Jan Carson

The British Museum of Forgotten British Things

by Jan Carson

“Do you accept babies?” he asks hoisting a bulging duffle bag on to the reception desk. He’s wearing a tracksuit and some kind of inflatable orange jacket.

“Depends,” I say slowly. I can still taste the acidic remains of last night’s breakfast, gluing my back teeth to my front. “Was the baby abandoned or forgotten?”

“Dunno. What’s the difference anyway?”

“Sir, let me assure you there is a world of difference between abandoned and forgotten. Abandoned always implies intent and we here, at The British Museum of Forgotten British Things, have no interest in intent. Forgotten articles reveal so much more about the owners, don’t you think? Now, was the baby in question abandoned or forgotten?”

I click the top of my pen, implying urgency and paperwork pending. It’s a lie. We don’t keep any records here. Records reek of intentionalism and we are all about forgetting things.

“Never mind,” the man says, “I’ll try next door at the National Portrait Gallery.”

He grabs his duffle bag sharply. Already emitting a dull, low-pitched whine, the duffle bag cranks it up a notch, bleating openly like a transistor radio. I’m not about to argue with the man. There have been nine babies already this week.

It’s only to be expected. Good weather seems to bring the babies crawling out of the woodwork. We kept three of the nine; only the genuinely forgotten of course. (Two off the Underground and one left behind in the First Floor changing rooms at Debenhams). By now we can tell the difference between an abandoned baby and a genuinely forgotten one. The forgotten babies rarely come with blankets or extra nappies.

The babies are stored in purpose built filing cabinets at the back of the Museum. We file babies between television sets and sheep, and directly opposite carrier bags.

So far this has proven to be an excellent system.

Babies like television and sheep do not give a damn about babies. Carrier bags seem to hold no worthwhile opinion on the subject and thus the entire lower, left quadrant of the museum continues to drift companionably towards the next millennium.

No one has come looking for any of this week’s babies. This strikes me as odd. Odd enough to justify checking the museum’s answering machine six hours earlier than usual.

“Brip,” it creaks, “Brip, brip, brip, you’ve reached the British Museum of Forgotten British Things. For opening hours please check behind the sofa. Currently accepting bicycles, cheeses, (both local and foreign), men’s shoes, magazines, cutlery and library cards. No longer accepting empty food containers of any kind. Always partial to a timely livestock donation, infants and the elderly. No members of staff currently available. Please leave a message after the tone. Brip, brip, brip.”

The answering machine is uncharacteristically empty. No anxious parents, no police officers, wrong numbers or even the obligatory Monday morning rant from the British Museum proper, demanding- as they have demanded every Monday morning for the last two decades- to have their stapler returned asap, not to mention that early Picasso print. (“It’s your own fault,” we explain endlessly, sighing to emphasis the fact that this conversation has been twenty three years in the telephone wires. “You forgot to bring it inside, so it belongs to us now.”)

It strikes me as odd, and somewhat unsettling, that no-one has called in regards to this week’s babies. Normally we get to keep babies a day at the very most. The British public, it seems, are much better at remembering babies than bicycles, cellular phones or any of the half empty crisp packets we’ve been blessed with over the last two hundred years.

Down in the lower, left quadrant of the museum, the current batch of research students- bored to the back teeth with weighing Wellington boots and measuring the land speed velocity of tea bags- are having a grand old time with the forgotten babies.

“Good golly,” a particularly exuberant student cries, as he compares the eyelash length of this morning’s babies, “you can tell so much about the British people from the things they leave behind.” This student, though American by birth, speaks in a plummy, English accent, developed during a pubescent infatuation with Mary Poppins.

“Damn right, you can,” replies the second, using a shoelace to measure the space between the other two babies. He holds the shoelace up to the light. “Look at this Student A. I’d estimate it’s a good six inches at least. You know what that means? The people who forgot these babies are more than likely capable of skimming a stone up to seventeen skips in one toss.”

“No kidding, Student B, you are more than certainly right. And, look at the small freckle on the heel of this baby. I’d speculate that the woman who forgot him, enjoys a custard cream with her morning coffee; and his hair, parted unevenly to the right, smarts of cosmetic dental work.”

“Student A, you have excelled yourself this time. I would never have spotted the thing with the hair, and though I hesitate to patronize you, and am more than sure you’ve already noted the rather obvious scar on the right elbow, may I be the first to state the obvious when I suggest that the man who forgot this baby, is quite rightly voting Labour in the next general election.”

All over the British Museum of Forgotten British Things, similar incidences of important research are taking place. In quiet corners, with empty notebooks, research students from foreign countries are poking, prodding and estimating the volume of forgotten things, trying, as many before have tried, to concisely define the British temperament.

Unbeknown to most regular Britains, the British Museum of Forgotten British Things had been an integral and defining facet of British science, religion, politics and package holidays for the last two centuries. Each year the museum accepts only the top five graduate students from the top five schools in the top five foreign countries, as voted by the hosts of a certain, popular British talk show. (Consequently, no Spaniard has set foot inside the museum during its illustrious two hundred year history).

The Museum’s mission remains staunchly unchanged from decade to decade.

“Gentlemen,” every fresh student is forced to read, as it appears in regal, red lettering on the first page of their welcome packs, “you are here for one reason only, to observe and define the British temperament as exhibited in the detritus of daily British life. At the end of the year you will return to your foreign home, fully equipped with all the information necessary to represent Great Britain and her citizens in honest, scientific and literate detail.”

Each research student, before beginning their studies, is required to sign an official waiver declaring themselves to be sound in mind and body, to be capable of appreciating at least 10% of all humorous British anecdotes and, to have no affiliations political, sentimental or otherwise with Guy Fawkes. (It is a somewhat outdated waiver, based loosely on the Magna Carta, and covers all imaginable grounds for litigation, including earthquakes, Armageddon and the unlikely possibility of reincarnation).

Over the two centuries of the Museum’s existence a great deal has been discovered about the nature of the British temperament. Unfortunately, each fresh batch of research students is forced to begin at the point of ignorance as they retrace the previous year’s steps, eternally scuppered by the Museum’s strict, “No records,” policy. As this important research continues unquestioned in all four corners of the British Museum of Forgotten Things, I do my bit, manning the reception desk. At precisely eleven fifteen the main door flies open for the second time this morning, revealing the same man with his duffle bag.

“Do you accept bags?” he asks hoisting the duffle bag on to the reception desk. (He’s still wearing the tracksuit but has managed to lose the inflatable jacket.”)

“Umm, yes,” I say, a little confused, “we do accept forgotten bags. But, does it have a baby in it? I think you already know our policy on babies, Sir.”

“Why would it have a baby in it?”

“Because it had a baby in it five minutes ago!”

“No it didn’t.”

“Yes, it did. I’m no idiot Sir, I heard the baby crying inside the bag. It sounded like a transistor radio going off.”

“…It was a transistor radio… That’s exactly right. It was a transistor radio in a duffle bag. I was taking it to visit my sister in Camden.”

“Bullshit,” I say, losing my temper. I have been trained not to lose my temper even in the most trying situations, but the man and his tracksuit are beginning to give me a migraine. “I was not born yesterday. There was definitely a baby in that duffle bag five minutes ago.”

“Check for yourself,” the man says, sliding his duffle bag across the reception desk, “you’ll see I’m right. There’s nothing in there but a bad smell and my sister’s transistor radio.”

I open the bag carefully in one long, zippered drag. Just as I’d suspected there’s a three month old baby inside.

“Sir,” I say, having regained my ice, cold professionalism, “there is a baby inside this bag.”

“No way. Let me see.” He stands on his tiptoes to peer into the bag. “You’re right guv’nor that’s definitely a baby in there.”

“How did this baby get into the bag?”

“I forget.”

The British Museum of Forgotten British Things is forced to accept its fourth baby of the week.

The man insists on keeping his duffle bag. “It’s of sentimental value,” he claims, “Smells exactly like my Gran’s hotpress before she died.”

In the lower left quadrant of the building two fresh-faced research students prepare to estimate the pH factor of this new baby’s right knee. Eventually they will plump for more than averagely acidic; a clear indication that the person responsible for forgetting this baby was wearing a track suit at the time.

Jan Carson is a writer and community arts development officer currently based in Belfast, Northern Ireland. She has a BA in English Literature from Queen’s University Belfast and an MLitt. In Theology and Contemporary Culture from St. Andrew’s University, Scotland. She has previously lived and worked in Oregon, Colorado and London. Jan has had several short stories published in literary journals on both sides of the Atlantic and has recently read her work at the Irish Writers’ Centre in Dublin. She also has experience in screenplay writing and writing for radio and theatre. Her first novel, “Malcolm Orange Disappears” is due for publication in Spring 2014 with Liberties Press, Dublin.