Hannah stood beside the door until five to five, uncomfortably aware of the weight pressing down through the soles of her feet. She needed new shoe liners. Her muscles and joints could take the hours of standing up straight, but her heels were becoming, frankly, hooves.
The room emptied, then filled again as a group of art students billowed through from further in. They held their A3 sketchpads like sails, and ignored her completely. There was a thick stone quiet after they had gone, the click of the air treatments deep inside the walls the only sound. Hannah let her shoulders relax, bent down, picked up her right leg and held her knee up to her chest, stretching the muscles. Bent down again slowly, set her right foot securely on the floor, picked up her left leg and stretched the other side the same.
She felt immediately taller. At least five foot five.
Maybe five foot five and a quarter.
The bald eye of the security camera whirred at her, and she gave it a wave. She couldn’t remember who was on camera shift, but it didn’t matter, they were all fine.
Muted beeping from the undecorated door on the far wall was followed by the tick of a magnetic unlocking, and Iris emerged, her identity card swinging on a braided necklace covered in pride badges and enamel monstera leaves.
“Morning, Hannah!” she called out, patting her pockets while she waited to be sure the door had caught shut behind her. It ticked, and the beep as the lock reset was almost covered by her yawn.
“Evening, Dr Jeffries.” Hannah said, smiling.
“How many book thieves have you wrestled to the ground this afternoon?” Iris sounded genuinely interested, although she was clearly tired enough that she needed to lean against the cabinet in the centre of the room.
“Three and a half.”
“A half? An amputee?”
“Ooh, I was thinking a dwarf, but yours is better.”
“Were they working together?”
“Yep. Disgruntled ex-performers with the Circus. They let themselves down on those silks from the ceiling.”
“But you took them out.”
“I did, and they all cried.”
Iris nodded, satisfied. “Thank you. That’s helped enormously. I had three funding meetings.”
Hannah shook her head, solemnly. “Once I’ve fenced the beryls that fell out of their costumes, I’ll top up your salary.”
“Bless you!” Iris straightened up, patted the cabinet and crossed the other half of the room towards the main doorway. “Doing it all again tomorrow?”
“See you then, then. Good night!” and she was gone, a piece of yellow-dyed feather drifting off her hair clip as she walked under the vent.
Hannah heard her say, “Morning, Mr King.” in the next hall, in a far more serious tone, and grinned. It was meant partly as an alert system, letting her know that the senior security officer was on his way, and she appreciated it despite never having needed it.
“Evening, Miss Jeffries,” Hannah’s superior said, affectionately if inaccurately, and appeared in the gallery still smiling.
“Miss Gates, a pleasure. Anything to mention?”
“A child was sick just after lunch, but its mother did a good job cleaning up, so I should think normal cleaning will be plenty. And a young couple might have had an intimate five minutes in the lavatories.”
“Delightful. Yes, delightful. Happy for them. Nothing related to the exhibits?”
“Good. Good, excellent.” Mr King looked around. “I do still think there are going to be protests at some point. Lots of very suspect botany in these books. Mr S says he’s been receiving letters from all sorts of druids and whatnot. Sooner or later one of them will work out how to catch a bus here, don’t you think?”
“Maybe, sir. It can’t be as bad as that pre-natal exhibit, though, and we managed.”
He winced. “We did. I don’t know what they were thinking of.”
“Newspaper coverage,” Hannah offered.
“Like Uncle Bulgaria.”
Hannah looked at him even more neutrally than usual.
“Always behind the Times.” Mr King explained, and waited for a smile. “Never mind. You haven’t seen any New Age sort of folks?”
“Or witches. You know. Goths?”
“Not really, sir,” Hannah said patiently.
“Good. Excellent, good. Well, off you pop, then, tomorrow’s another day.”
Hannah nodded and unrooted her feet from the stone floor, drawing in her wards from the walls as she left her post. The yellow feather from Iris’ hair clip fluttered in the treated air currents and she bent to pick it up as she went past, tucking it into her pocket to put into a bin later.
Behind her, Mr King looked around at the open books in their glass cases, shook his head disapprovingly and continued on his round through another doorway.
Hannah thought quietly about the little elderly woman, as she walked heavily through the hallways, watched by oil paintings and pale stone faces.
Haven’t you got good eyes!
Yes, madam, all the better to spot you with. Haven’t you got good eyes too, behind those bifocals. Haven’t you got good hands, under those nice warm suede gloves, and didn’t you send a nice little burn out of your elbow at that poor man who bumped into you?
You didn’t see me, though.
Or was the pencil for me? I shouldn’t have touched it.
She stopped, as usual, at a painting of two horses in a stable, held her security card up against the door lock next to it, and stepped through. Behind the walls, the museum smelt different – citric cleaning products and acrylic carpet rather than wood polish and stone – but the structure was still as heavy, still as comforting around her.
Which way was the refectory?
Hannah turned towards the camera room instead of the locker room, and knocked.
Iris walked cheerfully with the crowds away from the museum and its neighbouring attractions, towards her bus stop. The smells of fried and spiced street food swirled around her with scuttering leaves, snatches of conversation, and the general airs of the city.
Her bus was on time, and she took a seat directly under a window in order to stay awake for the whole seven-minute ride home.
A man outside a newsagents puffed a cloud of black cherry jam doughnut scented vapour, and a woman beside him coughed horribly. He rolled his eyes and stepped maybe fifteen centimetres away from her.
“Belle!” Iris greeted her. “Morning!”
“Hello, butterfly.” Belle said, smiling, and kissed her on the cheek. “I knew you couldn’t be far behind me.”
“It was imperative that I leave on time today.”
“It should always be.”
“But today in particular. Because I wanted to talk to you about fish and chips.” Iris hooked her arm through Belle’s and they walked easily in step away from the bus stop. “Are you ready for a serious conversation about fish and chips? Is now a good time?”
“Yes, we can have fish and chips.”
“I’m not pressuring you, you know.”
Belle squeezed her arm. “I’m sorry, did I agree too quickly?”
“It’s just that I’ve been giving this a lot of thought, this afternoon, during my three funding meetings.”
“Which weren’t even back to back, they were half an hour apart, so I couldn’t start anything, and that’s just slightly too long to use up with a tea and a wee.”
“So I was thinking about fish and chips.”
“Which we can have.”
“You don’t need to make up your mind this fast. It’s okay if you want to consider other options.”
“Such as chips and fish?” Belle suggested.
“See, that’s the kind of lateral thinking that I keep you around for. Chips and fish! I would never have thought of that on my own. Too invested in the fish and chips paradigm.”
“Have you been being sensible all afternoon?”
They turned right, into the side street where the chippy billowed out clouds of vinegar and sunflower steam and the promise of not having to wash up, and Belle pulled her purse out of her jacket pocket. “Did you get a straight answer about funding?”
“Large cod, please.”
“We have peas at home.”
“But I’ve been really, really sensible. I swear Clive was reading from slides. He paused in the places where a slide animation would play.”
“Large cod and chips twice, one peas, one curry sauce, please.” Belle told the girl at the till. “Open. Please.” She waved her wallet at the card reader. “Did you get a straight answer?”
“We got a very official maybe. Which is an improvement.” Iris leaned against the collection counter and sniffed deeply at the vinegar puddles. “God, I’ve been hallucinating this smell for literally three hours.”
“What did you have for lunch?” Belle pocketed two straws, two wooden forks and four napkins. “No, noodles, I remember, I wasn’t asleep, I heard you say. What’s an official maybe?”
“Oh, for goodness’ sake.”
“If she pays cash, Dr Stour needs to spend it this budget year, and we are top of the list, front of the queue, covered in blood. If she pays any of it after April, the shop refurbishment gets it.”
“Does she know that?”
“I’ll ask her next time we’re hanging out at the opera, shall I?” Iris mimed a lorgnette, but dropped it as her portion of chips appeared beside her. She salted and vinegared them vigorously, not noticing as another piece of yellow feather drifted off her hair clip and fell to the linoleum. “No, I don’t suppose she does – she’ll be deciding based on her own tax stuff, won’t she? Not ours.”
“I don’t know. She’s a donor. She might be up for supporting actual museum work rather than making the shelves of Morris notebooks slightly prettier.”
“Rude.” Iris observed, giving her tray of chips a shake so the salt filtered through, and adding another layer to the top. “I don’t want the shop crew angry at me, though. I may just stick to how difficult it is to find wine racks that hold Veuve at the best angle.”
“She’s not that bad.”
“Did I sound like it was bad?”
“You could talk to her. You’re basically colleagues.”
Iris started laughing, and then laughed harder at Belle’s exasperated face, and then spilled salt up her own sleeve and laughed even harder than that.