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A Cabinet of Curiosities

‘Do come in! Do come in! I haven’t had a visitor for such a long time! Mind you, I have kept myself to myself over the years. Down the hallway, and to your right, oh yes, that’s my elephant’s foot umbrella stand. Rather gets in the way you see. In you go, into the living-room. That’s right. And please sit down. Do take that big armchair on the left, next to the fireplace. Yes, it is a cosy fire isn’t it? I always like a good proper fire. Now how about some tea and scones/ Do have a look around. I’ll only be a minute.

There now. How do you like your tea? Milk and sugar? Do help yourself. Now then, tell me more about your school project. That’s right I do remember now. It’s about strange collections isn’t it? Well, you’ve certainly come to the right place. This is what I call my own little cabinet of curiosities. Do you know what that is? Well then, I’ll explain. A cabinet of curiosities was a strange, a very strange collection of objects, that wealthy collectors in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, put together to amuse their guests. Oh, yes, all sorts of strange things – stones, fossils, bones, rings, necklaces from all the corners of the world. They all came together in these little collections and all with stories to tell.

Some of those objects were often quite beautiful, like that piece of Bluejohn over there on the little table. It was a particularly strange mineral in pink or blue, with little veins running through it, and you can only find it in the bluejohn mines in Derbyshire, in England. Nowhere else. Are there any particular questions you would like to ask? Oh, how my collection started? Well, indeed, that is a story in itself. Let me settle comfortably. Is the tea all right? Do have a scone.

Since I was a young man, I travelled very widely all over the world. I was in the civil service, you see, and they often sent me to all sorts of strange faraway places, in, let’s see, India, China, Africa, the Middle East and so on. I never got married, you understand, so I spent all my time collecting very odd things that I came across on my journeys. I couldn’t keep them at the time of course, so I had them shipped back to England. And since I retired, I’ve spent all my time putting together my own cabinet of curiosities. In a way, they have become my real family, not that I really had one of course. So all of these, in this very room, and in other rooms, have travelled very long distances, from very remote parts of the world. I must confess I am rather proud of it.

Are there any particular things here that you would like to ask me about? I have noticed that your eyes keep straying to that object on the mantelpiece, but I’ll tell you about that in a moment. Let’s see. Now that little thing in the case over there by the window, is a mermaid. Not a real one of course, it does look rather shrivelled up. It’s actually a clever fake, a combination of the bottom half of a fish, and the upper half of a monkey. Some people believed it was a dead mermaid of course, which was rather silly of them, ha,ha. But some of these other things are real.

If you look over to that little table in the far corner, next to the armchair. Yes, that’s where I sit some evenings, reading. You notice the lamp? The one with the big crimson shade, and what look like large tassels hanging from it’s edges? Go over and have a closer look. Yes, that’s right. Ohh, that rather gave you a shock, didn’t it? Yes, they’re not what they seem. Do come back and sit down, you look rather pale.

You’ve obviously guessed, haven’t you? Yes, they’re my little shrunken heads, all the way from New Guinea! I thought they might make rather interesting little ornaments for that shade. A very interesting technique that they use too, but I can see that you’re not very interested in that. Never mind. But look around some more. There are many more interesting things for your project. I’m sure your friends will be quite excited by all this. For example, if you look around the back of your chair, at the sideboard behind you. It’s rather dark over there, let me direct some more light on to it. Now you can see. I say, you are all right aren’t you? You’re trembling a bit. Let me put some more coal on the fire.

Can you guess what it is? No? Aha, then I’ll tell you. It’s a wine-cooler, for keeping a bottle of wine cold at the table. Rather curious isn’t it? And yes, you are right. It’s made from a gorilla’s head. Ugly brute isn’t he? The eyes aren’t real of course, they’re made of glass, but it is rather odd the way that they seem to glare at you. I must say it gives me a bit of a start sometimes. I shot the beast years ago in Africa somewhere, and I thought it would be a bit of fun to have the head made into something useful. It certainly provides a conversation piece at table, don’t you think? The top of the head is hinged, of course, for when you wish to put the wine in. All nicely hollowed out.

But I’d better tell you about one of my greatest treasures. It’s standing only a few feet away from you. Let me tell you about it’s history first and then you can see if you guess what it is. I had a nephew once. His name was Marcus, and he was thirteen years old when I, unfortunately, came across him. I don’t have any family to speak of, but for some unfathomable reason, my sister, now deceased, decided that he and I should meet more often. Oh, my poor Marcus, she said, he has hardly any family. You must meet him and be friends with him. Much against my better wishes, she brought him around one day to have tea, just as you and I are doing.

Now I am normally a quite tolerant man, but the only phrase I can recall that would adequately describe him, at that first meeting, was that he was an insufferable little brat. A skinny, bony little horror, with a large head and stupid face that always wore an idiotic smile. Needless to say, my nephew and I did not like each other at all. He spilled crumbs all over the floor, he complained about how dusty everything was, he constantly fidgeted, and I was glad to see the back of him. Little did I know that my somewhat dim sister was going to insist that he come here every week to spend some time with me, so that, as she so stupidly put it, ‘get to know each other’. Pah!

He turned up every week, with, I am certain, the sole intention of annoying and infuriating me in every possible way he could. He poked the paper eye-sockets out of my Mexican sugar skulls, he deliberately tore the skins on my collection of African drums by putting his foot through them, and tore up my stuffed snake into pieces. My idiotic sister just gave her little nervous laugh, and in her usual idiotic way said ‘Oh, he’s just growing up. He’s just a bit difficult’.

After a few more weeks, I was beginning to totally lose any patience I had. I lay awake at night, plotting in my mind, what horrible things I would like to do to him. Fry him, grill him, roast him, all those things. I’m sure you know what I mean. I’ve never been afraid to kill things, but I must admit that what happened next even surprised me. Thinking back on it now, I suppose it happened like this.

Marcus turned up for his usual visit, and was even more obnoxious than usual. He managed to break a few things and I duly remonstrated with him. Then he turned around and sneered at me! You are a stupid old moron, he said and I think you should be put away in a lunatic asylum. Then he turned back laughing. I’m rather afraid that was it. I do have very strong hands, even though I am a relatively old man. But, I digress. It only took a few seconds.

Well, it was bit of an embarrassment, really. But I have the means to dispose of various things. And so I did. Not at all difficult, with my experience. I merely telephoned his mother and asked where Marcus was, and when he didn’t come back, she told the local constabulary, who came here several times to ask me a lot of questions. But after a while, they stopped coming, and our dear little Marcus was, I was told, ‘missing’. So, in the end, he had just disappeared, never to be seen again. It was all quite simple, and in fact, it was easier than I expected it to be.

But, one evening, I went down to my workshop. There was Marcus’s skull, sitting on my workbench. And the thought struck me. He had a large head, and’ I must admit, an uncommonly fine skull. Why not make it into something useful, which was of course, better than he should have expected in his rather short and miserable life. I thought long and hard about this, and, at length, I conceived of a purpose for his rather shapely head. Now, can you guess what my mystery object is, in my collection?

Yes, you’re right! Perhaps your finger is just shaking with excitement. You’ve finally glimpsed it! It is rather fine, isn’t it? I’m really rather proud of the whole thing. I always felt I had an artistic touch. It was all rather exciting. First of all, I managed to find a lovely mechanism that fitted perfectly into the cranium, and then I made a rather lovely little stand to mount it on. And, finally, I found those rather beautiful roman hands to fit. It really is rather nice isn’t it? Yes, you’ve realised at last! Marcus, the wonderful mantelpiece clock! Though he doesn’t chime the hour, more’s the pity. But for once, he looks rather handsome.

Oh, dear, must you go so quickly? An urgent appointment? Oh, I see. Well, never mind. I quite understand. Here let me help you on with your coat. Be careful! Is that your notebook lying on the floor? Here it is. Please come again if you would like. Oh, and you really don’t need to rush, you know. Marcus is always five minutes fast’.

Frank Jackson (29/04/09)