Aunt Angharad was the most unlikely person to kowtow to our family tradition. A professor of psychology, who lectured around the world, she had had several books published. She was a strong independent woman in her early sixties who lived alone in a smart London suburb. When on her travels, she strode rapidly around with a confident, energetic air, carrying her laptop, and wheeling a case behind her. The family viewed her as a being ‘a trifle eccentric’. She was known to accept invitations to gatherings and then fail to arrive without giving notice or reason. This was but one example of her failure to conform to social norms, others included a refusal to recognise or celebrate religious festivals, collecting the free individual packs of sugar, sauce and the like in cafes, producing a pack of sandwiches at a family lunch, whilst announcing ‘I prefer to bring my own food when you’re doing the cooking.’ Despite these foibles, she was approachable and eloquent. She had a modern outlook and kept up to date with current affairs. We enjoyed her company.
In appearance, she was tall and lean with sharp, pointed facial features. She had clear, blue eyes which observed you through round clear rimmed glasses, making you feel as though she was assessing your every thought. She wore little make-up, usually just a slick of bright lipstick on her thin lips. The only jewellery she wore was a small stainless steel wristwatch, and a selection of dangly earrings. Clothes wise, she tended to wear low heeled leather shoes, and what appeared to be good quality tweed suits. We later found out that, it was these latter items, which contributed to her unpleasant odour. She confided in our mother that she scoured the local charity shops for her clothes, and would only buy reputable brands. She added that she ‘sponged them down’ rather than ‘waste money on dry cleaning.’
I believe that the other factors contributing to the unique aroma, which was integral to her identity, was a propensity to forget to wash, and in part, our family tradition of not cutting our hair until we produced a child. When my sister, Elise and I asked her why as an educated woman, she had continued to adhere to this archaic custom, she replied.
‘What you are taught as a child, as being ‘right’ you tend to accept. These ideas become hard wired into your brain, and are very hard to shake off. And besides I loved my long, flowing locks when I was young.’
‘I suppose you thought that, the time would come when you would naturally cut your hair?’ I persisted.
‘No, I knew that marriage and motherhood would never be options for me.’ Later, I reflected on this statement, and realised that she was might have been a latent gay. We had never known her to have a relationship with anyone. She continued. ‘Besides, hairstyles for women of my age tend to be short crops. Much easier to have it like this, rather than keep having to visit the hairdresser.’ She wore her iron grey hair in a top knot, and I now suspect that, this choice was as much to do with her innate thriftiness as family tradition. Super fastidious Elise asked ‘Isn’t a bit of a marathon washing it?’
‘Oh, it hardly ever seems necessary.’ I shot Elise a warning look before she could say more. When you got near to Angharad, an unpleasant smell definitely exuded from her head area.
No-one was clear where our tradition had originated from. There were no rules attached to the custom. Nothing relating to the grooming of hair, covering it, how it should be worn, merely that scissors should not be used on it until your first baby was born. Elise and I had been born and brought up in Liverpool, surrounded by a large, extended family, most of who upheld the practice. Early photographs dating back to the mid nineteenth show pictures of our forebears sporting untamed tresses. Often the men hiding their excessive hair under oversized caps. There were accepted exceptions, during the First and Second World Wars when family members joined the forces; they had no choice but to trim their hair.
Being a working class family, prior to the advent of popular photography there are no images of our ancestors. Portraits were beyond or forebears’ modest means. So we cannot be sure when the tradition started. My grandmother said that when our forefathers immigrated to Liverpool from Wales in the early eighteenth century, they bought with them strong chapel links, and from this came our tradition of unshorn locks. She believed that the story of Samson and Delilah had been the origin of this. This story is told in the Old Testament and, in short, relates how Samson was given great strength at birth. God told him that the source of his strength was in his hair, and if he ever cut it he would become weak. In time, Samson fell in love with a woman called Delilah who tricked him and cut off his locks whilst he was sleeping. Just as God had told him without his long locks he became weak.
A distant cousin had a different version of the start of our tradition. He believes that it is linked to the Rastafarian movement. His thoughts were that our predecessors were appalled by the plight of slaves bought to England from Africa, and so began sporting dreadlocks to show their support. Yet another explanation was given to me by an elderly great aunt. She was convinced that the custom started when a female relative married a Sikh gentleman. Sikhs maintain that their hair is a gift from God and so should not be cut. When the newlywed explained this to his extremely devout in-laws, they saw the logic of his philosophies and so adopted the practice. It had then spread to the wider family.
As with all families, we have become geographically and culturally diverse. Whenever I see a man on TV with unfashionably long hair, I can’t help but wonder if he is a distant relative. At times, for instance during the hippy era of the ‘60s and ‘70s, males with long hair were unremarkable. Generally, it has always been an easy tradition for the women in our family to adhere to. Most of the men have also managed to keep to the tradition without too much grief, mostly because they were permitted to cut their hair as soon as their first child was born.
No-one had heard from Aunt Angharad for several days. Despite her idiosyncrasies, she always stayed in touch with us by telephone or email, and told us of any planned trips abroad. Various family members unsuccessfully tried to contact her. Elise and I were both studying in London and so decided to call round. We took the tube, and as we strode down the leafy street towards her home, a sense of foreboding came over me. It was a warm and dusty day, the streets feeling claustrophobic, as only built up residential areas can. It was midday when we arrived. Standing outside our aunt’s house, we could see that all her curtains were closed. We rapped loudly on her door – no response. We waited and then tried again, again nothing. We made three unsuccessful attempts, before calling her mobile number. There was no answer, and nor could we hear it ringing inside the house. We knocked on the neighbours’ houses either side and opposite her home. No-one had seen her, but this was not unusual in an affluent, anonymous commuter area, where everyone was busy with their own affairs. Reluctantly, we decided that the police should be alerted and so called into the nearest police station and explained our concerns. The police agreed to do a welfare check.
When Angharad’s home was broken into, the police found her lying dead in her bed. She had no apparent injuries, and the authorities’ initial view was ‘death by natural causes.’ However, a post mortem was necessary, and it revealed something unusual. When the pathologist, Ms Brownlow, a serious young woman unwound my aunt’s hair from its habitual bun and examined her scalp she found a large sore. Skin samples were taken, which revealed that it was caused by loxoscelism, or in layman’s terms, the sore was caused by the necrotic venom of a spider. The wound was superficial, and certainly not enough to be fatal. Nothing further was discovered until my aunt’s skull was opened.
Ms Brownlow and her assistant stood either side of Angharad, who was laid naked and covered by a crisp, white sheet on the autopsy table, her feet vulnerably exposed. Bright arc lights shone down onto her now shaven skull, making her appear as white as the covering sheet. The shiny wall tiles and stainless steel drawers and equipment reflected the lights, giving the room an almost festive appearance, although this was belied by the combined clinical smell of surgical spirit and formaldehyde. The room was windowless and kept cool by efficient air conditioning. In preparation for the craniotomy the pathologist and her deputy were clad in green, surgical gowns, with clear plastic aprons over the top, sheer plastic gloves, and white ankle length boots. Over their faces they wore transparent face guards. They resembled a pair of astronauts from a low budget sci-fi film.
Ms Brownlow used a scalpel to carefully make a large t-shaped incision from Angharad’s forehead towards the back of her head and then from ear to ear. She cautiously peeled back the skin. The assistant wielded a suction hose to suck up any blood and loose tissue, although there was little. She looked even more like an astronaut, but now she was armed with a bizarre, hoovering weapon. Laying aside the scalpel on the wheeled, trolley beside her, Ms Brownlow selected the handsaw. She started to cut away at the brittle, creamy bone of the cranium. As she broke through into the brain cavity, there was movement. Both women screamed and dropped their instruments, involuntarily leaping back, as hundreds of tiny spiders escaped from the small incision.
‘Quick, grab a canister and catch some of them.’
After several minutes, many of the spiders were safely sealed in a sample capsule, where they frantically run round its clear, transparent sides resembling a shaken snow globe, but with black rather than white snowflakes. The remainder had been efficiently sucked up into the suction hose. The women regained their composure and continued. Ms Brownlow removed a section of skull approximately two inches square, which enabled her to see that a large portion my aunt’s brain was missing. The obvious conclusion was that the spiderlings had eaten it, but how had they got there? Carefully, she twisted the corpse’s head on her neck, so that if she could still see, she would be looking at the wall. Skillfully, she removed the left ear and then peered into the canal with her otoscope, this eardrum was intact. Repositioning the head, she repeated the procedure with the other ear, and identified a small hole in this ear drum. It was barely the size of a pinprick, not large enough for the spiderlings to pass through.
Ms Brownlow had a theory. One of the first tasks when a corpse arrives at the mortuary is to collect and save any loose fragments, which are on their clothes or body. She withdrew the container containing these bits, and painstakingly sifted through them. She found nothing untoward, only the expected biscuit crumbs, flakes of skin, one dead fly and other detritus. She moved to a larger receptacle, which held the long, rope like skeins of my aunt’s hair. This, she lay out piece by piece on a large sheet of A1 paper and meticulously scoured each length with a nit comb. Various tiny morsels fell onto the paper until, eventually, she found what she was looking for, a minute piece of spider’s egg sac, a miniscule piece of sticky silk. She sent this and the capsule of spiderlings to the laboratory for analysis. When the results were returned they said that both samples originated from a species of spider called loxosceles tenochtitlan, known colloquially as the violin spider. This arachnid secretes flesh-eating venom and originates from Mexico.
My aunt had been lecturing in Mexico City several weeks previously. Ms Brownlow researched the violin spider’s life cycle, and found that, typically it takes two to three weeks for spiderlings to emerge from their egg sac. She concluded that the cause of death was cerebral atrophy caused by the venom secreted by the spiderlings. She theorised that a female spider had landed on my aunt in Mexico, had laid her eggs in my aunt’s hair. Due to her habit of leaving her hair in a bun for long periods, the egg sac had remained undisturbed until the eggs had hatched. Initially, the baby spiders had travelled from the hair, into the ear canal. Their venom had made the small hole in her ear drum allowing them to pass into the brain cavity, where they had continued to grow and secrete their necrotic venom, eventually causing sufficient brain damage to be fatal.
The irony of a woman who was a specialist in the workings of the mind, being killed by the destruction of the organ, which enables the functions of the mind, was not lost on me.