The Lyndesfarne Bridge Novels by Trevor Hopkins

New Bridge to Lyndesfarne: Chapter 10

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A couple of weeks after Kevin's first visit to Lyndesfarne, a second planning meeting was convened, again in the Manchester office. This one was billed as an Outline Design Review meeting. Kevin mentally translated this as "Tell the management something about the technical solution, so that they could (a) pretend to understand it, and (b) moan about the cost".

The planning meeting was held in the same office building in Manchester, but this time in a slightly larger conference room, and one with a view over the street. The room was light and airy, and the spring sunlight was flooding in through the windows which lined one entire side of the room. Kevin thought it would be such a shame to draw the blinds on a day like this, although of course knowing that in reality he would be spending most of the day in semi-darkness simply to allow the slides they would be projecting to be visible.

Tweedledum was present, representing the contractors who would build the Mainland part of the bridge. He had buttonholed Kevin the second he had entered the room.

Office block in Manchester

"So, do you think we can build this bridge, then?" boomed Tweedledum in his usual hearty manner.

Tweedledum

Kevin toyed with winding him up at this point by suggested insuperable technical difficulties but, since Tweedledum had no detectable sense of humour, he concluded that a simple and honest answer would save much aggravation later.

"Yes, very probably." Kevin replied. "There are a couple of tricky issues still to be sorted out, and we will need a lot of computer simulation time, but, yes, I think we can put together something that won't fall down in a hurry."

The session was run by David Macmillan, the Partner who had also organised the kick-off meeting. He clapped his hands for attention, and the attendees gradually settled themselves around the conference table that largely filled the meeting room.

Tweedledum's own considerable personal presence was bolstered by a couple of his cohorts and bag-carriers, who sat silently but attentively through the entire meeting, making copious notes. Kevin failed to catch their names when they were introduced, and frankly considered it no great loss.

To Tweedledum's left was Kenneth Nasterton, a Senior Managing Partner from Kevin's firm. Kenneth introduced the meeting, and said a few words that were probably meant to be inspirational and convey leadership, but in fact were some of the most tedious platitudes that Kevin (who had considerable experience in sitting through tedious platitudes) had ever heard. Kenneth's speech was delivered in a barely audible mumble, apparently addressed to the tabletop rather than any the people actually present, and accompanied by continual fiddling with what Kevin suspected to be an old school tie. He entirely expected that Kenneth would not remain in the meeting for very long.

Old School tie

Kevin was therefore not in the least bit surprised when the Senior Partner excused himself only a few minutes later, pleading another appointment, and leaving behind a waft of expensive but old-fashioned aftershave.

Kenneth also left behind two of his subordinates, who were to be responsible for the costing and pricing activities on the new bridge project. The bean counters had clearly been carefully briefed before the meeting not to take their usual nit-picking attitude, and Kevin noticed that they were forced to swallow back some objection on several occasions, and looked almost green at some of the more expensive aspects of the proposals with which they were presented.

David introduced Peter Brenner, who was to be the Project Manager for the design work to be done by Kevin's company. Since Kevin knew that, in practice, the design work would almost entirely be performed by himself, this seemed overkill, but at least Kevin knew who to contact to sort out the administrivia that a project like this would inevitably entail. Brenner was known in the company as a bit of a worrier, and tended to over-plan everything in microscopic detail.

On the Lyndesfarne side, there were fewer delegates. Bret was present, and dressed in a way much less likely to attract comment on the Mainland. Today, he was wearing a chunky brown woollen roll-neck sweater, and what looked like grey canvas trousers. His long blond hair was as always neatly bound up in a ponytail, and he was still toting around the burgundy leather briefcase.

Bret introduced the new Project Manager from the Lyndesfarne Board of Construction. Kevin did not quite catch his name during the introductions, and wrote "Quarl?" in his notebook. Whatever his name was, he was an easily forgettable man, with thinning hair which could only be described as mousey, and he looked extremely uncomfortable in a conventional business suit and tie.

Craz has huge hands

Bret also introduced the 'Overseer' from the Board, who would be responsible for organising the building of the Island side of the bridge. The Overseer, who was introduced as Craz, was a big man with broad shoulders and remarkably large hands, and sported a deep tan and a luxuriant black moustache which made him look like a larger-than-life version of Mario the Plumber.

He had eschewed any attempt to fit in with Mainland dress codes, and looked most relaxed in worn leather trousers, a blousy shirt in a startling shade of canary yellow, and had what Kevin now recognised as a typical Lyndesfarne cape tossed over the back of his chair.

Panit, the manager with the manifestly paranoid behaviour who had attended the first meeting, was missing, although no explanation for his absence was offered.

Kevin noted with a mixture of amused tolerance and resigned indignation that there were as always more managers than workers on the team. The "more Chiefs than Indians" approach was a natural corollary of collective responsibility in the modern world, which was also known as "sharing the blame when things went wrong". Which they always did, eventually.

The first action of the meeting was to confirm the appointment of technical deputies for both Bret and Kevin. Kevin's deputy, he was dismayed to hear, was to be Graeme Greysmith, who was notoriously inefficient and lazy. Greysmith could be relied upon to complete a particular task only if one checked on his progress every thirty minutes or so. An electric cattle-prod, considered Kevin, would be a useful additional incentive.

The presence of Smudger, as Greysmith was nicknamed, on a project usually indicated that there was more budget for personnel available than work actually required, and that he could at least be relied upon to record chargeable hours regularly. Actual useful work associated with those hours would be negligibly small.

Greysmith's nickname, Kevin had heard, had come about from his early days in the company. Graeme was often observed still at his desk when the last person left in the evening, and was still there, with creased suit and darkly unshaven chin, when the early birds arrived the next day. This gave him a spurious reputation in management circles for diligence beyond the call of duty. Kevin suspected that Smudger slept under his desk and found other ways of entertaining himself during notionally working hours.

Smudger was uncharacteristically silent during today's meeting. Kevin strongly suspected - correctly, as it turned out - that Smudger would be almost entirely absent from the Lyndesfarne bridge project, except for meetings with senior management, when he would strive to give the appearance that the achievements of others could not have been completed without his vital contributions. And of course, thought Kevin wryly, to carefully ensure that no blame attaches to him in the inevitable event of things not quite going according to plan.

A deputy for Bret was also introduced. He was a rather nervous and frail-looking young man called Farmill. He was much shorter than Kevin, who was himself not particularly large, and completely overshadowed by the likes of Tweedledum and Overseer Craz. Although evidently highly enthusiastic, Farmill seemed under-qualified, or perhaps just inexperienced, for the role expected of him. He also did not speak particularly good English, and was forever asking Bret to translate words and phrases for him.

There was also the little matter of the confirmation of the appointment of interpreters for the project. For Kevin's firm, Professor Alan and his organisation from NISSA would be used. This must have been a done deal, thought Kevin, since the Professor was absent from the meeting. For the Lyndesfarne, the only woman in the room was introduced. She was called Aneil, and was the official interpreter from the Guild of Directions. She was a tall, taciturn figure in dark clothes in a typical Lyndesfarne style, and had shoulder-length brown hair and piercing grey eyes that always seemed unsmilingly alert.

At last, Kevin found himself standing in front of the meeting. Over the last few weeks, he had written up his outline design proposal as a large and formal document, which he thoroughly expected no-one in the management team to have read carefully, or indeed at all. He had delivered a good draft for translation by NISSA several days ago, and had confirmed that this transcript had been received by the Board on Lyndesfarne. He had informally checked with Bret that the translation had indeed been provided, and that Bret was happy with the quality.

In the absence of a readable document, the real communication occurred by means of a presentation, written using Kevin's laptop computer, and now projected onto a screen behind him. As usual, Kevin had thought it best to use plenty of colours, animated graphics and other flashy presentational gimmicks, to keep the audience awake, while keeping the actual technical content as simple as possible. One of his regular gripes was that the solution to a complex engineering problem costing many millions of pounds was supposed by the management to be expressible in ten slides or less, without loss of accuracy or completeness. Why don't they put at least some effort into getting a grip on the real solution, he mused dispiritedly, instead of spending all their time engaged in internecine management warfare?

The presentation introduced the salient features of the new bridge solution in kindergarten language, indicating that there would be essentially two different half-bridges joined in the middle. Kevin reprised the technology of cable-stay bridge construction, and outlined the remaining difficulties with the choice of site to ensure nearly equal crossing lengths in each world, and the tricky issue of joining the two sections.

In several previous working sessions, the two men had worked up some presentational material for Bret to speak to, using Kevin's computer skills, since they knew that this management pitch would be delivered on this side of the straights. Bret now took over, outlining in fluent but still confusing English how the Lyndesfarne section of the bridge would be constructed. There were very few questions. It seemed that the meeting was willing to accept the solution approach and the implied costs for design and build without significant challenges, for the first time in Kevin's entire working experience.

The final formal item on the meeting agenda was the plan. The Project Managers from both organisations made presentations on the planning approach, which were predictably tedious. Kevin only just resisted the temptation to mutter "Zer Secret Planz" under his breath in the style of a SPECTRE agent.

The plans were derived from a draft version of the design documents from Bret and Kevin, and both of them found it necessary to point out minor corrections and omissions where the thinking on the technical approach had moved on. The man whose name Kevin had failed to catch spoke first. His presentation style was hasty and breathless, as if he was in a tremendous rush to complete the material as quickly as possible. He was followed by Peter Brenner, whose easy and laconic style could not have been more different. Peter went into a considerable amount of detail, at great length; even so, his part of the presentation was concluded surprisingly rapidly.

The meeting wound down in near-record time. Nevertheless, Kevin felt he was missing something important, though he could not quite put his finger on what it was. The management types appeared to have held prior private meetings to determine the best working practices. It had become clear that an important factor was keeping the number of people who knew about the bridge to Lyndesfarne to a minimum. Kevin could understand the desire for secrecy, given the centuries-old misinformation campaign, but why was it necessary for so few people from inside his company, or indeed from either side, to know about the proposed construction of the new bridge?


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