Yesterday lowered. Grey cloud suffocated the landscape and held moisture like barely suppressed anger. It was one of those days that feels mis-struck and I was in a grump. I couldn’t decide what project to work on, whether any was worthwhile. I vacillated, berated myself for vacillating and vacillated more.
In the end I decided that as I was in a grump anyway I may as well do something I really didn’t want to do. The task I alighted on was one I had been putting off. It required a great deal of paperwork. And because I had at one point decided that the papers I now needed were history and had nigh consigned them to a bonfire, my approach to filing them had been so anarchic, even Kropotkin would have been impressed.
I set my snout into an attitude of pained martyrdom and set off for the cellar.
There is in my cellar a bewildering array of trunks and suitcases, Gladstone bags, orange boxes, crates and tea-chests. They would have to be clambered over and hunted under, and peered into. All of them – at least nearly all of them.
But not the box that I discovered behind Great Uncle Mole’s old skis. It wasn’t large, but what it lacked in size it made up for in ornamentation. In rather crude disregard for its fine detail, Uncle Ratty had stencilled M O L E X. I know it was Uncle Ratty because this was his nickname for Great Aunt Mole. Not my great aunt, but Great Uncle Mole’s. Great, Great, Great Aunt Mole to me – but well, that was too much of a mouthful even for Uncle Ratty. He called her Great Aunt Molex because she had been excommunicated by some of the more stodgy members of our family. The story handed down by the more liberal of my mole kin – who, it has to be admitted, were at times rather more inclined towards effect than gospel truth – went something like this:
One night during a storm of Biblical proportions, when Great Aunt Molex was quite a wee thing, there was a great thumping at the door of the parental burrow. When, after some to-ing and fro-ing about no mole in its right mind being out in such weather and the racket surely being thunder and wind, her papa grumbled out of his chair and went to investigate. He found a bedraggled shape in a sodden cape with what looked to be an enormous hump on his back. The creature was beckoned inside, his cape removed, a large box with brass fittings revealed. He was thrust into the chair just vacated and invited to warm his paws on the fire. Soup was produced. Molex’s mama went off to make up a bed. They all had a brandy, even Molex though hers was watered down. Now warmed and oiled, their visitor told them he was a traveling missionary raising funds for the China mission. And as he was clearly not going to reach the metropolis that night why didn’t he by way of thanks for their most generous hospitality, show them his lantern slides.
It was long after a wee mole’s bedtime, but Molex sat on a pouffe in the dark transfixed by the missionary’s sonorous voice and the lurid and graphic scenes of heathens unfolding before her. She was seized with such a passion that her future was sealed that fateful night. The years passed agonisingly slowly for Molex until, at barely eighteen, she ran away from home and boarded a ship for Macau.
Needless to say the box marked MOLEX was a good deal more compelling than the search for my papers and I carried it upstairs to my study. The lid was tightly fitted and it took some manoeuvring with the paperknife. As I prised it open the wood squeaked with such pain that some creature might have been trapped inside, but what escaped was a strange smell somewhere between musk and ginger. The few belongings that had been sent back were wrapped in emerald green silk and tied with a tassle. On top lay a black-rimmed card announcing her death in Canton. Beneath was a collection of coins, minutes of the 1876 and 1878 meetings of the Anglo-Oriental Society for the Prevention of the Opium Trade, some cuttings from The Friend of China, a dictionary, several notebooks and carefully wrapped in more silk, bound concertinaed bamboo slips. Between each fold was a sheet of paper filled with Great Aunt Molex’s sloping handwriting.
The Chinese characters on the slips were a mystery to me but I soon detected from Great Aunt Molex’s words that what I had before me was a version of the I Ching, and I remembered that it was not her disappearance to China that had caused Molex to be excommunicated, but her various acts of sabotage against British government officials sanctioning opium imports, and her abandonment of Christianity for Chinese philosophy.
The more I read, the more I became convinced that somewhere within this vast work of translation lay a message from the impassioned Great Great Great Aunt to her lily-livered descendent. I gathered the coins together, rattled them about in my paws, and placed them on around compass points: K’UN, then K’AN – combining to the hexagram SHIH, the army. Five yin lines and one yang: ‘Everything is correct. Nothing will go wrong if the leader is wise and experienced’. If. My line of change told me the army had incompetent leaders. Either the commander had lost authority, or the army has too many leaders, and chaos would ensue.*
I sat among the open trunks, the suitcases and tea-chests and their scattered contents, and pondered the effects of too many projects, over-reaching ambition, lack of direction. A small piece of paper, an offcut, fluttered from the folds of the bamboo slipped as I packed it back into its silk wrapping: ‘Do not rely on the confusing advice of many’.
Time to grasp this life by the mettle. Like Great Aunt Molex.
*Martin Palmer, Kwok Man Ho, Joanne O’Brien, I Ching (1986).