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 of us have noticed the new addition, I couldn’t say. It’s barely spoken about, except through the briefest of whispers or in the flick of an eye. But if you care to look, you’ll see that another figure has appeared amongst the rose-tinted hillside. 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.

Q+A

How’s your dad?
He’s telling me how good he feels, before I’ve even got in the door. He’s saying how he’s been out in the garden digging up the Gunnera. He’s saying how he has a few aches and pains, but nothing too serious and then he’s patting my mum on the back when she tells him to stop talking about himself all the time.

How’s your dad?
He’s playing us another track by Iggy Pop as he drives us to the restaurant. He’s turning it up loud and we’re sitting there, giving in.

How’s your dad?
He’s making me laugh. He’s coming out with things that would earn anyone else a slap. He’s saying he can’t help it. My mum is rolling her eyes, but even she’s smiling.

How’s your dad? He’s telling this woman that he should have gone months ago. He’s saying how important it is to count your blessings and how grateful he is to still be able to get around. He’s telling her he’s got tumours everywhere. He’s not stopping.

How’s your dad?
He’s in pain all of a sudden. He’s asking if we can go and we are waving to the waitress for the bill. He’s pacing around now, over to the fire exit and back, trying to take his mind off of it. The waitress isn’t coming.

How’s your dad?
He’s lying down. We had to go to the emergency pharmacist to get him some Diazepam. We’re in the kitchen drinking herbal tea and mum’s trying to hide the red rings around her eyes.

How’s your dad?
He’s complaining that the eggs my mum cooked aren’t right. He’s refusing to eat. He’s in one of those moods.

How’s your dad?
He’s sitting in the old cane chair in the garage. Smoke is wafting around him. He’s making one of his lists that never gets done.

How’s your dad?
He’s going on a shamanic journey with the next door neighbour. He met his spirit guide who came to him in the form of a crow. He’s hoping to meet again for some kind of conversation. He’s moving to the next level.

How’s your dad?
He’s dressed up for a party nextdoor. He’s wearing the orange and blue trousers that he wore to see Iggy. He reckons the chemo is working.

How’s your dad?
He’s talking about the blackbirds again. He thinks it’s the same one that always comes up the garden path to greet him. He reckons the bees are on his wavelength too.

How’s your dad?
He’s spent the day on the sofa. He’s talking quietly with his eyes closed and grunting as he moves the hot water bottle round to a new ache. He’s nodded off.

How’s your dad?
He’s feeling weak. His face has turned yellow. He’s in these pyjamas that show off his stick-thin legs. He’s discussing personal arrangements with the nurse. He’s holding my hand very tight.

How’s your dad?
He’s alright now.

I wrote bits of this while my dad was ill. It’s just over a year ago that he passed away, so I thought I would put it out there.