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To the laboratory


Raven, by George Rankin

'But comes, as sure as Christmas comes,

To ca' for her annuity.'

'An’ there she sits upon my back.'

'An' pay me, pay me, evermair.'
Captain Aodhàn Macallister calls in to the bar to tell us that we are stuck because of a problem in one of the on-board laboratories. Albert asks Aodhàn if he can, at least, turn the airship the right way up. Aodhàn explains that although, technically, it is possible, it is not respectful to look down on a sacred site; inverted, we can look up rather than down at the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur. I tell Aodhàn that it would not be disrespectful to turn the airship over as, despite appearances, whichever way up we are, the church is below us and we have to look down to see it.

Fatty says that appearances are important, upside down pudding, for example, must be served the right way up. George remarks that, whichever way up we are, the world might be upside down, and we might be at the bottom, in which case we would be looking up at the church. I tell George that, if we were the right way up, we would have to look down to see the church. Rory says that that means we have to look down to look up, which doesn’t make sense. George says that it only doesn’t make sense if you’re stupid. Albert says that the concept of ‘down’ is not as simple as it seems, and even some scientists do not understand it. I tell Albert that it is so simple that any idiot can understand it; down is the direction of gravity, and I offer to prove it by throwing him out of the window.

Juan tells us that, while we are stuck, he will visit some friends in the Quartier Pigalle, then, when we’re unstuck, we can pick him up on the Rue de Douai. Fatty says that Juan is right, we should take advantage of the time and, he reminds us, we are near the best restaurants in the world, and we should visit them all. George says that, as we are in France, as soon as he has finished the painting he is working on, he will take the opportunity to paint some French birds. Juan says that this is a good idea and offers to introduce George to some French birds. I tell Juan to shut up.

Fatty says that he has been thinking about dinner and, as we are in France, he would like to serve a French dish. Juan says that he was thinking exactly the same thing. Fatty says that, as haggis can only be cooked by a Highlander, so certain French dishes can only be cooked by French chefs, thus, rather than risk insulting his French culinary brothers by serving a second rate Navarin de Mouton, or a less than perfect Gigot de Mouton a la Provencale, he will serve a simple, traditional, meal of Escargots rǒtis. Rory says that, because he is feeling sick with terror, he isn’t hungry, but he probably could stomach something that is easy to digest. I tell Rory that snails are easy to catch, and easy to cook, so they are probably easy to digest. Rory looks a little pale and he says that he doesn’t want to eat snails, remembering that Rory doesn’t speak French; I tell him that escargots are French snails, but he shouldn’t worry, they are delightfully chewy and, when they are chewed, they exude a slimy snail-juice, this lubricates the snails which make them easy to swallow and aids digestion.

Juan says that we should just have one more quick drink then head into Paris, and orders Bladnoch, Glenrothes, Springbank, and Glen Moray Special Reserve. Aodhàn reminds everyone that because of the problem in one of the laboratories, we are stuck, so we can’t go anywhere. Juan says that someone should go to the laboratory and fix the problem. George says that Rory should not go, because he is scared of crows. I tell George that there probably aren’t any crows in the laboratory, so Rory would not have anything to be scared about. George says that Rory is scared of crows, which are relatively harmless, so he will definitely be scared of going into laboratory, which is probably overheating, full of toxic gases, and liable to explode. Fatty says that that is how he feels after a good curry and Juan says the conditions in the laboratory can’t be any worse than in the Cheeky Monkey on a Friday night.

Rory explains to George that, just because someone has particular fear of something, it does not mean that they are necessarily scared of anything else. The most heroic soldier might be terrified of turnips, but, in battle, he is fearless; until someone throws a turnip at him. Fatty says that anybody who is scared of turnips must be stupid, turnips are tasty, but crows taste horrible. Rory shouts at us to shut up because we are talking about eating crows again, and he doesn’t want to hear or see anything to do with the stupid, nasty, things. George remarks that he had been thinking of painting a crow, but, as it would have alarmed Rory, it is lucky that he painted a completely different bird instead. With that, George spins his canvas around, Rory takes one look at the painting, shrieks, and beats his arms around shouting, “Get it off me! Get it off me!”

I reassure Rory, telling him that there is nothing to be worried about, it is only a harmless picture of a crow; if it was a real crow, I point out, it could do something nasty and crowish like waiting until he was asleep then fly through his bedroom window and peck out his eyes and rip his face to shreds before he knew what was happening, but a painting of a crow can’t hurt him, unless he eats it. This advice does calm Rory down as, white with terror, he shouts that we must be insane; we all know that he is scared of crows and disgusted by the idea of eating crows, but all we ever do, he yells, is look at pictures of crows and talk about eating crows and, rocking backwards in horror, Rory falls off his stool and knocks himself unconscious.

George says that he is surprised by Rory’s reaction. Juan hurls a bottle of ale at Rory, to wake him up, and says that Rory’s reaction is normal after a bottle of Vintage Bladnoch. I tell George that he should not be surprised by Rory’s reaction; he knows that Rory is scared of crows, but he painted a picture of a large crow, so he should have known that Rory would scared. Fatty says that the crow looks flavoursome, which is the most important thing. I tell Fatty that it probably tastes like a crow, and everyone knows that crows taste horrible. George says that any imbecile can see it is not a crow, it is a raven. I tell George that I knew it was a raven, it’s obvious, it’s just, I explain, that, because Rory thought it was a crow, I didn’t want to confuse him, so I used the word ‘crow’ in general. George says there’s no such thing as a general crow and that I should use the term for the genus, which is easy to remember as they make a sound like ‘“cor” for us’; ‘Corvus. I tell George that they don’t go “cor” for us, they go “cor” for each other, and anyway, most intelligent people know that they don’t go “cor” at all, they go “caw”, and they aren’t called ‘Cawvusii’, so it’s a stupid way to remember the name.

Fatty says that, because the raven is bigger than a crow, it probably makes a lower sounding caw than a crow, and he makes a low crowing sound, to illustrate the point. I say that Fatty is right but, as well as lowering the pitch of the caw, the large size of the raven will also increase the volume, and I caw loudly, to show them what I mean. Rory says that, because of its size, the raven contains more air than a crow, so it can make a longer caw, and he gives out a long, loud, shrieking, caw. Albert says that there may not be a direct relationship between the size of the bird and the sound it makes, the best way to imitate the noise that it makes, he says, is to produce a caw that varies in volume, pitch and length, which he demonstrates. Juan says that the caw isn’t everything, crows and ravens also communicate with movement, and he flaps his arms, hops sideways and makes frightful cawing noises. Everyone thinks that their own version of a raven’s cry is the right one and we flap and crow and caw at each other until Rory starts screaming and Juan has to knock him out with a bottle of stout, to calm him down.

I tell Juan that he is too aggressive. Juan says he’s not aggressive, it is just that he is angry because there are no women in the bar, and a bar without women, he reminds us, is like a cat without fur, it might be good company, but you wouldn’t want to stroke it. George says that, often, men go to bars to get away from women. At this, Juan looks shocked. I tell Juan that, occasionally, some men do have bad experiences with women, and this, I remind him, is a fact that even our dim old friend, George Outram, noticed, and commented on, and, to the air, ‘Duncan Davidson’, while keeping time by kicking Rory in the kidneys, I sing Outram’s ‘The Annuity’ at the top of my lungs:

I gaed to spend a week in Fife -
An unco week it proved to be -
For there I met a waesome wife
Lamentin' her viduity.
Her grief brak out sae fierce and fell,
I thought her heart wad burst the shell;
And - I was sae left to mysel', -
I sell't her an annuity.

The bargain lookit fair eneugh -
She just was turned o' saxty-three -
I couldna guessed she'd prove sae teugh,
By human ingenuity.
But years have come, and years have gane,
And there she's yet as stieve as stane -
The limmer's growin' young again,
Since she got her annuity.

She's crined' awa' to bane and skin,
But that, it seems, is nought to me;
She's like to live - although she's in
The last stage o' tenuity.
She munches wi' her wizen'd gums,
An' stumps about on legs o' thrums;
But comes, as sure as Christmas comes,
To ca' for her annuity.

She jokes her joke, an’ cracks her crack
As spunkie as a growin’ flea -
An’ there she sits upon my back,
A livin’ perpetuity.
She hurkles by her ingle side,
Ann’ toasts an’ tans her wrinkled hide-
Lord kens how lang she yet may bide
To ca’ for her annuity!

I read the tables drawn wi' care
For an insurance company;
Her chance o' life was stated there,
Wi' perfect perspicuity.
But tables here or tables there,
She's lived ten years beyond her share,
An' 's like to live a dizzen mair,
To ca' for her annuity.

I gat the loon that drew the deed-
We spelled it o’er right carefully;-
In vain he yerked his souple head,
To find an ambiguity:
It’s dated-tested-a’complete -
The proper stamp- nae word delete-
And diligence, as on decreet,
May pass for her annuity.

Last Yule she had a fearfu' hoast, -
I thought a kink might set me free: -
I led her out, 'mang snaw and frost,
Wi' constant assiduity.
But deil ma' care - the blast gaed by,
And miss'd the auld anatomy;
It just cost me a tooth, forbye
Discharging her annuity.

I thought that grief might gar her quit-
Her only son was lost at sea-
But aff her wits behuved to flit,
An leave her in fatuity!
She threeps, an’ threeps, he’s livin’ yet,
For a’ the lellin’ she can get:
But catch the doited runt forget
To ca’ for her annuity.

If there's a' sough o' cholera,
Or typhus, - wha sae gleg as she?
She buys up baths, an' drugs, an' a',
In siccan superfluity!
She doesna need - she's fever proof -
The pest gaed o'er her very roof -
She tauld me sae - an' then her loof
Held out for her annuity.

Ae day she fell - her arm she brak -
A compound fracture as could be -
Nae Leech the cure wad undertake,
Whate'er was the gratuity.
It's cured! She handles’t like a flail -
It does as weel in bits as hale -
But I'm a broken man mysel'
Wi' her and her annuity.

Her broozled flesh and broken banes
Are weel as flesh and banes can be.
She beats the taeds that live in stanes,
An' fatten in vacuity!
They die when they're exposed to air -
They canna thole the atmosphere;
But her! - expose her onywhere -
She lives for her annuity.

If mortal means could nick her thread,
Sma' crime it wad appear to me;
Ca't murder - or ca't homicide,
I'd justify’t - an' do it tae.
But how to fell a withered wife
That's carved out o' the tree o' life -
The timmer limmer daurs the knife
To settle her annuity.

I'd try a shot. - But whar's the mark?
Her vital parts are hid frae me;
Her backbane wanders through her sark
In an unkenn'd corkscrewity.
She's palsified – an’ shakes her head
Sae fast about, ye scarce can see;
It's past the power o' steel or lead
To settle her annuity.

She might be drowned; - but go she'll not
Within a mile o' loch or sea; -
Or hanged - if cord could grip a throat
O' siccan exiguity.
It's fitter far to hang the rope -
It draws out like a telescope;
'Twad tak a dreadfu' length o' drop
To settle her annuity.

Will puzion do't? - It has been tried;
But, be't in hash or fricassee,
That's just the dish she can't abide,
Whatever kind o' goût it hae.
It's needless to assail her doubts, -
She gangs by instinct, - like the brutes,
An' only eats an' drinks what suits
Hersel' and her annuity.

The Bible says the age o' man
Threescore and ten, perchance, may be;
She's ninety-four; - let them wha can,
Explain the incongruity.
She should hae lived afore the Flood -
She's come o' Patriarchal blood,
She's some auld Pagan mummified
Alive for her annuity.

She's been embalmed inside and oot -
She's sauted to the last degree -
There's pickle in her very snout
Sae caper-like an' cruetty;
Lot's wife was fresh compared to her;
They've kyanised the useless knir,
She canna decompose - nae mair
Than her accursed annuity.

The water-drop wears out the rock,
As this eternal jaud wears me;
I could withstand the single shock,
But not the continuity.
It's pay me here, an' pay me there,
An' pay me, pay me, evermair -
I'll gang demented wi' despair -
I'm charged for her annuity.

I finish the poem by dramatically pounding the bar with Rory’s head. I expect applause but everyone has fallen asleep through boredom. This is irritating. I order Vintage whisky, to liven everyone up, and I remind Juan that the sooner we fix the problem in the laboratory, the sooner we will be unstuck and, I suggest, after a quick dram, we should all head to the laboratory.

Juan says that this is a good idea and, for courage, he orders Vintage Inchgower, Glenkinchie, Duftown, and Glen Garioch Private Reserve. Fatty produces some snails and, after we salute French cuisine, raise our glasses to French culture, offer toast after toast to French women, and drink to the hope of getting some soon, we play ‘The Process of Wakenin’’ ‘Drinkin’ Drams’, ‘My Wife Has Come to Cure Me’, and ‘The Sign of the Craw’, then enthusiastically heading to the laboratory, we bounce off the first wall we come to, fall in a heap, and crawl around in hopeless, bruised, confusion, as fast as we possibly can.

Professor Humperdink’s Diary

Baked Snails

Ingredients:- 2 dozen snails, 1 ounce of butter, 1 teaspoonful of finely-chopped parsley, 1 shallot finely-chopped, breadcrumbs, salt and pepper.

Method. Soak the snails in salt and water for 12 hours, then drain them well. Sprinkle lightly with salt, pepper, shallot and parsley, cover with breadcrumbs, and add a small piece of butter. Bake in a moderate oven for 20 minutes, and serve hot.

Time, to bake, about 20 minutes.

Recipe by Isabella Beeton, 1861

'The Annuity' illustrated by Edmund J. Sullivan