In the old days, we’d never have seen this. You’d get someone with a nice new degree in civil engineering—a young guy like I once was—and he’d—we’d—do our drawings at a board and our calculations on a slide rule. And there’d be an older engineer standing behind, watching over us. Design a bridge like this one, the older guy would say, ‘If I were you, I’d put a joint in there.’ Not nastily, not interfering, just helping out, showing us what we were missing. ‘If I were you, I’d put a joint in there.’
‘Because, if you don’t, the asphalt will tear. Right there, where the deck butts up against the ramp. People will call it a crack, but it won’t be a crack. It’ll be a tear.’
‘Look. Asphalt has no tensile strength to speak of. Right? And new concrete, as it dries, shrinks. Slowly, but inexorably. You put a concrete bridge deck up against a packed earth ramp and you cover the deck and the ramp with asphalt to make a road, a road over a bridge, you’d better put something there to absorb the pull of the drying concrete. And that something is a joint. Because, if you don’t, the concrete as it dries will put a stress on the asphalt that the asphalt can not resist and the asphalt will tear. People who look at it, people who aren’t engineers, don’t know roads, will say, ‘It’s cracked. Must be a problem underneath. Or maybe the asphalt is faulty.’ But there isn’t a problem underneath, the asphalt will not be faulty and it won’t have cracked. It will have torn. We want this bridge to last a long time. So put a joint in. Give it a chance to withstand the stresses it’s going to feel. Because it is going to feel them.’
As I say, that’s what would have happened in the old days. But the consulting engineering firms have got rid of all the old guys because they cost too much, and the new graduates don’t use a drawing board or a slide rule any more. They use a computer.
Great things, computers. The drawings are faster, curves are easier, the maths is never wrong, you can try alternative designs you wouldn’t have had time for sitting at a board.
But they only know what they’ve been told.
If the person who wrote the bridge design program didn’t know about construction joints, the program won’t, either. And this time there won’t be an older guy to say, ‘If I were you, I’d put a joint in there.’
All of that is good news for Mohamed and me. Because the bridge gets built, there isn’t a joint where a joint should be, the asphalt tears after a few months and we get the call to fix it. How do we do that? We install a joint, of course. But the same joint installed when the bridge was being built might have cost a thousand dollars per lane, and when we install it after the event we can charge ten times that. Not because it costs that much more, but because the client doesn’t have a choice. What else is he going to do?
If the bridge hasn’t been handed over yet, and the main contractor is staring at the torn asphalt and thinking he could go bankrupt when he doesn’t get paid for the whole bridge because of what he sees as some minor cracks, we may charge even more. Don’t want to pay? No problem. We’ll leave it as it is, then, shall we?
The particular bridge that got me thinking about this is in…well, never mind which country it’s in. It’s in the Gulf. No need to get closer than that. People can be very touchy, and this is where I live. It’s a very high profile bridge, named after the Ruler, and it cost a great deal of money. Eight lanes, sweeping curves, lovely marble-faced balustrades. Which, by the way, were also cracking as the stresses from the drying concrete deck did their work.
The main contractor’s Project Manager was Ali and after Mohamed and I had installed a joint he was very grateful. We’d saved his bacon, not that you could get bacon in this country of course, and he didn’t care what it had cost. He wanted to find a way to thank us. He invited us both to dinner. He brought along two Moroccan women.
You hear a lot about Russian prostitutes in the Gulf and it’s true—there are a lot of them—but they’re mostly for the expats. The Arab’s tart of choice is Moroccan. You can understand why—Moroccans are Moslem.
It soon became clear that one of the Moroccan women was for me. My thank you gift. I don’t know what you’d have done and I’m not asking, but I turned the offer down. Politely, and trying not to hurt the woman’s feelings, but I said no. Okay, I admit part of me was wondering how she’d react when she discovered I wasn’t circumcised, but that wasn’t the main reason. I’m married. Have been for years, to the same woman, and I want to stay that way. I don’t see her as often as you probably see the person you share a life with, because she lives in England and I spend a lot of time in the Middle East, but I want to hold on to her and being faithful is part of what makes that possible.
I could see Ali didn’t really understand, but he sent the girl away and he and I sat over a bottle of Chivas Regal while Mohamed went off and unwrapped his own present. Personally I’d have preferred a straight malt, but Arabs are suckers for branding. Talisker and Laphroaig mean nothing in the Gulf. Chivas Regal is a name. I did prevent him from adding ice to mine, though.
Later, Mohamed and I went back to our hotel and sat over a coffee and—in Mohamed’s case—a cigar. He wanted to know why I’d turned down the offer of the girl, and I told him. It was clear he thought I was eccentric, but he accepted it. Mohamed and I have worked together for a long time. He’s probably – apart from my wife – the best friend I have.
Next morning, we had a wrap-up meeting with Ali. We started late, that being the Arab way, so we rolled it over into lunch. After we’d ordered, and while we were waiting for the starters to arrive, Ali fixed his gaze on me. Whatever was coming, it mattered. To him, at least.
‘John,’ he said. ‘Mohamed says you’ve been married more than forty years.’
I nodded. ‘That’s right.’
‘And in all that time, Mohamed says you’ve never been to bed with another woman?’ (He didn’t actually say, “been to bed with” —the single word he used was more graphic—but that was the meaning).
I nodded again.
He leaned back in his seat, but he was still staring at me. ‘Well, why not?’
There was no point in trying to answer that; the gulf between us was too great. I just shrugged.
Sitting in the Etihad Lounge waiting for the flight to board, I asked Mohamed what Ali’s reaction would be if he discovered his wife had been unfaithful to him.
‘He would divorce her. Of course. He would not kill her, if that’s what you think. We are not so primitive as Westerners believe. And Ali was educated in America, remember. But she would never do it. This is not the West. Women have higher standards here.’
‘Does she know he is unfaithful to her?’
‘But she does not divorce him.’
‘She would lose her children. She would never see them again.’
‘Is that fair?’
‘It is the law. We must live by the law.’
And that was that. We flew home and got on with our other projects. At the beginning of December I went back to England, spent Christmas and New Year with my wife, saw a lot of the grandchildren and didn’t return to the Gulf till the middle of January. England was cold, wet and dark. I was pleased to get out of there.
Mohamed and I rent a villa not far from the Corniche. We sleep there, Mohamed smokes there (Mohamed smokes everywhere) and we put up visitors there but apart from breakfast we don’t eat there. People think the UAE is expensive, but a meal out costs a lot less than in the UK. We have a Filipina maid and she’s very good at keeping the place clean but she’s no cook. Why should she be? In her own country she’s a qualified paediatrician. There’s not much call for paediatricians in her country, and Abu Dhabi needs maids. At one time, I’d have seen this as terribly sad, and a waste. Now I wonder why the Philippines graduate so many teachers, doctors and lawyers there’s never going to be enough work for.
We were in Trader Vic’s, having a drink and pondering the choice between Finz (seafood); Indigo (Indian); and the Rodeo Grill (obvious) when a familiar looking man sitting on a stool at the bar heard our voices and turned to look at us. It was Ali. He had his hand on the waist of a Moroccan woman. We stayed at our table and he at the bar but we had a little friendly banter across the space between us. The Moroccan woman smiled and looked as though she was following the conversation, but she really didn’t give a toss. She knew what she was there for.
Then Mohamed got up to take a leak and Ali came over to sit beside me. He signalled to the Moroccan woman to stay where she was.
‘My friend,’ he said. ‘You lied to me.’
‘I was in Qatar to do a job. I met an old friend of yours. Jim Stannard. You worked together in England. In 1985.’ He looked at me. ‘He knows all about you.’
I shrugged. ‘Globalisation,’ I said. ‘There are no secrets any more.’
‘You were entitled to lie to me. You don’t have to tell me the truth.’
‘No, I suppose I don’t.’
‘If you didn’t want to say you’d been unfaithful to your wife, that was your right.’
‘Yes, I suppose it was.’
‘But why did you refuse the girl?’
In the West, we talk a lot about love. It’s a staple of our lives. Love songs, love stories, romantic movies. Historical romances. Sometimes it seems that love runs through everything we think, everything we say, everything we do. And we’d like it to govern our lives, because what we really want is for love to decide who we marry.
Mohamed and Ali, they didn’t have that. When Mohamed thought he was ready for a wife, he asked his friends to help and they found a suitable woman for him. And Ali’s bride was chosen by his parents. He met her for the first time on his wedding day.
Our way is better. Isn’t it? For the person we plan to spend the rest of our lives with to be the person we love to distraction. That must be the right way, yes?
But that isn’t our way, any more than it’s Mohamed and Ali’s. Is it? How many people do you know in the West who married the person who really rocked their boat the most? I didn’t. Did you?
I was fifteen, which means it was fifty-three years ago. Fifty-three years – and yet I remember that evening with absolute clarity. I was on my way home, crossing the road from the Vicar’s Lane station where I’d got off what in Newcastle we used to call the electric train, though now it’s the Metro, and I was conscious of being happy. I’ve had other happy times, though I wouldn’t say happiness was a normal mode for me, but very few in which I knew at the time I was happy. I probably hadn’t had one in the fifteen years before that, and the fingers of one hand would suffice to count those in the next thirty-eight.
The happiness was because of Morag. Morag was a Scottish girl, but you’d guessed that from her name.
If you grew up in Newcastle when I did you were used to the Scots. Whitley Bay and Cullercoats used to have Scotch weeks, when whole families would come down to cavort in the North Sea and spend money in Spanish City, but apart from that we had them all the time, because a lot of Scots came to work and didn’t go back. Morag’s father was one of those. It was because of Morag’s father that I became an engineer. He’d had to move to another country—in his case, England—to find a job that used his talents and I’ve had to go even further, but he was my model. He was the example I wanted to be like.
Morag went to La Sagesse, which was a girls only school, so that isn’t how we met. In fact, it was my cousin who introduced us. Everyone in Newcastle said “Larsser Jess” (I’ve since learned that there was a La Sagesse in Liverpool, too, and everyone there said it the same way) but really it’s French, from the Filles de la Sagesse, which even at Heaton Grammar School we learned enough French to know meant Daughters of Wisdom.
Daughter of Wisdom was a good name for Morag.
She’d lived in Jesmond since she was five, so she spoke like a Geordie – like me, in fact—but that didn’t make her English. Today, when you hear a Scottish voice, everything you think is coloured by Gordon Brown and what you thought of him. If you thought of him what I thought of him, you’re going to have some reservations. Is this person going to tell me the truth? Does s/he even have a concept of what “truth” might mean? Is s/he going to want to take every penny I’ve got, lie about what’s been done with it and then demand more? And is s/he, in any case, completely bonkers?
It wasn’t like that when I was growing up. Then, a Scottish voice meant something. Okay, you couldn’t expect a sense of humour (although I laughed at the Broons every week in the Sunday Post, a Scottish paper taken in many North Eastern homes including mine, and for a while I actually said Crivens! when someone surprised me, until Dermot O’Malley clipped me round the ear and told me to stop) and they couldn’t play cricket. But a Scottish voice then meant integrity. Honesty. Someone whose word you could rely on. Like Morag’s father.
And like Morag.
It may only have been because we were so young that I loved Morag as completely as I did. It certainly wasn’t sex, because there wasn’t any. This was the beginning of the Sixties, but a lot of what you’ve heard about the Sixties is nonsense. I don’t know how it was for the Beatles and I’ve heard a little too much about Marianne Faithfull and her Mars Bar, but for ordinary people older rules still applied. Morag didn’t want to, and I loved Morag enough that if she didn’t want to, I didn’t want to. Her best friend at school was Jane and mine was Harry and the four of us went around together as two closely knit teams: Morag and Me; Harry and Jane.
And then came the tearful day when Morag told me her father had been offered a good job back home in Aberdeen, and he was taking it, and his family was going with him.
She wrote to me when she had a new address, to tell me what it was. I wrote back. She wrote again. I replied. And then it came to an end. We were young. You can be so in love it hurts, but if you don’t see the one you love for a while, it fades. Becomes a memory. A sweet memory, but a memory.
In 1985, I’d been married fourteen years. I still am married, twenty-eight years later. Most of the people who got together when we did aren’t any more, or not with each other, and I have a rehearsed answer when they ask me the secret. I say, ‘I knew I was onto a good thing; and Jo refused to give up.’
If you asked Jo, she’d probably say, ‘Well, you know, he’s away an awful lot.’
But there’s more to it than that.
I was in London in 1985, talking to someone about a job, and I stayed over because they wanted to do psychometric tests the next morning. Jim Stannard was being hired for the same project. We went out in the evening for a beer and a pub meal. I’d reached the coffee and brandy stage when I became aware that someone was standing by the table.
I stared at her. ‘You haven’t changed a bit.’
‘I hope I have, John. I was fifteen then, and now I’m not.’
‘You still look like you.’
‘Oh. Well. Thank you.’
Jim was looking interested, the really interested way you do when you see someone else’s past unfolding in front of you. I said, ‘Jim, this is Morag. Morag, Jim. We haven’t seen each other for a while.’
‘I gathered that. Morag, you want to join us?’
And she did. Sat down, put her glass of whatever it was she was drinking on the table, rested her elbows on each side of it and cupped her chin in her hands.
Both of us said, ‘Do you live here?’ at exactly the same time, and both of us laughed. I don’t know what was going through Morag’s mind, but I was conscious of enormous peace.
I have a brother who hasn’t been straight with his wife. I’ve talked to him—more than once, actually; at our mother’s request and not because I wanted to—about why he does it. ‘It’s fantasy, John. I fall in love with some woman I’m not married to and it seems like she’s all my hopes and dreams rolled into one. And there’s this feeling of peace. I thought for a long time the peace was because this was it, after all the false starts. I’d found her.’
‘The peace comes because you’re in a fantasy. It isn’t real. You’re taking a break from the duties of marriage. You know the time I spent in America? Before you and Jo got together?’
‘I loved it. Loved the whole way of life and the way people are, the boundless possibilities, the acceptance that you are who you seem to be and you can achieve what you think you can achieve. For someone brought up in post-Empire Britain, it’s a wonderful feeling.’
‘I know all that. You went on and on about it. I’ve often wondered why you came back.’
‘Because all those things are the icing on the cake. What’s really great about living in another country is that it isn’t your responsibility. America has problems, too. Huge problems. But only Americans have to deal with them. Everyone else can just get on with having a good time. It’s the same for everyone. Brits living in France. Froggies living here. Turks in Germany. Chinese in Vancouver. When you first get there, it’s a fantasy and you’re living it. You have this enormous sense of calm because you can see the problems, you know how big they are, but they’re not your problems. They belong to the locals. But then, after you’ve been there long enough, when you’re starting to feel settled, then the problems start to become yours. And the calm vanishes.’
‘Forgive me, but we were talking about why you sleep around.’
‘For the calm. Don’t you see? For the fantasy. You’re there, in this relationship, you know it isn’t going to last but while you’re in it you’re someone else, you’re leading someone else’s life. There are problems in your real life, there are probably problems in hers or what’s she doing in bed with you? Not huge troubles like Obama faces. The mortgage. School fees. Kids not making enough effort at school. An affair takes you out of that for a while.’
‘That doesn’t sound very fair to the woman you’re having it with. Or to your wife, come to that.’
‘Fair? Love isn’t fair, John.’
‘This isn’t love you’re describing.’
‘Oh, it is, John. It is.’
Did I recall all that the moment I found myself in Morag’s company, enjoying this amazing calm? I can’t really say that I did. It didn’t feel like fantasy. It felt real. I was right back there in the mind of a sixteen year old.
It took Jim longer than I’d like to think it would have taken me if the positions had been reversed, but eventually he got the message. Realised there was one person too many at the table. Went back to the hotel. Leaving me to pick up his bill, as it happens. And left me and Morag free to talk about what we really wanted to talk about, which was how it had been for each of us, how we’d played the cards life had dealt us. Who we’d spent the missing years with.
Morag had married about the same time I did, but in her case it hadn’t taken. ‘You never really know someone till you’re married to him.’
‘No. Anyone in your life at the moment?’
The answer to that was “No” and I suppose we both looked a little wistful. Wistfulness doesn’t gain you anything, but it isn’t without its charms for all that. Then Morag said that Jane was married and lived not far away and wouldn’t it be great if we could visit them tomorrow evening.
‘I’d love to, but I won’t be here.’
‘Oh. Shame. How about now?’
‘Now sounds fine to me. But would Jane want to see us this late?’
‘I’ll call her and ask.’
Jane did want to see us and we went there on the Tube, which took about forty-five minutes, and we stayed late into the night because there was so much to catch up on and Jane’s husband was as welcoming as Jane was and they served us coffee and home made chocolate cake and fruit cake and shortbread biscuits and the chat never stopped for a single minute. Then Jane’s husband said, ‘We’ve got a spare room you’re both welcome to use but you need to decide now because the last Tube goes in fifteen minutes and it will take ten of those to walk to the station.’
I couldn’t tell you whether Morag considered the idea of the spare room because neither of us mentioned it. We stood up, hugged all round, put our coats on and walked to the station. We held hands, just as we had when we were teenagers in love, and when we were on the train we sat turned towards each other and we talked like two people who have been together for a long time, and then when we reached the station we held hands again while I walked her home. She said it wasn’t necessary but I didn’t feel happy about letting a woman—any woman—walk on her own at that time of night. When we got there she turned to me and we hugged and she kissed me on the cheek. She said, ‘It’s been lovely to see you again.’ And then she went inside, turning in the doorway to blow me one more kiss before she closed it behind her.
With the last Tube gone, I had a choice between walking back to the hotel and taking a cab. It was a warm evening and I was feeling pretty good so I decided to walk. It was three o’clock before I got back and there had been a little excitement because thirty minutes earlier Jim Stannard had been taken so ill he’d gone to hospital in an ambulance. Before going he’d tried to contact me but of course my room was empty. Jim put two and two together: he knew I’d met an old girlfriend in the pub; I’d made it clear I’d prefer him to leave us together; I hadn’t come back to the hotel; ergo, she and I were together in her bed. He was still under that impression when he met Ali all those years later, which is how Ali came to believe that I’d lied to him.
I might have corrected Jim if I’d seen him at the time, but his illness was appendicitis and it kept him out of circulation for a while. He never did join that project we were being hired for and although I’ve heard of him from time to time we haven’t actually met since that day in 1985.
I could have corrected Ali, too, if I’d thought there was any point. I could have explained, could have said that relationships between people have as little tensile strength as asphalt and you have to put something there—something that resists the stresses that a man and a woman are going to experience the way a joint handles the strain of drying concrete. I could have.
But why? He thought I’d slept around and he thought I’d lied about it and, for a man like him in a culture like his, that meant I was normal. Putting him straight would have been pointless because he would not have believed me. Ali is an entrepreneur, not an engineer, and he believes in taking the opportunity and negotiating the price afterwards.
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