The Museum (short fiction)

Sometimes the mood takes me to write some fiction… This one, again, is a bit different from the others – I’m enjoying experimenting.  I shan’t say any more about it, although part of me is itching to say more.  Instead… here is ‘The Museum’.
Sylvia Hawthorn often answered the door with something in
her hand and today it was a blue and gold teapot, which had once been a gift
from a friend of her father’s who might have become Prime Minister, if he had
ever successfully stood for election.  Luckily
the teapot was empty, albeit slightly soapy.
“Miss Hawthorn?” said the lady in uniform on the
doorstep.  The uniform was navy and neat,
with a stripe of gold on the pocket, but Sylvia did not recognise it.  A man in the same uniform (a little less
neat) stood behind.  Both of them looked
young, but a lot of people looked young to Sylvia – who was, herself, 78, but
(as people often put it) ‘still living alone’. 
It was that ‘still’ that Sylvia hated to hear.  The word implied that things might, perhaps
should, soon change – that, frankly, some person or persons unknown had slipped
up by letting the situation continue for so long.  The lady in uniform smiled patiently, and
waited for an answer.
“Yes, I’m Miss Hawthorn. 
Can I help you?”
“We’re here for the museum.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“The museum.  We’re
here regarding the museum.  Would you
mind if we stepped in for a moment?”
Sylvia was not used to saying no to people.  Indeed, she was not used to be consulted on
any matter.  Having been brought up to
respect uniforms, whatever they might signify, she stepped back to allow the
lady and the man to walk past her down the hall.
“I think it will do nicely,” said the lady.
“Perhaps the corridor could be widened?” murmured the man.
“Oh, well, of course – the corridor could hardly stay as it
is.  Think of wheelchair access, for one
thing.”
“I’m sorry?” Sylvia said, but they were in the living room
now.  She wished that she had vacuumed,
or at least tidied in there, but she always started her weekly clean in the
kitchen.  It certainly wasn’t tidy in the
living room, she knew; a pile of books were on the sofa, a jigsaw puzzle was
half completed on the coffee table, and there might well be – she blushed to
remember – the remnants of a cup of cocoa on the sideboard.  Still, she couldn’t stand in the hallway all
evening.  She put down the teapot on the
stairs, and followed.
In the living room, the man and the lady were walking slowly
around the coffee table, looking closely at the mess of objects.  Sylvia trotted quickly to the sofa and
started picking up books.
“Excuse me, Miss Hawthorn,” said the lady sharply, “I’m
going to have to ask you not to touch the exhibits.”
The man hurried across the room, and firmly took the books
from Sylvia’s hands. 
Anne of Green Gables,”
he read, “and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.”  The lady produced a tiny notebook from
somewhere within the uniform, and scribbled some notes.
“They’re from a sale at the library,” Sylvia said, the blush
returning to her cheeks – it was never far from them. “I promise I didn’t steal
them.  I paid £1 for each.  The suggested donation was only fifty pence,
but I like to support charity when I can.” 
She paused, wondering what other relevant information she could possibly
provide.  “I don’t recall the exact
charity.  I have a feeling it might have
been something to do with parrots.”
“Just put them back where they ought to be, thank you.  I’m sorry, Miss Hawthorn, the exhibits really must be left as they are.”
“I’m afraid I don’t really understand – ”
“Proper signage will be in place in due course,
obviously.  Now, if you could take us
through to the kitchen…?”
The lady spoke considerably more than her companion, but he
made up for his silence with the level of attention he paid to all of Sylvia’s
possessions, frequently writing things in his own tiny notebook.  It was a little officious, Sylvia thought,
not to say nosey.  If the man who might
have become Prime Minister were there, he’d have known what to do.  He’d been so clever about the situation with
the village hall plumbing, and had once given her a pair of warm suede gloves,
sensible man.  Not many gentlemen would
have thought of that.  Sylvia took the
only course of action she could think of.
“Would either of you like a cup of tea?”
“Oh, certainly.” The lady in uniform nodded to her partner,
whose own uniform, it transpired, held takeaway cups filled with tea.  “Of course, we can’t use the cups and mugs
you have here.”
Sylvia tried not to look offended, which was the certain
method of making her look her most offended. “The crockery was a gift from my
parents.  I believe the mayor has a
similar set.”
“Write that down,” said the lady to her companion. “The
current mayor? Yes? But you understand that we can’t use the exhibits in such a
manner.”
“Goodness, no!” said the man.
“I’m terribly sorry,” said Sylvia, feeling reluctantly that
the time had come to be direct, “I really don’t understand.  Are you from the council?  Is this – ” (an advert she had seen on
television came dimly to her mind) “– is this at all connected with my TV
licence?”
“I thought I’d explained. 
We’re from the museum.  We are
members of the Museum Committee.”
The man in uniform, who was examining the shelf of teacups,
looked over his shoulder and added: “The subcommittee for pre-launch evaluation
and itemisation.”
“But – I really am most terribly sorry – what is this museum?  And what has it to do with my home?”
The lady laughed – quite kindly, it seemed to Sylvia.  She smiled uncertainly in response.  There remained a faint hope that a few words
would make everything clear again.
“Why, the museum of you, of course!  The Sylvia Hawthorn Museum.”
Before Sylvia could respond, the man had beckoned to his
partner.
“A teapot.  A teapot
is missing.”
The lady strode across the room, friendliness lost in a
moment of businesslike concern.  She
flipped through her notebook, frowning.  Sylvia
stared across the room, hoping that standing still and not speaking would
somehow provide a solution to her confusion. 
They muttered to each other for a minute or two, until Sylvia wondered
if they had forgotten about her entirely. 
Eventually the lady addressed her.
“Miss Hawthorn, my colleague cannot find the teapot.  A blue and gold teapot.”
“I’m afraid I – no – no, it’s usually on that shelf.  I don’t know where it is.”
“Miss Hawthorn, this is quite a serious matter.  Any theft will be prosecuted.  That is our policy, however large or small
the item or items taken.”
“But – but it’s mine.  The teapot is mine.  Everything in this house is mine!”  Even in a moment of confrontation, though,
Sylvia was scrupulously honest, and felt compelled to acknowledge an exception:
“There is a library book by my bed.  I
don’t own that.  It isn’t especially
good.  I would describe the
characterisation as lacklustre.”
The man wrote this down quickly, but the lady’s eyes did not
drop from Sylvia’s face.  “I don’t wish
to upset you, Miss Hawthorn, but the museum simply can’t permit exhibits to be
tampered with.”
“I wish you’d explain to me what this museum is.”
“I believe you’re being deliberately difficult, Miss
Hawthorn, and the committee had so hoped that pre-launch evaluation and
itemisation would run smoothly.  We only
have a week until opening, as you know.”
“But I don’t know.
 I really and truly don’t know what
you’re talking about!”
“The Sylvia Hawthorn Museum, of course. I have already made
that quite clear.”
Sylvia stood with her mouth a little open.  They had reached, she realised, what her
father would have called an impasse.
The man shook his head with obvious disappointment. “We can
come back to assess the kitchen later,” he said. “It’s almost three; we’d better make a start
upstairs soon.” He turned back to the shelf.
The stairs!  Sylvia
suddenly remembered where she’d left the teapot.  In amidst the confusion, that seemed to be a
bright light of elucidation.  Perhaps,
somehow, if she clung onto that information, the rest would fall into place.
The lady and the man had now both turned away from her,
apparently giving her up as a lost cause. 
They were counting mugs and cups, ticking them off a list in their
notebooks.  Sylvia watched them for a
moment, and quickly made up her mind.  Suddenly,
hoping they wouldn’t follow, she hurried out of the kitchen.  Her pace increased as she got to the hallway.
They hadn’t
noticed her leave.  She knew what she had to do.  Without pausing to
put on a coat or a hat, without even putting on the gloves that had been a gift
from the friend of her father’s who might have become Prime Minister, she
pulled open the front door, grabbed the teapot from the stairs, and ran, ran as
quickly as she could, away from the door, away from the museum, and away, away into
the fog.

24 thoughts on “The Museum (short fiction)

  • March 25, 2014 at 3:41 am
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    A Teapot thief! How wonderful this is. I really enjoyed it; love your sense of odd surprise.

    Reply
    • March 29, 2014 at 8:07 pm
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      That's intriguing – I was prepared for a couple of authors to be mentioned, and she was not one of them! Obviously being unconsciously influenced… oh dear!

      Reply
    • March 29, 2014 at 8:08 pm
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      Thanks so much, Karen! I suppose I should keep open the idea of lots of interpretations, but I intended the story as a parallel of dementia (which my Mum cleverly spotted in an email to me :) )

      Reply
  • March 26, 2014 at 7:45 pm
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    Overtones of 1984 there. Disturbing.
    sherry

    Reply
    • March 29, 2014 at 8:09 pm
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      I was hoping it would put people a little on edge… and laugh a bit too!

      Reply
  • March 27, 2014 at 12:07 am
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    Hi! I think this is my first time commenting.

    I loved your little story, it was beautifully written, and the ending was simply brilliant: uncanny, but with a nice touch of humour :-D.

    Reply
    • March 29, 2014 at 8:09 pm
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      Welcome, Marsar, lovely to hear from you – and thanks so much for your wonderful comment!

      Reply
  • March 28, 2014 at 7:19 pm
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    Simon, I really like this! It's disturbing, frustrating and funny all at the same time… You have a light touch and a good eye.

    I know it's a short story, but I want to know what happens to poor Sylvia!

    Reply
    • March 29, 2014 at 8:10 pm
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      Thanks so much, Helen! That's exactly what I was hoping it would be, so your comment means a lot :)

      But… I'm not telling about what might happen next!

      Reply
  • March 29, 2014 at 6:47 am
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    "He's been reading Shirley Jackson," I thought. Then I noticed Annabel SAID it, and I laughed! Only she said "too much" Shirley Jackson. I'm not sure there is such a thing as reading too much of a good author, but maybe so, if it starts to inform your writing. Interesting experiment, anyway! (I like you better as Jane Austen, but then I would, wouldn't I?)
    Diana Birchall

    Reply
    • March 29, 2014 at 8:10 pm
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      See above for my reply to Annabel! I do hope there was something of me in this. :)

      Reply
    • March 30, 2014 at 12:53 am
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      I think your mom got it. I didn't see the interpretations, myself, being literal minded I like a story grounded in reality, and it bothered me that somebody 78 would be thought of as "still living alone," as if she was expected to marry; I didn't think of the other explanation, that it might be about putting her away. (Not knowing what a thing is about makes me squirm.) Most people obviously did "get it" and enjoyed it greatly, so please don't mind me, I'm a comfort reader who actually doesn't care for Jackson's dark stories, it's Life Among the Savages that's my cup of tea! However, even though this is an uncomfortable genre for me, I can certainly hear your own elegant voice.
      Diana

      Reply
  • March 29, 2014 at 4:41 pm
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    I really enjoyed reading this :) Looking forward to reading any more fiction you post in the future!

    Gemma

    Reply
  • March 30, 2014 at 5:43 am
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    "harbingers of death" was an interpretation I favoured too. thanks so much for sharing your work Simon. Only serves to make us want to read more!!
    Martina

    Reply

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