The helicopter simulator started to move. Woody felt a lurch in his stomach. He thought he was going to throw up. The three other guys with him looked calm enough. All four men were dressed in red tee shirts, grey shorts, with yellow hard hats on their heads. The crane turned the simulator on its side like a fairground ride. For Woody the experience was not exciting like a funfair. It was much more frightening. The fake helicopter plunged into the icy water of the training pool.
“Fuu…ck,” Woody cursed. He was terrified. You can do this. The divers are in the pool, it will be all right, he told himself, unconvinced.
As soon as the fake helicopter hit the water the other three men thrashed their legs and released themselves. He could hear the muffled cheers when they surfaced in the pool. All his orifices were filling up. He felt light-headed, dreamy, strange coloured yellow lights were in his head. He released his belt and kicked his legs franticly, but he was not moving. He knew he had only few seconds. At last he managed to push himself out into the pool with a huge effort. He was not strongly built and had never learnt to swim properly. He could see lights above. As he broke the surface he saw the divers.
“Woody man, are you ok?” one of the divers called out from the side of the pool
Woody spluttered and spat out water.
“Two seconds more and we were comin’ for you. You might have to give it a second go.”
“Shit there’s no way you will get me in that bloody thing again,” Woody shouted. He was finding it hard to tread water. He paddled to the side and pulled himself out with difficulty.
“Well looks like you’ve passed that bit,” the trainer said writing on his clipboard, “but I am not too happy about your swimming. Maybe get some lessons soon?”
“Yeah maybe,” Woody said. He was thinking of a large pint of lager with his mates in the pub, not swimming lessons.
He got dressed and made a quick call from the office phone.
“Hi Roddy. Are Bob and Cliff in the bar? Good that’s sound. I will be down the road in a minute. I need a bloody drink.”
He headed on down the hill towards the Harriet Bar which was just at the foot of School Hill near the graveyard, hidden along a narrow lane. The sun was glinting on the grey granite tenements. The buildings looked as if they had been sprinkled with sparkling diamonds. This was why Aberdeen was called the Silver City, Woody reflected. A large building, Marishal College, was in the distance as the hill climbed again. This unusual building housed the university science faculty where the medics studied. Woody had always thought it looked like a wedding cake; it was so ornate. He turned the corner and arrived at the Harriet Bar. Cliff and Bob were sitting at the far end of the long narrow smoky room. The bar was on the left hand side of the room and the tables along the right wall. Cliff looked up and laughed like a pirate at Woody. He tossed his ginger hair back mockingly at the approaching figure.
“Christ you look like a ghost Woody! What’s up with you?”
“Pint of Kestrel Woody?” Roddy the barman asked laughing when he saw Woody’s appearance.
Woody’s blond hair, normally tied in a pony-tail was loose and looked like candy floss gone wild. He lit up a cigarette and pulled at it, squinting at his friends with his piercing cornflower blue eyes. He sat down. As it was a sunny day outside the bar-room, tables were bathed in golden light pouring in from the high windows.
“Yeah and a nip too Roddy,” Woody moaned. “My God, why the hell am I doing this job? Serving up food to roustabouts on the oilrigs. I would be better working in a pub in Aberdeen.”
“It’s better money on the rigs than working at Top Man Woody,” Bob retorted. “The only good thing aboot that job in the shop is the women.”
Bob had a strange face, somewhat resembling a woodland creature. He had very small feminine features. He wore round glasses which always seemed to be on the end of his nose. His face was framed by dark curly hair cut in a mullet style. This bizarre haircut, short on top with wispy longer tendrils hanging down was popular in the 80’s. He looked young for his 25 years. He had a thick Aberdeenshire accent. He was a childhood friend of Woody’s from Banchory which was a small town about 20 miles outside Aberdeen. Bob worked as a manager in the men’s outfitters “Top Man” in Aberdeen’s main shopping area, Union Street. Bob had been known to bring his female workmates back to the flat for hair washing sessions. These rituals had puzzled Woody and Cliff who were his flatmates. Bob was always well dressed. Tank tops and a matching shirt were his favourite clothes. Today he was wearing a green tank top with a green and yellow checked shirt. At one time Cliff and Woody had discussed whether Bob in fact might be a closet homosexual.
“Well we only have a week to go and we’ll be back offshore Woody,” Cliff reflected.
Cliff was one of the roustabouts on the same oilrig as Woody. Roustabouts were labourers of sorts who did all the manual tasks on the rig. Cliff was strongly built compared to his two friends. Cliff and Woody had been at a local boy’s school together in Aberdeen. Cliff’s parents had high hopes for him when he passed the test for a private school. Unfortunately Cliff had not lived up to their expectations. The two friends looked like a couple of rough diamonds now. Their classmates would not have recognised them. Both men had long hair, pierced ears and tattoos.
There was a pause in the conversation. Music played in the background…it was Haircut 100’s “Fantastic Day”. Bob started to sing along to the chorus, “Faaantastic Day ay ay, faaantastic day.”
Woody interrupted him “Shit Cliff, don’t talk about going back on the rigs. Let’s go back to the flat and have a drink and maybe a smoke”.
They made their way back up to Union Street. In a few minutes they turned left into Crown Terrace. They climbed up two flights of stairs to their attic flat. The flat had a lounge window which looked like a crow’s nest overlooking the harbour area of Aberdeen. There was a clear view of the docks and the skyline beyond. It was not a beautiful view, but first thing in the morning the sky could be a rosy pink colour and you could see the ships leaving the harbour. Three cans of lager later and the three men started to talk about the previous weekend.
“What were your mum and dad like last Saturday at our house party Woody? Who invited them to the party?” Cliff said.
“Christ, Babs and Nigel don’t need an invite when Woody’s in town,” Bob said.
Bob had known Woody’s parents since his childhood in Banchory. Babs was an ex- accountant and Nigel was a prof at Aberdeen University. They owned a large house in Banchory. They were a well- known couple in the Deeside town, especially in the local hotel bar.
“Your folks certainly like a drink or two don’t they?” Cliff laughed. “Babs ended up behind the sofa asleep quite early on!” Woody suddenly remembered the image of his mother curled up drunk behind the settee. He thought her drinking was becoming a problem.
“God Woody you are so lucky man. Your parents own three hooses; the one in Fitty, the hoose in Banchory and this wee flat,” Bob declared enviously.
“They bought Fitty so my dad could live there when he was working in Aberdeen. Woody retorted. Why are you complaining anyway? This flat is a nice place for us to live.” He was becoming embarrassed about his parents being the butt of the jokes as usual.
“Let’s smoke some weed,” he said. They lit up a joint and started to talk about Woody and Cliff’s school days.
“Do you think that we would have worked harder at school if we hadn’t got into the druggie crowd Woody?” Cliff asked passing the joint to him.
“I dunno Cliff. We had a good time, but you’re probably right. I kind of regret it sometimes when we are stuck out there on that fucking rig.”
They drank and smoked the whole evening. They laughed and giggled, making childish jokes, with the effects of the cannabis. Woody had an infectious laugh. He had very large nicotine stained teeth. When he laughed he made other people laugh as he looked like Bugs Bunny. The three friends stayed up talking until about 3am and then crawled into bed.
The next morning Bob got up first and cooked up a huge fry up of Lorne sausage, bacon, and eggs. He heated up some Aberdeen rolls; “rouwies” as they are known in Aberdeen. He shouted to Woody and Cliff.
“ Guys we need to eat something. Get through here! I’ve made a fry up. Somethin’ for the munchies!”
When Woody and Cliff finally arrived in the kitchen Bob said “I’ll miss you boys and your crack when you’re away offshore.”
“Shut up Bob you wee shit.” They both laughed at him.
Later that afternoon Woody headed to his parent’s house in Footdee. Fitty as it was known, was a small fishing village, situated near Aberdeen harbour. It took about fifteen minutes to walk from the flat in Crown Terrace. Fitty was a small haven in the centre of Aberdeen. If you weren’t Aberdonian, you might never find it, located beyond the bonded warehouses at the dockside. Woody’s parents owned a tiny cottage there. Since it was the weekend before Woody would be off to the rig again, he wanted to see Babs and Nigel.
The houses were laid out in rows, separated by tiny cobbled streets. The sun was shining on the grey sea which lapped against the huge wall built to protect the houses from the winter storms. Washing was hanging on the lines in nearly every garden. Woody went to the back door to surprise Babs. She was standing in the kitchen rolling out pastry. She was a tiny woman of about 60 with very short jet black hair with too much dye on it. She was originally from Buckinghamshire and had kept her accent.
“Oh my “little hen” come in. I am making a pizza”. She lovingly stroked Woody’s hair. Woody was her only child. Woody noticed that her breath smelt of booze, perhaps from the night before.
Babs started to sing, “Hey little hen, when, when, when, will you make me an egg for my tea?” She had sung this song to Woody as a child, hence his pet name of “hen”.
“Oh Babs don’t start that stuff.” Woody called his parents Babs and Nigel not mum and dad. His friends thought calling your parents by their proper names was extremely weird.
Woody suddenly noticed what Babs was holding in her hand and cried, “What the hell Babs! What are you using as a rolling pin?” Her rolling pin was an empty bottle of vodka.
“Oh it does just as well as anything.” Babs brushed this remark away.
“Bloody hell mum, you are not drinking again are you?” Woody cried. He had been in denial about his mum’s drinking. He hated it when she was drunk and felt incapable of helping her.
“No I’m not. How dare you speak to me like that?” Babs looked wounded. There was a strong smell of gas in the flat which Woody had noticed before but it had never been dealt with.
“What’s that smell of gas, Babs? Tell Nigel to get that fixed! You could both be blown to pieces one day!”
“Where’s Nigel anyway?” Woody asked
“He’s gone up to the “Prince” for a drink. Why don’t we go and meet him Woody?” said Babs.
Woody and Babs headed up to the Prince of Wales bar in a taxi. Babs always travelled in taxis. The Prince as it was known by locals was a famous Aberdeen pub. The pub had the longest bar in the granite city, made of dark mahogany. The Prince was a couthie kind of place where town and gown met. University students and lecturers often drank there. It had various small side rooms or snugs. Nigel was propped up at the bar chatting to a couple of old worthies in tweed jackets. He stepped forward to welcome his family. He hugged his son.
“So you’re off soon then Woody?” he asked. Babs starts to stroke Woody’s hair again.
“Get off Babs! I am 27 years old for God’s sake.”
“Yes I am back on the rig next Saturday. Back to that stinking kitchen and back to watching films for two weeks.”
“No drink for you on the rigs. Best have a couple of pints with us now,” Nigel declared.
Woody was still feeling a bit rough but he never refused a pint. Nigel, his dad was from London originally but he had managed to get a Head of Department’s job in the Engineering Faculty at Aberdeen University twenty five years ago. He loved Scotland. There was no doubt that Nigel was a very eccentric looking man. He had the same wispy hair as Woody which was shoulder length. His long hair, now salt and pepper, looked odd with his bald head. That evening the father and son drank quite a few pints. Babs was drinking her customary vodka and tonic. They drank, chatted and laughed in one of the snug rooms until midnight. At this point they decided to head home and poured themselves into a taxi. They dropped Woody off at Crown Terrace.
“Have a safe trip son. See you in three weeks.”
Babs was slumped against Nigel. “Bye bye my little hen.”
The next Saturday morning Cliff and Woody boarded the helicopter bound for the Occidental Oil Rig. It was a rough crossing but they made it to the rig safely. They normally didn’t see much of each other when they were working. They patted each other roughly on the back and made their way to their different quarters.
Woody worked a long shift the next day in the kitchen. He was dead beat when he hit his bunk that evening. He normally slept pretty soundly on the rig. During the night however he awoke suddenly feeling very hot. The room felt like a furnace. His workmates were on shift so he was alone. He heard cries outside. Suddenly there was a huge movement as if the rig had tipped over. The room was now definitely sloping. He leapt out of his bunk, put on his uniform and went out on deck.
There was a horrific scene awaiting him. The rig was tilting really badly. He had to scramble his way along the side of the platform which was lying at an angle. When he eventually rounded the corner of the rig he had to hang onto the rail or he would have slipped over the side. He saw that lot of the men were grouped near the helideck which was still miraculously lying flat. He saw Cliff. He was waving at Woody.
“Jesus Woody,” Cliff called. “Where were you man?”
“What the fuck has happened Cliff?” Woody shouted back.
“There has been a gas explosion. They have manned the lifeboats and the helicopters are coming to get us off”.
The whole rig was lit up with an orange and red flame. Woody could see clearly that part of the structure had indeed tipped over to one side. Below, the sea water was red, reflecting the fierce fire that burned above. It was truly like a scene from hell. Woody looked over the side of the rig. The lifeboats some of which were full of men were quite far away from the rig to escape the heat. Some of the crew were swimming towards them.
“Shit, I am coming with you Cliff,” Woody called out.
He was scarednow. The helicopter appeared in the sky above them. Woody desperately clambered towards the helideck along the edge of the rig. Unfortunately there was a little rusty spike, mostly unnoticed, harmless until now in Woody’s path. The spike, would have been more visible normally, but with the rig at an angle it was hidden.
Woody tripped over the spike. He fell a long way down. When he hit the water it was so cold that he could hardly breathe. He started to sink into the icy black depths of the North Sea. The lifeboats were a long way off and he could hear the men crying for help in the water nearby. He kicked his legs and surfaced again. He started to swim…
Three years later, Cliff and Bob were standing in the Queen Mother’s Rose Garden in Hazelhead Park, Aberdeen.
“This is a bonny wee place,” Bob observed
“Bonny in some ways but not in others,” Cliff muttered.
“I heard Babs is out of re-hab at the Cornhill unit. How is she?” Cliff asked
“As well as can be expected really. What a shit time for her and Nigel. No wonder she tried to top herself,” Bob replied.
The two friends looked up at the memorial.
A dark reminder, erected in such a beautiful place. The three grey statues above them were still, but…….. they depicted panic. Two men in hard hats, one in a hooded wet suit.
167 names were etched in gold below.
One name stood out amongst those men whose bodies were never found……..Charles Woodruffe
“I miss you Woody mate,” Cliff whispered.
© Liz Logie-MacIver 2013