The Write Stuff: The Waves Burn Bright by Iain Maloney

Iain Maloney

Iain Maloney

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WELCOME to our regular feature showcasing the talents of the nation’s best writers. This week, an extract from Iain Maloney’s The Waves Burn Bright

Piper Alpha, July 6th 1988

You, Marcus, you’re there in the cinema watching Caddyshack. You’ve seen it before but what else is there? Go for a walk? On an oil rig at night you’re taking your life into your hands, wandering about. Get in someone’s way, slip on something, and before you can say ‘health and safety’ you’re in the North Sea with a broken spine. Back in a cramped room with a good book and a bunkmate snoring? No, there’s fuck all to do offshore when you’re only there for a few days, don’t know anyone and no one wants to know you. A few frames of snooker? Everyone’s suddenly busy. You’re management. You’re an unknown risk. You could try explaining your job has nothing to do with theirs but they won’t believe you. Too much ill-feeling over cutbacks. You’re a geologist, but out here you represent every desk onshore. So you sit in the dark of the cinema listening to the roar of the gas flare and watch Bill Murray fight with a gopher.

You hate golf. A good way to ruin a nice walk. Take that course down at the beach in Aberdeen, out the back of Pittodrie. A long, beautiful stretch of coastline fenced off and turned into a playground for wankers who count their handicaps. Nature divided into fairways, greens and bunkers.

You could do with a shot, a beer, a bottle of something. Life is dry offshore. Rodney Dangerfield downswings and this scream like a Stuka raining down on Guernica drills through the platform, underneath it a death rattle. You’re shaken to your feet, the platform jerking like a rodeo bull, lights flickering, and the screen crumples to the floor like a poleaxed drunk. You look around, panic on the horizon like a fiery dawn, you know the safety procedure, remember it from your younger days when offshore was part of your routine, and you remember it from the refresher when you arrived. You don’t know this platform that well but the men do. Muster in the galley or your lifeboat station and await instructions.

A space filled with darkness and smoke, flickering lights, shouts, tears, even jokes, black humour in the blackest of times. You run through smoke, the heels of the men in front of you, your jumper pulled up over your mouth and nose.

In the galley now, walls heating, floors heating, the platform is ablaze, explosions tilting the world. You’re waiting for someone to come and tell you what to do but no one comes. Some leave, alone and in groups, to find their own way out. One lad is crying in the corner. You dip towels in the fish tank, the cold water soothing for a second or two, then you’re dry and parched again. The fish swim in ever decreasing circles. Throw them over the side, let them escape. Would they survive the fall? Tomatoes smashed onto the face, the juice dripping. You wonder about the sprinklers, why there’s nothing coming out of them. You wonder if this is cutbacks. People are trying doors but everywhere there’s smoke and flame. Black pouring in through the galley, through the roof space. You look around like it’s freeze-framed, like everything is frozen in time, and it’s then that you realise you’re going to die.

You’re going to die.

You look at the men on the floor, the men sitting in groups, looking lost, waiting. And you say, ‘we’ve got to get out of here.’

‘They’ll send choppers in.’

‘They can’t land, the helideck’s burning.’

‘We’ve done our muster. We wait here for instructions.’

‘There are no instructions coming. We have to get out. Get off.’

And you join the men opening and closing doors, smoke everywhere. You dip your towel in the fish tank again, wrap it round your head.

‘I’m getting out. Who’s with me?’

‘We’re to wait here for instructions.’

But you can’t wait. You leave.

In the corridor there are bodies.

You crawl over them, find the stairs, crawl down.

Bodies. Five. Ten.

You can’t see if anyone followed you. There’s too much smoke.

Each breath hurts.

Each breath hurts.

You’re going to die.

Carrie’s at home.

Alone.

Each breath hurts.

You’re going to die.

But you can’t.

You crawl over the bodies.

Explosions.

You get to the drill floor. You can stand up now. The floor is melting. The handrails molten.

You keep going down.

You pass men going in different directions. Some have lifejackets. Some don’t. You don’t.

At the edge you look down. Sixty-eight feet. Too high.

You look along and there’s a hose. Someone’s tied a hose and men are going down it. About thirty feet above the water it hangs, they hang, then drop. There’s a zodiac zipping around the legs. The sea is on fire. The platform is on fire from the bottom to the top. You get in line. Your boots are melting into the deck. It’s your turn. Your hands are burnt but you grip the hose. You slip. Slip down faster and faster until there’s no more hose and you’re falling. You try to remember your training, legs straight, toes pointed, arse clenched, hand over nose and mouth then you batter through the surface.

Kick up. Kick away. The current will pull you under but arms under yours and you’re pulled into the zodiac.

‘Are you hurt?’

You shake your head. Cough. No. You don’t know. You’re alive.

A bigger rescue boat. You climb up the side netting, are pulled onto the deck. Blankets. Cigarettes. Someone takes your name, adds it to a list. A short list. You’re alive.

And there is Piper Alpha, from sea level to helideck an inferno, a vent into hell opened in the North Sea, all that rage flaming out, gas from the risers still burning, burning, more and more explosions. There are men still on there, men still in the water. Men jumping from the helideck a hundred and eighty feet up. Hundreds of men fighting for life. You’re alive.

The boat circles. More men are pulled on. The deck is strewn with survivors. The worst injured are taken inside. Tharos sprays water over the platform but it’s like hoping to stop a train with a breath. It’s as bright as day. You’re alive.

It falls apart. Melted metal buckling, dropping into the sea. It would hiss if you could hear over the roar of a thousand jet engines. You watch the accommodation block. The galley. All those men you left in there. You watch from the boat as it tilts, it slides into the sea and is gone.

Were they still alive when it hit the water?

What killed them?

Smoke.

Fire.

Water.

You.

You’re alive.

You’re alive.

You left them.

The sun rises.

You’re alive.

Piper Alpha is a stump.

You left them.

You’re alive.

A helicopter winches you up.

You’re alive.

You’re alive.

• Iain Maloney was born in Aberdeen and now lives in Japan where he teaches English and writes about travel, literature and music. His third novel, The Waves Burn Bright, is published next month by Freight.

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