The Secret Life of the Victorians
It was the year of tickets. We queued for seven hours in the rain to watch a sold-out autopsy. The operating theatre brimmed with the crunching music of munched toffee apples, whilst the surgeon removed a steam engine from the chest of a shivering blue corpse. Afterwards in a generous spirit everyone rushed to the poorhouse carrying juggling balls and buckets of nails. Meanwhile vegetables grew in the opium rooms and Madame Blavatsky was so successful that the middle classes began to levitate each morning to avoid the dog-like shadows of hansom cabs in the rush hour.
My great aunt was one of the last slaves of binoculars, which she wore backwards, as was the fashion, in order to see the world blurred and indistinct. It was the age of the impressionists, where couples merged into one another on the street while the giant monoliths of public transport melted into dribbling ice creams. The whole house shivered when she fired at the kitchen mice with her double-barrel shotgun. She wore a wig made of wire, with which she would occasionally wash the dishes when all of the servants were watching blurred parades of blossoming specks of colour. We buried her standing up, the chattering mice dressed as Tahitian queens dancing in the blonde shock of her nest of hair.
Did we play chess fairly? Never. Gladstone and Disraeli once played with live parrots, which squawked and tossed bark and cuttlefish across the table at number ten. Neither could remember which of them was in charge at the time, and that had seemed the best way to settle things. The dead Prince finally arrived for the party to tame the birds with card tricks, which the guests were forced to feign amazement at. Dust and mould dripped from his medals. Later he played a recorder and the ministers set about learning the latest polka, whilst all the wrinkled wives, hoping to grow back their teeth, gathered round to stroke Browning’s beard.
For dinner the Duke served a Zulu warrior he had had transported in from the colonies. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said, raising the carving spear, ‘tastes just like chicken’. The beautiful young mistresses of the elite picked gristle from their teeth for the next few days and found themselves shrinking in the following weeks. To avert the diminishing size of the nation the Queen was wheeled out to break champagne on a rotting rowboat in the Pennines and the Siamese twins on tour from the Orient were examined to definitively prove that foreigners are born without souls. Meanwhile the dust curled itself into commas haunting crossroads. Yes, there was nothing more beautiful than hunger.
He would spite his wife by buying her chocolate. She in turn used to invite the pastor round to tea and serve him dripping sandwiches on the finest silverware while asking him questions about the nature of ether and infinity. Their house twitched like the gleaming spur of a cowboy boot. He bit holes in her stockings while she invented theorems to prove the impossibility of love. She won all the arguments with silence, and he spat cufflinks when the black hole he discovered turned out to be a dead fly splayed across the telescope lense, while to prove Darwin wrong the pastor grew a tail.
Uncle Frederick disappeared in a photograph. I heard grandmamma say that his soul is floating in water, perfectly still; he even sleeps with his eyes open. Someone said that it’s like lightning, and you must pretend to be dead for an hour so that the hooded box can swallow you. Between its crisp corners I make out his rhubarb crumble moustache, and the tie pin he only wore that once. No one talks of the girl next to him in the picture. I scour carnival posters to see if he will come round with the circus. He never does. At Christmas we take him out and my brother rubs him like a genie’s lamp and makes a slim place for him at the table. The dog will not come near him. He seems to like his thin glass case, but it is hard to be sure as he has never smiled, though sometimes cook rings a bell before dinner while we’re playing croquet and the sky rises over the house like cataracts.