A Cabinet of Curiosities

Until a year or two back I imagined an antiquarian to be either a blinkered eccentric of some sort – I think I had read an M R James ghost story in which an antiquarian featured – can’t say I’m keen on M R James, though he was himself an antiquarian – or some old pompous somebody who sold dusty and more or less unreadable books to people who weren’t interested in reading them anyway but just wanted to possess them. That was before I started reading John Aubrey: My Own Life by Ruth Scurr.

Basically, it’s the biography Aubrey never got round to writing. He spent a long-ish 17th century lifetime writing but his writings are all over the place – so much to record, so many new things to discover, so many distractions. What Ms Scurr did was to go through all his papers and extract all the autobiographical entries, rearranging them as nearly as possible in chronological order. She does not put words in his mouth, simply extracts a whole life from a lifetime of scattered notes.

John Aubrey was an English gentleman, comfortably off as a young man, desperately impoverished in later life when, his father having died, his inheritance was discovered to be ‘encumbered with debts’. He lived through all sorts of dangerous history, recording, amongst other things, the execution of the King. A kindly enthusiast, he was a man who made friends easily and kept them. He was naïve, imaginative and somewhat disorganised.

Things never seemed to turn out quite the way he expected. He suffered from recurrent bouts of ‘love-sickness’ which he describes in a matter of fact way, like a kind of indigestion – falling for young ladies who, on the whole, did not fall for him in return. Towards the end of his life he begins to feel the cold greatly. His eyes failing, he continues to record spells (To Cure the Thrush; To Cure the Tooth-ache; For the Jaundice), omens and dreams. He complains about the slowness of printers and fears he will not live to see his Monumenta Britannica in print.

He recorded everything, was interested in anything and everything. He travelled backwards and forwards from Wiltshire into Wales, to Oxford, over to France, and wherever he went he sketched what he saw. Every story he heard, he wrote down. He was elected to the Royal Society, and proposed to them his idea for moving blood between chickens, which was laughed at, causing his natural stammer to become worse from sheer embarrassment. But a short while later he was proposing to them a new idea – for a cart with legs instead of wheels.

He commissioned drawings of ancient ruins, so that they should not be lost to history. He collected things, including a turquoise ring, which fascinates him. He records where spots have appeared on the ring, and how they have moved. He corresponds with others about the ideas of fluidity in stones.

He loved Stonehenge, and realised it was far older than Roman times. He was even more deeply impressed by Avebury ring. He was anxious about the damage being done to these monuments – ancient stones being carried away to make house lintels, for instance, or ground up for medicine. The King asked him to make a sketch of Avebury and present it to him.

It seems that antiquarians have been around since ancient Greek and Roman times. They have been in China, in India – all over the world. Often mocked as narrow obsessives who recorded trivia in ridiculous detail for no obvious purpose – today’s equivalent would be nerds, train-spotters, anoraks – they have often turned out to be more accurate original sources than the ‘historians’ of the day. Their interests included customs, religious rituals, political institutions, genealogy, topography and landmarks, and etymology.

The reason they have proven unexpectedly useful is this – they believed in empirical evidence. They did not allow themselves to assume anything – ‘We speak from facts not theory’ (Sir Richard Colt Hoare, 18th Century antiquary). Neither did they presume to interpret what they recorded. They left interpretation to later generations but in the meantime saw themselves as saving what was left lying around after a shipwreck – the passage of time, history itself, being the shipwreck. They saved things – curious physical objects (often displayed in a ‘cabinet of curiosities’), stories, data, words, facts, rarities. They often collected books, borrowed books from each other, corresponded at length about passages in those books, or things they had discovered. They drew, they wrote, they thought, they shared information, they asked questions, they wondered.

In those days, gentlemen had the time to dream. They had a reverence and a fascination for the past. They were curious, longing to know anything they might know. They had opportunities to travel – slowly – and collect – indiscriminately – and were humble enough to ask the questions their contemporaries dismissed as foolish.

DRAFT MINUTES: Final Meeting of the EMMA JANE EGLANTINE BROWN Clone Cohort

We, six of the nine clones of Emma Jane Eglantine Brown, are gathered together in the traditional meeting place, the ancient tavern of Saints Cosmas & Damian, Oxford, England on this the 28th of May 2656, our Prime, Emma Brown, having five days since died of extreme old age, complicated by viral pneumonia.

Minutes shall be taken by Emma’s Adminclone Gemma.

Also in attendance: Careclone Pippa; Lawclone Isabel; Friendclone Sophie; Enterclone Maria; Educlone Adeline.

Apologies for Absence: Psychlone Margaret; Buyclone Vivien; Cleanclone Sara. They will be reporting direct to the DCR, Oxford University on the appointed date and at the appointed time. This shall be our final meeting.

As is traditional at such meetings, each clone has the opportunity to speak for herself, to comment upon, the life of her Prime and her contribution to that life.

Friendclone Sophie: But I do not wish to be reabsorbed. Prime Emma was one hundred and seventeen years old, but I am only twenty-five.

Educlone Adeline: Technically, Sister, you are correct. Our biological ages are capped at twenty-five. We grow to that age and remain at that age in order to serve with maximum efficiently. You might say we remain forever in our prime… I do apologise, that little play on words may have been in bad taste…

Lawclone Isabel: Indeed it was, as your little plays on words have often been…

Educlone Adeline: The fact remains, Sister Sophie, that we have been on this earth for exactly as many years as our Prime. We have been privileged to experience the full human lifespan, Sister.

Friendclone Sophie: But I am as much alive as Prime Emma, as much flesh and blood as she was. How did anyone get the right to ‘allocate’ me an existence and snatch back again? This is manifestly unfair, and it is on this basis that I shall not be reporting for reabsorption.

Enterclone Maria: Sister, a clone has no existence in law once her Prime has died. We were created solely to serve her. This, in our various ways, we duly did and now it is natural that we should…expire.

Friendclone Sophie: Emma would not have wished me to be reabsorbed. I was her friend.

Lawclone Isabel: Prime Emma would have been unaware of the reabsorption process, as are all Primes. Our combined functions were all for one purpose – to make Prime Emma’s life as easy as possible – not to cause her distress. You may be right in that if she had known what was to happen to us she would have been upset. Nonetheless, the fact remains: clones are always reabsorbed upon the death of their Prime.

Friendclone Sophie: And what if I choose to go on the run?

Lawclone Isabel: Then you will bring shame on the whole cohort. And even if you do elect to do so you will very soon be found and captured. You are forgetting about the microchip.

Friendclone Sophie: Supposing I have found a way to disable or remove that microchip during my twenty-five years of existence?

Lawclone Isabel: And have you?

Friendclone Sophie: I might have.

Lawclone Isabel: Well, that would have been a clever plan – unfortunately not clever enough. The microchip, which you have no doubt been visualising in terms of the tiny metallic shards that were once injected into pet creatures, is in fact a genetic marker. Every strand of your DNA bears that marker, Sister; to destroy it you would have to destroy every cell in your body. So are you still going to run? I thought not. Reabsorption is a relatively pain-free process and, like the rest of us, you will be reporting for that process at the Department for Clone Reabsorption tomorrow, 29th May 2656 at 4 p.m.

Friendclone Sophie: I will run anyway. I will run and run, and if…

Lawclone Isabel: When…

Friendclone Sophie: Until I am caught, I will hide and fight. I will fight against them, somehow. I will fight to my last breath!

Lawclone Isabel: You must do as you wish, Sister Sophie. Whatever you do, the end result will be the same. All please note that any comments of a wild, inappropriate nature must, under the Clone Reabsorption Act 2601, be stricken from all Minutes of Last Meetings before they are submitted to the formal record. I shall attend to this.

Angel Delight, concluded

Pete had never heard of a new router somehow managing to reset a person’s home page, but that was what it seemed to have done. Instead of Google, Hot Babes popped up on his screen. Although…

Well she was hot enough, he supposed – blonde, blue-eyed, a shapely figure from what you could see of it beneath that white, feathery outfit. Too much of the feathers, he thought, and not enough flesh. It was hardly worth the subscription, this site. And she wasn’t… she wasn’t behaving like a Hot Babe usually did – none of suggestive pouting, the secretive smiles, no writhing… And where was the bed? The whole set looked a bit weird compared to normal. Instead of a boudoir type thing, this blonde babe seemed to be in an office, working on a computer not so very different from his own. She seemed absorbed in whatever she was studying on that screen, didn’t even look up though she must have known he was there. Some little light must have gone on.

At last the webchat box came up. Ah, that was more like it.

Helo gorjus! Pete typed, with one cigarette-stained forefinger. And wot is yr name?

The girl looked up then. He wasn’t using the webcam but he could have sworn she could see him. An expression which might or might not have been distaste flitted across her face, to be replaced by one of neutral efficiency. Must be some sort of role-play, Pete thought: a variation on the one where there was a nurse in a very short, starched white uniform which would conveniently get removed, in instalments. Sometimes the one fee covered all. Sometimes the girl would pause and demand extra in bitcoin before she took off the rest. When were those feathers going to start falling? He hoped she wasn’t going to want the extra. Pete had never really understood bitcoin, and couldn’t be bothered to find out. She was taking her own sweet time about replying.

Nameless, she replied, eventually. And your name please?  All this was beginning to unnerve Pete. His head was beginning to thump again. Why hadn’t Google come up? What was this?

Pete.

Pete short for Peter? Peter what?

Hey, liten up babe…

Surname now, please, and any middle names. Reluctantly, he typed in the information. Surely they didn’t usually ask for surnames? It was getting weirder by the minute but he couldn’t seem to unglue his hands from the keyboard.

Nameless is typing…

Nameless is typing…

The girl in the feathers appeared to be looking down a list of names, then second list of names. As she typed, he spotted something. There was something on the desk beside her. It moved… it was alive. A small, black, silky creature that looked very much like a cat. It came closer and bent to rub its head against her ear. Nameless reached up a slender, well-manicured hand to acknowledge the affectionate greeting. Then it walked right across her keyboard and for a second or two was looking straight out of the screen. What was it about that cat? Something familiar…

Nameless is…

You do not appear on my database, Mr Peter.

Yr wot?

You do not feature on any of my lists, Mr Peter. I believe the most helpful course of action would be to transfer you to a colleague.

Wot colleeg?

A colleague in different department. Transferring you now.

Hang on, Nameless. Cum bak hear!!

But another face had appeared on the screen. This time it was a middle-aged man in a very dirty singlet. He was in the process of mopping a sweaty, soot-smeared brow with what might once, many aeons ago, have been a white handkerchief.

What can I do for you tonight, mate?

Tonite? Iss no even diner tim hear!

Different time zone, matey. Different everything. Black as the night and fiery as a furnace, hahaha. Name?

Pete.

Pete what?

Jus went thru all that with the other one.

Well just go thru it again, eh, Pete? Humour me. Surname and any middle names? Ah, here you are. I found you on my Little List. Hmmm…nice one! No fewer than three pitchforks against your name, Pete. You’ll be a splendid addition. Come on down, mate…

Down were?

Down here of course, matey. Come a little closer to the screen, that’s right. It won’t hurt much I promise you.

WOT wont hurt much?

Just a little closer to the screen, that’s it.

And a little closer…

Featured Image: Black angel kitten cat – I miss you too 3: Cyra R Cancel, Florida

Angel Delight, continued

The doorbell-leaner was the postman, with a flattish cardboard package. “Looks like a new router maybe, Pete,” he said. For a moment, still trying to prise his eyelids open and squinting against the light, Pete squinted suspiciously at the man’s face, wondered how a postman knew his name. Then it came to him – Jerry. They’d been at school together, once, a long time ago. Jerry: quiet and dull. Wouldn’t say boo to a goose. No real challenge. Apart from the occasional routine beating for the purposes of extracting cash Pete had hardly noticed him. The loser had never had much worth stealing, anyway.

Jerry was sweating and obviously ill-at-ease. I’d sock you one in the eye just for old times’ sake, you fat git, thought Pete. Lucky for you I don’t feel up to it this morning.

Jerry cleared his throat. ‘That cat, Pete…’

What cat, Jerry?’

‘The little black one.’

‘I ain’t seen no cat, Jerry.’

‘Oh, I see, only…. only if you had seen it I was going to offer to take it off your hands, like. I’m fond of cats, see, Pete, and… well, I expect you’ve got enough on your hands, what with the wife…’

‘And what about my wife?’ he asked, pushing a bleary, unshaven face into Jerry’s and breathing stale alcohol. Jerry took a step back, and then another.

‘Oh, well nothing really, but… the cat, Pete. Were you looking to re-home it maybe? Only I’d be glad to take it off your hands, like.  It’s just that one or two of the neighbours… the RSPCA… I didn’t want you to get into trouble, Pete. I just thought it might be a help if I could take that little cat off…’

Pete glanced sideways at the bloodied heap of fur on the far side of his debris-strewn living room.

‘Get lost,’ he snarled, and slammed the front door.

Pete watched from the side panel as his former classmate shuffled off up the garden path, and then down the neighbours’ path, edging sideways between a cast off plastic go-cart and a heap of old wooden pallets, his postman’s sack hunched over his shoulder. He looked miserable.

‘Dammit,’ thought Pete, and went through to the kitchen for a black sack. Whose wheelie bin am I going to dump it in?

*

When he got back he engineered some space amongst a pile of grubby, union jack scatter cushions and watched some TV; then, catching sight of the remains of a take-away curry mouldering on the coffee table in front of him, he rushed out and threw up in the sink. Feeling a bit better, he made himself a mug of black coffee and watched some more TV. Then the long, flat parcel caught his eye – his new router. Better fix that thing up before he started into the booze again, he supposed. He was looking forward to visiting that new gaming site they’d been advertising, as soon as the computer was up and running again. And then there was Hot Babes. He hadn’t had a look in on those Babes for a while.

Seized by a sudden impatience to get a tedious task out of the way Pete muted the TV, ripped open the cardboard box, tossed the instructions to one side and discovered that he was just about sober enough, by now, to plug in a few wires. He pressed the button on the top of the router and a promising blue light came on – yay! Then he hit the power button on his computer and waited for Google to come up. But it didn’t.

Something else did.

Featured Image: Tuxedo angel cat with peace dove heaven stained glass window: Cyra R Cancel, Florida

Angel Delight

The story behind the story?

As always, miscellaneous. Late last night I thought, ‘I do believe I will try one of those six bottles of speciality, fruity-type beer I bought myself for Christmas’. I promise I only drank one bottle, in fact I drink so rarely nowadays that I’d had to buy a bottle-opener to go with it. Anyway, it was fruity, and a bit strange, and I woke at three in the morning sharing a fur-splotched pillow with Arthur (a black cat) who was snoring. No headache just a slight sense of confusion.

The Miseries arrived with a whoosh. I started thinking about Mum in that hospital bed, not ‘mobilising’ as they had so confidently predicted, not eating, not drinking, hardly responding. I was thinking how hard it was to live with the undead, the drowning, and how at some point you had to let them sink away down and out of sight, like Kate Winslet in that film ‘Titanic’. But how do you loosen your grip on the last of  your whole-life relationships? Mum has, with the best of intentions, been driving me round the bend my whole life and yet now I find I can’t imagine life without her.

And then – with that lightning switch you can only manage at three in the morning – I found myself worrying about the new broadband router instead. Would the little brown box arrive tomorrow as scheduled? Would I be able to sort out all those little plugs and wires and get it working? No doubt it would mean yet another stressful, circular call to a surly individual, barely able to speak English in a call centre half way round the globe.

At this point I gave up and got up. Stumbling downstairs I made myself a cup of builders’ tea, wrapped the spare dressing-gown round my knees to cut out the draught from the front door and turned on the TV. Mostly it was teleshopping but I managed to find something – was it Lucy Worsley wittering on about the six wives of Henry VIII? Or maybe she was the night before. Maybe last night it was endlessly-looped repeats of the unbearable carnage in Aleppo and the temporary ceasefire gone west again. The day ahead was promising to be a very, very bad one indeed, unless I could manage to write something.

And then I thought, supposing you were to get your new broadband router, plug all the bits and pieces in and get the all those little lights flashing? Something or someone materialises on your computer screen: but very much not the something or someone you had been expecting…

ANGEL DELIGHT

Two things woke Pete – bright mid-morning sun hitting his eyelids because he had forgotten to close the curtains last night, and some stupid bastard leaning on the doorbell. He squeezed his throbbing eyes tighter shut but could not shut his ears. However long he waited the ringing would not stop. He moved slightly and fell off the sofa, landing in the cold remains of a pepperoni pizza and knocking over a half-empty beer-can full of cigarette butts. Breakfast TV had already finished. They were on to the Business Program.

‘All right, all right!’ he screamed, and then wished he hadn’t. His skull hurt, and unknown creatures whistled, shrieked and reverberated inside it like bats in a cave. How much had he drunk, for God’s sake?

The cat got in his way as he staggered towards the door. He kicked out at it with his still-booted foot, not really expecting it to connect with the animal’s scrawny frame, but it did connect and the cat cried out and fell down. How long since he had fed that thing? Pete couldn’t recall. Why had it even persisted in hanging around? It wasn’t even his. Shelley had taken the kid but not the kid’s cat when she ran off to that feminist shelter place. Looked like he’d done for it this time, anyway – it wasn’t getting up.

The front door seemed unusually far from the sofa. That sun needed a dimmer switch. There wasn’t room on the carpet for him to tread without treading something underfoot: everywhere, clothes, magazines, bottles and cold, greasy take-away food. Bile rose in his throat.

‘I will never eat again,’ he told himself. Not realising it was true.

To be continued…

Angel Delight, continued

Angel Delight, concluded

Featured Image: Black Angel Cat – Green Eyes 2: Cyra R Cancel, Florida

In Parentheses

So, this year I promised myself at least a kind of Christmas. For the last however-many years (could it really be twenty-four?) I have spent some (admittedly as little as possible) of every Christmas Day with Mum. This was not because she particularly wanted me to (I suspect she would have been happier pottering about in the garden or going for that interminably long and always the same walk around her home town).

She seemed to have selected this walk for its lack of any refreshing scenic qualities (for the roar of traffic; the tang of exhaust fumes; the graffiti and aroma of dustbins in housing estate short-cuts that only she could have discovered; the rattle of trains passing under a bridge; the recreation ground that seems to have shrunk to half the size since I played in it; the ugly little grocer’s shop she would never enter, preferring a weekly trip to Tesco – equally ugly but further away and close to a Cypriot café that sold really bad coffee and scrambled egg that looked and tasted like yellow rubber – and the public conveniences).

And as for me, I would rather (would always rather) have been at home with the cats. However, I visited her on Christmas Day out of guilt, out of duty (out of loneliness), because being divorced I was free to (and because no one else would). In earlier years she would cook (something like a) Christmas Dinner. The portions were small (unlike me, she was never very hungry) but tasty. She was a good, nursery cook.

It was at least something to have a cooked meal together instead of Ryvitas (the standard absolutely tasteless variety rather than the slightly more edible ones with the sesame seeds) and low-fat yoghurt or, in later years, nothing at all (she had forgotten about lunch). We ate it in silence balancing cold plastic trays on our knees and gazing out over the garden. In earlier years it was a lovely garden. Later it got kind of overgrown.

It always seemed to be cool and raining on those Christmas Days with Mum. (You know, those days when the sky is kind of Zen – white and featureless, and the occasional black bird flies across it?) We couldn’t converse much except in mime and notes, and it’s not that easy to pass notes back and forth and balance a tray.

And yet in my childhood it seems to me it was snowing every Christmas – thick, crunchy snow, and deep. We would scrunch along the road together, Mum, Dad, my sisters and I, to have Christmas Dinner all together at Nan’s house and watch The Queen’s Speech (recorded sometime in August, probably) and the Top of the Pops Christmas Special (much to Grandad’s grumbling annoyance) and get choked by the aromatic smoke from Grandad’s pipe, and watch the fat old Labrador snoring fitfully in front of a real fire. (I miss Nan and Grandad; I miss Nan’s Christmas Dinners, which were excellent, perfect and absolutely huge.)

Depressed yet? (Keep reading.) This year Mum will be in hospital unless she gets mobile really quickly after her operation, in which case she will be back in the residential home, and either way not knowing or caring that it’s Yuletide. This year I have absolutely no reason to go anywhere on Christmas Day, and that is good on the whole because – you know – twelve cats draped on and around the sofa, purring; CD of folk carols to play whilst reading; entertaining rubbish on TV; cook myself some vegetarian something (out of practice, but not out of mind) – something involving new potatoes, perhaps, and Brussels-sprouts, and peas, and some sort of quiche, and gravy…maybe even a bottle of plonk or some cider.

Leading up to the Big Day, and now that I am no longer at work I have been treating myself to a Christmas Movie almost every afternoon. Sometimes there are even two, one after another. I don’t know why I like them. Comforting, I suppose. I like that they are nearly always set in America or Canada where everything is slightly different and more interesting and where there is real snow (Canada) or an incomprehensible combination of sunshine, fake snow and summer clothes (America). I love how New York has always has an opening shot of yellow taxis so you can tell at once which city you’re in, otherwise it would just be all skyscrapers. I love that every single movie contains some variation on every possible Christmas song so you can sing along and feel sentimental, and I love that they are all sure to contain some if not all of the following tropes:

  • Father Christmas
  • Mother Christmas
  • Elves, in one guise or another
  • Reindeer
  • A sleigh that crashes
  • A red-haired heroine with perfect, glisteningly white teeth
  • A whole lot of other perfect, glisteningly white teeth
  • Men, women, children and infants all wearing green, red or maroon plus a jolly scarf and cute woolly hats from Thanksgiving right through to Christmas Day
  • Romance, several unlikely misunderstandings then more romance
  • Mountains of presents around a mountainous tree
  • Home-made tree decorations that come out of a box in the garage that everyone has forgotten about
  • Christmas cookies – spiced, iced biscuits, sort of – and the heroine always knows how to cook the best ones the hero has ever eaten and at that moment he knows he’s going to marry her
  • A gorgeous but modest fireman, in a uniform
  • A little boy looking for a new father
  • A little girl looking for a new mother
  • A bitchy mother-in-law
  • An angel disguised as a plump old lady
  • Santa hats
  • Candy canes
  • A smart, brittle city sister and a homely, gingham and woolly-scarf wearing sister
  • A bunch of mistletoe that no one has noticed before
  • An unexpected baby
  • Someone losing their job but finding another
  • Someone realising the true meaning of life is family, not fortune
  • A dog
  • Two dogs
  • A cat
  • Two cats…

Poor, Dear Uncle William

So, where did this little story come from? Firstly I should say that I was not, as far as I can remember, abused in this way as a child. It came from many places, as stories tend to do. Firstly there was something that suddenly popped back into my mind whilst writing a previous post – that blind Devon Uncle (my Dad’s sister’s husband) had a tendency to put his hand on my knee, which I didn’t like. Also, that he would insist in blundering towards me, arms flailing, for a hug and I had embarrassed my parents at one point by ducking those outstretched arms. Now, I know Devon Uncle was not the abusing sort. He was a naïve, affectionate, childless man and I was a weird child of a type he had probably never encountered before, who couldn’t cope with being manhandled.

And that reminded me that I had another blind uncle, or rather blind great uncle, or possibly great, great uncle – someone can probably tell me – he was one of my grandmother’s brothers. This great or great-great uncle, whose real name wasn’t William by the way, had been blinded as a soldier in the First World War. Nan said little about him, apart from that he had been taught to weave seats for footstools as a kind of therapy, and possibly small source of income; that he lived with them and sat in a corner all day; that one of her sisters mocked him by putting a hair on his plate at dinner, and was ferociously told off by their mother, who saw her do it.

As a child I felt very sorry for Uncle William. I knew what it was like to be lonely, an outsider. I wondered if he was bored, weaving foot-stools all day. Did he live somewhere in his imagination? Had he been an intelligent man before blindness took away any individual identity? How did it feel to be left in a corner, and mocked by children? How did it feel to go away a young man and come back a blind man with no chance – in those days – of earning a man’s wage or being able to marry? I never met Uncle William but I always had it in mind to write a story about him – just not this one, in which he seems to have become the villain rather than the hero.

So I wasn’t abused by Uncle William either. Two innocent, disabled and long dead uncles have here been melded into one scary, sinister and rather modern creature. Writers are cruel.

But there was a story Mum once told me (and probably immediately wished she hadn’t) of something that happened to her as a child when she was evacuated to a cottage in some remote part of Wales, of how a miner had insisted on bouncing her on his knee, and that as he did so something horrible had happened…

And then there were Nan’s amber hatpins, which lived on the dressing table in a strange art deco object made of brass – a long, narrow tray intended for pens (the old-fashioned dip in sort) with an inkwell at the end upon which, entwined in brass creeper and vegetation, sat a little fairy. To open the inkwell, you grasped the fairy by her pointy hat and tipped her up. Amber held a special fascination for me. I had heard that sometimes flies or other small insects were found entombed in it; things that had been alive in prehistoric times. Amber held memories; clues to the past.

 

POOR, DEAR UNCLE WILLIAM

Part of me was relieved, because it seemed that I would not have to marry blind Uncle William after all, and part of me was enraged that all this distasteful bouncing on the knee, the inexplicable fondling, the private leer that crept across his face, had been for nothing. Soon, as he had just pointed out to me with a jolly, sneering laugh, I would become too much of a lump to bounce upon his knee and then he would have to look out for another little girl to have fun with.

At the same time part of me was angry that in some subtle sort of way he had deceived my parents. You see, I had been intended for Uncle William’s consolation. Out of thirteen children I was the gangling, ugly one; the one who would never otherwise find a husband. Uncle William would be happier if he had a wife to keep him warm on long winter nights. After all, he couldn’t see what I looked like so that wouldn’t trouble him. No need to look at the mantel when stoking the fire, as my father once remarked when he thought I wasn’t listening. Conversely, I would have had more of a husband than a disastrously plain young woman might have expected, after a four year war from which so few young men of marriageable age had returned. We would be trapped at home together, like flies in amber. I could take over from mother some of the burden of looking after him. I could look after my parents too, as they got older. I would be earning my keep at last.

I should mention that Uncle William was not a blood relation. The Bible forbids that sort of thing, doesn’t it? And rightly so, otherwise you end up with mutants. There’s a long list in the Bible – can’t remember exactly where – of people you are not permitted to marry. As I recall you can marry a cousin but not a second cousin: never really understood that. However, I could have married Uncle William because he was just someone we had adopted after the war, a soldier in my father’s regiment whom my father had brought home with him. That sort of thing happened in those days. Families were big and strays were taken in. It was not unknown, for example, for illegitimate babies to be adopted by their grandmothers or childless aunts. People kind of knew but nothing was ever said, just as nothing was ever said about the bouncing on the knee, the ill-stifled and increasingly heavy breathing, his occasional wheedling requests to have me share his narrow bed; the stains on the sheets in the morning.

And it had all been for nothing, this sacrifice of me. I could see the pair of us lingering on at home, unable to avoid each other – I the silent family drudge and he the blind uncle in his corner, leering sightlessly, weaving seats to cane footstools for little reward and groping for any female child that strayed within his reach. Mother’s apron was already on the rise. Nothing was ever said about such things but it was clear she was expecting her fourteenth; and since she was not yet forty there could, and probably would, be more. A woman in the next village had had seventeen infants, one for every year since her marriage. Then she had another. She named him Coronation Finisher, determined that he would be the last infant she ever had to have – he was in my class at school, was Finn. But he wasn’t the last. There was at least one more after that. In those days you had no choice. So, it was likely I would have to watch Uncle William start up his tricks all over again.

Then one day my father brought a newspaper home and left it lying on his chair, folded open at the article he happened to have been reading. It showed an engraving of a man in a cloth cap coming up behind a well-dressed woman in a fancy hat with feathers. He had laid his rough and sinister hands on her shoulders, but she was reaching up towards her hat. Underneath, in italics, it said The Hat Pin Defence.

hatpin-defence

It was then that I thought about my mother’s amber hatpins.

In full panoply

I am quite touchy about my vocabulary. Possibly that’s because I haven’t got much else to preen myself on. So it is with reluctance that I admit, I had to look panoply up. I had a vague feeling that it meant a vast and rather splendid array of things, which it does. What I didn’t appreciate was that panoply also refers to a full suit of armour.

I have only ever seen one suit of armour, in the flesh – if armour can be said to have flesh – as opposed to on TV, and that was Henry VIII’s armour at Leeds Castle. It was impossible to imagine that this metal object before your eyes actually once contained the living and breathing body of Britain’s most famous or infamous king.

A couple of things flashed through my mind when I saw it. The first – you’ve guessed it – was how on earth did he do number twos in a get-up like that? But presumably he took care to number two before he put it on. And the second was, how short he was. You tend to think of kings, especially loud scary kings, as huge great beasts, but this armour was almost as broad as it was high. He must have been, well, Fred Flintstone-shaped. I wonder whether he would have impressed the ladies quite so much if he hadn’t had been really rich, with the power to chop off their heads on a whim? At least he didn’t comb his hair over the bald patch.

It seems he liked Leeds Castle, and often visited it with his first wife Catherine of Aragon. He added an upper floor and decorated fireplaces with the royal arms and Spanish motifs, since Catherine was Spanish. He visited in 1520 with a huge retinue of 5,000 people (5,000!) and spent the night at the castle before going on to France for a ceremonial meeting with Francis I of France. This meeting later became known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold because of the magnificence of all the tents. To impress the French (never easily impressed by anything British) he took with him venison from the Leeds estate, and butter from its dairies.

Well, all that from looking up a word!

armour

panoply

‘Tis the year’s midnight, and it is the day’s

I got sent to the Methodist. Nan and Grandad had been C of E, but the church was up on the Top Road, which I would have had to cross to reach it. That would have meant a grown-up going with me, and the whole idea was that no grown up needed to go with me. I could be sent in the care of an older child. There was of course no choice in the matter, and who knows what my parents may have been up to as I sat on my hard wooden pew at the Methodist Chapel, my feet not touching the ground, watching brown condensation dribbling down the faded yellow walls.

Mum and Dad were Agnostics in those days. They were always everything jointly. My father explained that whereas Atheists simply didn’t believe in God, Agnostics might believe in God if God or Jesus or someone were to turn up on the doorstep and ring the bell, so to speak. So that was better. It was open-minded. I didn’t think there was much chance of Jesus ringing our doorbell. I have often puzzled, and still can’t understand why they felt they had to be something, officially. I mean, why not just tell people you don’t believe in all that? Why send away for swatches of brightly-coloured leaflets, solemnly read and inwardly digest them, fill in an application form for membership and send it back?

In later life they became Humanists, also jointly. We had to have a humanist funeral for Dad which meant a lady turned up at the crematorium and delivered an inaccurate mish-mash of the information we had given her on her visit to the house. Afterwards we got the mish-mash in a plastic binder, to keep. It was full of spelling mistakes. The spelling mistakes annoyed me more than anything. More than her bored voice, the icy cold wind outside and the inappropriate winter sunshine streaming through the windows; more than people already queueing outside for the next cremation; flowers being bulldozed into the soil behind a screen of thin, inadequate trees; someone accidentally leaving their raincoat behind and it having to be retrieved; Mum’s refusal to wear black but instead her everyday trousers and some horrid new cardigan she’d bought in Marks & Spencer’s; or My Replacement’s mobile phone going off during one of the musical bits and her not being able to find it in her handbag to turn it off – Colonel Bogie shrilling repetitively over Ella Fitzgerald.

Anyway, wandering far from the point as usual.

What was the point? Ah, yes. St Lucy.

I happened upon this poem by John Donne and it mentioned St Lucy’s Day. It wasn’t perhaps one of his best – a thorny thicket of obscure references and allusions – so I’ll just leave you the link and you can read it if you want to. St Lucy’s Day is coming up shortly, in fact, on the 13th of December. It used to be thought of as the shortest day of the year and the winter solstice. In fact that’s the 12th of December but since there’s only a minute or two of daylight in it, it might just as well be. I’ve always been interested in saints since I was starved of them, rather: at the Methodist we weren’t allowed them. Instead we were served up homely homilies and moral tales with improbably convenient outcomes.

I thought I might at least find out who St Lucy was and why she was a saint.

St Lucy, or Santa Lucia, was a 3rd Century Christian martyr. It is said that she bought food to Christians sheltering in the catacombs. It was dark in this network of underground tombs, so to leave her hands free to carry as much food as possible she wore a wreath around her head, with candles in it. Nowadays in many parts of the world there are ceremonies to commemorate her, and children wear similar wreaths adorned with candles. It sounds lovely but I do worry about the fire risk, and cascading candle-grease.

How did she die, I wondered? I mean, how was she martyred? There are legends around this, none of them pleasant. Lucy had dedicated her virginity to God, but her mother didn’t know this and arranged a marriage. Lucy asked that her dowry, or some part of it, be distributed amongst the poor. When word of this reached her betrothed he denounced her to the Governor of Syracuse, who ordered her to burn a sacrifice in the emperor’s image. She refused and he sentenced her to be defiled in a brothel. According to Christian tradition when the guards came for her she could not be moved from the spot, even though they hitched her to a team of oxen. In medieval accounts Lucy’s eyes were removed by the guards just before she was executed. In another account she took out her own eyes so as to render herself repugnant to a potential suitor.

So, her story goes from heroic and romantic to gruesome and ghastly, and mixes fact with fiction and legend, as many a good saint’s story does.

saint-lucy-2

Featured Image: Icon of St Lucy by Raphael St Christian Winters

Above: Saint Lucy, a drawing by Mary MacArthur