I heard Viv’s familiar rat-a-tat on the door and got the hoop of keys out of my pocket to let her in. The new guy, Otto, was also there, slouched against the doorframe as though it were the only thing holding him up. Not for the first time, I wondered if they arrived together because they’d left from the same place together. None of my business though. My business is making sure the Museum of OCD opens on time. Obviously there would be people complaining if it didn’t.
Viv traipsed in with a breezy “Good morning, Bob,” while Otto almost imperceptibly nodded in my direction, leaving me to deduce, on balance, I would be in for an average morning.
“Tea or coffee, Bob?” Viv trilled from the staff kitchen while Otto slung his rucksack into his locker.
“Whatever comes,” I replied, guessing she already knew Otto’s answer to the same, while I loaded the cash trays into the tills. We persuaded customers to use their contactless cards where possible, however, as queues sometimes built up while certain types counted out their change over and over, some even insisting on building little towers of silver and gold before being on their way.
I patted my breast pocket, checking I’d pinned my name badge to it. The cream coloured rectangle with the black engraving ‘Bob Sillis, Supervisor’, would be the first thing they’d use to identify my body should the glass cabinet of eighty thousand buttons hoarded by one Mimi Peterson of Canton, Illinois decide to topple onto me one day or if ever the model of one Elias Blomqvist of Ljusdal, Sweden malfunction so that instead of continuously circling his house decide to make a run at me with the garden shovel. For nine years now I’ve been tending to this strange little collection and though there had been opportunities to progress, I prefer to stay in my lane. Which means making sure Mr Blomqvist sticks to his.
I’ve seen numerous Ottos and Vivs rise through the ranks too. The part time staff were usually university students, who’d go on to more involved roles in other institutions. I didn’t know where or what exactly as I never bothered to stay in touch with them. Social media or even being actually social I never understood the appeal of. I almost considering getting a dog to have a more concrete excuse not to join people for drinks after shifts, but I couldn’t decide on what breed would be the most docile, so I instead went with honesty as the best policy. I’d tell them sorry, I didn’t want to miss the game that night. It’s kinda true. The game meaning solitaire on my dusty old PC.
I checked my watch. Still five minutes before opening. I concentrated on running over with a rag the framed light switch that belonged to the Nobel Prize-winner Ernest Schaefer, who would only let himself fire the Bunsen burners up once he’d flipped it 59 times.
People assume I work here because I have personal experience of OCD, but I have sufficient supply of detachment so there’s no chance of me opting to polish the light switch 59 times before I allow anyone access to the museum’s queer interiors. I keep the back office neat and tidy, as per the job description, but not to the extent I’m still there reorganising paperwork by colour gone midnight.
Thinking of the office reminded me I’d forgotten to get the tally counters. Keeping track of the number of visitors was a task left to the Ottos. They got to feel purposeful and customers got to feel valid. And nobody double checked if I ever rounded it up a touch. I don’t count my job as a passion but I still want to keep it, and that means proving to head office we were still bringing in punters.
I swerved around a few display cases on my way to find the clickers, my shoes squeaking away while Otto’s grunts and Viv’s babble evened out behind me to a white background noise. I grabbed the shiny red clickers and started making my way back to the front desk when I felt a peculiar sort of absence vying for my attention.
I turned and it took my brain a while to process what my eyes were seeing, or rather, not seeing. A gloom where there should be light. A sort of inverse ghost.
The luminous gown worn (circa 1876) by Lady Myra Radley featuring 100,000 symmetrically placed rhinestones was no longer attached to the mannequin in display case 12. I stepped gradually forward, blinking like a new-born idiot, hoping it may be it was just a floater deceiving me. But no, the dress was really not there anymore. I went to touch the door to the case which was hanging slightly ajar, before memories of a thousand crime dramas knocked the urge out of me. There could be prints. However, I couldn’t detect any tell-tale whorls in the dimness, nor signs of a break-in.
The grandfather clock (we have quite the supplementary collection of clocks dotted all around the museum for visitors who like knowing the time, from cuckoo clocks to designer wristwatches that will tell you not only the exact time to the millisecond but the time on Jupiter too, in case you were thinking of travelling there next) chimed nine; opening time. I rushed out and stopped Otto and Viv on their way to the main doors.
“Now, don’t panic, but there appears to have been a robbery,” I said.
Viv wailed. Otto put an arm around her.
“I need one of you to quickly make a sign for us to put on the door. Don’t say what’s happened if anyone out there asks. Just say that we apologise for the inconvenience, and that we’re closed until further notice.”
I went back to stare at the emptiness while the others got to work. I willed the dazzling frock to return but only allowed myself thirty seconds of fancy before phoning Ada, the manager. Who had choice words for anyone bothering her about work on a Saturday, let alone a crime. Saturday’s were ‘mucking out’ days; i.e. ordering some poor sap to muck out her horses while she rode on either Petunia or Hyacinth.
Ada showed up so quickly she was still in jodhpurs. I peered outside to see where she’d parked the horses. There was a police car there instead. After she cocked an eyebrow at Viv and Otto’s sign now taped to the door (Otto had gone a bit overboard with his artistry with a blue highlighter) I was marched into the back office, now on the other side of the desk. I hadn’t sat in that office with Ada since she’d interviewed me for the job.
It wasn’t until the grandfather clock boomed eleven that I was freed. Ada had taken over the reins of the investigation right from the clutches of the two police officers, who flanked either side of her mountainous shoulders (it should be animal cruelty that anyone ever let her on top of any), taking notes. You would have thought I’d been caught with my hands around a visitor’s neck rather than having reported some lost property. I was ordered to hand over my keys (if not my badge) and to remain on standby until notified. I was treated throughout as though my calm nature was indicative of my guilt. Ada pointed at Viv, who was still emitting little yelps and bleats, to emphasize her point. I had my salary called out as a potential motivation behind the crime, as though it wasn’t partially Ada’s responsibility to set its sum. Yes, it’s pitiful, but then I do not pine for pretty trinkets and electronic distractions like seemingly the rest of the world does. No fancy dinners for me, food is just fuel. And why take a holiday when my back garden is a suntrap? I just don’t see the point.
And you’d be right in thinking I didn’t care about the theft. It was a garment, at the end of the day. Nobody had died. I knew the Museum artefacts were covered by insurance. Yes, it was under my care at the time but how could I have predicted what was to happen? I certainly wasn’t about to go losing any sleep over it.
Three days later, I was contacted by one of the officers. The crime had been traced back to one Aiden Wilson, an ex-employee with learning difficulties who had taken to heart his partner’s quest for the perfect bejewelled wedding dress. How did he get in? With the copies of the keys he’d had made. In over twenty years, no-one had bothered to change the locks.
I waited and waited for Ada to call to make an apology. For an explanation as to why I was questioned for hours, while the shady new guy only had his name scrawled down on a notepad. Life at the museum went back to normal, or as normal as a tribute to the neurodiverse gets.
It wasn’t until Friday morning, when I was taking my uniform back in from where it had been drying in uncharacteristically warm weather, I felt my phone go. I got it out of my back pocket. Ada.
“Bob. Need you to cover on Sunday. Kindly confirm. A.”
You see those words? Do you see ‘sorry’ in there? No, me neither. And I’m rather good at acknowledging missing things.
And acknowledging how when something is missing, it can get to people.
Now I thought of it, it had been nine years without a ‘thank you’, either.
Before allowing myself too much time to think about it, I went to my contacts and pressed the call sign next to Ada’s name. My heart had jumped so high I was practically choking on it and the hand holding the phone was now a fist, but I allowed myself a smirk, thinking of her scrabbling around in her handbag trying to pick up with her useless talons.
“Ada, hi it’s Bob. Actually, I’m not available on Sunday, and I’m not available the week after either. Hang on, just let me check my diary – no, it looks like I’m not going to make it in for the rest of the year. Or indeed my life. You and this daft excuse for a museum have robbed me of nine years of it and you’re not getting any more. I’m going to find the sort of employers who reward coolheadedness and if I don’t? Then hell, I might just take early retirement. God knows I’ve got enough saved up although as you rightly pointed out, the pay is pittance. And I got those savings without having to cook any books, Ada.”
I paused for breath and heard a sharp intake from her. Yep, she hadn’t seen that one coming through her (fake) designer sunglasses.
I was on a roll. “So kindly take this call as the beginning of my month’s notice. But wait, I haven’t taken any of my four weeks’ of annual leave, have I? So I guess it’s goodbye from me.”
A cracked “Goodbye, Bob,” feebly found its way into my ear, past all the blood that was rushing around. I pressed the end call sign.
But the adrenaline was still pulsing through me. I’d never felt anything like this before. Never made a decision so brashly in all my days. What next to do with the sudden surge of power? I knew. It was time to get the hammock out of the shed and string that up; ol’ Bob here was about to start four weeks of holiday. I’ll probably just stick to the back garden. But at least I know there’s more out there, within reach, if ever I want it.