Jimmy Butt's ladder was the last straw.
Jimmy Butt used to come to No. 42, the museum warehouse,
whenever anything needed doing and he came that day to do some wiring. Jimmy
knew to remove anything detachable from his van before coming into No. 42 due
to propensity things had for disappearing when they were left outside. This
part of town was the territory of a gang of thieves everyone called 'The
Poachers' - and Jimmy Butt knew it.
Number 42 was a museum store, a huge warehouse near the river
filled ceiling-high with the detritus of centuries. All that had been donated,
bequeathed, pillaged, excavated, appropriated was kept there. Tibetan tea pots
rubbed shoulders with Greek Statues, Chinese lacquer-wares and the odd mummy.
It was a wonderful place, hidden away by a civic council that didn't know what
the hell to do with it all.
The reason that Jimmy was a bit neglectful on this particular
day was Nesmen. Nesmen was the mummified body of a young Egyptian woman which
or who had been acquired, like so many were, by a
nineteenth-century traveller as a souvenir in the same way that postcards are
collected today. Now, Nesmen had become damp and the crate that housed her
remains was intermittently opened to be examined by Wiggy: a conservator famous
for a toupee so ill-fitting that the storeman used to put out a saucer of milk
for it at tea-break. Wiggy was late, Nesmen was open and the air was filled
with the unnatural odour of damp mummy and chemical preservatives. The stink
had sent Jimmy Butt into a run straight from the front door to the kitchen, his
handkerchief over his nose on his way to take refuge in the teapot.
Jimmy Butt heard something suspicious half way down his first
cup of tea. He shouted; God in heaven The Poachers are taking my
fecking ladder! and made a run for the front door. Leaving a trail of tea
behind him, he ran the gauntlet of Nesmen without giving her or her stench a
second thought. Of course he was too late, arriving in time only to see the end
of his ladder disappearing round the corner of the street and to shout a few
obscenities after it.
The incident was followed several days later by Jimmy's arrival
at No. 42 with a CCTV camera which was to be placed above the front door,
overlooking the car-park.
They think I'm fecking Spiderman, Jimmy said.
The stupid beggars want it mounting high up but the reason they want it
here in the first place is because I lost my fecking ladder.
Once up, the new arrival glowered at the front door to No. 42
with its large unblinking eye. For a day, it recorded the comings and goings
including Wiggy who had finally come to examine Nesmen glancing
up at it from under his toupee with the feral look of a hunted animal. I
suppose the CCTV camera worked, in so much that for the first day nothing was
stolen at all an event that registered as a statistically significant
blip in the local crime figures. The first night however the CCTV camera was
itself stolen, recording its own theft like an admiral saluting as he goes down
with his ship. One of the Poachers jumped up at it with a sack and it was all
over in seconds.
As if to add insult to injury Wiggy discovered that Nesmen's
decay was irreparable and she was designated for disposal. She lay slowly
purifying in her tattered bandages with a few jewels about her neck and a quiet
stoical dignity. A body that had outlasted dynasties, empires, crusades and
wars, finally destroyed by the British climate.
Disposal of a mummy was no easy matter, it required no end of
paperwork and all sorts of stamps from pale-faced bureaucrats. It also required
'deaccessioning' which meant burying the whole business so deep in paperwork
that no one would ever try to unearth the truth: a strange fate for an
archaeological artefact. Wiggy's deliberations in the kitchen were agonising to
witness while the rest of us sat around and sympathised.
The idea was Jimmy Butt's and he should take full credit for it.
It seemed clear to him that the solution was staring us in the face, as well as
stinking up the room. Nesmen and The Poachers' repeated thefts could be
cancelled out like matter and antimatter in a flash of Jimmy's brilliant idea.
We all lent a hand, closed the crate, and moved Nesmen outside into the back of
Jimmy's van, leaving the door slightly open. Then we waited in the kitchen,
each of us staring into our tea mugs with a look of guilty distraction. After
half an hour Jimmy slunk to the front door and edged it open.
Sure enough Nesmen had gone.
I wonder what we've got from Jimmy Butt's van today?
The Poachers must have laughed as they prised the lid off the crate. Jimmy said
he was fairly sure that they would think twice before striking again.