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I was trudging around the Wiltshire Museum http://www.wiltshiremuseum.org.uk/ in Devizes the other day as writers are wont to do. I wasn’t having a bad day writing, rather I was waiting for the car to be serviced and pass its MOT. I’d had a walk along the Kennet and Avon canal, always a favourite pastime, and I wandered into town and to the museum. Their collection of prehistoric and bronze/iron age artefacts is well, a treasure trove.

I’m big on museums anyway. I like to trundle around and look at old things, particularly personal possessions and consider the stories attached. I’ve written about this before. Whenever there is a bad day of writing looming I opt instead to head out and a museum is a good place to ditch writer’s block or writer’s stump, or writer’s scratching your empty head bald in frustration. The lure for this Wiltshire Museum is the posters advertising the Stonehenge Gold.

They are stunning pieces. If you’re anticipating something of Tutankhamun dimensions then you’ll be disappointed. There is nothing gaudy here.  These are delicate and finely wrought fragments and remnants of a distant time. I wonder if they have fingerprints on them under the earth, obviously they do afterwards, what with being fondled by drooling archaeologists. There are a lot of beads and personal items in the collection too. I learnt of the existence of Cold Kitchen Hill, a place I have now marked out on the map for a future walk with my other half.  The selection of glass bead necklaces was found there, possibly manufactured there to be sold to those who came to worship at the temple on the summit. There are whispers and echoes in items such as these. Think of the fingers that threaded them, the necks that wore them.

20170324_131907There are more whispers still from the bone flute. I’ve seen a lot of these over the museum trawling years. I’ve even had a toot on a cow horn one during my Stonehenge volunteer days. It stank, both my inept playing and the instrument itself. The bone flute displayed in another case, found in a grave, is, the information notes tell me, made from the long bone from a swan or goose. This flute, however, this one is made from a human bone.

There are many possible reasons for this. There is the idea that you might make a flute from the bone of your ancestors to keep their wisdom and their presence close, to use the music as a connection to that past, a link of notes. There is the other idea that the flute is made from the bone of your enemy and in possessing it and playing music upon it you connect to that aspect of your past too, the conquered enemy. You claim some of their power. You keep a part of them, a part of their soul, their after-life, in a loop on your belt. Possibly you can summon them, subvert them to your tune.

I might be odd but  I like both of those ideas. I wonder what the music sounds like, does it contain memory or essence of the person. Is it mournful or cheerful? The only music that can be played is in a minor key perhaps. Does the sound bring the ghost, a voice calling over time, through air, your breath coursing through the flute lends a little of your life force.  Who knows?

The flute is in a display case, silenced, possibly forever. That is a downside to museum pieces, in order to preserve them we take them out of the world and pin them to archive quality card under acid-free lighting in hermetically sealed boxes. We don’t breathe on them anymore. We don’t wear the jewellery or comb our hair or put our feet in the tattered and bog-preserved shoes.

Except in our minds.

Anyone who thinks a museum is a dusty place where only nerds are allowed, is a sad sack. A museum hums with history. Whistles a very old tune on a bone flute and more of us should listen.

 

Fighting was on the curriculum at my secondary school. Punches flew, teeth rolled down the corridors like dice. There was blood enough for pudding on most days. Our young and enthusiastic drama teacher, Ms Hepplewhite already thought outside the box by incorporating ‘stage combat’ into our drama lessons, so that, when things did kick off, she could still retain some small element of control. If we fought in the drama block we did it with rapiers and morningstars made of wood and rubber and we adhered to the loosest interpretation of the Marquess of Queensberry rules. Unlike the science labs, where we torched each other with bunsen burners.

If you arrived home without a tear in your jumper and a black eye then, frankly, you hadn’t been doing your scholastic job.

I was not a good fighter due to a high level of basic fear and cowardice. During one altercation Beverley Fitzgibbon had attempted to rearrange my teeth with a single right hook but, unfortunately, my braces had already been trying to do the same task for about a year and so the gnarled skin of her knuckles locked into the fretwork grille of my face. There were several horror film moments filled with smearing blood and bits of finger before we were taken to the physics lab and lasered apart. This was occurring at much the same time that Richard Kiel was portraying everyone’s favourite Bond villain ‘Jaws’ and the film infected real life. A rumour began to circulate that I was the girl who had ‘eaten Beverley Fitzgibbon’s finger’.

This brought me, unexpectedly, to the attention of the proper school bully, one red-haired, flame-tempered Gemma O’Garr.

Gemma was the undisputed champion of our particular halls of Academe. She had flattened her last opponent without even removing her parka, her hand shooting out of the khaki green sleeve in something perilously like the mythic One Inch Punch. Of course that hand had not hefted the blow, the finisher had come from her other hand, cannoning upwards into the distracted face. Her footwork was worthy of the Bolshoi. Her battered trainer, the footwear itself a snub to the School Dress Code, could fly up at any angle to clip ear or nose, to crush the air out of an assailant’s chest. Her reputation carried a long dark shadow, sticky with blood. She was basically Boudicca.

Gemma had taken down the male bully, Martin Fieldhalgh by snapping his flick knife in two after slicing off his ear, and so I could see that I had no chance given that my only weapon was fear.

There was a build up to the fight which included the usual baiting and verbal abuse, much of which I appeared oblivious to because my face was frozen, the muscles spasmed into a blank as I channelled every small mammal’s go-to survival option; a desperate attempt to attain invisibility. Gemma had her cohort of cronies, those kids wise enough to realise that being on Gemma’s side meant you didn’t end up on the receiving end of her blows. I had nothing. I was a lone warrior.

The day of the fight was looming, imagine a big calendar with red crosses on it leading to one day with a skull and crossbones. There was no escape. Throwing a sicky wasn’t a option, it would just put off the terrible conflict. I began to read up about famous battles and long for advice from the Duke of Wellington. In the end it was Jasper Maskelyne, the war magician, who snapped his fingers and came to my aid.

20160314_133723The fight began with the circling of the Mob at the gates. Front row seats were to be had in the staff room where binoculars had been set up and a sweepstake was being run. Nothing was riding on me. The outcomes were a list of my possible broken bones and missing teeth. How many bones? How many teeth? It was a hundred to one that I might lose an eye.

I maintained my harvest mouse demeanour, having to push my way through the crowd to the tarmac arena where Gemma and her second were prowling to the chant of the Mob. GEM-AH GEM-AH GEM-AH and that was just the staff. I maintained my blank stare, my silence. Taunts were thrown and I stayed, shall we say, tight-lipped.

There was no whistle as such, just a primal war cry from GEM-AH as she launched herself at me like a panther on a sheep. She was surprised at the fact that far from push her away or attempt to rip off my own arm to escape, I  dug into the fight. I was head down, being pummelled but pushing against her so that we reeled around the arena. It was like dancing, me pushing forwards, now pulling back as she rained blows on me. As the chant became higher-pitched and more hysterical I leapt away, threw a wild punch that missed completely and almost rolled back round to hit me. GEM-AH grabbed my arm and made a punch at my stomach. As she did so I folded in half, blood spurtled scarlet from my mouth, spattering the floor. Only some of the Mob noticed and, repulsed, visibly backed off as GEM-AH kneed me in the face. There was a brief and bloody burst, the red squirting up into GEM-AH’s own face so that she was, at last, halted. She darted back, the red gloop slimy and dark and now the Mob saw the blood and bayed. I gave a scream that curdled the UHT milk in the school kitchens and lifted my face.

My left eyeball was a bloodied crimson pulp, ooze and goo dripped and sprayed as I wheeled around, screeching, banshee fashion and clutching at the hole where once my eye had been. The Mob saw the disaster at once and their scream was a single unifying sound that scythed its way over the Mob, some vomiting, some crying, others running for home, from the air it must have looked like an earthquake of teenagers rolling from an epicentre of gore.

The sound of my scream rang out, until the cassette tape it was playing out from started to chew into the workings of the small pocket recorder and I clicked it off.  I leaned against the school gate for some minutes, until the caretaker came to sluice away the mess.

The pulped beef tomato which had stood in for my eyeball, I lobbed over the first fence on my way home where a robin descended to peck at its remains. The red food colouring/Ketchup combo did not wash out of my school shirt but I had anticipated this and already saved some pocket money in order to buy a replacement. At home I cleaned my teeth, letting the vivid vermillion froth linger a little while in the sink as I breathed in, calm and deep.

For the next few months I wore an eyepatch to school and was given a wide berth by GEM-AH and pretty much everyone else. The eyepatch was ditched later and a rumour of a glass eye held sway. This glass bauble was referred to as The Evil Eye. Pupils crossed themselves in the corridors or carried garlic. I retreated into the waiting embrace of the Bronte sisters and shrugged my shoulders into a heavy cloak of invisibility.

Ms Hepplewhite gave me a gold star for Drama, stuck into my workbook with a knowing wink.

 
 

‘a highly original talent’ – Beryl Bainbridge

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