A Place for Everything – by Nicola Ford
‘Well I think it’s creepy. One day we’re all sitting at this table having a cuppa together and the next he’s skewered to death like some oversized doner kebab.’
I know it was rude but I had to get up and leave at that point. Sheila is one of our regular volunteers here at the Museum. She didn’t mean anything by it but she’s always had a taste for the gruesome (I blame it on too much Stephen King) and I was beginning to feel queasy. I just couldn’t get rid of the image of that poor man lying there dead.
I made my way down to the basement store. Flicking on the light at the bottom of the concrete steps I paused to try to control my breathing. But it was no use, my heart was hammering away and my head was beginning to swim. I’d suffered them for long enough to know if I didn’t get to the card index soon I’d be having a full blown panic attack.
I was past the last bay of metal roller racking now and I could see the desk jammed up against the wall in the corner of the room where the card index lived. I almost fell into my chair. When my fingertips felt the cool brass handle on the front of the first of the little wooden drawers, I closed my eyes for just a second. It was a mistake. The image of Gary lying lifeless on his living room floor was as clear as if he were in front of me. I plucked out a fresh card and laid it on the desk. Turning to the pile of papers stacked up to my left I took the first one from the top and placed it next to the card and started to copy the details from the acquisitions form onto the clean white card. But I couldn’t stop thinking about him.
Nothing was ever too much trouble for Gary. The very first thing he did when he was appointed Director of the Museum was sit me down with a cup of tea in the little kitchen upstairs.
‘Sarah,’ he said, ‘I just want to let you know that whatever happens your job is safe.’
He must have noticed I was shaking because I quite distinctly remember him touching the back of my hand when he said it. Not creepily you understand, just naturally, like the gentleman he was. I can’t tell you what a relief it was. About the job I mean. It wasn’t the money. I’ve got enough tucked away in the bank from when Mum died to see me through. No. It’s this place. It’s been a godsend for me.
It’s funny isn’t it how things work out? When Jackie, that’s my therapist, first suggested I should come here I was dead set against it.
But she was adamant. ‘A first step towards getting back into the world.’
If I’m being honest I only agreed to give it a go because I ran out of reasons to say no. The Museum is only a couple of doors down from Mum’s house; mine now I know but I still think of it as Mum’s. A few dozen paces but it might as well have been in Timbuktu.
I hadn’t been inside the place for years. But then I hadn’t been anywhere in years. The first time I ever came here was with the school. I loved it. Everything was so ordered. Nice neat rows of pottery: Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Medieval each in their separate case. And every object with a little typed label which told you what it was and where it came from. After that I popped in most days until I went away to university. I ended up doing history at uni. Seems like a lifetime ago now. But it’s not the sort of thing you get a job in is it, history? I’ve always been good at organising so when Mum started going downhill with the MS I moved back home and took a job in office admin. Once Mum needed help full-time I packed that in too.
But I’m losing the thread a bit. Jackie had it all arranged with the Museum. Just a bit of voluntary work to get me back into the swing of things.
‘I’ve spoken to the curator Keith Pritchard and told him about your problems. And he says he’s happy for you to try it out.’
Now I’m not normally one to get mad about things. But I can tell you that made me angry. If I’d realised she was going to go around discussing my ‘problems’ with all and sundry I’d never have agreed. In my experience when you mention ‘agoraphobia’ and ‘OCD’ people think you’re some kind of lunatic. Like Jackie says we all have our own ways of coping with the world and they’re mine.
I tried to keep my dignity. ‘I’d have preferred to tell him myself.’
‘And would you?’
I’m loath to admit it, but she had a point. If she hadn’t given me that little shove I wouldn’t be here now.
The first day Jackie came with me. I must have looked a complete ’nana, being handed over at the front door like some sort of special delivery. It was a very different operation back then. Just Keith and a handful of volunteers, most of whom were in their sixties. I don’t think he held out much hope for me. But he set me to work entering all of the details of the artefacts in the collections onto these little index cards. I think he only set me to doing it because nobody else wanted to be down here on their own. I took to it straight away. Keith said I was the first person who’d ever stuck it. But it suited me.
It’s just how I like things you see: ordered. Every one of these cards represents an object. I could pick any card from the drawer and just by looking at the number written on it I could go straight to the right place on the racking and find it. A place for everything, and everything in its place.
Eventually Keith managed to persuade the Board of Trustees to take me on as his assistant. There was only enough money for part-time but I come in every day anyway. And that worked for both of us. Then last year Keith retired and they appointed Gary as Museum Director. They said they wanted someone who would shake things up a bit. Attract more young people to the place.
I don’t have anything against children per se, but I really wasn’t sure it was the right way to go; kids yelling and running about and grubby hands all over the display cabinets. So when they announced his appointment I didn’t think I was going to take to Gary. His appearance didn’t help. He dressed more like a city banker than my idea of a Museum Director.
He told me once he hated it. ‘But it’s what people expect,’ he confided over a chocolate digestive.
It must have done the trick because he was good at squeezing money out of people; sponsorships for events, donations from local bigwigs. The cash came rolling in. I didn’t get involved with that side of things. But he didn’t seem to mind.
In fact once we got to know one another we rubbed along quite well. I made sure everything was properly in its place and he dealt with front of house and made sure enough funds came in to keep the Trustees happy.
Then last Thursday out of the blue he invited me round to his house for a, ‘glass of wine and a bite to eat’. Now don’t get the wrong idea, Gary was young enough to be my son, so there was never a suggestion of anything untoward. Besides I’d always half suspected he was what Mum would have called ‘the other way inclined’. But he’d never asked me to his place before and I must confess it unsettled me. I’m a lot better than I used to be but he knew going out was still a bit of a struggle for me. So he offered to pick me up and drive me home afterwards. I told him I’d think about it.
That was before I found the invoice from Digital Heritage on his desk.
‘1 x Software package: supply and maintenance of computerised finds catalogue.’
If only he’d filed it away where it belonged I’d never have seen it.
He was as good as his word, chauffeuring me from my front door to his flat; a smart-looking apartment in those new glass and stainless steel blocks near the canal. The meal he cooked was delicious, much better than anything I could have managed. He must have remembered me saying I liked Italian food because he’d made a lovely fresh pasta and then we had some little pastries he’d bought from the deli on the High Street.
He came back into his living room carrying a cafetière of coffee balanced on a tray together with a plate of chocolate mints (another of my weaknesses). When he pushed the door open with his foot and saw me standing there on the chair his expression wasn’t so much surprised as bewildered. By the time he’d realised it was too late and there were steaming coffee grounds all over his beautiful Turkish rug. I did my best to clean them up before I caught the bus home.
Now here I am back in the basement with my cards. I take a deep breath to try to steady the pen in my hand. I’ll feel better once I’ve finished the card; a place for everything and everything in its place. It was sheer luck it had only just come into us and I hadn’t had time to catalogue it yet. It wouldn’t have been right taking it out of the museum once it was on the card index.
Reaching under the desk I take the long thin package out of my bag. I unsheathe it from the cotton tea towel I’ve wrapped it in and turn it over in my hand one last time to check everything is as it should be. Then gently I lower it onto the bed of acid-free tissue paper I’ve prepared in the bottom of the cardboard box before copying the remainder of the information from the acquisition form onto the card.
‘Accession Number: 56007329 -1.
Description: Misericorde. Long narrow blade (sometimes referred to in later texts as a stiletto) used by knights to deliver the death or mercy stroke.
Date: Early 15th Century.
Location: Aisle 2. Bay C. Shelf 4.’
Find out more about Nicola Ford here.