The first year, just as we were all leaving, one of Dorothea’s friends ripped the wing off an auk. He was pretending to shake hands with it to say goodbye when the wing came off. And then, while we watched, a moth fluttered from the wound, out of its bed of stuffing and up into the dawn light that slanted through the high windows, its movements as woozy as our own. According to the typed information card, this had been one of only four examples of a great auk skin in its rare winter plumage preserved intact since the bird’s extinction, and although those cards were at least three decades old and in some cases out of date, extinctions tend to stand.
We pretended to be horrified by what had happened, and for at least an hour we ostracised the culprit, but secretly we were relieved. Charlie had given us so many lectures about how it important it was that we didn’t damage anything, and we’d all been so careful, but none of us had really believed that we’d get through the whole night without an accident. So when New Year’s Day came and nothing whatsoever had gone wrong, we were left with a sort of jittery, constipated feeling that might have dogged us all year, and it was only after the auk had lost its wing that we could relax. In any case, we thought, Charlie could still reopen the museum. One pruned bird wasn’t going to make a difference.
Charlie’s great-uncle had died of a stroke in the spring, but it wasn’t until later in the year that Charlie had bothered to travel up to Ninchworth to see his inheritance. And when he set eyes on the place for the first time, he changed his mind about putting it up for a quick sale. Long ago the great-uncle had spent so much on refurbishing the museum in a modern style that afterwards he had been obliged to shut it down for a year to steady his finances. The year had become two years and then three years and then eventually thirty. By then, almost nobody remembered that there was such an extensive collection of zoology, entomology and palaeontology stranded up there in Ninchworth. Nothing had been touched in all that time, so Charlie was convinced that after a brisk fumigation he could throw open the doors and hire someone to sit at the front desk selling tickets. Just once, though, before he let the schoolchildren back in, he wanted to host a New Year’s Eve party for his closest friends.
Afterwards, on the train back to London, the headline gossip was not the mutilation of the exhibit but rather that Charlie and Dorothea had finally kissed, or perhaps more than kissed (despite a great deal of forensic debate no one was quite sure). He’d been quietly in love with her for so long by then that the feeling of catharsis must have been quite overwhelming, like ripping a thousand wings off a thousand auks. So at least for its host, the party had been a fine idea, but when I made a joke about doing the same thing next year, even in his bliss he wouldn’t indulge me for a moment. Absolutely not, Charlie replied. We could never have another party at the museum.
The second year, I noticed before anyone else that the Coelophysis was trying to escape. Charlie’s great-uncle had populated his museum by purchasing the collections of several other amateur naturalists, combining them with his own, but although the aggregate was varied and charming, scientifically it was not very distinguished. There was only one full dinosaur skeleton: a seven-foot-long Coelophysis imported from New Mexico. I remembered seeing it displayed on a plinth in the entrance hall, standing there with its back legs spread wide and its head turned as if at the sound of a telephone. But now it was down on the creaky oak floor, a few yards closer to the front doors, with its whole body low and one leg flung out behind it, as if it were sprinting. At first we thought someone must have moved it as a prank, but when Z and I looked at the steel supports we realised that you couldn’t just manipulate its limbs like a doll, you’d have to unscrew the whole thing and put it back together to change its posture, and none of us had the expertise to do that.
Although we couldn’t agree on a solution to the mystery, we soon agreed that the Coelophysis had been wise to make a break for it. Inevitably, that first party had acquired a reputation it didn’t quite deserve, so this time a lot of people came uninvited and everyone was dressed up in their rarest winter plumage. Many of these new guests had never heard Charlie’s lectures about the museum, and even the original cohort felt that we couldn’t possibly be expected to behave like saints twice in a row. The drinks spilled on the floor and the cigarettes stubbed out on the walls are hardly worth mentioning compared to what happened to the exhibits. One of Dorothea’s friends tried to ride a giraffe, for instance, but the giraffe’s head came off at the shoulders, and before long another boy came back with the equivalent section of an ostrich so they could sword fight. I wouldn’t have known this, but when too much taxidermy is ravaged in one place there’s a specific smell, like a nostalgia for offal.
I did wonder why Charlie wasn’t doing more to police the museum, but at the end of the night I heard that he’d emerged sheepishly from one of the trunk rooms holding Dorothea’s hand, a report that in this context of whimsical amputation had to be clarified with the reassurance that not just her hand but the whole woman was with him, green eyes and all. Their relationship had lasted only three months after the previous party, and the break-up had nibbled at some of the bonds between their mutual friends. I was ahead of my peers in how quickly I had come to loathe the couple for their new royalty, for how their story fascinated the rest of us to the extent that it was impossible ever to go out to dinner without hearing about them. But when they announced that this time it was forever, we all toasted them out on the lawn at sunrise.
The third year, it was almost impossible to comprehend why Charlie should have invited us all back to the museum again after swearing so adamantly not once but twice that we should never be allowed to return, unless it was during standard opening hours and for serious educational purposes. Only Z was able to propose a theory that I found plausible. When Charlie got back together with Dorothea after the previous party, they had managed five months – longer than three, but still not very long – before each of them had become convinced that the other was more or less the devil in human pelt. Both times they’d split up, Dorothea had insisted that she’d never see Charlie again as long as she lived, and she’d insisted it with twice the conviction that Charlie ever mustered for his broken promises about the museum. He was always too preoccupied with his decaying orbit around her to remember them. The only way Charlie could be certain of insinuating himself back into her presence was yet another New Year’s Eve party at Ninchworth. He knew the glamour was an intoxicant, both when she was deciding whether to get on the train and when she was deciding whether to kiss him at midnight. And he’d convinced himself that if he could just hold the relationship together for a full year – from one New Year’s Eve to the next – that she’d marry him.
Although I’d noticed that Charlie, as lovers sometimes do, had already abased himself to the extent of copying some of Dorothea’s facial mannerisms – each configuration as empty of life as a stuffed polar bear’s permanent roar – I didn’t believe Z’s story could be true. If it was, Charlie was going to regret his cleverness. Yes, the lovers fell back into each other’s arms with the predictability of lead weights in a physics demonstration. But the museum wasn’t a museum any more: it was an Aceldama.
Once I read that during the Siege of Leningrad several families took shelter in the Zoological Museum of the Russian Academy of Sciences, learning by trial and error how many human beings an ecology of steel wire and formaldehyde can be expected to support, and a New Year’s Eve party is like a siege in the sense that nobody enters and nobody leaves and nobody feels quite sure that tomorrow will ever arrive. Early in the party, I was almost sure that I noticed a family of wild boar trotting motionlessly away from their open glass case, just like the Coelophysis the time before, but by the end of the night there was too much disarray to tell one way or the other. I saw a boy trying to paste together a pair of wings for himself from dozens of butterflies ripped from their mounts; I saw a girl gnawing on preserved bristle worms as if they were asparagus; I saw a gang of expensively educated nymphs and satyrs romping naked through the old dioramas, crushing everything in their path. Even the Coelophysis’s head went home in someone’s handbag.
On the train back to London, Z made a joke about how surprising it was that the well-publicized nature of her father’s decline hadn’t discouraged Dorothea from socialising so openly with animals, and when I replied that it couldn’t have taken two years to notice the irony, Z insisted that it had taken a few minutes to notice the irony and two years to formulate the remark.
The fourth year, inevitably, the museum burned down. No one could tell me for sure how the fire started, whether it was as banal as a dropped cigarette or whether there was any truth to the rumour that a few amateur pagans had been trying to build a ritual bonfire among the amphibians. But what we did see with our own eyes, as we wandered dazed and sooty through the surrounding woods, were the specimens, dozens of them, vertebrate and invertebrate, large and small, in postures of urgent migration, as if all the animals of the Garden of Eden had known that before long Adam and Eve would return with axes and theodolites and a deep sense of grievance. It had taken the poor stiff beasts the whole year to get a quarter of a mile from the estate. By the time the sun rose the place looked like my head felt, but I knew that the reason the animals were trying to escape wasn’t self-preservation. After all, they were already dead. They were trying to escape because they couldn’t face another night with us.
I remember that at the moment I first smelled smoke I was talking to someone about the effects that Charlie and Dorothea’s relationship had wrought on the rest of the circle. When two of your closest friends keep breaking up and getting back together and breaking up again – the last time they had got up to eight months – then an old natural history museum can’t be the only collateral damage. There were quite a few people at that party who still weren’t speaking to each other merely because they’d taken sides in arguments which Charlie and Dorothea themselves no longer even remembered, like Slavic blood feuds still honoured long into their obsolescence. In principle it was nothing that couldn’t be repaired, but a future in which all of us forgot our disagreements was beginning to seem as unlikely as a future in which Charlie and Dorothea were boringly wedded and those voles in glass cases were stimulating the imaginations of ten thousand schoolchildren a week.
But if it hadn’t been for those nights at Ninchworth I would never have met Z; and in any case I don’t think you could have denied that they had been four of the best parties since the dawn of recorded time; and even if you’d tried you would have faltered when you saw two or three hundred of us standing out there on the gravel drive watching the fire, the light of it gilding lips and cheekbones and most of all eyes that were wide with a small remorse and a great joy. During the blaze there was no sign of our host, and one or two people wondered whether he’d gone to fetch the fire brigade, but the rest of us knew they must be newcomers if they had any doubt about how he was occupied.
The fifth year, of course, there weren’t any invitations, and it wasn’t until I got to King’s Cross that I knew for sure that anyone else would be going up to Ninchworth. Even Z had refused to come with me, and the complement of friends was only a few dozen this time, certainly no more than were at that first party four years ago. On the train, we recognised but did not acknowledge each other. Most of us were dressed in black, not funereally but rather so that we could look our dazzling best and still have some hope of denying that we were going to a party, as if, on New Year’s Eve, our meticulous toilette could possibly be intended for anything else.
The fire had left behind jagged sections of wall, spurious doorways, heaps of marble rubble, and yet as we moved through the ruin under our umbrellas we carried ourselves as if we were still indoors as usual, since the alternative was to feel like tourists trawling a cultic site for some vicarious prickle of latent wickedness. Short of sowing the earth with salt and plutonium, I wondered if there was any more damage left to do to Charlie’s great uncle’s legacy. Nonetheless, I overheard someone make a joke about how it wasn’t nearly so grim as another New Year’s Eve in Islington. Every few minutes you could hear the pop of a champagne cork, and later on I disinterred from the alluvial ash a specimen jar that was cracked and blackened but somehow hadn’t burst or even leaked: after I wiped away the soot I found a pufferfish staring cheerfully back at me.
From some of us, I thought, these parties at the museum had taken more than they’d given. Not from me. But surely from Charlie. We’d all heard that in December, after eleven months, so nearly the magical twelve, his relationship with Dorothea had collapsed yet again. I recalled that Charlie’s great-uncle had been nicknamed Uncle Bad, not because there was anything wrong with him morally – he was by all accounts a gentleman – but rather because his family had got so bored of repeating the phrase ‘there’s no point throwing good money after bad.’ There had never been any doubt that Charlie would squander his inheritance, but we were so glad that instead of just selling the estate and buying Dorothea pointless gifts with the money, Charlie had made us the grasping middlemen in the economy of his obsession. How would Uncle Bad have felt about his great nephew’s slow sacrifice of himself? Quite tolerant, perhaps. And how would Uncle Bad have felt about the use to which Z and I put the land after our holding company purchased it a few years later? Not so tolerant, perhaps.
Midnight came, and then two, and it was four before we accepted that Charlie and Dorothea weren’t going to join us. This was the one outcome that none of us had anticipated. We had no way of knowing if they’d made their reunion back in London this time, or if they hadn’t actually broken up, or if the only thing that had made the cycle attractive to either of them was the theoretical possibility of its infinite prolongation, or if in fact they’d got here before any of us, throwing their own New Year’s Eve party beneath our feet in some secret cellar of the museum. But by the time the sun rose, it just didn’t seem to matter any more, and when I took a last look at the pufferfish before throwing the jar into the lake, I will swear on Z’s life and my own that it mouthed the words ‘I hope you have a terrible year.’
Photograph © Steel Wool