The Human Genre Project

Lisa in Amsterdam

An extract from the novel, The Embalmer's Book of Recipes, by Ann Lingard (Indepenpress 2009)

The narrow spiral stairway was steep, the steps tall, and Lisa was soon breathless and struggling. From a landing, doors opened into offices that were equipped with computers and bright with modern light, contrasting incongruously with the ancient stones. The men waited for her to catch up. There were more stairs and then their guide opened a low wooden door and she followed the others into a high octagonal room that was panelled in wood, its high domed ceiling embossed with coloured shields. The room was empty apart from a few piles of books and papers, and the space startled her.

‘How extraordinary.’ Stefan stood in the centre and looked around. ‘What was it used for?’

‘Something to do with the old Guild of doctors, no – surgeons. And it has been other things too. This man, he is called Theo and works in the library downstairs. He will tell us if I ask him. But this is not what I brought you to see. We must follow him.’

Theo led them between wooden pillars into a sort of meeting room where gold and ruby light filtered through coloured panes of glass and glowed on the polished floor. The rich colour lit their faces and clothes as they hurried after their guide, and Lisa would have liked to stop for a moment and hold it in her hands. But Theo walked over to a small wooden door and pushed it open. ‘We must go in here.’ He let them go ahead and then stood just inside the door.

Kees grinned at them. ‘Go in. You will love this.’

There were chairs and a table, but although the furniture almost filled the space it was of no significance for the character of the narrow room was described by its walls: arches, niches, and frames circular or square were set within the plaster.

‘Just look at these pillars! It seems impossible you could do this with bricks.’ Stefan ran his hand up one of the helical curves that framed an alcove.

‘This one seems to disappear back into the wall – and yet it’s completely flat.’ Lisa reached up to touch the surface of a complex trompe l’oeil pattern that gave an impression of perspective. ‘This is unbelievable!’ She hurried from one pattern to another, laughing in her amazement. ‘Kees, why are they here?’

‘These are the rooms of the bricklayers’ guild. They used them to show off their skills.’

Lisa stroked one of the panels, feeling the contrast between warm brick and cold marble insets, and revelling in the complicated pattern that completely filled the frame.

‘You really are a genius,’ she said to Kees, genuinely delighted. ‘This is just perfect, isn’t it, Stefan?’

‘You see, the bricks are special, they are very small.’

‘Small but perfectly formed,’ Stefan said, and then hit his forehead with his hand and looked embarrassed. ‘Ach! Sorry’.

‘It’s okay.’ Lisa touched his elbow and laughed at him. ‘You’ll end up not being able to speak at all if you try to watch your words. And I certainly don’t take offence or even notice unless you over-react. Like that.’

Stefan grinned ruefully. ‘Point taken. A blow below the belt,’ and he ducked away quickly, bumping against their reluctant guide.

Theo grunted, then spoke to Lisa. ‘Do you have a camera? You can make a photograph for your research. I will make a photo of you in front of it, also.’ He was unsmiling and she felt his chilliness, but she smiled pleasantly at him and searched in her bag for her camera.

‘Thank you. Though the room is so small I’m not sure a photo would give the best impression.’

She showed him how to work the camera and stood in front of one of the panels while the others squeezed themselves against the further wall. The flash, as always, startled her and she could imagine clearly what it had captured: Dr Lisa Wallace with her long blonde hair, an achondroplasic, small and imperfectly formed, against a backdrop of miniaturised perfection.

Achondroplasia, a form of non-proportionate dwarfism, is due to a single point mutation in Chromosome 4, which results in altered bone growth.

'Lisa' is a mathematician, and you can find out more about her and The Embalmer's Book of Recipes, on Ann Lingard's website (linked from her name below) — where there are also the 3 short amusing and thought-provoking videos made by Tom Shakespeare and John Burn, about achondroplasia.

Ann Lingard