There was a medical museum downstairs, next to the entrance to the lecture theatre, in a small rectangular basement room with tall glass cases lining the walls. The first thing I saw in there was a caul, spilling out of a specially made engraved silver receptacle. I had never seen a caul before. It was strangely white, intricate and beautiful, as if brocaded out of sea foam. They are rare (one in 80,000 births) and there are several kinds; one of which comes as a full helmet, attached by buds of tissue to the skin of the head and hooked behind the ears. This one was old, eighteenth century I think. You couldn’t help but wonder who it had belonged to. Napoleon was born in a caul; so was Lord Byron; and David Copperfield, even though he is a fiction. Freud, Liberace and Lillian Gish; but this one did not look like it had covered the faces of any of them. Cauls are, famously, thought to be a prophylactic against drowning.
Most of the rest of the museum was given over to the display of instruments of the gruesome, superseded kind. There were many ingenious tools for removing bullets from different parts of the bodies of those wounded in battle; and, even more alarming, instruments whose purpose was the taking out of gall or kidney stones. Despite myself, I became fascinated with these. Those unfortunates who were to be operated upon were strapped into a special chair, which was open below: extraction was generally accomplished by means of an incision in the perineum; the surgeon worked from underneath. The instrument, like a long, narrow set of pincers, was pushed upwards and probed about in the abdominal cavity until it could grasp the stone in its claws and then withdraw. The operation, a wall text explained, was bloody and extremely painful. Hence the leather straps which held the patient imprisoned for the duration in that sinister chair. I shuddered and moved on.
In a case on the third wall there was another intriguing object: a piece of pounamu, New Zealand greenstone, in a leather pouch. Perhaps twenty centimetres long and cylindrical or hexagonal—or something of that nature. It was hard to see if, or how much, the jade had been worked because it was still mostly within its pouch. Made of the bright green kind called kawakawa, it belonged to Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery during World War Two. A friend, a doctor from New Zealand (how I wish I had remembered to write down his name!) had given it to Monty in 1944, for luck, and he had carried it on his person from that moment until the war was over. That is, from a month before the D Day landings and on through all subsequent actions until May, or perhaps even August, 1945.
That pounamu helped to win the war! I thought. Ka pai. It seemed a propitious moment to leave the Royal College of Physicians behind. I wandered back across Regents Park and, on the other side, at 219 Baker Street, came across a bookshop called The Alef and went in to check it out. Borgesian as that name sounds, it was in fact the newly opened London branch of Egypt’s largest chain of bookstores, and mostly sold texts in Arabic or texts that were translations from the Arabic; many gorgeous editions of the Koran. Alef’s mission is, their website says, to create highly knowledgeable, intellectual and well-read Arab communities throughout the world.
I was feeling distinctly odd by now and when I strayed, almost by accident, into the Sherlock Holmes Museum next door at 221B, it was too much: the souvenirs of someone else who never existed, the clutter of high priced tat, the monogrammed coffee mugs and deer-hunter hats and curved tobacco pipes—but no fits for the injection of cocaine—the looming cheerfulness of the uniformed factotum whose job it was to divest you of the large number of pounds it cost to enter the inner sanctum . . . it was all too much. Mind you, had I seen a T shirt with Benedict Cumberbatch’s face emblazoned upon it, I would have bought one—not for me, for a teen I know who is a fan as well.
Instead I fled, and in the Globe Hotel on Marylebone Road, drank the gassy Stella Artois they had on tap and chatted with a Scottish family, down for the football, until I was ready to go to the burger bar just up the way for a bite to eat and a glass or three of red wine. I was trying to stay awake until night fell; two long episodes of narcoleptic wakefulness followed by two marathons of frantic walking through airport terminals; plus a day on the streets of London; had left me somewhat fatigued. All that imagery buzzing in my head needed the bedding down and editing that dreams provide.
Later, when night had come, and I was drifting off to sleep in my room at the Americana, a line from one of the poems I wrote the last time I was here came back: In Baker Street will you find the key to the mystery? I could hardly believe how dumb I must have been then; nor how good it felt not to be that person anymore; while at the same time knowing he was still somewhere there inside of me, like a mutant shrouded in a caul perhaps, or a shape-shifter chained within one of those trunks Harry Houdini—an illusionist, but not a fiction—had, with incomparable panache, scant difficulty in escaping from.