Security

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 place where the young woman sat was brilliantly lit, but it was getting on towards closing-time and in the domed glass roof the afternoon light was fading. There were many blues in the paintings round the walls but the girl kept looking up at the slowly darkening blue overhead. Sometimes she would turn to watch the little boy who was beginning to trail his feet, now and then bumping softly against the wall in his padded coat, for it was nearly bedtime. The whole museum was quiet, almost deserted, but after a while the firm footsteps of the security man came slowly round again.

‘I’ve been thinking about that job of yours,’ said the girl.

‘My temporary job.’

‘Anyway, I’ve been thinking about it – the security bit. The pictures and things may be safe enough – even the dinosaurs – but I can’t say I feel it myself.’

‘Oh, so you think I’m no good at it,’ said the young man quickly. ‘There were dozens in for the job – dozens, I don’t mind telling you. But they just happened to choose me.’

‘But of course, of course! You may not be all that heavy, but it’s the reflexes that count. I daresay you’re very good on your feet – good at spotting trouble and all that.’

‘You’re right,’ said the man brightening up. ‘I am very quick on my feet. In fact at one time I was an absolutely first-rate runner.’

‘Very good. But then it isn’t really you or your job I’ve been thinking about after all. It’s that word. Security. I can’t believe in it, can you?’

The young man frowned darkly again. ‘Security here, you mean?’

‘No, no. Anywhere. I can’t believe in it. And – to be honest – yes, it’s this gallery and all the other stuff through there that put me in mind of it.’

The security man looked along the walls. Though most of the paintings seemed neither good enough nor bad enough to invite theft or slashing, there were some more striking and enigmatic. In one canvas the great surface of matt black paint tunnelled down into a well of brilliant, glossy darkness at its centre. In another a scarlet top was spinning in vast spaces of blood-flecked white, and further along an all-over pattern of thick black lines was set over rows of white ovals with dark centres. In closer focus the ovals with dots emerged as hundreds of eyes behind bars. The girl, following his glance, said that these interested her – they were better perhaps than the creamy portraits and the feathery flower-pieces. Of course, she said, she could detect a good many bad dreams amongst this lot. And for a start there was no security against bad dreams. ‘It’s just that word makes you think,’ she said. ‘Especially with a child. When you’ve got one of your own you’ll feel the same.’

It seemed a long way away for the young man to envisage. Nevertheless, it brought him back to take another look at the little boy. He had got over his dreamy patch and was running along the wall again, stopping now and then to test the hard toes of his new boots against the ventilation gratings, then running on quicker and quicker to reach the large ‘Still Life with Melons’ at the top of the room and, after a cursory glance, back again to the far end, where he halted sharply at a black-striped tiger in a forest of pylons. He cautiously touched the tiger’s tail with one finger. At the same time he looked round.

‘I suppose you could say that’s one reason why I’m here,’ said the security man. ‘There’s this difficulty about bringing children in. It’s OK till they begin to get bored. And it’s the kids themselves I’m thinking about. Because sooner or later, you see, a vase is going to get bashed or a painting scraped. And then the child – or rather the father or mother – will be in trouble. You’d be surprised the things that can happen here.’ The little boy was now softly stroking his finger down the whole length of the painted black tail, and again when he came to the tip he looked round. ‘They always know when they shouldn’t be doing it,’ brooded the young man.

The girl beckoned to the child but there was no need to call him across. He was already walking back, slowly and proudly, the way he’d come. The man stayed where he was beside the girl, but neither spoke. After some time, she moved away to make another slow round of the gallery and then, taking her son by the hand, went through the archway into the adjoining room. So for a time they disappeared from the young man’s view, but not from his imagination. For the place they were now in was more familiar to him than any other part of the museum. He had a feeling for history. To him there was an order and logic about the Weapons Room which was lacking in the others – a steady progression from rough to smooth, from crude to functional – and all underlined by the efficient lay-out of the place. For him, even the most ancient and cumbersome weapons and implements had a certain streamlined quality. The Stone Age axeheads had been shaped and used – enough for him to see the skilled hand at work. Through time the polished flints had become sharper, flatter. Later, the spears and pikes progressed from blunt to fine. He could visualise the pair in there studying the bits of armour – a paltry enough collection, in his view. But their ponderous metal also held glamour for him – the smooth, hinged plates sliding the one under the other like the joints of giant insects, while the glittering anonymity of the head in its helmet resembled the anonymous heads of astronauts in the photos further on. The clumsy cannonballs, even the slow-swinging guns had done the job at the time. The shelves of inlaid pistols in their glass case were his special pride. As for the rocket missiles with their pearl-smooth surface – they were as streamlined as the human hand could make. The security man got little satisfaction from the marbles, he enjoyed the ancient reptiles in passing, he was tolerant of the paintings. But for this particular room he had a proprietary feeling. He knew the history and the function of every object it contained.

A bell in the building reminded him of the time. There was still time to talk. The young man walked slowly through into the other room. The girl was standing against a wall of rifles slung at angles. The boy, he was thankful to see, was not running around but standing on the toes of his boots trying to look over into the high case of pistols.

‘I’m afraid they’ll be putting out the lights quite soon,’ said the man, looking at his watch. ‘But you’ve still got fifteen minutes or so. Is there anything special he’d like to see?’

‘Oh no, don’t bother,’ the woman said.

‘The boys all go for that chest of miniatures – the smallest guns in the world, the smallest flags – like toys, like wedding-cake ornaments – miniature bullets, bayonets, rifles, rockets, and most of them in working order. I can open it up.’ Bored or angry she might be – he couldn’t say which – but the few steps from one room to the other had changed things. She gave him an unfriendly look.

‘Or anything you’d like to ask?’ he tried again.

‘So what will you do when you finish here,’ she said, ‘warden, soldier, policeman – what?’

The thing rankled. He was indignant at the aggression. And she was staring round the walls with a dark face. Did she think he’d invented the lot?

The small boy meantime had been quietly walking about on the backs of his heels, laboriously circling the suit of armour and balancing, with arms outstretched, between rows of spears and arrows across to the far side of the room. The labour was too much. He straightened up suddenly onto the toes of his boots and, helping himself along by the smooth side of the model rocket, he stomped back into the picture gallery. For a few steps he staggered on his toes, then gave up and broke into a daring clattering gallop down the length of the room. ‘There, I knew it!’ cried the security man. The boy had tripped at a corner and landed face down on the floor. He was howling like a banshee. The mother flew back up the room after him and the young man followed slowly. But long before he reached them the crying stopped. He watched the scolding and the soothing with a certain distant envy. Already the child was up on his feet. Now he was walking off by himself, staring down at a red knee and a scarred boot with the pride of one who has stroked the tails of wild beasts and got away with it.

‘Look how quickly they get over it!’ exclaimed the security man. ‘Really, for all the worrying you do – they get over everything. Our mother was the same with us at that age, and my sister’s just the same with hers. But they’re tough – really tough. Look at him! Determined nothing’s going to hurt him now or ever, that’s what he is!’

He didn’t look at the girl as he said this but straight ahead into the glass of a picture frame where he watched her winding a long scarf about her neck, ready to move off. A warning buzz came from the entrance hall beyond the marbles.

‘We’re just going,’ she said, moving towards the boy.

‘No need to hurry. You’ve got lots of time.’

He stood watching as the mother took the child by the hand, as they walked down lines of paintings past good dreams and nightmares, then back through the archway again into the Weapons Room, moving quickly on by smooth and jagged blades, past flying cylinders and metal globes of war, and on through a hundred knife-points, a hundred gun-points ...

‘But they’re tough, tough ...’ murmured the security man, staring abstractedly after them. He was confused. He scarcely remembered who or what had been tough. And the two beyond were receding like creatures in a dream – not fragile, yet seeming totally exposed, disarming and unarmed. Now they were moving through the food displays between cornstacks and fruit baskets and heaped plates, through photos of rich farmland and dried-up desert, past bulge-eyed famine babies and smiling feasters. He caught a last glimpse of them in the furthest room where for an instant the child hung back, turning a warm, inquiring head towards a reasoning head of stone. Then they were gone.

The security man walked slowly through the building switching off lights. Certain lights in the entrance hall would be on all night but, far behind, the dinosaurs had withdrawn into the shadows, the colours in the paintings turned to black. The separate details of the food display – crops, seeds and fruit, the figures in the photos and the posters – had merged together. The marbles’ outline was blurred and broken. The man’s own skin, reflected from the windows as he passed, looked grey. Now there was almost total darkness through the building. What little glare there was came from the hard, cold surfaces of metal skin inside the Weapons Room.