.”
We were at the front of the tent and a short fat man with a sweaty face dressed in a dirty billowing shirt and Baluchi breeches was beckoning me to enter.
“You go first Arthur.”
“Hell no, Mobi! You’re my guest – anyway ‘shit before the shovel’, as we say back in Texarkana.”
I looked at him and grimaced. “Thanks Arthur.”
As I was now at the front of the queue, I had no choice. I ambled forward, pushed the tent flap aside and entered. It was murky and very hot. There was a small table just inside the tent with another Baluchi sitting behind it.
“Arshara dinar,” he said, holding up both his hands to indicate ‘ten.’
I pulled out a ten-dinar note from my wallet and handed it over. That’s cheap, I thought, about ten quid.
He grabbed the banknote and pointed to one of three screened off areas on the left side of the large tent. At long last, I was going to find out what my hard-earned money was going to buy me in the sands of Abu Dhabi.
I walked behind the screen. A plump figure, who I assumed was female, was seated on a chair next to a thin mattress that had been placed on the sand. She was covered from head to foot in a black robe and she had a black veil over her face so that only her eyes were visible. She mumbled to me in Arabic. The only words I could understand were “Arshara dinar”. She also wanted ten dinars… hmm… not so cheap after all. I handed her another banknote and wondered what on earth would happen next.
Her eyes twinkled as she removed her veil and stood up before easing her obese body onto the mattress. I stared at her – her body was still covered but now I could see her dark complexioned face. Arthur had told me that most of the women were shipped in from Pakistan and I had imagined that she would be something like the ladies I used to meet back in Nigeria. I couldn’t have been more wrong. She was a Pakistani all right, but she wasn’t a pleasant sight. She must have been at least forty years old and her ugly, badly scarred face was heavily daubed with garish make-up. Her rouged cheeks and scarlet lips gave her an almost ghoulish appearance.
I stood riveted to the spot and continued to stare. She waved to me with an air of irritation, and indicated that I should come and lie down on top of her. I still didn’t move so she pulled her robe up higher to reveal a pair of very unappealing thighs that rippled with fat.There was even a trace of pubic hair visible.
I was utterly revolted.
The bloody liar! Arthur told me these women were so wonderful? Or had I drawn the short straw?
I didn’t know, and didn’t really care. She was one of the most disagreeable looking specimens of womanhood I had ever laid my eyes on in my life.
Does it matter? All I’m looking for is a quick release. Maybe if I close my eyes and think of a beautiful girl it will be okay. Besides, I’ve already invested twenty dinars in this little adventure
I looked at her, still unsure whether to lie down or to make a quick exit.
“You! Come quick!” she shouted at me, in a thick Pakistani accent.
Does she mean ‘come’ – as in ‘get down on top of her’, or ‘cum’ – as in ‘shed my load’?
How on earth did I allow Arthur to bring me to a place like this? This Godforsaken desert outback is so different to Nigeria. What wouldn’t I give to be back in Lagos with all those gorgeous black nubile ladies of the night? But that’s all in the past.
How on earth did I allow myself to get into this crazy situation?
Abu Dhabi -Ten Months Earlier
The Alitalia Boeing 707 made its final descent into Al Bateen airport. The Italian pilot made a perfect landing and rolled to a stop in the bright afternoon sunshine.
On my previous visit, the air terminal had been little more than a crudely built concrete building next to a long airstrip out in the middle of nowhere. Passengers had to line up in the sand and present their passports through a concrete grill set in a porch that was open to the elements.
Now, in place of the small concrete building, there was large, stylish air terminal with brilliant white, multi turret-style roofing and walls of mainly darkened glass set behind towering palm trees and gardens mainly laid to lawn.
What a change! The sight of the new terminal immediately raised my flagging spirits.
It was my second visit to the Gulf State. The first time was three years ago, just prior to my posting to Nigeria. I was only there for a few weeks, but was extremely glad to get out of the place. I had still been suffering from the break-up of my affair with my girlfriend from New York. My short assignment in the blistering Abu Dhabi desert had done little to soothe my torment.
The stifling heat was as I remembered it. As soon as I stepped out of the aircraft and walked down the gantry onto the hot tarmac, my body erupted with sweat. By the time we reached the terminal building, my sweat-drenched shirt was stuck to my body.
I was one of the first off the plane. My visa had already been issued by the embassy in London and I sped past the surprisingly efficient immigration officer who glanced at my passport and stamped me in. I waited a couple of minutes for my luggage to arrive and when I emerged in public waiting area with my baggage trolley, I was immediately spotted by short and very rotund Arab.
He wore western clothes – a pair of wrinkled, non-descript cloth trousers held up with a piece of brown cord, and a dirty white shirt with voluminous pockets, stained with patches of sweat that stretched down over his distended belly.
“Hello Mr Mobi,” he said, in a slightly accented gravelly voice.” Come with me.”
“How did you recognise me?” I asked with some surprise, as he shook my hand. “Do you have a photograph?”
He looked at me puzzled, for a moment. “No, no photo, I know it you,” he answered with a smile. I must have looked very conspicuous amongst the mainly Arab passengers that were walking behind me into the arrivals hall.
My driver was Mohammed Ghanem, a Bahraini national. He grabbed hold of the trolley and I fell in behind him as he waddled out to the car park with a surprising turn of speed. He dropped my bags down next to a Volkswagen microbus bearing the ubiquitous bright Santa Cruz orange company logo that I knew so well from my days in Nigeria.
I smiled to myself. There was nothing that my worthy employers owned or used – from letterheads to massive drilling rigs that didn’t bare this bright orange globe-shaped logo. It was a wonder it wasn’t tattooed on my forehead.
“I hope you’re not going to take me to Base Camp in that!” I asked, pointing at the microbus with some concern. I had been to Base Camp before. “That micro-bus will get stuck in the first sand dune we encounter.”
Mohammed looked at me mystified, trying to mentally process my little burst of English. Suddenly, his bewilderment changed to a smile.
“No, no. We not going to Base Camp – we go to town – to Santa Cruz office.”
“Office? Town? Things have changed a bit, haven’t they?”
He appeared nonplussed yet again, and declined to answer me. “Let’s go, Mr Mobi.”
We soon left the environs of the airport for the journey into town. The road was a pristine, four-lane expressway. I hadn’t seen much of it on my last visit as we had barely left the airport when the driver had taken a sharp turn off the road and headed off into the desert, in the direction of Base camp.
This time we were going into Abu Dhabi town. The beautifully constructed highway was almost empty of traffic and the along central reservation was miles and miles of lush green grass and flowers in bloom.
How on earth can grass survive in this stifling climate?
Suddenly the grass seemed to move and my question was answered. Sprinkler nozzles popped up out of the ground every few metres and were spraying the cultivated areas. It was quite extraordinary.
“God! That must cost a small fortune!” I exclaimed out loud, knowing that nearly all the water in the country had to be desalinated from the sea or from salt-water wells that were scattered across the kingdom.
Mohammed must have understood. “Yes Sir, the Emir – he want Abu Dhabi to be beautiful.”
“He’s got a long way to go, to make this fucking place beautiful,” I mumbled under my breath from the back of the vehicle.
Forty-five minutes later, we entered the town and turned off onto a road known as the Corniche that ran alongside the Arabian Gulf. It was in stark relief to the endless desert sand we had been driving thorough. A vast expanse of azure-blue sea was gently lapping onto the sandy beaches that stretched into the distance on the far side of the Corniche.
Two tiny triangles belonging to a couple of Bedouin dhows were just visible, far out on the horizon. If I hadn’t been so hot and tired, I might have been more appreciative of the idyllic, tranquil scene that was unfolding before me.
We drove about a mile along the Corniche before Mohammed slowed down outside the tallest building I had so far seen the country. It was a strange five-sided shape that stood six stories high – a sort of mini Pentagon. Mohamed drove off the Corniche onto a small side road and we parked the vehicle. We unloaded my bags and walked back around to the front of the building.
“Santa Cruz office is in here?” I asked.
He didn’t answer but led the way inside to the lift and pushed the button for the fifth floor. The lift took an age to get in motion and in the confined, stuffy space, poor Mohammed’s face and shirt were permanently drenched in sweat. He seemed to stoically accept it – his fault for being so obese in such a hot and humid climate.
The door to Santa Cruz’s town office was locked. Mohammed searched through his voluminous pockets and produced a door key, unlocked the door and ushered me into the small reception area.
Inside the office, the temperature must have been at least fifteen degrees cooler and my spectacles immediately misted over. I took them off and looked around. It was quite a large room with a view of the sea beyond. There were two desks and a couple of sofas under the window in the far corner. A huge air conditioner on far wall was thumping away, and a small stream of water was leaking out of its base into a small bucket that had been placed strategically underneath. But the office was empty.
“Where is everybody?”
“Mr Pete, he’s out in Base Camp, and KC is having his afternoon sleep.”
Mohammed answered by shouting out loud in Arabic and thumping one of the wooden walls. There was a muffled reply and I slumped into a chair in front of the smaller of the two desks to await developments.
A few minutes later a door behind me opened and a middle-aged Indian man entered the room. I knew I had seen him before but I couldn’t quite place him. Then it came back to me. The last time I had seen KC was three years ago when I had come to Abu Dhabi on my temporary assignment.
What a nightmare that was! I had been sent to a distant outpost – a God forsaken place by the name of Zubbaya, where it was so hot that you could scald your feet if you dipped your toes into the shallow seawater.
“Hello Mobi, welcome back. Did you have a good flight?” he asked as he sat down behind the smaller of the two desks.
“KC! What are you doing here?”
“I’m Pete’s secretary – I run the town office for him.”
“That’s a bit of a promotion. Last time I was here, you were a lowly clerk out in the desert.”
“Yes well… Mobi…I have my ways…when Mr Pete was transferred here he remembered me from the old days, when he was just a roustabout, and he offered me this job here in town.”
“Well good luck to you, KC, where do you live? Here?”
“Oh no Mobi, The rooms behind the office are for the expats who are passing through – to and from Base Camp. I’ve rented a small house in town, and my wife and family have just joined me here.”
“So Abu Dhabi is becoming quite a little town is it? The last time I was here, it was pretty desolate, just bunch of rocks and sand with Bedouins living in little scattered settlements.”
“The last time you were here Mobi, we went to Zubbaya, to count the casing stock,” he said with a knowing smile.”
I remembered it well. KC and I were out there to count oil casing stock which Santa Cruz stored there. We had to match the physical numbers with the company’s stock records.
“That’s right, we did. And you slept all day. You made yourself a nice little bed of sand in the coolest part of the tent and slept the whole day away.”
“What about you?”
“You left me to check the stock all by myself.”
“Did I what?”
“Check the stock.”
“Of course I did.”
“That’s not what the driver told me.”
I looked at him and I could sense he was trying to make me feel awkward and guilty. It was true – I didn’t count anything. Once he had fallen asleep I decided that two could play at his little game. I had stayed in the tent; and before I got stuck into the book I brought with me, I quickly ticked off the stock records as being all present and correct.
“Look KC, you little bugger, you skived off and were fast asleep all fucking day. Don’t you start telling me what I did or didn’t do!”
“But the driver said…”
“And don’t you tell me what the fucking driver said. He was also asleep, under the Land Rover. I was out in the blazing sun all day while you kipped in the tent. Don’t you dare accuse me of doing anything wrong – I’ll have you back in the desert so fast that you’ll wonder what hit you. Do I make myself clear?”
The little bastard had been trying to pressure me – to let me know he had something over me. Maybe he also had something over Pete – which would explain how he had wangled this plum job in town.
God! This isn’t exactly the welcome I was expecting to my new tour of duty.
If KC could have turned white I’m sure he would have. As it was, he was much shaken up my outburst. His eyes narrowed and little rivulets of sweat had broken out on his forehead. My threat to have him moved back out the desert had clearly hit home. I was no longer that shy, gangly accountant on his first overseas assignment who had gone with him to Zubbaya back in sixty-nine.
But he soon recovered his composure and gave me a broad smile. “I don’t know what you mean Mobi. I was just making conversation. I didn’t mean anything. Come, let me show you to your room so that you can have a shower and get changed. Are you hungry?”
“That sounds like a good idea,” I said, but I still wasn’t quite finished with our little contretemps. “Now KC, we do we understand each other – don’t we?”
I looked at him hard and he looked back at me, holding my stare. He nodded and looked away.
The three-hour trip out to Base Camp was the same nightmare journey that I remembered from my last visit. On that occasion, I had been driven in a Mercedes by a Bedouin taxi driver. This time, I left from the downtown office in a rusty old Land Rover, driven by a Santa Cruz Texan redneck.
If any suspension had been fitted in the short wheel base Land Rover when it came off the production line, it had long since ceased to exist. My driver seemed to delight in hitting every rut and dune on the sandy track and I was being bounced all around the cab. If that wasn’t enough, the sweat was pouring down my body from the oppressive, humid heat.
I tried opening the side window to let a breeze in to cool me down a little, but the outside temperature was so high that all I got was a searing blast of hot air on my face.
My driver, Rex, laughed at me. “Goddamned limey pencil pusher! Don’cha know that all yer gonna find out thar is hot air?”
Rex was one of a small team of mechanics who were stationed permanently in Base Camp. He lived with his young wife in one of the newly built western-style houses in Abu Dhabi town and was returning to work after a few days break in town. He was clearly none too happy about it. He didn’t pick me up from the office until past one o’clock and was trying to make up for lost time.
I had tried talking to him but he replied in monosyllabic grunts. It was only after I had opened the Land Rover window and then quickly shut it again that I succeeded in getting any response out of him.
“Sorry Rex – I didn’t know.”
“Nah, you sure as hell didn’t. Fucking limeys…!”
That was the end of the conversation.
I looked out over the unremitting desert. There were gentle sand dunes as far as the eye could see. We were all alone in this steaming hot wilderness, travelling in a Land Rover that had seen better days. I idly wondered what would happen if we broke down or if Rex drove succeeded in turning the vehicle over. How long would it be before we were rescued – out in this forty-degree heat with no water or food? What if Rex had taken a different route to normal? He seemed crazy enough to do anything and one track through the desert looked like any other.
It would be several hours before they realised we were missing, and by the time they had formed a search party it would be nightfall, and they would have no chance of spotting us.
I kept dropping off, but every time I closed my eyes for a few seconds, we would hit another sharp rut and I would wake with a start. The horizon had become very hazy in the bright afternoon sun and for a few moments I thought I could see what looked like a sea of water shimmering on the horizon. I blinked my eyes and it disappeared. It was the start of a fucking mirage! Then I saw some shapes in the distance and some figures a little closer to us that looked like camels.
No, this time my eyes didn’t deceive me. As we drove closer I spotted the signs of a massive camp way out on the horizon. My heart sank a little. A hundred miles out in the desert, this huge blot on the landscape, which was now clearly visible, was going to be my home for the next two years.
“There you are, you Goddamn limey – feast your sorry eyes on your new homestead… and boy will you be sorry!” Rex exclaimed with a cackle.
The camp hadn’t changed much since I was last there. It was still one of the largest concentrated areas of population in the country, second only to the growing Abu Dhabi Township.
Base Camp wasn’t really a single camp – it was actually three completely separate camps. It was a perfect example of blatant race discrimination. The three communities who lived there were separated along racial lines. Each camp had its own sleeping quarters, its own eating arrangements and shower blocks, but the three camps very different to each other.
In the ‘white man’s camp’, each expatriate had his own, well-furnished single-bed Porta-Kamp room, complete with an air conditioner and a mini-fridge. The camp had a large, well-equipped and comfortable mess hall with a wide range of western food on the menu, along with an ice-cream machine and a large stock of paperback books and magazines. The clean shower block had private shower cubicles, although the water supply was straight out of the ground – very salty.
The expat camp was arranged in a large rectangle, with all the Porta Kamp doors facing inwards to the centre, forming a sort of quadrangle. It was a bit like those old-fashioned western wagon trains that used to form circles to protect themselves from marauding Indians. Although quite what the ‘white men’ were protecting themselves against wasn’t exactly clear.
Each room had a short flight of concrete steps leading from the sand to the elevated door entrance. A large tee-shaped office complex was located in one corner of the quadrangle, with the long part of the tee extending out into the sand at the rear. Three sides of the quadrangle were lined with the private rooms and the office complex, and on the fourth side were the shower blocks and canteen with kitchens at the rear.
The second camp was for workers from the Indian sub-continent, and was more primitive. It had no proper shape to it and the accommodations spread out into the desert in a disorderly fashion. The workers were all jammed into multi-berth caravans with only the occasional fan to cool them. There no refrigerators, but they did have a small mess hall, and a crude washing area.
The third camp was for the local Arabs. They lived in an ad hoc mix of tents and primitive lean-tos. Many slept outside in the sand as it was much cooler at night. They also cooked their own food on little wood fires that they set up around their section of the camp, and they bathed out in the open with buckets of water – although few rarely washed more than once a week.
The Arab camp was the largest and the most populous of the three. It was difficult to estimate exactly how many stayed there at any one time as it was forever changing.
Not only did this camp contain hundreds of Santa Cruz labourers who were working at base camp or coming and going from the rigs, but there were also groups of travelling Bedouin families passing through. They would set up their tents for a few days – or longer – before moving on to the next desert oasis.
These travellers – and even some of Santa Cruz’s own workers – brought their camels with them. This meant that around the perimeter of the camp, there were scattered groups of these huge, smelly, ornery beasts, waiting patiently in the sand for their meagre sustenance. Occasionally you would see the camel owners tending to their beasts after which, they slept right next to them in the sand.
The Indian camp was also pretty large. Dozens of Indians lived there. They did most of the semi-skilled and clerical work. Some worked in the offices and the warehouse, but most of them worked in the machine and repair shops or in the motor pool or on rig maintenance. A few worked as cooks and waiters in the expat catering hall.
As for the expatriates, at any one time there was around dozen or so expats who were staying in the camp. Based there permanently were the accountants, the warehouse superintendent, the transport manager, the drilling engineers, the head mechanics and their assistants who worked in the various repair shops, the water-well drillers, the personnel manager, the camp boss and others. In addition to this, there was always a number of drilling hands – tool pushers, drillers, rig mechanics and so on – en route to one of the rigs out in the desert or on their way back to Abu Dhabi town for days off.
This diverse contingent of maybe thousand or so people who lived out in Base Camp all had one thing in common. They were all men.
This bothersome fact was at the forefront of my mind as I climbed wearily out of Rex’s Land Rover and looked around me. I picked up my hand luggage and made my way across the sand to the large Porta-Kamp office complex at the corner of the expatriate camp zone.
Apart from a few days off every three months, I would be stuck in Base Camp for the next two years. Not exactly an exciting prospect after my three years of wine, women and song in Nigeria.
I kept reminding myself it was a promotion. I was the youngest Chief Accountant in the company, and Abu Dhabi was one of Santa Cruz’s largest and most important drilling operations. They had been the premier drilling contractor in Abu Dhabi ever since oil was first produced commercially back in the sixties and they had a string of drilling rigs scattered across the desert. They had more employees and a larger infrastructure than the oil company they worked for.
Base Camp was Santa Cruz’s pride of place. Everything connected with the country’s oil exploration was managed out of Base Camp. It was strategically located in the centre of the oil producing area of the desert and was about thirty minutes’ drive from the Oil Company terminal at Tarif, just off the coast.
Santa Cruz ran the base camp and looked after the oil company’s drilling stock in the huge Base Camp warehouse. They had such a hold over the oil company that it was almost impossible for any other drilling company to gain a foothold in the country, and both sides knew it. They had a de facto monopoly.
Santa Cruz’s pre-eminence in the Sheikdom wasn’t exactly dominating my thoughts as I climbed up the steps and entered the office for the first time as Chief Accountant. I was more concerned about how I would be received by the other accountants and staff who worked there. This was a big step up for me. I was only twenty-five and nearly everybody who worked directly or indirectly for me would be older than me. It was a crucial moment and I had to set down some markers and gain their respect.
I was hoping that Pete Simmonds, the General Manager, would be waiting for me, but I was in for a huge surprise. Sitting there, staring at me in astonishment was a man who I recognised from my days in London, but was someone who shouldn’t have been there. It was Bruce McLean, the Australian Chief Accountant who I had come to replace. I was told he was being shipped out a week before I arrived.
“Hello Bruce – what are you doing here?”
“Hiya Mobi – I could ask you the same question. Nobody told me you were coming.”
I looked at him and realised something wasn’t quite right.
“You mean you didn’t know?”
“Jeez man, nobody told me. What’s up – you on another special assignment?”
“No Bruce.” I tried to think what I was going to say, but realised I had better tell him the truth. “I’m here to replace you.”
He stared at me for a few seconds in silence.
“I told you, I’m replacing you.”
“That’s fucking crazy. I don’t believe you. What am I supposed to do?”
“I… was … told you’d… be gone…”
“Gone! You’ve gotta be fucking mad. I just shipped my wife out here and I’ve spent a fortune on doing my place up in town. I’ll tell you straight cobber, I’m not goin’ anywhere in a hurry.”
“Where’s Pete Simmonds?” I asked.
“Yeah, that’s what I’d like to know – where the hell is Pete fucking Simmonds?”
“Pete’s been out at Rig sixty two for the past four days – they had a mother- fucking blow-out!” shouted a loud American voice from inside the radio room. “If you had any interest on what the hell’s been goin’ on around here you would’ve known!”
I walked into the room and saw a large, burley man seated in swivel chair at the side of the radio desk. He wore a Texan hat and his feet, shod in fancy calf-length leather boots, were parked up on the desk in front of him, almost touching the single side-band radio that kept us in contact with the outside world. As I approached the desk, he leant back in his chair and spat a huge globule of tobacco into a waste bin in the corner of the room.
“Who the hell’re you? Not another motherfucking pencil pusher? Ain’t we got enough of you lazy limey bean counters out here already?”
I looked back at him and then sat down at the empty chair in front of the radio.
“Mobi, pleased to meet you – and you are?” I asked, as I put out my hand to greet him.
He ignored my proffered hand and made no effort to take his boots off the desk. “Caleb Thibodeaux – Transportation Manager – and what’s it to you?”
“Well Caleb, if you don’t mind moving your boots, I’d like to use the radio – if that’s okay with you?”
“It’s Cal! Everyone calls me Cal!” he shouted, making no effort to move his boots.
I wasn’t going to let this coon-ass have his own way. If I didn’t assert myself from day one, these Yanks would walk all over me. I tried to push his boots away from the front of the radio, when suddenly he moved them himself and with remarkable alacrity jumped up from his chair.
I hadn’t appreciated quite how big he was when he was sitting down, but as soon as he got to his feet, I realised I that I might have picked a fight with the wrong person. He must have been at least six feet three, with massive broad shoulders and a body to match.
He looked to be in his late forties – clearly past the first flush of youth and his expansive belly told a story of years of greasy food and alcohol abuse. Nevertheless, he still looked like someone who could more than take care of himself in most company.
“Why you Goddamn limey I’ll have your goddamn mother-fucking hide for that!” he shouted. He approached me in a threatening manner, squaring up his shoulders and hands on his hips. I stood up to face him and he stopped in his tracks. I thought he had decided to back off but he made a nauseating sound in his throat and then spat another brown globule over my shoulder and straight into the waiting bin.
His filthy, tobacco-stained teeth and mouth were badly discoloured by the nauseating chewing tobacco habit. There was still a remnant of the brown saliva dripping down he bloated lower lip.
“That’s disgusting habit!” I sneered, with a lot more bravado than I felt. The huge hulk could easily knock me down with one quick blow.
I was anticipating the inevitable when I received help from an unlikely source. My driving companion, Rex, came into the room, assessed the situation, walked up behind Cal and put a restraining hand on his shoulder.
“Jeez, Cal. You know Pete’s rules about fighting in Base Camp. If you put one hand on Mobi here, you’ll be getting a one-way ticket home.”
Cal turned to face Rex. “Pete ain’t here, is he?”
“No, but I am, and so’s Mobi and so’s Bruce.”
“Bruce! That lilly-livered Aussie! He’s too damn shit-scared to say anything to anybody.”
“But I aint – and neither is Mobi here.” Don’t yer know Mobi’s the new head bean counter? Pete asked for him, special – the two of them go back a-ways. I’d watch yourself if I wuz you.”
“How d’yer know all this?”
“KC told me back in town. There ain’t nuttin’ happen here that fuckin Injun don know about.”
Cal looked at me with a new respect – obviously trying to size me up. He backed off a step, and appeared a little flustered.
I took the initiative. “So now you know, Cal, do you mind if I use the radio to get hold of Pete, that’s if it’s not too much trouble?” I added sarcastically.
He looked at me and then at Rex and broke into a wide grin. “Hey! Welcome, Mobi, welcome on board.” He offered his hand, and I took it with a wisp of a smile on my lips, which soon turned to agony as the bastard crunched my fingers in his enormous fists.
“No offence, now Mobi? Let bygones be bygones?”
“No offence, Cal,” I replied, trying to keep a straight face as he walked out of the office.
It was sort of one nil to me.
“Goddamn it, you squirrelly Limey, next time you better check before you pick a fight with anyone out here. You won’t always have me around to save your skinny ass.”
I smiled at Rex, he wasn’t as bad as I had thought. “Thanks, Rex. What rig is Pete on? Sixty two, did you say?”
He nodded. I picked up the microphone.
“Santa Cruz, Rig sixty-two – this is Santa Cruz, Base Camp. Do you copy?” I yelled down the mike.
There was some atmospheric crackling before a faint reply. “Base Camp, this is Santa Cruz, sixty two… over.”
I could detect the distinctive accent of an Indian clerk.
“Is Pete Simmonds there?”
“Roger,” came the faint and slightly distorted reply, “standby, I’ll go and find him, sir”
“Roger on that,” I replied.
We sat there in silence for a few moments, when suddenly a much louder voice with a Texan drawl broke through the ether.
“Base Camp, this is Rig Sixty Two. What d’yall want?” It was the distinctive voice of Pete Simmonds, who I had last seen several months ago in Lagos, Nigeria.
“Hiya, Pete, this is Mobi.”
There was a long pause before he responded. “Hell Mobi, I dammed forgot all about you, what with this’ere goddamned blow-out an’all. Welcome to Base Camp.”
“Pete what’s going on? Bruce is still here.”
There was another long pause.
I looked at Rex. “What does he mean?”
Rex leaned over and turned the dial to another channel. “This is a private channel – no one can listen in,” he explained.
“Base Camp – Rig sixty two.”
“Hi Pete, what are you up to?”
“Jeez Mobi, is Bruce there?”
“He’s waiting outside in the main office.”
“Shut the door, and make sure you’re alone.”
Rex left the room, closing the door behind him.”
“Roger, Pete, it’s just you and me.”
“Listen, Mobi I screwed up. I was planning to send Bruce into town a few days ago so that you wouldn’t have to deal with him, but this goddamn emergency came up at rig sixty-two, and I forgot all about it. I haven’t slept in three days.”
“But Pete, he doesn’t even know he’s being replaced.”
“Yeah, I know. I didn’t want to tell him in case he decided to screw up the books.”
“He wouldn’t do that, Pete, and he couldn’t do much without the other accountants knowing about it.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t trust the SOB. Look Mobi, everything’s pretty much okay out here now, so I’ll be on my way back to Base Camp. I should be there in a couple of hours. We can sort everything out then. In the meantime, don’t say anything to Bruce; have Amin Obeid get you settled into your room.”
“Amin – the Lebanese Camp Boss. You’ll probably find him in the mess hall.
“Roger, Mobi, over and out, and switch back channels.”
I made my way out of the radio room to find that Bruce was still waiting there for an explanation.
“Did you speak to Simmonds?”
The use of Pete’s surname told me all I needed to know about relations between Bruce and his GM. Back in London Chuck Ball had told me that Pete wanted Bruce replaced because the two didn’t get on; and that Pete had specifically requested me as his replacement.
This had caused a bit of an upset in the offices of Head Office Finance. Bruce was considered to be a good Chief Accountant and I was far too young and inexperienced to be promoted to such an exalted position. And I didn’t exactly have an unblemished record, having been more or less fired from my job in Nigeria.
Apparently, the telexes had flown thick and fast between Abu Dhabi, London and California, but in the end Pete got his way. He was their star performer. He had turned things around in Nigeria and during the short while he had been in Abu Dhabi, he had shaken up what had become a complacent and badly performing operation. Abu Dhabi Oil Company was already delighted with his appointment.
It was a real feather in the cap for me. I had become the youngest finance chief in the whole company, and I wasted no time in accepting the offer. I knew that living conditions were going to be far cry from those riotous times in in Lagos and Port Harcourt. I was a single man again, having recently divorced my Nigerian wife, and I was determined to make a name for myself and put those wild Nigerian days of debauchery behind me.
So Pete got what he wanted – Bruce moved out, and Mobi moved in.
I looked apologetically at Bruce. “He’s on his way back; he’ll be here in a couple of hours and he’ll sort it all out.”
“A couple of hours! The office will be closed by then. If Simmonds wants to see me, he can wait until tomorrow morning. I’m not obliged to see him in my own time.”
I looked at Bruce in astonishment. At Base Camp you were always on duty – he wasn’t making any sense. Relations must have sure as hell broken down between the two of them.
“Well, that’s up to you, mate. Can you tell me where I can find Amin?”
Bruce confirmed that he would be in the mess hall so I left him in the office and walked across the sand to the mess hall.
It was too early for dining and the hall was deserted except for a very tall, elderly Indian laying the tables for dinner and a stocky, balding man, dressed neatly in a tan shirt and grey slacks seated at a table in the corner. He was looking over some papers and I walked over to him.
He looked up and smiled. I had guessed correctly.
“Hello, Mobi – I’m Amin, the Camp Boss. Pete told me to take care of you, follow me.”
He got up from the table and escorted me out of the mess hall, across the sand to a room that was almost opposite. He unlocked the door and we stepped inside, both spontaneously shivering from a blast of cold air. The window air conditioner had obviously been on for a while, and was emitting icy air.
Amin fiddled with the air-conditioner controls. “KC told me to get the room nice and cool for you, but we seem to have overdone it,” he said, smiling apologetically.
I looked around the tiny room. There was a single bed along the far wall with a small bedside table next to it. At the other end of the room was a chest of drawers, with a tall, thin clothes cupboard at right angles to it, adjacent to the door. A small fridge was in the far corner of the room, underneath the air conditioner, and a solitary easy chair had been placed against the only remaining bit of spare wall, opposite the door.
Someone knocked at the door. It was an Indian delivering my bags.
“Well, Mobi, I’ll leave you to unpack. Dinner is served from six o’clock onwards, but if you’re hungry before that, our cook can always rustle up something for you to eat. We serve food twenty-four hours a day. He opened the door to leave and then turned.
“Oh, and we’ve put a case of beer in your fridge. It should be nice and cold by now. I’ve put it on your tab.
With that he was gone, and I was alone in my room. I lay down on the bed and thought back over the eventful day. It hadn’t exactly panned out as I had imagined.
I was angry with Pete for not sorting out this disagreeable business with Bruce, before I’d arrived. And if Cal and Rex were anything to go by, it didn’t look as though I was going to be made particularly welcome by the oilfield hands; although they both sort of redeemed themselves later.
During my three years in Nigeria, I had become used to working with these rough, barely educated red-necks from the American mid-west. But I never had to live amongst them, and share a mess hall and showers with them.
Spending the next two years in this patch of desert wasn’t exactly an exciting prospect. The incident with Cal brought memories of the run-ins I used to have back in Nigeria with a couple of other American bullies. On those occasions I was saved by Jan, a Dutch tool Pusher – this time it was a Texan mechanic who came to my aid. I smiled ruefully. One day, there won’t be anyone to get me out of these scrapes.
What a fucking pain!
But there was nothing to be done about it. I hadn’t even met my staff yet.
I can hardly barge into the office and introduce myself when Bruce is still there – I guess it will have to wait until tomorrow.
I got up off the bed and walked over to the fridge. It was chock a block with beer and I took a can out and opened it with the opener thoughtfully left on top of the fridge. I sat down in my solitary chair and let the cold beer trickle down my parched throat.
Three beers later, I was starting to feel better. In spite of everything that had happened since I left London, I was starting to warm to my new adventures in the Arabian Gulf. Maybe it won’t be too bad after all.
Base Camp, Abu Dhabi, August 1972.
It was very, very hot and unbelievably humid. When I first arrived in Base Camp six months ago, I didn’t think any place could get much hotter, but I was wrong. The temperatures back in February were only in the mid-thirties, and after dark, they dropped to a pleasant mid-twenties.
But now it was August, the hottest time of year, and at mid-day, the thermometer had been hitting fifty degrees in some parts of the desert. Even at night, it rarely dropped below thirty-five degrees, and if that wasn’t bad enough, we were sweating in an unbearable ninety plus percent humidity.
Once the summer, or hot season, had started in earnest back in July, I realised that the mini-fridges were no long capable of keeping my beer ice cold. But I was soon taught that the way to do it was to remove the front grill of my air conditioner and balance a few cans inside the large aperture that blasted out chilled air from the compressor. If I stuffed half a dozen in the top of the air-conditioner at lunchtime, by the time I knocked off work in the evening I would have six ice-cold ones waiting for me.
Everyone did it – to the chagrin of the camp maintenance engineers who were always repairing the air-conditioners; damaged by some drunk when he accidentally dropped a can down the back of the air conditioner to create havoc with the compressor’s innards.
It was seven p.m. and I was parched after yet another long day in the office. I carefully removed a can from the top of the air conditioner and replaced it with a slightly warmer can from my fridge. I grabbed my can opener, opened the door and placed the can on the top concrete step.
I went back inside the room and picked up my Phillips cassette mini stereo system and put that too on the top step outside my room, trailing the power cable back inside. I put my New Seekers cassette in and a few seconds later the evocative strains of ‘Look what they’ve done to my song, Ma’ started to echo out across Base Camp.
The sun had almost set, and with it the intense heat of the day. The sound of my music was the signal that many had been waiting for. One by one, doors opened across the sand and my regular band of drinkers started to appear. As well as holding their first or second beer of the day, most of them were also carrying makeshift seats; beer crates, wooden boxes and anything else that would serve as a stool. Some meandered over with just their cans of beer for company and sat crossed legged on the sand.
For many months now, it had become a nightly ritual. For reasons that were never exactly clear to me, I seemed to have become the leader of our little drinking gang. I knew many came because of the eclectic mix of music that I played – from The New Seekers to The Beatles to Crosby Stills Nash and Young, to Cream and even a bit of Hendrix.
Others came because I was their boss, and yet more joined us because I was in charge of their money – their salaries, their local cash advances and expenses. If I didn’t sign off, they didn’t get paid, so they probably thought it might be a good idea to keep on my good side.
The fact of the matter was that I was second only to Pete Simmonds, the General Manager, in the Base Camp hierarchy. Pete had made it clear that he had delegated all matters of administration to yours truly – their twenty-six year old Chief Accountant.
At first, it had just been the three of us at our evening beer sessions – me and my two English accountants, Dick and Charlie. Dick Formby was from Yorkshire. I had first met him when he was working in the London Office. Charlie Higgin was a chartered accountant in his early thirties, who had been recruited directly for the Abu Dhabi position.
Dick was a year older than me, and like Charlie was a fully qualified accountant, whereas I was only partly qualified. This made my job a little more problematic than it would have been; but I soon won their respect with my in- depth knowledge of Santa Cruz’s complex cost accounting systems, and they were happy to follow my instructions.
I had the confidence of youth. I reckoned that not only was I a good accountant but I was also a pretty good leader and a dab hand at administration. Pete must have thought so too or he wouldn’t have been so insistent that I was brought in to replace poor Bruce.
It had been a difficult evening when Pete had finally returned to Base Camp that night. Bruce had refused to come out of his room to talk to him but when he finally emerged to take a leak, Pete was waiting and he had it out with him.
They had a blazing row and the upshot of it all was that Bruce was put in a Land Rover that night and shipped off back to town to pack up and leave. Driving through the desert at night was no joke, but Pete had assigned one of our best Bedouin drivers who knew the desert like the back of his hand to ensure he got there safely.
So there was no proper handover, and I was dumped in at the deep-end, but I soon got things sorted, and made good friends with my two English accounting assistants. I also gained the respect from the rest of the staff – all male clerks from the sub-continent – who I managed firmly, but fairly.
Apparently, to the Indians, I was a breath of fresh air. Most of the clerks had been working there for many years, and my predecessors, including Bruce, had been rather racist in their attitudes, and had treated them quite badly.
After a while, my drinking gang had grown to include workers from all walks of life. Roustabouts, tool pushers, drillers, rig mechanics, electricians, warehousemen, transport managers, engineers and a host more besides.
They were from places as far afield as the UK, America, Canada, Holland, Germany, Austria, and even a few educated Arabs from nearby countries such as Lebanon or Jordan. But a majority were from the USA, mainly the oil-rich states of Texas, Louisiana, California and New Mexico. My early fears of living with such a uneducated red-neck rabble were soon allayed. They seemed to appreciate my efforts to sort out all their salary-related problems with Head Office and my easy, kidding and micky-taking ways; although Rex was always warning me.
“One of these days, young Mobi, you’re gonna get your squirrelly arse beaten to pulp if you don’t ease off with your jokin’ and ribbin'”
For days now, the general subject of conversation had been the heat. Even for seasoned old-timers, they couldn’t recall a time it had been so hot. Gene O’Reilly, the middle-aged drilling engineer from California and the fount of knowledge on all things scientific, told us that the extreme temperatures had been caused by heat cyclones in the Empty Quarter.
What’s the Empty Quarter Gene? Charlie asked.
“It’s a vast expanse of empty desert on the Abu Dhabi- Saudi Border. At this time of year, these cyclones create huge sand storms and the winds they generate pushes the heat towards Abu Dhabi.”
“How in hell you know all that? You sure you’re not just making it up?” asked Joe Coggins. He was one of two elderly water well drillers who was spending the night at Base Camp before setting off back into the scorching desert at daybreak.
“It’s called a book, Joe,” Gene replied,” I read it in a book – about the Persian Gulf; but I doubt if you’ve ever read one.
There were a few hoots of laughter, but Joe just stared into the sand sipping his beer. He was a man of few words, like his partner Hank, who was even more taciturn.
I had a huge respect and admiration for the elderly twosome. They were both in their late sixties, and looked every bit of it – actually, much older. They were deeply tanned from the sun and their craggy features and wrinkled skin told the story of lives in harsh climates. They always walked slowly, with their backs bent, like old men walking against a gale.
But they did something nobody else could do. They were always the first to reconnoitre a new drilling location after the geologists had done their work. Once the experts had selected a new patch of desert to sink an exploratory well, Joe and Hank set off with their Bedouin crew in their mobile drilling rig truck, to search for water. Nothing could be done without a regular water supply. It was not only required for drinking and washing, but large quantities of water were also required for the drilling operations.
Once the camp was set up, the water for drinking would be purified by a desalination unit; but for Joe and Hank, they only had the potable water they had brought with them.
They had no electricity and no home comforts, such as cooked food or air-conditioned accommodation. They ate out of cans, and slept in the sand under a make shift canopy and set up their little water well drilling rig in temperatures hovering on fifty degrees.
It could take several days, sometimes a week or more, to find a sustainable supply of water. Once found, they would drop some metal casing to shore up the sides of the well and then plug it off. Later, the massive Kenworth trucks would move in – carrying the drilling rig, the Porta-Kamp accommodation, the rig mess hall and all the tons of equipment that was needed to drill for oil.
By this time, Joe and Hank would be gone – off to the next location to repeat the process. How they survived and tolerated such demanding work at their age nobody knew. They had been doing it all their lives and they knew no other. Needless to say, they were respected and almost revered by just about everyone.
“That was a nasty jibe, Gene,” I said, reproachfully.
The water well driller smiled. “Aw you don’ mind Gene, young Mobi, Ah’ve seen off far worse than ‘im in my years out here. Thinks he’s a right smart little bastard – with all ‘is mud an chemicals an’all. “
Gene was indeed a smart little bastard – well, according to Pete. Gene had been shipped into Abu Dhabi a little ahead of me back in January. Pete had insisted on having his favourite engineer as well as his favourite accountant. He told his bosses in Head Office that he couldn’t do it without Gene.
As a result, Gene was a bit of an insufferable prig, and assumed the unofficial position of Pete’s deputy on drilling matters, but he was all hot-air and relatively harmless. We took his lectures and put-downs with a pinch of salt. He wasn’t such a bad guy, once you got to know him. I reckoned my two water-well friends knew that as well as anybody.
At that moment we were disturbed by the arrival of Ethan, a young red-neck mechanic from nearby rig fifty-seven. He slammed the door on the mess hall opposite and shouted to us across the sand.
“Hey guys, I’ve got a six pack of warm beer here. Can y’all change’em out for cold ones.
“Give me one over here Ethan, I’ll swap it,” I told him.
“What the hell are you doing here, Ethan?” Gene asked. Aren’t you supposed to be on the rig?”
“Who’s asking?” Ethan responded, looking a little menacingly at Gene.
“I am.” Gene replied, who told you to come to base camp at this time of night?”
Ethan opened the cold beer I handed to him, took a long swig, and put it down in the sand next to him.”
“I’ll tell you who the hell told me to come to Base Camp. It was that mother-fucker of a rig Superintendent, John what’s ‘is name.”
“Big John? Why did he do that?”
Ethan stood up in the sand and stared back at Gene. “I’ll tell you why, Gene. That motherfucker ordered me off the rig. Told me to go to base camp and see Pete and get reassigned to another rig. Is that okay with you?”
“Why did he order you off the rig? What did you do?”
“That’s none of your fucking business. I’ll tell Pete in the morning.”
“Why don’t you go and see Pete now?” I asked. “He’s in his room.”
“I was gonna – but Amin told me that Pete’s gone to bed with a wank book so I reckon I’d better leave him alone till morning.”
“Maybe you’re right at that Ethan, ain’t no need disturbing Pete from doin’ what a man has ter do.” one of the drinkers piped up with a loud cackle.
Gene remained silent and Ethan sat back down in the sand with his legs crossed and swallowed hard on his beer.
We tried to steer the conversation onto other matters – from what was on the menu for lunch tomorrow, to the current state of Arab-Israeli relations. But as much as we tried to ignore Ethan’s problems, the drunker he became and the more he insisted on launching into abusive tirades; all aimed at his nemesis – Big John out on rig Fifty-seven.
“He may think he’s a big ‘mother-fucker out here in the desert with Pete Simmonds to protect him, but you jes’ wait until I catch up with him in Bahrain on his days off. We’ll see who’s the fucking boss then…”
“Ah, don’t be such stupid bastard,” responded an equally drunk oilfield hand. “Ethan, you’re half the size of that old grizzly bear… he’ll beat the shit out of you…”
“You reckon so… do ya?” Ethan responded becoming ever angrier, “jest coz I’m small, doesn’t mean I couldn’t take out that ol’ motherfucker. I could fix that big bastard with one hand tied behind my back…”
The crowd started laughing. They knew that Ethan was a tough, wiry little guy who could certainly take care of himself; but the reputation of the giant, grizzly old rig superintendent – known far and wide as ‘Big John’ – was a legendary.
He was not a man to get on the wrong side of – as many had discovered to their cost. But it always happened away from Abu Dhabi, and never on company time. The very idea that Ethan could take care of Big John was ludicrous and laughable.
Ethan became even more irate, and we baited him on.
“So you mothers don’ believe me, eh?”
Much teasing ensued and we all took great pleasure in telling Ethan just what Big John would do to him. I too was pretty tanked up and feeling no pain. I couldn’t resist joining in.
“Ethan – you’re just a half breed grease monkey.” I was referring to Ethan’s oft-repeated claim that he was half Sioux Indian. “Big John will have your slippery ass for breakfast…”
Everyone burst out laughing. Everyone that is, except Ethan who glowered at me with hatred in his eyes.
“You goddam, lily-livered limey – you’ll pay for that!”
I thought it was just hot air and I continued to laugh at him in a mocking tone. He suddenly jumped to his feet and launched himself at me. He head-butted me and I fell over into the sand. I felt a sharp pain on my forehead and could see the blood turning the sand red.
I stared up at him, assuming it was over, but Ethan wasn’t finished. He grabbed my arms and pulled me roughly to my feet. He took aim at my face and I knew that if he connected I would be in serious trouble.
Ethan would have probably inflicted some nasty damage if it hadn’t been for Rex, who not for the first time, came to my rescue. Rex was still relatively sober and had lightning quick reflexes. He immediately realised what was about to happen and took evasive action by leaping on Ethan’s back and wrestling the angry mechanic to the ground.
Before anyone realised what was happening, the two Texans struggled to their feet and a fully-fledged, no holds barred fight had commenced. Ethan, the embittered rig mechanic, was hell-bent on doing somebody some serious damage – and it didn’t seem to matter who. Rex, my taciturn, sarcastic driver of six months ago had drawn the short straw and was saving me from the beating of my life.
Not having seen a proper fist fight for months, the drunken bystanders egged them on from their ringside seats in the sand. I was worried for Rex, who had since become my firm friend, even though he looked like he could take care of himself.
A door opened at the far side of the camp, and Pete Simmonds emerged and hurried quickly over towards the two fighting men.
‘Goddamn it! Can’t a man have a bit of peace and quiet in this fucking shit-hole without grown men trying to take chunks out of each other? Stop that fighting! Now!’
Such was the force of Pete’s personality and authority that the two bloodied fighters reluctantly backed off and stood glowering at each other in the sand.
‘Hell on earth! Don’t you mother-fuckers know that I don’t allow no fighting? Get the fuck back to your rooms– both of you!’
The two men slowly walked off in separate directions and Pete walked over to sit beside me on the top step outside my Porta-Kamp. Someone handed him a cold beer.
I told Pete what had happened.
I felt bad for Rex. Although he and I had started off on the wrong foot, I soon realised that he was one of the quietest and most amiable workers in the camp. Like so many of these oilfield workers, Rex didn’t trust strangers, but when he got to know you, he could be one of the best friends you could ever wish for.
“Rex wasn’t to blame, Pete. If he hadn’t intervened, I reckon Ethan would’ve beaten me to a pulp.”
“You, Mobi? Why in hell did Ethan wanna fight with you?’”
“I have no idea,’ I replied, with a straight face, “we were all sitting here having a bit of a laugh and he suddenly went wild.”
“You goddam, limey liar, someone shouted from the back, tell him the truth Mobi…”
“Well… I might… have said something he didn’t like too much…”
“Goddamn it Mobi,” Pete responded, “How many times have I told you to keep your tongue under control when you’ve been drinking.”
Pete wasn’t really angry with me. It was each man’s responsibility to keep their violent tendencies in check while on duty. Any amount of abuse and mickey taking was par for the course during our drinking sessions in the desert after work. But woe betides anyone who resorted to violence to settle scores.
The volatile Ethan, who had already upset Pete’s most senior rig superintendent, would be summarily dealt with the following morning when he had sobered up. I was relieved to learn that Rex, who had probably saved me from a nasty beating, would be let off with a mild warning.
“Rex’s a good hand, Mobi and I know he would never start anything if it wasn’t necessary. Goddamn it Mobi, you certainly know how to liven up a quiet evening don’t you?” He added with a smile.
After the fuss from the recent fight had settled down, Pete took me to one side. “I’m going into Abu Dhabi town tomorrow afternoon, and I’d like you to come with me. I’ve found a good location for our new town office and I need your input with the builders. Can you make yourself free?”
“Sure thing Pete, it’ll be a pleasure. Anything to get away from these drunken red-necks for a few days,” I added with a grin.
“‘Nuff of that – what did I just tell you about stirrin’ things up?”
“Yeah, Sorry, Pete.”
“The builders reckon it’ll take ’em about three months to complete our offices, so I reckon we should plan the big move to town in about four months’ time – maybe after New Year.”
“After living out in this desert for nearly a fucking year, it won’t come a moment too soon. It will be a pleasure to get back to semi-civilization. I just can’t wait.”
I turned to my accounting assistant. “Hey Charlie, you reckon you can hold the fort out here for one day? Pete wants me to go to town with him tomorrow.”
“No sweat Mobi. I can manage fine without you and Dick.”
“Where’s Dick?” Pete asked, referring to my other accountant.
“He took off this morning for a few days R & R in Bahrain.”
It was the quiet time of the month. We had just closed off our monthly accounts and were doing a bit of tidying up in the books before starting all over again for the next month. Pete left it to me to schedule my staff’s days off. Dick and Charlie had both been away twice since I had arrived, but apart from a couple of nights in town, I hadn’t been anywhere.
“That skinny little bean counter should be havin’ ‘is end away with one of them nigger girls from the Seychelles by now,” Cal shouted with a laugh. He was referring to the black prostitutes form the Seychelles who ‘serviced’ the oilfield hands during their days off in Bahrain.
I looked across at Cal, Santa-Cruz’s transportation manager. Since the run-in I had with him on my first day in camp, he had behaved himself – after he realised who I was. These oilfield hands seemed to believe that as the resident Chief Accountant, I could screw them on their salary payments if I had a mind to.
As a result, Cal was always mouthing off to anyone and everyone, but he kept his hands to himself and usually left me alone – unless he’d had a gut full of beer.
“No need to be so fucking racist, Cal,” I retorted.
“You Goddamn Limey, ah’ll say what I want, and there ain’t nuttin’ you’re gonna do about it.”
“Cal, shut the fuck up!” Pete said sternly. We’ve had enough fightin’ around here for one day.”
As Cal reached for his beer, one of the radio clerks came out of the office and walked over me.
“Mister Mobi, mister Mobi, please you come to office. KC is being on the radio from Abu Dhabi,” he said, in a distinct Indian accent.
I looked at my watch. “Christ it’s gone eleven! What the hell does he want at this time of night?”
I stood up to go to the office and Pete decided to join me.
“I’ll go with you, Mobi, when you’ve done with KC, I need to make call to rig fifty-seven and have a word with Big John about that fucking Ethan.”
We sat down in the radio room and I picked up the mike. “Santa Cruz Abu Dhabi this is Santa Cruz Base Camp, come back,” I yelled.
“Santa Cruz, Base Camp, is that you Mr Mobi?”
“Roger, KC. Why’re calling me at this time of night.”
“Switch channels,” KC said.
I flipped the switch.
“Roger KC, do you read me?”
“Mr Mobi, are Dick Formby and Pat O’Malley out there in Base Camp?”
“Dick and Pat? No, why? They took off for Abu Dhabi this morning.”
“Yes, I know, but they didn’t arrive, and I wondered if they had a break down and went back to Base Camp.”
There was a strict rule that everyone had to check in and out when they arrived or left Base Camp. The register that was kept in the radio room; I knew they weren’t here, but I checked the book anyway.
“No, KC, they’re not here. Why’s it taken you so long for you to call it in?”
There was a long pause, and then KC came back on the radio.
“I’m… I’m… sorry Mobi, but I wasn’t expecting them to be here until about six or seven. I had to go out somewhere, so I left instructions with Mohammed to meet them at the office and run them out to the airport in the minivan.
“But that doesn’t make sense. They left here at eleven a.m. It says so in the log. And anyway, I saw them off myself. They should have been there by two o’clock this afternoon – three at the very latest.”
There was silence from the other end
Pete grabbed the mike.
“KC! This is Pete.”
“What the goddamn hell is goin’ on KC? Why didn’t you call in when they didn’t arrive this afternoon? You know the rules.”
“Yes, Pete, I know. But…but… they told me they were going to ride the sand dunes in the desert for a few hours and wouldn’t be arriving in town till evening. They asked me to book them on the late flight to Bahrain, so I told Mohammed Ghanem to wait for them.”
“Goddamn it KC. You know damn well that nobody’s allowed to go off-track without clearing it with me, Cal or Mobi. It’s a fuckin’ furnace out in thar in the desert.”
“I’m… sorry… Pete, I assumed it was all properly approved.”
“Approved! Nobody approves sand-doonin’ at this time of year – it’s too damned dangerous. Did they say where they were heading?”
“No, Pete. I assumed you must have known.”
“This is a real fuck up KC. I’ll be speaking to you later, but right now we need to find out where those two fuckers are. Switch channels and stand by the radio – I might need you later.”
Pete turned to me, still angry. “I take it you didn’t know nuttin’; about this little adventure, Mobi?”
“No, they didn’t say a word. They must have planned it between them.”
“Yeah, it kinda sounds that way. Goddamn the stupid bastards! Look, go and see if anyone else knew about their afternoon jaunt? I know it’s unlikely but we’d better check. They must have broken down or got stuck in a doon. Goddamn! It’s a big fucking desert out there and we’ve no idea which way they went. Lucky there’s been no wind. At first light one of our Bedouin trackers might be able to pick up their tyre tracks.”
“Do you think they’ll be alright, Pete?”
He looked at me for a moment.
“Pat knows the rules. If you break down, you stay with your vehicle, and keep out of the sun. Yeah, they’ll be okay – except for being fucking hot, fucking thirsty and fucking tired.”
“Well, I hope you’re right.”
From the way he looked at me, I knew he wasn’t too sure.
We set off at dawn. The man who had gone ‘doonin’ with Dick was Pat O’Malley, one of two Base Camp electricians. His main duty was to repair and maintain the dozens of air conditioners that were continually breaking down, or running out of freon – especially at that time of year.
He was a seasoned desert hand, having been out at Base Camp for more than three years; and as Pete had said, Pat knew the rules. He had ridden the sand dunes many times before, but always when the weather was kinder than it was at present.
Charlie had told me that Dick and Pat were close mates and that Dick had been trying to persuade Pat to take him out to the dunes for some time.
“I had no idea they were planning to go out today, but it doesn’t surprise me,” Charlie said, “Pat has quite a reputation for driving up the dunes, and Dick was bursting to give it a go. They should be okay – Pat knows this desert pretty well.”
Pete had instructed Cal to muster six Land Rovers, so that we could search in three teams of two vehicles.
“Ahm not having any more Goddamned Land Rovers stuck out there in this fucking heat. Remember – stick together – no going off anywhere by yourself. Understood?”
Everyone nodded agreement.
Pete and I were in the first Land Rover with one of the top Bedouin guides. Cal was in the second and Mac, an ancient tool Pusher, who had been working in the desert for more than ten years, headed up the third team. All of us had Bedouin trackers on board. Gene was left in camp to supervise the drilling operations in Pete’s absence.
Before dawn, the Bedouin trackers had been out trying to sort out the tyre tracks with torches; now the sun was up the three of them got together to see if they could figure out which direction the missing Land Rover had gone.
It was a pretty hopeless task as there were just too many tracks leaving Base Camp and it was impossible to say which ones belonged to Pat’s Land Rover. We had a pow-wow and decided to head off in different directions.
We would avoid the well-worn tracks leading out to the rigs, and try to spot any tracks that were leading out into virgin desert. One team headed south, the second headed west. Pete decided to follow the trail to Ab Dhabi town for a while to see if we could spot any tracks that headed out into unchartered desert from the main trail. It was agreed that we would search for about three hours and then return to camp, by noon at the latest, to report any progress.
The poor devils could be anywhere. There were three rules of riding the sand dunes. The first was, always log in the details of the direction you were heading; the second was, always take two vehicles and a towrope, so that one could pull the other out if you got stuck in the sand; finally there was a strict rule that nobody was allowed to go riding the dunes during the months of July to September – it was far too hot.
Pat and Dick had broken every one of those rules, and it came as no surprise when we all returned to camp just before noon to report zero progress.
Then Pete had an idea. “Cal, who around Base Camp is keen on dooning?”
“Wahl, there’s Josh and Billy, they’re pretty damn keen. I think that Josh used to go out with Pat.”
Pete stared at Cal. “You mother! Why the hell didn’t you say so before? Go and find him!” Josh was the second of two base camp electricians and as luck would have it, he was just leaving the workshop on his way to the mess hall for lunch.
Josh told us that over the years, he and Pat had been all over the desert in search of good dunes to drive over.
“We’ve got three favourite spots,” he said to Pete.
“Well, you go and tell Cal and Mac how to find two of them, and then you come along with us to check out the third one.”
We had a quick bite to eat and set off again, with Joss showing us the way. Once more we headed off in the direction of Abu Dhabi town, but after about half an hour, we made a sharp turn south, deep into the desert.
“I didn’t see any tyre tracks,” I said to Pete.
“That don’ mean nuttin’. The sands are shifting and blowing around all the time.”
Another half an hour into the interior and we saw some spectacular dunes in the distance. Some of them were so high that they looked impossible to drive over but Josh assured me that he and Pat had been over several of them. In spite of the gravity of the situation, I couldn’t help marvelling at the beauty of the sand – the contrasting shades of golden hues, with the sun glistening over the peaks of the towering dunes.
“God, that’s beautiful, Pete, I wish I’d brought my camera.”
We’ve got a polaroid camera in the back, but we not here to admire the scenery.”
“No, of course not. Josh, I can hardly believe you’ve driven up to the top of those huge dunes? Some of them are almost vertical.”
“We’ve been known to, Mobi. It sure beats riding the roller coaster back in Blackpool.
We drove right around the dunes but there was no sign of the missing vehicle.
“They’re not around here, Pete, we’d have seen it by now,” Josh said.
Pete stopped to consider our next move. It was two o’clock and it was bloody hot. We were all drenched in sweat, and we slaked our thirst in large gulps from the water canteens we had brought with us. When had we set out from base camp the canteens were packed with ice cubes, but the ice had melted and the water it was already quite warm.
“What now Pete?”
Pete looked very glum. He seemed at a loss to know what to do next.
“We better head back – maybe one of the other teams has had more luck.”
Josh turned to Pete. “Pete, while we’re out here, we might try another area. It’s not too far – a little west of here. Pat and I went there once or twice. The dunes aren’t so spectacular but it’s still good fun. Pat might have decided it was too dangerous here – with no back up – and gone for the softer option.
Pete thought for a moment. “Okay, let’s do it – quick now as we’ should be heading back to base pretty soon or they’ll be sending out another search party for us.”
It was another twenty-minute drive before the new dunes came into view. As Josh had said, they weren’t as high, but they were still quite awe-inspiring. We drove towards them but saw nothing. Then we drove around the back, but still nothing. Suddenly a hawk-eyed Bedouin in the second Land Rover shouted excitedly. He jumped out and pointed to the summit of one of the higher dunes. We stopped the vehicle. Pete pulled out his binoculars, but by now we could see that there was definitely an outline of a vehicle, just below the summit of the tallest dune.
“Is it them?” I asked Pete, anxiously.
He didn’t answer for a few seconds, and then, “It surely is, Mobi, we’ve goddamn found the stoopid buggers.”
Once we had driven right up to the base of the dune, we could clearly see the bright orange Santa Cruz logo of on the side of the stranded Land Rover.
“Where’s Dick and Pat?”
“They’re probably underneath the vehicle, sheltering from the sun. It must be close to fifty degrees up there. Come on, let’s go take a looksee.”
We set off to climb up the dune, towering above us. It was bloody hot and the sand made it slow going. Occasionally, we sank up to our knees in the deep fine sand. We were halfway up when at long last we saw signs of life. Someone crawled out from underneath the vehicle and waved to us.
“That’s Pat,” Josh said, recognising his bald head.
“Where’s Dick?” I asked.
“Probably keeping cool underneath.”
Pat staggered down and met us half way. He looked to be in bad way. He was just wearing his boxer shorts which were covered in sand and sticking to his skin. His entire body was covered in sand-stained sweat and he was very red. He looked ten years older since I had last seen him.
“Am I glad to see you,” he croaked, I thought I was a goner when you didn’t turn up yesterday.”
“Pat! Where’s Dick?”
“What do you mean – not here?”
He’s gone. I tried to stop him but he wouldn’t listen. He stayed with me under the Rover last night, but when nobody came this morning, he insisted that he could make it on foot back to Base Camp.”
“That’s crazy, it’s at least an hour’s hard drive to Base Camp. He’d never make it in this heat! Why didn’t you stop him?”
“I tried, but he wasn’t having it. He became very agitated and said he didn’t want to wait around to die. He took off about nine o’clock this morning.”
There was a shout from one the Bedouin trackers who had found something in the sand. He waved and we went over. There were the tell-tale signs of footprints, leading away from the dune in the direction of Base Camp.
“Let’s get out this sun. Come on Pat, get in the back of the Land Rover and have some water. We’ve brought some food along just in case we found you.”
It was clear that Pat had used up his last vestiges of energy in walking down the dune to us and we had to carry the poor guy back to the vehicle. “We need to get him back to a medic in base Camp as soon as possible,” Pete said.
Pat heard Pete from the back. “No! No! We’ve gotta find Dick.”
Pete looked at the mechanic lying down in the back. “Are you sure you’ll be okay?”
“I’ve lasted this long, I can last a bit longer – now I’ve got food and water.”
“Okay, let’s give it a try.”
Pete told the Bedouin to follow the tracks on foot and we followed him slowly in the Land Rover. It was painfully slow progress, and I felt sorry for the poor Arab walking in front of us.
“Won’t he get tired?” I asked Pete.
“Nah, he’s used to it, he’ll be fine.”
After about half an hour we came to a very flat stretch of sand and we could see the footprints clearly ahead of us. We stopped for a moment and the Arab climbed in. The tracks ahead were clear enough for us to speed up a little. The Bedouin said something to Pete – half-English half Arabic – which I couldn’t understand. I looked at Pete.
“He said that the tracks show that Dick was in trouble. He wasn’t walking normally, he was sort of stumbling along.”
“Oh God!” I exclaimed.
We drove on for a while and then the tracks seemed to disappear in deeper sand. The Arab got out again and beckoned for us to follow. We drove slowly for about ten minutes when suddenly Josh spotted something on the horizon.
“Pete! Look over there!”
He picked up his binoculars and focussed on the far distance, then shouted for the Arab to get back in. He put his foot down and we sped on. We had almost reached the figure lying in the sand when Pete suddenly skidded to a halt. He jumped out and looked at something.
“What you found?”
“Nuttin’. Stay in the Rover.”
But I was out before he could stop me. “Is it Dick?”
“No, but he’s not far away.”
I looked down in the sand and almost vomited. The bloodstains were bad enough, but it was what was in the middle of them. I could see two fingernails and small traces of flesh.
Everyone got out, except Pat, and we followed the bloody trail on foot. Even my non-existent tracking skills could see that the poor guy had been crawling along in the sand, dragging himself inch by inch. As we slowly approached the figure ahead, we saw two more fingernails in the sand. My head was spinning and my heart was beating like crazy and I knew that each of us was dreading what we were about to see. It seemed like an age, but it was less than a minute before we reached the body lying at a grotesque angle in the sand. I could hardly bear to look at Dick’s horrifically heat-charred face, and his ravaged hands with the nails ripped out. He must have suffered terribly.
“Dick!” I screamed, “Why the fuck didn’t you stay in the Land Rover with Pat? You stupid, stupid man!