Adobe StockUsed only with express written permission
Dust and dreams in Doha
Another green and yellow caplet, I hold it in my palm rolling it around for a brief spell before swallowing it without water. The toilet is 5 star sterility and I swiftly I exit and feel a little disjointed, not used to the level of silence. Sluggish thoughts interrupted by the call to prayer relayed through a shrill tannoy. The hotel room floor hard as my soft body pushed up from it; press ups, a neurotic attempt to make my body leaner, sleeker, more toned. I gave up after thirty. I drew the floor to ceiling curtains to reveal the desert heat and the blinding illumination. Day One. The painkiller insinuated its way into my personal eco system in two tedious hours. The hidden new generation anti-depressant element working in perfect synergy with the synthetic opioid. I am wrapped in the God blanket, that layer of blissful chemical armour. All safe, clean, legal and very 21st century. I realised I’d been lying down channel surfing sucked into the giant plasma cyclops radiating myriad images that I didn’t allow to settle for long. 30-40 stations a minute as I finally alighted on Al Jazeera. Local TV.
Vague last pint traceries at Manchester Airport with an anonymous young eager IT type who’s on his way to Saudi. Oil business. Some sort of analyst. A nice lad, but his name doesn’t stay very long in my overloaded circuits. Manchester blurred into Saudi. A wave of sol heat, even at 7pm as we disembark. I still don’t know why they want me here. They being a telecom giant I’d previous never heard of. Troubleshoot. That was the brief. One line on headed notepaper, Home Office at that. That last pint was bland and inoffensive; just like me. So I’ve been told in countless work evaluations by industrial psychologists. Except they couch it in euphemism and faint praise. Never a leader. Ever the follower. The expert drone. My vague connections with the Gulf reason enough to dispatch me there.
The kid at the airport reminded me how much I was in stasis, a similar fate to his. He being twenty years my junior further buried the sore point; I was one of the invaluable expendables. No fanfare, or wage hike, only a mere three weeks to settle my affairs in London. It was a literal Hobson’s choice; this or the dole queue with a minimal redundancy package. Enough for a year of comfort, if I lived like Gandhi. Alasdair, that was the kid at the airport’s name, my synapses firing just enough for a short recall. Bald, old before his time leisure wear and that odd Anglo-Scottish ultra annunciated speech. Huge urrrrs of consonants that made him sound Swedish-American. We had that pint and he filled me in on what to expect in that golf club patrician way privately educated, privileged and above all supremely confident individuals do. No doubts, all facts. I was riddled with everyday doubts. The neurosis of the lower middle class straggler. In fact class doesn’t really come into it, he was cocksure, I was not. I remember so very little of his conversation that from my bed island here in Doha I wasn’t sure it ever took place. An imbedded memory like so many others.
The heat and the slight jet-lag sat uneasily with the sullied recycled air. I was feeling sick. A nausea that started as a fringe migraine and developed into advanced self loathing. I phoned room service. At least in a five star they must have decent enough grub and a reasonable wine list, not that I knew much about that. Beer and fags and darts were more my speed, at least that was what I had gulled myself into believing. Truth was, I had clue what I liked, only what I disliked and right now that was me. Loathing the self is such a luxury, wallowing in rewarding guilt and shame whilst bemoaning lost loves and opportunities. Again, truth is, I hadn’t missed anything. I was the epitome of moderation and grey contentment. No Chinese curse of interesting times, nor the dead hand of pure boredom, I was simply average. Or slightly above. This drift towards inward rumination was a recent development. The only major difference is that I am a mid-range drug dependent and I like inflicting pain on strangers. Real, eye-watering, teeth clenching pain. The type of of pain that stays in the memory cells for a lifetime. The pain only a seasoned torturer would be able to inflict. The scientific, clinical sort. The joy of pain that started only hours ago in the transit zone of Saudi. A dry run with Alasdair. Easy target. Trusting, young, daft. That stopover in Riyadh was an opportunity to test my somewhat rusty skills. Alasdair, it turns out, is a serial paedophile and is taking backhanders from both Saudi power brokers and CIA goons who are into what he’s into. I am freelance, despite the Home Office without-portfolio role I am in/not in. I am a specialist. I do what I am asked to do and sometimes have a chance to go off the page. I am a professional. I do what I am asked to do.
The Long Distance Commuter
I saw his face; nondescript, smooth, not handsome, not ugly on any level. An everyman with a light blue linen suit. An archetypal civil servant abroad. Unmistakably British, in fact southern English. I caught his clipped vowels as he ordered a gin and tonic on the flight. He winced as he sipped his obviously alien drink. He was uncomfortable and yet somehow dulled. I was three rows behind him on the Manchester to Riyadh flight and just focused on him to take my attention away from my own mounting panic. I hate flying, plus I haven’t paid my mortgage this month. I’m in the shit, pretty much. Even though I’m taking home a small fortune, I am hopeless with the old poppy. Give me a quid and I’ll piss a tenner u against the wall, if you get me. I’m intelligent enough to know what a dick I am, basically. Something about the bland linen fellow grabbed me deeper. Maybe all that time in the company of roughnecks in the oil fields has given me a drifting imagination. I steel my nerves as we land, I will need to get a tap of a grand to pay that bloody mortgage. It’s all for the wife, anyway. We’re all but over, but we still like each other enough. I’m still a recovering football casual, in a way, the old school type, not the Ronnie Corbett golfing gear clad arseholes, but just a lad that liked a proper tear up. A pressure release. Oil rigs are lonely places and the desert is even worse. No pubs, only purloined booze and nights of barely contained rage. Hence the tear-ups when I get home. They’ve stopped. Should do, I’m a dad to three snappers and it’s pathetic that a grown up is attracted to such stupid behaviour. I’ve had my nose broken, shin bone smashed with a ball peen hammer and I was once in a coma for six weeks. Fighting. We Brits are good at it. Just as well, ‘cause we’re shit at most other activities these days. No empire anymore. Not that I think too much about much other than getting through the days out here in Saudi. I’m off to Qatar later for a consultancy position. Consultant, that’s a laugh, every bugger and their granny is a consultant these days. Fair enough, I am a trained engineer, but this caper, ah well, it’s all money. My days at the dogs and races need to be financed. That and the football. Arsenal season books are not cheap and my two pre-teens are gunners as well. Opium of the masses, mate, football and 365 days of 24/7 TV and gambling sites. I’m nodding off as we land smoothly with the captain’s equally mellifluous tones easing us onto the tarmac.
Out of one frying pan and into…I never consciously decided on a future and thus was never granted much of a present. My past, well, that’s hapless meets reckless meets landing on one’s feet. The Gulf gig, man, that is not one I expected. I used to okay bad decisions on a coin toss operation and this trip is no different. From uni drop out to busker to band member to corporate entertainer and back again. Now this. Appearing in a thrice nightly covers outfit on rhythm guitar and backing vocals. Not bad for a functioning corpse. No regrets, mind you. I never expected much when I was turfed out of a children’s home aged 16 back in the Major era. Grey skies over Skelmersdale and a crack at six form college. A second cousin discovered me and he and his kindly wife took me in. Wigan was like a metropolis in them days. Got my three As at A level and it looked like I had formed a diamond out of the slag heap. And that was what clung to me, that word slag spat out of a hundred boy’s and nascent men’s mouths. Teenagers were cruel. Lads and lasses. I gravitated to puff to take the edge off it and then the schizophrenia. Voices. They’re never nice, soothing ones, are they? No, why don’t you treat yourself to a cake sentences. I finally broke down in my second year of a chemistry degree. Canterbury wasn’t a good space for me. Too many peripheral housing estates ringing the ecclesiastical lie at the heart of the city. I saw more pub fights there than I ever saw in Skem or Wigan. The uni was OK, but my ghosted voices hit a pitch. Luckily I discovered I could sing and play the old stringed axe when I was recovering at cousin Richard’s Wigan haven. Not often you’ll hear the two words conjoined in a sentence, Wigan and haven, but by Christ it was. It all blurs after that, TV talent show, record deal, third album flop, bankruptcy, yoga, back to pub gigs and then late blooming session work. And now the nostalgia circuit, all before I’m even 40. Middle aged women in music often don’t fare well. It’s a macho world. We are often decorative. Even the greats, the independently minded auteurs like Joni and Kate B were easy on the eyes of record execs and teenage boys. I’ve slid decorously under the radar and now I’m curiously happy about being dispatched by my slightly ropey manager to the arid climes for an indefinite period. My last marriage was freshly expunged as I had a rare glass of wine on the plane and read the set lists for the gigs. They were putting us up at The Rotana in Doha for the first fortnight and I had no problem with a five star crash pad. I liked hotels. An upbringing in a dodgy children’s home (don’t ask and I won’t tell) will make one appreciate such luxury as I was looking forward to. Natty Matty the bassist was sitting next to me warbling a few tunes, half-cut, with his headphones on oblivious to his unwitting audience. He calmed it after two bottle’s worth of cab sauv. I liked Matty but he was a nuisance when pissed. Aren’t we all, mostly? The gent to our right at the window was a fellow Brit, taciturn and a bit sweaty in his minty blue duds. Civil service was about all he gave away. Fair enough, not everyone wants to talk to an ageing muso on a seven hour flight. He had a lot of business to attend to and tap tapped away on his tablet as he nodded politely at my infrequent interruptions. I eventually gave in and had a couple of valium. A cliché, but hey ho, a gal needs her beauty kip. I wasn’t expecting much out of Qatar after I read up on it, so a couple of days in a medicated haze might just be a way of getting through it. How hard was it going to be, ploughing through 70s and 80s covers with a few stray contemporary tracks to keep the relative youngsters happy? Either way it was a way out of the wastes of divorce and property carve up. Amir bought me out of our creaking Wiltshire farmhouse and I cleared my credit card millstones and had a few bob left to fly out here with some new frocks and a new Strat. As we landed I felt nothing as I let the drug weave its magick.
Some small adjustments
First shock, then the desperate eyes searching out any kind of escape, then sheer terror. Alasdair was gaffer-taped to a chair in a dank decommissioned embassy building. He had an unfortunate cup of coffee with me when we landed and I slipped him the requisite pharmaceutical Michael Finn which rendered him physically pliable enough to manhandle into an airport taxi to here, his final destination. Let me declare myself, I have pretty boring and quotidian prejudices; I abhor paedophiles, tax avoiders, crude people with little or no manners. As I say, average tabloid-esque bugbears. Except, I can effect change, I can mete out punishment, corporal or in some more extreme cases, capital. Another grey man with a kit of tools that Torquemada himself would envy. Sometimes crude, always effective. Alasdair was a favour to an close-ish colleague (let’s face it, how could I maintain honest friendships given what I do?). That said, most don’t know what even their nearest get up to in my humble estimation. The civil service is riven with infidelities and odd peccadilloes.
Alasdair’s nails have dug into the soft flesh on his IT analyst’s mitts, a small show of blood. His breathing is laboured, shallow as he more or less guesses how this is going to proceed. Urine trickles in a pathetic slow and weak stream down both legs of his chinos. He is as helpless as he made those young boys and girls feel. I think this is an electrodes job, then an incineration. I won’t bugger about with my dental toys. A few session with the probes and then a dousing. Twenty, maybe twenty five minutes. I find any longer with a client tedious. My colleague, we’ll call him Philip, his young son was serially abused by associates of Alasdair’s. Higher echelon dwellers, somewhat protected by the security services, until now. My task was to get some names. Later, I am doing some private work in Qatar, can’t imagine what exactly, though they have a poor enough placing on the human rights index. Ho hum, another day hot desking in the dust and heat of The Gulf. Day One; practice and recon. Alasdair is whimpering through the ball-gag, muted though the eyes hold it all. Panic, flight, fantasy. Soon his brain will be sending insufficient amounts of serotonin to defeat the sheer agony I will be inflicting. I enjoy my work. It has its own unique rewards.
The Oryx Rotana is gilded misery. From the sheen of false smiles and pre-programmed welcome of the robotic staff, to the benign Emir beaming from his prominent position, this is five stars of numbing plasticity. I can spot the Brits abroad among the local Qatari, the American contingent corralling the bar area, looking wistful over their expensive cocktails. This is an inter-zone, with all the atmosphere of an airport departure lounge and just about the same lack of character. I had few expectations as Matty and I wearily offload our gear to an eager bell-hop. Tiredness and the sheer wall of heat contrasting with the overcast -2C degrees of Heathrow are rendering the hotel as dreamscape; a reality of sorts filtered through a grey lens. I have that feeling of being sandpapered internally. I’ve kept the MS diagnosis a secret thus far. Matty and the rest of the band don’t need to carry this additional burden and them knowing will just make me feel even more of a casualty. A few hours sleep before the first soundcheck at 7pm. It’ll be hazardous to even contemplate sourcing a few white lines out here. Hefty jail sentence, not to mention whatever else they mete out, justice-wise. I’m au fait enough to know that we will have to reign in our excesses, plus old enough to know better. A tall gin and tonic and a kip will have to do for now. Matty grunts as they ask him for his credit card for extra expenses such as room service I’d rather pay as I go he mutters as the desk staff give him the rictus pavlovian smile. It’s all showbiz.
I got the call to rush ahead to Doha as we passed through Riyadh, a trail of assorted ex-pats, folk returning home and general human transit. My boss, Huus, a bluff Dutch geezer with a limited sense of humour dully told me Q Petroleum wants you tomorrow first thing, Ok? No debate, just the bare information. I was half cut and too mellow to argue, plus it was time off for good behaviour from the ravages of Saudi. I could have a beer in Doha without the hassle of the slightly iffy channels I would have to go through in the Gulf neighbour. A result, really. Doha was uncharted territory and a change was worth a punt. Saudi customs was as unpleasant as usual, though the blanket of drink helped me wheel my way through on auto pilot. I saw that girl that used to sing in that band, can’t for the life of me remember who they were, looked good alongside the yeti she was webbed up with. Airports are a study. Flotsam and jetsam, all sorts from the fully robed Arab to the former minor rock star. And human meat like me, plying my trade with bare enthusiasm beyond an operating level. This is stage post-burn out, when I’m waiting impatiently to die. Not being morbid, just realistic. This bare fact keeps me sane. We’re all heading in the same direction, the conveyer belt of life. My pathetic battered case reminds me of my liver and my body in general. Life choices. Bad life choices. The British social life down the boozer. And this. Semi-exile in The Gulf. I’m weary already as I mouth a thank you and almost glide onto the connecting flight to Doha.
Alasdair was a salutary lesson in human endurance, he fought all the way to his ad hoc funeral pyre. A homer as you might put it, a small piece of private contracting. I needed a long shower now, feeling the cloying stench of death almost burrowing under my skin. I took nothing but a rather disappointing empty feeling with me as I left Riyadh, my long overdue practice session over. It’s only a job, albeit a savage and heartless one. I find myself actually using this as a mantra, partly as a convincer. My friends in the Saudi secret police would deal with the remains. What a waste, Alasdair Ogilvie Gillies.