Elspeth Davie

‘And I’m not really supposed to sit down at all,’ said the young man. ‘Not on this kind of a job.’

‘What kind is it?’ asked the girl who’d been sitting for some time on a seat in the gallery watching her small son stumping around close to the wall of pictures. Now and then he bent to examine the look of his boots on the parquet pattern of the floor.

‘You can see, can’t you?’ The man extended his arm with the dark blue armlet. ‘It’s Security. I’m not even supposed to stand still as a matter of fact.’

‘Oh – security,’ said the young woman, turning her head towards him. She glanced from his one shoulder to the other as though measuring them or, rather, measuring some other massive shoulders which were mysteriously missing. At the same time she took in his head with its light, longish hair, and again her eyes moved just a fraction above it as if his complement – some tall, strapping fellow – might be directly behind. She glanced at the armlet, a plain one without letters.

‘It’s not the usual band,’ he explained, ‘but of course, its being a temporary thing makes no difference. It’s official and it’s Security.’

‘Well, if you’re not allowed to sit or stand or talk I suppose you’d better move on. Maybe I’ll see you later when you come round again.’

The security man hesitated for a moment, nodded and walked off. The girl studied his shoes as he went past, as though from hard staring they might grow into blocky boots.

Because it was a busy but small town, this building – the largest in the place – had been used to accommodate both art gallery and museum. Everything here was on a small scale, as well as being arranged haphazardly on the time-scale. From one end of the gallery one could look through into a place of old and new machinery. On Saturdays and Sundays and on school holidays the wheels of these machines would spin and hum. At the push of a button old engine levers and the limbs of miniature cranes clicked into action, while down the length of the room, in semi-darkness, red and blue lights sparked on and off. Leading out of this was a narrow, windowless place where models of three undersized dinosaurs stood in line, jagged jaw touching scaly tail, with a bat-winged creature hovering from wires overhead. Right at the other end of the room of pictures an archway led through into the Room of Weapons – a history in words and pictures, with models and objects varying from Stone Age axes to the latest missiles. Further in was a display of Foodstuffs of the World – their growth and preparation. Bundles of cereal and trays of seed were here, coloured photos of fruits, plants, cattle, sheep; men fishing, hunting, building fires, women holding jars, pots, plates, mothers feeding babies, children eating, not eating, pictures of bursting cornucopia and empty food-bowls. Beyond this, another archway opened into a bright room where Greece was represented by a dozen or so white marble heads looking with confidence and a marvellous serenity towards the windows. Even from the far end of the gallery it was possible for visitors to see part of the street and, occasionally, the people who hurried past on a level with the windows. Sometimes an anxious eye outside would meet the marble gaze inside. A puffy red brow might turn momentarily as if to compare itself with the clear brow behind glass. Occasionally, large birds were flung by the wind onto these windowsills – no longer omens for those ones inside who remained half-smiling, calm and beautiful at all times.

The full text of this fiction is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in