The Cabinet of Curiosities (part 1)

(the part with no cabinet of curiosities in it)

Should you ever visit the 23thorns household, please be careful about what you touch. Not that your touching our stuff would bother us; we gave up any rights to possessions of our own the day nature started using bits of Mrs 23thorns and me to form smaller, less co-ordinated versions of ourselves with poor impulse control and a complete absence of common sense.

Nope. We are not worried about our stuff. We are worried about your peace of mind.

It’s all Mrs 23thorn’s fault.

Mrs 23 thorns, you see, has a “more is more” approach to interior decorating. Our bed currently has forty eight pillows on it. We lost the girl child in it one Friday afternoon a few weeks ago, and only found her on Sunday morning, by following the trail of dry chocolate cereal she had cleverly left under the duvet.

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It once took us three weeks to realise the bed had been stolen.

But it is not pillows that concern us now. It’s little boxy things. Little antiquey boxy things, made of china, or silver, or pewter, with hallmarks or pottery marks or porcelain marks on the bottom, and blackened, creaky hinges, and strange, ancient residues lurking in hard-to-reach corners. Mrs 23thorns tells me they are pill boxes. She tells me she is collecting them because they are beautiful and bring a small part of history alive.

This is a lie.

She is using them to spite me because I can’t get into the habit of using a coaster. Her plan is a simple one; she has covered every square centimetre of every surface of our house with Victorian pill boxes. I haven’t been able to put a glass down in our house for seven years. If I want something to drink these days, I have to tie it around my neck with a leather cord and sip it through a straw. Or I have to wear my special hat. The children have taken to drinking their own bath-water to stay hydrated.

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It’s best to give me a 2 metre “circle of avoidance” when I’m wearing my special hat.

So what has any of this got to do with your peace of mind? Well, every single one of those boxes has something inside it. There are rusted old keys that belong to long forgotten locks; there are brightly coloured little elastic bands; shells; obscure coins from countries none of us have visited. There are acacia thorns and chewed-up chewing gum (boy children are gross). There are buttons, and beads, and curtain hooks, and spent watch batteries.

As of last week, about seven of them were filled with home-made “lip balm” brewed up by Mrs 23thorns and Miss 23thorns. They claim it is made out of coconut oil and lavender essence. I think it is made of lard. So does the dog. You can spot the lip balm pill boxes because they have tooth marks all over them and smell of dog-breath.

In one of the most enticing boxes, a flashy little porcelain number with a pheasant on top, there is a dead toad. A very, very dead toad.

Upside down, he is exquisite; a thing of surpassing beauty. I found him in our borehole pumphouse under an old bag of cement. He must have died there quite some time ago, out of reach of anything large enough to crush his delicate bones or drag bits of him off to gnaw at in hidden corners. He was cleaned by ants, busy little surgeons with a touch so delicate that even the toes, as fine and as fragile as needles of glass, are still in place. To turn him over and examine him is to view a museum specimen.

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As long as you’re not too discerning about which museums you visit.

You won’t be turning him over, though. You will be meandering around my house trying to find a place where you can put your glass down when your attention will be attracted by a little porcelain pill box with a pheasant on it. You will open it. He will be in there. And he won’t be upside down. Right way up, he looks like he has come for a small piece of your soul.

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BRAAAIIINS!!!!

I am not suggesting, for even half a second, that you are the sort to be frightened by dead amphibians, though. Nope. The workings of the 23thorns household are more insidious than that. You would already have been thrown off balance by your inability to put down your glass, and if we did not immediately take to you, we would have put you to the test by bringing you another two drinks without taking any of your empty glasses away.

Pretty soon, you would start to worry. Not about dead toads, but about people. The sort of people would keep dead toads in pillboxes sitting on the table in their foyer.

This process would be helped along by the eleven-year-old boy in the corner with the vacant stare who kept twitching and grunting while making vague intentional movements with his arms, and the six-year-old girl who kept grinning at you without blinking. That’s when we would tell you about the dead cow’s head we had buried in the flowerbed.

Don’t worry about the kids. The boy is merely busy fighting off a marauding band of orcs in an unseen corner of his imagination, while the girl-child is waiting for you to say something about her freshly missing front teeth. And the cow’s head? Don’t worry about that either. There’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for it, too.

It was a gift from a friend.

Yup. Some people get flowers. I got the head of a freshly-killed cow that had apparently been slaughtered with a sledgehammer. It was handed over to me in a plastic shopping bag in a busy shopping mall.

Blood and small, clotted masses of brain tissue had pooled in the bottom of the bag, and were slowly starting to drip down onto the pristine white tiled floor. I felt the head through the thin plastic of the bag. It wasn’t moving right. Small bits of bone grated against each other, and when I felt the horns, they jiggled slightly, like loose teeth in a six-year-old girl. I did the only thing a man could do under such circumstances. I bought five kilograms of rock-salt and a plastic bucket, and set forth home, leaving a trail of blood and gristle behind me.

I popped the shattered head into the bucket and covered it with rock-salt, tucked it away on a shelf in an outside room and carried on with my day. And the day after that. And the day after that. Then Mrs 23thorns told me I wasn’t allowed to keep a rotting dead cow’s head in a bucket full of rock-salt in the outside room. She can be a little tricky sometimes.

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I don’t wish to sound sexist, but choosing gifts for women is next to impossible.

I washed the rock-salt off the head, while demonstrating truly masterful control over my gag reflex, and buried it in the flowerbed. As one does.

Fear not, gentle reader. The 23thorns household has not begun the slow descent into serial-killerdom. We are a sensible lot, and everything we do, we do for a reason. And the reason for all this? It’s rather simple.

Termites.

We have a large, barely-controlled garden that we are trying to fill with life. Up until now, we have tolerated whatever pests have moved in in the hope that nature would sort them out in the end. So far, she has done.

But then, a couple of years ago, termites moved into the bottom edge of our lawn. And ate it.

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To be fair, we might not have watered as often as we should have, either.

 

There was a simple solution. Poison.

Hah. Simple solutions are for simple people. Instead, we dug up the lawn and filled the space with a snake-mountain, the upside-down fibreglass cap of a thatched roof, and a shed filled with dead animals. Again, as one does.

I don’t feel like I’m explaining this very well. Let me start again.

A few years ago, we inherited an old and decaying plywood shed. I painted it to look like a quaint stone cottage and set it up in the darkest, most remote part of the garden for the children to play in.

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We told them there was a troll living underneath to to spark their childish curiosity.

For some reason, they never used it.

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This reason. Yes, those are baby spiders. And yes, that bag made of leaves and silk is where their mother lives…

Nerds. It lay fallow for years, slowly filling with broken pots, rusty old wheelbarrows, offcut pipes, unused tiles and black widows, as such places do.

It stopped being quaint after about 2 weeks and became a hideous eyesore that we simply ignored until the termites ate our lawn.

We dug up the scraggly remains of the termite-blighted lawn and piled them up on one side. That left us with a vast open patch of soil and a mound of turf. I discussed the matter with the girl-child, and we agreed that the best solution was to move the shed up to the newly denuded patch, restore it, and convert it into a man-cave for Dad.

She thought that this was a wonderful idea, and immediately set about deciding which of her Barbies would be moving into the man-cave, and what furniture they would be bringing with them.

I sat her down and explained to her as gently as I could that a man-cave was a special place that Dads built so they could hide away from people like her and Barbie for a little while each day. She explained to me as gently as she could that she knew that, and that was why she was choosing only her best seven Barbies to go and live there. Mrs 23thorns can smell blood in the water better than any shark, and came bustling through at high speed to suggest we paint the man-cave aquamarine and white, and surround it with Peonies and Nasturtiums. She looks harmless, but the woman has a mean streak.

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At least she chose the manliest of flowers…

I decided that a battle deferred is a battle won, and set to work. I emptied out the broken pots, rusty old wheelbarrows, offcut pipes and unused tiles from the shed, and made a pile of them in the middle of the open patch. Then I piled the old turf on top of them, making sure to leave a couple of entrances open to the junk beneath.

I did not do this because I was too lazy to take the junk to the dump. I did it because I want snakes in my garden. These snakes.

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I don’t think the person who named them knew how lips worked.

That’s a Red-Lipped Herald. A few years ago, our neighbour decided to clean up an old pile of wood at the bottom of his garden. He got a team of guys in to carry it out to the pavement one day, and when I arrived home, there it lay. On it lay five dead Red-Lipped Heralds. Which is a little upsetting. Red-Lipped Heralds are only mildly venomous, and live on frogs and toads. There is no need to kill them.

My garden is full of frogs and toads. And now that I have built them a hollow snake mountain next to my aquamarine man-cave, the Heralds are bound to move in. Me and the seven best Barbies in the family will sit among the peonies and watch them sunning themselves on sultry summer afternoons as we hide from the girls.

Or at least that’s the plan. So far I’ve just got a pile of old grass on top of a rusty old wheelbarrow and some broken pots. At least things eventually started growing on it.

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That dark part at the bottom there is where the snakes are supposed to go in.

Which leads me to the upside down thatched-roof cap. The snake mountain, you see, started to reach a dangerous height long before I ran out of turf. I had to stop building it before it toppled over on one of the children and someone called family services (we wouldn’t stand a chance if they found out about the dead toad and the cow’s head).

Which left me with a large pile of turf.

I have long had a theory that Mrs 23thorns is secretly attracted to men with hernias, so I went out and collected a bunch of huge rocks. I made another tiny mountain of turf, and used the rocks to build a tiny cliff along one edge of it.

It turns out tiny cliffs look a little odd, so I decided to build a tiny lake at the bottom of it. And how do you make tiny lakes? Out of upside down fiberglass thatched roof caps, of course.

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A fiberglass thatched roof cap. Or half of Madonna’s bra. Google wasn’t clear.

The tiny lake wasn’t just there to add scale to my tiny cliff. It was there to act as a breeding pond for more frogs and toads. Which would attract more Red-Lipped Heralds to the snake mountain. Which would make me and the seven best Barbies in the family happy.

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I know that all you can see is a pond with some stones behind it. I see a tiny cliff and a tiny lake. Self delusion is a gift.

And then it was time to move the shed. I carried it up piece by piece (in the hopes of delighting Mrs 23thorns with a really spectacular hernia), bolted it all back together, and clad it in white and aquamarine planks.

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Until I built this, I was convinced that this colour was “blue”. The girl child assures me it is “aquamarine”.

Which leads me to the title of this post. And the dead toad in the Victorian pill box.

Right from the outset, I knew in my heart of hearts that I would never get a man-cave. Me-time is not a thing in our family. The only way you get to be alone in our house is if you stop bathing, and even that doesn’t work if anyone has a cold.

I also knew that my children would not spend any significant amount of time in a shed down at the bottom of our garden. Particularly not if some fool let it slip that said shed was the centrepiece of a garden designed to attract semi-venomous snakes (In my defence, I had no idea the kids would be so underhanded as to eavesdrop on the private progress meeting I was conducting with the seven best Barbies in the family).

So what do you do with an aquamarine and white shed surrounded by peonies, tiny cliffs, nasturtiums and snake mountains? If you are married to Mrs 23thorns, you look to history.

History has some cool stuff in it, like Vikings and tarantism.

And cabinets of curiosities. Those are beyond cool. And are, traditionally, Barbie free. From the moment I first saw one, I wanted one. And now I’ve got one. Or rather I’m getting one.

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Sadly mine will have slightly fewer human skulls in it.

I’ll tell you all about it when it’s ready. I have no idea when that will be. That depends on how long it takes the ants to strip the flesh from the shattered cow’s head in the flower bed. And how long it takes the enormous emerald beetle living in our TV room to die.

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I’m not saying I wish he would hurry up and die, but those matches are there just in case he is into self immolation…

I found him dying in the street the other day and took him home. I popped him into an old fish tank to live out his final moments, so I could mount him and frame him and stick him up on the wall.

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He is still there, feeding cheerfully off slices of apple and human fear. When he is done, my cabinet of curiosities will be done, and I’ll show it to you. And explain why I have a cow’s head in the flowerbed. And a dead toad in a pill box in the foyer.

Don’t hold your breath, though. He appears to be immortal.

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The wisdom of the ancients.

I can’t remember how old I was when I discovered Thor Heyerdahl, but I remember being deeply impressed. Here was a radical new approach to archaeology. This guy wasn’t pottering away in some dusty museum office, or scrabbling around in the dirt looking for tiny bones with a tiny brush. No. This guy was doing it himself. He was living history! And he was doing it by making boats out of sticks and growing enormous beards! I wanted to be him.

It takes an almost mythical beard to overcome the ridiculousness of that hat.

It takes an almost mythical beard to overcome the ridiculousness of that hat.

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Gulag Zen

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“I”, she said, fixing me with an unnervingly level stare, “am going out!”

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“No. I am going out. For the day. Alone.”

“But what abou….”

“I”, she cut in, “am going now.”

“Are you taking the ki…”

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Writer’s block, or gardening as an extreme sport.

I have reached the point I always reach when trying to write. I have my plot, I have my characters, the family are all asleep and I’m feeling good. There’s a problem, though. I haven’t even finished the first chapter, and all I want to do is go outside and do some gardening.

I’m sure that when you hear the word “gardening”, the picture that immediately springs to mind is of a cheerful little old lady in a large sunhat, lovingly tending her rosebushes with a dinky little pair of clippers while she waits for her tea to cool down. That’s not how we do it. For me, proper gardening should break your heart and leave you crippled, at least for a day or two.

You see, I learnt my love of gardening from my father and, while in all other areas of his life he may be one of the sanest, most rational, sensible people I know, when it comes to his garden he is not all there. Continue reading