by David McLaughlan
Once upon another life I worked on the building of an oil rig. Three steel tanks, each three hundred foot tall and fifty feet wide, would be joined by a latticework of pipes. The living accommodation platform would go on top and the tanks would eventually be sunk in the icy waters of the North Sea.
For most of the year the sun rose and set while I was at work. We worked twelve-hour shifts in a bleak industrial landscape. The work was hard, the men were harder. Often coming home at the end of the day it was a struggle to find myself again, to remember I was a young husband and a new father. The job paid the bills, but it fairly scoured the soul.
I was part of a team of four junior engineers. Mostly we were gophers and holders for the big boys. As part of our tool kits we had magnetic clamps (two square magnets on an aluminium strip handle, like big brackets) and paint pens (like giant tooth paste tubes full of paint, with a ball-point on the end so you could write technical data on the metal).
When we weren’t needed for anything, or when the weather was too foul, we retired to our “office”. One of my workmates, Wullie, would come into the porta-cabin we inhabited on his tea break.
He would open the door of his metal locker and pull a battered plastic chair behind it. Still in his waterproofs and wearing his safety helmet and boots Wullie would take out a piece of canvas. Using the magnetic clamps he would fix his canvas to inside of his locker door.
Until they got used to him folk would give Wullie some strange looks and make less than charitable comments. Wullie’s response was always a smile and a kind word.
Using a piece of scrap iron as a palate Wullie would start mixing the paint from the different coloured paint pens. Then, for the ten minutes he had left, he would take paint brushes from his locker, and lose himself in his painting. While his workmates boasted about their sexual conquests or how much they’d drank at the weekend, Wullie created works of art. As we were on the Atlantic coast, with the Western Isles nearby, he painted seascapes.
Why do I remember this? Because I envied Wullie and, in a way he got me through the whole experience. I never saw him again after the rig was built, but twenty-some years later I still think of him with admiration. He taught me there was beauty everywhere.
There never was a bleaker place than that construction site, but Wullie managed to find beauty in it. He found it by making it.