San Cassimally bio photo

San Cassimally

Scottish-Mauritian novelist and playwright.

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If two solutions of differing concentration are separated by a permeable membrane, the solute diffuses through the membrane from the solution having the greater concentration into the solution having the lesser solute concentration whilst water diffuses into the solution having the greater solute concentration.

Osmosis is the diffusion of water across a membrane into a solution having a greater solute concentration. The two processes only stop when the concentration on either side of the membrane is equalised.

Osmosis & Diffusion

Katrina Crialese slowed down as she read the sign: Kilmahog 4. Nearly there. She had been cycling for two hours. The guide book suggested a stop at The Hamish, if only to see its famous resident - also called Hamish, a hirsute Highland bull in the paddock there, its star attraction. The book said nothing about the quality of the food though. Grandma Gina (“Don’t call me Angelina cara, there’s nothing angelic about me”) used to say, “the taste of the food is the least important thing to the Eeeng…lish, as long as eet looks nice”. I hope I do not speak like a music-hall Italian; she knew that she had unconsciously picked an American accent in the two years she was in Washington, which she had promised to get rid of whilst over in Scotland.

The morning mist had lifted and she had an unimpeded view of the various shades of green of the forests on either side of the winding shiny blue-tinted, asphalt road. From the distance the outlines of munros and corbetts began to emerge like a photograph in the final stages of processing. Time was when she enjoyed printing her own photographs, now with digital it seems a bit pointless, although when asked to supply a pic for a magazine or an exhibition, she insisted on doing everything herself on her trusty Voigtlander. She still had a dark room. You had to go on-line to lay hands on black-and-white films though.

Photo Credit: © Davide Metzger

If I don’t put something inside me soon I am going to pass out. Fact was that there was no fear of that; she liked to think of herself as a healthy strong girl - no, a healthy strong woman. She had been volley ball captain of her university team, was no mean exponent of the martial arts. A personal fitness trainer had described her once as a perfectly tuned human machine. She didn’t think that he was only saying this so he could charge her more. Or might he have been trying to come on to her? She could have been an Arctic explorer (she had not entirely given up hope of achieving that adolescent ambition), or an Everest climber. Dream on Modesty Blaise… She knew the Dolomites in Italy where she grew up, inside out, and had in fact first seen the famous hairy Highland bull there.

She sometimes fantasised about roaming the mountains and forests of Africa, or India, looking for birds which had not been seen in the last few years, presumed extinct. Perhaps she could initiate some scheme to promote their survival. She would dearly love to see a blue swallow, or a Bulo Burti bubou - there cannot be too many of them left.

For three years she had worked with Professor Marcello Giardino at Italy’s National Institute of Physics Matter on STARFLAG, Starlings in Flight, a European project involving physicists, biologists like herself and economists. For years scientists as well as those irksome twitchers, had been puzzled by bird formation, by how they arrived at keeping such precision in their flying patterns, how millions of them could fly across each other without colliding. Just compare that with the chaos produced on any motorway in the world, with less than 0.1% the number of cars, fitted with all the newest electronic devices. Obviously there was some sort of communication between them. STARFLAG had set itself the task of finding out the mechanism of their flight.

When she joined the international team engaged in this activity three years ago, a lot of work had already been done, and Chiara Cavagna at the Centre For Statistical Mechanics and Complexity in Rome already had impressive data. When Katrina arrived to join the team in Rome fresh from her research fellowship at the Smithsonian Bird Center in Washington, they were planning to carry out a detailed study of the skies of the Stazione Centrale di Termini in Rome. For two years she and her colleagues kept track of the millions of starlings that haunt the area, taking photographs, making 3-D models, studying them and analysing all aspects from all possible angles. Finally the team had arrived at the conclusion that each starling kept track of seven others, which made more sense than the original hypothesis that each bird was in contact with all the members of the flock, explaining why not a single bird is ever left isolated in case of predatory attack.

The results had been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and she had moved on. Last spring Jolyon (Professor McMasters) had come to Rome to participate in a seminar on Bird Migration, and they had got on famously. He had mentioned that Aberdeen had funding for two fellowships, maybe three, and had more or less offered one of them to her. As she was not one for dilly dallying, she made up her mind on the spot to accept. She was delighted to be able to spend some time in the land of her birth, for she was born in Britain, although the family had left for Italy before she was five, when papa was made redundant.

She had arrived in London a few weeks early as she needed a holiday, not having taken one in almost two years. She had always found the Scottish Highlands fascinating in photographs, imagining virile red-bearded men in tartans and comely lassies dancing the Highland Fling on a carpet of heather, and now she was going to see for herself. Too bad the heather was not going to be in full bloom until much later.

Although she hardly ever wore make-up and had little dress sense, men seemed to find her attractive, and clearly this had advantages. She had full lips, possibly inherited from her African slave ancestor. Her rich gold tan was no doubt due to Gina’s island lover, but she could only have inherited her blue eyes from her Nazi ancestor who shot the dying in Babi Yar…

She pedalled on with renewed vigour now that she knew that she was going to stop soon. Kilmahog - Kill my hunger! There were three coaches in the car park and chattering tourists were merrily feeding the famous bull which was famous for being famous, bits of apple, pear, carrot or whatever, which the mollycoddled bovine took as his due, with a negligence bordering on impudence. Some of the younger folks in the precinct eyed her fancy bike with envy, something she was very proud of, having splashed out almost half the advance Aberdeen had sent her on it. She chained the prized mount to the cycle rack and made for the toilets. Whilst washing her hands, she noticed in the mirror that she still had her helmet on, and laughed. Gina proudly called her “our little absent-minded professor”. She went back and dropped it in her pannier, entered the café and ordered a pot of tea. Never drink their coffee, the grandmother had advised, unless you badly want stomach ache, usually adding, “and it tastes like a sick bull’s piss”. Hamish’s?

She asked the Polish chap behind the counter for a croissant and took a small plastic pot of apricot jam. She picked a handful of sachets of sugar as she liked her tea extra sweet, and groaned as she read “tastes like real cream” on the tub of the substitute. Croissant and jam. And the croissant looked surprisingly fresh too.

What a treat! She loved everything sweet. She did not have to worry about her weight, for she was something of a fitness freak, and even if she had not had a personal trainer since Washington, she was constantly on the move and did not have one gram of excess fat in her body. Gina used to encourage her to eat sweets, explaining that her own sour nature was because as a child she had been deprived of the good things of life, like sweets and lemonade. Katrina smiled, for if there was a thing which the old dear did not have, it was one sour gene in her body. Yes, she did have a colourful speech, and was rather fond of mild expletives when she wanted to show off, but nobody she knew had a more optimistic nature or was less ill-tempered. Now, with her stroke, she was using swear words all the time, and her granddaughter suspected that she knew that she would get away with this, as everybody would put her swearing on the back of her condition. Gina sometimes spoke disparagingly about family, neighbour or friend, but in reality she bore malice towards none. It was as if once she had said something nasty this had absolved the target of her diatribe of whatever crime they were supposed to have committed. I hope the old thing does not die on me while I am over here.

As she was munching away thinking of random things, poor mum, with her pains and aches, her sleepless nights, dad and his ulcers, Donald Robertson walked in, looking around him like a little boy lost, killing Chinamen. Killing Chinamen was what her family called blinking. Zio Mario, dad’s cousin, a master of trivia, had once informed the table that in China, every time someone blinked a Chinaman died, thus giving the family their overused code.

Donald was thin, tall and gangly and had a strange walk. He never seemed to take two strides of the same length, as if he had to make a conscious decision about each step. It seemed to take him all the skill God gave him to avoid walking into chairs and tables, but unlike Katrina, he had remembered to take his helmet off, carrying it gingerly, like it was a basket of eggs of near extinct birds. She watched him surreptitiously, saw a red maple leaf on his pale blue blouson, and assumed that he was Canadian. Do I have anything on me to identify me as an Italian? She found him an interesting if bizarre specimen, and suspected (wrongly, as she would discover shortly) that even if she was staring at him, he would be unlikely to notice. She recalled seeing a cyclist sitting on a rock some ten kilometres from Kilmahog, obviously entranced by the carpet of bluebells which punctuated the scenery, and deduced that he was none other than Mr Charisma here.

The behaviourist in her watched him as he ordered his coffee, bacon and eggs. She noticed how he jerked his head involuntarily, unable to stand still, as if he had ants in his shoes and something in his collar irritating his neck. The Pole served him his coffee, told him to go sit down, saying that someone would bring him his egg. Hope he doesn’t come and sit at my table. The Canadian hesitated before picking up his coffee, twitching his lips for a split second, in what must have been the ghost of a smile, put his helmet on his head, and holding his coffee with both hands, walked towards a table next to the counter with cutlery, sugar, creamer etc, and served himself, after which he walked in her direction. She noticed him slowing down, looking at her furtively, blinking uncontrollably, almost tripping, as if the sight of her had caused him some mild shock. However, this did not seem to deter him from considering joining her at her table. She gave him no encouragement, and hesitatingly he made for the table by a window diagonally opposite her, pretending that that was what he had been meaning to do all along, like Karl Lorenz’s dog going blind not recognising its master approaching, beginning to bark aggressively, and then on realising the truth, pretending he had been barking at some small non-existent creature in the grass all the time.

The Canadian took the spoon in his right hand in an attempt to stir his drink, but remembering that he had not put the sugar in yet, he panicked, blushed and started blinking. He picked the sachet of sugar with his left hand, realised that he needed both hands to tear it open, put the spoon down, tore the sachet, emptied half of it in his coffee, and then with a contented smile picked the spoon anew and used it to stir his coffee. He then looked right and left, and inevitably their eyes met. Surprisingly he did not immediately look away as she had expected, but when he did, after a decent interval he looked at her again, and again their eyes met, launching another thousand blinks. He stared at her clumsily, as if he was trying to remember where he might have seen her. She was used to being stared at, specially by effete Italians with macho pretensions, and paid no more attention to the fellow cyclist, who however, was clearly no Italian macho, pretend or otherwise. Which did not mean that he was unattractive. He was tall and lanky, had a pleasant enough face with frank and innocent eyes and a good crop of unkempt brownish hair. One could even call his features rugged, but the tenseness and his unrelaxed body language were all too obvious and worked against him. She had not ruled out finding a man some day, and if pressed would have admitted (to herself) that he had two pluses in his favour. He had a good physique, and manifestly also had vulnerability, which, she supposed appealed to her maternal instincts. That, however, was the sort of thing she preferred to keep to herself.

As there was nothing more she wanted to know about the subject, she switched him off and concentrated on her tea instead. The milk substitute wasn’t all that bad. Although she had given up smoking three years ago, in a situation like this one, on holiday, after a physical effort and a pleasant breakfast, she felt an urge to light up, but she was not gasping for it, and in any case, she prided herself on her will-power and had never once succumbed in those three years. Still, the yearning was all too recognisable. One does not ever become a non-smoker, just an abstainer. When she rose, Donald looked up, like a timid animal quietly engaged in eating, at the approach of human footsteps. Their eyes crossed again, and she was sure that in his she read this mute plea, Please don’t go yet, I want to talk to you. She was perplexed and flattered, smiled vaguely but walked away. She was even more bewildered when she found another Revolutionary Country Traveller, next to her own bike. She immediately guessed that it was the blinking Canadian’s, for why else would he have a cyclist’s helmet? He must have guessed that the first bike belonged to her, with the gear she had on, and this was no doubt why he had made that weak attempt at coming over to talk to her. Now she felt a bit mean at having discouraged him. She was not usually unsociable, but today, the cycling had tired her and she preferred her own company.

There was a bright sun in the sky above, and it was nice and warm, and the rise to Strathyre was quite gentle. Take it easy now, ragazza.

Photo Credit: CC-BY-SA Laddir Laddir

Donald Robertson took another sip of the coffee. 3.5 out of ten, he judged, but that was only because he was pissed off because the girl had left; 4.3 really. He had invented this game when he discovered sex at eleven, but the rules had been modified over the years. It had begun with ranking and now it was points out of ten. Sex never lost its prominence at the top of the table; it was 10 out of 10. Sneezing was usually second (7.5), but there were times when scratching took over. This was itself categorised and sub-categorised. An itch between the shoulder blades below the neck which was only reached by dint of almost acrobatic contortions was clearly more valued than a common or garden itch between the toes. Water was probably the most difficult one to judge. There was spring water and tap water. First thing in the morning, with meals, after a strenuous run. They were different allotropes. Food was a mere five, but you did not need a PhD to know that apples were worth more than bananas. Nova Scotia Golden Delicious was way higher up than the McIntosh. What a nerd am I? I should be thinking of better things. He smiled.

The Revolutionary Country Traveller belonged to her, but she had made it clear that she did not want company. He easily imagined arriving at her table, opening his mouth and finding it impossible to articulate those simple words, may I join you. Niagara in winter!

He had a gnawing conviction that he had seen her before, maybe a couple of years ago. Could it have been through the glass partition between incoming and departing passengers at some airport? Yes, that was it. He suddenly located the memory file and downloaded it. He had indeed seen her and had stared at her, stopping briefly, which had caused a minor collision with the lady behind. He was sure of that. Probably at JFK. He travelled rather a lot and had trained himself to Delete and send to Trash any file he was not likely to need in the immediate future, in the knowledge that one can always double-click on the Trash icon to recover most things. He would have dearly loved to get to know her. He was no ladies’ man, he knew that, but seeing her again he was instantly drawn to her, and wished that he had Cousin Alex’s gift of the gab. Clearly she was no bimbo. Her appeal stemmed from a face and bearing that seemed to breathe intelligence and self-assurance.

He imagined that, like him, she was someone who worked in some scientific domain and had little doubt that she was one hundred percent dedicated to whatever she worked on. Well-built but not masculine. Perfect proportions. Mediterranean tan. All combined to make her an impressive figure. Just thinking of her gave him a sexual frisson, but then, involuntary celibate that he was, everything did.

Women and sex were always on his mind, and he sometimes despaired of getting either. If only there was some celibate agnostic order for him to join! He had once confided in his sure-footed cousin that he knew that because of his physical impediments he had to lower his heights and not aspire to the perfect womanhood of his dreams, conceding that he would have to settle for second best. Wrong! Alex had laughed. It’s the ugly stupid ones who are the most difficult. You would stand a better chance making a bid for your ideal woman. Who was he to contradict Alex?

Although he was fit and strong, as a result of a difficult birth, he had some minor disabilities. His coordination had much improved after years of therapy, but as a toddler he could not take two steps without falling over. When he did manage to walk properly, he was always bumping into furniture and walls. Dad said he was clumsy but mum showed him her claws and fangs and he backed off. The paediatrician had whistled in admiration when he had read the psychologist’s report and seen his IQ results and had said that his less than perfect coordination was due to a minor trauma at birth caused by internal cranial bleeding, and this was compounded by his naturally tense nature, which, the doctor suggested, was often the price to pay for high intelligence. The specialist had also said that his stammering and his blinking were two allotropes of the same phenomenon, and were by-products of his intense nature compounded by his minor physical problems. To mum’s relief he had added that this condition usually improved with time. True enough, it had, up to a point. He had great will-power, and everybody marvelled at how, against all odds, he managed not only to learn to ride a bicycle when he could scarcely walk, but to do so with such aplomb. If only people knew what effort of concentration he had to put in the process. Sometimes when he switched off but for a split second, his grip on the handlebar would loosen, and the consequences were dire but not disastrous enough to dampen his determination. He looked upon his bruises, scratches and scars as badges of honour. On top of everything, he did not know how to relax properly. Fortunately while most people get tired of work, Don found it relaxing. He did not know how to talk to girls, knew that he did not create a good first impression. Alex told him once that first impressions were difficult to erase. If a girl forms the view that you are an OK guy, she would not easily believe the negative things all her instincts will warn her about you. And conversely.

Those hussies who have not leapt upon you, Ida said, do not know what they’re missing. Serve them right! If only you were not my brother, grrr… Ida did outrageous to perfection.

He had more or less made up his mind that some day he would have no option but to go to a Dating Agency, all his clumsy attempts at finding a woman on his own having failed. Dr Robertson, famous ornithologist, a virgin at 28!

Now there was this awesome cyclist - a soulmate if ever there was one… was it just a coincidence that they had the same bike? Ach, why waste energy thinking about her? She never even looked at him, did not even know he existed, or cared. In any case she’s gone now. Yet he had seen her before, years ago, so who knows? No, Robertson, it’s the Agency for you, buddy!

He was not much given to melancholy. His passion for science and learning, birds in particular, left him with no time to sit and mope, there was so much to do, so many places to visit, India, Madagascar, the Philippines, all those near extinct birds to photograph, perhaps help conserve. So many birds, so little time! He ate his food mechanically, and once he had finished, he came out and saw a crowd photographing the well-groomed Hamish. Why snap some tame bull in a paddock when all along the route, in a natural environment there were any number of more impressive and ragged specimens? He really only understood birds…

His Revolutionary Traveller seemed a bit forlorn on its own… oh, I’ll name him Hamish, he decided, on a sudden impulse. The scientist in him loved giving names to everything. He wondered whether the girl had a name for her mount. Come on Hamish, sorry to interrupt your rest, we have to be on our way, pal. He rather liked that much used Scottish word. Dad who had never been within a few thousand miles of the land of his ancestors (he wondered why) used it all the time, forcing himself to say aye, I dinnae ken or cannae dae this, pal.

He found himself cycling more lustily, and suspected that it was either because he was invigorated after a good meal, or possibly, subconsciously he was trying to catch up with the woman who had a good ten minute start, hoping that they was heading the same way.

The sun and the gentle breeze made it ideal for cycling, and he pedalled briskly, enjoying the view. The Trossachs most certainly deserved their reputation for beauty. The vegetation glows in luminescent green contrasting magnificently with red ochre patches of the Highland cattle gently grazing randomly, whilst the waters of the lochs gleam with silvery splendour and bluebells and gorse punctuate the harmony of the rolling slopes. The so-called “crooked” Loch Lubnaig, one of the many jewels in the crown of the Trossachs nests beautifully in it surroundings. He had done his homework before leaving Halifax. He revelled in trivia, no wonder they called him The Anorak! Well, Ida did. He didn’t mind. He looked upon the appellation as a badge of honour.

He thought that it was a bit irrational trying to catch up with the woman. Was she going north or south? Would he even be able to catch up with her? Worst of all, he knew that he wouldn’t know how to approach her even if he did.

When he had cycled a couple of kilometres along the Loch Lubnaig, he stopped and sat on the beach to take in its splendour. He leant Hamish against a solitary birch, sat on a rock, and took a long sip of water from a bottle. He did not believe in buying bottled water, he usually filled his aluminium litre flask (“We write aluminum like the Yanks, but litre like the Brits”) with tap water and was none the worse for it. The gentle ripples on the nearly smooth surface reminded him of the old Mi’kmaq maid Mary, a born story-teller, who told him that the ripples were made by angels invisible to all but a privileged few, dancing on the water to the tune of their feet on the surface and the lapping. As a child, Don had little difficulty seeing them. He half closed his eyes and looked at the surface, and this time a single shape appeared, and it was not an elf, but the beautiful cyclist, like Christ, walking on water.

Photo Credit: © Davide Metzger

In the distance he could see Ben Shian (572 metres). There was no habitation in sight, and traffic on the A84 was sparse. He closed his eyes and listened to the music of silence - that was what he called the silence of deserted spots after hearing John Cage’s famous piece, 4’33. The loch was unusually tranquil, but a discerning ear could detect the timid lapping of the waves on the beach. He thought of this as the lake breathing. He then became aware of the intermittent whispers of the breeze among the trees, and for a while the two sounds melded as in a concerto for two instruments, and leaning his head against the bark of the birch he listened to that. In vain he waited for a bird or two to manifest themselves. This part of the Highlands was not too hospitable to them, mainly because of reforestation. The native trees growing randomly had been replaced over the years by larches, cypresses and spruce, and in order to maximise profits, they had been tightly packed, causing the original insects to migrate or die, making it difficult to sustain a healthy bird population. The signs were there for all to see. He had read that you could still see the occasional black and red grouse, choughs, crossbills, dippers, great spotted woodpecker, even kingfishers and ptarmigans, as well as the inevitable magpies and crows. At this very moment a couple of bad tempered crows above croaked, bringing in a discordant note to the melody which was gently building up. It was still early, with a good few hours of sunlight left. He was in no hurry, and this terrain seemed as good as any to pitch one’s tent on. Get real, forget that exotic princess. Wonder if she is English…

He had all the time in the world, and if the fancy took him, he might go up the Shian although he did not have proper boots. Or consider doing Cycle Track 7. How heavenly it would be to be doing that in the company of that soulmate of his (who did not know she was!) Imagine the statistical probability of two persons meeting in the Scottish Highlands both having a Revolutionary. Only marginally more that of seeing a penguin flying over the Atlantic. Multiply that by the probability of the same two persons having met each other in some airport, one coming in and the other leaving. That probability was fast going to zero. The same as the probability of one of your father’s sperm hitting the jackpot, but that order of magnitude didn’t stop you being here.

Yes, he would camp on the bank of Lubnaig for the night. He pitched his Gelert Eiger (“Easy to Pitch, a bargain at $76.99”) under a diseased spruce showing all the signs of being on its last lap, uncharacteristically growing on its own. He unloaded his rucksack and equipment and stored them in there, and lay down outside the tent under the shade of a chestnut tree.

Inevitably he again began to think of that woman in the café with the same bike as him. Donald Robertson, Obsession is your middle name. Thank you Ida, I love you too, dear sister. This cyclist is the woman I have been looking for all the time - which explains why I have never hit it off with anybody else before. Yep, that makes sense. I would give anything if I could just talk to her. O.K. Ida, stammer to her. There was something uncanny, bordering on the mystical in coming across her. The fact that she had gone plus the fact that he had no idea where she was heading, did not seem too relevant. He had this conviction based on nothing but his intuition, that he was going to see her again. As a scientist he valued intuition, although he knew that it was a tool and not the master of research. In this case, however, he was willing to put his blind trust in it. What was it Ida had said about intuition? She could read him inside out, his sister could. Although he tended to be secretive, she had the capacity to worm anything out of him. Even when they were kids, although he was a year older, she had a wisdom beyond her age. She always assumed an insouciance which belied her devotion to the causes she believed in. She always treated him like a younger sibling who needed her protection. She never shone at school like he did, but she always claimed that she had intuition which was worth more than its weight in gold. He must devise the means of measuring the weight of intuition some day. Ida was the person he loved most in this world. He admired her zest for life, her optimism and her common sense, her good causes. How he wished he could see more of her, but she had gone and married MacKenzie, her lobster fisherman, who unlike him had no speech impediment, not that it would have mattered in his case, as usually he only grunted. He was a rum figure, his ancestor had arrived in Pictou on the Hector in 1773 and he had Pictou blood in his veins. What Ida saw in him, Don would never understand, but she clearly saw a lot, for after the first time she met him she informed him that he was the man she was going to marry.

Mum was sweet and lovely, but once she had taught Don to stand on his own two legs - literally - she lost interest in parenting, and that was fine, as he rather liked not being fussed over. She now spent her time gardening, knitting, patchwork quilting, reading. She was a dab hand at the cryptic Crossword in the Star, and she played Bridge. Whatever time was left after these activities, she devoted to the many good causes that she espoused rather aggressively. Nobody he knew had such a perfect control of time. Dad was always busy making money, learning Scottish history and inventing excuses for not visiting the land of his forbears. Don suspected that he preferred the ideal view that he had nurtured, and did not want it tarnished by reality. Or maybe he was simply scared of air travel. Or again, he did not want to miss an occasion for making a killing. The Robertsons seemed to produce scientists and money-makers in alternate generations. Dad was devoted to his family, but did not know how to manifest his love.

Don often wondered whether his sister knew how much he valued her. All this sentimental rubbish made him melancholy, and he took out his copy of Tagore’s Gitanjali from his rucksack, and read a couple of poems aloud without stammering. Grandad was often quoted as saying that with an Indian great great great grandmother, the family should honour the Hindu poet and Nobel Prize winner as much as Shakespeare.

He had not known too much about him and decided to look into this, for historical if not sentimental reasons, and had picked the weather-beaten tome in an Oxfam shop when he stopped in Peterborough on the way north.

He must have dozed off, and when he woke up, the words of the poem

and when old words die out on the tongue

new melodies break forth from the heart;

where the old tracks are lost,

new country is revealed with its wonders…

reverberated in his head. The sun was still high up in the sky but he knew that it was late afternoon. He played on his harmonica for a bit, trying to produce melancholy Highland strains that he had heard. The mouth organ seemed very appropriate. The sounds he produced must have been quite doleful, as he ended up with, if not quite tears rolling down his cheeks, at least a lump in his throat. Later he decided that he would go to the Munro Inn, which he had spotted earlier. It seemed like a reasonable place for a drink and would give him the opportunity of a discreet look at the natives. Time was when he refused to set foot in a pub or restaurant, hating the idea of drinking in a glass or eating off a plate that had been used by others, but as he grew up, it was either conform or starve. In India two years ago, he had been impressed that there, when you bought a cup of tea (they called it chai), it came in a rudimentary earthenware bowl which you threw away afterwards.

He had many phobias. He hated books with dog ears or frayed spines, which is why whenever anybody asked to borrow one of his books, he usually said to keep it as he had finished with it. He would then go buy a new copy. He never used to buy second hand books. It was sheer willpower which enabled him to shed many of his shibboleths, and he was sure that if he tried hard enough he would be able to deal with the remaining ones. So it was going to the Munro Inn.

He knew that he would find it difficult, maybe even impossible to start a conversation with anybody, and the dour Scots were not reputed to be over fond of engaging in verbal jousts with strangers, so he would have to sit in a corner, eat a sandwich, drink a pint or two and discreetly watch and listen. He was pleased to find that the inn had catered for cyclists, and he parked Hamish in the rack. It was after nine and there was a goodly crowd inside. The locals scarcely acknowledged his presence. He mumbled his order of a pint of Tennent’s and a grilled salmon supper with chips and water-cress salad. With all the lakes around, he was sure that he would get excellent fare. The barman told him to go sit down and he would send his supper over when it was ready.

Some people stared at him but one or two others gave him a hardly perceptible nod. He took his pint and sat himself under the obligatory stag head on the wall. The furniture was of massive dark varnished oak, and smelled of wax polish. Apart from one or two small groups sitting in corners, couples mainly, there was one enclave of noise at the far end of the room. A fair number of the locals had gathered around an immaculately kilted old man who was merrily holding forth, glowing in the certainty that his every word was a nugget falling into the lap of his audience. He was tall and thin, had a sunburnt tan, laughing eyes, and everything about him exuded an energetic intensity surprising for someone of his age.

Don made an effort to catch his drift, but the mixture of an alien accent, the distance and the loud laughter of the crowd made that a vain exercise. His salmon was delivered by a comely Scottish lassie in a fetching tartan, with the regulatory red hair, and he dug into it with relish. Six and a half out of ten overall. He did not immediately become aware of a man standing by his side, waiting to start a conversation.

‘Canadian, aren’t you, pal?’ He was surprised and looked at the man rather blankly, blinking furiously.

‘Aye,’ he said. As a stammerer, he had worked on a number of strategies to disguise his impediment, and at an early stage in his entry in Scotland, he had realised that “aye”, a word widely used in his family, was much better than “y-y-y-yes!” A godsend! And without blinking, he added, ‘how d-d-did you know?’

‘I am Bell,’ the man said. He was in his mid thirties, wearing sandals, shorts and a thick flannel shirt. He briefly wondered whether the reason why he knew that Don was Canadian was because he was called Bell. He had worked out Bell really meant Bill.

‘D-on,’ he managed to say, hardly stammering. He sometimes practised saying “don, don, don, don…” when he had nothing to do, in the hope that an automatic and mechanical delivery would obviate the stutter, but the strategy did not always work. However if he did begin to stammer, the strategy was to say d-on! You said d, stopped and then added on. He knew that this sounded incongruous, but people understood him more easily. He was grateful that in the adult world, nobody make jokes about you because of your impediment.

‘Right,’ said Bill, ‘right! How did I know you’re Canadian? You see, I am a driver stroke guide for Heart of Scotland Tours, and I meet all the nationalities on earth, and I have learnt to tell.’ They then exchanged some pleasantries about the beer and the salmon, Bill venturing a remark about the Munro always serving Norway’s best! Don found it surprising that he was not wishing the man would go away. The Scotsman asked what he did, and he explained that he was going to be joining a team at Aberdeen, working on a bird migration project, but that at the moment, as he had six free weeks, he was just touring the Highlands of his ancestors.

‘Ach yes, most Canadians have Highland ancestors,’ said Bill.

‘I don’t know about most Canadians, but I certainly do,’ Don formulated in his head, but was pleasantly surprised when a helpful nod had beaten his half open mouth, forcing the words back in. He was forever indebted to St Nod, patron saint of stammerers.

It had been much less of a strain talking to the tourist guide than he would have thought. To his surprise, Bill leant towards his plate, took a chip and put it in his mouth, making a hum of appreciation as he munched it. There was a time when that would have stopped the flow of Don’s digestive juices, but now, he found it friendly and reassuring. He smiled, and by a gesture consisting of a twitch of the head and a widening of his eyes, indicated that Bill would be welcome to serve himself. His companion shook his head and after a while decided to go rejoin the crowd, hesitating as he began moving away.

‘If you want an educational - and fun - experience, Don, you could do worse than to come listen to Auld Fergus. He is well into his nineties, and I know of no one who can keep an audience entertained… even enthralled,’ adding that the man was an expert on any topic under the sun…, ‘well come and hear for yourself.’ Don nodded in a non-committal manner and Bill walked away in the direction of Auld Fergus and his disciples. While he was finishing his meal, he noticed the tour guide looking in his direction, making encouraging signs for him to come over. So, a short while later, he stood up and noticed that almost everybody in the crowd was turning round to look at him. Oh God, I can’t face this, I have to go now, was his first reaction. But he understood that they were willing him on, inviting him over, and blinking at the rate of six per second (he had timed himself once, so he knew), he walked towards Bill, and the people opened up to let him through. His new friend who was much shorter than him, put a protective arm around his shoulder, which must have been a comical sight, and Auld Fergus himself bent slightly forward in his direction, nodded at him and offered him a hand to shake, without stopping his flow.

He noticed that the old man had a black object no bigger than a golf ball in his hand. When Fergus saw the Canadian looking at it, he took two steps forward and forcibly put it in his hand. Don looked at it and saw that it was a stone, and instinctively he twiddled his fingers around it to get its feel. Then he looked at it again, and saw that it had the imprints of a fossilised fern embedded just below the surface.

‘Guess how old this is?’ Auld Fergus asked. Don knew that the answer would be in millions of years, although fossils was an area of darkness for him.

‘Two hundred years,’ he said with a straight face, injecting a note of awe in his voice. And Ida thinks I am a humourless academic. Everybody laughed. Was it because they appreciated the joke, he wondered. It was funny how when he was putting on an act, the stammer went overboard. When asked to read Shakespeare at school, he would get into character and read flawlessly. Although not much given to levity, aye, I am humourless, he found that when he spoke with a mock Italian or Russian accent, he could stand and deliver like a politician.

‘That’s forty million years old,’ said Auld Fergus authoritatively, ‘not a day less, but perhaps a good few years more.’ Don had guessed that would be the order of magnitude, but he opened his eyes wide in mock awe at this statement.

‘And what does it tell us, my friend?’ This time, Don really had no idea and shook his head. The old man took the stone back and displayed it to his audience.

‘See this fossilised fern here, it is not a Scottish fern, not even European… It is an African equatorial fern, and remember,’ he said brandishing his forefinger, ‘this stone was picked in Ayrshire, so what does it tell us?’

‘That Scotland has drifted over the years.’ That was Bill.

‘Exactly!’ Auld Fergus said. ‘You see, my young transatlantic friend, it’s not just your birds that migrate, continents migrate too.’ Don was delighted with this observation. Fame at last! Bill must have told them about him.

‘Time was, when the British Isles were way down south, below the equator, enjoying the warm climate, then it decided that it did not like the heat and embarked upon a million year trek. Do you know where it arrived?’ This was addressed to the whole audience, and Don was quite pleased that he recognised that this was a signpost for a joke, as did the locals.

‘No, Fergus, tell us,’ they chorused.

‘Up north, where North America is.’ The audience nodded its appreciation, but perhaps they had heard the story before.

‘Do you know what happened then?’

‘No, tell us what happened next Fergus.’

‘It did not like it much there with all the MacDonalds and Coca Cola signs, and decided that its real habitat was over here. So it took another few million years to get back here.’ He seemed as unrehearsed in what he was going to say as those extempore stand-ups.

‘Where it found more MacDonalds and Coca Cola signs of course.’ Suddenly Don found a fresh pint thrust in his hands, and even before he had touched it another man had brought him yet another pint. He had little option but to indulge. He offered to buy a round for everybody but was solemnly warned that as a guest, his duty was to be treated by them and that under no circumstances would he be allowed to disburse. Growing up in what the family loved to call a Scottish household, he was glad that he had never believed the stories of Scottish avarice. (“Get behind your lover, faithless woman so I can shoot you both with one bullet”) He was a little bit wary of getting drunk, so he held the glass in one hand and took very small sips.

It was Fergus, ever willing to augment the sum of his knowledge who suggested Don explain bird migration to him. He knew why birds migrated, he said, everybody wants to go somewhere where food is plentiful. Stands to reason.

What he wanted to understand was the logistics and mechanism of the flights. Where did they stop for a refill when the tank was empty? How did they guide themselves? Why did they not get lost? Bump into each other? Don had often had to read papers to his peers, and it had always been agony before the day arrived. He would spend long sleepless nights learning his text off by heart, not because he would have any problem with the facts, he had a prodigious, near photographic memory, but he had to work jolly hard to get the delivery right. Knowing the exact words facilitated delivery. Now, with goodness knows how many pints inside him, he had no problem at all. He knew that he had a sympathetic audience and already he was enjoying it. He took a deep breath and swallowed half the beer in his near full pint pot in one go, but before he could start, Fergus had a last question.

‘Tell me Donald… Don…, am I right that even Aristotle believed that when birds disappeared in winter, it was because they went into hibernation?’ It was clear to everybody that the old man did not need an answer to this. Don was reminded of that old Hollywood director who used to say to his board, “Gentlemen, for your information, can I ask a question?”

‘That’s r-r-ight sir, no one could imagine that b-b-birds actually flew thousands of kilometres to find feeding grounds.’ Auld Fergus glowed with pride and looked around him. Man does not live by bread alone, he also needs approval. Mercifully the stammering was under control.

‘Right! The f-f-fuel question first. B-b-birds p-repare themselves for the b-big trek. In an experiment we c-c-carried out at the USGS, on the Alaskan bar-tailed godwit, we found that at the start of their big migration, 56.85 percent of their body weight was fat.’

‘USGS? what’s that?’

‘United States Geology Survey.’ He paused before continuing. ‘Next… eh… how do they guide themselves? F-f-f-or a long time we only had incomplete answers to this question. We we we… now believe that we more or less know the f-f-full story.’ He took a deep breath, and was pleased that everybody was hanging on to his every single word. He was hardly stammering. If only he could talk with the same self-confidence to that woman.

‘There are broadly three distinct means,’ he pursued. ‘First, what one would expect, I mean sight. They recognise rivers, m-m-mountain ranges, c-c-coastlines, forests, stars and the sun. We… we are assuming that the first time round they just followed the more experienced members of the f-f-flock…’ He paused and had another sip before he continued.

‘Smell, counts for a lot too. Birds are very sensitive to smells and are guided by them.’

‘They better not have a blocked nose before they set off, then,’ someone cackled rather drunkenly, and thankfully, this fell flat.

‘But the most crucial navigational aid is m-m-magnetite.’


‘Aye, magnetite, I have heard about magnetite,’ boasted Auld Fergus, nodding gravely.

‘Aye, magnetite. M-migratory birds have tiny grains of a mineral c-called magnetite in their heads. That is an established fact.’

‘So they are guided by the earth’s magnetism?’ asked Auld Fergus, because he was both an inveterate seeker after knowledge and at the same time a show-off. Still, for a man used to the limelight, to whom everybody turned when they wanted an explanation, he was surprisingly generous in his attitude towards the visitor. Maybe because he knew that he would be around long after the young man had cycled away into the Highland mist. Don was grateful to Fergus for not resenting him and gave him a nod of appreciation. Nothing would stop him in his tracks now that he was in full flow.

‘Nobody can p-prove this with certainty, b-b-but…’ The audience kindly signified that they knew what he meant and he saw that there was no need to finish the sentence, enabling him to put his thoughts in order before continuing.

‘Eh… also, they use two electroma-ma-magnetic tools actually… eh… in their search for their destination. One is innate while the other is a learning process. You see, the bird flying for the first time, following the flock, f-f-flies in a direction dictated by the earth’s m-m-magnetic field, but has no idea of the length of the journey. It makes use of something called the r-r-radical pair mechanism, which is easy to understand.’ The look on his audience showed that it was probably not so.

‘It is a m-m-mechanism whereby chemical reactions in special photo p-pigments sensitive to long wavelengths are affected by the f-f-field. The inexperienced bird learns to map by the magnetite in its trigeminal system which tells it how strong the f-field is.’ He noticed that the people who so far had seemed enthralled by what he had to say at the start were now beginning to switch off, and he began to stutter. He realised that he had probably lost them. Bill came to his rescue, winking at him in a conspiratorial manner. Ida had told him that only when he had learnt when not to include technical details would he be able to talk to girls properly, adding that it was vital for him to learn that skill.

‘Thanks Don, that was most interesting, I think we get the picture…’ He felt a little bit sore. What he was about to go into was simplicity itself, if only people would listen. Gamely he shrugged. He had enjoyed the evening and he was not going to spoil it by unwarranted resentment. He had no sooner made the resolution to stop drinking when someone pushed a pint in his hands, saying, ‘I really learnt a lot today, pal.’ This cheered him up a bit, and he forgot the resolution. It was Auld Fergus who would not let go.

‘Tell us about the Arctic Tern, Donald,’ he entreated. ‘I want to know more.’

‘Aye, the Arctic Tern,’ said Bill, ‘he’s the champion, isn’t he?’ Don took a deep breath. Having been part of a team studying bar-tailed godwits, he was not going to let this notion go unchallenged. Indeed the Arctic Tern, the Sterna paradisaea is a champion migrator, he explained. Each year it travelled nineteen thousand kilometres, from its Arctic breeding grounds to the Antarctic. Unique among living creatures, it saw two summers a year… certainly no creature on the planet sees more sunlight. He was beginning to enjoy himself again.

‘What about those filthy rich Russian oligarchs who follow the sun in their yachts?’ That was the obscene cackler.

‘Och, shut up wee man and let the erudite scientist talk,’ said Auld Fergus good-naturedly.

The average tern travels a distance of 800,000 kilometres in its lifetime, Don continued merrily.

‘What’s that in miles?’

‘A bloody lot,’ said Auld Fergus dismissively. ‘That’s like going to the moon and back.’ Don marvelled at the speed (and accuracy) of the remark.

Now, explained Don, although the Tern does nineteen thousand kilometres a year, and has some claim to the title of champion, there is one thing that works against it. It does land on the ocean to feed itself during its odyssey. Don paused dramatically.

‘I think you’re about to tell us that the bar-tailed godwit has a greater claim to being the champion migrator,’ said Auld Fergus opening his eyes wide.

‘The Limosa lapponnica?’ quizzed Don with fake incredulity. ‘I have worked with godwits, believe me they are lovely creatures. When you hold one in your hands, he seems so v-v-vulnerable, but still you immediately get the f-f-f-feeling that you are holding someone who is a c-credit to the feathered species. Proper flying machines, they are.’

He went on talking about what was fast becoming his favourite bird, and to his surprise nobody yawned. He took a deep breath and another large sip.

‘Just before leaving for the United Kingdom, I was part of a team researching the bar-tailed godwit. Most of our previous studies had ended inconclusively, mainly on account of b-battery failure, but this time, our dear E7 did us p-proud.’

‘E7?’ asked Auld Fergus, with the enthusiasm of a teenage nerd in a Science lesson. One could almost hear the unsaid, “Please sir”. Someone said it sounded like a food additive.

‘Aye,’ said Don, who by now had completely forgotten that he stuttered. ‘We usually call our specimens by some prosaic name. This young female beauty was christened E7. She was fitted with a transmitter in the Firth of Thames in New Zealand. This time we were able to follow her complete journey, and it was a first. We were so excited, we were able to verify many established conjectures.’ All eyes were now on him, and all ears wide open.

‘And we followed her every movement from the 7th of February to the day she returned to the Firth on the 6th of September.’

‘That’s seven months!’

‘Aye, seven months… covering 29,181 kilometres.’


‘She flew non-stop from New Zealand to Yalu Jiang in China, a distance of 10,219 kilometres. From there she flew non-stop to Alaska, a p-paltry 6,459 kilometres. She then went to Manokinak, her breeding ground, where she stayed for two months, fattening up for the return journey. Her last lap was from Avinof to Piako in New Zealand, which she accomplished in eight days and twelve hours non-stop, beating her previous record, clocking 11,570 kilometres!’ It surprised him when the whole pub burst into spontaneous applause, as if the heroic bird had just entered the bar.

‘I don’t think I had even heard of the godwit,’ admitted Auld Fergus, and everybody stared at him. Some gasped in disbelief, as if in the middle of his sermon, the priest had suddenly admitted that he was not sure whether he believed in the Holy Trinity.

Next morning, when he woke up in his tent, he had no clear recollection of how the night had ended. He knew that he had rambled on for what seemed like hours. He only hoped that he had not said anything outrageous. He felt frustrated until he began gradually recalling images of Bill helping him into his van. He was a bit less comfortable when he remembered incoherent sentences about the princess in Kilmahog.

Hangover or not, he certainly had never felt so relaxed in his life. Tomorrow he will be on his way to Ullapool for no other reason than the name of the place had the same resonance as Allapur, where he knew the Indian ancestor had come from, although he did not know the details. He also remembered telling Bill about his great great… can’t remember how many greats… grandfather who was the king of the Gypsies!

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