The rooms of the British Museum are organised journeys into stone, clay, gold, bronze, sorted by time and catalogued by the white cards that tell their stories. This necklace and that pot come from the Mesopotamian era; Tom imagines them in the same house, these two items, touched by the same people, surviving the same disasters. It’s as if two items as contrasting as his Aunt Val’s tea trolley and Yul Brynner’s black hat could end up in some future museum, jostling for space in the same cabinet with their little white cards before them.
Tom makes his way past the totem poles, under the spread of skylights, into a grey London day. He hops on the tube. It’s a reductive statement for a time-consuming task: jostle, wait, squeeze, elbow, then stride through the mile of tiled corridor that connects Kensington Station to his next destination – the Natural History Museum. It’s a building of undiminished grandeur, of endless interest, and at this time of year the skaters parade in front of it on the artificial blue ice, twirling under the gaze of the bear, the baboon, the penguin, the lizard, the myriad variations of DNA that make up the classification of animal.
Tom gets his bag checked by the guard: keys, wallet, notebook, pen, phone. Components from China, India, Thailand, the USA. Onwards to the dinosaur section, of which he has a strong schoolboy memory. Terrible lizards arranged in poses, like an extended family who all bear the same unfortunate features. Look at the beady eyes, the overbites, the scaly skin. Genetics can be so cruel. The overhead walkway is a march, people pushing onwards, giving him no time to read the white cards. Are these dinosaurs in date order? Cretaceous, Jurassic, Triassic. The past, like an album in which we place our stickers. Been there, done that.
On to the Science Museum, the hip neighbour, obsessed with the cutting edge of the present, that knifepoint that divides the past from the future. Tom takes in the Apollo capsule, the computers in dusty cabinets, the aeroplanes strapped to the ceiling. It’s the Listening Post, a wall of texts that are being sent across the internet at that very moment, that captures him. He feels surprise at how easy it is to serve up these messages as morsels of importance. Put on a bigger screen, under the roof of a museum, and suddenly a million thoughts are removed from the everyday:
see you at ten
he was really sorry
wondered if you wanted
are you there?
all in the miraculous 0 and 1 of binary. Tom watches for some time. There is a bench, white to symbolise the purity of scientific intent. He shrugs off his backpack, sits, and loses himself in the wall.
Time can be divided into hours, minutes, seconds, nanoseconds, smaller still. But, whatever the increment, it’s still just time, like a slippery block of butter – the taste is the same no matter how you choose to spread it. When Tom comes around from his reverie there’s a strange taste in his mouth and his backpack is gone. It must have been taken from under the bench. He looks around the large open space of the Listening Post. Nobody returns his gaze. Nobody shuffles their feet. There is no sign of his handy Goretex backpack, that was meant to withstand all weathers.
It’s really gone.
He reports the loss at the information desk, and fills out a report. He meets with sympathetic, unsurprised expressions. This is the museum of the present. Things like this happen every day. Is there somebody he could call, they ask? He sorts his friends out in his head, and can’t decide. He loses interest in being the victim, and walks away while they sort his report with a sheaf of others.
Cut free of his phone, his keys, his wallet, his notebook, his pen, Tom wanders down the road. Nobody looks twice at him; he is a tortoise without its shell, but they don’t seem to notice. A new classification of creature has been invented. A naked tortoise. Testudine nudos. Tortue nue. Nackt schildkrote.
The Victoria and Albert museum, a quieter kind of place, has doors thrown open to him. Inside, he finds the Theatre and Performance Collection, and the arms of the mannequins are wide and welcoming. All the things we wear to entertain, adorn, attract. Wool, silk, cotton, leather. Dresses, trousers, blouses, skirts, socks, stockings, hats and masks and headdresses to hide behind. Tom stands amid the open arms and feels so sad for all the categories and classifications of the world, all the ways that we choose to exhibit the differences.
Or maybe he feels sad only for himself, alone, divorced from the comfort of his backpack. What will happen now? He says to himself in his head. What will happen now?
Bella is beside him, Bella from his block of flats. He runs through what he knows about her. A design student, lover of tartan, changeable hair colour, keen on listening to Beethoven up loud late at night. The miracle of Bella being there overwhelms him.
‘What’s the matter?’ she says. ‘You okay?’
‘I had a day off. I thought I’d get some culture, wander about, I haven’t done the museums for years,’ he says. It comes out in a rush, joined-up writing, hanging in the air. ‘Someone stole my wallet, my phone, everything.’
She shakes her head. Today she is a brunette, with big round glasses on a tiny face. ‘God, London nowadays, come on, I’ll shout you a coffee and then we’ll get home. You’ll have to cancel your cards and everything. What are the chances of seeing you here, today’s my museum day, I come here every Tuesday for my dissertation, it’s on the modern approach to traditional materials, really interesting how -‘
And Tom goes along with her, guided by her speech, her presence, the light of her little flowering face. How amazing to meet in this place. Eight million people live in London. There are 240 museums, and 1,440 minutes in a day. Let’s put this moment in a cabinet, and label it as a good day. Yes, the little white card can read that this was a good day.
About the author:
Aliya Whiteley lives in West Sussex and writes literary and speculative fiction. Her first two novels were published by Macmillan, and a collection of her short stories, ‘Witchcraft in the Harem’, is currently available from Dog Horn Publishing. She can be found on Twitter at https://twitter.com/aliyawhiteley