It felt terribly twee driving out into the country to look at antiques on a Sunday afternoon in my late thirties in a skirt that came just below the knee. I mentally noted it. “Look at me, in a skirt below the knee, driving out to the country to look at musty old things on the day of rest.”, I thought. I was tempted to really go for it; pick flowers from a hedgerow for my hair; paddle in a babbling stream as a hot air balloon passed peacefully overhead; perhaps suckle a baby cow from my ‘all creatures great and small’ mother earth pap.
Then things got less twee. I saw a dark barn, promising macabre curiosities. I was drawn initially to the crimson and gold Victorian Freak Show sign outside, boasting half-man half-beast Joseph Merrick, the world famous Elephant Man. My heart plunged. I remembered my mum making me watch the David Lynch film as a teen, saying it was important. I ran upstairs as the poor man was taunted in a monkey cage and cried till my face hurt at the injustice and cruelty. Cut to years later, teaching a compulsory module on the Elephant Man for GCSE Drama, having to leave a colleague to watch the film with my kids because I couldn’t physically sit through it.
I stepped into the low-lit barn and found a bearded chap sat in a swivel chair, feet up. “Hullo!” I said, “Having a nice day?” “No.” he said, cheerily. ”Oh dear.” I faltered. “You get lots of closed-minded people here.” He explained. “Well, you won’t get that from me” I said as I paid him my quid.
Then I turned around and gasped at a dead cat. I quickly collected myself because I didn’t want to let him down. I might have been wearing a skirt that came below the knee but I was Well Hard. This complete stranger should definitely know that life has bashed me and my skirt about a bit and I am now Stoically Unknockable and Invincibly Curious.
I browsed the dark wonders inside. Crumbly-nosed human skulls and waxy false teeth, lizard skins and jars of tentacles, stuffed cats and rats, unidentifiable mummified fur and ornaments made from claws, spiders and beetles in resin blocks, coffins and ouija boards and gothic last rites kits. And everywhere, dotted about, glass-eyed stuffed ducklings with tags. They all had names. Dave and Mike and Frankie and Barry and Nigel. I couldn’t help but laugh as I petted them.
There is something scientifically funny about the names Nigel and Barry. I don’t know why, there just is. (Don’t worry Nigels and Barrys, my name isn’t great either. It always makes people think of ageing Jewish spinsters, gangland Glaswegian matriarchs, or cockney cleaning ladies who used to turn tricks on the side back in the day when their knees still worked.)
I trawled every surface, eyes flicking over every single item of curiosity like a hungry child. I wondered why some of us can be so instinctively repelled by dead things, dark things, the mordant, maudlin, and preserved, and why some of us are fascinated by it – drawn to it like a cliff edge, just to see what’s down beyond the drop. Perhaps our childhood magic is tweaked when death touches our lives. We choose to either embrace or avoid the one thing we ever really know – death comes to us all.
I used to balk at death before I knew what it was. Now I’ll examine its tiny trails, its teeth and its skulls and its stuffed fur-coats; little legacies, proof of existence; they were here. Dark celebrations of life. The opposite of cake.
After I left the man locked the big doors. Probably had his fill of the public mooching around, gasping and sighing and grumbling and giggling at his treasure. I liked to imagine he kissed all the dead souls on their furry heads and skulls, lit black candles and they all came alive and danced.