This month's short story




For a few blessed moments the gallery was quiet.  Too quiet.  Stephanie glanced over her shoulder towards the doorway.  The Egyptian rooms at the British Museum  were usually packed with children at this time of day.  Neat groups walking two by two in uniform speaking in hushed, respectful voices or chaotic hordes, rushing about uncontrolled, screaming; either way, this was one of the places they headed for first.  And they all looked at the mummies.  The ghoulish fascination exerted by a real dead body passed none of them by, from the most repressed scholar to the loudest, most rebellious thug.

She noticed one of the museum attendants standing near her.  He had folded his arms and was watching  the doorway, a quizzical expression on his face.  He too was waiting for the next  noisy flood  of  children. With a grin she turned back to  her sketchbook.  She had better make the most of the peace while it lasted.  The magazine wanted the illustration by tonight, 6 p.m. latest.  She would deliver it to them by hand as soon as it was finished and then she would go home to the empty flat.  She sighed.  She couldn't even remember what the row had been about now, but it had been bad enough for  Ed to leave.  And not come back.

She glanced down at the neat  black pen and ink sketch on her page and frowned.  She had been working for about twenty minutes in the gallery, producing a series of sketches - a mummy case, a bandaged body, artefacts from the tombs, an intricate necklace of gold and  lapis.  This sketch was the last,  the mummy of a child, impossibly moving in its poignancy and she found it hard to concentrate on it.  Taking a deep breath she gripped her pen  more tightly and began to draw again.

Behind her the noise levels were building once more.  She could hear the excited shouts, the thud of thirty pairs of trainers heading her way.  On the page, the Egyptian child too was running.  His head thrown back, a lock of hair flying loose behind one shoulder, long straight limbs rejoicing in the sun.

With a exclamation of annoyance she stared at what she had drawn.  She had been doodling without realising it, wasting precious time. And now she remembered what the quarrel had been about.  Having children..  Ed wanted them to get married.  He had been hinting for months.  It had come to a head when she said she didn't want a baby.  Didn't even  like them.  He had stared at her as if she had said she  was planning a murder and from then on things had gone from bad to worse.

‘What you drawing, miss?'  The voice at her shoulder was breathless, cheeky.  ‘It don't look like no mummy to me.'

She glanced at the boy.  Perhaps eight years old - or ten -  with no experience  of children herself, and few friends who had them, she found it hard to tell their  ages.  He had a  grubby, freckled face, intensely blue eyes,  an almost- shaven head and trouble oozed out of every pore.  It was a reflex action  to check her bag was closed and safe.

‘You see that mummy there?' She pointed.  ‘That was a child.  A boy like this.'

Like you.

She didn't say it, but the age would have been about the same, now she came to think about it.

‘No chance!' He wasn't going to believe her.  ‘They were old geezers, the mummies.  Dead.'

She glanced at his face again and saw long sandy lashes, impossibly  cherubic on the rounded cheeks and felt her hostility diminish .   ‘They mummified everything,' she said with a grin.  ‘Animals.  Birds. Crocodiles.  Old people.  Young people.  Even babies.'

‘Babies!' He looked up at her.  The cheeky combative tone was gone.  she saw horror lurking there.  ‘That boy - ‘ he stabbed at her pad with a filthy finger.  ‘He is running about and playing , right? Football and that, right?'

She nodded, aware that the rest of the kids were moving on towards the far end of the gallery.  ‘My picture is only pretend,' she said gently.  ‘I was wondering what he looked like before    he - '

Died.  She was about  to say it, but something in the blue eyes stopped her.

‘Where is your teacher?' She found herself smiling at him again.  ‘You don't want to lose the others.'

He touched the drawing lightly for a second time then he turned to look at the mummy.   ‘They did this so their bodies would be OK to use again, right?'

‘Something  like that.'

‘What happens if they don't save the body?  What happens if it gets incinerated?  What does the person do when they come back and it's not there?' The intensity of the questioning, and the sudden anguish in the blue eyes  made her catch her breath.

‘We don't believe in the same things as the Egyptians did,' she said carefully.  ‘We don't believe we need our bodies to be preserved.  We don't believe we need to take things with us to the grave like they did.'

This was too deep for her suddenly; the rest of the party had moved on into the next room.  The gallery was quiet again.

And then the insight came.  She put out her hand and took his.  For a moment she thought he'd pull away but he didn't,  he moved a step closer and she realised suddenly that a tear was trickling down his cheek.  ‘My little sister.  She died.'  He strangulated the words, ashamed of the need even to speak them out loud.  ‘My mum put her teddy bear in with her.  In case she needed it.' Another tear spilt over.  ‘Then they burned her in the box.'

Stephanie was appalled.  She didn't know what to say.  Ducking down she leaned the sketchbook against the glass case and put her arms round him, feeling the shoulders, belying the rounded cheeks,  painfully thin beneath the grey sweatshirt.  ‘They shouldn't have done that, should they, miss?'

‘It's what we do, in our culture,' she whispered awkwardly down into the soft  short cropped hair. ‘We believe we  won't need the same body again.  We believe we'll get a new one in heaven.'

‘Then they were wrong?' He nodded towards the mummy.

‘I think they were wrong.'

He was trembling and she tightened her hold on him, desperately seeking to give comfort.

‘But we don't know.  We might be wrong.  I don't want to be burnt!' It came out as an anguished whimper.  ‘I'm older than her.  A lot older, so I could die, couldn't I? Like that boy - ‘

She hugged him closer.  ‘I think you look fine to me.  I think you look like someone who could live to be an old, old man before you die - ‘

She broke off as a hand appeared from behind her and grabbed the boy's arm, wrenching him away..

‘Let go of this child! How dare you! I'm going to call the police!'

It was the  teacher.  The furious woman facing her suddenly, was tall and thin, dressed in a denim skirt and  Indian cotton top, with sensible flat shoes  and a heavy dragging rucksack on her shoulder. Her face, lined and exhausted, was  at this moment, red with anger.

‘Go and wait with the others, Mat. Now!'  She made no attempt to find out why he was crying.

Stephanie stared at her in shock.  ‘You don't understand.  He was asking me -‘

‘Oh yes, I understand all right!' The woman was positively spitting at her.  ‘People like you can't get a real man, so you try and seduce a child!' Her voice rose hysterically.

‘What do you mean?  I didn't!  You're wrong!' Stephanie was aware suddenly of a crowd gathering round her.  The gallery attendant was heading their way.  The children were streaming back towards them.  Other people were staring.  Shaking their heads. Muttering.

‘Look, he spoke to me first.  He was looking at my sketches.  I put my arms round him because he started to cry - ‘

The woman wasn't listening.  She was shouting now.  Calling for witnesses, demanding again that someone fetch the police.

And then as  suddenly as it had started, it was all over.  The attendant was there at their side.    ‘I saw it all,' he said firmly.  He calmed the woman down.  He explained what he had seen.  He soothed and cajoled and pacified.  In minutes she was walking away, Mat, subdued and  defiant, trailing behind her, the other children already streaming ahead.

‘You OK?' The attendant looked at Steph.  ‘Don't you worry about that.  Too much responsibility, too little pay.  No one to help her.  Poor woman doesn't know if she's coming or going.  All she can do is count them again and again and hope she hasn't lost any.' He paused.  He had gentle brown eyes in a richly wrinkled black face and she saw him studying her with a shrewdness which disconcerted her.  ‘You're more upset than she was, you know that?'

Steph nodded, blinking back tears.  ‘It was that boy.  His sister had died.  He was confronting death for the first time and he was so afraid.'

‘And he had no one to talk to.'

She shook here head.  ‘No one, I suspect.  Just a broken- hearted mother who had enough grief to cope with herself.' She sniffed.  ‘He saw my drawing of the boy.'  Stooping she picked up the sketch pad.  ‘And somehow he identified with it - '  She paused, staring at the page.  The child's mummy was there, in the centre of the blank sheet, neatly sketched in minute detail, perfect for an illustration.  She fumbled at the pages, turning them over, searching frantically.  ‘ I don't understand it.  He's gone.  The boy I drew has gone!'

‘He steal it?' The attendant nodded after the departing  figures.  The rest of the  crowd had melted away.

‘No.  No! Of course he didn't steal it.  He wouldn't have.  Couldn't have.  There's no page missing.  It is as though it was never here!'  She closed the book and stared at him.  ‘I can't have imagined it.  Can I?'

Shrugging, he looked round the gallery for a minute or two in thoughtful silence.  ‘Working here, day after day, I see a lot of strange things.  I've seen figures walking between the glass cases when there was no public in here.  I've seen eyes looking at me from inside some of those mummies, and the eyes followed me round the room.  I've seen things inside the cases move.  There were some ear rings.  Beautiful.  Gold.  The kind of thing a pretty lady would love.  One day they were in there - '  he nodded towards a side case full of artefacts,  ‘the next they were there,  where they should have been, with her.'  He gestured towards  the mummy  of a young  woman.   

Stephanie stared at him, unsure whether to believe him.  ‘Doesn't anyone notice?'

‘Apart from me?' He raised an eyebrow and cocked his head to one side.   ‘Sometimes.  Then they blame whoever  arranged the exhibits.  Whoever got the labelling wrong.' He chuckled.

‘And my drawing.  How do you explain that?'

‘Who knows?  But nothing happens by accident..  The lad in that glass case, the little kid, Mat.  You.  You all needed each other at that moment.  You gave the boy life  in that sketch.  You gave Mat the hug he needed.  And, who knows, maybe you needed one too!' He grinned at her.

‘You're quite a philosopher, do you know that?'

He shrugged.  ‘I'd have to be, to work here.' 

She watched him walk away, then she turned back to the glass case and stared down at the wide-eyed blank stare of the mummy. She couldn't get the  memory of the thin, vulnerable bones of the child she had held so briefly in her arms out of her head.  He had been outwardly all that she detested in children.  Noisy. Aggressive.  Challenging.  Somehow out of control  and yet, beneath that exterior he had been hurting so badly; pleading for reassurance.  And he had come to her.

Slowly she slipped the sketchbook into her bag.  One of the sketches would be right for the article.  She had done enough.   In the corner of the gallery the attendant was talking to a group of women.  There were several French students clustered near her now.  The school party had long gone.

She thought suddenly of Ed - his quiet pleading, his patience as he tried to explain how much he wanted a child, his anger when she refused even to discuss it..  Did he feel this strange need to bring security and love to a small vulnerable human being?

She turned towards the entrance, glancing towards the attendant again and she saw him smile and lift a hand.  She hadn't changed her mind. It wasn't that easy.  Too many strange things had happened in the space of the last hour even to comprehend them all.  But maybe, just maybe, it would make her think again.

‘Bye!' She didn't realise she had spoken out loud to the mummy in the sterile glass case till she saw someone a few paces away glance up at her, startled.  She shrugged apologetically.

 The murmured farewell in her ear had been after all, surely, purely in her imagination.

All short stories »