When G moved in many years ago, the wooden shelf above the old Metters cooker held a handful of my special objects. I am not sentimental and I don’t keep stuff. He took over the shelf and it became his place for his eclectic array of old toys and figures.
One of my special objects is the talus bone from the hock of a horse. It is sculptural. It is smooth and hard. It has a groove, so that when the bone is held in your hand like a ball, your finger lies snugly there. It has no smell. It is inert and unchanging. No hint of rock or wood. It is heavy and yellowed like aged parchment.
I am lying in hospital, only weeks since car collided with tree and my own spine snapped like a mere twig.
A bearded man comes to visit. Like many before him he brings a gift. Others have brought flowers and food. He is not like others. He still wears tweed jackets with leather patches at the elbows. He walks with a swagger like his trousers are too big, his feet unknown to him.
I am not able to sit up. I lie alternatively on one side and then the other and finally flat on my back. The bed has a special name. Every two hours it swings into action, operated by a single nurse. It is a spinal bed, designed to prevent pressure sores while the patient is immobilized. When finally I move to the spinal ward the bed will be replaced with three men whose job it is to turn people without twisting their spines. They are called the turning team. I grow to love them. To drink I use a sipper cup like a baby and am fed spoonfuls of mush as I lie on my side. I give up eating.
He enters the ward and stands looking at me. Everyone does this. Inspects me. I am a prisoner to their gaze, strapped into my bed. In his hand, held down by his side, is the bone. Perhaps he thinks twice before parting with it. He holds it like a bowler walking to his mark. Before he gives it to me he makes me name it. Talus? The most beautiful of bones. The man is an anatomist. Structure and function is his thing. He is giving me a treasure.
He pulls up a chair. Even someone as clunky as he can sit, can walk, can move. It irks me. He hands me the bone and my finger finds the groove too. Something to hold, he says.
I will never work with horses. I will never work with cattle. But I can admire the design of nature and together we talk about the magnificence of the horse. My fingers can feel the bone. They can find its curves, its waves, its hollows.
We talk of the stay apparatus of tendons in a horse’s legs that allow it to stand for hours without becoming tired, the chordae tendineae in the valves of the heart, the cleverness and delicateness of any spine. You are still a vet, he says to me.
My eyeballs are aching. Tears amass behind the globes. How many tears can you cry before you can make no more? Did you know the tears of sadness are not the same as those when you have grit in your eye? But I don’t really know the bearded man. He is a lecturer. He is kind. He understood that vet students were not always intrigued by the curves of the liver and the way the diaphragm shouldered it. He stood at the front of the lecture theatre and performed, all the while hitching up his trousers. He tried hard to get us to love anatomy as much as he did.
Seated at stainless steel tables we worked on the formaldehyde cadavers of greyhounds not fast enough to run the track. The smell attacked your nose and made your eyes sting. Tears of the unsad kind. We rushed through our labs to get away from the fumes. We didn’t draw neatly enough. We didn’t take enough care. We failed to see the beauty in the talus when it was shown to us.
Now I see it. I cherish it.