Slap a catalogue number on me, Henry.

Is there anything better than perusing glossy photographs of artificial limbs and trepanned skulls over one’s breakfast? I think you’ll find there isn’t.

This week, I won a copy of the Wellcome Collection’s brand new ‘Guide For The Incurably Curious’.

Wellcome is my favourite museum. If you have the slightest interest in wunderkammer, it’s a playground. The perfect balance of the medical, the historical, the scientific and the artistic, lovingly founded by Victorian philanthropist Henry Wellcome. Look upon his facial hair and tremble.

I’ve spent birthdays there, handling live leeches and drinking gin. I’ve seen Mexican miracle paintings there, verdigris mediaeval skeletons, and glass acorns for warding off lightning strikes. Once, an attendant saw how excited my friends and I were and fetched us goodie bags complete with wearable cardboard moustaches.

Science museums can feel unfriendly to artsy types, but at the Wellcome, the two disciplines interact. Upstairs, in the cool white Medicine Now room, slides of organs are displayed alongside barmy art (there’s a giant purple jellybaby as a metaphor for human cloning). Downstairs, in the darker, more anthropological Medicine Man room, you’ll find a wall of antique forceps and some beautifully detailed glass eyes which could easily be items of jewellery or sculpture. Plus, there’s a Bosch painting, and everyone loves a good Bosch.

But I think what I love the most about the Wellcome Collection is that, in a manner of speaking, I’m in it.

I have Marfan syndrome. The National Marfan Foundation explains:

Marfan syndrome is a disorder of the connective tissue.

Connective tissue holds all parts of the body together and helps control how the body grows.  Because connective tissue is found throughout the body, Marfan syndrome features can occur in many different parts of the body.

Marfan syndrome features are most often found in the heart, blood vessels, bones, joints, and eyes. Sometimes the lungs and skin are also affected.  Marfan syndrome does not affect intelligence.

Specifically, Marfans is caused by a kink in the fifteenth chromosome. So imagine the surreal excitement I felt when I turned a corner in the Wellcome Collection and came across this:

There it is. The Human Genome Project, chapter 15, subheading ‘Verity’s Wonky Genes’. I took it from the shelf with both hands. Buried amongst the reams and reams of baffling code inside was the string of glyphs that spelled out Marfan Syndrome.

Only one in five-thousand people have Marfans. The syndrome will generally make you around six feet tall and willowy in build, with exceptionally long, spidery fingers and toes. You may have a curvature of the spine or an uneven ribcage, and you can probably bend your thumbs into strange angles. Abraham Lincoln probably had it, as did Jonathan Larson, Joey Ramone, and, I strongly suspect, Lux Interior of The Cramps.

Marfans can affect you in all sorts of strange, annoying, sometimes life-threatening ways. Individual Marfs differ. As for me, I’m well looked-after by good doctors. I pace myself, I watch my diet and try not to be a stubborn ass when it comes to clinging to the barrier at Morrissey concerts or vigorous charity shopping the weekend after minor heart surgery. (Although holding hands with Morrissey and acquiring an antique nursing chair for £10 were worth the resulting drama).

One of the things about having an unusual health problem is that you can end up feeling alienated. That’s why I love the Wellcome Collection. Things that could be clinical or morbid, like Jennifer Sutton viewing her old heart after her successful transplant, are greeted with curiosity and joy.

It’s an ambition of mine to get Marfans into the Wellcome more prominently. Short of standing in the entrance hall with a sign on me, I don’t know how to raise awareness. I’m not quite ready to donate my hands. But it’s a syndrome that really lends itself to art. Maybe I can use my nonexistent artistic ability to chop up my MRIs in a nice lightbox, or draw an Edward Gorey-esque bunch of spidery fingers. Or, better still, persuade someone  who actually knows what they’re doing to put Marfans in front of the lens, like Alexa Wright’s ‘After Image’ series.

Where’s an artist when you need one?

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The Girl In The Yard

Lately, I’ve been reading Peter Ackroyd’s The English Ghost: Spectres Through Time, a compendium of hauntings scattered across English history. I love Peter Ackroyd. He is my favourite walrus-shaped historian. I once had a dream in which we were best friends and he’d allow me to lounge around on scatter cushions in his flat at the top of an old London warehouse, reading his tomes while he organised his cravats*.

Being a series of short witness-accounts of strange occurrences, there are a lot of ghosts to take in. Just when I’ve decided on a favourite, Peter Ackroyd presents me with something twice as horrible oozing out of a seventeenth century cupboard and I have to revise my leader-board accordingly. There’s the bodiless entity creeping around Ely, punching people in the side of the head. Then the man in the dripping raincoat, who seems to love being run over on the A38 again and again. And I couldn’t leave out Borley Rectory, the supernatural fire-safety story. Whether you believe in them or not, the history of England is riddled with boggarts, bugs, wraiths, shucks and clabbernappers.

So here’s my contribution.

I was nineteen and living alone in a flat in one of the three-storey Victorian houses on Cambridge’s Chesterton Road. The ceilings were high, the heating was sluggish, and the basement flat – for some unknown and therefore definitely sinister reason – was only ever rented to men. The men had two entrances separate to the main building where the women lived. One was at the front, down a set of steps behind some iron railings, and the other was down another set of steps in the paved yard out the back. It was here that I met my ghost.

It was an old house but it wasn’t a creepy one. I had a room on the ground floor, with a miniature kitchen, a computer desk in the old fireplace nook and a small wall-mounted bookcase with closed sides, packed tightly with books. I never saw the other residents, even in passing, (I kept student hours), but I liked it that way. Only one or two odd occurrences made me pause. The first involved the bookcase.

Quite often, when I came in from my classes at Anglia Ruskin, my books would be on the floor. The one I usually found six feet from my little bookcase was Literary Theory: An Anthology, 1336 pages long, weighing as much as a carrier bag full of sand. If it had slipped off the shelf, it wouldn’t have bounced cheerfully across the carpet for such a distance. But it did, repeatedly, and only while I was out.

This didn’t worry me. My half-serious theory was that some disembodied visitor objected to the cover art – a Victorian surgeon contemplating an inappropriately alluring female corpse – so I’d apologise out loud and place the book back on the shelf. The ‘rearrangements’ kept happening, but they weren’t distressing. I wasn’t expecting a one-to-one audience with a full-body apparition.

As it happened, the afternoon I saw her, I wasn’t alone. My dad had come over from Ipswich to visit, and we were out in the yard. He was subjecting my bike to a bit of no-nonsense-Navy-engineer maintenance. He wanted me to cycle back and forth from classes, but I’m a ditherer, and cycling in a city seems like just another way for me to end up in hospital. My bike had lain dormant for months under a plastic sheet, and dad was grappling with it in the small bike shelter as I loitered a few feet away by the steps leading down to the men’s basement flats.

I don’t know what made me turn around. But when I did, I was facing a young woman holding a tray. Her muscles were in the process of dropping the tray – a kind of frozen flinch – because I’d startled her. Which, I suppose, was natural, as she was a maid in a long blue dress and apron and I was a six-foot vision of the future in drainpipe jeans and smeared eyeliner. She was solid, around five-feet-seven, dark-haired, and her uniform was similar to this unnamed girl’s on the right.

I registered all this within the space of two seconds. There wasn’t time to speak. She was gone. She didn’t disintegrate, or fade, or even just wink out. I can only say that she simply wasn’t there any more.

Rather than the ice-crystals-in-the-blood shock so many people in Peter Ackroyd’s book reported after meeting with ghosts, I felt guilty. I wasn’t frightened, but she most definitely was. I think she must have dropped her tray, whenever the connection faltered and she found herself alone. I turned back to dad, who was still engrossed in my flat tires, and never mentioned the girl to him.

In The English Ghost, Peter Ackroyd describes the categories of hauntings: the conscious souls of the dead, the replaying of actions, nature spirits, omens good or bad… but I believe my ghost wasn’t a ghost at all. I think there was a glitch in time; a window allowing us to see each other. Perhaps the moving books were a symptom of whatever quantum hiccup was focused on the house. It’s fun to speculate, and I especially like the possibility that maybe, just over 100 years ago, a parlour maid rushed back into the scullery after breaking a trayful of china, and told her friends about me – the girl in the yard.

* There’s still time, Peter, if you’re reading this.

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