The Lyndesfarne Bridge Novels by Trevor Hopkins

New Bridge to Lyndesfarne: Chapter 34

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In Kevin's professional experience, there always comes a moment in every large project where the delays caused by errors, unpredicted additional work and logistical failures reaches a critical stage. At this point in time, the fact that the project will be seriously delayed can no longer be ignored, even by the project managers whose job it was to ensure on-time delivery.

At times like these, Kevin saw that a crucial part of his job was to put pressure on the management team to ensure that cold reality was stared in the face, rather than flatly denied. He had to guarantee that the now-impossible schedule was ditched, and to make sure that the plans were adjusted to correspond with reality, rather than attempting (and inevitably failing) to force reality to fit the plans.

In general, Kevin concluded, almost everything about civil engineering took longer to achieve that even the most pessimistic plans, an observation he knew as Hofstadter's Law. This was defined as "Everything takes longer than you think, even when you take into account Hofstadter's law" - a notion that Kevin found neatly recursive.

Kevin was attending a particularly stormy project progress meeting, and feeling increasingly fed up with the whole event. He was firmly of the view that "progress meetings" were gathering where everyone sat around and talked, instead of actually making any progress. Certainly, this specific event seemed to be generating much heat and smoke, but with precious little clarity and illumination as a result.

Excavations for the New Bridge to Lyndesfarne

The breaking-point in this case was the revelation that the foundation work was going to take much longer than suggested by the original plans. During the initial excavations on the Mainland side, the contractors has discovered that the bedrock was more splintered than the surveys had suggested, and consequently there would need to be more drilling and blasting, as well as quite a lot more reinforced concrete to support the bridge.

Kevin was the bearer of this particular piece of bad news. He had recently visited the excavations, made numerous notes, and written them up into a lengthy professional report, which of course no one seemed to have actually read. The reaction around the table, as the realisation of the implications began to sink in, was a combination of surprise and fury. Voices were raised, heated outbursts were almost immediately interrupted by someone else, and fingers were pointed - all standard behaviour which Kevin mentally categorised as "throwing the toys out of the pram".

Tweedledum acted as if meeting thought that the surveying errors were entirely his fault, as the representative of the Mainland contracting firm. Acting entirely in character, he mounted a robust defence, trying to shift the blame on to the surveying work, which had commissioned by Kevin's company and at least partially by Kevin himself.

Having been put on the spot, Kevin tried to explain calmly and rationally that, even with modern techniques, underground surveying was an imprecise science. He knew that core drilling was always a sampling process and could easily lead to misleading conclusions, while echo-soundings required a considerable degree of human interpretation, which of itself implied the possibility of human error.

This particular rationalization was not well-received. Various parties around the table seemed determined to make certain it would not be seen as their fault, and the blame would be firmly attached to someone else. Terrific, thought Kevin, as he watched the arguments rattle to and fro, I can see that getting caught in the cross-fire was in fact going to shoot the messenger.

Tweedledum

"Wasn't there also those problems with the surveying equipment?" asked Tweedledum, prompted inaudibly by one of his ever-present coterie of underlings, presumably in an effort to undermine Kevin's explanation.

"What's that?" Kevin responded. "I've heard nothing about any problems."

"Oh yes, I was chatting to someone the other week - I forget who. Said they had endless problems with the machinery," Tweedledum blathered on. "Iffy things, those scanners. Too many microchips in them for my taste. Never can trust them."

Kevin was taken aback. He had not heard of any such failures, and had thought that he was on sufficiently good terms with his team that he would have got wind of anything like this. On the other hand, he mused, much of the surveying work had been subcontracted, and to a company he had not heard of before. During the work, he had met some of the individuals, who all seemed quietly confident, and the report they had produced all that time ago was a model of capable professionalism.

There was nothing in the survey report about any instrumentation problems, which he would certainly have expected from any competent company. Any problems which might affect the accuracy of the report would, as a matter of course, be included in the text, in order to frame any limitations in the work carried out, not to mention that essential facet of professional life known as "covering your arse". There is something strange about this whole situation, Kevin pondered distractedly.

Peter Brenner, the design team Project Manager - always a bit of a worrier, even at the best of times, Kevin thought - was alternately acerbic and apoplectic.

"Nothing in the survey anywhere?" he spluttered. "No risks register entry? Nothing at all?"

Kevin confirmed that there was no report of scanner problems anywhere, provoking a reaction from Peter best characterised as "spitting his dummy out".

David Macmillan, the Partner in overall charge of the New Bridge project, confirmed Kevin's statements in a much calmer tone of voice, evidently trying to get the meeting back on some form of even keel. As if he actually read the reports closely enough to tell, Kevin thought resentfully.

Regardless, David downplayed the scanner problems, suggesting that it was a minor oversight, and hinting that the technical problems might be explained by proximity to the straights and whatever it was that prevented technology from working on the Island.

Peter was evidently not to be so easily pacified. He resorted to using the Lyndesfarne language, speaking directly to the smaller Lyndesfarne team sitting (almost huddling, Kevin thought) on the far side of the table.

Panit, whose apparently permanent paranoid views appeared to have been ratified by the recent exchanges, looked smug, and even Bret was looking a little bit relieved at Peter's words.

"Eh? What's he saying?" interjected Tweedledum, glancing around the table. In doing so, he simultaneously confirmed Kevin's guess that Tweedledum did not speak the language, as well as voicing his own view that deliberately speaking a language not everyone at the meeting understood was both rude and unprofessional.

"I was just explaining that the schedule for the New Bridge will have slipped by months, not days, thanks to this cock-up," explained Peter, in a tone of voice that suggested not an ounce, not a smidgeon of remorse or apology.

Panit seemed to be making side remarks to Bret. Kevin could not hear what was being said, and he suspected that he would not have understood even if he could have heard.

After rather too much further discussion, and far too much bitching and backbiting, the meeting came to a decision. There would be an immediate re-plan cycle. Peter Brenner would produce a revised plan, based on the increased effort estimates from Kevin, and present it to the next progress meeting in a week's time.

"It's not the end of the world," was David's parting shot, completing his self-appointed role as meeting pacifier.

Kevin wondered if he was witnessing a game of "management chicken" being played out between the project managers on the Mainland and Island sides. This intransigent behaviour, by turns, obdurate, uncompromising and unyielding, suggested that there was some kind of power struggle going on. Both sides knew that some delay was inevitable; neither side wanted to be the first to admit it, presumably because of the loss of face that this would entail. Kevin's news had forced their play, by making it clear that the Mainland side would be badly delayed, and allowing for a certain amount of gleeful finger-pointing.

The later part of the meeting was characterised by a sudden emergence of what was - to Kevin's mind - a completely unnecessary interest in the minutia of the expenses and the details of the day-to-day expenditure. Even the most trivial, and the most essential, outgoings were scrutinised minutely, as if numerous employees were trying to deliberately defraud the company. These pressures on costs seemed, at the time, to be rather odd, especially given the lack of emphasis during the kick-off meetings on the price for delivery. This seemed to be a complete about-face from the bean counters, who had seemed so acquiescent in the early meetings. Kevin wondered just what was going on behind the scenes.

He came away feeling immensely depressed, as he often did after such meetings. There had been some ill-informed decisions, much miscommunications and a truly astonishing amount of unprofessional bitching.

Kevin tended to follow a dictum he had originally heard from his Grandmother: "never ascribe to malice that which can adequately be explained by incompetence". Since he had come across an amazing amount of ineptitude and stupidity amongst his supposedly experienced professional colleagues, he had no difficulty in putting the whole experience down just as Granny would have liked.

Later that evening, while relaxing in the quiet comfort of his Manchester flat, Kevin was curious about the follow-up to the day's get-together. He seemed to have picked up a lot of "action points" from the meeting, mostly to resolve issues not caused by him in the first place. He wondered if somehow the management were particularly anxious about the progress of the work. This was such an unusual project, he mused, conjecturing if there were extra concerns above and beyond those he would have recognised in a normal job. Unsure what else to do, he resolved to seek out Bret at the earliest opportunity, and learn more about the history of the construction of the Old Bridge.

Lyndesfarne construction stone

The opportunity to talk to Bret occurred a week or so later, during one of their scheduled inspection trips to view the progress of the construction work. It was a wet and windy day, forcing the two men to take shelter in the lee of several pallets of construction stone blocks destined for the tower on the Island side.

They were accompanied by the ever-present Ricard. Fortuitously, Kevin had left his rucksack behind, entirely accidentally as it happened, and he asked Ricard to return and fetch it.

"I'll stay here with Bret," Kevin suggested, "We can complete our notes for the weekly progress report."

As if another week with a complete lack of progress was something he particularly wanted to report on. There had been no discernable improvement on the delays so recently identified on the work on the Mainland side. He had, however, picked up a few not-so-subtle signs that progress was not all that had been expected on the Island side as well.

After Ricard had moved off through the rain, Kevin sat down heavily.

"Why do we have all these setbacks?" he huffed, venting his pent-up frustration, and thereby visibly startling Bret, "Did they have these kinds of planning and execution problems when the Old Bridge was built?"

Bret looked thoughtful for a few moments before replying.

"Hmmm. Well, as it happens, I have studied the history here. And that's a very interesting question."

Kevin looked curiously at Bret and raised an eyebrow in a way he liked think was quizzical. Bret took the hint and continued.

"I once told you that I was fascinated by the bridge as a child. Now, you should understand that not many large bridges are built in this world these days. Most normal transport does not require such things."

"Portals," murmured Kevin.

"Well, yes indeed," Bret replied, looking slightly surprised at Kevin's remark.

Bret stared into the distance for a few moments. Kevin got the impression that he was weighing up just how much he could, or perhaps should, tell. He appeared to come to some kind of internal conclusion, and returned his attention to Kevin.

"So, where to begin? The tale of the making of the bridge is not all that well-known, since not many people are really aware of the true situation. I heard some chronicles as a child, from my parents and other relatives. They all seemed a little disjointed and sometimes inconsistent with one another, and altogether impossibly heroic. Although they did make wonderful bedtime stories."

Bret smiled for a moment and then continued.

"More recently, I've looked into the history, using some contacts I have within the Guild of Directions. And I have to say, what I discovered is just a bit worrying."

Bret's normally smiling features were suddenly replaced by a sombre look.

"There were an alarming number of accidents, especially in the earlier phases of construction," Bret explained, "Even more than would have been expected in those days. People died, all too often. The workers, from both sides, came to believe that the bridge was somehow jinxed or cursed, and it became increasingly difficult to recruit men to work on the project."

"The catalogue of problems culminated in the collapse of the central arch while it was still being constructed."

Kevin knew that stone arches were built by first constructing what must have been a huge and complex wooden framework. On this base, the workers would carefully lay the pre-cut masonry blocks. This had to be done as evenly as possible to minimise the stress on the scaffolding, as well as ensuring that the arch would stand up under its own weight when the woodwork was removed.

"That must have delayed the construction!" Kevin exclaimed.

"Well, yes. There was a riot that - quite literally - went on for days. Intense paranoia everywhere, practically a witch-hunt. There seems to have been some suspicion of sabotage at the time, although nothing was ever proven."

Bret grimaced, then continued.

"This incident also provoked financial turmoil, and backers from both sides very nearly pulled out. It seemed for quite a time that work on the bridge would be abandoned. But, after a fair bit of skilful footwork by the management, a few backroom deals to raise more money, some impressive oratory and, probably most importantly, an agreement to make a huge increase in the danger money paid to the workforce, the project was restarted."

"The number of incidents was considerably reduced after that, and obviously the bridge was finished - although the cost was considerably higher than originally budgeted." Bret stood and shook his head.

"Anyway, the rain seems to be easing off. I'd better go and check on those delivery schedules."

After Bret left, Kevin thought about what he had just been told. He knew he was engaged in an inherently dangerous occupation. It was a sad but inescapable fact that large-scale civil engineering projects almost always cost someone's life.

The New Bridge had so far had perhaps less than its fair share of such incidents. Of course there had been several near-misses, with falling materials narrowly missing workers on a couple of occasions, as well as the usual collection of the kinds of injuries - crushed arms, broken legs - that building work too often engendered.

New Bridge under construction

Even so, Bret's history lesson had forced Kevin to consider seriously for the first time that the surveying equipment was sabotaged, or that the report on the foundation analysis work had been tampered with in some way. But, if it was sabotage, he wondered, what did they hope to achieve? Maybe Granny was wrong, and malice is the correct interpretation after all.


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