Monday 24 March 2014

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.


  1. A Teapot thief! How wonderful this is. I really enjoyed it; love your sense of odd surprise.

  2. Lovely! That has perked me up no end after a really difficult day at work. Thanks, Simon!

  3. You've been reading too much Shirley Jackson! :)

    1. 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!

  4. That's fabulous Simon - very clever! Are the officials in uniform actually the harbingers of death?!

    1. 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 :) )

  5. Brilliant! You're so talented!

  6. That's an awesome story! I'm really, really looking forward to reading more of your fiction in the future!

    1. Thanks so much, Bree, that's lovely of you!

  7. Overtones of 1984 there. Disturbing.

    1. I was hoping it would put people a little on edge... and laugh a bit too!

  8. 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.

    1. Welcome, Marsar, lovely to hear from you - and thanks so much for your wonderful comment!

  9. 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!

    1. 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!

  10. "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

    1. See above for my reply to Annabel! I do hope there was something of me in this. :)

    2. 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.

  11. I really enjoyed reading this :) Looking forward to reading any more fiction you post in the future!


  12. "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!!


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