Published 15 March 2022
Chapter Four – Dr Hazlett
‘Marine Laboratory here, how can I help?
‘Walruses,’ I blurted out, ‘you wouldn’t happen to have an expert on them would you?’
There was a long pause. ‘Well that’s a new one…’ The reply was polite, hesitant, the receptionist sounded as if she were turning over options in her head. ‘Walrus is a mammal isn’t it? We do have someone who fields questions on whales and dolphins. I could put you through to him if you like?’
‘That would be great, thanks.’
‘We only have a skeleton staff here at the moment due to Covid restrictions but I could transfer you to his home number. His name is Dr Hazlett. Hold the line please.’
He came through almost immediately, his voice old, grumpy, and a trifle suspicious. I wondered what the receptionist had told him.
‘Look.’ I said, ‘I know this is going to sound a trifle bonkers, but I’ve got a very exhausted walrus at home with me in Torry and I’m at my wit’s end worrying about what to do with him. The receptionist, told me you might be able to help.’
‘Is this some kind of a wind-up? There are no walruses in Scotland.’
‘That’s what I thought,’ I replied, ‘until I almost fell over one on the beach north of the Don. I took him home in my van because he looked so poorly. He’s in my outhouse, I’ve been feeding him on mackerel.’ There was a splutter of disbelief down the line, ‘Please don’t put the phone down Dr Hazlett,’ I added quickly. ‘If you don’t believe me come and see for yourself. I live at 167 Victoria Rd not far from the Marine Lab. My name is Mike and I work at the Bank of Scotland in Union Street.’ I hated adding that last bit but thought it might add some gravitas and it seemed to work, or, at least, he didn’t put down the phone. He went on to pepper me with questions about Walrus and then about myself but I could tell from his tone that, although he remained suspicious, his attitude was beginning to change. There was now a note of barely restrained excitement in his voice. ‘I’ll be round in half an hour,’ he said, ‘I’ve got to come from the other side of town.’
I met him outside the tenement kicking the snow off his boots. He was a rugged looking guy, an outdoor type, much older than me, in his 50s I guessed, with the whiskers of a beard escaping around the fringes of his face mask. The visible parts of his face were weather-beaten and he had on a worn Barbour jacket and a chunky woollen hat. Clutched in one hand was a bulging sack.
‘You must be Mike, the banker,’ he said with a mischievous twinkle, ‘I thought these might come in useful.’ He shook the sack.
‘And you’ll be Dr Hazlett,’ I replied, trying not to wince at the banker reference. ‘Come on through. Very good of you to come at such short notice. So what’s in the sack?’
‘Mussels. Live mussels.’
‘Oh wow, that’s just brilliant.’ I could have hugged him.
‘I’m no expert on walruses but my guess is that these will be as close to his natural diet as you can find. Can’t believe he’s been eating mackerel,’ he said, shaking his head.
‘Me neither,’ I replied. ‘I guess he was desperate, but I should warn you, they make him fart something awful. Hope you’ve got a strong stomach.’
‘Ever tried dissecting a long-dead, stranded whale,’ he grinned. ‘But what intrigues me is how on earth you managed to get him here?’
‘Long story,’ I replied as we emerged into the back yard and crunched across the snow. I put a finger to my lips as we approached Walrus’s quarters. Carefully opening the door, I peaked inside. He was slumped in a corner with his back against the walls, his two flippers folded over his stomach, eyes closed, a look of sleepy contentment on his face. Creaking open the door a little wider – so that the Doc could take a look too – a shaft of wintry sunlight flicked across Walrus’s face bringing him sharply awake.
‘Wrrrr.’ he bellowed, lurching belligerently toward the Doc with terrifying menace. Perhaps he saw this older bearded newcomer as a rival alpha male.
Stepping quickly between them, arms extended, I shouted, ‘Whoa, Walrus, this is my friend, he’s come to help you.’ The look Walrus gave me suggested betrayal: But you promised me peace and quiet. This morphed to incomprehension: Help me? How he gonna help me?
I turned to the Doc who looked a bit shaken but also intrigued. ‘Why don’t you toss him a few mussels,’ I suggested, ‘gently, just in front of him.’
Walrus had risen to his full height, and continued to glare belligerently at the Doc. At first he ignored the mussels that the Doc threw his way, not daring to take his eyes off his rival. But then his nostrils began to twitch as he caught their whiff. Lowering his head he sniffed at the nearest mussel. ‘Wrrrr,’ his tone this time was less aggressive, excited anticipation struggling with lingering suspicion.’ He looked at me, as if for reassurance.
‘It’s OK,’ I said. ‘Dr Hazlett is my friend, he wants to be yours too and these mussels are a gift from him to you.’
Really? he was still looking sceptical until a faint memory seemed to dawn. Mussels. I know these from home. Almost as good as oysters. He worked his tusks methodically from side to side across the floor scooping the mussels into neat blue-black, barnacle-encrusted piles. Then he opened his big whiskered jaws and began to crunch them noisily down. I turned to look at the Doctor. He was grinning from ear to ear.
‘I can’t believe I’m seeing this,’ he said, ‘Odobenis rosmarus, here in little old Aberdeen. It’s like some strange dream… some parallel reality.’ He shook his head as if to shake himself back into the real world. Walrus was now looking at him impatiently. Doc laughed, ‘Even I can read that look,’ he said, tossing Walrus more of the mussels which bounced lightly, like skimmed stones, across the floor.
As the Doc continued throwing handfuls of shellfish at Walrus I scanned the shed. The box of mackerel was now three-quarters empty, a good sign I thought, but there were little piles of excrement everywhere and the smell was overpowering. ‘Hey, Doc,’ I said, ‘what do you think? How much longer should we keep him here? He’s already had about thirty kilos of mackerel and a good whack of your mussels. They must have done him some good, surely?’
‘I don’t think you should keep him here a minute longer. It’s a pity, I would have liked to have taken some measurements but he looks way too dangerous for that. I’ve no idea how we get him back to sea or how on earth you managed to get him here in the first place, but that’s where he should be.’
‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘you’re right and he’s definitely in much better shape now. Let’s lock him up again with half the rest of the mussels and make a plan. He seems OK so long as he’s got food and privacy. Anyway I’m bloody freezing, let’s go up to my flat and grab a coffee. You can leave the rest of the mussels out here against the door.’ This was a mistake.