Compton McKevedie smiled back at George.
“Sorry my friend, this time it is final!”
George sighed: this was his top surgeon – the best on the team! He not only did the work of at least three other surgeons but he was a “lucky” surgeon, with stunning statistics, incredibly low complication rates, adored by his patients with no complaints on his record: he was truly irreplaceable.
Of course, he was entitled to “retire”, as every legal bribe to defer his “retirement” had already been made and his farewell had been postponed three times.
“Won’t you get bored with all this spare time you’ll have?” asked George.
“No way!” exclaimed McKevedie emphatically shaking his head and smiling, “Though my first priority is to do the West Coast trail. That has been a dream of mine for a long time. And I won’t rush it – I want to go at my own pace.”
“Ah the old touristy thing,” teased George.
“Not at all,” said McKevedie with some indignation, “this is a 50 mile hike – back-packing – along the South Coast of Vancouver Island – really close to the wildlife there. Bears, whales, eagles – everything I’ve always wanted… and now it can happen.”
George smiled resignedly.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” he finally asked.
McKevedie thought for a moment:
“George, you are a genius at making impossible things happen and there is something I really do want; I need to do this walk alone and get away from official guides and the like and it may be difficult… will you help?”
George thought for a moment, aware of the dangers and the difficulties of the request.
“I suppose so,” he finally admitted, “just so long as you promise to always wear this.” He handed over a strange wristband: he had been anticipating this conversation for a long time!
Everything had so far gone to plan – the flights, the coach from Victoria – but now was the moment of truth as the guide looked at the paperwork which had been provided by George.
“It seems to be in order,” said the guide, “but I have never known anyone be alone on this part of the trail… it is very dangerous.” Finally he shrugged, shook the hand of the delighted surgeon, and wished him good luck.
In a few minutes, Compton McKevedie stood alone, seemingly defenceless in the beautiful wilderness of his dreams. Yet ‘defenceless’, he certainly was not, as his army training which had fashioned his early surgical expertise, had also taught him lots about survival; indeed, the contents of his diligently-ordered backpack reflected his training and assessment of the trail.
His sense of direction was excellent, but all the same he checked with his compass before he headed towards the sea. The scramble down the cliff was just a few hundred yards, but was not without difficulty and only his tough gloves prevented his hands being shredded by the sharp rocks.
But then he was there – where he ‘belonged’ – alone on the glorious wild, deserted beach of his dreams. The smell of the sea and the sounds of the breakers crashing on this untamed shore stirred his very soul. His binoculars were soon scouring the sky for weather warnings and the sea for whales or sea-lions. The gulls mewed above him as he walked along the pebbled shore with not a person in sight; no sign of human existence here, just the beautiful wild nature he had craved.
He walked a while heading North, impressed by everything in sight including the imposing steep cliffs, the untamed sea, but above all the mighty isolation of it all.
When he found a stream bubbling down a cliff with very potable water, he decided to pitch camp and have some food.
A fire was made speedily from the copious dry driftwood and the packet soup was supplemented by mussels which were growing in huge numbers:
“Not exactly Cordon Bleu,” he mused, “but hunger is the best sauce,” and he was certainly hungry.
His tent was soon pitched in a sheltered spot, protected by the cliffs and some outcrops of rock, and he was soon warm inside his sleeping bag.
Compton slept fitfully, uplifted by the mighty peace of the wilderness which fuelled his sense of wonder and stirred up many thoughts and memories – especially of his time abroad with the army and all the friends he had known and lost. He had no fears as he always felt that he belonged in such situations.
Dawn broke with a strong westerly wind blowing in from the sea and waves that had doubled in height; yes, it would be good to get off the shore-line in case things became worse.
Everything was soon packed and he continued as the wind blew sea-spray onto his face. He scoured the cliffs for a possible inroad into the land but there was nothing. Now he was driven by the tide to just a few feet from the cliff and the tide was still rising. He began to hurry but his backpack weighed a lot and was not designed for speed.
Suddenly a cleft appeared in the cliff-face, as though a giant had run a massive axe down the cliff allowing him to move in off the beach. He put his chin on his chest and moved into the inlet. He was so distracted by his efforts that he did not notice the bear until it was nearly upon him – a big female black bear. As he ran backwards, he tripped and felt a searing pain in his left ankle and the bear was almost on top of him.
Then he heard a strange whistling sound and the bear ran off.
“She wouldn’t have hurt you, old boy,” said the huge man who was clearly an indigenous Canadian from his dress, “she just wanted to share your food!” he added with an urbane Oxford accent.
Compton McKevedie stared in amazement at the apparition before him who was clearly quite amused by what had happened.
“Could you help me up, please?” asked the chastened surgeon. He yelped with pain as the stranger helped him to his feet.
“You have a bad sprain and you will need a couple of days before you can continue,” explained the stranger.
They were soon in the Canadian’s “camp” and ‘Chipmunk’ was putting some kind of green poultice over the surgeon’s swollen ankle and giving him some food and refreshing drinks.
“Who are you?” asked the surgeon, “and what is your real name?”
“Boris Kooya, professor of anthropology at Oriel College, Oxford.” he answered, holding out a hand, “Pleased to meet you. I call myself ‘Chipmunk’ so people are not so scared of me.”
And ‘Chipmunk’ was certainly scary; a big man, clearly extremely athletic, with an arresting ‘presence’ and a repertoire of skills that caused the surgeon to marvel at each new discovery.
“Chew these leaves,” he said, handing over some quite unremarkable-looking green-brown material. “They will help with your pain as we have to go fishing!”
After just a few minutes, the pain seemed much easier and Compton was able to stand unsupported, though he felt vaguely ‘unreal’. He followed the big man until they found a large canoe, lodged in a crack in the cliff-face and with some grunts and heaves they soon had the boat out on the ocean.
The wind had dropped a little by now, but the air was still very chill and the waves were certainly to be taken seriously.
Boris paddled furiously for a little while then dropped a line; it was not long before he had several fine fish onboard.
Through the noise of the waves and the wind, the picture emerged that Boris would spend his summers in this remote spot to clear his mind and re-engage with nature; he would return to Oxford inspired and supercharged for his lecturing and research.
“Look,” said Boris, pointing to a bird hovering in the air – maybe 60 feet or more high. They watched entranced, until the bird plunged into the ocean like a huge boulder hitting the water and jetting up volumes of spray; the bird then seemed to disappear under the surface for a few seconds before emerging with a huge fish in its talons. The sight was overwhelming.
“Osprey,” said the surgeon, “I always wanted to see that. Thank you Boris” he croaked in gratitude.
Then he noticed how cold he felt… surely he could not be developing hypothermia, so he was quite relieved when Boris began to paddle the canoe back to shore.
Soon they were warming by the fire, eating the fish, and Compton ate more of the ‘leaves’ provided by Boris. Could it have been some mind-altering herb? McKevedie could not tell, but time certainly seemed to have come to a standstill; stranger still, as he looked at his companion, the face in front of him became merged with his memory of the osprey, as though Boris were covered in osprey plumage.
“Tell me about your summers here,” Compton finally slurred.
Boris paused, then spoke carefully.
“This is where I am most stretched, most extended,” he finally said. “I am an Aboriginal Canadian and this is my home – with all its dangers. This is where I am…” he paused, “Authentic! You, Compton will understand tomorrow when we fly with the osprey and gain the wisdom of the wild.”
Compton was soon asleep in a sleep full of strange dreams; his backpacking adventure, in spite of the injured ankle, was living up to and beyond his wildest expectations.
It was not even dawn when he felt a hand gently moving his shoulder.
“Get dressed, my friend, we have a lot to do.” Boris gave him some more leaves to chew on ‘to relieve the pain’ and Compton was able to follow his new guide.
They clawed their way around the side of the cliff, going ever upwards. The climb was fairly slow, but difficult, even though the leaves had virtually relieved the pain of the sprained ankle. As they climbed, McKevedie was reminded of the light-headedness he had felt many years ago on a mountain-climbing expedition – a strange heady unreality. They finally arrived at the very summit and looked out to sea. Dawn was beginning to break and in the mysterious silence, Compton began to experience a strange weightlessness and the straining of muscles on his chest and back that he had never felt before. The sky was a pale blue grey and he felt as though he was beginning to float through the air.
Boris said something, but in the wind it sounded like the cry of a gull coming from below him as he seemed to float higher and higher up into the thin air of dawn.
First he saw the osprey hovering, then it disappeared and he was looking down at the water, the muscles of his chest fighting the wind to hold his position in space.
“Surrender to it,” cried the gulls, “Surrender to it.”
Compton felt the wind under his wings as he watched the water, totally lost in the task. There was nothing but the sky, the water and the air. Time stood still as his total focus was on the water. Finally, he saw something and felt his entire body plunging down at a great speed. He hit the water with a force and felt his feet wrapping around something and seizing on it for dear life, fighting to escape from the water and flying up and away.
“Come, back, come back now!” mewed the Boris gull repeating the words with greater and greater intensity. At first he was helpless to break from the flight, but then with a great effort of will he returned to his frozen body, scarcely able to even breathe.
“How long have I been asleep?” he asked Boris.
The Canadian cocked his head to one side.
“You have been in a strange place for a couple of days,” he finally said. “Perhaps you were allergic to the fish.” he smiled mischievously.
Compton’s thoughts were slowly returning as he recounted his whereabouts and some of the clues as to what was happening.
The experience of flying with the osprey – or even becoming the osprey had been overwhelming.
“What really happened?” he finally asked.
“Nothing is truly real; the medications I gave you just helped you to experience what you needed,” replied Boris.
“My head hurts and I don’t even know where I am, but I do want to stay here forever,” said the surgeon, finally.
Boris gave him a strong coffee and the two stared into the embers of the dying fire. After a time Boris said:
“Now, I want you to tell me exactly what you experienced.”
Compton was beginning to focus and after a pause and speaking very slowly, began:
“I was up there – flying – flying on the wind, looking down at the sea. Then even before I saw the fish I began to fall from the sky. I was so focussed I could feel nothing but the rush of the air and the intensity of the purpose. Even the hit on the water and the grab at the fish seemed so real and intense… time stood still… nothing but that focus and sacred purpose… I am reborn…. I don’t understand… I just know that I belong here forever.”
As in the army, profound experiences create a speedy and powerful bond; the two sat in a timeless silence.
“And have you ever experienced anything like this before?” asked Boris.
The surgeon looked at the young Professor incredulously.
“Of course not! This has been a totally new and incredible experience for me!” he replied.
“Think again, my friend, think again,” replied his companion pouring some more coffee.
The surgeon stared into the embers unfettered by time:
“Yes… Yes I have,” he finally whispered with tears in his eyes, struggling with some deep inner thoughts, “I am a surgeon and sometimes when I have been lost in trying to save a life, time has stood still for me… I have found that sacred moment in my work.”
The two men embraced and there was a promise from the younger man that they would meet again the following year, “…for I have grown to love your wisdom and your teachings… your students at Oriel are very, very fortunate.”
The transformed surgeon walked through the airport security gate, not daring to turn around.
“It was even better than my wildest expectations, George: a totally transformative experience.”
George was delighted to see his “retired” surgeon friend again; he noted how well and refreshed he looked.
“And did you find a good replacement for me?” asked Compton with a slight tremor in his voice.
“That needn’t concern you, Compton, as you no longer work here,” smiled George mischievously.
“And,” Compton paused, “what if I wanted to work for you again?”
Twenty seconds can seem like a long time.
“I think I might be able to arrange it,” said George finally with a smile. “In fact, I took the liberty of keeping your job open, just in case you changed your mind.”
“I was totally certain that I would not come back to work,” said Compton. “I guess you were not.”
George gave a non-committal shrug.
They sat in silence for a while, a commotion of wild thoughts racing through the surgeon’s mind.
“Tell me, George; you support an academic scholarship somewhere, don’t you? I wonder, could that scholarship be at Oxford University?” George looked a little anxious, “And my guess is that the scholarship is for Oriel College!”
The expression on George’s face made a reply unnecessary.
“You bastard!” laughed McKevedie:
“I had to look after my top surgeon,” replied George modestly.
Everyone was delighted to have their old surgeon back, and back on top form – in fact, better than top form; he not only hadn’t lost his expertise, his rapport with patients, his energy and his good luck, but he also seemed more resilient, less snappy in a crisis. They all reflected that the holiday “must have done him a power of good”, but the truth was that a part of him was always in the Wilds of Canada and in the moments of greatest stress he was flying high in the heavens and plummeting down with the magnificence of the Osprey.
Author’s Notes: it is at our most challenging moments, when tested to our limits, that we are closest to our ultimate beauty and magnificence.