The Weight of Dunlins
I was on North Uist, walking the machair, that thin strip of fertile land between beach and peat bog that graces a few of our remote north-western shores. I didn’t really know why I was there. Just to get away, I suppose, though I wasn’t sure what I was getting away from.
On the ferry over, a local man had told me how the sea ground down shells over centuries to form the beach. How westerly winds spread sand over the peat. How calcium in the sand reacted with acid in the bog to form the machair: Gaelic for “the fertile land behind the dunes”. ‘Treat it gently,’ he’d said, ‘it’s a precious gift.’
It was one of those days when late summer meets early autumn; one side of you warmed by the sun, the other chilled by the air. A tang of salt; a breath of peat. The wild flowers were looking tired, ready to lie down for the winter. Though it was mid-afternoon, the light was still so sharp you could have cut yourself on it.
I tried spinning round to mix up the sun and the chill, but felt dizzy and had to sit down. That’s when I saw her, walking along the strand. She wore sandals and a long dress of dark blue cotton. Her hair was that red that so many highland women are blessed with.
‘I saw you spinning,’ she said, as she approached.
I got up, apologised and explained.
‘You should turn more slowly,’ she said, ‘then you wouldn’t get dizzy.’ She had freckles and high cheekbones and her hair glowed like old rust. It moved in waves, though there was scarcely a breeze.
‘Were you looking for something?’ I asked.
‘The wow factor,’ she said.
‘Wow!’ I said.
She laughed. ‘Every day I look for something that makes me go wow! at its beauty or strangeness.’
‘Doesn’t that defeat the object?’ I asked. ‘Looking for it.’
‘No,’ she said; ‘it’s about keeping yourself open, going to new places, meeting new people. You were nearly my wow for today.’
I felt myself blushing.
‘Sorry,’ she said, ‘have I embarrassed you?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Why only nearly?’
‘Because I didn’t go wow! I have to go wow! for it to work. I only went weird!’
‘Thanks very much!’
‘I meant the situation. You look nice though, quite cuddly – for a Sassenach. And you blush easily. We’ll have tea later. Four o’clock at the museum cafe. See if you can have a wow in the meantime and I’ll try too. Don’t try too hard; just let it happen.’
‘OK,’ I said. ‘We could exchange wows I said,’ blushing again.
‘Ha ha,’ she said, and strode off.
Wow I thought, but it didn’t appear out loud, so I guessed it didn’t count. By then it was after three, so I set about doing whatever it was I had to do to get a wow. I turned round slowly with my eyes shut, counting to five, then set off in the direction I was facing (towards the beach), stepping gently.
When I got to the museum, she was already there in the café, drinking tea.
‘Sorry I’m late,’ I said.
‘You’re not,’ she said. ‘I’m early. I got thirsty. You apologise too much, even for a Sassenach.’ She poured me a cup. ‘Did you have a wow?’
‘I did,’ I said. ‘Did you?’
‘I did, but you must tell me yours first.’
I took out a pebble from my pocket. ‘I’ll show you. When I’m walking on beaches I play this game; I pick up a pebble I like and then try to better it as I go, looking for one more extraordinary, more pleasing, more perfect.’
‘Wow!’ she said. ‘Almost a perfect sphere. And the colours; reds and pinks and greens.’
‘That streak there is the colour of your hair,’ I said. She didn’t blush. I did. ‘Hold it,’ I said; ‘let it roll in the palm of your hand.’
‘It’s like it’s alive. And it feels much heavier than it looks.’
‘I think it must have some iron in it, making it move towards magnetic north.’
‘Or it’s imbued with the power of the sea, and is moved by the moon.’
We drank some tea.
‘Tell me your wow,’ I said.
‘I’ll show you,’ she said. She took a small cardboard box out of her shoulder bag. In it was the skeleton of a young bird.
‘Wow!’ It must have been out there for months.’
‘I think it’s a dunlin, a fledgling. I found it in an abandoned nest. Maybe a fox got the mother and insects did the rest. Feel the weight of it.’ She took it out of the box and placed it in my outstretched palm. It was lighter than the touch of her fingers, which stroked mine as she took back the skeleton.
‘How much do you think it weighs?’ I asked.
‘A pelican,’ she said, ‘grows to approximately 5 feet long and weighs nearly 20 pounds. Its skeleton weighs in at 23 ounces.’
‘That’s really interesting,’ I said, trying to sound sarcastic.
‘Isn’t it,’ she said; ‘I found out about it here in the museum. There was nothing about the weight of dunlins.’
We finished the tea.
‘I have to go,’ she said.
‘Me too,’ I said, not meaning it. I wasn’t really going anywhere. And I wanted her to stay.
‘We’ll exchange wows,’ she said, ‘like you suggested.’
‘I’d like that,’ I said, without blushing.
She put the skeleton back in the box, which was dark blue and, as I found out later, smelt of lavender. I wrapped the pebble in a paper napkin that was stamped with a thistle design. We exchanged our wows, shook hands and went our ways. I never even asked her her name.
Colin is seventy four, married, with grown up children and has lived in Liverpool for many years.
Publications include two poetry collections in print and short stories on-line and in magazines and anthologies. He’s had plays performed in and around Liverpool.
He cycles everywhere and cultivates a quarter of an allotment. He is a long-standing member of the Dead Good Poets Society and co-runs a regular Story Night at The Bluecoat Arts Centre in Liverpool.
Facebook: Colin Watts
Twitter: Colin Watts @FentimanW