I had this girlfriend once, who said she’d been to a museum which put on display the feet from statues. “Just the feet,” she said. “Anything above the knees, they throw away.” I said that sounded like rather a boring museum, who only wants to look at feet? – but in truth I thought it was exotic. And we went to a museum that very day, and we looked only at feet. We’d bend down, and study the toes, the ankles, and the calves. People thought we were weird. We laughed a lot.
She liked going to museums. She was the only girlfriend I ever had who did. Some liked going to the cinema, or to wine bars, one enjoyed ten pin bowling. But it was museums or nothing for Amanda Hadlett. We went all over the city. She found little museums I’d never heard of, down narrow alleyways and round darkened corners. Behind supermarkets, at the top of multi-storey car parks, in garden sheds. The curators looked very impressed when we’d show up. “But how ever did you find us?” they’d say, and Amanda would smile, and tap her nose, and say nothing, as if it were a secret.
For a while it was all statue feet, nothing but statue feet would do. Then she wanted to look at paintings, but not the artwork, just the frames. One day she said she felt the urge to examine exhibits which only began with the letter ‘X’, that didn’t take long.
And pots! Yes, ancient pots from long dead civilisations, and she was trying to find where our names were spelled out by the cracks – “Look,” she said, “I can see Amanda everywhere!” She found this one vase, this big fuck-off sized thing from Egypt, she said she could see us both in there, one name wrapped around the other. She traced our names with her finger, though the signs said Don’t Touch.
She didn’t care about history. She didn’t know what had happened when, who’d killed who. “The past is dead,” she said, “I don’t need the past.” I found that odd. What good were museums then, but sticking the dead things behind glass cases? She said, “But this isn’t the past, how can it be the past? It’s all still here.”
I asked her where this museum of hers was, the one with all the sawn-off statue feet. She said she didn’t remember.
We were in bed, and we were thinking of having sex, or maybe that was just me. And she said we’d now been to all the museums in London, we needed to move further afield. I said, fine. I thought she meant Surrey. “We’ll move to Greece,” she said. All Greece was a museum, rubble and marble blocks everywhere, statue feet lined up side by side as far as the eye could see. “What will we do for money?” I asked. She said she’d be a poet. And me, I could be a fisherman – a squid fisherman, she liked squid. I could go out in my boat and hunt for squid, and keep only the squid, all the normal fish I’d have to throw back in the sea. “I don’t like squid,” I said. We argued.
I don’t know whether Amanda went to Greece. Her landlady said she’d just paid up, packed, and moved on, and no, there was no forwarding address, and no, no message had been left for me. I asked if I could look around her flat. It was weird being in the flat, and seeing it had been stripped of all things Amanda – it looked gutted, somehow. I found a pot of yoghurt in the fridge, pills in the bedroom, a stray sock.
I asked if I could keep them. The landlady said, sure. She gave me a plastic bag to carry them in. When I got home, I threw the plastic bag away.
I’ve had girlfriends since. I’ve had two wives. (Though not at the same time.) Some ex-girlfriends came to my first wedding. My first wife came to my second. She sat there, in the midst of the celebration, beaming proud like a queen. And after the speeches and the toasts and the awkward dances, after the party was done, I went and bagged the leftovers from her plate. A bit of cake, a fag end, a paper napkin with her lipstick on. I took them all, and put them in my museum.
You can’t start collecting too soon. Too soon, and everything is an exhibit, you could fill to the brim all the display cases of the twenty-second century with the detritus about us from the twenty-first. All those Egyptian pots, those vases from ancient Mesopotamia, Stone Age flints and mammoth teeth – at their time you could get them two for a penny, they were what the cavemen put out in the rubbish bins for collection every Sunday night. I don’t start picking up after my girlfriends until I’m sure our relationship is on the wane. I recognise the symptoms now. I’ve got good. The way their faces hang slack with boredom when I’m near, the eyes dead, the eyes looking straight through me. Janet’s nail varnish remover, Anne’s knickers, the contact lenses I took from Margaret’s handbag in the night – I acquired them only once they were turning nice and rare.
My wife doesn’t know I keep a museum. I look at my museum sometimes when she goes out. Amanda was right, whilst they’re on display they’re not the past, those I have loved and those who loved me and all the girls who were inbetween – they’re here. They’re not history. They’re not history. I still own them. Still, I keep them safe.
I itch to start collecting my wife. I itch to preserve the things she takes for granted, the crisp packets and the teabags and the gobbets of toothpaste she spits into the sink. Not yet. But soon. Her eyebrows, I shall cut off her eyebrows, every last hair. We’ll make a deal. I can keep the eyebrows, she can keep our son.
When she leaves me, I won’t miss her. And I don’t miss Amanda Hadlett. You see.
I wonder what Amanda took of me. I wonder what part of me she keeps on display in her museum, I bet she has one. I look about the house, look in the mirror even, try to work out what’s missing. There has to be something missing. Once in a while I can almost sense what, I’ve nearly solved it, it’s on the tip of my tongue.
My family goes to museums. Every so often, if my son is on holiday, or has a school project. He likes to look at dinosaurs. My wife, she reads the plaques against every single exhibit, so seriously, as if there’s going to be a test at the end, she does her duty with every urn and coin and Saxon brooch. I look for Amanda Hadlett.
And I’ll find her eventually, the odds are in my favour. She’ll stand out, she’ll be the one who’s staring at statue feet. She’ll recognise me, she’ll fling her arms right round me and hug me hard, or maybe she won’t recognise me, I’ve grown so old, I feel so old, but she’ll hug me anyway. I’ll tell her I was wrong. I’ll tell her I’m ready for Greece. I’ll find her all the squid she wants. Or, no. No, I’ll give her back her yoghurt pot, her pills, her sock. I take them with me each museum trip, just in case. I’ll say, I don’t need you in my life any more. You’re past, you’re dead, I don’t need you. And she’ll cry, or she’ll be brave, or she’ll say sorry, or she won’t. And she’ll reach into her pockets, she’ll give back what she took from me, my football scarf, breakfast leftovers, my watch, soap, clippings from my beard, clippings from my nails, shoes, socks, old newspapers, half finished Coke cans, my pens, my pencils, my keys, my heart.