Read Behind the Scenes at the Museum Online

Authors: Kate Atkinson

Tags: #Fiction, #General

Behind the Scenes at the Museum (2 page)

BOOK: Behind the Scenes at the Museum
‘Mind the shop, Bunt!’ (Bunt? This is even worse.)
And then he’s gone. Just like that! Bunty fumes to herself –
He might at least ask. ‘Would you mind, Bunty, minding the shop for me.’ And of course I would mind, very much. But I’d still have to do it, wouldn’t I? ‘Mind’ – why was it called ‘minding’? What kind of a mind did you need for standing behind a shop counter?

Bunty doesn’t like the promiscuity of behind-the-counter contact. She feels that she’s not really selling dog food and kittens and the occasional budgerigar, but that she’s selling herself. At least, she thinks, when she worked for Mr Simon (‘Modelia – Ladies’ Quality Fashions’) it was sensible things they were selling, dresses and corsets and hats. What was sensible about a budgerigar? And, what’s more, having to be polite to everyone all the time wasn’t
. (George, on the other hand, is born to it, chatting away, making the same remark about the weather twenty times in one morning, scraping and grovelling and smiling and then ripping off his mask as soon as he comes backstage. The children of shopkeepers – me and Chekhov, for example – are scarred by having witnessed their parents humiliate themselves in this distressing way.)

Bunty decides that she’s going to have to say something to George, point out that she’s a wife and mother, not a shop assistant. And another thing, where does he go all the time? He’s always ‘slipping out’, off on mysterious errands. There are going to be some changes if Bunty has her way. She sits behind the counter clicking her number nine needles as if she’s a tricoteuse at George’s guillotine when she should be knitting my future – tiny little things, lacy shawls and matinée jackets with pink ribbons threaded through them. Magic red bootees to see me on my journey. The Shop Cat – a fat, brindled tabby that spends its days squatting malevolently on the counter – jumps up on her lap and she swiftly knocks it to the floor. Sometimes Bunty feels as if the whole world is trying to climb on her body.

‘Shop!’ George returns. The budgerigars rise up and flutter in their cages.

Shop! Why ‘Shop!’? George and Bunty always say this when they come in at the Shop door – but it’s supposed to be what the customer says, not the shopkeeper. Are they addressing the shop in the vocative case (‘0 Shop!’) or naming it in the nominative? Reassuring it of its existence? Reassuring themselves of its existence? Pretending to be a customer? But why pretend to be the thing you hate? ‘Shop!’ I fear, like the thing it signifies, will remain an eternal, existential mystery.

But now we are freed from our enslavement to the counter (Bunty has just sold the Shop Cat, but she doesn’t mention this to George. Poor cat.) and we can go and discover the world beyond the Shop. First we have to go through the ritual of dressing Gillian so that she’ll be able to survive in the alien atmosphere outside the Shop. Bunty doesn’t trust the month of May so Gillian has her liberty bodice securely strapped to her still cherub-new skin. Then a petticoat, a thick red woollen jersey knitted by Bunty’s never-idle fingers, followed by a Royal Stewart kilt and long white cotton socks which cut her fat little legs in half. Finally she puts on her pale powder-puff-blue coat with the white velvet collar and a little white woollen bonnet tied with ribbons that slice into her double chin. I, on the other hand, am free-floating, naked and unadorned. No mittens and bonnets for me yet, just the warm, obliging innards of Bunty’s unconscious body, which is still unaware of the precious package it’s carrying.

No-porridge Patricia has already been hurried up the road to school by George a couple of hours ago and is at this moment standing in the playground drinking her little bottle of milk and going through the four-times table in her head (she’s very keen) and wondering why noone ever asks her to join in their skipping games. Only five and already an outcast! Three-fifths of the family are now walking along Blake Street towards Museum Gardens, or rather Bunty walks, I float and Gillian rides her brand new Triang tricycle which she has insisted on riding. Bunty feels there’s something indulgent about parks, something wasteful – holes in existence filled with nothing but air and light and birds. Surely these are spaces that should be occupied by something useful, like housework?

Housework must be done. On the other hand, children are supposed to play in parks – Bunty has read the childcare section in her
Everything Within
book (‘Bringing up Baby’) that says so – therefore, some reluctant time has to be given over to fresh air so she pays a precious sixpence at the gate of the Museum Gardens and guarantees that our fresh air will be exclusive.

My first day! All the trees in Museum Gardens are in new leaf and high above Bunty’s head the sky is solid blue; if she reached out her hand (which she won’t) she could touch it. Fluffy white clouds like lambs pile into each other. We are in quattrocento heaven. Swooping, tweeting birds dance excitedly above our heads, their tiny flight muscles at full throttle – miniature angels of the Annunciation, avian Gabriels, come to shout my arrival! Alleluia!

Not that Bunty notices. She’s watching Gillian, who’s riding round every twist and turn in the path, following some magic tantra all of her own. I’m worried that Gillian might get trapped amongst the flower beds. Beyond the park railing a broad calm river can be glimpsed and ahead of us lie the pale fretworked ruins of St Mary’s Abbey. A peacock screeches and launches itself off its perch on the Bar Walls and down onto the grass at our feet. Brave new world that has such creatures in it!

Two men, who we will call Bert and Alf, are employed cutting grass in the park. At the sight of Gillian they pause in their work and, resting on their huge mower for a minute, regard her progress with unalloyed pleasure. Bert and Alf fought in the same regiment in the war, danced to the music of Al Bowlly at the same dances, chased women (women very like Bunty) together and now they’re cutting grass together. They feel there might be a certain injustice in the way their lives have turned out, but somehow the sight of Gillian reconciles them to such things. (Bonny and blithe and good and gay, for Gillian was indeed born on the Sabbath day and still had some of these qualities in 1951. Unfortunately she soon lost them.) Clean and new as a pin or an unwrapped bar of soap she represents everything they fought the war for – our Gillian, the promise of the future. (Not much of a future as it turned out, as she gets run over by a pale blue Hillman Husky in 1959 but how are any of us to know this? As a family we are genetically predisposed towards having accidents – being run over and blown up are the two most common.)

Bunty (our mother, the flower of English woman-hood) is irritated by the attention of Bert and Alf. (Does she actually possess any other emotion?)
Why don’t they just cut the bloody grass
, she thinks, disguising her thoughts with a bright, artificial smile.

Time to go! Bunty has had enough of all this idleness and we need to go shopping in other people’s shops. She prepares for a scene with Gillian, for scene with Gillian there will surely be. She manages to extricate her from the flower beds and get her on the straight path of life, but Gillian, who doesn’t know she’s wasting valuable time, continues pedalling slowly, stopping to admire flowers, pick up stones, ask questions. Bunty maintains a Madonna-like expression of serenity and silence for as long as she can before her impatience suddenly boils over and she yanks the handlebars of the tricycle to hurry it along. This has the disastrous effect of tipping Gillian onto the ground, where she lands in a neat little blue-and-white heap, sucking her breath in and screaming at the same time. I am dismayed – will I have to learn how to do this?

Bunty hauls Gillian to her feet, pretending not to notice that her tender palms and knees are grazed. (Bunty’s attitude to pain, or indeed, emotion of any kind, is to behave as if it sprang from a personality disorder.) Bunty, only too well aware that we are being observed by Bert and Alf, puts on her don’t-be-a-fusspot smile and whispers in Gillian’s ear that she’ll get some sweets if she stops crying. Gillian immediately rams her fist into her mouth. Will she be a good sister? Is this a good mother?

Bunty walks from the park with her head held high, dragging Gillian with one hand and the tricycle with the other. Bert and AIf return silently to their mowing. A slight breeze ruffles the new leaves on the trees and discovers a discarded morning newspaper on a bench. A front-page photograph of the Skylon tower flutters in a beckoning way – like a city of the future, a science-fiction Oz. It’s of no great interest to me – I’m squirming around uneasily in a wash of vicious chemicals just released by Bunty as a result of the tricycle tantrum.

‘Well, now, darlin’, what can I get you?’ The butcher’s voice bellows around the shop. ‘Nice bit of red meat, eh?’ He winks salaciously at my mother, who pretends to be deaf, but everyone else in the shop titters with laughter. Walter’s customers like him, he behaves as a butcher in an Ealing comedy might behave, a bluff parody of himself in his stained blue and white apron and straw boater. He’s a Cockney and this alone represents something dangerous and unknown for those of us in the spiritual heartland of Yorkshire. In Bunty’s private animal lexicon (all men are beasts) he is a pig, with his smooth, shiny skin, stretched tightly over his buttery, plump flesh. Bunty, at the head of the queue, asks for a bit of steak and kidney in her most neutral tone of voice, but nonetheless the butcher guffaws as if she’s said something highly
‘Somefin’ to get the ol’ man goin’, eh?’ he roars. Bunty dips down to fiddle with Gillian’s shoelace so that noone can see the embarrassment flaring in her cheeks.

‘For you, gorgeous, anyfin’,’ Walter leers at her and then suddenly, unnervingly, he draws a huge knife from somewhere and begins to sharpen it without his eyes ever leaving Bunty. She remains bobbed down next to Gillian for as long as possible, having a pretend conversation with her, smiling and nodding, as if what Gillian had to say was of extraordinary interest. (Whereas, of course, she never took any notice of anything any of us said – unless it was rude.)

The butcher begins to whistle the Toreador song from
very loudly and makes a dramatic performance out of weighing a heavy, slippery kidney in his hand. ‘You should be on the stage, Walter,’ a voice from the back of the shop declares and the rest of Walter’s customers murmur in agreement. Bunty, now vertical again, has a disturbing thought – the kidney, now being tossed from one hand to the other by Walter, bears an odd resemblance to a pair of testicles. (Not that ‘testicles’ is a word she’s very familiar with, of course, she belongs to a generation of women which was not very
au fait
with the correct anatomical vocabulary.)

Walter slaps the kidney down on the slab and slices it, wielding his knife with astonishing dexterity. His admiring audience give a collective sigh.

If she had her way, Bunty would go to a different butcher, but Walter’s shop is near ours and not only is he therefore a fellow shopkeeper, he is also a friend of George, although little more than an acquaintance of Bunty. She likes the word ‘acquaintance’, it sounds posh and doesn’t have all the time-consuming consequences of friendship. Acquaintance or not, Walter is hard to keep at arm’s length, as Bunty has learnt to her cost on the couple of occasions he has cornered her behind the sausage-machine in the back of his shop. George and Walter do each other ‘favours’ – Walter is doing one now, in full view of the shop, performing a sleight-of-hand with the steak that will give Bunty far more than she’s due on her ration coupon. Walter also has a reputation as a ladies’ man so Bunty isn’t at all happy about George keeping company with him. George
that kind of thing’s disgusting, but Bunty suspects that he doesn’t think it’s disgusting at all. She prefers George’s other shopkeeping friend, Bernard Belling, who has a plumbing supplies business and, unlike Walter, doesn’t conduct innuendolaced conversations in public.

Bunty takes the soft paper package of meat, avoiding Walter’s gaze and smiling stiffly instead at the inside cavity of a dead sheep behind Walter’s left shoulder. She walks out, saying nothing, but inside a silent Scarlett rages, tossing her head indignantly and swirling her skirts as she flounces out of the butcher’s shop, damning him to hell.

After Walter we go to Richardson’s the bakers, and buy a large floury-white loaf but no cakes because Bunty believes shop-bought cakes are a sign of sluttish housewifery. Then we go to Hannon’s for apples, spring cabbage and potatoes, on to Borders’ for coffee, cheese and butter which the man behind the counter takes from a tub and pats into shape. By this time I think we are all a little weary and Bunty has to nag Gillian into pedalling up Gillygate and along Clarence Street towards our final port of call. Gillian has gone a funny lobster colour and looks as if she wishes she had never asked to bring the tricycle. She has to pedal furiously to keep up with Bunty, who’s getting very annoyed (I can tell).

At last we reach Lowther Street and the squashed terraced house where Nell lives. Nell is my grandmother, Bunty’s mother, Alice’s daughter. Her entire life is defined by her relationship to other people –
Mother to: Clifford, Babs, Bunty, Betty, Ted.

Daughter to: Alice.

Step-daughter to: Rachel.

Sister to: Ada (dead), Lawrence (presumed dead), Tom, Albert (dead), Lillian (as good as dead).

Wife to: Frank (dead).

Grandmother to: Adrian, Daisy, Rose, Patricia, Gillian, Ewan, Hope, Tim and now . . . ME! Bunty’s stomach rumbles like thunder in my ear – it’s nearly lunch time, but she can’t face the idea of eating anything. My new grandmother gives Gillian a glass of bright orange Kia-ora and to us she gives arrowroot biscuits and Camp coffee which she boils up with sterilized milk in a pan. Bunty feels like throwing up. The smell of sawdust and rotting flesh seems to have been carried on her skin from the butcher’s shop.

‘All right, Mother?’ Bunty asks without waiting for an answer. Nell is small and sort of two-dimensional. For kith and kin, she’s not very impressive.

Bunty notices a fly crawling towards the arrowroot biscuits. Very stealthily, Bunty picks up the fly swatter that my grandmother always has handy and skilfully bats the fly out of existence. A second ago that fly was alive and well, now it’s dead. Yesterday I didn’t exist, now I do. Isn’t life amazing?

Bunty’s presence is getting on Nell’s nerves and she shifts restlessly in the depths of her armchair wondering when we’re going to go so she can listen to the wireless in peace. Bunty is experiencing a wave of nausea due to my unexpected arrival and Gillian has drunk up her Kia-ora and is taking her revenge on the world. She’s playing with her grandmother’s button box and chooses a button, a pink-glass, flower-shaped one (see
Footnote (
) and, carefully and deliberately, swallows it. It’s the nearest thing she can get to the sweets our forgetful mother promised in the Museum Gardens.

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