William Wall – In the Egyptian Collection

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The guards are on strike but they have agreed to open one door each hour. At the end of that hour the floor is closed and all visitors must descend by the stairs. I want to see the collection from Pompeii and Herculaneum but end up in the basement looking at the dead Egyptians and their ornaments. Everybody else is taking photographs despite the signs but I don’t want to remember anything so I look away. But every now and then, embarrassment makes me turn around.

You can’t keep admiring the way the sunlight comes through the blinds or saying how cool it is after the heat outside. It’s August in Naples and they’re having a heat-wave which means it must be forty three or four and the air conditioning on the bus didn’t work properly and a man was smoking. Oh my god, look at this, someone says, it’s a hand. I look because not to look would draw attention to me, and in a glass case there is a child’s hand slipped out from the brown wrapping. I think mummies are disgusting, my friend Marie says. I don’t. I think they’re too sad to look at. The others are all wondering what they died of, and what colour hair and eyes they had, and whether they were sacrificed or something. And right this minute, in some village in England, people are looking at graves and wondering the same thing about other little girls, people bussed in to look, so we can make a profit even out of people dying. I think that’s disgusting. I think we’ll all end up in hell, whatever hell is. Maybe this little girl all wrapped up and half-rotten and lying in a glass case is in hell. Maybe that’s what’s in store for people who look at dead bodies and try to pretend that they’re sad for the dead people when they’re really not sad at all. I said to Marie, I’m getting out of here, and she said, You can’t you have to descend by the stairs and the stairs is closed because of the strike until the end of the hour. And I try the doors and they’re locked. Oh Jesus. We are all stuck in the basement. What about a fire, Marie? I can see it as if it is really happening – the bars on the windows red like the elements in an electric heater, the blinds in flitters, the glass cases all exploding. There is even a man smoking. He probably feels safe because the guards are on strike and no one has the courage to tell him stop and we’re locked in so nobody will see him. He smoked all the way up in the bus even though the sign said no smoking and I couldn’t breathe. I told Marie I thought I’d have to be sick but she said to get a grip on myself which I just managed to do but I don’t know how I’ll stick it going back. I’ll have to ask to sit in the front near the driver because he has a window open. Mummies are embalmed and I happen to know that embalming involves alcohol which burns with a very clear flame, like the flame on the top of Christmas pudding. My father used to light it and he always said what a waste, all this good whiskey going up in smoke and he used to pretend to blow it out too early so the whiskey would get a chance to soak into the pudding and my mother would get cross. He’s an accountant and doesn’t like waste. In an hour we would all burn very clear. That man who smokes has a lighter that he often clicks and lets it out again, a silver or steel lighter. Sometimes I hear the click but I don’t see the flame. Marie says look at all these little toys, little men and insects and animals, all perfect. Imagine, all those years and they still come out of the ground perfect. Who’d think that they could make things as small so long ago. Perfect is her favourite word. The hotel was perfect and some fellow that she set her heart on and a T-shirt she bought. Maybe they were belong to the little girl, she says, the toys. Marie only half reads the notices and so she doesn’t know that all the toys were discovered in different places at different times, but I don’t tell her. I know from experience that it’s a waste of time telling her anything. The English in the signs is funny and some of the signs are only in Italian. You can see that the English ones are translated. What language did the little girl speak? I don’t think it’s what they speak over there now. I think her language is dead too. I think that’s too sad. Even if I wanted to comfort her and find a quiet moment when everyone else was looking at the jewellery I couldn’t do it because the right words don’t exist anymore anywhere, not even a language I could study and maybe get a phrasebook in, like the Italian one I have. But then I remember that even babies respond to tone of voice. Where did I hear that? On a radio show I suppose, where I hear everything, some talk show. When I heard that it upset me because of what I did at that time, as if I had any choice. If I could make my voice soothing enough she’d understand that I wanted her to feel happy. After a few thousand years I might be the first voice she heard that cared for her. Since her mother said goodbye and she was put in that dark cold tomb. Even in Egypt tombs have to be cold. And the people who found her would have been excited, the archaeologists. They would have called her a find, not a little girl. I don’t think anyone would have thought about how she felt. So I wait for a bit until the crowd moves on and Marie says, aren’t you coming? And I say no I’m not interested. I’m staying here. She gives me a look. It hasn’t been a success, coming with Marie, and I won’t do it again. She’s only interested in one thing. So she goes with the others and I hear their voices oohing and aahing about the gold and stuff. I can imagine what it looks like. And I stay and talk to the little girl. And after about three minutes I’m crying. I have a little sister just like you, I say. Just like you. And I miss her. I don’t know what I’m going to do because I can’t go back. I told them I’d never go back after what they said. My father writes to me but my mother doesn’t. She’s very black about it. You walk out that door my lassie and you won’t walk back, she said. My mother. You’ll be as the dead to me, she said. And so I am. It’s getting cold down here now, like the air conditioning is turned down too far. I want to put my hand through the glass and cover up the little hand which is the only part you can see except for the toes of one foot. It’s like she’s asleep and has pulled the blankets up around herself and turned over onto her back and her hand is sticking out and her toes too. But it’s the hand I want to cover. Hands tell you everything. It’s the hand that carries the lifeline that shows with branching and forking what things are going to happen, even though we’re better off not knowing the future it’s all there if we knew how to read it. And when we want to help someone we say we’ll lend them a hand or give them a hand up, and when we’re getting rid of something we say I’ll hand it over to you, it’s all in your hands, it’s out of my hands now. I wash my hands of it. And you can tell a person’s work by her hands, like mine are always red and sort of raw looking because I’m allergic to the rubber glove they make us wear in the factory. We have to wear plastic hats too and surgeons’ masks and gowns like we’re operating on people instead of computers: like all the chips and boards we fit together are parts of people that would wake up after a long sleep and their lives would be better and maybe they’d be able to walk again and not have any pain. My father is waiting on a plastic-hip operation but these things have to be ripe, his doctor says, and he’ll have a long wait yet. And all we’re doing is putting modems together and Marie is the only one who can afford a computer so none of us girls even knows how they work. So what am I going to do, I ask the little girl. I brush the hair off her face, the way I do my sister. In my mind’s eye I see us: me sitting beside her bed which is not this cold glass cabinet but an ordinary bed like we have at home, and I brush the hair out of her eyes. What am I going to do at all, I’ll never see them again? Then Marie comes back. Sweet Jesus this is meant to be an effing holiday, she says. Look at you. Jesus. It’s none of your business I say. And it’s not much of a holiday, is it? You booked it, she says. You wanted a cultural tour when we could’ve been in Crete or The Canaries. Jesus wept. So I tell her there and then. I’m walking out that door, I say, as soon as the hour is up, and if I never see you again I’ll be just as happy. And I’m asking the supervisor to change my station when I get back. If I never talk to you again I’ll be just as happy. And if you want to know this little girl reminds me of my sister. Sweet Jesus, Marie says. How could she remind you of your sister. You make me sick. And she’s looking at the glass case and I know all she can see is something dead. No, something that was never alive, like one of the toys or the statues or like the little girl was stillborn instead of being ten or eleven years old. When a child dies before it’s born she was never alive, I say. And so she could never die. It’s what limbo means. You lost it completely now, Marie says, what in Christ’s name are you talking about now? You’re the kind of person who reads all the horror stories, I say, like those two little girls in England. You love that. She stares at me. What are you talking about? What girls? But I hear the guards opening the door and there’s a gust of warm air and they’re looking at us like they just found out we’re down here. It’s ascend, I say. You have to ascend by the stairs. You’re in the basement now. If you want to get out you have to go up. And I just walk away.

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William Wall is an Irish novelist, short fiction writer and poet. His work has been translated into several languages and he translates from Italian. His novel This Is The Country was longlisted for the 2005 Man Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Young Mind Prize and the Irish Book Awards. His short fiction and poetry have won many prizes including The Virginia Faulkner Award 2011. His most recent book - Ghost Estate, a volume of poems - has been translated into Italian as Le Notizie Sono (MobyDick Editore). More information from his website: williamwall.net ‘Wall, who is also a poet, writes prose so charged—at once lyrical and syncopated—that it’s as if Cavafy had decided to write about a violent Irish household.’ The New Yorker ‘Wall's touch with characterisation is light and deft: many illustrate themselves plainly with just a few lines of dialogue.’ The Guardian ‘He is such a writer - lyrical and cruel and bold and with metaphors to die for.’ Kate Atkinson Photograph by Herry Moore