The One-Armed Cook was not the strangest person we met on our travels, but he was definitely in the top three. He really was a cook, but he was not really One-Armed. He had two arms, but one of them was in a sling. We met him at the Erldunda roadhouse shortly after Keith, Elaine, Harry and Edna had left us. Karen and I were attempting a cryptic crossword across a table in the campers kitchen. Prior to the trip we had never been interested in cryptics, but for some reason we had purchased a small book containing about fifty of them, and for the rest of the trip we were hooked. So there we were, minding our own business, doing our crossword when we became aware of a rather large figure standing next to us. We both looked up, and saw a guy in his late twenties, around six feet tall, and weighing a pretty solid sixteen stone. He had one arm in a sling, and he looked down at us with a very worrying grin on his face - the type of grin that Hannibal Lechter wears before sitting down to dinner.
He did not say anything. Karen and I went back to the crossword. A minute later I managed to work out one of the clues and said the answer out loud. The One-Armed Cook agreed, nodding his head and mumbling "Yeah, yeah." While Karen wrote down the answer, I looked up at the grinning figure.
"Hi," I said.
"Gmmphh" said the One-Armed Cook. I assumed he had said hello. "Whhchhn?" I could tell it was a question only by the inflection on the last part of the mumble.
"Pardon?" I said.
This time his enunciation was much better.
"We are just doing a cryptic crossword. Ever done one?"
He continued to stand there, watching. Two minutes later he was still there.
"What did you do to your arm?" I asked, hoping he would tell us and then go away.
I could see his problem now. He spoke at a million miles an hour with his mouth closed.
"You fell off your motorbike?"
"Eighty kilometres up the road?"
"On the bitumen?"
"How did it happen?"
"Goantoofastdownagully. Hitteroot. Wentayovatee. Brokemecollabone."
I was beginning to worry now. I was starting to understand him!
"How did you get back here? In an ambulance?"
"You rode back here?"
"Yeah. Carntmembernuthin. MustagotnoctsillyIreckn."
"Wadyadoofrajob?" I asked.
He had me doing it now!
"It-must-be-hard-to-cook-with-only-one-arm?" I enunciated carefully.
"Well, good luck," I said. "I hope your arm gets better."
I turned back to the crossword, and Karen pointed to seven across.
"I think you might know this one," she said.
"Crazy fad with one hundred on end" I read out loud. "Six letters, ending in C."
"Sixlettuzay?" The One-Armed Cook was still standing right beside us. We tried to ignore him.
"One hundred in Roman numerals is C," I suggested. "So that would be the one hundred on end part."
"So we must be after a word for crazy, and if we add a C to a word for fad, we'll have the answer."
"Okay," I said. "What's a word for fad?"
Words were thrown into the ring.
"Gimmick. Fashion. Novelty. Mania."
"Mania!" Karen cried. "Add a C to mania and you have maniac. And a crazy is a maniac!"
"Yeah. Maniac," muttered the One-Armed Cook.
Could I see drool escaping from the corner of his mouth? Or was it just my imagination.
Karen wrote down the answer and closed the book. "Time to get dinner ready" she announced to the both of us. She looked pointedly at the One-Armed Cook and said "I'll see you later."
Karen moved off towards the tent. The One-Armed Cook made no move to leave.
"I think I'll give her a hand. We might see you again tomorrow."
I moved over to the tent and pretended to help Karen with the preparations for dinner. The One-Armed Cook stayed where he was for a minute, then seemed to realise that he was alone and wandered off towards the roadhouse. Karen and I breathed a collective sigh of relief.
The next morning Karen was in the phone box calling a friend in Sydney, and I was seated at a table outside when a shadow settled over me. I looked up. Sure enough, it was the One-Armed Cook. We exchanged greetings, and he continued to hover. How was I going to get rid of him this time? I could just ask him to go away, but there is no real easy way of saying go away, without giving offence. And although he only had one arm, he had the strength of the insane on his side.
"My wife is on the phone to a friend in Sydney" I replied, my mind racing. As usual, he just stood there. In the phone box, Karen hung up, but when she turned around and saw who was with me, she picked up the receiver again and pretended to be calling someone else. There would be no help from Karen on this one. I began to watch the birds that were playing around the top of a nearby tree. The One-Armed Cook looked up to where I was looking.
"Yulikebirds?" he asked.
"Yes. We're birdwatchers." An idea began to form in my mind. "Do you like birds?"
Bingo! Suddenly I knew how to get rid of him.
"You see those birds up there?" I said. "They are Welcome Swallows. You can tell they are Welcome Swallows by the white bellies, the reddish heads and the glossy bluish black back. We always check out every lot of swallows we see because there is a very similar bird that we haven't seen yet. It's called the Barn Swallow, and it looks almost exactly the same except it has a dark line separating the red of the face from the white of the belly. I think it's an introduced species and it only lives in a couple of places in Australia, but we're hoping to see it soon." The One-Armed Cook merely nodded.
"And see those ones over there? I continued. "They are Yellow Throated Miners. We have a bird in Sydney that looks almost the same called a Noisy Miner, but the Noisy Miner doesn't have as much yellow on the throat and neck, and the black on the face extends up and over its head like a cap, unlike the Yellow Throated Miner which had no black cap at all. When we were down in Wilpena Pound, we are almost positive we saw another bird that looks just like the two of them, called the Black Faced Miner. We saw a couple of birds that appeared to have blacker faces than the rest, and we were in the right area because Black Faced Miners have a very limited range and its somewhere around the Flinders, or maybe a bit further south, it's hard to tell on the little maps in the book. But we put down that we had seen the Black Faced Miner, which means that now we have seen all three of them. We've also seen the Bell Miner which is related and the Indian Myna which is a totally unrelated and introduced bird, and its spelled differently anyway. We are actually up to three hundred and sixty one bird species sighted, out of a possible seven hundred and sixty, so we've only got nineteen more to go to reach our goal of seeing half of the birds in Australia." The One-Armed Cook just stared. It was difficult to be sure, but I think he was stunned.
"Now you might think that black bird over there is just a crow, but it isn't. It is actually a Little Crow, though it's a bit hard to tell that from looking at it because the normal crow, which is actually called the Australian Raven, is fifty two centimetres long, and the Little Crow is forty eight centimetres long, so it's hard to tell whether you are looking at a big Little Crow or a small Australian Raven. But if you know what they sound like then they are easy to tell apart. The Australian Raven has that strangled, dying sound on the end of its call, while the little crow's call is somewhat different ..."
"Scuzeme," interrupted the One-Armed Cook. "Gottago."
Aren't birds wonderful?