Five minutes to nine, a pleasant morning to be wading through the detritus of a party. Chairs draped in forgotten jackets have been shoved apart haphazardly, purse trinkets glinting on the carpet. A sticky swathe of elderflower wine arcs across the table below the announcement board, paper cups crumpled one-handed into the waste bin and scattered. A small retirement gathering, yet such chaos. I gasp to myself, reaching for a piece of litter closest to me.
“Don’t you dare,” scolds Henry, my apprentice. His words are firm, but his face is a picture of merriment when he plucks the wrapper from my grip. “Go on, I’ll sort this.”
“Well, I hardly think –”
“It’s fine.” A soft nudge to the small of my back in encouragement. “Go wait in the canteen. Won’t take me and Becky five minutes, honest.”
“Rebecca”, I mumble with irritation. Henry is fond of her, but she has yet to earn my trust. I told him so—in private, of course. I also quietly informed the other co-workers: coincidence or not, since she arrived at this venue, there have been changes made without my approval. With a plethora of valuable collections in this vicinity, it hasn’t escaped my notice that several items and displays have been altered or outright moved. As chief curator, nothing ought to happen without my authority—however, I confess it is vital to give folks the benefit of the doubt. Goodness knows we have all put things in places where they don’t belong, at times.
My sigh is my assent to Henry, and I dutifully leave, traipsing downstairs with care. Easy to slip on this floor, regardless of your age or mobility—and in winter, even more so. Solid, bare granite, sloped in descent from where I began walking right to the front door, a nod to the museum’s former life as an abattoir in the early twentieth century. Management wanted it replaced, but we argued it would tear the soul from the building. When I began my tenure here twenty years ago, my card-up-the-sleeve factoid that would shock and delight the visiting school children involved pointing out the deep grooves carved into the floor on either side of the main hall.
“See those symmetrical channels,” I would begin conspiratorially, leaning close as if to impart a minacious secret to their awed little faces, gesturing from the ground to the vaulted ceiling and back. “That’s where all the fluids would run off. They’d hang the carcasses from hooks high up there, and let it drip.”
They would cackle in disgust and fright, but always press for more detail. I wouldn’t provide it, but it certainly garnered their interest enough to engage them in the points I truly wanted to make, in the stories I loved to tell of their town’s history. That was my passion. I shall miss it, just as I shall miss everything else about this place.
Only a humble folk museum, but I have yet to find another maintained with such conscientiousness—if I do say so, myself. The last unspoiled element of this dilapidated town; a solitary perfect tooth in a mouthful of rot, I would say, to which my wife would click her tongue against her own false teeth and ask why we bother to remain if that’s how I feel about it. Rotten or not, I could envision living nowhere else now. The museum is as much my home as the town itself.
My preferred collection is one of the smallest here, an area the size of an average double bedroom teeming with artefacts—social history, a variety of pieces encompassing hundreds of years to the present day, ranging from cane glass-work salvaged from a seventeenth-century chapel to a rusted tin of playing cards snaffled from a shipwreck. I visually check and count—there should be eighty items, including those in the display cabinets. I stop at seventy-nine, struggling to locate the eightieth. Ordinarily, it would be on the wall directly to the left of the first cabinet, in a frame.
As I mentioned, things have a tendency to go missing here. Typically, it’s an honest mistake–something plucked and dusted by cleaning staff then not returned to its rightful place, school parties reaching sticky fingers over boundary ropes. We do not have the budget to implement any convoluted security system, therefore employing honest individuals is crucial. As a folk museum, it differs from that of your average city repository. Along with grander contributions, it also showcases personal donations from local families, including our own staff.
My wife and I donated a few nostalgic items ourselves, meagre offerings by comparison to some. Perhaps I would have had more to offer had my London childhood home not been bombed to ash. In the aftermath, my father, a primary school teacher, uprooted us to the southwest of England. All we had to rebuild our lives was contained in a single suitcase of belongings. I vowed I would cling to every fragment of information left by my parents, lest their story—or that of others—be forgotten. Thus far, I have kept to it.
“Are you alright, Ira?”
Henry’s voice. A few wide blinks, and his friendly young face is beside me.
“Not particularly.” I scan it all once more, the blank space beside the cabinet remaining. “I don’t mean to sound like a broken record, but it’s happened again.”
The first occasion of such a disappearance was at the tail end of summer, our busiest period—a diptych of nineteen-fifties watercolours depicting Frenchman’s Creek, the estuary not far from our home. As a donation from a prominent local family, police were involved until it was mysteriously recovered in our attic storage, thereafter confined to one of the locked displays. The next occurrence was the vanishing of an exquisite, art deco brooch of a peacock rendered in gold and precious stones – this happened twice, and both times it was relocated in the recreation room’s bathroom, of all places. A piece of delicate embroidery, wartime occupational therapy work, was found in a filing cabinet upstairs. Today, my father’s college diploma is missing. It is of no actual value to anyone but myself, a mere yellowed paper scrap significant only for its achievements that have been lost to time.
Henry jerks his head in a nod to the collection before me. “Cleaners, probably.”
“They don’t clean these exhibits every day.” My forced monotony veils my anxiety. “It was here yesterday.”
Henry squints in the manner of someone attempting compassion but failing to mask their disbelief at your plight.
“I’m sure it’ll turn up.”
“Are you, indeed,” I counter immediately, equanimity worn thin with age and repetition. “We both know this is not the first time something like this has occurred within the social history collections, nor to a piece I personally donated.”
His light laughter rankles me. “Perhaps they put it to one side while they rearranged it all, and then accidentally forgot.”
“Not this time.” My voice rebounds off the walls, echoes hoarsely to the back of the exhibition hall. “Listen—I’ve worked here for twenty years. My mental faculties might not be what they were, but I know every single piece here, each dent in the paint, every divot in the ground. Don’t patronise me.”
Henry’s palm claps gently on my forearm. His eyes are beyond me, on the whitewashed surface behind us.
“I’d never do that.”
He repeats the assertion twice and steps over the boundary marker. Footsteps approach from my right, clipped and urgent.
“All done.” Rebecca carries two hessian bags in her arms, both stuffed to the brim. “Shall we...?”
“Give us a minute.” Henry’s tone bears a warning, his poise bracketed by anger. It would seem he’s lost his patience with her, too. “Just have to sort something out with the exhibit.”
“My father’s college diploma is missing,” I declare to her startled grey eyes. “I don’t suppose you know anything about it?”
Rebecca places the bags atop the information desk nearby and remains silent. Between them, an exchanged look of utmost dismay and discreet mischief that to my mind is undoubtedly suspicious. At once, I sense exactly who is responsible. How utterly foolish of me.
“How dare you,” I bark with uncapped annoyance, stepping over to join Henry within the display. “A deliberate tactic to undermine me on my retirement. Not content with coercing me out of somewhere I love, you sabotage my favourite collections intending to make me look stupid, so that I may not even leave in dignity.”
My vision blurs with tears. Over-sensitive, my wife called me. Human, I would retort. I remove my glasses to pinch at the root of my nose, leaning my forehead against the paintwork. A ferocious headache boils in my skull, accusations and conspiracies raging within. I shut my eyes, regaining my composure, determined to settle this with my pride intact.
“Ira, come now.”
Henry’s hand on my arm again. The ground feels spongy beneath my feet when I turn to face him, as though the weight of my feeble body is too great for the ancient rock.
“Either hand it over, or help me find it.” I fumble for my glasses, then realize I must have dropped them without acknowledging the act. “If not, I’ll be forced to call the...”
A peculiarity in my line of sight gives me pause. Henry bends, retrieves my glasses, then a large brown-papered parcel that was partly hidden beside the long cabinet. He passes it to me with reverence, wrapping damp to the touch.
“It’s from all of us,” Rebecca explains as my fingers clumsily unpick the tape at the corners. “We were going to give this to you later. We... wanted you to have a lasting memento of your time here, so that you didn’t feel that you had to –”
“Becky,” Henry whispers sharply.
Two items reveal themselves. My father’s diploma, immaculately restored, reframed in sleek mahogany, and resplendent with gold seal and exquisite penmanship. My surprise and joy are so great that I can only choke out emotional gratitude for several minutes. Father would have been proud.
The second item is bemusing.
A framed selection of family photographs, and at the centre, a picture of myself at my retirement party, surrounded by friends and colleagues, dated October fifteenth nineteen-ninety-two. Yesterday.
“Extraordinary,” I exclaim, thinking of the previous night’s festivities, the perceived inebriate blur of it. “How were you able to have these developed so quickly? Modern darkroom technology is absolutely incredible.”
In the glass of the gifts, their distant faces contort. One photograph shows me, Henry, and Rebecca, a familiar pendant hanging from her necklace that glints with the flashbulb of the camera. Something within my mind clears as a finger tracing a path through a window’s condensation, and it knocks the breath from my chest. Knots tighten along the length of my spine, spreading across my shoulders, down my arms.
I do not want to look at either of them. The frames rattle with my palsy, a question in itself. Rebecca takes them from me, linking her arm through mine with kindred gentleness.
Henry guides us all away from the exhibit, past the open door of my office. Above the unusually arranged desk, the calendar bears the date of September, nineteen-ninety-five. The woman within the room cranes her neck to catch my attention, beaming at me.
“Happy birthday, Ira,” she trills. “Lovely seeing you and your family – don’t leave it so long next time!”
I cannot respond.
“I was trying to keep them safe,” I explain as we file into the waiting car with me at their centre, a geriatric husk bolstered by their youth. “I know those exhibits better than anyone, no-one else would look after them as I did.”
Henry clasps my free hand, and something presses sharply into my flesh. I glance down to admire the luminous bejewelled face of my mother’s brooch in my grasp, teardrop rubies and emerald feathers reflecting a prism of evening light through the windshield.
I must remember to return it. Someone will miss it from the collection, that’s for certain.