Chapter One – Encounter
It was a bitter February afternoon. The sea was wild, the wind slicing spume off the waves, whisking it like soap suds onto the sand. I was on one of my regular daily runs along the long, deserted stretch of beach, north of the river Don. The driving sleet was so fierce that I had to press my hand over my forehead as I ran, keeping my eyes to the ground a few feet ahead. That’s why I didn’t see him until the very last moment. He let out a warning growl, ‘Wrrrr‘.
‘Good gracious!’ I said, skidding to a halt and struggling somewhat for words. I gazed at his doleful expression and those two scary-looking tusks. ‘You’re a bit far from home aren’t you?’
He looked at me through baleful eyes. His voice, deep-throated, full of hesitance, redolent of the arctic wastes: To be frank, sir, I haven’t a clue where I am. Where are all the ice-flows? Where are my companions? What is this place?
‘This place, my friend, is Scotland,’ I didn’t think he’d be bothered with specifics.
Never heard of it, he said. And then, with the saddest eyes you have ever seen, I’m so tired, so very tired.
‘I’m not surprised,’ I said, suddenly overcome with compassion. I knew fatigue – I was a long distance runner. But what could I do for this poor creature so far from home? It didn’t take a genius to see that he needed rest, a chance to recalibrate his body compass, to eat some nourishing food, and regain his strength away from the prying eyes of my fellow humans. Before I could stop myself, before even considering the logistics, I blurted out, ‘Why don’t you come back with me?’
But I don’t know you, he said. Then, after scrutinizing my face for some moments, his expression seemed to soften. I do like your moustache though; you remind me of my brother – before he tusked.
I wanted to laugh at this; but I didn’t know whether walruses (especially tired ones) had a sense of humour and I didn’t want to offend him.
Do you have somewhere safe I might sleep?
Even as the wind-driven sleet bit into my cheeks, my mind was racing. I lived three stories up in a Torry tenement. Even if he could manage all those stairs with that great blubbery body of his, I could hardly get him there without my neighbours seeing him. Co-habiting with a walrus might raise eyebrows. But then I remembered the brick outhouses in the yard at the back. Each flat had its own one. They were Spartan but just about big enough to accommodate a walrus even at full stretch. ‘Yes, I do,’ I replied. But how to get him there? It was on the other side of town and without easy access to the shore. Luckily, I thought, I have a van. ‘Have you ever been in a motor? I asked.
What is motor?
‘Never mind, I’ll explain in good time. My place is a little distance from the sea, too far to walk, that’s why I need the motor for transport. Besides I have to prepare your accommodation.’ Walrus looked at me blankly. ‘Look,’ I pointed, ‘just along here, there’s a place where I can get my motor down to the beach – but I have to go and fetch it. I reckon I can make it back here in an hour.’
What is hour?
I rolled my eyes, trying to think. Why does everything have to be so difficult. I remembered a Japanese fisherman friend who could estimate the time by measuring the height of the sun above the horizon with his hands. But the sun and horizon were hidden. ‘Listen my friend, just wait here, I’ll be back as quickly as I can. Trust me.’ For some reason I touched my heart at this point. To my astonishment he repeated the gesture by placing a flipper across his shiny chest. ‘You can either hide up there among the dunes,’ I gestured towards them, ‘or better still, just paddle a little distance offshore and keep your tusks below the waterline. If any humans pass, they’ll just think you’re a seal. Understood?’
He looked at me but said nothing and I couldn’t read his expression. I’d have to do all this by sign language. Briefly I wished I’d been in the marines where they teach that kind of stuff. I pointed towards the waves making a swimming motion, then raised and lowered my forearms, palms down in a ‘wait-out-there’ gesture. Next, like a second-rate charades player, I tried to indicate running home then reversing direction and driving back to collect him. I could see he was trying to fathom things out as I set off back towards the city. I turned to wave just before exiting the beach and was relieved to see him making his way into the waves. But would he be here when I returned?
I raced home, the north wind at my back, with a renewed sense of purpose, something I had lost during these Covid days. I loved beach-running, imagining myself a latter day Herb Elliot, the Aussie athlete who had honed his strength and endurance on the steep sand dunes of Portsea, South Australia. Although way before my time I’d read about him in one of my dad’s books. I no longer felt the cold as I pounded on through the docks, across the river and home to the gull-echoing granite canyons of Torry.
Opening the tenement door, I tore through to its dismal rear yard and out again into the sleet. The light was already beginning to fade as I pushed open the unlocked door to my shed. Mine was the last one in the line – a line of brick-built outhouses so strangely out of kilter in this city of granite. But it was the best one for Walrus: in the unlikely event of anyone going to their sheds in this weather, no-one would pass his door.
I had a bike in the shed, a few tools and a broom; but what I really needed were the three stout 8 inch wide planks that I kept there. I hauled them out and tested their strength against the wall. They were mighty heavy and I could only manage one at a time as I hauled them along the corridor to the front door and across the pavement to my van. But shit, the car keys were in the flat – six flights up. Thankfully I was still running on adrenaline. I was up and down again, then back in my shed, dragging everything outside and brushing the flag-stone floor. All ship-shape. Guest accommodation ready!
I man-handled the planks into my van and jumped in. ‘Walrus – here we come!’ I hollered, smacking the steering wheel with excitement.
By the time I reached the beach again, darkness had almost fallen. The headlamps drilled long boreholes through the frenzied air above the sea, the waves dramatically white-maned against the darkling sky. Walrus was nowhere to be seen. Maybe he’s scared of the light, I thought, turning off the headlamps and the engine, then battling down to the water’s edge. The wind and the sea roared in my ears. I scanned the horizon. I couldn’t see anything. I began to pace up and down the beach, cupping my hands around my mouth, and hollering. ‘Walrus! Walrus! Where are you?’ My spirits ebbed as the sky darkened into night.
Then I heard him. ‘Wrrrr’, that same deep-throated growl he had used when we met. ‘Oh, thank god,’ I said, ‘I thought I had lost you.’ Leaning against the wind, I watched him haul his great body out of the waves. His eyes were rheumy. ‘You must be cold,’ I said.
Cold? He gave me a pitying look. No sir, this is hot.
‘Of course,’ I said, feeling rather stupid, ‘and no need to call me sir, please call me Mike.’ I gave him a little bow. ‘Do you have a name I might address you by?’
‘No other names?’
Walrus. He repeated, looking, I thought, a little exasperated.
‘OK Walrus, let’s get you home.’ I gestured towards the van. Through the spindrift darkness, we walked together – like the walrus and the carpenter – up the gentle slope of the beach. Once at the van I opened the back doors and pulled out the three planks, laying them side by side to make a broad ramp. ‘Do you think you can manage that?’ I said, gesturing towards it. He gave me a weary look and began to inch his mighty frame up the ramp and into the van’s interior. Stout as they were, the planks creaked and bent alarmingly under his weight. I could barely watch and wanted to help him but his look of affronted dignity held me back. As he flopped down exhausted onto the metal floor, the van sank deeply on its suspension and I noticed that his rear flippers were hanging over the back sill. I pointed at them, ‘You’ll have to pull those inside,’ I shouted above the wind, ‘so that I can close the doors.’ He looked at me blankly but understood once I eased the doors shut. ‘And it will be hell-of-a-noisy once we get moving,’ I said. But his eyes were already closed.
Oh my god, I thought, don’t die on me! But his mighty chest rose and fell in gentle reassuring waves. His flippers flexed easily as I lent my weight against the doors and felt them click. I drove home as gently as I could, trying to recite verses from ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ and then turning on a recording of ‘Homeward Bound’ by Simon and Garfunkle, hoping it might sooth Walrus as we drove over the hissing tarmac – though I doubt he heard a word or sound above the roar of the engine.
Driving over the cobbles of Victoria Bridge into Torry, the van was buffeted by a massive gust of wind which, without the ballast of Walrus, might have driven us onto the pavement and up against the parapets. The sleet had now turned to horizontal snow as I pulled up in front our tenement block. Although it wasn’t late, not a soul was about and the kirk across the street was almost obliterated from sight by the denseness of the blizzard. Perfect, I thought, the gods are with us. With keys in hand, I slipped quickly out of the van to open the back doors. Unbelievable, Walrus was still asleep and snoring loudly, his whiskered upper lip trembling with each out-breath. It would have been funny had I not been so anxious. I patted him urgently on one of his back flippers. ‘Walrus,’ I said, ‘come on old chap…’ But before I could finish, his eyes snapped open in terror and he let out the most almighty roar, his mouth open wide, his lower lip quivering.
‘It’s OK, Walrus, it’s OK,’ I held up my hands, palms towards him and lowered them very slowly. ‘Remember me, MIke – I’m your friend – you know, the one who looks like your brother. We met on the beach and now we’re home. Somewhere safe. Somewhere to rest.’ His look of fear gradually subsided, turning first to bewilderment then to utter weariness. It seemed cruel to ask him to move but I had no choice. I hauled out the three planks and he slid down them, his passage comically assisted by the skim of snow that had already settled on the ramp. I tried not to laugh. ‘OK, follow me, there’s a bit of a step here.’ I said pointing with one hand while working the front door keys to the tenement with the other.
I was surprised how easily he hauled himself along the floor – the sound of a heavy object being dragged across the lino, accompanied by the slap-slap of his front flippers. Once in the back yard, he stopped to look up at the swirling snow, to sniff the air and to wrinkle his broad snout in satisfaction as if reassured by the elements.
I opened the shed door. ‘Here we are my friend. No palace, I’m afraid but you’ll be OK here and I’ll bring you some breakfast in the morning.’ Walrus slid inside. ‘I’ll close the door, just to keep you safe.’ But he was already asleep again, slumped in a corner. I mopped the tenement corridor en route to my flat. No sense in raising unnecessary suspicions…