Author's Note: This story was written as a 1000 word short story for school, on the mandatory topic of Indigenous Australians.
Muddy frost crystallised Hyde Park, fog smothered the embankments of the Thames and as fierce as the anticipation in her stomach, the angry January clouds loomed overhead as Lillian Derbyshire manoeuvred her way through the map-wielding obstacles of the South Kensington tube station. Tourists, she mentally scoffed, the palace is at St James Park station.
Her daily walk up Exhibition Road led her to the towering pillars of the Natural History Museum. Briskly passing through the vast atrium, she greeted Charlie and William the daytime security guards, Fred and the two Georgias at the ticket booth, and Arthur the Educations Officer, on his way to buy his morning coffee, no cream, no sugar. Today will be a great day, she mused, I can feel it. She swiped her employee key card at a discrete side door and strode down the chilly metal corridor to the viscera of the museum.
A delightfully musty scent tickled her nose as she browsed the shelves of the storage vault of ancient artefacts. Carefully pressed butterfly wings, an ant trapped inside amber, a cast of a dinosaur skull and, ah, there it was – "Australia, Ngarrindjeri, 1800". Like an early explorer in uncharted territory, the excitement and impatience she felt was immense, and her fingers twitched as she slipped on a pair of worn off-white cotton gloves.
At her meticulously clean workstation, she unsealed the box and stared with undisguised elation at the contents – a traditional drinking cup of the indigenous Australian Ngarrindjeri tribe. It was part of a collection of four, owned by the museum.
Oh, such artistry – it's superb! she internally gushed. The rugged edges smoothed, the browning surface sealed with resin, and all its history and knowledge, perfectly preserved, and ready to be unlocked and analysed.
Of course, the museum was already aware of part of its history, for, as outlined by an accompanying archive document, they had been in possession of the artefact since the late 1800s, when English explorer and horseman, Harry Stockdale, had collected the cups and passed them onto the museum.
The cups were perhaps one of the more controversial items owned by the museum, for there had been rumours that, on behalf of the Ngarrindjeri tribal elders, the Australian government had been asking for their repatriation; but to ask the world-renowned Natural History Museum of London to sacrifice the infinite anthropological knowledge to be gained? Ludicrous! There were discoveries in genetic diseases to be made, and, really, the Ngarrindjeri tribe should be honoured and grateful that the skulls of their long-dead ancestors were being used for a cause which could benefit the indigenous peoples in the future, rather than rotting in respect to the powers that be. The drinking skulls of the Ngarrindjeri people were a unique and, quite frankly, irreplaceable resource, of which the scientific importance far superseded any of the spiritual, quasi-religious mumbo-jumbo that was being spouted.
As a result of the impending deadline on any possible research or analysis, the Board of the Natural History Museum had fast-tracked the DNA analysis and her supervisor had deferred the task to her – it was a great honour and an incredible opportunity for new anthropological and medical discoveries. If only a time limit wasn't hanging around her neck.
She scratched the back of her neck, irritated by the chafing tag of her lab coat. Nevertheless, she had to ignore it – it was time to begin.
Carefully holding the skull in her hand, she selected a sterilised pair of forceps from her glinting collection and inserted them into the nasal cavity, applying the slightest amount of pressure to – crack! – dislodge a fragment of bone material. A perfectly sized, brown sliver of bone fragment toppled out onto a waiting tray with a resounding clatter in the silence of her cold, barren laboratory.
Bollocks. In the jittery rush of her laboratory preparation, she had forgotten to remove all valuables from her person. The chain of her silver locket shifted around her neck, as she placed her forceps on the tray, and stared at the bold, flashing white word: Mum.
"L-Lily, darling? Is that you?" A voice rattled through the phone, echoing into her bones.
"Mum? What's wrong? I'm in the middle of something quite important."
"It's J-James." The voice was shaky, smothered with emotion and pain – a funeral voice. "He's ... they called and a chap from the Department came and they ... his unit ... he's ..."
A sniffle. A suppressed hiccup. Lillian's heart lurched. In the pools of her mind, she could see beloved James at his induction ceremony, standing tall and proud while immersed in field of khaki. No, not Jamie, not my little brother. Her little brother, now a man.
"Mum, I ... I'm coming, right away. I'll be there soon. Is there anything you need me to do? Anything you need?"
"I just ... I just need them to bring him home!"
Bring him home.
Her hand had been perfectly steady, but with a sudden spasm, the two-century-old Ngarrindjeri skull jerked out of the white palm of her hand. A graceful skid across the workbench, a topple over the edge and a flicker of cracks and splinters. She stared in numbing horror, its toothless yawn, tortured and unnerving, and its hollow eye sockets, forever dark and empty. A thorn of overwhelming guilt burrowed into her chest as she knelt and bowed her head to examine the remains.
"They'll bring him home, Mum," she whispered. "They'll bring him home."