The Old Man and the Museum

I hadn’t been working there long when I first noticed the old man. He was padding round the balcony, glancing about with a look of quiet fascination at the old maps displayed on the walls. He made three circuits, before descending to the ground floor and tipping his hat at the meet and greeter as he left.I quickly learned from my colleagues that he was a regular to the museum and had been for some time. Aside from taking walks around the upper floors, the old man also liked to tell jokes. He would often come over to the information desk and whisper “Have you heard the one about…” to whoever was stationed there that day. The punchlines were terrible, but we would laugh anyway out of courtesy and also because it was a brief spell of cheeriness amongst the drone of weary visitors.From then on, I paid close attention to his habits and saw how he would pause on occasion to pat a handrail or a stone column, like it was a trusted friend. At other times he would suddenly become fixated by an exhibit and beam at it with a knowing smile. This often had the profound effect of drawing other visitors to the object at which point the old man would slip through the bustle and continue on his steady meander.Most of all, he enjoyed looking at the Didier-Pouget that fills the wall outside the wildlife gallery. Nothing seemed to please him more than taking in the sunlit tufts of heather and the sprawling hillside as if it were a view he knew too well or perhaps longed to see in person.The first week he stopped visiting the museum, things began to deteriorate. Chunks of marble began breaking off the staircase in the front hall as visitors passed up and down. Surveyors were brought in to assess the problem, but they were unable to determine a cause and management had no choice but to close them off, indefinitely.The old man appeared a few days later, using the back stairs instead to reach the galleries. Although he still made his rounds, word quickly spread that he didn’t display his usual level of affection towards the exhibits or the building.The following week, the preventative conservator became convinced that there were new cracks appearing in the Assyrian reliefs. At first, no one believed her until she began taking pictures that illustrated the encroaching damage. The curators were bewildered, but those of us who worked on the galleries knew what was happening. You could feel it in the walls and the great oak doorways – everywhere was withering in his absence.The last time I saw the old man, his face was deathly pale. He still wore his broad-brimmed hat, but he’d swapped the tweed for a grey woollen suit jacket. He didn’t tell us any jokes. He barely made it up to the balcony.Over time, things returned to normal; mostly. The steps were able to be repaired and the cracks in the reliefs no longer seem to be increasing.How many have noticed the new addition, I couldn’t say. It’s barely acknowledged, except through the briefest of whispers or in the flick of an eye. But if you care to look, you’ll see that a second figure has appeared amongst the rose-tinted hillside where once there stood a lone female. There’s not much detail to make out apart from a broad-brimmed hat that’s being held aloft as if the person is embracing the scene.No doubt there’ll be others who’ll become a fixture amongst the museum and its collections. It’s what they deserve after contributing so much to the masonry and the treasures within. You might even call it a public service. For those yet to discover their own cherished item, I wish them long and healthy lives.

Bassline

The car inched forward as rush hour traffic crawled across the junction. A faint rhythm sailed over from the barbershop and Damien picked it up, tapping on the door while he surveyed the street.

“So what about Keisha, man? What’s going on?” asked Jerome.

Damien leaned back in the seat and put on a grin. “Nothing.”

“Nothing? What do you mean? I seen you.”

“It’s nothing, trust me.”

“Look at you. You’re a player, man!”

Damien watched an old lady pick through the veg outside the mini-market while he tried to find the words. But now Jerome was turning on the stereo. Bass shook the car and the line that Damien had been telling himself, reverberated around his head.

It was just a test. Tests can be wrong.

As seen in issue #156 of Adhoc Fiction.

The sky is ours

Their chanting beat against the morning stillness as Ahmed rolled the tyre along with a steady brush of his hand.

The youngsters grinned like it was a new game, but the others knew better. This was their duty.

Tarek looked back at the pillars of black smoke rising above the buildings. He was used to seeing the streets burn, but this was different. Today, they were the ones making the fires.

At a crossroads, Ahmed lay the tyre on the ground. The other children stood back while Tarek tipped the bottle of kerosene over it. When it was lit, another plume erupted, turning the air a dirty brown.

The children looked at each other, their stained faces fierce and proud while men and women cheered them on. Victory is ours, they cried. We’ve won back the sky.

Two birds

Kevin glanced out of the window as a magpie landed in the neighbour’s garden.

He quickly turned away, but the fear had already set in and Kevin dragged himself back to the window.

The bird was pecking at the ground, trying its luck in the cracks between the patio stones. Kevin pressed his face against the glass while he scanned the trees for another.

After a few minutes, the magpie took off over the neighbouring houses. Kevin swallowed hard as he watched it disappear behind the rooftops. Then he walked steadily down the corridor towards the front door.

As Kevin passed the kitchen, his head turned involuntarily towards the oven. He stopped and stared at the display. It was off. He was sure of it.

Kevin had almost reached the door before he sprung back to the kitchen like he was tied to it with elastic. Nothing. It was definitely off.

His damp fingers fumbled with the latch while a frenzy of other unchecked disasters threatened to take hold.

As he opened the door, Kevin saw movement overhead. Two birds. He couldn’t be sure if they were magpies or not. He took a long breath. They would just have to do.

Flammable materials

Her little arms flop around my sides while I push her up and down with big breaths. I try to  imagine how it must feel; the heartbeat, the airway, the warmth, as womb like as possible since exiting the real thing.

In this moment, I know exactly what I’m doing. No doubts, no distractions, just the purity of looking after a helpless being that needs my care and protection.

Then you come in and I feel tension stab at my bubble. At least you can’t shout at me for not helping, but still it’s there; a flame waiting to spark.

It’s source is tiredness, the deep and withering kind. This is added to by frustration at being denied a life in order to care for another. Additional combustion comes from a sense of guilt about daring to feel that way.

All that’s needed are a few words.

What’s the matter?

Nothing!

And we’re off.

Not in this family 

Gayle held the pot to her abdomen as she stood in the middle of the front garden.

“How about here, Sophie? What do you think?”

Sophie contorted her mouth and looked down at the gravel space that was plugged with tufts of grass. Then she shrugged.

“Okay.”

“I think this is a good spot,” added Gayle. “It’ll get plenty of light.” She bent down slowly, her hands trembling a little under the weight. She set the plant down and then straightened up. Only then did she realise she had broken a sweat across her forehead.

“Mum,” uttered Jane, by her side. “You should’ve just let me…”

Gayle hissed and backhanded the air as if preventing the words from ever arriving. Jane shrunk and Gayle returned her attention to Sophie.

“You must remember to water it everyday, especially when it’s hot. Then, one day it will grow into a bright, yellow sunflower.”

“Say thank you, Grandma,” murmured Jane.

“Thank you,” replied Sophie, twisting on the ball of her foot and breaking into a grin.

Gayle looked at her fresh, sun-blushed face and then to the gap in her lower front teeth, which Sophie tongued habitually as if it was the source of some new and delightful flavour.

Gayle smiled back, feeling satisfied. It seemed the spirit had merely skipped a generation.

“Well, it should brighten things up a bit,” said Jane, looking up at the pebbledash facade of the new house.

Suddenly, Gayle wanted to tell her how it meant so much more. How the flower was a symbol of hope, of a new beginning and soon, how it would be something to remember her by once the things growing inside her took hold.

But she didn’t, of course. It wasn’t the way. Not in this family. She could only give her doe-eyed daughter a hard look as she turned to her, side on.

“Cup of tea?” asked Jane.

“Thought you’d never ask.”

You and me

I wake to gentle little grunts and turn over to see you restless and stirring, your eyes still closed, as if in a bad dream.

Outside, the sky has barely begun to turn blue. Is it always the crack of dawn with you?

I get some warm water and drag you out of bed. It’s not as bad as I imagine, but why does it have to smell so much?

You start to thrash around and your finger goes to your mouth. Just hold on, I say, but you’re into full throttle now and I can’t believe the noise that can come from such tiny lungs.

The hum of the microwave calms you down and I wait with powder in hand while the horizon turns pink across the rooftops.

Familiar questions enter my head, urgent and painful. Still no answers. Just you and me.