This work is my possession and must not be repeated or re-printed elsewhere without my prior permission.
Alone in the Picture Gallery
I always looked forward to rainy days. They were bad for most people but not for me. Fewer visitors to the museum made my work go much quicker and gave me some alone time with the artworks. The museum became my personal playground for a short while. I knew that it needed visitors and their precious donation money to stay open but I still much preferred peaceful days like that overcast Monday morning.
I had been checking the light levels of the paintings just as I did every day. There was nothing unusual about them on that day. The dull sky was good for the paintings so I was even happier.
The old man’s blaring voice came out of nowhere, startling me.
“What’s that you’re doing?” He said, appearing behind me suddenly like something out of a cartoon. I must have been so absorbed in my work that I hadn’t noticed him approach me.
“Light meter readings, sir.” I said, with my best ‘tourist smile’ on my face.
I was asked questions like these every day, even on a quiet Monday morning. It was all part of my job, but not one I particularly enjoyed. I’m much more comfortable taking care of paintings than I am talking to people. I rattled off my usual answer so that I could get back to my work.
“Long term exposure to direct sunlight damages the oil paintings, so I’m recording how much light-”
“Do you know how long I had to wait for the bus this morning?”
I was a little thrown back by his abrupt question. It was a little too much for my limited social skills.
“Uh…I don’t…I don’t know, sir.”
I thought that maybe he was making a complaint to me, being the only staff member in sight. But the museum didn’t even have a bus service, so what was he complaining about?
“Forty five minutes.” He said. “Forty five minutes standing in the rain! Can you believe it?”
“Yes, that is a long time to wait.” I mumbled awkwardly. Not knowing what else to say, I turned back to the painting. Socialising with customers wasn’t exactly my job, so I shouldn’t have to feel bad about it.
“There used to be one every half hour. Now they come every hour.” The old man continued.
“Oh…I see.” I said, hoping that writing on my clipboard would give him the message that I had a job to do.
“They’re all the same, aren’t they?” He said, following me as I walked to the next painting.
“I suppose so.” I said, not entirely sure who ‘they’ were.
“And the worst part is they see nothing wrong with it.”
I tried to shuffle to the left but he moved closer. His breath smelled like barley sweets. I was almost afraid that the stench would damage the paintings. I looked around the room, desperate to see a colleague I could rush to with an imaginary problem. But we were the only two people there.
“That’s our society for you, people becoming self-entitled. They want everything to be about them. I mean, we have two thousand television channels but are we any better off?”
By then I knew that I would be there for a while, trapped alone in the corner of the picture gallery by barley breath. I wanted to just say ‘Please excuse me, I need to get back to my work’ but my natural shyness wouldn’t let me. If I was bolder, I could have asked him why he waited for 45 minutes in the rain when he could’ve just stayed at home and come another day. But I didn’t.
My nodding had become rhythmic by that point. I discretely watched the door, hoping for a lost day tripper to wander in and ask me for help. But the whole museum seemed to have emptied of people. Nobody else would be silly enough to come out in this weather.
After fifteen minutes of his ranting, I was thinking of faking a horrible stomach condition just for an excuse to run from the room. I silently prayed for the radio on my belt to alert me of something urgent, but it stayed silent.
I cast a desperate glance at the long line of paintings I still had to check before noon. I thought that maybe I should just go and check them anyway, but I would feel rude, even in front of this miserable old fusspot. He’d just follow me around the entire museum until my shift was over anyway.
If I was more confident I would have screamed ‘Shut up! Shut up you stupid old windbag, no one cares about your stupid tiny problems except for you. Why else would you stand in the rain for forty five minutes and come to museums just to find someone to moan at?’ But I didn’t. I just stood there smiling and nodding, crying internally.
“…Sent the letter four weeks ago and they still haven’t done anything about it. You’d think they’d do more considering what they’re paid, don’t you agree?”
What? What had he been talking about? Was it the supermarket aisles being moved around or the neighbour’s dog barking at 3am? Whatever it was, I was sure it couldn’t be more annoying than cornering a random museum employee to use as a personal comments box. Isn’t this what the newspaper letters section was invented for?
“Oh yes, of course.” I said, smiling and nodding like a dashboard ornament, the only social rules I knew. I hadn’t been paying attention to what he’d been saying for a while now, but I hoped that was the right response. I’m sure he wouldn’t have noticed anyway. He just wanted someone to agree with his insane ramblings. Maybe if I wasn’t so annoyed, I would have actually felt sorry for him.
“It’s outrageous, isn’t it?” He said, chuckling to himself, inciting me to give an obviously fake laugh in response.
The strangest thing happened then. He turned around, still laughing to himself, and left the room. My forced smile finally drooped. The stench of his breath would haunt me for weeks. Worse than that, he had stolen fifteen minutes of my work time then wandered off as if it had been nothing.
He hadn’t even left a donation in the box.