March 13th 2020 is a date that continues to stick in Vijay’s mind. He stands in the corridor of the Houston corporate office where he’s worked for the past 3 years, chatting idly with his workmates. Corporate HES has put out an email directing everyone to collect their things and as of tomorrow, work from home. They have not been told how long this arrangement will be in place for. As Vijay ticks items off his mental checklist: laptop, notebook, calculator, a voice down the hallway proclaims the discovery of 3 boxes of N-95 masks. There have been reports in the news that N-95s are the true saviour of coronavirus and this, combined with a resulting scarcity, has transformed them into something resembling gold dust.
Each box contains 8 masks in total. Vijay, who has wandered over to secure a mask each for himself and his wife, watches as a young colleague takes hold of an entire box to apparently take home with him. Vijay, incredulous as to the overt display of either selfishness or thoughtlessness; bemused by what some people are classing as valuable, can’t help but intervene, “just be responsible – remember there are other people on this floor.” The guy says nothing but calmly returns the box to its place and grabs himself a fistful from an open pack instead. Realistically though, the guy will probably return later to stockpile some more, overcome by the quiet hysteria that simmers just behind the mandatory professional façade.
Working from home is actually bloody inconvenient and Vijay is initially resistant. He and his wife Dhara are starting to sleep train their 5 month old baby daughter – they have only just moved her crib out into the other bedroom, and now they have to move it back again so that Vijay can use her room as an office. Even the term “working from home” is mostly used derisively, in order to provide a semi-legitimate opportunity for people to slack off. It’s not easy to disentangle yourself from a work culture that places so much importance on being present in the office. What if your manager notices that your online status turns to “idle” and thinks you’re slacking off? In the end, however, the opposite is true and Vijay hardly has time to leave his desk. With the oil price continuing to fall, refineries have stopped taking product and as a result instruct the company to cut back production, the responsibility for which ultimately falls on Vijay’s team to facilitate. Things become very stressful very quickly, and he finds himself doing 13-14 hour days, not logging off sometimes until 11 at night.
Vijay has worked as an engineer in oil and gas for the past 11-12 years but only moved to Houston in 2017 after spending a number of years working Expat in West Africa. Although Vijay is undoubtedly British, his family is originally from India, and in marrying Dhara, who was also born in India, culture and tradition can’t help but influence their life decisions. Family especially is hugely important; they speak to their parents 1-2 times a day regardless of time zones, and attendance at family celebrations is not only held in high esteem, it is keenly expected. In April, Vijay and Dhara are scheduled to make a month-long trip to the UK for the wedding of Vijay’s cousin. In typical Indian fashion they are anticipating about 1000 guests of which Vijay’s family only forms about 15%. It’s a lavish event – the ceremony will take place at the Landmark Hotel in central London with a reception at the Natural History Museum. They have booked their flights and accommodation and are eager to catch up with everyone back home – especially with Vijay’s parents who will be meeting their baby granddaughter for the very first time.
With the instruction to work from home, restrictions on permitted numbers for social gatherings and the continued spread of the virus however, Vijay is becoming somewhat uneasy about the trip. The potential for exposure will be much higher at his cousin’s wedding than it is for them currently in Houston, due almost entirely to the vast quantity of people who they will interact with, many of whom will be traveling from various international locations – India, Canada, USA, Dubai. He has a wife and new baby to protect, and attending a large international wedding does not feel like the safest thing right now. He checks WhatsApp compulsively, discusses the issue endlessly with Dhara and his parents back in the UK, waiting and waiting for the family to confirm that the wedding has been cancelled. Weddings are important life events and as long as the wedding goes ahead he has a duty to attend. Nor does he want to let his family down. Finally, with only two weeks to go, the message finally comes through that the wedding is cancelled. Within 10 minutes, flooded with a sense of relief, that they won’t have to travel, that the decision has been taken out of their hands, Vijay opens the British Airways app on his phone and hits cancel.
The oil price is still low, and in April, for the first time in a generation, it tumbles into negative territory. The industry can’t sustain this kind of fluctuation and on 30 April 2020 comes the first round of lay-offs. Vijay survives, but his workload doubles in response – the prior responsibility for 350 wells becomes 700, and 15 hour work days appear here to stay. Salvation comes, thankfully, in the form of the community style-living which manifests within their apartment building. The people they live amongst, many of whom work in the medical sector and happily share tips for avoiding the virus, are a welcome reprieve from the world of oil and gas. The set-up creates a kind of double life: regular participation in lively courtyard pool parties while sharing curries, sanitation advice and bibimbap, versus the confinement of well management via Microsoft Teams calls in the former nursery.
Houston will proceed to a version of perceived “normal” much faster than many other locations around the world and Vijay is one of the employees that returns to work at the office in July. A second round of lay-offs rolls through in early 2021 and this time Vijay doesn’t manage to dodge the axe. The breaking of the news to Vijay’s wife sums it up perfectly: “We’re going home.” Moving back to the UK is so clearly the obvious and optimal outcome for a bunch of reasons; Dhara is pregnant for the second time, and after this long period away it’s time to reset and embrace the family support which awaits them. Vijay is as quick to open his British Airways app and hit the “book” button as he was when hitting the cancel button last April. In the end, they sensibly give themselves six weeks to pack up, book flights, and research precautionary virus measures on YouTube, before finally taking the direct flight from Houston to Heathrow.
Vijay and Dhara gaze out at the myriad stationary planes parked oddly on the tarmac as they touchdown. The queues at immigration are busy as always – a flight from Pakistan has just landed, forcing them to dodge around large families in an effort to try and keep a reasonable distance. Self-quarantine is the current mandate, so Vijay has rented an apartment near his house in Peterborough where his family is living – he is cautious about infecting his parents or grandfather and so has opted not to move back home until the quarantine period has passed. It’s here that his parents finally meet baby Saanvi for the first time. They stand metres apart opposite each other outside in the freezing single digit weather, Vijay nervously awaiting Saanvi’s reaction to these newcomers. His parents, bursting to pick her up for a cuddle, sing “if you’re happy and you know it” smiles splitting their faces. Saanvi completes her assessment, and lights up, thankfully giving them her official seal of approval. It’s light years away from the first meeting which they had anticipated almost a year ago, sweet, heartbreaking and in some ways just plain weird.
For Vijay it’s only two weeks at home before he is offered a job as a contractor back in West Africa where he worked pre-Houston. The decision to accept is a no-brainer, he knows the facility, the people, the place, and most importantly his wife now has the support of family actually living within the same house while he is away. With his rotation he can be at work for 8 weeks and get back just in time for baby number 2’s (gender still unknown) entrance to the world.
It’s a new world, a new start and in the end, you end up exactly where you are supposed to be.