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Rupert McKay

The Skull.

Posted: 23 Sep 2023

There's a skull on my shelf. I'm not kidding. It's a real human skull.

I used to spend every summer with a family in Holland. The grandfather of the family was called Henk Pelser. He was a medical student in Amsterdam when World War II broke out. To the Nazis he was an Aryan, and he could simply have kept out of trouble in occupied Netherlands. But he saw Nazism for the evil it was and spent all his time being a thorn in their side, at great personal risk.

There's an organisation in Israel called Yad Vashem, who are dedicated to the remembrance of the holocaust and those who resisted. Here is their page on Henk Pelser.

Henk died in 2007. He seemed to die by choice. His wife Sara had died of throat cancer shortly before. Around the time she died, Henk had been recovering from a hip replacement. He was doing simple exercises everyday to get used to walking again. But when Sara died, he just stopped trying. I remember him staying in that chair. His daughter, Simcha, would speak quietly to him, but he was adamant, there was nothing left for him without Sara.

At his funeral they played a piece of music from a dutch nursery rhyme. It was the tune he would whistle outside Sara's window when they were just teenagers in Amsterdam. She would come to the window even when her parents wouldn't let her out, just so that they could see each other every day.

After his death, we had to go through the sombre process of looking through all his things and seeing what ought to be kept. It was then that we found the skull. No one knows how or when he got it. But it had a pair of pins embedded on either side, which hinted at our best guess: it may have originally been part of a complete preserved skeleton arranged on a scaffold and used as a teaching aid for medical students. You don't often see these around anymore, and even when you do, they tend to be made of something synthetic. Originally however these were made from the remains of a real human.

So there it was. A skull.

No one else wanted it. They ummed and ahhed. It couldn't possibly be thrown away, but no one had the stomach to keep it. I had been respectfully silent all day. I'm not a blood relative after all, and was only there as a spare pair of hands. But finally I suggested that I could take it. To my surprise no one disagreed.

Since then the skull has stayed with me. First I had I took it in hand luggage to England, and then it travelled with me again when I moved to the Netherlands permanantly. On both occasions I did not declare it and security never seemed to notice it.

The skull still sits on my shelf. Some nights before I go to bed, I'll rest my hand on the crown. I'm not sure what I intend by this. But I have this almost desperate sense of wanting to understand what it means for this artefact to represent the remains of a human story. I know nothing about this story. I do not know the skull's age, gender or origin. But as I rest my hand on the crown, I will sometimes rest my other hand on my own head. In that moment I try to capture the feeling that I'm just a big bag of bones. That my two hands contain only superficially different contents. Somehow this calms me. I sleep easier when I can clear my mind of the day to day.