Up until last May, I was in Modernist Revival. Then I got moved here. In some ways, Modernist Revival was worse. There was often a draught that came from the hallway and a high-pitched, continuous sound from one of the overhead lights. But that only happened after two hours. The seat of course was the same. All of them are identical. Moulded plastic. Metal legs. Uncomfortable after a while. There was an attendant once who brought in a cushion but because it wasn’t medical grade, it couldn’t be permitted. Some uproar ensued, culminating in talk of calling in a union rep. I’m not bothered. I sometimes wear a blue V-neck jumper and take it off. It’s a de facto cushion. They don’t notice. 

I could hardly tell you now what’s in Modernist Revival. It’s funny how that happens. You sit there, looking at everything for eight hours a day, five days a week and then, once you move, you can’t remember a thing about it. At the start, when I went home, my father would sometimes ask me if there was anything new. Of course there wasn’t. It all stayed the same in Modernist Revival. But I said, yeah, they brought in a new one today. It’s of all these wild animals roaming through a city and then they change into crazy shit aliens as they’re being sucked up into a spaceship. Somebody had it in a restaurant for years, believe it or not. 

That sounds like something worth seeing, he replied. 

Oh for sure. And there’s another new one, of the face of God. 

What’s it like? 

Just what you’d expect, I said. A big close-up. 

I got moved because there was an internal shuffle after Mel, one of the longest serving gallery attendants, retired. They needed a man to be here in Auto Symmetries, on the first floor, on account of its proximity to the ramp and lift. It was thought that people using the ramp and lift could well require extra assistance and that a man should be there to provide it, if needed. However, on the two days of the week when I’m not here, Fillippa sits in this chair. I don’t believe that either of us have ever been called on to offer anyone assistance into the lift. When Mel retired he was given a digital camera and, from the museum shop, the big square book which catalogues all the exhibits. I remember the way he looked at it when the woman with the lop-sided haircut presented it to him. Not exactly heartbreak, for Mel, leaving here. 

Auto Symmetries is larger than Modernist Revival. It’s part of the new wing they built in the ’90s. There’s a long skylight that runs down the length of the roof and the temperature’s always very even. My chair is, as you enter the room, over by the right. I wear the standard issue navy trousers, jacket and pale blue polo shirt. I may or may not have my V-neck jumper with me. The roof is high as a cathedral. At the level I am at, sitting on the chair, my sight line is people’s asses. In some ways, I wouldn’t mind seeing the contents of this room destroyed by a crew who appear with Stanley knives and tins of paint. Maybe I’d be very slow to rise from my seat to alert anyone as to what was happening. But in truth, I don’t have anything massively against the actual exhibits, per se.

There was a woman who came in. I knew she was a drinker. I recognised the puffiness. I had to tell her not to lean against the twisted metal bonnet of the car in the centre of the space. She said she’d once been in a car crash and it looked nothing like that. 

I don’t know if it’s meant to be a car crash, I said. 

It was the noise, she said. I’d never heard anything like it. And the white light. The headlights.

She flicked the metal with her finger and it made a cute ding. 

Hellish sound, she said. The car crash. Absolutely hellish. 

The woman returned one time.  

Why can’t I sit down next to you? she said. Why’s there only one seat?

Because there’s only one gallery attendant, I replied. 

She twisted her hair and her hands shook.

But you can sit down. You can take my seat, I said. If you want. 

She sank into it like it was plush velvet.

Nobody asked when I got this job if I was interested in art. It’s not a requirement. As far as I know, no one is. It was never mentioned as a pre-requisite. What was more relevant was other experience I’d had as a security guard. I used to work in a shop. To be fair, in so many ways I preferred it: the people, the music, the variety. But what wasn’t so good was that I had to stand. I wanted a job where I could sit down. I don’t think this will be me for the rest of my life. I think I’ll take a course at some point. You’re wasting your life, my father says, quite often. You’re working in a glorified warehouse. Except nothing is ever shifted from it. You’re working in storage.  

Is everyone sitting as a gallery attendant wasting their lives? Maybe so. What about the three supervisors? Are they wasting their lives because they are in charge of the rest of us? Does being in charge of someone mean that you’re not wasting your life? 

You could have been all kinds of things son, he said. You’re selling yourself short. He has other versions of me that he carries like photographs. I’ve done that. I’ve been in charge of people before and it didn’t turn out well.

The man responsible for much of what is in this room came to an event here. He was what I would describe as a little bitch. It was to be a special evening with the trustees of the museum and I saw the drinks and food arriving in a van when I was having my five-minute break in the afternoon. He came into the room to check how everything looked and made a few minor adjustments. He spent time on the phone, first to someone about his hotel room. He said that the hotel wasn’t what he usually expected and that he was bummed, man. The hotel was no good and he would have to be moved. The person on the other end must have asked him to say what was wrong with it, particularly, and then he started to get angry. It’s not what I want! he said. Then after that he phoned somebody called Hannah. His voice was high and wheedling. Oh baby, he said, now and then. 

The questions I get asked most often are where is the toilet or the café or the floor where the famous paintings are. Once a guy asked me if I liked what was in this room. I thought for a moment and said, No. 

Me neither, he replied. Can yous boys not go on your phones? 

I said that we couldn’t. Neither could we read a book or a paper. But most people don’t speak. People are quiet, whispering, awed by what they aren’t interested in. 

Once a year, there’s an event where all employees can invite family and friends. It’s in the evening and they have wine and plates of food. There’s a list put up in the workspace where you have to write down the numbers of people you are bringing. When it was posted, most people, including me, left it blank. And then, a couple of times a year, we have health and safety sessions. They’re compulsory. You get a handout with the slides on it. They’re given by someone who used to be a firefighter but who now has a company doing health and safety training all around the country. The material is the same each time he comes, but most people enjoy attending because the guy, Liam, is quite funny. He’s in his fifties. Somebody said he looked like he could be in an adult movie. 

The other day, towards the end of the afternoon, a different woman came into my room. She spent a little longer looking at the stuff than people normally do. She glanced over at me a few times. I hoped really that she was up to no good, that she had a blade in her handbag. Eventually she came over and asked if this was the place with the model of a car crash.

Some might say so, I replied. 

You knew my friend, she said.

Did I? 

Yeah, you did. She came in here. She told me one time that you were nice to her. 

This woman had a backpack and her face looked scrubbed clean.

I can’t remember anyone I’ve been nice to, I said. 

Well she’s not here anymore, my friend, and I just wanted to come and say that she appreciated it when you were nice, when you let her sit down or something. What the fuck, anyway, I don’t know. I came along because. Well, I don’t know why. 

I remember, I said. 

No one speaks about their rooms. In the workspace there’s two rows of lockers and two circular tables. There’s a microwave, a kettle and a mini fridge. It’s the kind that is meant for beer. There’s usually only a carton of milk in it. New people are known as floor 5 or Neoclassical Room 3a before everyone learns their names. On the walls of the workspace there is a takeaway menu for a nearby restaurant and a photo, clipped from a newspaper, of a guy who used to work here. He was done for internet fraud and the photo is of him, a mugshot, straight to camera. He was much better looking in real life than the photo suggests. Everyone says that when they see it. Fumi was a real looker. 

I suppose there’s aspects of this room that I don’t mind. There’s a stain on the floor where someone spilt a drink. People spill drinks all the time so I’ve no idea why that one marked the floor more than others. It’s a strange, wobbling shape, like a bubbling pan of water. I can see it from where I sit. Also, there’s the way the light comes in. At about three o’clock there is a column of squares of light from the windows in the ceiling. Sometimes people walk in the beam, briefly, and illuminated by the bar, their skin becomes pearly, just for a moment. Then there’s the little white illuminated box that says exit. I once watched, over a couple of hours, a fly that had got caught in it, frantic, then increasingly resigned to its fate, it seemed.

But there are so many ways to pass the time. Sometimes I think about forks and paths. Or I clench my legs and don’t release them until a person enters with brown shoes. The people who are in the room at any point, I picture them in bondage gear, as medieval peasants, as revolutionaries. I imagine them fucking, beating each other up, fucking, sleeping. I add numbers together, one plus one, two plus two, four plus four, until I can’t get any further. I think of houses I have been in, walking through each of the rooms, remembering what was where. And I think of that woman, bright now, only a little drunk – as I am too, anyway. There are two chairs and we look at the picture of the face of God. 


Wendy Erskine

Wendy Erskine lives in Belfast. She has published two highly acclaimed short-story collections: Sweet Home (2018) and Dance Move (2022).

About Gallery Attendant, 37: This story was written as part of the Great Big Giant Short Story Experiment conducted earlier this year by The Stinging Fly in collaboration with dlr Emerging Writer-in-Residence, Sonya Gildea. Wendy was one of four lead writers invited to write a new short story in 48 hours using four words as a writing prompt. (The words Wendy was allocated are highlighted within her story.) The other lead writers were Sheila Armstrong, Danielle McLauglin and Stephen Sexton. A further 90 people signed up to participate in the experiment, completing short-story drafts within 48 hours. The initiative was supported by dlr Arts, the Arts Office of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council.