San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

The specialist called Joshua

Just to look at him, Josh Higgins was about as ordinary as you can get: 5-foot-10, a somewhat paunchy 180 pounds, clean-shaven, brown eyes, brown hair, brown suit, he could never be picked out in a crowd. But under that cloak of invisibility he was something else again: a repository of information gained by incessant reading of forgotten documents. 

Jack O’Brien

Jack O’Brien

For example, if you need to know the structure of the chlorophyll molecule, you naturally go to Wikipedia on the web and you get an informed answer in seconds. But if you happen to composing a monograph about the Roman Emperor Justinian and decide that for the sake of verisimilitude you should mention his favorite breakfast food, your only hope is to download, and you’ll get the answer within minutes, at a price of course (oatmeal porridge with goat’s milk, washed down with Falernian wine, because the water supply was undrinkable and coffee or tea hadn’t been invented).

That in fact was precisely why it was so dangerous to consult Josh; you had to wade through a mountain of irrelevant detail to get to the bit you needed. Of course, on the web you could simply delete everything beyond the first 20 words, but Josh had a nasty habit of saying he needed time to research, and would be glad to deliver the answer over lunch. I have had many a three-hour lunch and emerged without an answer, simply because Josh couldn’t stop talking.

Amongst well-brought-up people, when someone seems to be dominating the conversation, you break in when he pauses to draw breath, but Josh never seemed to need air. It seems that he had once trained as a baritone, and latched on to the trick of never seeming to draw breath, thus depriving his audience of their only weapon short of walking away.

One time when Josh trapped me into a lunch, I unthinkingly complimented him for being on time, and got a 60-minute dissertation on Timekeeping, starting with the sundial, the water clock, the spermaceti candle, the escapement, springs versus weights, the Chronometer, the piezo-electric crystal, the argon laser and its descendants etc., until I let out a scream and left the scene, without ever getting an answer to my original question.

I did, however, eventually learn how to stop the flow. I poured an extract of rotting catfish in formalin into an after-shave spray bottle, and under the cover of the table pressed the plunger at the height of his peroration. The atrocious smell stopped him for the precise second it needed to break the flow, and I didn’t give him an opportunity to interrupt for the rest of the meal.

Of course, he never again responded to my e-mails, much less invited me to lunch, so I was the loser in the end, but I never really regretted that glorious moment when he stopped talking for a second.

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