In retrospect it was quite a coup for the 12th Pontypridd Scout Group to come into the possession of Lord Nelson’s body. He was down in the basement, our patrol leader swore, laid out on a table. Apparently our 50p weekly dues were stretching further than anticipated.
The patrol was enthusiastic but unfazed: when you’re 11 you take a lot of things in your stride. We were told that the Hero of Trafalgar was in remarkably good condition (relatively speaking – he’d lost his arm and the use of his right eye in battle, after all) despite dying two centuries prior. It was forbidden, however, to look upon his cadaver. This sounded reasonable enough.
One by one we were blindfolded and led into the basement. There’s a very specific age where you’re old enough to know you’re being told a fantastical story and young enough that your conviction can falter ever so slightly. You may never say it out loud, might never admit it to another person, but just for a moment you can allow yourself to believe in something impossible. It wasn’t Nelson’s body, obviously, but there had to be something down there, right?
The older scouts, who’d undergone this in the distant past of a year ago, met our queries with silence and amused smiles. What occurs to me now is that it wasn’t the notion of pawing a historical corpse that excited but the prospect of taking part in a rite. Others had done this before and others would do it afterwards. It was a silly game but our turn to play it.
More specifically, it was my turn. The scoutmaster went into his spiel. Here lies Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson. These are his boots. I felt the boots. These are the buttons on his jacket. I felt the buttons on his jacket. This is his missing arm. My hand was guided into the empty sleeve.
And this is his right eye.
I knew then and know now that it wasn’t real. Of course it wasn’t the damaged eyeball of a famous deceased naval figure. Of course it was just a tomato that had been left out in the sun. Of course this was a trick being played in a basement with a kid on a table and some fruit. For a moment, though, I really did touch Nelson’s eye, and to my delight it was absolutely disgusting.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Seven.