Sunday, 10 February 2008

The Museum Ward

When I was twelve I was taken to the Herringbone Museum by my father because he was feeling guilty. He had returned a couple of weeks earlier from a relic-hunting trip in Central Africa that had lasted two-and-half years, and I had failed to recognise him. The museum trip was his way of trying to reconnect with me.

The Herringbone Museum, as you may know, houses the De Havilleau collection of artefacts. We started in that wing of the museum, with my father telling me tales of the items whose provenance he knew, often knowing more than the museum's information signs because he knew the researchers who were working on them. He told me of the strange history of Angelo's eyeball, a single eye floating in a cloudy jar of formaldehyde, and of the numerous deaths associated with the silver carillon, a tiny object of beauty that I coveted instantly. As we walked past the huge bones that De Havilleau claimed to have dug up from a vast graveyard in the Andes my father whispered to me that there were indications that the bones were even older than De Havilleau had believed, and when we stopped in front of a single case containing jade jewelry my father told me that the pieces of jade were set in some kind of bone that held unusual amounts of heavy metal, and were bound together using sinew.

When we left that wing, and walked through the grand atrium again, with its huge domed roof of stained glass, I remember catching sight of a well-dressed middle-aged man sitting in a velvet-upholstered armchair. He was wearing a black stovepipe hat, had sad grey eyes and a monocle, and was contemplating a gold pocket watch with a thin chain that ran to a pocket in his waistcoat. He looked up at me as though feeling the weight of my gaze on him, and our eyes met. There was the oddest sensation, a tingle that seemed to jolt right through me, and he winked at me. I paused in mid-step, but my father chose that moment to take my hand and pull me forward. I stumbled, turning away to look at where I was going, and when I looked back he was engrossed in his watch again.

We spent the whole day at the museum, the last hour before it closed spent looking at the things that my father had donated from a trip before I was born. That time he had been in Eastern Europe, somewhere in the steppes, and had brought back some pottery with ancient, undeciphered, writing on it, a couple of shrunken heads that filled my dreams for months afterwards, and a canoe that he suspected had had ceremonial and sacrificial purposes.

That was thirty years ago, and today I found myself in front of the limestone steps that led up to the grand doors of the Herringbone museum again, holding the hand of a little girl I'd found five minutes earlier wandering around the shopping mall two streets away. Despite all the warnings children are given about accepting sweets from strangers it had been ridiculously easy to get her to accept a chocolate bar: I had dropped my clipboard of papers near her, and when she helped me pick them up, I gave her the chocolate bar as a thankyou. Her thin face had beamed with a smile, and she opened it straight away and bit into it. Her eyes had glazed over almost immediately, and she happily accepted the suggestion that she should come with me for a half an hour or so, and return to the mall afterwards.

We walked up the steps, and I pushed open the huge mahogany doors, three times my height and counterbalanced so that even a child could push them open, and we walked into the atrium of the HerringBone museum.

Nothing had changed. The stained-glass domed ceiling still seemed as far overhead as it had when I was a child; there were a couple of display cabinets off to the left that told of the museum's history, and some hand-lettered signs on the walls indicated where various exhibits were. But most importantly, there was a green-velvet upholstered armchair in the centre of the atrium, in which was sat a middle-aged man wearing a three-piece burgundy suit and a stovepipe hat. From one pocket of his waistcoat dripped a gold-chain, that ran across to the pocket on the other side, and a monocle hung from a lapel. He was sat back, one ankle resting on the opposite knee, and he looked straight at me as I looked straight at him. I led the little girl across the marble floor, our footsteps ringing in the silence until we stood before him.

"Oscar De Havilleau?" I said quietly. The atrium was empty save for we three.

"As you must know." he replied. I nodded.

"Ward of the museum," I said, "Trapped here now for more than eighty years."

"I see the world changing by the clothes people wear, and the toys they bring in," he said. "It would be nice to see the rest."

"I need your expertise," I said. "I will be traveling to the Antartic in three days time --"

"I accept," he said cutting me off. I smiled. He smiled. The little girl smiled, though I'm sure she didn't know why. I let go of her hand, and it fell to her side, and Oscar took her other hand. I felt that tingle again, a sudden jolt, just like thirty years ago, but this time I understood what it meant, and that she had felt it too. As her eyes widened I placed my hand on Oscar's chest and spoke the words it had cost the lives of seven men to obtain. There was a coruscation in the air, little tiny supernovae of light, and I felt the presence of an ineffable being, a feeling of frustration, and a dreadful urge to turn around. I fought the urge, I knew that what must be behind me now would blast and sear my mind, leaving me an insane gibbering wreck. Oscar's eyes were tightly closed, and his lips were mumbling what was probably a prayer, and still the pressure on me to turn around grew. I trembled, my teeth chattering as I shook, and my knees felt weak and I felt myself, against my will, begin to turn.

Then the lights went out, the presence receded with a unheard, but felt, scream of anger, and I collapsed to the floor, soaked with sweat.

Oscar gave me his hand and helped me to my feet. There was a new light in his eyes, that of a man given his freedom, and the little girl sat in his chair, her eyes distant and patient. I thanked him, and we turned to leave the museum. I glanced back once at the little girl, and wondered if she knew how important she now was.

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