The envelope merely stated: ‘To the young lady who lives in the basement flat’.

There was a single sheet of paper inside, upon which was written a poem, in firm black ink. Catriona read it quickly, unable to take in the words.

To “The Lady‑with‑the‑Sky‑in‑her‑Hair”

Your black hair, glossy,

Reaches out

And entwines the blue sky,

Wraps it

In shining fingers

And pulls it down

Around your head,

Like a blue, silk shawl.

You are a celestial pillar,


In beautiful, fierce anger.

And even the cat

Is cowed.’

There was no signature. She read it again, and now she knew who had written it. She saw herself, raised high above the viewer’s head, enhanced through his vision, and she was moved and excited. But she was also fearful, that he should interpret her in this way, and thus ensnare her.

As she folded the piece of paper, she saw another line of writing, on the back: ‘What you need is a Tom!’ Even as she read this suggestion (or was it a proposition?), she thought she knew what was in the black plastic sack, upon which the envelope had been propped: and she was disgusted.


There was another dead cat in the lane behind the terrace. Catriona could just make out its shape, where it lay stiffly in the mud. She hung her tights on the washing‑line, then leaned over the railings to stare down. The lane was a dark, rutted gorge, its cobbles long since displaced by heavy lorries and an endless sequence of men with road‑drills, spades and inappropriate tarmac. It was bounded by stone walls that were pierced by wooden doors, some strong and locked, like Catriona’s, others broken and hanging. Behind the walls and their backgardens and dustbins rose even higher walls, four storeys high, of stern Victorian terraces.  The cat, once so large and vivid orange, was diminished and darkened by the surrounding stone. Would this corpse, too, suddenly vanish overnight?

The terrace in which Catriona lived curved around the top of the hill, so that the windows and back‑door of her basement flat opened onto a steeply‑sloping lawn. Her garden was small ‑ the grass ragged, the few shrubs alive but stunted, and the patch of soil that nourished nasturtiums and daffodils was adequate but sooty ‑ but she was happy to use it as an extension to her tiny flat. Yet it was a constant irritation that the neighbourhood cats used it, too. It was not only their noise that irritated (and sometimes, in the night, frightened) her: it was their casual acceptance that any patch of sunlight was theirs, that the dustbin and shrubs were parish boundaries to be sprayed with pungent stink, and that the powdery soil had been provided as a public cats’ convenience. The cats clawed open dustbin sacks, then sat and chewed, heads tilted, at stringy offal and kitchen towel soaked in miscellaneous juices; they formed small gangs that paced, with twitching tails, glaring at the opposition; and they hunted for newly‑parked cars, searching out the warmest engine, and stamped their muddy feet in triumph on the bonnet.

Catriona hated them. She rapped on the window or she opened the door and threw things. Once, she threw her shoe and, so powerful was her anger, the shoe sped the length of the garden and dropped over the railings, out of sight. When she went to fetch it, treading cautiously down the steep, slimy steps towards the wooden door, the cat (amused and undeterred) peered down at her descending head, and purred.

There was so much food: not merely carelessly thrown junk, but purposely‑placed food, offered by cat‑owners and by cat‑less people who felt sorry for the strays. There were little bowls and dishes, and opened tins. When Catriona walked down the street, past the rows of doorbells and empty milk‑bottles, there was even the occasional saucer left on a top step, the surface of the milk crusty with floating dust. There was also the man who put out meat. She had seen him in the back lane; he looked about sixty, and wore a suit, and he came out of the green back gate, the one with peeling, scabby paint, the house that had sixteen door‑bells at the front. She wouldn’t have paid him much attention except that he held out a bowl and called for the cats in a strangely high, thin voice. The cats clearly recognised the call: furry heads lifted and turned, backs were arched and stretched, and cats of all colours leapt lightly off resting places, slunk around corners, and bounded towards the bowl. The man’s feet were lost in a multicoloured snarl of fur, and within seconds the bowl was empty. A few of the lucky ones ran off to sit and crunch at bones, little delicate bones that splintered like chicken. Catriona hoped they’d choke.

drawing from 'cats'

There was a lunchtime in early spring when Catriona escaped from her office to sit in the unexpected sunshine in the park. The trees were still bare, but blue and white crocuses were piled like  carpets on the lawns. She chose a bench in the sun, and sat with eyes closed, head tilted towards the imagined heat. But soon a shudder indicated that someone  had joined her on the bench. She opened her eyes slightly and saw a man, and tried to suppress her annoyance that she could not be permitted to sit alone. But then it seemed that the man was familiar, and she peeped again, and puzzled. She was almost sure it was the cat‑man from down the lane, but he wore an unfamiliar tweed jacket and a matching cap, and he was a little older than she had thought. It was annoying, the way he fidgeted and muttered, and she was just making up her mind to move when he said:

‘Excuse me … I wonder if you could help me. What is the name of the spice that one obtains from crocuses? Or croci, I wonder if one should say?’

‘Oh! I’m sorry … I don’t ‑ ‘

‘You see, I’ve temporarily forgotten ‑ wretched memory!’ His voice was gentle, self‑deprecating. ‘It’s from the stamens ‑ you know, the yellow rods, inside.’

‘Yes, I know which are the stamens.’ Catriona was offended. ‘Saffron.’

‘Ah yes. Saffron.’

‘Why? Are you thinking of collecting some?’ She was prepared to be judgmental.

‘Oh no! I merely needed the word. Thank you.’

The man turned away, and watched the squirrel that had been stopping and starting among the flowers. His lips were moving, though, and occasionally his hands twitched impatiently.

The squirrel reared on its hind legs, then dropped down and scuttled towards a tree. The man gave a pleased little snort.

‘Did you see?’ he asked. ‘That’s what I find hard to capture. The skeleton itself must flow, and loop and turn.’ He was trying to explain with his freckled, bony hands, as well as with his words. ‘But the words must flesh it out, do you see ‑ almost disguise the structure. That’s what I can’t get right.’

Catriona was embarrassed; she was prepared to dismiss him, possibly as a victim of some sort of dementia. Yet he seemed harmless, and one didn’t often meet interesting people in the park.

‘You don’t see what I’m getting at, do you? Listen!

Sinuous snake‑shape,


through saffron ‑

you see there, that’s why I needed your help ‑

through saffron.

That suddenly curls,

furry fluffball,

grey among blue and yellow


uncoiling and stretching

its bristling, prickling

whiskered tail …

I haven’t got any further, yet.’

‘Yes. I do see. I think.’ Catriona wasn’t sure whether to be impressed, or wary of the old man’s pretensions. ‘Have you done poems for other animals?’ She tried to think of a suitable example. ‘How about a cheetah? Or an ordinary  cat? You’re fond of cats aren’t you?’

Catriona was sure it was the same man; but his face closed and his expression was blank.

‘Fond of cats? No. No, I’m not fond of cats. There is no fondness in them, they do not reciprocate ‑ they can only take . Good heavens, look at the time!’ (He didn’t even consult his watch.) ‘I must be going. Goodbye!’

And he was gone, moving surprisingly briskly through the lunchtime strollers.

It was a few weeks before Catriona saw him again. She hid behind the damply‑hanging towels and watched as he called the cats. This time, he held the bowl high, out of reach, and he pushed the cats aside with his foot so that one, and only one, could receive his gift. He walked backwards, encouraging the brown Burmese to follow, enticing it in through the garden door. The graceful animal stepped daintily out of sight.

He didn’t notice Catriona that time, but he saw her, a few days later, when the scarred grey cat leapt over the railings.

Catriona had flung open the door and chased the cat down the lawn. The animal bundled itself together, then unfolded like a flying fox and hurled itself at the far wall. It scrabbled and bunched its body against the stone, then pulled itself up, to sit, panting and glaring at its pursuer. She burst out laughing at its anger and then realised the cat‑man was below her in the lane. He held a plastic bin‑bag that hung heavily as the wind rattled rubbish on the stones.

‘No, I’m not fond of them,’ he said, ‘and nor, it seems, are you!’

‘It was ‑ defaecating ‑ on my lawn.’

The elderly man continued staring up at her, wordlessly, until she became uncomfortable.

‘Mmmm …. a lion rampant, gold on green.’

‘It looked more like a suction pad with claws,’ Catriona said, puzzled, but trying to be helpful.

He looked at the angry cat, and smiled. ‘Yes. Oh yes. That’s a nice idea. Thank you so much.’

Catriona smiled back, and then went inside.


She poked the black bag with her foot, but it was ungiving and hard. She patted it cautiously with her hand and its contents were curved and tall, so, since the bag was not heavy,  she took it, and the letter, downstairs to her flat. She read again the poem ‑ and was no longer frightened. She cut the string and rolled back the neck of the bag, and stared into the unblinking glass eyes of the ginger tom. His broad face glared at her, his back was arched, his hair bristled stiffly round his neck, and every part of his body signalled ‘Keep off!’ Catriona stroked him gently; so cold and dead, yet skilfully reincarnated to such heat and fury. His legs, fixed firmly to the stand, were stiff and straight. She expected him to raise his tail and spray the cupboards, marking the kitchen as his territory.

The ginger tom, captured, then recaptured in such rampant gold perfection. As she, too, had been immortalised in words, and petrified, azure‑tipped.

It was not until the weekend that Catriona felt confident enough to respond. The poem had been unsigned, there had been no address, but the gift had laid a burden of uncertainty upon her that must be cleared. In her handbag she carried a small replica of a fossil fish that she had purchased at the Museum gift shop and had wrapped in blue metallic foil. The bones of the fish, compressed and preserved by aeons of hardening sediment, were starkly drawn as though by an engineer’s pen.

Catriona’s feet crunched on the poet’s basement step and, thoughtfully, she pushed aside the small, crushed shoulder‑blade with her shoe. She rang the bell, but there was no answer, and the curtains were closed. A girl, going up the front steps, saw her and told her that he had gone.

‘Three days ago. He’s flitted ‑ he was way behind with the rent.’

‘Do you know where?’

‘No, he didn’t tell anyone, just skipped. I hope he’s got somewhere to go, though, he left loads of stuff behind. He must’ve been a bit weird, though ‑ do you know what they found in there?’

‘No.’ But she could guess.

‘Cats! The place was full of dead cats, all stuffed and mounted. Gross!’

Catriona shook her head in amazement, laughing with the girl, and walked away. She wondered if there had been a stuffed squirrel, too.


This story was published in Chapman, Scotland’s Quality Literary Magazine‘, volume 81, in 1995.



‘The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes’

“Where was the truth? Madeleine asked the African violet on the window-sill. She was no longer sure. The vile dog Bob had been dead for years but he would have lied in any case, had he been able. ..”

Three characters:

Ruth pulls the old man’s bag open and stares “into the cat’s unblinking eyes. His back was arched, his ginger hair bristled around his neck, and his legs, fixed firmly to the stand, were stiff and straight. Every part of his body signalled, ‘Keep off!’ ” And Ruth (“the lady with the sky in her hair”) gives up nursing to become a taxidermist.

Lisa poses with fellow mathematicians by the patterned brick ‘masterpieces’ and she imagines the picture the camera will preserve: “Dr Lisa Wallace with her long blonde hair, dome-headed, an achondroplasic, small and imperfectly formed, against a backdrop of miniaturised perfection.”

Madeleine, widowed sheep-farmer in the Lake District, realises that “hiding, and hidden away, she had wasted her married life because she hadn’t known she had the strength to resist. But she knew now …”

Friendship, memories, objects: how do we preserve the past? And how do we deal with the hand that life has dealt us?

For the three very different women, whose lives become intertwined, these stark questions have been the undercurrent of their lives – but, within the Cumbrian landscape, they learn to deal with them with warmth and humour .

ISBN 9781503036918
Littoralis Press/Amazon CreateSpace, p/b, £9.95 p/b 2015 (2nd edition)

Also Kindle versions through Amazon, and as ePub versions through Kobo etc

Comments and reviews

An intriguing novel in a haunting setting, rich in texture, humorous and concerned, raising important questions about science and our relation to the natural world, to the individuals we know and to the communities we live in. A lovely book. Jenny Uglow

An exhilarating and compelling read. A powerful and haunting story of genetic difference, interwoven with maths, taxidermy, and the tragedy of foot and mouth disease.Professor Sir John Sulston, Nobel Laureate

A many-faceted book … The account of the dreadful days of foot-and-mouth disease in the last epidemic is agonising and the Cumbrian accent is perfect.Jane Gardam

A charming, intelligent and engrossing book, with enough dark heart to drag it away from the domain of standard female fiction fare and into much more engaging territory. I found myself drawn in by the delicate prose and fascinating descriptions … an engrossing and enjoyable read.Kat Arney, LabLit Read the full review

A rich, absorbing, intriguing novel … All of (the characters) felt like real people, whom I would want to know. And they were dealing with authentic issues; from everyday problems like relationships and family rivalry to the impact of foot-and-mouth on the local Cumbrian community. … An absorbing, clever writer …. – Mary Zacaroli, Oxford Times Read the full review

Ann Lingard skilfully weaves a handful of lives together … This engrossing and unusual tale is a window on the soul… and highlights something no embalmer can preserve: what it means to be an ordinary human being. – Michael Brooks, New Scientist

The book’s strength lies in the intense sense of time and place it creates in the reader’s mind. Images are conjured like old Polaroid photographs; faded snapshots filled with tinted memories – whether they are the horrors of sheep farming during the foot and mouth epidemic, or fleeting moments shared between illicit lovers. … a warm and atmospheric read. – Amy Strange, Bionews



The anatomists

Dr Frederik Ruysch (1638-1731) – anatomist, embalmer, man-midwife and praelector of the Amsterdam Surgeons’ Guild, botanist with an interest in insects …

van neck & ruysch
The anatomical lesson of Dr Frederik Ruysch: Van Neck

The Surgeons’ Guild was housed in De Waag in Amsterdam. My friend and former colleague, Dr Wil van der Knaap, was able to gain entrance for the two of us to see not only the painted heraldic shields of the surgeons, including the central shield for Frederik Ruysch himself, inside the roof of the restored Theatrum Anatomicum, but also the ‘masterpiece’ patterns of the bricklayers’ Guild (see ‘Patterns’ below).

Ruysch sometimes referred to himself as a konstenaar, or artist, and his Wunderkammer – of preserved plants and animals and human foetuses, dried, embalmed or fixed in alcohol, and his moralistic preparations and Tableaux of skeletons that were symbols of vanitas mundi – was visited by many high-ranking academics and others, including Peter the Great (who eventually bought the collection).

Cornelius Huyberts’ engravings of the Tableaux are preserved in the volumes of Ruysch’s Opera Omnia, the Thesauri,  in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. Photographs of all the pages of the Thesauri have more recently become available on the website of the Bibliothèque Interuniversitaire de Médécine.

Tableaux from Thesaurus VIII
© BIUM Paris: by courtesy of the Bibliothèque Interuniversitaire de Médecine (Paris)

These Tableaux show Ruysch’s artistry in preparing tissues such as blood vessels and the mesenteric tissues from around the gut, and arranging them to represent handkerchiefs and trees and – more morbidly here – an opened tomb or sepulchre created from a preserved uterus, containing a foetus with a ‘crown of natural flowers’.

Title page, and Tableau I, Thesaurus VIII explanations
© BIUM Paris: by courtesy of the Bibliothèque Interuniversitaire de Médecine (Paris)

The Scot William Hunter (1716-1783) was, like Ruysch, an anatomist, embalmer and man-midwife, and was also President of the Royal College of Surgeons in England. Remnants of his large anatomical museum – including the plaster casts of gravid uteri, and the bottles of human eyes mentioned in Ruth’s blog-post Making Eyes – are now held at Glasgow University’s Hunterian Museum.

His anatomy dissections and lectures, and his embalming methods that allowed long-term dissections of cadavers, were famous and led to many ground-breaking discoveries. It’s worth noting that his lectures and demonstrations to the Royal Academy of Arts on the importance of scientific observation and accurate interpretation are still very relevant to the work of writers and artists today!

zoffany hunter
Zoffany’s painting of William Hunter lecturing

The use of écorchés (flayed preserved corpses) to demonstrate the body’s musculature is well-recorded and discussed elsewhere, but Hunter – again like Ruysch – sometimes arranged his specimens in ‘artistic’ poses. The body of a hanged smuggler was fixed in the position of a dying Roman soldier before rigor mortis set in: the écorché of ‘Smugglerius’ was used as a teaching aid and subsequently immortalised as a plaster cast by William Pink, still held in the collection of the Royal Academy.

William Hunter’s younger brother John Hunter (1729-1793) was also a surgeon and anatomist and a naturalist, who accumulated his own large collection of animals and humans, both dead and alive, in his own museum. A large part of the collection remains in the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London.


Portrait of John Hunter, miniature copy by Henry Bone RA after Joshua Reynolds, 1798. (Thanks to The Hunterian Museum at The Royal College of Surgeons of England for permission to reproduce this image)

In the background are the bones of the feet and lower legs of Charles Byrne, ‘the Giant O’Brien’ (died 1783), as recounted in the blog-post Copper Kettles by taxidermist Ruth Kowslowski in the novel: “Perhaps finally he has been able to smile at the thought that his story as well as his bones (and a portrait of his feet!) are still preserved and admired nearly 250 years later.”  There is a fascinating video about Charles Byrne’s skeleton and genetic studies on acromegaly (a form of giantism) in the online version of the article “Should the skeleton of the Irish Giant O’Brien be buried at sea?” by Len Doyal and Thomas Muinzer.


As for Ruysch’s children, Rachel Ruysch was not only adept at making lacy sleeves for embalmed babies, but became a highly-respected artist, preserving the images of flowers and insects and reptiles in the rich colours and deep textures of her still-life paintings.


rachel ruysch glasgow
An arrangement of flowers by a tree trunk, Rachel Ruysch (1664 – 1750)

My thanks to ‘Culture & Sport Glasgow (Museums)’ for permission to use this image


What was the significance of the post-cards on the Café Waag table?

(Lisa) hastily pushed the postcards into a pile. They were all aerial views of tulip-fields; some were striped like the rough canvas of a deck-chair, narrow bands of red, orange, green and yellow; in others, the patterns were more intricate arrangements of rectangles and trapezoids, bounded by the dark curving ribbons of canals.” There is a longer extract from this chapter under Chromosome 4 of Ken MacLeod’s Human Genre Project.

tulip fields
Tulip fields: Frans Lemmens

Frans wrote to me that this postcard (which I bought in 2001) is “the best selling tulip image card in Holland. The publisher and I were astonished about this. We thought before that it would do well, but definitely not that it would become the best selling of all tulip fields”.

And what was so special about the brick patterns inside De Waag?

waag bricklayers1
The bricklayers’ ‘masterpieces’: photo Wil van der Knaap

The answer to the questions is that Lisa, Stefan, Kees and their colleagues – mathematicians, theoretical physicists, astronomers – were in Amsterdam for a conference on patterning and quasicrystal structure – and like crystallographers and the artist Maurits Escher before them, were working on the practice and theory of how shapes and images could be fit together to fill two- and three- and multi-dimensional space


As for the modern science of quasicrystals, my thanks to Professor Ian Stewart, who suggested Lisa might work on quasicrystals and sent me many relevant reprints, and to Professor Uwe Grimm.  Uwe, with the help of cardboard models laid out on our kitchen floor, helped me try to get to grips with the concept of the quasi-periodicity of repeating patterns in crystals: see, for example, What is Aperiodic Order? 

‘Making eyes’

cover 5crop
1st edn. cover. Photograph of artificial eye from the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, by Rosamond Wolff Purcell (with my thanks)

As taxidermist Ruth explains about her work, “It’s so important to get the eyes and the eyelids right … the face is everything, and it’s far too easy to get the expression wrong.

Glass-makers Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka are probably best-known for their series of exquisite and scientifically-detailed flowers in the Ware Collection at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, Boston, USA, and the glass models of invertebrate animals (including sea-anemones modelled on PH Gosse’s engravings).

They also made glass eyes, for humans.

White spheres lie on cotton-wool in the compartments of a flat wooden box: blue, brown or green circles, dark centres – pot-boilers, money-spinners: artificial human eyes. On a workbench there are small bottles, pinboxes and wooden trays containing different body-parts: glass tentacles of different shapes and colours, sponge spicules, tiny shells. ‘Mix ’n match’ invertebrates amongst the powdered glass and pigments.” (from Ruth Kowslowski’s blog-post ‘Making Eyes’)

Philip Henry Gosse exclaimed about the beauty of the multi-faceted eye of the dragon-fly. Insects have ‘compound eyes’, made up of many individual units each with a lens and light-sensitive cells that form an image. The surface of some compound eyes – like those of the fruit-fly, Drosophila – looks a bit like the surface of a raspberry, each separate unit bulging slightly outwards.

The structure and image-forming method of insect eyes could not be more different from that of vertebrate eyes, or even eyes of the squid and octopus. Yet in the mid-1990s, Walter Gehring and his colleagues performed a series of what turned out to be ground-breaking experiments in the field of developmental genetics – they showed that the gene pax6 which initiates the early stages of eye-formation in the mouse could also initiate eye-formation in Drosophila. Not a mouse eye – but a fly eye. If the mouse gene was inserted into fly cells that would normally form a leg or antenna – a fly eye grew instead!


See Figures 3 and 5 of Induction of Ectopic Eyes by Targeted Expression of the eyeless Gene in Drosophila

As Ruth writes: “We know now that Evolution is a conservationist and throws very little away: ‘You want an image-forming retina? There’s a bit of photosensitive pigment kicking around somewhere. A bit of this and a little bit of that, let’s try them in this order instead …’ The ingredients are mixed in a different sequence, to a different recipe.”


This photo of William Hart’s fighting squirrels held in the collection at Castle Ward was in a National Trust magazine in 2002 – and was a major stimulus in making me want to write about a taxidermist.

ntpl boxing squirrels

© NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel.
My thanks to the National Trust and their Photo Library for permission to use this image

The Victorians were very fond of these anthropomorphised specimens, and artist Polly Morgan has taken this trend to new, exciting levels. In the novel, Ruth mentions Walter Potter’s ‘Kittens’ Tea-Party’ and although all of Potter’s works are now held in private collections, there are photos of several of his kitten tableaux at the Booth Museum, Brighton – where Booth’s own taxidermal preparations are on display.

Walter Potter: Kittens’ tea-party

To learn more about how taxidermists work, I visited and watched George Jamieson at Cramond and Colin Scott in Hawick.

This very good BBC video , A Taxidermist’s Tale, shows George (who also taught Polly Morgan) at work.

The 2001 Foot-and-mouth disease epidemic in Cumbria

Madeleine Tregwithen, one of the main characters in The Embalmer’s Book, had her sheep flock ‘culled out’ in 2001; her neighbour Daniel’s pedigree herd of cattle was subsequently infected and killed.

So much has been written and photographed about this terrible time, so many stories have been recorded in print and audio and on film. Mathematical analyses and future predictions of the spread of disease continue, based on the very large data set that was gathered at the time.

Nick May’s exhibition of photographs, Till the cows come home, continues to haunt me.


nick may's Dodds-Parlour-1

‘Dodds’ parlour’.
© Nick May. I am indebted to Nick for giving me permission to use this photograph

Note:  Herdwick semen and embryos were collected during FMD and stored in the Sheep Trust’s gene bank, and were later were used successfully to breed new lambs: see my article, ‘Moving On‘ on page 22 of Firecrane#2


The character Lisa Wallace, mathematician at the University of Liverpool, is an achondroplasic.

Tom Shakespeare, a friend and former colleague, with whom I worked for two years on out two-year Wellcome Trust-funded Talking Science in Cumbria project, is himself achondroplasic – and he introduced me to Jo Hookway and Margaret Milne, both of whom were delightfully generous (and humorous) in helping me to try to understand what it is like to be a female ‘person of restricted growth’. Sandy Marshall, formerly of the Restricted Growth Association also gave me lots of helpful background information.

There is more about achondroplasia – about a 19th-century skeleton in the Surgeons’ Hall Museum, Edinburgh, and about James Jack who was a technician there, in the stories I wrote during my Visiting Fellowship at the Genomics Forum. ‘Stories about dwarves’, copied elsewhere in this blog, in addition to containing one of Joyce Gunn Cairns’ delicate drawings, also has an extract from the novel about ‘Lisa’.

Tom Shakespeare and Professor John Burn of Newcastle University made these ‘talking heads’ videos about achondroplasia.

(videos coming soon – sorry for delay)

The videos are reproduced with kind permission from Newcastle University – ©1998 Copyright Newcastle University; All Rights Reserved.
My thanks to Tom and John, and the University audio-visual service.

You should have been terminated!’ John Burn tells Tom ….