A Visit to Count Borulowski
Our hosts suggested that we visit Count Borulowski the next day. I said, “I did not now you were acquainted with a foreign count.”
I didn’t understand why everyone smiled when I said that. I thought it odd that a visit should be proposed like an outing to a fair. My husband said, “Yes, we would very much like to go.”
The Count lived in a brick house on the square, good but not lavish. We were shown up to the Counts rooms on the second floor where a maid admitted us. The maid offered us tea and said that the count would be with us shortly.
We had been shown into a good sized parlour with a flowered carpet. On the walls were a few paintings showing pastoral scenes of cows and clouds. A door in the corner of the room was ajar and stairs could be glimpsed curving upwards. A clock in the corner of the room ticked loudly. My companions who had been gay and talkative on our walk became quiet and for a few minutes we listened in silence to the ticking of the clock.
Then the Count and his daughter entered. I realised why my companions had been so strange. I was present at a kind of genteel freak show.
The count was a tiny man barely up to my breast, and I am not tall. He was dressed like a gentleman in a white waistcoat and breeches with a red coat and a sword. Because of his stature his sword reached to his feet. My husband suppressed a laugh and I blushed. I was surprised that his daughter was a girl of normal height, in fact she was somewhat taller than me.
The Count introduced himself. He had a strong foreign accent, but his English was quite correct and easy to understand. I was almost surprised that he could speak at all.
Tea was served and the count’s daughter poured us each a cup. I decided to speak. “You have travelled far from your native land Sir.”
“Indeed, I was born in Poland but I have travelled in Germany, France and the Low Countries, even as far as the Ottoman Lands.”
“Which of the countries you have visited did you like the best?” I asked.
“I particularly like England. I see from your smile that you think I am flattering you, madam, but I am in earnest. My wife is English. I have visited Durham and I find the cathedral most delightful. I would like to live in Durham.”
I had never heard of Durham and had no idea as to its attractions. The clock in the corner continued to tick. I took another sip of tea. After a while we made out farewells. As we left my husband slipped some money to the maid.
Hunter’s garden had jackals, leopards, buffalo and an ostrich in it. He experimented with bees, breeding animals, and studied the pearls formed by mussels in his own ponds…
3280: Frogspawn suspended in formaldehyde looks like school dinner tapioca.
3282: A Series of Young Common Frogs Showing Metamorphosis from Tadpole to Adult Frog.
In a tubular glass jar is a filigree necklace in twelve beads of transition – a speck, a blob, a tail, then legs – this reminds me of collecting tadpoles from a burn at the end of Burnside Street and carrying the greeny, browny mush by string tied around the neck of the jamjar, and seeing the darting and the stillness in the elemental slime. I tried jumping across the burn but ended up in the water so had to walk home in sloshing wet shoes.
Spring lancet for venesection (bleeding). White metal and steel. Late 18th century.
It’s the size of my average white Western female-sized big toe when the blades are retracted. It has three blades, different not just in size and depth, but also in form. The surgeon could choose…a crescent moon to conjure North Africa and ancient Moorish wisdom; a scythe shape with its connotations of death and harvest or a simple pure pointed arrowhead for the more rational among his patients. The surface of the casing is traced with lines of tiny dots in floral loops and designs like a fancy pocket watch, but one which would slice your thumb in half if you pressed the wrong button.
Buttons, there are also three, release the lancets harnessing the facility of speed to anaesthetise with the help of springs. But they also utilise the delicious fear and power of anticipation of bloodletting to produce relief. Accessories are available. A ‘fish-skin’ box it says, and a glass cup and spirit burner, the latter to heat the cup before placing it on the skin where the cooling, shrinking air volume will draw out blood in the so called ‘wet’ method.
The exotic tool itself is so small it fits into the palm of my hand, a camping kit, a first aid bag. It doesn’t include tweezers, nor a bottle opener or any other optional extras. It is simple and elemental and brutal and universal in its appeal as a tool, it is at its origin a fancy flint knife.
Yet there is something else about it – see – it is left-handed. It is surely unique, probably commissioned from a skilled instrument maker by some left-handed Mr Tom, Richard or Henry surgeon of London to apply variously to the milky white skin of the wealthy but ailing ladies of town. Nowadays a simple razor blade has to suffice. Patients can no longer take it for granted that they can trust their surgeons to perform these acts. So they generally do it themselves. At least here in England. In the West.
In another case is a ‘corrosion cast of the arteries of a new-born child’ from 1962. So beautiful that it cries out to be rescued.
So many red filaments, enough to model the whole child suspended with kicking legs and dangling arms. A heel prick with a lancet, though apparently dramatic, is a small insult to a complex system designed to cope.
Cutting deep, mining a vein, letting the inside out and producing feeling, sensation, reaction. Tattoos, scars up the arms and tribal skin embellishments, we write our histories on our bodies and surgeons are our co-authors.
There is a brotherhood in difference, an acceptance of
alternate fashion away from showmanship and curious
eyes – brothers joined at the hip, the best of friends;
the young man born with no limbs and left with the
show free and gratis. Algie wheels him in on open days
– a numerical genius, ladies and gents, let him astound
you with his ar-ith-mat-ic, his prodigious memory for
facts and all manner of trivia, roll up, roll up! But once
the visitors are gone they play cards and drink porter
or cheap gin, dream of sailing the Atlantic to greater
opportunity, or finding the right girl, any girl. Charles
sits on reinforced furniture, feasts on beefsteak and
Whitstable oysters. His joints ache, nothing fits. But
the hirsute lady is warm and open. He could lose
himself in the soft fur of her bosom and forget Mary
– Mary over the sea, Mary who promised to wait
and forgot, Mary who married a farmer a full foot and
a half shorter than him and still the tallest man in town.
The Cabinet of Curiosities Summer Convention
Mr John Quekett called his children “Come out of there my dears!” and with that, four grimy faces appeared from underneath the playhouse, which was fashioned from the body of a giant slug.
“You may leave the skulls now.”
The children had been busy all morning, measuring the skulls by lining up mustard seeds from a small bag.
“Papa, may we go and play now?” they asked.
“No, my dears. We have distinguished guests arriving shortly. They’re attending an important gathering. Today I think they call it a “convention.”
Thanks to the wonders of modern science an exotic group were gathering in a European airport. That very morning, the crew had noticed a strange group of people checking in.
Anticipating a short and straightforward flight, handing out the bacon rolls or the vegetarian option the crew had now been alerted to potential “issues.” And it wasn’t only the passengers, or “customers” as they were now known who were giving cause for concern. There was the luggage. An assortment of outsize laundry bags, string bags, and plastic bags turned out to contain some bizarre objects, such as
A section of intestine from a polar bear
The digestive system of a sea cucumber
And even something labeled “ A transplantation of cockerel’s testicles into the abdomen of a hen.”
And much more besides.
“Well” said the security guard “I’ve seen it all now! Specimens, apparently. Something to do with a convention.”
These people all had their ID in order, it’s true. But there wasn’t anything in the manual about pickled remains.
Risk of contamination? They were sealed in glass jars.
Perishables? They were pickled.
Aah, pickled…. Alcohol and liquid.
Could be put in the hold but perhaps duty payable for the weight and the alcoholic content. It would be very expensive.
“Passengers travelling on special flight 101 are invited to board through gate 5.”
And that’s when things really got out of hand. The man who’d booked the extra legroom turned out to be above and beyond the requirement. Looked as though he was seven foot tall at the least. He was a bad tempered bloke but who wouldn’t be, with their knees meeting their chins in the process of trying to sit down?
The Polish count looked more like a builder. The expression “too big for his boots” would have suited him were he not so small. And small he was, his tiny legs unable to hang over the seat. His fellow shorty appeared to be a bit rough. A bit bearded and grubby. He settled with one short leg underneath him and soon passed out after requesting a vodka and coke for which he had no money with which to pay.
In the next row sat an adorable little girl. Bi coloured. Properly piebald in fact. No trouble, that one, sitting nibbling at her vegetarian option. She could read too and questioned the ingredients of her snack, which possessed a long list of numbers on the back of the packet but with no identifiable foods.
As for the fat man, he was driven to the tarmac in an especially adapted vehicle. Captain Hunter was asked to meet him and intervene.
“Good morning and welcome, sir” he said politely. He was trying not to look too closely at the man’s attire; grey tracksuit bottoms topped by a flamboyant red hunting coat.
“I understand that you are flying with us today? But I regret that we have a slight seating problem that we have to resolve prior to take off. However, we’d be delighted to accommodate you with some special blankets and make you very comfortable in the hold. And with some refreshments, of course.”
The man, a Mr Lambert, was clearly angry but could see that he had no redress from Captain Hunter’s easy charm. Wrapped in blankets, Mr Lambert found himself hoisted to the hold with a bacon roll and a beer.
Captain Hunter started the engines and the plane started its taxi.
“Cabin crew, safety demonstration please, then seats for take off” announced the purser.
The crew realised that the safety demonstration could have little credibility in the event of an emergency landing. But the Cabinet of Curiosities was at last en route to its final destination.
John Evelyn, the times tables of our lives
our physical equations added not subtracted
the signposts of our bodies, symmetrical and disciplined
Main nerves spreading outwards in thin fronds
like delicate skeleton leaves, as neat as needlework
Nerves sympathetic splayed like flattened seaweed,
pointing and stretching outwards to the waves.
Veins, reaching and bending
their shape too perfect for an artist’s work
Bones necrosed to tree trunks
whorled and gnarled like ancient battered table legs
worn from within, not visible without
A spinal chord from a stately elephant reduced to soggy feathers
Its upright days diminished, its former life erased
A dura mater of a human brain lies folded,
wrapped in its glass surround
beached and veined, shaped like a giant Antilles orchid
A skull that lost its battle, teeth now smiling
the pressure gone, blown away into life everlasting
Now, skull rests easy its high forehead once inflated by alien contents
smooth as the ivory it is,
stained sides patterned like marble in its tracery of blue.