City of Stories: Thomas Browne's Skull, by Hannah Garrard
PUBLISHED: 17:37 12 September 2014
Each week a piece of original fiction has been submitted to the City of Stories campaign by a Norwich writer. This week's story, titled Thomas Browne's Skull, is by Hannah Garrard:
An ethereal mist hung above the university lake, and Michael woke from his desk in time to see the last vestiges of it burn off as the sun rose. He’d fallen asleep in his office again. Beneath his folded arms were photographs of the church archive files he’d been working on - names of the dead and details of each burial. The phone rang:
“Michael?” said a woman’s voice on the other end. “Michael is that you?”
“I knew you’d be in your office. Last night, well, I was worried. You raced off so suddenly. Was the poetry really that bad? I rather like it.”
Michael winced at the memory. He and Lana had been at a poetry reading in the book department of Jarrolds - one of those family legacy department stores with the grand turn-of-the-century facade. Had it been a date? It was the first time he’d seen Lana wear lipstick and he didn’t even like poetry, but had agreed to go anyway. Yes, it had definitely been a date. Then, the poet who was reading dismal iambic pentameters about death- “A sombre beauty is never knowing” - had given him an idea.
“I’m so sorry,” Michael replied. “This thought came to me, about Thomas Browne, about the biography I’m writing.”
“I know about the biography,” Lana said, flatly.
“And I had to check the church records - I was sure I’d missed something.”
“And you fell asleep looking for it?”
“And did you find what you were looking for?”
Michael looked down at the scattered photographs. He’d found no mention of Browne’s grave.
“Lana I have to go - maybe we could get a coffee or something?”
“Maybe,” said Lana, and hung up.
Michael had dreamed last night. He’d dreamt he was WG Sebald again, searching the old Victorian hospital for Browne’s skull, barefoot and still wearing a hospital gown. Along the walls of each room he entered, were rows and rows of shelves with jars of formaldehyde stacked high. Strange objects inside them loomed, distorted in the curves of the thick glass, suspended and yellowing in the chemicals. But never any skulls. In his dream, urgency overwhelmed him - of finding Thomas Browne’s skull. Then he could write the closing chapter of his biography.
The archive receptionist hadn’t been very helpful when he’d visited the previous day. “I’m looking for information about a skull,” Michael had asked the silver-haired woman on the desk. She was reading Maeve Binchy.
She placed a finger on the page and looked up. “I beg your pardon?”
“Not just any skull - Thomas Browne’s.”
Michael had put his palms on the counter.
“Thomas Browne’s skull. Do you have any information about it? Like, where it might be for instance.”
“This is an archive centre, not a graveyard,” the woman said, pointedly.
“I can see that,” Michael replied. He was standing at the end of a long, thin corridor deep beneath the city’s library, the only light a narrow triangle from a tired lampshade that hung above the reception desk. Dust motes gambolled in the beam.
“Let me explain,” he continued. “I’m writing, a book - no, the official biography - on Thomas Browne. You must have heard of him, the 17th century scientist, philosopher, and philanthropist; there’s a big bronze statue of him near the library. You can’t miss him. Sits there like this.” Michael propped his head in his left hand and gazed at an imaginary object in his right.
“The statue near Primark?”
“Yes, yes.” And I need information on where his skull is because WG Sebald,” he paused. “You know Sebald, don’t you?”
“Of course,” the woman replied, touching her collar. Michael continued.
“Because WG Sebald said he couldn’t find him - his skull - in the old hospital. So I wondered if he might be here.”
“Who? Mr Sebald?”
“No. Thomas Browne. His skull, I mean.”
“Well you are welcome to look in the lost property box, but I’m almost certain there are no skulls in there.” She chuckled and issued him a ticket for the archive, then went back to her reading.
The church records were bound in an oversized ledger that required a large pair of tweezers to turn the pages, the paper being so old that it would tear easily. The records went back to 1430, the year the St Peter Mancroft church was built, and you could still make out the hand-written lines the clerk had made for each entry. Instead of spending hours in the gloomy archive chamber with a magnifying glass, Michael had taken photos of each page and taken them to his desk at the university to study. He was looking for evidence of Browne’s grave being tampered with amongst the tiny slanted handwriting. He was sure it must be here somewhere in the old ledger, in the two hundred and twenty-four years that had passed since Thomas Browne’s death. He’d gotten to 1860, then Lana had knocked on his office door, reminding him of their ‘arrangement,’ and he’d had to leave.
Michael spent the rest of the morning going through the records again, from the year Browne had died in 1682 to 2014 in the digital files he could access on the Internet. Nothing. He dialled Lana’s number.
“I’ve got the answer,” he said.
“Thanks to you and our poetry evening.”
“A sombre beauty is never knowing, remember? What does it matter what happened to Thomas Browne’s skull. It’s out there somewhere, perhaps even buried.”
“Keep him enigmatic, you mean?”
“Exactly. A missing skull from an exhumed grave is clandestine. Marketable. Cradle to grave biographies are no longer fashionable, anyway.”
“Your last chapter needs to be about this, Michael. I’m always telling my students to keep their lines of inquiry open.”
“I’m already there. And perhaps it will peak even more interest in Browne, and Norwich. I’m telling you, it’s perfect. Browne’s last publication was on funeral customs, and the fact that his final resting place remains a mystery is an irony he would approve of.”
“There’s your last line already. Let’s celebrate when you’ve finished your chapter.”
“Yes, let’s celebrate the never knowing.”