The Ornithologist And His Helpmeet

“Hand me that chaffinch,” said the ornithologist to his helpmeet.

Now it so happened that the helpmeet was a dimwit who could not tell one bird from another. They all had beaks and feathers, so far as he was aware, but beyond that he wallowed in a seething maelstrom of bird-ignorance. How then, we might wonder, did he get the plum job of ornithologist’s helpmeet? And be assured it was a plum job indeed, as both plums and jobs go. It had been advertised as such, in the “Plums” section of the Daily Ornithological Helpmeets’ Situations Vacant listings magazine, price fourpence, available from several tobacconists’ kiosks in Pointy Town and environs.

On the night before he saw the advertisement, the dimwit slept in the open air, under a viaduct. This was not because he had no home to go to, for a home he had, and what a home!, a manse, with serried belvederes, and too many servants to count. But the dimwit, the day before, had foolishly gone a-wandering, and become hopelessly lost. This was what usually happened when he strayed from the grounds of the manse. Not only was he ignorant of birds, but he had absolutely no sense of direction. His Papa had tried to teach him to orient his position on our spinning globe by studying the sun in the day and the stars in the night, but such matters were not within his grasp. He had difficulty craning his neck at the correct angle so that his head, and eyes, were pointing at the sky. This was not on account of any malformation of his neck. It was more a case of absent-mindedness. He would begin to adjust his head to the correct angle and then be distracted by, say, the ground-level sight of a heron eating a mole, and forget what he was doing. He could not, of course, have identified the heron as a heron – nor the mole as a mole, he was such a dimwit! – but he would be transfixed by the spectacle, and gape, tongue lolling from his mouth, drool dribbling down his chin, until one of the servants was dispatched to come and collect him, tie him to the end of a tethering rope, and pull him gently back into the manse, where Papa, despairing, stood hunched between a globe and an orrery, spinning them turn and turn about, his eyes wet with tears.

Waking under the viaduct at dawn that day, the dimwit dithered and dawdled and found himself, some hours later, at a tobacconist’s kiosk hard by Sawdust Bridge. Anent the kiosk, in a puddle, sat a pile of unsold copies of the previous day’s edition of the Daily Ornithological Helpmeets’ Situations Vacant, tied up with string. What prompted the dimwit to undo the bundle and take a copy of the magazine and repair to a verdant arbour where courting couples had long ago scratched their initials and cackhanded hearts entwined on the now rotting wood of the ruined bench and sat upon the bench and leafed through the puddle-wet magazine and read and read again and read a third time the advertisement for a plum job as helpmeet to tiptop ornithologist Bruno La Poubelle we shall never know. What we do know is that, as chance would have it – or was it written in the stars? – Bruno La Poubelle himself came clattering into the arbour for a shifty fag break.

Clattering, because he was wearing his scarecrow suit, hung with myriad scraps of tin. Shifty, because his ornithological research station hut had been declared a No Smoking Zone by ornithologists even more tiptop than he.

The ornithologist and the dimwit fell into conversation on the shattered bench. At this date we cannot piece together what they spoke of, but far far away the Gulf of Tonkin Incident had recently occurred, so it may be that it acted as an ice-breaker. However it was, Bruno La Poubelle was persuaded, within fifteen minutes, that the dimwit would make a splendid and devoted helpmeet. He tied a tethering rope to his new employee and pulled him gently back to the hut.

After a cup of tea and a guided tour of the hut and another shifty fag break, the ornithologist uttered the fateful words.

“Hand me that chaffinch,” he said, only to be met with a look of staggeringly fathomless incomprehension. Shortly afterwards, one of the servants from the manse appeared, having tracked down the dimwit with bloodhounds. He found Bruno La Poubelle slumped in his chair with his head in his hands, and the dimwit standing beside him, clutching a marsh warbler.

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