“Mr Connor…Constable Macleod in Stornoway…right…right…Dear God!…right right..well, I’ve already done a bit of asking around….not a hint of anything connected to…right…right…well look, the Fiscal’s going to have to be informed right away…two weird deaths in a row..aye…aye…well, whatever else, I’d better make sure my paperwork’s all in order, this is going to go ballistic!….oh, aye…that reminds me, don’t be telling anyone about this at the moment…!
Ewan arrived at the massive Victorian red brick building, after a short bus journey from the BNT offices in the centre of the city. Dear God, what a racket. After months of hearing only the calls of wild birds and the sighing of the constant island wind, the Glasgow traffic noise was almost unbearable. Flashing lights, double-decker buses, the constant movement of people and vehicles was physically unsettling. For the first time in his life he realised what it must have been like for his 19th century predecessors, walking into the bedlam of tenement life, from their lonely cottages. Swapping the handloom or horse and plough for the constant buzz and clang of the mill machinery. The Saturday night neighbour’s singaround, for the city dancehall.
Still expecting everyone he passed, to nod and smile a greeting and still dressed in his outlandish hill gear, Ewan was an unusual sight even here. For this was a highly unusual place – gigantic dinosaur skeletons reared up above models of the cities recent pride – the ships and engines of a fading manufacturing past. At least the urban mayhem was left behind, replaced by the unique whispering echoey sound of voices, rising up to the immense stained glass domes high above.
He walked over to the young woman standing behind the “Reception Desk”.”I’m looking for Fergus Roberts?” “Certainly, who shall I say is asking?”” A Mr Caldwell from the BNT”.
The man who appeared from behind the Stegosaurus could have been one of Ewan’s colleagues – casually dressed, to a fault, as his mother would have put it. His relaxed Glaswegian “Nice to meet you, ah’m Fergus” quickly followed by “you’ve goat an unusual feather for me?” immediately dispelled any worries about this being some overbearing speccy nerd. He was also obviously enthusiastic about his work. Ewan’s only worry, was that he might have come on an embarrassing wild goose chase – he smiled at the goose reference, as he shook Fergus’ hand.
“Follow me”. They then plunged into a bewildering series of high ceilinged corridors, lined with glass cased specimens of…well, just about everything..native American headdresses..tatty stuffed gannets…obscure bits of machinery….lumps of rock with celtic patterns. Eventually, Ewan had to admit to himself that he had no idea in what direction he was being led – an alarming and humbling feeling, after his recent boasts about his wonderful navigational skills round the misty hills of Lewis.
A dark stained wooden door with a plaque, “Department of Natural History” on it. Fergus welcomed Ewan in and pointed to a long bench, next to lines of cabinets reaching up to almost ceiling height. Like an old fashioned library but with drawers where bookshelves would normally lie.
“Let’s see it then!” Ewan pulled the slightly tatty black feather out of his “poacher’s pocket” and placed it on the bench. “Mmmm, it’s seen better days. You were right though, its certainly not a british species….you found it in a cave on Lewis?…no habitation nearby?…no one with exotic pets?…no other feathers near it.?.”Fergus was holding the feather and turning it round against a desk light as he fired off question after question. After a long pause…”Interesting…I’m inclined towards parrot species..but there’s not many black ones…”A longer pause…”Now…lets have a look at the Johnstone Collection?”
He walked over to the end of the third row of cabinets and disappeared round a corner. Ewan cautiously followed ,feeling slightly overawed by the atmosphere of old fashioned academe – he realised that the furniture, lino floor and even the dull green and brown paintwork were identical to that of his village school. He hoped he wouldn’t find his old headmaster sitting on his high stool, with tawse draped over the front of a lectern style desk….and remembered that the 1870-built school was long gone, as was the headmaster.
He came out of his reverie fast though, when he saw the assistant curator pull out a wide cabinet drawer, to reveal four rows of wings. Wings of every shade and colour, wings of every size from minute to magnificent; wings of iridescence until finally, the largest, wings of jet black.
“Ah ha! Thought so….Probosciger aterrimus ..the Palm Cockatoo, aka the Goliath Atatoo. Johnstone was one of those turn of the century naturalist explorers, also went in for a bit of early oil exploration, prospecting up jungle rivers in a canoe..and appearing months later with piles of rocks, bird skins and bird’s eggs..your lot wouldn’t have liked him…specialised in New Guinea. That and the tip of North Australia’s the only place you’d find one of these beauties.” Fergus was in his element. He carried on his erudite monologue while lifting up a black wing and holding Ewan’s feather next to it. “See that? Same curve, exact length…lucky you came to me…you’d have gone round the bend finding a match for this beauty…where did you say you got it?”…”…Oh..and before you say it, yes I am sure…100 per cent…couldn’t be anything else!”
“In a cave, out on the Western Isles”
“Really?…wouldn’t last long up there…freeze to death…neither would I right enough! Cup of tea? Right I’ll just shut this – bloody moths get in before you know it if you’re not careful. Nightmare for a collection like this. Come into the office”.
Pleased but puzzled to have partially solved the mystery, Ewan, sat quietly as this walking encyclopedia regaled him with tales of Johnstone and his ilk; during the making, pouring and sipping of milky tea out of museum crested white china mugs.”…but that was all before do-gooders like the BNT stopped it all…present company excepted!…” Ewan started to drift off into his own thoughts but started concentrating again, just as Fergus switched to a new subject.”…mind you, there’s still some amazing blokes out there..just read about a guy called Dumbacher, a yank scientist…discovered a poisonous bird in New Guinea!..turns out it gets the poison from eating a wee blue beetle. The weird thing is…it’s the same poison you get in tree frogs…you know, the ones the natives put in their blow pipes to kill monkeys…amazing!”…”Wish I had some of thay birds in the collection…”…what’s the matter!?”
“Jesus!” Ewan had jumped to his feet. “Poisonous blue beetles!…Sorry Fergus , I’ve got to go…”
– The huge black parrot sat on top of a snapped- off tree, holding an equally large dead branch, in its massive bill and continued banging it loudly, against its temporary perch. Oblivious to the patient near-naked man, creeping towards it, along the edge of the jungle clearing, it bent to its task, hoping to attract a female from out of the surrounding forest. The man was under the tree now and slowly raising a long thin tube to his lips…a short “huff” sound and the parrot toppled from the tree still holding the branch and hit the ground, with an audible thump. The man ran across to the bird and stuffed it into the sack hanging from his belt – hoping that the poison had been just enough, to disable the bird without killing it. He smiled as he thought of the food and clothes he could trade for it – as a young man, he would have taken it home as a prized food item itself and worn its head crest as a trophy, perhaps even holding a pig-feast in honour of his catch but times were changing and the jungle was rapidly shrinking. He had walked for two days, before he heard the bird…