His first gift draws her mouth to an O of indrawn breath
– a single cobalt blue morpho butterfly, framed and pinned
to display its full wingspan. The colour of her eyes, the card
says; the distillation of August skies, lagoons just dreamt of.
A second gift arrives a week later, wrapped in brown paper
– a solid glass box containing a single nautilus shell, bisected
to reveal spiral echo chambers diminishing in size, curved in
on itself tighter and tighter like a clench of fear.
She adores the butterfly, the brilliance of its fine papery call
for propagation, but the shell disturbs her – each segment
a separate cell containing only air. She imagines herself
navigating its interior, losing sense of east or down,
her calls for help ricochet and bounce back, back, back.
Each day brings a new arrival – a pair of seahorses preserved
in a sea of formaldehyde, she following he, bobbing mutely;
corals, anemones, eunicella cavolini with gentle branching arms,
brittle as ice crystals holding all the secrets never told by snow.
Stop, she says, no more. But he persists, says she’ll find room
for one more specimen, a fine one. She thinks she sees him
check the pillowcase, examine a stray hair caught in the collar
of her coat. Her toothbrush disappears. But he adores her,
tells her she’s a wonder, a beauty, the pinnacle.
Now here’s the skeleton of an anaconda coiling, a malignant
slinky, over her bookcase; a flying fox caught mid scream and
held until the scream becomes a constant tinnitus raging
through her head; and pins – the pins he saves for her. A
display case of English oak waits for varnishing. His final prize.
I had just sat at the kitchen table, wiping the cobwebs off my eyelids, the kettle was on and my own special blend of Guatemala and Italian de luxe ready in the cone. The phone rang. I groaned and refused to move.
The insistant ringing defeated me.
“Happy birth-day to – you”, a bad imitation of Marilyn Monroe at the other end of the phone, “happy birthday Msss Eunice…”
“Is that you, Helen?” I tried to hide the annoyance in my voice.
“Welcome to the 50s!” she said, “you’ll never regret it”
“Ouch! Thanks for the reminder”, I thought to myself.
“I got a surprise for you…”
“At 1 pm today”
“How do you know I haven’t made plans?”
“Because I know you, girly, have you?”
“OK, 1 o’clock by The Euston Tap, you know those bits that are all that’s left of the old Euston station”.
“Where’re we going?”
“I said surprise. Don’t be late”.
Back to my table and the kettle. I sighed and castigated myself for my inability to say no to Helen. On the other hand I didn’t have any plans and wasn’t quite overwhelmed with offers, cards or messages. Just in case I switched the mobile on. One text, from Vodafone- not very cheery.
I moved at snails pace, but I still managed to get to the Euston Tap at 12:57. I was about to go in and get myself some refreshment when Helen accosted me.
“Time for that later”.
We crossed the Euston Road and walked towards UCH. Memories of wards on the 13th floor flashed through my head. We turned left into Gower Street, crossed the road at the zebra crossing and walked into University Street, the other side of the old hospital.
“What’s going on?” I said
“Patience, all will be revealed”
We walked into an Edwardian white stucco building with very tall windows. We turned left into a big gallery full of glass cases with all myriad of specimens.
“What the… oh, God it’s an elephant skull”
“Yes”, Helen said very self-satisfied. She guided me to a display cabinet, “Ah, number 7, here it is”
She pointed at a small container in the middle shelf, a rectangular prism of glass. Inside it was a white, what I can only describe as a, sculpture. The label read Eunice philocoralia and on top of the container a blue card said ‘Adopted by Eunice Chandler’. All my irritation and reluctance evaporated instantly.
I looked at Helen, “how…”
“It’s your birthday present. You have adopted that exhibit and the museum gets a bit of much needed cash”.
I looked at it again. The section wasn’t labelled but I assumed by its name that it was a coral. It was like a Netsuke sculpture delicately carved by nature. Arms and legs going in various directions moving back into themselves, a few tentacles here and there.
The 7cm tall piece was so intricate, curves folding into each other where you could imagine tiny fish like-creatures swimming through. In fact it had two worm looking ones crawling out of two of its limbs: one flat and spiky like a millipede, the other round and segmented like an earthworm.
The openings showed tiny ridges like miniscule bride-white teeth, the texture of the surface giving Michelangelo a run for his money.
There was a grace of movement, all formed over years, sculpted by the movement of the water and the microscopic beings that found it their final resting place.
“When I saw its name I just had to get it for you”, Helen said.
I smiled, “It is captivatingly beautiful”, I said, genuinely moved by the gesture. I could see myself in difficult days coming here and looking at my own wonderful natural Netsuke and being instantly cheered up.
Letter to Freddie Robins, adopted owner of a white rabbit head who stole it from the Grant Museum
I opened your delightful gift this morning. Adorable!!
I’ve heard some men put horses heads on pillows as “gifts” but you sent me the perfectly preserved head of a white rabbit. Awesome!!! Somehow that said sooo much about you, – in a good way of course!
We shared such cool times together when I was small and timid down in that tunnel. But you see I found the potion! Yes, I’m a big girl now!
The Cheshire cat and I are having so much fun these days (I gave him the potion too.) I never liked that pathetic rabbit anyway.
I’m sure you’ll find some new friends sometime. So hop on dude, with your tiny friends. Perhaps your mother will find you down there in Wonderland – if you’re lucky.
Letter to Boris from Lynn Mustard, adopted owner of a Beluga Whale foetus at The Grant Museum
I’m back in my home town now. That’s London. I’ve promised my family that “Handsome Russian alpha males seeking western wives” will not be entering my search engine again any time soon. Neither will I ever be visiting Minsk.
I’d envisaged a strong man, perhaps with the physique of Vladimir Putin but with the capability of sharing my literary pursuits. “Reading Tolstoy”, (a phrase obviously added to your profile by one of your friends) was surely a nod to the middle class woman you were hoping to attract and whose bank account you sought to empty.
Having wrested myself away, the dream of a Russian male will no longer be on my agenda.
The naïve idea of snuggling up under a fur coat, drinking toasts to the Apostles in vodka shots whilst eating illegal caviar to the sound of balalaikas, has been successfully banished from my mind.
If you are capable of reading this, do not bother to reply.
But I would like you to know that, in your memory, I’ve adopted an exhibit in a London museum. It’s a pickled Beluga whale foetus! It’s white and toothless like you, and its caviar years are well and truly over.
The Vampire Bat
It was a glamourous life, back in the day.
I’d be riding the crest of the sonar waves with my companions
Fluttering and twittering at dusk, as we entered our caverns.
One day the bat –cave, the next Hollywood. Stardom!
Hanging with Christopher Lee
My black wings all shined up and drawn around me
Waiting for my next photo-shoot.
And some pretty enticing necks.
But look at me now. Dead, but not deadly. Pickled.
Oh, sweet irony! My body is as bloodless as a plastic bat in a cracker.
No more Halloween parties. No balloons to burst.
The living look at me
But I can no longer scare them in my twilight world.
I’m glassed and past.
Halloween forever over.