The first skull in my Skull Collection was a housewarming gift, left by an unidentified previous occupant, who in a pique of randomly directed maliciousness thought to curse me. Perhaps it was directed at the landlady – a plausible enough explanation, but I chose at the time to see it as my own personal gift-curse. A bit like having three wishes to bestow, except it wasn’t, it was a single dead-eyed curse.
I was an undergraduate in Northampton in the late 1980s at the time, and I had just moved out of shared accommodation into a self-contained bedsit. A large ornate unrenovated room, high ceilinged with roses and cornices, dados and picture rails and not a little mould. A grimy formica kitchenette took up one wall. A big bay window took up the width of another wall, and in the centre of the bay window stood a big circular dining table. In the middle of the round table waited the skull. An off-white resin cast about 4cm in height, ingrained with grime.
The bay window of the first floor bedsit looked out on an inaccessible overgrown garden and a distant Edwardian grey-brick wall. Beyond that the long disused Racecourse could be seen, a vast unpleasant, somewhat creepy open moorland in the centre of the town. My understanding of local history was that during the first world war the racecourse was dug up for allotments. After the carnage was over and life returned to normal it was found that nobody gave a fuck about allotments, or horse racing and the land declined into the weird desolate void that I remember from my college days.
One night, taking a shortcut across the racecourse, I was yelled at by a lone man with a big dog on a chain. He shouted “I’ll have you, you fucking little whoremaster”. I think he had the wrong person.
It was possible to walk the length of the racecourse from the White Elephant – a huge ostentatious coaching house at the north-east corner, following the footpath along the backs of the houses just like mine, with their bay windows and long unkempt gardens that ended in high, glass-topped grey brick walls – to The Barrack Rd, the south east corner of the course.
It was along these back walls that I noticed the 3ft high white paint letters spelling out, visible across the racecourse, glowing in the dark “Whoever lays his hand on me to govern me is a usurper and tyrant, and I declare him my enemy”.