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Authors: Kate Atkinson

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Behind the Scenes at the Museum

BOOK: Behind the Scenes at the Museum
Ruby Lennox was conceived grudgingly by Bunty and born while her father, George, was in the Dog and Hare in Doncaster telling a woman in an emerald dress and a D-cup that he wasn't married. Bunty had never wanted to marry George, but here she was, stuck with three little girls in a flat above the pet shop in an ancient street beneath York Minster.

Ruby tells the story of The Family, from the day at the end of the nineteenth century when a travelling photographer catches frail beautiful Alice and her children, like flowers in amber, to the startling, witty, and memorable events of Ruby's own life. "

Table of Contents
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Version 1.0
Epub ISBN 9781409094555
61-63 Uxbridge Road, London W5 5SA
A Random House Group Company
A BLACK SWAN BOOK: 9780552996181
First published in Great Britain in 1995 by Doubleday
an imprint of Transworld Publishers
Black Swan edition published 1996
Copyright © Kate Atkinson 1995
Kate Atkinson has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
This book is a work of fiction and, except in the case of historical fact, any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition, including this condition, being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
Addresses for Random House Group Ltd companies outside the UK can be found at:
The Random House Group Ltd Reg. No. 954009
What the critics wrote about
Behind the Scenes at the Museum
‘A début novel of astonishing confidence and skill . . . Acutely observant, overflowing with good jokes, it is the work of an author who loves her characters and sets them playing with gleeful energy’
‘Good grief, I can hardly believe it – a first novel which actually made me laugh, a first novel written so fluently and wittily that I sailed through it as though blown by an exhilarating wind: a first novel with a touch so light I only felt its truth and sadness after I’d finished it’
Margaret Forster
‘A many-layered account of an ordinary family’s life, written with an extraordinary passion . . . Atkinson’s prose is rich, satisfying and self-assured, but never over-indulgent, and always surprising. Packed with images of bewitching potency, this is an astounding book’
The Times
‘Really comic, really tragic, bracingly unsentimental . . . What a triumph! What a joy!’
Boston Globe
‘Impressive and entertaining . . . Quirky and colourful . . . Overall, it is ambitious and assured, its whimsical nature cloaking a tragic, but delicately rendered, revelation’
Yorkshire Post
‘Remarkable . . . A multigenerational tale of a spectacularly dysfunctional Yorkshire family and one of the funniest works of fiction to come out of Britain in years’
New York Times
‘If you tot up the deaths and other family tragedies in this feisty first novel, it seems almost rude to find it so amusing and delightful . . . anyone who thinks that all the sassy new writing by women is coming from North America should check out this gem from Yorkshire’
Independent on Sunday
‘Beautifully written . . . hers is an irrepressible voice, frank, funny and sad, that will find echoes in all of us . . . Kate Atkinson maintains a pleasing balance between the tragic, the comic and the ridiculous’
Sunday Express
‘A remarkable début novel . . . witty and original . . . this is the start of a long, successful writing career’
Daily Mirror
‘The deceptively naïve tone of Kate Atkinson’s first novel masks an unsettling complexity of vision, its artless depiction of childhood concealing acute feeling . . . the sense of the strain and the trivialities of everyday family life is always vivid . . . precise and powerful images penetrate the light, witty surface of the narrative, suggesting the raw emotion beneath’
Times Literary Supplement
‘Has the best qualities of traditional storytelling’
Penelope Fitzgerald
‘Scoundrels, malcontents, misfits, and cheats. Every family has them, though seldom are they handled with the winsome wit and wisecrackery that make
Behind the Scenes at the Museum
such a smart and funny read’
Washington Times
Also by
Human Croquet
A multilayered, moving novel about the forest of Arden, a girl who drops in and out of time, and the heartrending mystery of a lost mother.
‘Brilliant and engrossing’
Penelope Fitzgerald
Emotionally Weird
Set in Dundee, this clever, comic novel depicts student life in all its wild chaos, and a girl’s poignant quest for her father.
‘Achingly funny . . . executed with wit and mischief’
Meera Syal
Not the End of the World
Kate Atkinson’s first collection of short stories – playful and profound.
‘Moving and funny, and crammed with incidental wisdom’
Sunday Times
Featuring Jackson Brodie:
Case Histories
The first novel to feature Jackson Brodie, the former police detective, who finds himself investigating three separate cold murder cases in Cambridge, while still haunted by a tragedy in his own past.
‘The best mystery of the decade’
Stephen King
One Good Turn
Jackson Brodie, in Edinburgh during the Festival, is drawn into a vortex of crimes and mysteries, each containing a kernel of the next, like a set of nesting Russian dolls.
‘The most fun I’ve had with a novel this year’
Ian Rankin
When Will There Be Good News?
A six-year-old girl witnesses an appalling crime. Thirty years later, Jackson Brodie is on a fatal journey that will hurtle him into its aftermath.
‘Genius . . . insightful, often funny, life-affirming’
Sunday Telegraph
For Eve and Helen
With thanks to my friend Fiona Robertson
for all her help
Kate Atkinson
clock on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall. The clock once belonged to my great-grandmother (a woman called Alice) and its tired chime counts me into the world. I’m begun on the first stroke and finished on the last when my father rolls off my mother and is plunged into a dreamless sleep, thanks to the five pints of John Smith’s Best Bitter he has drunk in the Punch Bowl with his friends, Walter and Bernard Belling. At the moment at which I moved from nothingness into being my mother was pretending to be asleep – as she often does at such moments. My father, however, is made of stern stuff and he didn’t let that put him off.
My father’s name is George and he is a good ten years older than my mother, who is now snoring into the next pillow. My mother’s name is Berenice but everyone has always called her Bunty.

‘Bunty’ doesn’t seem like a very grown-up name to me – would I be better off with a mother with a different name? A plain Jane, a maternal Mary? Or something romantic, something that doesn’t sound quite so much like a girl’s comic – an Aurora, a Camille? Too late now. Bunty’s name will be ‘Mummy’ for a few years yet, of course, but after a while there won’t be a single maternal noun (mummy, mum, mam, ma, mama, mom, marmee) that seems appropriate and I more or less give up calling her anything. Poor Bunty.

We live in a place called ‘Above the Shop’ which is not a strictly accurate description as both the kitchen and dining-room are on the same level as the Shop itself and the topography also includes the satellite area of the Back Yard. The Shop (a pet shop) is in one of the ancient streets that cower beneath the looming dominance of York Minster. In this street lived the first printers and the stained-glass craftsmen that filled the windows of the city with coloured light. The Ninth Legion Hispana that conquered the north marched up and down our street, the
via praetoria
of their great fort, before they disappeared into thin air. Guy Fawkes was born here, Dick Turpin was hung a few streets away and Robinson Crusoe, that other great hero, is also a native son of this city. Who is to say which of these is real and which a fiction?

These streets seethe with history; the building that our Shop occupies is centuries old and its walls tilt and its floors slope like a medieval funhouse. There has been a building on this spot since the Romans were here and needless to say it has its due portion of light-as-air occupants who wreathe themselves around the fixtures and fittings and linger mournfully at our backs. Our ghosts are particularly thick on the staircases, of which there are many. They have much to gossip about. You can hear them if you listen hard, the plash of water from Viking oars, the Harrogate Tally-Ho rattling over the cobblestones, the pat and shuffle of ancient feet at an Assembly Rooms’ ball and the
of the Reverend Sterne’s quill.

As well as being a geographical location, ‘Above the Shop’ is also a self-contained, seething kingdom with its own primitive rules and two rival contenders for the crown – George and Bunty.

The conception has left Bunty feeling irritable, an emotion with which she’s very comfortable, and only after much tossing and turning does she succumb to a restless, dream-laden sleep. Given free choice from the catalogue offered by the empire of dreams on her first night as my mother, Bunty has chosen dustbins.

In the dustbin dream, she’s struggling to move two heavy dustbins around the Back Yard. Now and then a vicious tug of wind plasters her hair across her eyes and mouth. She is growing wary of one dustbin in particular; she suspects it’s beginning to develop a personality – a personality uncannily like that of George.

Suddenly, as she heaves hard at one of the bins, she loses control of it and it falls with a crash of galvanized metal – CCRASH KERKLUNCK! – spewing its contents over the concrete surface of the yard. Debris, mostly from the Shop, is sprawled everywhere – empty sacks of Wilson’s biscuit mix, flattened packets of Trill, tins of Kit-e-Kat and Chappie that have been neatly stuffed with potato peelings and egg shells, not to mention the mysterious newspaper parcels that look as if they might contain severed babies’ limbs. Despite the mess, the dreaming Bunty experiences a flush of pleasure when she sees how tidy her rubbish looks. As she bends down and starts picking it all up she becomes aware of something moving behind her. Oh no! Without even turning round she knows that it’s the George dustbin, grown into a lumbering giant and now towering over her, about to suck her into its grimy metallic depths . . .

Somehow, I can’t help feeling that this dream doesn’t augur well for my future. I want a mother who dreams different dreams. Dreams of clouds like icecream, rainbows like sugar-crystal candy, suns like golden chariots being driven across the sky . . . still, never mind, it’s the beginning of a new era. It’s the 3rd of May and later on today the King will perform the opening ceremony for the Festival of Britain and outside the window, a dawn chorus is heralding my own arrival.

This garden bird fanfare is soon joined by the squawking of the Parrot down in the Pet Shop below and then – DRRRRRRR-RRRRIINGG!!! The bedside alarm goes off and Bunty wakes with a little shriek, slapping down the button on the clock. She lies quite still for a minute, listening to the house. The Dome of Discovery will soon be echoing to the exultant cries of joyful English people looking forward to the future but in our home it’s silent apart from the occasional chirrup and twitter of birdsong. Even our ghosts are asleep, curled up in the corners and stretched out along the curtain rails.

The silence is broken by George suddenly snorting in his sleep. The snort arouses a primitive part of his brain and he flings out an arm, pinioning Bunty to the bed, and starts exploring whatever bit of flesh he has chanced to land on (a rather uninspiring part of midriff, but one which houses my very own, my personal, Dome of Discovery). Bunty manages to wriggle out from under George’s arm – she’s already had to endure sex once in the last twelve hours (me!) – more than once in a day would be unnatural. She heads for the bathroom where the harsh overhead light ricochets off the black-and-white tiles and the chrome fittings and hits Bunty’s morning skin in the mirror, making ghastly pools and shadows. One minute she looks like a skull, the next like her own mother. She can’t make up her mind which is worse.

She cleans her teeth with some vigour to dispatch the taste of George’s tobacco-fumed moustache and then – in order to keep up appearances (an important concept for Bunty, although she’s not exactly sure who it is that she’s keeping them up for) – she paints on a shapely ruby-red smile and grins at the mirror, her lips retracted, to check for mis-hit lipstick on her teeth. Her mirrored self grins ghoulishly back, but in Bunty’s 35mm daydreams she’s transformed into a Vivien Leigh-like figure pirouetting in front of a cheval mirror.

Now she’s ready to face her first day as my mother. Downstairs, step by creaking step she goes (in daydreamland a great curving plantation staircase – Bunty, I am discovering, spends a lot of time in the alternative world of her daydreams). She’s being very quiet because she doesn’t want anyone else to wake up yet – especially Gillian. Gillian’s very demanding. She’s my sister. She’s nearly three years old and she’s going to be very surprised when she finds out about me.

Bunty makes herself a cup of tea in the kitchen at the back of the Shop, relishing her few moments of morning solitude. In a minute, she’ll take George up a cup of tea in bed – not from altruistic motives but to keep him out of her way that bit longer. My poor mother’s very disappointed by marriage, it’s failed to change her life in any way, except by making it worse. If I listen in on her airwaves I can hear an endless monologue on the drudgery of domestic life –
Why didn’t anyone
me what it would be like? The cooking! The cleaning! The work!
I wish she would stop this and start daydreaming again but on and on she goes –
And as for babies, well . . . the broken nights, the power struggles . . . the labour pains!
She addresses the front right burner of the cooker directly, her head wobbling from side to side, rather like the Parrot in the Shop beyond.
At least
all over with
. . . (Surprise!)

The kettle whistles and she pours the boiling water into a little brown teapot and leans idly against the cooker while she waits for it to brew, a small frown puckering her face as she tries to remember why on earth she married George in the first place.

George and Bunty met in 1944. He wasn’t her first choice, that was Buck, an American sergeant (my grandmother had a similar struggle to get married during a war) but Buck had his foot blown off fooling around with a land mine (‘Anything for a lark, these Yanks,’ Bunty’s brother Clifford remarked with distaste) and got shipped back home to Kansas. Bunty spent some considerable time waiting for Buck to write and invite her to share his life in Kansas but she never heard from him again. So George got the woman. In the end, Bunty decided that George with two feet might be a better bet than Buck with one, but now she’s not so sure. (Buck and Bunty! What a wonderful-sounding couple they would have made – I can almost see them.)

If Buck had taken Bunty to Kansas think how different all our lives would have been! Especially mine. In 1945 George’s father died by falling under a tram on a daytrip to Leeds and George took over the family business – Pets. He married Bunty, thinking that she’d be a big help in the shop (because she’d once worked in one), unaware that Bunty had no intention of working after her marriage. This conflict will run and run.

The tea’s brewed. Bunty stirs the spoon round the insides of the little brown teapot and pours herself a cup. My first ever cup of tea. She sits down at the kitchen table and starts daydreaming again, moving beyond her disappointment over Kansas and her ham-tea wedding to George to a place where a flimsy veil moves in a summery breeze and behind the veil is Bunty dressed in gauzy white organza with an eighteen-inch waist and a different nose. The man at her side is unbelievably handsome, remarkably like Gary Cooper, while Bunty herself bears a passing resemblance to Celia Johnson. A huge cloud of orange-blossom threatens to engulf them as they clasp and kiss passionately – then suddenly, an unwelcome note of reality interrupts our reverie, somebody’s pulling at Bunty’s dressing-gown and whining in a not very pleasant fashion.

Here she is! Here’s my sister! Climbing up on Bunty, all arms and soft legs and sweet bedtime smells, crawling her way up the Eiger of Bunty’s body and pressing her sleepy face into Bunty’s chilly neck. Bunty unclenches the little fists that have fastened on to her hair, and deposits Gillian back on the floor.

‘Get down,’ Bunty says grimly. ‘Mummy’s thinking.’ (Although what Mummy’s actually doing is wondering what it would be like if her entire family was wiped out and she could start again.) Poor Gillian!

Gillian refuses to be ignored for long – she’s not that kind of child – and hardly have we had our first sip of tea before we have to attend to Gillian’s needs. For breakfast, Bunty cooks porridge, makes toast and boils eggs. George can’t stand porridge and likes bacon and sausage and fried bread but Bunty’s stomach is a little queasy this morning (I’m privy to all kinds of inside information). ‘So if he wants it he can get it himself,’ she mutters, doling out a bowlful of (rather lumpy) porridge for Gillian. Then she fills a second bowl for herself – she thinks she might manage a bit of porridge – and then a third bowl. Who can that be for? Goldilocks? Not for me surely? No, indeed not – for here’s a surprise – I have another sister! This is good news, even though she looks a little on the melancholic side. She’s already washed and dressed in her school uniform and even her hair – cut in a straight, rather unbecoming bob – is brushed. She is just five years old and her name is Patricia. Her plain little face has a somewhat dismal air as she regards the porridge in her bowl. This is because she hates porridge. Gillian is gobbling hers down like the greedy duck in her Ladybird book
The Greedy Duck
. ‘I don’t like porridge,’ Patricia ventures to Bunty. This is the first time she’s tried this direct approach over the porridge, usually she just turns it over and over with a spoon until it’s too late to eat it.

‘Pardon me?’ Bunty says, the words dropping like icicles on the linoleum of the kitchen floor (our mother’s not really a morning person).

‘I don’t like porridge,’ Patricia says, looking more doubtful now.

As fast as a snake, Bunty hisses back, ‘Well
don’t like children, so that’s too bad for you, isn’t it?’ She’s joking, of course. Isn’t she?

And why do I have this strange feeling, as if my shadow’s stitched to my back, almost as if there’s someone else in here with me? Am I being haunted by my own embryonic ghost?

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