I spin the shop carousel, looking for a birthday card. Something neutral: a landscape in autumn colours perhaps, or a cottage with a fluffy animal outside, but not too childish. I know I have to send one for December the fifth, but for whom? One of my nieces in Australia? One of my friends: Angela, maybe?
I pluck out a charming card with a fox caught in a distant shaft of sunshine on a bracken-red hill, arched over by a rainbow. Looking closer its menacing: black clouds lurk high above, to one side, and the fox is about to catch a kitten distracted by a swirl of falling leaves. Even so, I start to take it to the counter. It seems appropriate somehow, but still I cannot remember whose birthday it is for.
Outside, I look through my list of dates on my mobile phone calendar. There are no birthdays, nor any other special events listed for the first two weeks of December. I text my sister to ask her why I want a card for this date, but she cannot tell me.
‘It’s just you being you!’ she texts me back. But I don’t usually muddle dates and it’s always this one I get snagged on. I remember now that I did the same card-searching for December the fifth last year and the one before.
I’m feeling feeble, recovering from the flu. This is the first tentative outing since climbing out of bed. I sit on a bench in Butterfield Square, watching a woolly-hatted man, in an official council uniform use two grabbing boards to catch up a pile of yellow leaves and put them in his trolley over and over again, although he makes very little dent in them. They carpet the ground for all of us to kick through and they keep spiralling down from London planes and Turkey oaks in fitful eddies.
I pick up one leaf, pressing it flat between my gloved hands and remember grandma Topley, whom we called Tops, getting me to catch an early falling leaf in the garden, one autumn day.
She helped me press it between two pieces of cardboard from a cereal packet and put it in an empty chocolate box, under my bed in the room I shared with my older sister.
‘Keep it safe,’ she said, ‘and you won’t catch any colds or flu this winter.’
I kept opening the box, however, and peeling back the cardboard to examine the leaf. It dried up fast of course and started to split and then break up into smaller pieces. One day, my sister snatched it from me, crumpled it to dust and sprinkled it on the floor. My mother swiftly hoovered it up, telling me to stop bawling. Two days later I got a sniffle, then a phlegmy cough and finally a fever and was taken to Tops’ house to be looked after in the daytime, while my mother was out at work.
Grandma Tops said, ‘You should never have taken that leaf out of the box! The only thing I can do to help you now is to pass you through the hole in the ash tree.’
I stood shivering at the back door in my penguin pyjamas, reluctant to go out into the chilly garden, especially as I knew my mother would not approve, but Tops wrapped me up in her plaid shawl and led me down the path, past the pond to the very end. She showed me the place in the ash tree where, long ago, her father had hacked a wide cleft.
‘That’s where we went through,’ she said, her grey eyes watering.
‘Will it hurt?’ I asked.
‘Will it work? I want to go to Bessie’s bonfire party and hold a sparkler on Saturday.’
‘Oh, you’ll be better by Guy Fawkes Day. It worked for me when I was nearly your age,’ she said. Her tears were getting bigger and running faster down the deep wrinkles of her cheeks: from her eyes to the cracked corners of her mouth.
‘It didn’t work for Je…..’ She gulped, stopped speaking and gently pressed me, a fussy-eating, skinny girl, through the gap in the ash.
Two days later I was at the Bonfire Night party: a little weak, but breathing clearly and no longer alternatively sweating and shivering.
The sound of leaves being heaped up close by, makes me drop the plane leaf I am holding. I watch it fall beside the bench and walk out of the gates of Butterfield Square.
I still have not worked out what December the fifth means though. Tops died near my tenth birthday and my mother died three years ago, so neither of them can help me.
I drag myself slowly home and go through a neglected box of family papers left beneath my bed since clearing my mother’s house. I rake through small sepia photographs, school reports, infant drawings and a variety of birth, baptism, marriage and death certificates. There is one photo of Tops, a large bow on the side of her short-cut hair, standing with her mother (my great-grandmother Annie) who is grinning under a cloche hat. On the other side of her is standing a little girl much smaller than Tops.
I turn it over and read, “This is me and mummy and Jessica.” She must be my Great Aunt Jessica, but I have never heard of her. Rummaging a bit deeper in the box, I find and spread out a death certificate for her dated January 20th, 1936. Cause of death: scarlet fever. Then I see her 1931 birth certificate. It takes me a while to look at the full date for this. I know it already and I know how my sister will snigger when I tell her! I finally have the mystery of December the fifth solved. But then another starts: how did I know this date when I am sure I was never told about my great aunt by anyone?
The Universal Beads
I’m looking at the universe through an inverted telescope. Life and time have been reduced to a string of beads, and I’m floating in the universe like Major Tom.
I look through my magnifying lens as they crack open, tiny eggs revealed from within their polished miniature world. They’re marbled, corralled, polished.
Look, there are bat and rodent bones on a cave wall deep in the ground, dripping with the dark green water of an underground river. The bone of a woolly mammoth re-attaches itself to the giant creature that walks off to Siberia with a loud bellow.
A brown and yellow swirled bead cracks and a large yellow tooth protrudes. It belongs to a caribou, its antlers criss-crossed over its head, picking its way down a wooded bank in Fairbanks Alaska.
Grey and grainy, this little sphere bursts forth with a growl. A black snarling cave bear from Romania pauses in a brief moment of tranquility. He nuzzles an amber bead, which, as it opens, releases a bee. The bee irritates him and he bats his nose with a giant paw before running away.
Badlands Dakota. My telescope reveals that orange beauty to be the home of a giant pig’s tooth lost by the creature while munching a giant squirrel.
I look away. I’m hungry to see more. I’m distracted by a dinosaur stomach reduced to a tiny grey polished bauble. As it breaks out, the dinosaur itself emerges. It’s the size of a skyscraper. All at once the heat turns up and the sea shrivels and dries away. The dinosaur keels over, its legs working hopelessly, monstrous mouth dribbling yellow saliva. But now it’s reduced to a perfect bead again.
The drying sea makes the land crumble as the continents break apart. I float up here with the necklace, peering at the wonders of the world and time.
But don’t touch the beads, don’t touch! I might be bitten, gored, shriveled. Or I might damage the fronds of coral as they re draw the map. Below the ocean they wave their frondy arms, swaying and bending as the fish swim by.
In Massachusetts, the water has fossilised. There must be a tiara of dinosaurs in that river. But now it’s stopped in static stony triangles, soon to become blue and white bead strands of life.
Far below, I can see an enormous camel meeting a dugong. How curious. The stars and the moonlight heighten their surprise, as they are captured, polished and necklaced.
In the far distance whales are calling from ocean to ocean. On the land, flowers are pushing their way bravely to the top crusts, creating a pageant of colour where once there was only green.
The necklace of life. It’s my genie. DNA stranded into perfect captivity.
Foreign Bodies, Common Ground
Human beings live in communities so to have ‘meaning’ in ones life depends on our relationships with families and friends. We form bonds which link us with the past and we all have hopes for the future, which depend on us trusting and caring for each other now and forever.
We can travel globally as we become socially and geographically mobile and richer; the world’s population is increasing and the disparity between the rich and poor grows exponentially – ‘Harm to a Part is Harm to the Whole’ (Greenpeace card.)
This exhibition shows collaborative exchanges between 6 artists, scientists and local communities in Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Thailand, Vietnam and U.K.
In the U.K. Katie Paterson’s ‘Fossil Necklace’ illustrates the Earth’s history embodied in the beads made from fossils she collected from around the world.
– An ear-bone from a whale.
– An extinct kangaroo bone which unfortunately shattered.
– A bee frozen in amber from an ancient forest in Africa.
– A tooth from a woolly mammoth.
– A 30,000,000 year old pig from South Dakota in North America.
These are just some of the amazing 170 beads which represent major events in the evolution of ‘Life on Earth’ as, since the discovery of DNA, ’The Tree of Life’ can be linked sequentially to every living and extinct species on a timeline.
Each bead is a snapshot in time, a wonder and a puzzle.
I look at the cushion, my eye drawn to the smooth, plush velvet, of a deep magenta hue.
Then I notice, emerging from the seam, the sharp quill end of an errant feather. The prick of my conscience.
Malignant guilt, forever spreading through my mind. I sweep and sweep and sweep, pushing it into sacks to contain it, but still there’s more, it’s all around me, beneath my feet, filling the air, the harder I try to shake it off the worse it clings.
I hate cats. Sinister creatures, their evil eyes, the way they creep up and rub themselves against my legs, the cacophony of their nocturnal fights. I hate dogs too, especially the friendly ones who come bounding up to me at the bus stop, and stick their noses in my shopping bag. I recoil, an expression of undisguised antipathy on my face. It’s all right, the owner insists, with an accusing look. He won’t hurt you.
I tend to keep quiet about my aversion to cats and dogs. I need to defend myself from the verdict of the rest of the world, that I’m the kind of nasty, cold person who would throw a stone at their precious pet. I want to ask these animal lovers what they’ll be stuffing their faces with at Christmas. A plump, oozing turkey perhaps, or a roasted baby pig with crunchy crackling? And who, when a cheer goes up as the bird is placed at the centre of the table, and glasses are raised to the chef, will be thinking of how that poor creature came to be there?
But these are taboo questions, and I’d only add ‘holier than thou’ to my reputation as an animal hater.
And heaven only knows, I have enough feathers of my own to sweep under the carpet.