In a former life my grandfather took this photograph of a gentle hillside in northern France on which a Sopwith Camel has unfortunately crashed. It may be the only recorded instance of a hump with a camel on its back.
And another thing, someone sent me these in the post - the teeth of the very same camel.
At the end of our first day’s journey, we found ourselves handily camping with several thousand Assinneboins, who had pitched their tents upon the bank of the river, and received us with every mark of esteem and friendship.
In the midst of this group was my friend Wi-Jun-Jon (the pigeon’s egg head), still lecturing on the manners and customs of the ‘pale faces’, continuing to relate without any appearance of exhaustion, the marvellous scenes which he had witnessed among the white people, on his tour to Washington City.
Many were the gazers who seemed to be the whole time crowding round him to hear his recitals ; and the plight which he was in rendered his appearance quite ridiculous. His beautiful military dress, of which I before spoke, had been so shockingly tattered and metamorphosed, that his appearance was truly laughable.
His keg of whisky had dealt out to his friends all its charms – his frock coat, which his wife had thought was of no earthly use below the waist, had been cut off at that place, and the nether half of it supplied her with a beautiful pair of leggings; and his silver-laced hat-band had been converted into a splendid pair of garters for the same. His umberella the poor fellow still affectionately held onto and kept spread at all times. As I before said. His theme seemed to be exhaustless, and he, in the estimation of his tribe, to be an unexampled liar.
The Churches here have abundance of ornaments, cheifly bad pictures and figures of their favourite saints in lac’d cloaths; the Convent of the Franciscans indeed which we went to See had very little ornament; but the neatness with which those fathers kept everything was well worthy of commendation, especialy their infirmary, the contrivance of which deserves to be taken particular notice of; it was a long room, on one side of which were windows, and an altar for the convenience of administering the sacrament to the sick; on the other were the wards, each just capable of containing a bed, and lind with white duch tiles; to every one of these was a door communicating with a gallery which ran paralel to the great room, so that any of the sick might be supplied with whatever they wanted without disturbing their neighbours.
In this Convent was a curiosity of a very singular nature; a small chapel whose whole lining, wainscote, and ceiling, was intirely compos’d of human bones, two large thigh bones across, and a skull in each of the openings. Among these was a very singular anatomical curiosity, a skull in which one side of the Lower jaw was perfectly and very firmly fastned to the upper by an ossification, so that the man whoever he was must have livd some time without being able to open his mouth, indeed it was plain on the other side that a hole had been made by beating out his teeth, and in some measure damaging his Jaw bone, by which alone he must have receivd his nourishment.
I can tell from the way they glance at me furtively through their soft linen smiles. And I know that there will be dogfights, barbed and bloody, I see them through the open window.
The open window.
And I know how to fly, despite the confines of these sheets - white, webbed, tight as a hen’s foot. They wound them round me in the night to protect me from myself, from the flames.
Still, I lie, waiting, while the grey walls sweat softly, leaking the colours of the sky on a day smothered by cloud that should have been hot. The bricks are painted with shadows shifting slowly through the forest of chrome saplings and trailing creepers, and the whispers flutter like birds in the half-light.
The rubber mask thrusts its breath inside me and I swallow, gagging on my own excitement, I feel the cold, scratched metal beneath my gloved fingers and pitch forward into a screaming dive.
It is dark and the serpents are out, kissing my feet, licking the air.
The clock ticks and from behind the kitchen door a long wail slithers down the corridor from somewhere in an upstairs room. It is tremulous, fearful, yet full of rage or horror at our frailty, our cruelty.
We are animals - apes with teeth bared in a subtle smile beneath cold, red eyes. And the walls tremble like leaves in the forest.
Strange, the silence that grows in a room when the door is pulled to and the present company is no more. Their footsteps drift away with their mumbling words towards the stairs and I am alone again.
The dark oak of the great table breathes its beeswax scent in the morning sun and seagulls cry beyond the glass wall. What to do? Michael squawks in his cage - he never speaks when the others have left, as if he knows it has no value. Not that it matters, but I don’t speak Bird either. Sunlight splashes onto the ceiling in frantic ripples but does not break the spell. Someone cries out a command into the rigging and the walls creak in response.
I glance across the low room at the bright fruit on the sideboard and stretch my lips. I bite the air, imagining the stiff, waxy skin flexing between my teeth and then that sharp, sweet sting of orange on my tongue. A breath of air touches the hairs on my neck, a glance at the door and I am there, right up beside the silver dish, fingers ready to pick. Michael stares but makes no noise, I pause, pluck one to my mouth and bite.
A little before a quarter to eight. Still dark at home, though the hooves in the street never cease their parade and the gas still purrs in the glass. And here - bright, hot, and the incessant screech from the trees.
Slowly, with my eyes on the far bank, I descend the steps, today as every day, to feel the cool of the river on my toes. It is necessary.
Necessary to be seen, necessary to cool my feet.
Stand a while and watch the farther shore.
See and be seen.
The sound of the water, though the river is a roar like the angel of judgement. I remember – the gentle hissing in the ears, soft at first and delicate, like a distant choir of boys. Then a low murmur that grows into a growl, a growl from the crypt behind a door which will not stay closed. That’s when you first feel it in the pit of your belly. The scratch.
And then the chorister screams and you are lost in the maelstrom.
The tomb is not silent but filled with the roar of all the dead. Those dead, my dead. Yes I pity them. Have pity.
I adjust my hat, turn and retrace my path to the house.
Beside me my wife twists in her carapace. She has never been the same since reading that book. Just before the bell rings, which is not a bell but the sound of a harp, she sighs, and I watch in wonder as her warm breath leaves sparkles of mist on her glossy black jaws.
I found the mandibles a little disconcerting at first but have gradually come to find them endearing. Beautiful even. Now it is the strange clicking that irritates me even though I have learned to make out the words.
The harp rings and she unfolds her many slender legs. Not bad for a woman her age. “Is it morning?” she asks and I reply “Yes, I think so.”
And so this morning. I peer at the familiar crack in the ceiling through the milky haze that fills the room and if I concentrate can just about make out the sky beyond. The edge of the crack is a mountain range along which rides a man on horseback, silhouetted against an alpine sky as clear as the virgin’s robe. And in that blue, a biplane circles slowly over London, its pilot, my grandfather, making notes and taking pictures.
He wears a leather helmet, with flaps like a spaniel’s ears and his nose is wet with the cold. His left foot touches the rudder pedal and his right knee holds the stick. The tea in his vacuum flask, tucked away behind his seat, is still warm with his anticipation as he scribbles in his notebook and the world below drifts ever more blue towards the dark horizon.
It is Wednesday. It always is. He has been like this for thirty seven years, since Doris died in fact.