After his memorable first visit to the Island, Kevin attended several further briefings with Professor Alan Wilmington at NISSA. These orientation sessions were always one-on-one, and highly intensive. Kevin knew that Tweedledum and his colleagues were getting separate tutorials, while Smudger just used them as another opportunity for creative skiving.
On this occasion, Kevin had left home early, driven north, and arrived in good time on the Newcastle University campus. He had been told that parking was always difficult, but found that a space had been reserved for him right next to the NISSA entrance.
As he parked up, he looked over at the NISSA building. It did not have the normal signs of aging and the distinctively run-down look of typical British University buildings. Rather, the building was old, but built in a style that suggested that little expense had been spared to give the impression that no expense had been spared. It had been carefully maintained over the last hundred years or so, and showed obvious evidence of recent refurbishment. Clearly, thought Kevin, funding was always available to support this rather specialist academic endeavour.
He entered the building and, as he had been previously directed, followed the signs up the wide staircase to the Departmental Secretary's office. The secretary was a pretty young woman whose ancestors probably originated from some part of the Indian subcontinent, but whose fashionable clothes and makeup marked her out as a woman determined to make the most of the modern world. As well as being in administrative control of NISSA, she also appeared to double as Professor Alan's personal assistant. She looked up as Kevin stuck his head around the outer door, and smiled in a friendly fashion.
"Go right in." she said in a crisp accent. "The Professor is expecting you."
Kevin mumbled some conventional response, and peered through the crack in the inner door. The Professor's office was high-ceilinged and airy, with a large window overlooking one of the greener areas of the University campus. The walls were lined with bookcases, themselves filled with bound journals, file boxes, periodicals and, here and there, even some books.
The centrepiece of the office was a large desk, covered with the clutter typical of offices everywhere. Several phones, a computer and printer and numerous piles of paper adorned the surface in what Kevin imagined to be an arrangement carefully devised to facilitate the memory of the habitual user. The Professor was seated behind his desk, concentrating on a thick sheaf of no-doubt recently printed material, and annotating it with an expensive-looking fountain pen.
Kevin knocked on the door and pushed it further open. The Professor looked up and, smiling widely, jumped from his seat while extending his hand in greeting.
"Come in, come in. Good to see you again," he enthused, shaking Kevin's hand and directing him to one of several rather comfortable-looking chairs. Once he had settled, the Professor enquired whether Kevin was clear about the purpose of these sessions.
"We try to tailor the material we present to the needs of our clients," said Alan, by way of an introduction, "So if there's any specific topic you would like to know more about, then please let me know."
"Thanks," Kevin replied, "But right now, I don't know what I need to know!"
The Professor smiled understandingly.
"Let me set out an agenda for you," he suggested. "You've already had a short intro to the concept and practice of Lyndesfarne magic, and you've seen it in action, yes?"
"That's right," responded Kevin.
"So, I suggest that you study the Lyndesfarne language, at least some phrases and useful words, and then perhaps a few practical hints and tips which will probably help you get around. We can leave a discussion of other topics, such as the properties of magic, and the culture and politics for another time. Does that sound OK to you?"
"Very well. This morning, then, I'll introduce you to a little of the language."
Even though they were on their own, the Professor almost immediately adopted a tone and style that suggested he was addressing a whole lecture theatre. Kevin sat attentively, while the Professor strode about his office, waving his hands and apparently addressing the bookcases.
"In some ways, the language is the easiest thing to learn about Lyndesfarne," said Alan, clearly getting into his stride. "It's an entirely human construct, and we don't always have to tussle with the special properties of the environment there. By which I mean magic, of course."
"So it is possible to learn the language?"
"Oh, yes. It's a complex written and spoken language, but the two forms are at least fairly close to each other. With some effort, you could get reasonably fluent in a year or two. And it really is no harder to learn than, say, Mandarin or even English, I suppose. Do you speak any other languages?"
Kevin shook his head in an embarrassed fashion. He was not one of the world's natural linguists, and thought dispiritedly that learning a language was probably harder than walking to the Moon.
"What's the Lyndesfarne word for 'Magic'?" he asked.
Professor Alan stopped his pacing, and spun on his heel to face Kevin.
"Ha! And that brings us the hard part of the language, in that there are numerous words which are very hard to translate, since they refer to concepts that we simply don't have here."
The Professor resumed his measured stride to and fro, and also resumed his pontificating style.
"The words that are in common use," he continued, "seem to be employed in contexts where you would probably say 'engineering' or perhaps 'technology'. But there is a word, which is only used in fiction and mythology, which means 'magic', in the sense of unexplainable physical effects under the control of a talented individual. Curiously, it seems they use that word to describe some aspects of the physics and technology of our world."
Professor Alan also made an attempt to explain the characteristics of the written language. Apparently, this used a different alphabet, with twenty-nine characters. Some of the characters were similar in pronunciation to letters in English, but many were associated with sounds indistinguishably different from each other, at least to Kevin's ears. The letters themselves had angular shapes, with few similarities to the alphabet with which Kevin was familiar, at least judging from the glyphs that Alan scribbled on the whiteboard.
"The Lyndesfarne language," the Professor elucidated, "Appears to have an etymology shared with some languages in this world. There's some similarity with Welsh, for example, and even more with Cornish Gaelic."
"It's also worth stressing that the Lyndesfarne language is not the only language in common use on the other side. Just as it is here, there are different countries, and a considerable number of languages, dialects and accents are employed."
"Just how big is the world of Lyndesfarne?" asked Kevin.
"As far as we can tell, it is almost exactly the same size as our Earth. But the geography is quite different. But all this is a huge topic, you know, and more suitable for another day."
Kevin was already beginning to feel overwhelmed by all the new information presented to him, and even more so by the prospect of huge areas where he would have to re-learn so much.
The Professor then cheered him up considerably.
"Fortunately," he said, "You probably don't have to learn very much of the language."
Kevin's sense of relief was almost palpable. Professor Alan explained that, fairly frequently, guides would be made available to assist the newcomer. The guides were usually provided by an organisation from the other side, as a service to guests.
"So who provides guides here?" asked Kevin.
"We do. We'll provide services for visitors, when asked." the Professor responded. "I'm given to understand that you will be getting a Guide to assist you during your working visits. Is that correct?"
"Yes, I've met him. Ricard, from the Guild of Directions," Kevin responded.
The Professor nodded sagely.
"I don't know the man, but I'm sure he'll be entirely professional. Even so, it's only polite to learn at least a few expressions."
After much effort, and a fair amount of frustration on both parts, Kevin finally managed to learn a few words and phrases ("thank you", "excuse me", "good morning" and so on) and repeat them to Professor Alan's satisfaction.
"Well, let's take a break there, and get some lunch," Alan suggested.
Kevin nodded his agreement.
"Afterwards, I've asked my colleague Doctor Braxton to offer you some practical tips which I'd strongly recommend you to follow."
Doctor Linda Braxton was a large woman, who had a somewhat matronly appearance coupled with a distinct no-nonsense attitude. She wore a pleated knee-length skirt and stout sensible shoes which allowed her to stride about in an extremely determined fashion, and made Kevin think slightly uncomfortably about Scotsmen and kilts.
"The key thing to remember," Doctor Braxton explained, "is that almost everything you take for granted as the product of a technological society like ours will not work reliably in Lyndesfarne. So, let's start with the basics."
Doctor Braxton outlined in direct terms some very sensible recommendations for visitors to the Island. Clothing and shoes, she explained, should be made of natural materials: silk or wool, cotton or leather. Plastics for all kinds, including nylon, were simply not suitable.
"And don't forget underwear." she stressed, "Remember that all-cotton undergarments will probably survive OK."
Kevin, who had already had the uncomfortable experience of the high-tech material of his waterproof jacket failing to work as expected, had a visual image of his underpants falling apart on him and shuddered.
The Doctor also recommended that he carry a leather rucksack for his things, and get hold of an oiled leather waterproof coat or, better still, acquire one of the capes which were widely used on the Island.
She pointed out that, if he should stay overnight in Lyndesfarne, even simple personal hygiene activities such as cleaning his teeth or shaving would be a problem.
"Your best bet is an old-fashioned toothbrush, wood and bristle." she explained. "If you can manage without shaving, well, that simplifies things; otherwise, a traditional cut-throat razor will usually stay sharp for long enough to be useful."
Apparently, toothpaste and other toiletries were usually provided in hostels, and it was probably safest to use those. Kevin decided he did not want to have to deal with leaking toothpaste on his clean shirts.
Doctor Braxton also took the precaution of reminding him about leaving electrical and electronic items behind.
"It's ever so easy to do." she reiterated. "Some everyday item, a watch or mobile phone, overlooked in a pocket somewhere. Sometimes, they never do work properly again, so do try to remember."
Kevin left the afternoon session feeling confused. He could understand how cultural and language differences could come about, given the historical separation of the two worlds. But what he could not get to grips with was the observation that very simple machines (like wheels) clearly worked on the Island, while more complex systems (like computers) failed immediately. Similarly, simple chemical systems (like plastics) degraded quickly but, on the other hand, those almost unimaginably complex biochemical systems which formed living things, including his own body, appeared to be unaffected.
There was something inconsistent here, he thought. The things that are unaffected and the things which fail, although reasonable at first sight, are actually inconsistent, even contradictory. But am I really the first person to have this insight?
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