It will become apparent what X stands for if you read on…
‘Twas midnight as I crept through the graveyard. The sky was pitch black, the stars obscured by clouds. My Toc H lamp shed only meagre light, and I stumbled many times over the rough and ravaged ground. Somewhere an owl hooted. I hooted in reply, mischievously, for even in so macabre a circumstance I retained my joie de vivre. Well, you have to, don’t you, when surrounded by doom ‘n’ death ‘n’ memento mori?
Perched on a promontory overlooking the awful sea, the graveyard was whipped by winds. How they howled! So, so many of the tombstones had toppled, over the years, over the centuries, and the salt wind had crumbled them. As I had hooted at the owl, so I howled at the wind. I hooted, I howled, and then I chuckled insouciantly, like the dandy I can be, at my best, and I held my lamp aloft as I peered into the black. Somewhere hereabouts was the ossuary, where bones were stacked, innumerable, abandoned. Within the vault, not a single bone, I’d been told, had a tag that might identify it, that could have led to it rejoining the other bones with which, once, as a skeletal structure, it had lurked inside a body, with breath and blood and life. Lonely abandoned bones lay in stacks in the ossuary – and here I come, at dead of night!
On Thursday, during a rainstorm, I took shelter in the library. Unlike most modern libraries, this one still had some books in it. By some miracle, they had not been consigned in their hundreds of thousands to a lime-pit. Browsing the shelves, I lit upon a tome entitled The academy of armoury, or a storehouse of armoury and blazon : containing the several variety of created beings, and how born in coats of arms, both foreign and domestick : with the instruments used in all trades and sciences, together with their terms of art : also the etymologies, definitions, and historical observations on the same, explicated and explained according to our modern language : very useful for all gentlemen, scholars, divines, and all such as desire any knowledge in arts and sciences by Randle Holme. It was over three hundred years old, having been published in 1688, and if the slip pasted in the frontispiece was to be believed, no one had borrowed it from the library since 1819, the year John Ruskin was born. Gosh, I thought, sweeping a hand through my terrific hairstyle. Now armouries I can take or leave, but I have ever been fascinated, to the point of loosened bowels, by blazons. It is the kind of chap I am, simply put. Don’t ask me why. Better by far, I’d say, to be a blazonist than a vinkenier. In any case, I am only half Flemish. Later, perhaps, I will tell you about the other half of my ancestry. Both halves are mostly bones, now, bones rotten and crumbled to dust, but then that is true of every man jack of us, isn’t it?, so it is hardly worth saying.
I propped the Holme tome on a lectern, and, as the downpour continued to beat relentlessly upon the smudged and grubby windows, and the sky darkened, I leafed through the pages. The book smelled, for some reason, of vinegar. What could the reason be? I pictured to myself a nineteenth century blazonist, perhaps a rather caddish one in Regency trews, tossing the book into a trough of vinegar as he sallied towards a pump room. Did they have troughs filled with vinegar in those days, for a purpose beyond my ken? I knew not, and Randle Holme wasn’t going to tell me. He was going to tell me about armouries and blazons.
But he was also going to tell me something else, something of great import for this present essay. What he told me, in the failing light, at the lectern in the library, in liber III, page 429, paragraph 1, was this : Raspatorium, Rasping hookes; ..Scraping Instruments to shave and scrape filthy and scaly bones. It’s called also Xyster.
I knew what I had to do. I slammed the book shut, replaced it on the shelf where I found it, and I strode – no, I minced – out into what I thought was rain, only to have myriad tiny hailstones pinging on to my bonce. As luck would have it, there was a surgical instrument ‘n’ appliance shop bang next door to the library. I ducked inside, out of the hail, and made immediate purchase of a xyster.
“What do you want it for?” asked the shopkeeper, a surly sort whose parents, I surmised, had never coddled him.
“For the scraping of filthy and scaly bones!” I cried, using my theatrical training.
“All well and good,” he replied, somewhat crestfallen. I think he was less interested in making a sale than in outwitting me, for some skewed psychological frolic of his own.
“Wrap it for me,” I commanded, “With pastry paper and butcher’s string.”
He did as he was bid, a broken shopkeeper.
I took my xyster home, and waited for the darkness to fall. Then I changed into garb appropriate for the practice of creeping among toppled tombstones, and I stole out of my chalet and climbed towards the promontory, and I scaled the graveyard gates and made for the ossuary, the xyster clutched tightly in my dainty, dainty, yellow-begloved hand.