Christmas Present

I am taking a break from publishing Oil Town online. Jeremy (my editor) and I are going to Oman in February to visit my brother and sister-in-law and I'm hoping to learn a tiny bit of Arabic to supplement the 5 words I learned as a child in Kuwait, spend a day or two in the desert and return inspired with all the novel's issues (and mine) resolved. I am, above all, an optimist.
The Christmas Present is this - a chance to catch up with all Cleo, Dynamite and Genevieve's adventures so far, and Robin's view of life too. As a result of a couple of hours wrestling with google and pulling faces you can go to the whole novel (so far) on a nice clear pdf - either Oil Town pdf average size or Oil Town BIG pdf. The bigger font may be easier to view on a Kindle, for example. You should be able to 'email as attachment' to your Kindle's email address.
 Please try it and let me know about any techy, typo or other problems. It would be especially good to hear if it works in Martinique, Oman, Durham, Ukraine, Scorton, China,  Australia, Edinburgh....

Thank you for your support.
Back soon, so keep subscribing -
Sally


15 - Boyd

Ahmadi, Kuwait, 1967

Boyd


It was Genevieve's birthday and the two of us had dinner with Boyd at the Guest House. Spencer was supposed to come but phoned at the last minute.

'I've got to work late Peggy. The wretched tank farm extension restart is turning into a bit of a nightmare.'

It had been shut down when the American contractors left in a hurry at the start of the war. 

'I'll see you there later' he said, 'Take a taxi and order for me, I'll drive straight there'. I had my doubts, but what could I do?

Genevieve came to our house first, Robin gave her a card and some pompoms and I gave her a black and white oversized dogtooth pattern shift dress and some tips. 

'Don’t drink too much. Don’t talk about children all the time. Ask questions about his work. Don’t laugh too loud.'
Genevieve

'Oh Cleo.' she sighed, droopily, 'Boyd’s so sophisticated. And so.... pale, and not very fit, and his hair's going grey.' And then, with a sudden annoying increase in enthusiasm, 'Isn't Spencer’s hair great, I really like the way he’s got it so short at the moment, just like Dynamite's. And he has such a lovely tan....'

Incredibly tedious. As for his hair, what had been a white strip around the last hair cut had burned scarlet, then peeled in ugly circles. Ridiculous.

At the Guest House conversation dragged. Completely ignoring my instructions, Genevieve started talking about her class. She had taken the children outside even though it was windy and the sand was flying. We were almost superstitious about keeping out of the sand, but Genevieve thought it was ok because it wasn't a full blown shamaal. She could be unbelievably stupid. The evening drew towards a slightly awkward close, as Genevieve and I were both a bit disappointed in Boyd's lack of attention to her and she was downcast that I hadn't supported her behaviour with the children.. I had long given up on Spencer, and asked the manager to phone a taxi. Of course Boyd insisted on taking us. Seeing his briefcase on the seat I remembered the scarf Genevieve had worn at the club carefully folded on top of his papers. I whispered,

'Do you have the thing here - it'll cheer her up.'

Boyd brought out the gold embossed red leather box from the briefcase.

He swivelled round awkwardly and held it out over the top of the front seat, right across Genevieve, to me. I shook my head and mouthed,

'But it's for Genevieve.'

He gestured silently and pointed at me, smiling, then said very quietly,

'It's for you, Cleopatra.'

We stared at each other blankly, then Boyd crashed the car into gear, and swerved across the car park. We reached Genevieve’s apartment in record time and she went in without a word. 

'Cleo, Cleopatra.'

'Boyd, you bought it with me, not for me!'

'You told me how much you loved your dhow, that it was the only gold you had. You couldn't have been more obvious. And the thing you chose – it’s meant for a Cleopatra – you said so yourself.'

'I said it was a Cleopatra style choker, I didn't mean it was for me.'

'I'm sure Spencer wouldn't object, if that’s what you’re worried about. He seems very... complacent. And Genevieve would look absurd in such a thing. It needs a real woman.'

Chocolaty voice.

'He’s not remotely COMPLACENT.'

'He left me with you at your party. He asked me if I thought you looked beautiful. He isn't here this evening. Tell me there isn't a clear message in all that. I'm assuming he can’t handle you by himself, and thinks a bit of variety would be good for you both.'

Could there be any truth in any of this? I'd certainly thrived on my taste of variety with Dynamite.

'Trust me.'

Why would someone who knows himself to be trustworthy ask for trust? I gave him a sharp push. His voice roughened. No trace of that delightful chocolaty tone.

'Hey, enough. Look, clearly I'm not spending on gold necklaces for the good of my health.'

'The necklace was for Genevieve.'

'Genevieve. Genevieve! She’s barely out of nappies. She's clearly a virgin. I don't go in for that. I've got no time for that.'

'She thought, and so did I, that you really liked her...'

'Oh, I get it, something SERIOUS. You do know I'm married.'

'You never talk about her, I thought...'

'My marriage is going nowhere. As in, it's not a big part of my life, but it’s not ending either. This is the point, spelt out in words of one syllable – I want you. You.'

I slapped his face. That was fun. His face as he stared into mine was terrifying. I had never seen fury like it. But he didn't reach for me and I got out. He drove off. I rang Genevieve’s doorbell. She’d been crying and tried to speak.

'Look, not now. Where’s your phone.'

I phoned the office and told Spencer to come and get me. Would it have made Genevieve feel better if I'd explained that Boyd preferred me because he viewed me as a better bet sexually? I decided this would be too humiliating for me and for her. 

Fifteen minutes later the car pulled up. I rushed out and yanked the passenger door open. Candida was in the seat. Looking dishevelled. I didn't have the energy for any kind of complicated argument or confrontation just then, so contented myself with getting her swiftly into the back seat. A tiny bit of physical force was involved.

'Cleopatra. Candida's place is just round the corner. There’s no need to move her.'

Spencer calls me Cleopatra when things are not going well. Truly amazing that he was revealing that he felt he had the moral high ground. I ignored him, as the girl was already moved. If possible it made me feel even less guilty about my little fling with Dynamite. I didn't speak. We dropped Candida, and Spencer began an explanation about her family problems. 

'Just. Don't.'

It was a silent journey home, and to bed after a silent undressing.



14 - Moving On

Dynamite sent this copy of Life from America
- whose side were the Americans on?

The memories of Cleopatra Stewart, Company Wife to Spencer Stewart, mother of Robin and Richard and the impressions of her seven year old daughter Robin.

Ahmadi, Kuwait, June 1967

During the war we were isolated in Ahmadi - not even Clara drove over from Kuwait town, saying she and Delbert were too busy at the Embassy. His stepson Boyd thrived in the excitement of managing the Artemisia Club. 

I always said the war would be a minor thing. It ended on the 10th June - having started on the 5th. Incredible. Six days. The Israelis had destroyed hundreds of planes on the ground and captured enormous swathes of ground. 

Gloria-Jane said,

‘How unlike what we and our parents lived through – more like six years!’

Spencer's Arab colleagues were stunned,

'There's relief that it's over, that there's a kind of stability again, but so much pain.'

We were to stay in Kuwait for the summer, and Richard would come out from school. I'd been so busy looking after the Refugee Women, and had loved knowing that Spencer appreciated what I had been doing. Now it was all over he just wanted to talk about work. 

'Quite a few Arabs in the refinery are on strike.'

I said, 'It won't last,' and it didn't. 

'Peggy, the refinery's surrounded by Kuwaiti soldiers who seem to think the British might blow it up.' 

'They'll go away.'

'There's an oil embargo but it doesn't seem to affect Kuwait.'

'That's good.'

'People think the British and Americans are against the Arabs.'

'Have you seen the cover of Life magazine?'


'What shall I do, Spencer?' He looked at me. 'Now the war's over? I feel invincible. I could do anything.'

'Something serious Peggy – committees, that type of thing, you know, like Sylvia Simpson and Cynthia Alderton?'

'I already do the Deanna Tyson Society, we sent the bishop off last time with ever so much money.'

The bishop took the money because the Kuwait government, quite rightly, didn't feel their people needed charity. 

'Spencer, what’s important is doing what you're good at. And Delbert and Clara and the Refugee Women have proved that I'm good at making people happy.'

Yes, I'd sort things out between Genevieve and Boyd. I had started teaching her to swim, so she would spend more time at the Club. But she wasn't sure. She didn't like his businessman look at the Club, and she'd loathed his sexy medieval outfit.

‘What kind of man wears a lace-up waistcoat?’ she exclaimed as she finished a lap of the pool. I looked down at her from the side, trying not to let the ash from my cigarette fall on her. 

‘Most of the men were wearing tights, Genevieve.’

‘But some of them looked great in tights. Did you see Dynamite’s legs?’

She pushed off for another lap.

I didn't want to think about Dynamite, he had left Kuwait anyway, but now I knew he wanted me and not Genevieve, I had to protect her. I walked along beside her. 

‘He’s just a fly-by-night Genevieve, you need someone more stable, someone who’ll be here for you. Of course Dynamite does look good, and when Gloria-Jane saw him on that diving board... Well, you know what Gloria-Jane’s like, especially when Melvin’s facial hair is in.’

To my surprise, Genevieve asked, treading water,

‘How far would you and Gloria-Jane go? As far as adultery?’

She had some difficulty even saying the word. I laughed and told her Gloria-Jane wasn't my type. 

‘Cleo, you're like a mother to me.’

‘I was 14 when you were born!’

I was indignant. So was Genevieve, about the adultery.

We stared it out, and then I forced a laugh.

‘Oh heavens, Genevieve, how ridiculous. You don't need to be so protective of Spencer. He’s not a total angel.’

I called Boyd over to admire Genevieve's swimming progress. But he was gazing at me. I hadn't made any effort – calf-length pale pink trousers, yellow belt and a soft old pale green shirt tied above my waist, my hair protected in a flowery cotton scarf. I stubbed out my Rothmans in a plant pot.  

‘Isn't Genevieve adorable?’

‘Well, yes. Yes, she’s charming. Yes. Cleo, I was wondering where you got your necklace.’

I realised that as usual I had my hand at my throat, rubbing the sails of the dhow.

'Gloria-Jane got it from the gold souk in Kuwait town. Sometimes I think I'm going to polish it away!'

I giggled pointlessly.

'It's my only gold, apart from my wedding ring.'

'Could you come with me to the gold souk? I don’t trust my taste.'

'I'm shopping in town with Genevieve and Gloria-Jane next Thursday; we'll meet you there.'

'Oh no. Just you.'

Clearly he wanted to get something for Genevieve's birthday the following week.

'Heavens, how exciting.'

'I certainly hope so.'

He made his voice go chocolaty. Hilarious. I wondered how Spencer would sound doing that. Genevieve climbed out and joined us on the terrace, fiddling with her hair, which was beginning to straggle, so I lent her my cotton scarf and simply pinned mine back. Must have looked rather odd, but then there was no-one I needed to impress. 

ROBIN
I swim underwater. We’ve got a film of me when I was little and my brother counted the frames and I’m under for 80 frames and up for 5 for a breath. My brother thinks it’s really funny. I can swim nearly a whole length under. I go right down to the bottom and swim just above it, it’s really deep in the deep end. I swim with my eyes open – the water is soft and clear. I bring up things I find, hairbands and clips and money and leave them on the side. It’s so quiet down there in the deep end, you can hear your ears but nothing else. I turn upside down and look through the water to the sky. The people swimming above mostly move in a stop-start way. I’m more like a mermaid or a water snake, smooth through the water. In the shallow end it’s much busier and if sometimes I bump into people and frighten them. I try to swim round them in curves. I would prefer not to go into the shallow end but it’s important to turn against the end of the pool. In the shallow end you hear the noise, muffled and mysterious, booming down to you, of people talking. They stand and talk. Sometimes I understand what they’re saying, but I don’t try to. It’s my own world. I don't have to forget anything. Don't have to forget Vaughn's parents not being his parents. Don't have to forget the rape thing. Don't have to forget the man in Mummy's bathroom. I come up for air before I get right into the shallow end so that I don’t have to come up when I’m where the people are. My blue cool sun filled life under water.

'It's sad the souk is so modern,' I said as Boyd drove us into Kuwait town.

'Why?'

'Gold should be about romance, shouldn’t it?  The mud walls, the little streets weaving in and out, the colour, the noise, it must have been wonderful. Now it’s tarmac and concrete and glass and marble. All these hard surfaces and each shop separate from the next. Air conditioning and closed doors. Cars everywhere, the roads getting bigger and bigger.'

'Have you been to the souk in Marrakesh?'

'No, but it sounds wonderful.'

'Nightmare. It's unsanitary, you get lost, always someone following you. Give me modernity every time.'

'Ahmadi,'I said, 'that's new, so the clubs and the life there should be modern, like the USA in the desert, or a new British colony, but Kuwait town was here before the oil. Like the area where the dhows are made, they moved it out of the central quayside so you don’t find it unless you look. When I took the children there, they...'

I was boring him.

'Now, isn't jewellery a more interesting subject for a beautiful woman than history? I'm not saying who it's for.' (Chocolaty voice). 'Just help me find the best thing here.'

I thought one of the animals – a camel, a cat – or a G in a gold circle would be right for Genevieve. But Boyd would prefer something abstract, elegantWe were a very welcome sight as we moved from shop to shop, greeted with choruses of offers of bargains and tea, urged to sit, to stay, to browse. 

‘Sorry to be so blunt, Boyd, but how much...?’

‘The sky’s pretty much the limit.’

I left the cabinets of little pendants and turned to the necklaces  - spectacular golden hexagons and circles and lozenges linked into heavy chokers. I tried them on, Boyd fastening them when the clasps were fiddly and arranging them so they fell just right. I found it in the smallest shop of all, the gold quite dark and the hexagons an intricate shape which looked solid from a distance. It was too heavy on me, but on Genevieve it would be perfect.

‘It’s a Cleopatra-style choker, like Elizabeth Taylor in the film.’

Lucky old Genevieve.

While Boyd negotiated over the price I sipped hot sweet tea and pretended not to hear, but when he opened his briefcase I spotted the headscarf I'd lent to Genevieve at the Club, neatly folded. He was carrying round bits of material just because they'd been on her head. Heavens. I was SO good at matchmaking. 

13 - Fire and Air, and Other Elements




The memories of Cleopatra Stewart, Company Wife to Spencer Stewart, mother of Robin and Richard and the impressions of her seven year old daughter Robin.

Ahmadi, Kuwait, Sunday 4th June 1967

Dynamite
The morning after the well fire visit, Robin complained of a poorly tummy (I hated that baby talk she did with Constance). She was clearly just over-stimulated, so I got her off to school. I would see her when I taught Sunday School later.

In the school corridor I saw an unlikely figure sauntering away from Robin's classroom. Jeans and a denim shirt, sleeves rolled up. Oh heavens. Crew cut just growing out. Tanned. Muscles all over. Dynamite - he’d been visiting Genevieve, I guessed, checking if she was ok after the attack at the well fire. I rushed to the car park without him seeing me, zipping my keys into my coin purse, and crawled partly under my car. This was quite an attention grabbing manoeuvre in a tight shift dress, and his attention was grabbed when he came out.

'Cleo, can I help?'

He was addressing my bottom, wriggling as I pretended to search for keys. I pretended to jump with surprise and actually was quite surprised that he recognised me so easily. I hit my head under the car. He was upset at having caused my injury. What a dear. He helped me as I crawled out backwards, perhaps a little more hands on than the situation strictly demanded. Tearfully I explained that I had lost my keys in the car park. I was taking a leaf out of Genevieve’s damsel in distress book. He insisted that he look while we waited to see whether I had concussion and he searched methodically, flattening himself under each car in turn. 

I watched. I was still lit up with the heat his touch had ignited at the well fire the night before. I needed to touch him again. 
When he scrambled back to his feet empty handed I was the picture of despair.

'I’ll have to phone my husband from the school. He’ll be so angry.'

I swallowed a sob or two, conjuring a highly imaginary furious Spencer. A beat or two, and...

‘Come on – I’ll drive you home – you’ve got a spare key, right?'

I was prostrate with gratitude. 

He heaved me up into the passenger seat of the lorry.

'Cleo, Cleopatra.' I chirruped, almost to myself 'I am fire and air, my other elements I give to baser life.'

'I like that' Dynamite said, and echoed it. I explained it came from Shakespeare's play 'Anthony and Cleopatra'. 

'I'm an oil fire man. It’s all about fire and air. Starve the fire of air, and you’re done. Stopping the fire, it’s been my whole life – born to it. That's why they call me Dynamite. The dynamite starves the fire of air.'

An explosion, and silence, peace, the restoration of order.

'Any other reason for the name? Temper?'

'Nope.'

'Not willing to discuss any further?'

‘Nope. What about your name?'

'Parents romantically involved with Shakespeare I suppose. I was born with dark hair. That didn't last long.'

'Natural blonde now then?

'That is none of your business Bill.'

'That’s nice.'

'Nice?'

'Bill. Guy gets awful tired of ‘Dynamite’ all day, as if there ain’t enough of the stuff around. More coming in today.'

'Oh, goodness, have you got time...'

'Always time for you, Cleopatra.'

And off we went, happy as Larry. I was squirming in my seat.

'It’s awful hot for someone with no pants.'

He studied my legs. I tugged at the hem of my dress.

'I'm not used to not having a seat cover.'

'Crazy things.'

We all had them, multi-coloured beads you sat on for ventilation – without them even in air conditioned cars by the time the cool air kicked in legs would be welded painfully to the seat, as mine would have been, if I weren't shifting about so often. The seat covers left your thighs covered with patterned indentations. 

'I should be teaching the Sunday School, but I'm such a wreck. They'll manage without me. Constance, you know, our ayah, she is out all day Sunday. Robin won't be back till after Sunday School.'

'Give a hot guy a cold drink?'


My whole body was alight with anticipation. Fire and air. And baser life. 


RUBY
A few days before, I was walking home and I was by myself and I came to one of those holes between the houses where there is thin sand and thin bushes and Brian Flinders, who isn’t Auntie Gretchen’s son, he stepped out and he said Stop and I said No and he said Yes You Will, You Will Do What I Say and I said NO I’m not stopping and he said stop and lie down and I’m going to rape you and I said No and What’s that and he said It’s like kissing but lying down and I said No (because I only like to kiss Ben Davies and Glenn) and what’s it about anyway. So he said Yes you will and I pushed him and he fell over and I ran home and I didn’t want to tell my mother about it. 

I asked Ingrid but she didn’t know so we had a bath because we had sand in our hair and we played Open Sesame, so funny, we laughed so much Uncle Melvin came to ask what we were laughing about but we wouldn’t tell him. Then we dressed up and played gipsy husband and wife and Ingrid was husband because she is taller and her hair is short. But I did tell Miss Cardinal, Genevieve. And she said it needed sorting out. 

And so I thought about it when I came home when Mummy didn't come to Sunday School and heard the man in my parents room, and I asked her if the man was raping her. The man shouted from the bathroom.

'Cleopatra, Cleopatra, I'm on fire and up in the air, and life.'

I walked away, very quietly, trying not to disturb anything. 

Robin wouldn't say anything, I was pretty sure. I was so angry about Spencer's absences, his excuses, his preoccupation with work, with the war that might come, angry about Candida, about Genevieve. But we had to live together, and Dynamite was just something to get out of my system. Spencer was obviously going elsewhere, so why shouldn't I? I felt better for my revenge. I felt triumphant. I had won, over Genevieve, over Spencer. 

The barber arrived that evening. This strange man had followed the British from the Indian hill stations to Kuwait, cycling round the houses in the late afternoon with his sheet, razor, scissors and hesitant, insistent, head shaking offer.

'Sahib needs a haircut, yes indeed, very good, not expensive.'

In the barber came, and out to the veranda.

'It looks just dreadful. Make sure you cut enough this time.'

I urged him on until Spencer looked almost American, pretty much crew-cut. He’d never had so little hair, and was left with white fringes of skin here and there where the sun had never reached before. The barber looked a little disconcerted, but he claimed to be pleased with an excellent job. Constance cleared up after his clearing up, huffing away about the enormous quantities of hair she claimed he’d left behind.

Spencer was expansive:

'Ah, so much better, great to get the hair right off your neck.'

I told him I'd missed Sunday School and Robin had come home early, because we'd both felt ill. I explained that was why Dynamite had given me a lift home; someone was bound to have noticed that. And Spencer talked about the war, and how it was definitely going to happen.

Goodness knows everyone else seemed to think so too.

Spencer's excuse about the party night was that he had taken a phone call from the tank farm (a place to store oil and stuff, not like it makes me think, a place to grow armoured vehicles) and needed to check on security. I hadn't asked any more questions, and had been changing into my most capacious and unattractive nightgown in the bathroom and sticking rigidly to the edge of my side of the bed. I'd been waiting for him to make a dramatic move; he owed me something. Now I felt ready to be nice again. The Dynamite thing had helped. Everyone thought Dynamite went for Genevieve, but I knew better. The barber thing had helped. 

On Monday 5th June Spencer phoned from the office. My elevated mood was not disturbed by his gloomy news. 

'It's begun. Israel got a jump on the Arabs.'

'What? You said they were going to attack Israel.'

'Yeah, looked that way. More and more Arab troops getting ready, but in the end the Israelis launched an air attack. It's chaos here. The American contractors on the tank farm extension are packing up and leaving, everything unfinished, pretty dangerous as it is, so I've got to get it all tied up. Cable and pipe, total mess. Then we'll shut down the extension site.'

'Do I know them?'

'No, they've been living in Kuwait town, came without their families.'

As soon as I put the phone down, it rang. It was Gloria-Jane.

'What do you know? What has Spencer told you? I'm coming over. My American neighbour says she's leaving tomorrow. The American Company men have to stay, but they all want their wives and children off home. She says she's not afraid, she doesn't believe anything will happen to the expats, or to anyone in Kuwait, but she's going anyway.' 

All day my phone and doorbell rang - my friends and even some women I didn't know. I don’t know why. I felt proud that they had chosen to come to me. Constance provided a stream of refreshments, out-doing herself, as she always did under pressure, and I provided a stream of reassurance based on the things Spencer had told me.

'The government needs the Company - they won't let it or us come to any harm.'  

I felt wonderful, invincible, glowing, and I suppose my confidence came across. We had a strange uneasy moment when the sweeper arrived to do the garden. He was from Persia, as the sweepers all were, I think, but to us he looked Arab and his looks caused alarm amongst my unexpected guests, so I thought it better for Constance to ask him to go and give him some money. Not a full day's pay.

After school most of the women collected their children and brought them to ours. Genevieve came too, taking the whole thing terribly seriously. I told her about the sweeper, and she missed the point completely. She was ridiculously worried about him.

'But where does he live? Do you know where they live?'

didn't.

'Isn't that strange? There’s someone who works for you, who is in your house every day, and yet you have no idea where he goes to.'

'He’s not here every day, and he only works in the garden. Spencer will know.'

Spencer got home before the women left, and they were excited to see him, but he didn't know.

'I think the Company provides accommodation, but I'm not sure where it is.'

We had a few quiet minutes with Robin when the house emptied, and Spencer and I substituted Canada Dry and Flash for our usual tea. 

'Well done darling, you've done a great job with the Refugee Women, poor old things, they need someone to keep them calm.'

I did feel quite proud of myself. 

'How are people coping at the refinery?'

'The Arabs are in an awful situation – they're from all over the place, and some of their governments, some of their friends and family are fighting or at risk of being bombed. It's a nightmare for them. Some didn't come to work. We don't know where we are with security.'

We went to the Artemesia Club – the Aldertons' cocktail party in Kuwait town for their 16th wedding anniversary had been cancelled, somewhat unnecessarily. We had a hilarious evening. Even war can seem quite funny, if you're in the right mood. We’d all stoked up a little on alcohol.

'Melvin said he'd heard the Kuwait government is sending soldiers to guard the refinery and tank farm - is that right?' asked Gloria-Jane.

'Oh for god's sake, can you never keep your mouth shut.' Melvin was furious.

'It's ok, Melvin, yes, that's right. Just in case.' Spencer hadn't mentioned this to me. 

Looking back, nothing we said seems at all amusing, yet I remember we laughed all evening. 

Everyone gathered at the Club night after night exchanging news – a letter? A telex with a bit more information? I was the centre of the crowd, making a lot of effort with my appearance, but in that understated way that causes men to tell you in a surprised voice how well you’re looking. I wore my most restrained clothes and a paler lipstick than usualSpencer and I were always home in time for an early night, usually catching Ruby still reading before nesting into each other in our cool bedroom. I had forgotten all about Dynamite, and about fire and air. 

Every morning the phone rang and my house filled with Refugee Women – there was support, companionship and cake on offer. I enjoyed the week, enjoyed feeling that people were looking to me and that I was helping Spencer through the difficult time. We grew close again. Spencer was leaving for work early, but coming home at the usual time, and often encountered the Refugee Women. He reassured them even without saying much about the situation. They adored him. But they adored me too, so that was tolerable. 

Go to Chapter 14

Well Fire






This is the well fire that Cleo and Robin watched Dynamite work on in the 1960s. This one fire shook the ground for miles around.

The next chapter of 'Oil Town' will be out in a fortnight.

12 - Dynamite

Kuwait was invaded by Iraq on 2nd August 1990, and liberated 7 months later by forces from the USA and an international alliance in an operation codenamed ‘Desert Storm’. The British part of the operation was less excitingly named ‘Granby’. There have been no ‘Granby’ video games.

Kuwait, 22nd March 1991
ROBIN'S DIARY

They were trying to keep 'tourists' away from the oil fires but Dynamite had told Genevieve she would be welcome. He had been working for a few days on one of the trickiest. It was surrounded by simpler fires which could be dealt with quickly but risked re-ignition if the monster was not put out. Every fire was different - some taller, some steadier, some brighter, some seeming to die back then exploding. Dynamite's was one of the most complicated, always changing, not only with the wind, but as its base supply changed. He was very proud of it. 

While most of the population were reduced to walking or using the bicycles which had been rotting away in store cupboards, Saleem had maintained supplies of petrol throughout the occupation. He was not interested in discussing how he managed this. Genevieve and I drove off into the desert towards Ahmadi. Around us the desert was alive with new roads being built leading to each fire to allow it to be tackled. The ground rumbled without let up; on this day the skies were blue over Kuwait city but black underlit with dark yellow in the direction of the oil fields. The swirling clouds dropped down and closed in on us, then opened up again. The roaring and shaking was constant yet had a rhythm buried in it, a deep pulse. There were lakes of oil. Sights, sounds and smells were so intense that I felt repulsed and drawn in at the same time. Genevieve had told me that after visiting the fires she experienced an elation that lasted for hours and did not know if it was an emotional reaction to this wild hell, inhabited by beings striving together to pacify it, to turn it back to human use or simply some chemical response caused by the toxic air. We had cleaned the car's windows of the filthy greasy scum which covered everything outside and constantly edged into the house too, but it was now almost impossible to see though again. We carried detergent and rough cloths to try and clear it before the drive home.

The workers were so intent that we could have walked right up without challenge. In the chaos there was a sense of control and purpose. Dynamite's team were loving the challenge they had been set. A huge man emerged from the flames, silhouetted against the light, striding towards us with a rolling gait. Genevieve gasped and leaned in to me:

'Somehow I never get tired of seeing that man walking out of a fire.'

Face and orange overalls smudged with oil, he grabbed Genevieve and lifted her briefly off the ground. She squealed and wriggled, still wriggling even when he'd let her go. A heat came off her as well as from the fire we were facing. He turned to me, and held his hand out:

'Why, hi there Robin. Genevieve told me you were coming back to Kuwait.' He swept his hand around behind him. 'Like what we've done with the place?'

His hand swung back and I watched it reach out and swallow mine. And I was back, in the excitement of our single well fire of 1967. 

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The memories of Cleopatra Stewart, Company Wife to Spencer Stewart, mother of Robin and Richard and the impressions of her seven year old daughter Robin.


Ahmadi, Kuwait, Saturday 3rd June 1967

Out in the field the fire blazed on. We could feel the vibration all the way over in Ahmadi. Once the first attempt at re-capping has failed they sometimes explode back out in a crater which is much harder to deal with. Dynamite supervised a slow process of what they call directional drilling, coming underground at an angle into the base of the well and trying to divert it to cut off the supply to the fire. His company is best known for exploding a fire out of existence, but thanks to the mistakes of the ground crew this was no longer possible. He refused to leave the site, sleeping in a mobile hut. He told us his company’s proudest boast was that it had never lost a man or even suffered a serious injury. Can this be true? The refinery can't say as much – Spencer lost his eyelashes a couple of years back when there was a sudden blow-back in a tower inspection hatch. Silly man. No-one else seems to notice, but I think it’s really a shame; he used to have lovely long curly lashes, and they've grown back straight and paler than before.

Dynamite’s team were working round the clock, along with a huge crew of company workers to help with the basics such as building the roads and the reservoir.

When we’d first met him he’d come to investigate the Company's field systems. The grandmother who usually had Bergan when Dynamite travelled had fallen ill, so while Dynamite was flying round the world saving lives and oil reserves, the poor boy was going too. At that stage there wasn’t any actual fire to deal with so he’d brought Bergan to the Artemesia Club. Now he was so busy Genevieve had stepped into the breach and was looking after Bergan pretty much full time after school. She was absurdly soft-hearted.

The directional drilling was going too slowly but before they could even think of blowing out the fire they needed a huge reservoir of water to cool the whole area, which reached incredible temperatures. The reservoir was in itself a sight to see. The original pioneers of the oil industry in the Middle East had realised early that enormous and reliable supplies of water would be needed, and they were well established, with desalination for household water and plenty for the company’s needs, even in this kind of crisis.

We arrived at dusk. They were going to try and blow it out the next day, so it was important that every piece of metal was removed from the direct area. They had a kind of crane they had devised to work in these conditions, and we could just see the men and the crane manoeuvring. Once it was totally dark the shadows stopped moving. Now everything was ready, but nothing would happen till dawn, when everything was coolest. Although we were a mile away, so far away, the faces of the onlookers were lit with the light and the heat. At this distance the vibration was incredible. The whole desert under our feet was shaking rhythmically and deeply. Genevieve was there, with Gloria-Jane and Melvin, and for once Melvin seemed pretty sober. Gloria-Jane was leaning back against him, resting her head on his chest, his hands clasped over her belly, hers clasped behind his neck. They looked entranced, hypnotised, and likely to stay just where they were for a very long time. Spencer had far too much to do back at the refinery for sightseeing, but Robin had come with me. Poor Richard was still at school in England. He was going to be devastated when he heard that he’d missed this.

There was quite a crowd there, and a strange, elevated, almost hysterically happy mood. I don’t know how long we were there, but Genevieve, like Gloria-Jane, had taken on a hypnotised look. Frankly, I’d had enough after a few moments, let alone minutes. It was a big fire. I knew that already. Fires are hot and bright when they are big, but in the end, what’s the difference between our asbestos string gas pipe fire at home, and this. Stuff comes out through holes in a pipe and is lit. Genevieve began to step forward, her red hair catching the light as it streamed out, ungathered and wild. She tripped on a pipe and fell. Instead of the normal Genevieve rescue party, it was our friend Daniel Flinders, looking thinner and madder than ever, who rushed forward and yanked her upright. 

He didn't let go of her arm and was shouting against the noise of the fire something about his son Vaughn. Genevieve looked like a frightened Bambi.

‘Mr Flinders, I've already tried to explain. When a child tells me another child has acted in a certain way, I have to...’

‘Yes, right, you have to tell the headmistress. Well, let me tell you, Vaughn, our son Vaughn, would never, never...’

He was still holding Genevieve’s arm, which he was pulling back and forth for increased emphasis. What on earth had Vaughn done now? 

I couldn't see Gretchen anywhere and had just begun to wonder what to do when a giant dressed in filthy orange overalls stepped out of the fire, pulled Daniel off, shook him and dropped him to the ground. 

'Flinders, you're drunk.'

Dynamite said later he was too busy to look into any alternatives. I hustled Genevieve into Melvin’s car and Dynamite strode after me, carrying Daniel like a sack over his shoulder. Daniel was winded and slightly shocked. 

'Find his wife. Take him home. Gotta get back to the fire. No time to deal with this crap.' 

And he dumped a groaning Daniel in the back seat. What was it about Genevieve? Much as I had come to love her, the constant being rescued was beginning to grate on me. No-one ever rescues me.

It took some time to separate Gloria-Jane and Melvin from each other and the fire, but eventually they got away, having located Gretchen, who was mystifying some of the young men of the crew by demonstrating how the wind off the fire caused her kaftan to billow like a sail if she lifted her arms. She was as drunk as DanielDaniel and Gretchen started rattling on groggily about how Genevieve hated Vaughn for no reason. The headmistress had sent a note home about something he was supposed to have done. 

I walked back to our vantage point and as I stared through the wire fence at the fire I tried to get what the others, the fire fanatics, were feeling about it. Dynamite appeared by my side. He took my hand and asked,

'YOU ok Cleo? Seems to me no-one thinks about you.'

I was lit up with desire, just like that, no preamble. I had hardly even thought about him before, when Genevieve and Gloria-Jane were practically salivating over him. 

'I can take a break now that we are checking the reservoir level. Come and rest.'

He held his hand out, and I had taken it, when Robin tugged at my dress to get my attention. 

I pulled away from him quickly. All of Ahmadi was standing round us, and I had agreed to walk into Dynamite's hut.

'Why, hi there Robin' Dynamite said, taking her hand to shake it. 

ROBIN, 1967
I pulled my hand away and went back to the car. There was something scary about Dynamite. I saw my mother standing hand in hand with him looking at the fire. Everyone was holding hands or cuddling. The fire is so big you want to hold someone's hand. 

The next day I felt sick at school. Mummy didn't answer the phone but I told them Connie would be there, so the school secretary drove me home. Connie said Mummy was out and told me to go straight to bed and she'd bring a drink of orange. I heard Mummy talking so I went into my parents' room to surprise her, turning the handle quietly. 


My mother was standing with no clothes on, stretching her arms above her head. 

'Better get back out here,' she was saying.

She turned and saw me. 

'Stay there' she shouted.

'What?' A voice from the bathroom.

'Ssshh.'

'Robin, darling...'

'Is a man in your bathroom? Is a man raping you?' I asked.

'Umm, what darling?'

'Vaughn Flinders wanted to rape me and I didn't know what it was and he said I had to take my clothes off and he would kiss me. That man in the bathroom's not Daddy. Is he raping you?'

'Heavens, darling, er..yes, that's right. But you mustn't tell anyone. You mustn't tell Daddy.'
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ROBIN, 1991
All of this had been puzzled over for a few days and then buried for all those years. But now I remembered it. Dynamite and my mother. The fire flared and hissed behind him as he held my hand.