Friday, 23 November 2018

The Under Gallery

It's been a long time since I just sat down and wrote a story, on my own, purely for fun, not for any particular purpose or project. Today is Doctor Who's 55th anniversary, and thus also five years since The Day of the Doctor. So, I thought I would put together a little follow-up. It's very hastily written and far from perfect, but hopefully enjoyable.

The story is dedicated to my sister Rebecca, an actual museum person and arts expert, and apologies for pretending to know anything about her territory. Alex is named after (but not based on) my good friend Alex, also a former museum person, as a belated gift for their birthday.

Alex craned her neck looked up at the full, remarkable height of the columns that surrounded the entrance of the National Gallery. Just in case these huge monuments that supported the grand, majestic building in Trafalgar Square weren't enough of a clue, the words “National Gallery” were emblazoned in gold on red banners that hung beside the outermost columns, and she could still just about see the name chiselled into the stone itself above them.

She hurriedly stepped into the museum before she felt too overwhelmed. The sheer size of this place was enough to make her nervous, even without taking into account the age and incredible wealth of artwork inside. She was being presumptuous, ridiculous even. There was no way that she would even be considered for the job.

Alex looked around in for someone to direct her to the Under Gallery. There were a couple of security guards, but neither one of them knew what she was talking about, both giving identical excuses of it “not being their patch,” and a fusty-looking tour guide was no more help. She looked at her map; it wasn't marked on there, but there was an information desk in the Sainsbury Wing. Or she could maybe ask the girl in the shop. That wasn't a bad idea; when this job turned out to be a bust she could try for one there. Much more realistic.

No. Confidence. The key to interviews was confidence, her dad said, and he'd been to enough of them to know. Even got a job from some of them. He was proud that she was even considering the job. She'd been the first one in the immediate family to “get an education,” as he called it, and once she'd got her degree she'd been determined to get on the ladder of a museum career. In a year and a half, she'd managed three months volunteering at a minor history museum and a very short stint at a studio which went out of business shortly after. She was about to give up and just resign herself to bar work for the rest of her life.

Then this job had turned up, out of nowhere. It had been her dad who'd found it, when she'd gone round to see him and sheepishly ask about moving back in. A tiny ad in the borough paper, which virtually no one read anymore. Circulation of about five, probably, mostly local ads and the odd job, and then, somehow, this. Under the printed banner of the National Gallery, a new opening for the role of “Assistant to the Curator of the Under Gallery.” It read as if it had been written for her.

Would suit recent graduate of history of fine art. Hours variable, must be flexible. Ideal candidate would be local, with a passion for intriguing and unusual artwork, and strong ankles. Experience in museums and galleries NOT REQUIRED – we have our own ways of working and don't want to waste time while you unlearn everything. Must love old relics.”

OK. it read like a joke, but the number attached checked out and when she called, the personnel officer had said there was a record of a Doctor Smith requesting the ad be placed. She couldn't fathom why he had specified that particular newspaper, or quite what the Under Gallery was, but she said that the man in question was rather eccentric and set in his ways, and it was best to let him carry on as he liked. Whatever it was he actually did there.

Alex had a thought and pulled the newspaper page from her bag. She unfolded it, and read, at the very bottom of the advert: “Make sure you take a look around when you arrive. I'll find you!”

Eccentric was the word, she thought, but at the very least she should enjoy the museum. She could have wandered around there for hours, but instead, looked at the map and decided to go straight for the furthest gallery on the ground floor – the huge collection of European art that stretched from the Middle Ages to Nineteenth Century. She ambled from Boltraffio to Titian and through to Cezanne, walking the centuries and almost forgetting why she was there. She'd made her way right through to the end of the Nineteenth Century and was admiring a Gustave Moreau when someone spoke to her.

“Ah, Saint George and the Dragon,” boomed a deep, throaty voice at her shoulder. She jumped and spun round to face the speaker, a well-built old man who leant heavily on his cane. He was much taller than her and had once been taller still, but age had hunched his shoulders. Still, he had managed to sneak up on her even in the quiet of the Gallery in the morning.

“Sorry, did I startle you?” he said, his face breaking into a huge smile. “I'll have to take points off for jumpiness, you know. You must be Alex, yes?”

Alex's head caught up with his words. “Sorry, um, yes,” she said. “Are you Doctor Smith?”

“Well, I did say I'd find you, and I found you in front of one of my very favourites.”

Alex followed his gaze back to the painting.

“Mine too. It's a little derivative of Raphael, but I enjoy the more abstract style -”

“Oh, don't give me that,” snapped the old man, “I know you know about art, you've nothing to prove there. What I want to know is why you like it?”

Alex looked intently at the image, of the black-clad Saint George on his noble steed, plunging his lance into the bloodied, cowering dragon.

“It's because Saint George isn't the hero. It's the dragon. I guess I feel sorry for it.”

“Yes,” he said, nodding enthusiastically, “I do too. Of course, it was nothing like that at all. George was this big, swarthy fellow with a huge moustache, and the dragon was a biomechanoid... Well, I'll come to all that later. Follow me.”

With surprising speed, the old man was moving back through the Gallery.

“Doctor Smith, wait!” she said, as loudly as she could without being too loud for the Gallery, and dashed after him.

“I'd much rather you just called me 'Curator,' if it's all the same to you,” he said, leading her to a nondescript looking door at the far end of the cavernous room. He pulled an odd, spade-shaped key from his pocket and fumbled with the lock. “By the way, did you have time to see the Van Goghs?”

“Not yet,” she said. She glanced at her watch, and realised she'd spent the better part of an hour there already. This was the strangest, most protracted interview she'd ever had.

“Shame,” he said, sadly. “Poor old Vincent, such a nice man. I've a couple more in my private collection, if we have time.” The lock clicked open at last. “Come on.”

The Under Gallery was a maze of white corridors, spotted here and there with a painting or sculpture, none of which Alex recognised. If she'd had time to look at them, perhaps she could have identified the artists – that was the sort of test she'd have expected from this, but the Curator hurried her along into a large anteroom. The walls were patterned with tiles, white on white, circles within hexagons. A single painting dominated the room, a sizeable landscape. It depicted a blazing citadel against a tumultuous background of smog and lightning.

The Curator sat down heavily on the single white bench in the centre of the room. He whipped a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed his forehead.

“Forgive me,” he croaked, sounding exhausted, “I forget sometimes that I'm not as young as I was.”

“That's OK,” said Alex, half-looking at him and half at the landscape. “What's this picture?”

“Oh, pay that no heed, it's been dealt with. Now, come sit. It's about time I asked you a few questions.”

Alex did so, perching on the bench next to the Curator. He smelt faintly of peppermints.

“Now, what do you know of the Under Gallery?” he asked, fixing her with an enquiring stare.

“Um... nothing, really,” she replied, taken aback. “I didn't know there was one until I saw your advert.”

“Well, quite right. That's a relief – if you had known something about it, I'd have been quite worried. It's a secret you see, set up by command of Queen Elizabeth and personally entrusted to me.”

Despite herself, Alex was impressed. “Personally? You know the Queen?”

“Oh yes, Good Queen Bess. Charming lady.”

She smiled sadly. The old man was obviously getting confused.

“Good Queen Bess was Elizabeth the First,” she pointed out.

“Indeed,” he replied, a wistful look coming over him. “Oh, I practically had to crawl back to her and beg forgiveness after I left her. Terrible, terrible, but it was a very urgent situation, as I recall. Anyway, Elizabeth tasked me with taking care of, shall we saw, dangerous works of art.”

“Dangerous? Like, political art, that sort of thing?”

“What? Pah!” the Curator scoffed loudly. “I mean dangerous,” he hissed. The sort of things that can't be allowed to just sit around where anyone can use them. Now, I've dealt with most of them over the years – locked away the worst of them in the Black Archive, neutralised the rest, but there's one item left that I must take care of. Before I run out of time.”

That was the point where Alex had finally had enough. He was a nice old boy and she was sure he had lots of lovely stories, but this was not going anywhere.

“Curator,” she said, as firmly as she could, “were you going to ask me any questions about the job or did you just want to tell me stories?”

“Stories? That's just it, you see.” He looked at her sheepishly. “I'm sorry, my dear, I haven't been entirely honest with you. You see, there is a job opening, of sorts, but it isn't going to be the sort of thing you're expecting. I don't need to see your CV or anything, I just needed to make sure you were the right person before I showed you this.”

He pushed himself back to his feet with his cane, and walked stiffly over to the far wall, stopping at one of the small pictures that hung there.

“I'm sorry about the advert,” he said, “a necessary bit of subterfuge, but you see, one day you're going to be in a rather senior position here and I needed someone I knew I could trust with this. Of course, time being what it is, you're a little earlier in your career than I'd have liked, but needs must.”

“Please, Doctor Smith,” she sighed, “tell me what this is about. You're not making any sense.”

“This image,” he said, gesturing at the tiny, barely hand-sized painting, “exists for a particular purpose, and unfortunately, it's taken rather longer than I'd hoped to come to fruition.” He plucked the picture from the wall and held it out to Alex. An oval of canvas, depicting a bird – a pheasant, maybe, or something similar – painted in muddy, washed-out tones.

“I took on the role of Curator here as a form of semi-retirement,” continued the old man, smiling again, “but even I won't live forever. This old body's wearing a bit thin, and I find myself with the desire to get back out there and see the universe again. But I couldn't leave until I'd dealt with this one, last job.”

He crouched down, slowly, his knees cracking, and placed the picture face up on the white floor.

“Unfortunately, this is one item I can neither take with me nor leave with that UNIT lot.”

Alex wasn't looking at the Curator anymore. She was staring intently at the tiny picture of a bird. Even in its drab colours, it was somehow quite beautiful. The more she looked at it, the more remarkable it seemed to be. She shook her head, looking back at the old man as his cryptic words arranged themselves in her head.

“You went to all that trouble to get me here... me specifically... so I could look after this painting.”

“Exactly,” said the Curator, beaming. “One day you can hang it up in the main Gallery if you like, when you're in charge, but for now, just take it home with you. Well, when we're done here.”

“I can't do that!” she gasped, shocked. “That's the property of the museum!”

“No it's not, it's the property of me,” he replied, pointing to himself with a thumb. “And I'll be giving it to you in just a few moments.” He reached into his pocket again, and pulled out a box of matches.

“Doctor Smith,” said Alex, more confused than ever, “what are you doing? You're not going to -”

He struck a match and dropped it onto the little painting. Immediately, it went up in flames, burning hot and bright.

“Why the hell did you do that?” cried Alex.

The Curator's voice was barely a whisper.


The flames grew, impossibly so, shooting upwards, three, six, nine feet into the air, licking the ceiling of the Under Gallery. There was no way that the tiny painting could contain so much energy, and yet, it was still burning. Slowly, within the flames, an image was forming. A bird, its wings spread.

Finally, within the flames, it took shape, a beautiful creature, its feathers red and bronze and gold, its wings so wide they almost brushed the walls.

“It's amazing,” breathed Alex.

“Fantastic,” said the Curator. “Molto bene!

“Is it really... a phoenix?”

“The image of a phoenix becomes a phoenix,” he explained. “How else would such beings reproduce? And once it exists, it renews itself, again and again... as long as it's cared for. Many people have tried to use this remarkable creature for their own ends. I've looked after it for the last few centuries, and now it's your turn.”

The flames were growing hotter, bursting outwards as the phoenix flapped its mighty wings. The heat was becoming painful on Alex's skin. Her face itched.

“Are we safe here?” she asked.

“I may have made a slight miscalculation,” admitted the Curator. “It happens every century or so.”

“We need to get out!”

“No time!” The Curator, once more moving faster than a man of his age should, leapt between Alex and the phoenix. The flames lashed outwards, and she smelt the burning fibres of his jacket. He grit his teeth and hissed as the flames hit him.

And then, suddenly, it was over.

The Curator dropped to the floor. He leant on his hands, displaying his charred back for Alex to see. The flesh was blackened and blistered.

“Oh dear,” he said, quietly, “that was rather silly of me...”

“Come on,” said Alex, getting her hands under his arms, “we need to get you upstairs and call an ambulance.”

The Curator shook his head. “Leave me. This was bound to happen sooner or later. This just brought ahead a little. In fact, it might be just what I needed.” He scooped up the picture in his hand, passing it to Alex. “Here, take it.” She held it up – the image was now of a radiant, golden bird, full of life. She clasped it to her chest.

“Wait here. I'm getting help.”

She ran out of the room, looking back only briefly to make sure he wasn't trying to stop or follow her. She thought she saw the same golden flames around the old man for a second as she ducked out the room, but it can only have been an afterimage.

She stuffed the painting into her bag, still convinced she shouldn't have it, and ran through the winding corridors, retracing her steps as best she could, until finally she burst out of the door and back into the main Gallery.

It hadn't taken her long to get help. The young gent at the information point had got straight on the phone for an ambulance, and one of the security guards from earlier had accompanied her on the way back to the Under Gallery. When she got there, though, something was wrong. The door had changed somehow – there was no longer a lock. For a moment she thought she was in the wrong place, but she looked around at the paintings and was certain she was in the same spot. The guard opened the door for her, but beyond it, there was nothing more than a dusty, brick-lined corridor, leading to a fire exit.

Still no one had heard of an Under Gallery, and anyone she asked was certain there had never been another level accessible through that door. She didn't mention the painting in her bag.

It was a month later, and Alex almost fell through the door to her flat. Her first week as a very junior displays assistant at the Courtauld. They'd basically treated her as a skivvy, but it was a step on the ladder and she got to spend time with some amazing artwork.

She looked up at the glorious picture of the phoenix, now hanging on her living room wall, once again mesmerised by its beauty, even more so now that it had been restored to its prime. She still had no answers to what had happened the month before. She didn't know who the Curator was – and like hell his name was John Smith – nor how he'd known about her or where to place that advert. Why had her chosen her? Could it be possible that he really did know what she would do in the future? She supposed it was no more ludicrous than a man who'd spent hundreds of years looking after a magical painting, but still, it just seemed too much to accept. If only there had been some way to find him again, if just to make sure he was okay, but he'd vanished without a trace.

She stuck the kettle on and crashed onto the sofa. She had a job and the first week was done. She closed her eyes and tried not to fall straight to sleep.

God, that kettle was loud. Seriously going for it – a long, grinding, wheezing sort of noise.

She opened her eyes. What the hell was that? It was getting louder. She spun round on the sofa, looking over the headrest. A rectangular object was – well, the only word for it was materialising – right in front of her, on her threadbare carpet. It solidified, slowly, into a large, blue box, with the words “Police Public Call Box” embossed on the top. The noise stopped with a resounding clunk, and the box opened.

A young man popped his head round.

“Alex!” he said, flashing a bright, infectious smile. “It's me!”

“Who are you?” she said, peering nervously over the back of the sofa.

“That's right,” he said, “although I'd prefer it if you call me Curator, if it's all the same to you.” He paused, then shook his head. “Or maybe Doctor. Let's see how we go.”

This really was too much.

“You... you can't be the Curator...”

“The phoenix isn't the only one that renew itself,” said the excitable man. “You don't get to be as old as me without rejuvenating every so often. In fact, I've done it so many times now I've started to reuse some of my old bodies – just the old favourites, mind.”

“What do you want?”

“I wanted to say thank you. Turns out you were the perfect person for the job, and that picture looks very nice up there, by the way. And it's been a while since I took this old girl out for a spin, and she'll need a bit of bedding in, and I wondered if you'd like to maybe come with me? Just one quick trip somewhere, I'll have you back in time for Strictly.”

“A quick trip where?”

“Lady's choice,” said the young man, swinging open the doors to his box wider, inviting her in. she could see through to a room, far larger than could possibly fit into the box, its white walls lined with hexagonal tiles.

“What do you say? Geronimo!”

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