A Shaggy Bat Story

I was on a long train journey. You will understand that I cannot mention where I was going or divulge what business I was engaged in, except to say that it was of the utmost importance to Her Majesty and her government. Let us say I was on the midnight express from King’s Cross to Edinburgh, and we had passed through Depton Melchurch, or some such rural backwater south of Watford. Having lacked the foresight to bring along a book to read and having finished the Times crossword, I was faced with the prospect of a long, tedious sojourn with nothing to occupy my mind but my own threadbare thoughts. The view through the window was of total blackness with nothing to look at but my own mournful reflection in the glass.

Given the extreme situation I found myself in, I ventured to address the only other passenger in the carriage. I judged him a man in his early fifties. Dressed as he was in herringbone tweed, and smoking a Dewhurst pipe, he gave the appearance of a Scottish gamekeeper or gillie. His boots were sturdy enough, although they had seen better days, tramping across Scottish marshes or heathland in foul weather, no doubt.

I addressed him with not a little care, enunciating painstakingly in order to make myself understood. “Excuse me, my man.”

In response he removed the Dewhurst from his mouth, shook it vigorously to eject spittle on the floor and replaced it between his teeth.

I tried again. “I thought we might introduce ourselves. We shall be sharing this carriage for several hours, after all, and it seems to me we might become acquainted.”

This initiative was greeted with a gruff sound. “Harrumph!”

Never one to give up without a fight, I pressed on. “My name,” I said, “is Brenbury-Cleeves, second lieutenant with the Coldstream Guards. Whatever your station, you must not feel obliged in any way to acknowledge my rank or position. We may converse as equals. What is your name?

Finally, I was rewarded with a response, but I failed to catch it. His was a guttural highland accent, quite unfathomable, as I suspected it might be. Twice I asked him to repeat his name, and each time it escaped me.

“Are you traveling the whole way to Edinburgh?” I enquired.

I gathered he was.

“Are you perhaps a gamekeeper for one of the Scottish Highland estates? Or a gillie, perhaps?”

At that, he removed the foul-smelling pipe from his mouth, tucked it into a waistcoat pocket and began to speak. He spoke non-stop for close to thirty minutes. I attempted to interrupt several times, but each time he raised a hand to silence me and continued with his monologue. To start with I understood nothing; then I began to pick up a word here and there. I thought I heard “otter” and “stoat”, “rabbit”. At one point I though I heard “tortoise”. Then he mentioned “kangaroo”, and paused for breath.

“You’ve been to Australia?” I said.

“Aye, manys the lang day I’ve spend under a blazing sun on the trail of the tree kangaroo.”

“The tree kangaroo.”

“Aye, right y’are, yer grace. I’m on ma way hame after a lang trek across the Australian ootback.”

“Tracking the tree kangaroo?” I gave him the full force of my skeptical eyebrows.

As it turned out this was a serious mistake, for my companion gave me a withering look before closing his mouth firmly and fetching his pipe from his waistcoat pocket. He spent fully three minutes scraping out the dottle with a miniature scoop. Then, digging a block of shag from somewhere on his person, he proceeded to shave off thin strips, tucking each one into the bowl and tamping them down with infinite care.

When he lit the thing he filled the carriage with smoke. I would have opened the window, but the locomotive was belching out nearly as much smoke outside.

I coughed and said, “Forgive me for interrupting your story. I’d love to hear the rest of it.”

He gave me a queer look through the tobacco haze, and responded, “The Coldstream Guards was it you said?”

“That is correct.”

“Why are ye no’ wearin’ one o’ thay big hats?”

I laughed. “You mean the bearskin. Those are worn on ceremonial occasions only.”

“So you do other things besides marchin’ up and doon in front o’ the queen?”

“Indeed. Our duties are many and varied. I myself have served Her Majesty in a number of capacities.”

“Doing what, exactly?”

“Intelligence work, for the most part. I cannot say more than that. I’m sure you understand why.”

“Intelligence, ye say?” The turn of his head told me he was not convinced.

To get him talking again I said, “I was fascinated by your own life experience. Please continue.”

He sucked on his pipe. “You’ve heerd o’ Charles Darwin no doot, yer lordship?”

“The naturalist. Yes.” I was aware of Mr. Darwin’s recently published book on the origins of life, although I had not read it.

“I was wi’ him on his voyage in the Beagle. I myself specialized in bats. It was me as classified most o’ the known species o’ fruit bat in South America, and it was me tha’ discovered the most elusive bat of them all.”

“I take it the vampire bat was the most elusive?” I was familiar with that loathsome creature, having served in various far-flung parts of Her Majesty’s empire.

“Ach, no. This is a bat that lives only in a remote region of Australia. It’s covered in lang shaggy hair. It feeds on a rare species of cricket, found nowhere else, ye ken.”

“What’s it called, this bat?” I said.

“Why it’s the rare Australian Cricket Bat, your worship,” he said, and he burst into uncontrolled laughter.

The remainder of the journey passed in silence.

(C) Copyright JJ Toner