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. 

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