Saturday, 31 May 2014

My aunt won a screaming skull in a tombola at a church fête

My aunt won a screaming skull in a tombola at a church fête

“Of course they'd gagged it otherwise nobody would have been able to hear the Lord Mayor's speech.”

My aunt,Gladys, was describing in unnecessary detail the circumstances through which she came to be the owner of a screaming skull, that she had won in a tombola at the St Edwards church summer fête. The raffle was one of a number of money-making ventures aimed at raising funds for a commemorative sundial, marking the centenary of the birth of Sir Dennis Thatcher – the late husband of the recently deceased former Prime Minister – Baroness Margaret Thatcher. The face of the sundial was to be inscribed with a quote from Sir Dennis, concerning his tendency to lose his spectacles: "It would be fine if the housemaid didn't keep moving them around. I've said to her a hundred times before she tidies up to either leave them where they are or put them on the mantelpiece. She still insists on hiding them away." Curiously it was to be mounted on the exterior, east-facing wall of the bell tower, just below the steeple, where there had previously been a clock.

In life the skull had been the most highly-prized possession of Sir Robert Bleven. In 1541 no lesser figure than King Henry VIII had expressed his opinion that it would look much better mounted on a pike on the ramparts of the Tower of London. Bleven, who found himslef in the awkward position of being in disagreement with his monarch, reluctantly gave up his head only after several dull axe blows finally severed it from his neck. His pained screams carried him out of this world but sadly failed to usher him into the next.

“It was wearing a ball gag like you buy from an S.E.X. Shop,” continued my aunt over the whirr of an electric hand-whisk that was being brusquely wielded by her sister; the looped metal of the two fixed balloon whisks were in a state of perpetual collision rattling against the glass interior of the mixing bowl. Mindful of the children who were playing in the adjoining room my aunt had spelled-out the problematic word, underestimating the intelligence of the oldest child, Eunice, who seldom achieved anything less than a perfect score in vocabulary tests.

“Mummy, what's sex?”

“I'll tell you when you're 30,” her mother responded dryly, as the beaters of the hand whisk slowed to a standstill. “Until then I don't want to hear you mention that word again.”

When the ball gag was unfastened the skull began to issue an unending succession of blood-curdling shrieks. My aunt placed it on the kitchen counter next to the bowl of cake mix where it screamed for the duration of Here, There And Everywhere, which happened to be playing on the radio. By the time the song was over the novelty of a screaming skull had worn off and everybody was bored with it.

“Anyone would think you were giving birth to triplets,” scolded my aunt as she roughly refitted the ball gag with the overly-familiar air of someone who has done that kind of thing before.

Although initially my aunt planned to donate the skull to a local charity shop, she later had a change of heart and decided that she would hold on to it, in the hope that it would deter burglars and keep her cats company while she was at work.

What she had failed to take into account were the local by-laws that forbade screaming skulls from being kept within 100 yards of a public library. Unfortunately her home was located a mere 89 yards from Southchurch Branch Library – a world-renowned centre for the study of the writer Jilly Cooper. Furthermore her cats disliked the skull and when placed within its vicinity would dig their claws into the pile of the capret, push themselves up on their back legs and hiss. It was these two factors that convinced her to dispose of it.

That was how the screaming skull of Sir Robert Bleven came to be in the possession of me and the woman who I shamelessly introduce to family, friends and complete strangers as “my soul keeper.”

As a couple who make a dishonest living by purchasing a popular brand of mass-produced cupcake and then reselling them online garnished with trite inspirational slogans, we immediately looked for ways that we could use the skull to supplement our income.

An attempt to get it cast in the role of Yorick in a London theatre-land production of Hamlet came to nothing after the director blocked our phone numbers, and obtained a restraining order preventing us from venturing within 50 yards of him or any of the actors.

Equally unsuccessful were our plans to rent it out as an after dinner speaker at corporate events. Guests at the only booking we secured (a Christmas party) were reportedly confused by the significance of a skull placed stop a podium screaming at them for half an hour.

A friend tipped me off that, as designated keepers of the skull, we were entitled to tax credits. At the local HMRC office I was given a form to fill in: 'Does the screaming skull have its own room?' we were asked. 'No, we keep it in a soundproof box' was my honest response. This provoked a visit from a social worker who informed us that the skull had a right to self-determination and that we were acting against its human rights by stifling its freedom of expression. The now liberated skull provoked our neighbours into contacting the police with a complaint about the excessive noise. They, in turn, referred the case to the office of environmental health.

By this time we had discovered through a process of trial and error that the skull could be pacified by the two live-action Ghost Rider films. It would calm down whenever the eponymous hero was on screen but would scream at a louder volume than normal when confronted by the flesh and blood embodiment of Nic Cage.

One afternoon a vicar rang our doorbell offering to exorcise the skull. On another occasion we played host to a pair of TV ghost hunters who seemed perturbed to find themselves in a situation in which the restless spirit was already present and there was no need for them to linger in the darkness jumping at the slightest noise, while making occasional frightened dashes along gloomy corridors. The accompanying cameraman who had arrived with his night-vision equipment in tow seemed rather put out when I explained to him that we didn't mind paying to keep the lights on while they filmed. After a while the conversation dried up and we sat there awkwardly playing with our tea cups while the skull, which I had placed on a paper doily surrounded by triangles of highland shortbread, screamed and screamed.

Our most interesting visitor by a wide margin was a man named Percy Peel who recalled the screaming skull being used during World War II to erode enemy morale:

“We would put it in front of a radio mic and of course it would scream the place down. That got broadcast all over occupied France and Germany. I don't know how their soldiers took it. It used to annoy the living Jesus out of me. The Nazis had a whimpering skull which didn't have quiet the same effect although it could be disconcerting if you happened to be on your own.”

Eventually, having exhausted all other possibilities, we donated the skull to a sanctuary on Dartmoor where it will see out the remainder of its days in the company of other screaming skulls and a haunted shin bone. In the winter months they are kept in hutches in a heated barn. In the summer they are taken outside where there is a paddock and a pear orchard. A few times a year the skulls are visited by parties of children from nearby schools who paint them and decorate them with craft paper and wild flowers.

If there truly is a life beyond the veil of death then let it be like this.

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