I don’t know what this one is called yet – it’s a heist story about elderly witches. (For NaNoWriMo people dare themselves to write 50,000 words of fiction in a month without going back to edit. I’ve started and not completed it for several years. It’s great fun!)
The gallery was really far too warm for most of the visitors, and Elsie was surrounded by young women carrying their blanket scarves and shiny padded jackets. They puffed strands of pretty hair away from their foreheads and waited patiently for their boyfriends to offer to carry something.
Elsie toddled happily between them, bundled up from outdoors in her layers of tweed and merino, thick socks folded over the tops of her battered black boots. Her handbag was an enormous saddle-brown leather affair, similarly battered and creased, a smear of vivid algae-green down the side where she’d had to lean for a moment against a railing in the park outdoors.
“Did you notice if we came past any toilets?” asked a boyfriend, tentatively, clutching two empty half-litre paper coffee cups. The girl with him looked up from applying cooling filters to a photograph and seemed surprised to see him there. “I know there were some at the entrance.”
“You can’t go all the way back there!” The girl sounded horrified. “You’ll never find me again. Let’s ask.”
“Oh, it’s not that bad.”
“We can ask.” The girl tucked her phone up against her forearm and looked around, her glossy hair flipping, her glance sliding around the room for an impression of authority. It went over Elsie’s head without catching.
Elsie caught the boyfriend’s eye, smiled kindly and pointed towards a door with an unhelpfully discreet matte grey image of a man and a woman embossed on its shiny grey surface. He looked grateful.
“Honey, they’re over there, I’ve just seen.” and he caught at her arm with the hand that was only holding a camera bag.
“Oh. Well, I may as well go too.”
They walked prettily away to the door, and Elsie moved into the space they’d been standing in, next to a glass case of laid-out books.
Now, this little collection was not the prize, but there were books in here she’d be jolly pleased to find in a fourth-hand shop in a small seaside town, and two of them had enough power to fizz her old bones through the glass. She peered closely through the lower part of her spectacles to see the densely inked words, and then raised the frames to look with her bare eyes at the rhythm of the text.
The curators had thoughtfully applied brass weights to hold it open at a page that was really more of a psalm than anything effective, but Elsie appreciated the red outline illustrations of cedar trees in the dividing line, and without her glasses she could see through to the following page.
A nice little weather charm, there, padded out beyond what was necessary, but sweet and functional enough. She let her glasses fall back onto her nose and rummaged in her giant bag to find her Royal Horticultural Society slim notebook and a much-sharpened pencil. The rummaging was not necessary either – she knew exactly where the notebook was – but it added to the effect she was trying to give.
She copied out the cedars, and added the core of the weather charm in mirror writing underneath the sketch.
The next book of interest was even smaller, maybe only the size of the palm of her red suede glove, and had only three signatures of its original five left, the back two having been torn out to leave a thread and a space. Impossible to tell whether someone had removed them offended or excited, but she hoped it was excitement.
Someone backed into her, and she pushed them away without thinking about it or looking up.
“Ow!” said the person, and rubbed their arm while glancing around, puzzled, above Elsie’s head.
The book was really just a herbal, very localised, a few miles across. There had been a slow stream on its land, watercress and flag irises. A heron stood on a particular old rock below the footbridge. Elsie smiled into the book at the heron, and the glitter of sun on the sweet water.
A small thumbprint of dirt held its page edge open, a couple of centuries unclean and charming.
The room of tourists and students swirled around her, flowing between exhibits and doorways. Heat rose and poured away through the square cast iron grates near the tops of the walls.
One security guard, navy blue and stolid, stood beside one doorway. Occasionally other museum staff crossed the room on administrative business, folios heading to appointments with other curators, or academics visiting other offices in cluttered back rooms. Elsie watched them and their routes without seeming to watch, a very small elderly woman in too many layers.
She looked at other books for an innocent amount of time, moving from case to cabinet to case to wall niche in little steps, re-soled boots silent on the quarrystone, a pocket of calm travelling with her. The prize, when she reached it, was in a wall cabinet with eight other books, and it wasn’t even central.
When Elsie lifted her glasses to see, its glow nearly knocked her backwards.
She put the frames back down on her nose, carefully, breathing deeply, and took a moment to plant her feet more securely on the stone floor. Drew stability upwards. Reached out to the old, old, thick walls. Apologised to the books around her and the little protections that the curators hadn’t even known they were installing when their hands ran over the edges, the good wishes thin as gold leaf across the displays.
She looked again, and it beamed at her.
This was the prize! This was the real thing, old and deliberately made, a dozen dead men and women at the tops of their crafts, every part of it working towards what a book truly is.
It was bound, and it gloried in it.
It was a text, and a hundred works of art, and a majesty of physical locksmithing, and it was about the size of a Ladybird book.
Her hands itched to undo the cabinet there and then, but she pushed the urge away. Instead, she pulled her Royal Horticultural Society notebook out of her bag again, and the pencil, and noted down the artefact number on the little white piece of pasteboard next to the prize, and the description.
Various authors, unknown, indeed.
In the corner of the room, just above a security camera’s bald eye, a grey speaker clicked and a gentle voice said, “Ladies and gentlemen, the museum will be closing in one hour, at five o’clock. The refectory will be closing in thirty minutes. Please allow yourselves enough time to collect all your belongings. Thank you for your visit.”
Elsie waited, looking down at her notebook, while the room of students and tourists filled and flowed towards the exits. The photographer and her coffee-carrying boyfriend emerged from the lavatory doorway, a little untidily, and walked quickly through the room without giving another glance to the books or the security guard.
Elsie wrote, ‘lavs not disabled but roomy??’ and turned the page.
The security guard shifted from foot to foot, rolling her broad shoulders as she came out of her duty trance. Elsie saw her scan the thinning flow of visitors, judge them correct, and settle her gaze back on the opposite wall.
Elsie wrote, ‘peripheral’ and dropped her pencil, which rolled straight to the wall directly under the prize’s cabinet.
“Oh, dear!” Elsie said, and resisted the urge to embroider that with ‘mercy me’ or ‘lawks’ as she manoeuvred herself downwards, leaning heavily on the wall, dropping first to her left knee and wincing, and then bringing her right knee down to the floor. She patted the stone with both gloved hands, as though the pencil wasn’t clearly in view.
Air ducts, a few heating elements, motion sensors at each end. One mouse, dead of old age, mother of thousands, all raised on refectory sweepings. What had brought her out this way? No nests, no scraps here. Perhaps just the urge to see the world before her little body failed.
Galleries, security cameras. A wireless connection booster. More galleries, a corridor with a cleaning trolley parked against the wall. Rolls of blue tissue. Not very ecologically sound, really, when everyone else and their aunt had gone back to using cloths. Perhaps they’d ordered it by the pallet.
Focus, focus better, the security guard nearly at her shoulder to help, only seconds left to look, to see. The corridor, what else leads off the corridor, offices, yes, and a meeting room, a conference speaker phone in the centre of a table, dust on it. Offices, whose offices? Academics. Which? A book about Berthe Morisot, but –
“May I help you, madam?” the security guard said, crouching, her flat shoes flat on the floor.
Elsie smiled across at her. “My pencil, silly me, I heard it fall.”
“Yes, I see it.” A broad navy-blue arm reached past Elsie to the pencil skulking next to the wall, matt black against black skirting.
“Haven’t you got good eyes!” Elsie fluttered.
“Can you stand?” asked the girl, offering her arm.
Elsie considered, and then decided that would be too far. “Yes, I’m perfectly alright, don’t worry about me.” She clambered to her feet, leaning on the wall and the front corner of the wall cabinet, noticing with delight the girl’s attempt to stop her touching it. “Oh, dear! Will I set off an alarm?”
“If you have, I’m sure my colleagues will check on the cameras and see us here.”
Neat. Very neat. Not denying the alarms, and quick to point out that there’s a team of humans. And she really does have good vision. Elsie looked for a name badge, but it was on a laminated card and facing inwards.
“Thank you, dear.” Elsie took the pencil and placed it slowly into her enormous handbag. “Which way was the refectory?”
The guard turned towards the largest doorway and pointed. “Enjoy the rest of your visit, madam.”
Elsie left, very aware of the guard returning smoothly to her position beside the other door.