Hudson’s Head Revisited

Like Hudson, I wanted to gain possession of a man’s head, to carry it across the sea and drop it like an apple. And like Hudson, I wanted to do so without violating any laws or doing harm to the man whose head it was. I was not so concerned about the head having a set of unique and terrible teeth, in fact any head would do. But the logistics were an absolute nightmare. In spite of a first class education and the possession of an acute and incisive mind, I could not fathom how I might get hold of someone’s head, detached from the rest of their body, without either breaking the law or doing them a mischief.

When first this desire consumed me, I did not bother myself with such niceties. I might be at an elegant and sophisticated cocktail party, and I would take someone aside, steer them to a corner where we would not be overheard, and say:

“Can I have your head? I want to take it across the sea, and drop it like an apple of discord.”

There would then follow a discussion in the course of which the familiar objections, of criminal intent and physical harm, would be raised. I blustered my way through these by wearing a fixed grin and waving my arms a lot, but the difficulties would not go away.

I was unwilling to abandon the project entirely, however, so I sought advice from a Jesuit priest. The Jesuits are rightly famed for their casuistry, and I felt sure I would gain some useful tips. If anyone could pluck from the air a method of gaining possession of a man’s head, legally and harmlessly, Father Ninian Tonguelash was that man!

I found him, kneeling, deep in prayer, at the altar rail in the Lady Chapel of a large and important cathedral. I knelt down beside him and whispered:

“A man’s head, Father. How might I gain possession of one?”

He turned to me, did something mysterious and significant with his rosary beads, and asked me to explain further, so I did so.

“Hmm,” he said, Jesuitically, when I had outlined my plans, “It is a pretty conundrum, to be sure. Now, listen. Moored at the docks there is a Jesuit packet steamer, the Ignatius Loyola. It is due to set sail across the sea tomorrow night. Meet me at the dockside at ten o’ clock. I will have something for you.”

I thanked him, and left him to his prayers. I spent the next twenty-four hours sorting out my affairs and packing a suitcase. At the appointed time, I made my way to the docks. Father Tonguelash was already there, leaning against a wooden dockside appurtenance smoking a high tar cigarette.

“Here,” he said, handing me a bag, “Take this, with my blessing.”

It was a burlap bag, and from its size and shape and heft I knew at once that it contained a man’s head. I was about to fire a volley of questions at the Jesuit, but he held a nicotine-stained finger to his lips and shooshed me.

“You had better go aboard,” he said, “The Ignatius Loyola is about to chug out.”

“Thank you, Father,” I said, “How can I repay you?”

“There is no need,” he said, “Just don’t open the bag until you reach land.”

I promised I would obey, as one should always obey a Jesuit, and I boarded the steamer, where I was shown to my cabin. I placed the bag carefully in a cubby, then went back up on deck to wave goodbye to Father Tonguelash and an odd assortment of dockyard persons and seafarers’ wives and Jesuits who had gathered to see us off.

That was a Thursday evening a quarter of a century ago. We are still at sea, plying the oceans, the vast and illimitable oceans, far from any land. The burlap bag is still there in the cubby of my cabin. I have not opened it.

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