As a child my father worked hard and seemed to be constantly at work. My mother enjoyed various activities set up by the WI and parish society and every Friday my mother went to sewing club. I would stay at my grandfather’s house. He was jolly but a slightly bewildered aging man. He had been an officer in the Great War who got shot in the leg during his time in Belgium and received many and silver and gold medals that he cherished but would not tell me what they were for. He lived alone in a grand Edwardian Mansion but only used three rooms. I barely saw him while I was there. He would sit in the living room and read a book for five minutes after which he would fall asleep.
I would run through the long corridors upsetting dust that had not been touched for twenty years. Every now and then pushing open a heavy door, listing to the creek, trying not to breath in immediately for the amount of dust. I held the door open worried that it might close behind me and that I would not be able to open it again. I would look around for the brass rim of the light switch. I would flick it down and the bare bulb would flick on for a moment. I would see the room and then it would flick out of sight and then back in. The next moment it would go out. This went on until the bulb had made up its mind whether to stay on or keep itself off. If off then I would wonder off not particularly upset, as I knew there were other rooms to explore.
If it stayed on, however, then I would see the room and the relics of my grandfather’s youth, guns and bayonets stuck to the wall or just left on the bed. Paintings the same, often just left on the floor. I once found an easel with a half done piece of work left half done. It had obviously been forgotten about a long time ago due to the dust resting and dulling on yellows, oranges and blues which looked like a Cornish beach scene. Next to the easel lay a pallet of dried up oil paints with a brush now dried into the Bolshevik red.
Most of all he had stuffed animals, mostly British: foxes, badgers, deer as well as a whole aviary of pheasants, grouse and flying birds. But these seemed very boring compared to the yellows, blues, greens and vivid reds of parrots frozen as they crack open a nut or just sit contentedly on their perch. As well as a crocodile with huge creamy teeth rounded at the end and snakes wrapped around logs, there were lions with beautiful but horribly greasy manes and tigers with orange and black backs and bright white under bellies. These entire animals were different, different colours, different sizes, different stances and you could even imagine different thoughts going through their heads.
In one way however they were all the same. Often you would see a cobweb strung by some imaginative spider between the ears of a gazelle grazing on a patch of yellow grass. Dust collected along the animals’ backs dulling their bright colours. I would name the animals and as an older child I would laugh at myself for I must have given loads the same name. There must have been at least five Fred Foxes and tens of Percy and Polly Parrots.
One animal however, I did not name. It was known to me simply as the Camel. Dust did not seem to settle on it, for unlike the other animals around it, it was completely clear. Spiders even did not dare step on it and a pathway had been cleared from the door to this animal. The taxidermist was obviously an amateur or other wise very bad at his job as the stitches were visible along the side of the animal and the tail was soft and mouldy. It was in fact horrible. It was clean though, not dusty and greasy like the badger sitting right next to it. I thought at first my Granddad must have cleaned it, but he could not walk up three flights of stairs, but it had been cleaned, and he had no servants.
I have since sold the house to some land developer who has split it up into apartments, taking the soul out of the place. He took all the animals saying that he was going to use them for decorations. He binned them. I am not surprised. I don’t really care. I only cared about the camel. It stands at attention in my living room now. In part as a tribute to my service in Tobruk, my grandson says, but I would rather forget that. It is just something I like, I love, I hate. It smells horrible; its hair is falling off. My son says it is rotting. The hair is an incredible shade of yellow, not this dirty brown like the ones you find in Africa, and I cannot smell the rot any more.
Everyone thinks I am mad, even my wife whom I lost contact with ten years ago. My family stick up for me but I know, though they won’t admit it, they also think I am mad. I know I am mad. I worry that in a moment of sanity that I will sell this disgusting camel that has plagued my life. Then I may stay sane and that I fear will not be so much fun.
Tom Shield was awarded the Military Cross for his service in Tobruk. His house burnt down in 1963. No possessions were saved. He stayed in his son’s house for three months. He was put into a residential centre for the aged. A month later he died.
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