February 1979 (or 1399)
Another Joe. This Joe was probably once a soldier. Perhaps he became a spook. I’ve met a few active spooks over the years and they don’t advertise. Perhaps they join you for a fun run to places that are restricted for diplomats. Perhaps you accompany a friend in a city of refugees to meet a brother from ‘the’ agency. Perhaps a casual central Asian street acquaintance wasn’t so casual. Perhaps this colleague in a security arrangement really did formerly work where he said.
The spooks ask questions. They probe for information. This Joe asked such questions.
We met in an oilfield services club in Sharjah. We only ever met the once and spent no more than a few hours together over a few drinks and I’ve not forgotten him.
I’d just spent ten days offshore on a rig in Zakum Field, a field that is still producing 500,000 barrels a day over forty years later. We were doing almost no work because the drilling had stopped. Something had fallen down the hole just before I arrived and the drill pipe got stuck. It seemed that we couldn’t pull the drill string out of the hole. So the rig would pull hard and release. Hard pull, release, pull, release. This was a jack-up rig in shallow water so there were three legs on the sea floor. We bounced for seven days. It was awful but we got used it. There being nothing to do and lots of people to do it, the roughnecks from deep Louisiana supervised the roustabouts from continental India who were put to painting every available surface. That required first stripping the paint from the metal surfaces with jack hammers. Hell had arrived on earth; a 24/7 cacophony of bouncing torture. We did finally get free and we were able to collect the core that was our reason for being there for two days that became ten.
Sharjah in 1979 was wet, meaning alcohol was available to certain parties. I had a Sharjah liquor licence, meaning we each had a licence to purchase a monthly allowance. An emirate of flyovers beside Dubai that preferred roundabouts, east of Abu Dhabi that chose traffic lights; several rival ways to manage road intersections. And they were rivals, each of the rulers of the seven emirates of The United Emirates of rivalry. The Trucial States had only been recently renamed, having been returned by the nearly bankrupt British who withdrew ‘protection’ after 160 years. The withdrawal in 1971 started squabbles over the boundaries of each Emirate that remain unresolved today.
I came to Joe’s attention in the bar and at first, I thought it was just because I was Irish and he wanted to talk about Ireland. We’d been talking loudly about a college classmate of mine that had been in the international papers. Joe may have overheard this from another table but he certainly was present at our table for some of the ribbing I got because of the article.
My work colleagues were all British though not all English. They wanted to know if I knew the guy in question in the news. I did. He was named in the articles and I admitted that I knew him.
The newspaper story was that a Trinity University geology graduate had been caught smuggling between Turkey and Greece.
How well did I know him? Had I known he was in the INLA? What was the INLA? Did I sympathise with his cause? When did we leave university? How often had I seen him since?
It was very awkward. Suddenly, I felt very exposed by the fact that one of nine people in a class had been jailed for smuggling weapons between Turkey and Greece. The only one who graduated with a Distinction that year appeared to be a member of the INLA. The same group that had killed British Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Airey Neave with a bomb attached to his car that March in the heart of Westminster.
You were in class with him four for years so you must have known him. You must have known he was a Provo. You probably sympathise with his cause. You must have met since college. You aren’t being totally honest.
Joe asked a few of us back to his place to listen to his music and have a drink after the club closed. We walked around to his apartment building somewhere off Al Wahda Street, not so far from our flat that our numbers thinned to three to two and then, it was just Joe and I who went into his flat.
It was beautifully decorated and had a nice view out over the Corniche, across the lagoon and on towards the sea. Joe said he was a logistics agent working with several shipping companies. He was helping to market, develop and expand containerised shipping systems, building a revolutionary future. This home was quite a contrast to the basic, functional flat our employer kept us in, two to a room, four sharing a kitchen.
Joe’s British accent hadn’t any obvious regional hints I could pick up. He claimed he’d been to some college in Oxford but I wasn’t sure I believed him. I’ve come to think that he probably spent a lot of time somewhere around Hereford.
I began to wonder if Joe was homosexual but there were no obvious signs he was so inclined. He wasn’t hitting on me, rather his questions were focussed on Ireland south of the border.
He knew where I grew up. That is to say, he’d been to Dalkey. He described the pubs there and he talked of Dun Laoghaire and asked about a few people I might have recognised.
He started to talk about news stories involving the PLO, the RAF (Red Army Faction) and other such groups. I was very uneasy. Something was wrong. I felt a rush of fear. A final swig of my beer and it was time to leave. I left. And that was that.
The next morning, I felt very uncomfortable at work. The newspaper article had raised a barrier. I thought I’d been made into some kind of fifth columnist within a tribe to which I didn’t belong. Paranoia set in. Paddy, Mick and such jokes waxed and waned over the coming month.
Joe had known the pubs in my village. How? He knew two brothers that I knew? How? Was I a victim that had provided snippets of information to him? Was he the classic confidence trickster that knew how to harvest seeds of ideas and make it sound like he knew the full story, my brain unconsciously filling in the gaps?
I was lucky to have a soulmate I’ll call Stan. He was English and not at all like the rest of my colleagues. That’s saying nothing bad about most of them. Rather, Stan and I had so many common interests that he even made it to my wedding a few years later. He talked me through the whole newspaper thing, joked that you can’t control who you meet and we simply ignored everyone else. And sure enough, a few weeks went by and my alienation seemed to have been forgotten. The Paddy-type comments stopped. Forgotten enough that I didn’t care any more.
I never saw Joe again. None of us did. I’ve met people like him since. I remain convinced that this Joe was a spook. I remain confident that this Joe had served in Northern Ireland in some capacity or other. I have no idea what this Joe was doing in Sharjah. I came to wonder who’s flat we had been in but I was never going back to find out. There’s a part of me that still wonders if the newspaper article put an Irish guy in Sharjah on a local British watch list. Was I visited just to be sure?
The Troubles. Paranoia. Perhaps I was on another list entirely. Had I just failed recruitment?