The Care and Conservation of Unusual Properties

(1) An Isolated Tower Raised by Spirits of the Air for Merriman the Red

Thank you all for volunteering to help out with the annual cleaning of Merriman’s library. There are over four thousand volumes in here and last year we only managed to get through two thousand, seven hundred and fifty-one of them, so we’ll be starting from Press F, Shelf 3. That’s the slightly charred bookcase guarded by long-eared imps, but don’t worry about them, I’ll just lure them into this travel carrier here…

That’s funny, a fried mouse normally does the trick. Well, never mind, I was going to tell you a bit about magical book conservation anyway, so we’ll start with that.

When we’re cleaning books, we don’t talk about ‘covers’ or ‘pages’. Instead, this is the ‘front board’ and this is the ‘back board’ and this is the ‘portal into a hellish nether dimension’. Haha, just my little joke! But seriously, it’s all right to glance at the odd page when you open a book to dust it off, but don’t try to read anything aloud. That reminds me, do any of you know David? He’s normally in on Mondays. Elaine’s putting a card together if you want to sign it. Try to keep it light. His wife says he looks practically human again already.

If you come over here, I’ll show you how to take books off the shelves. Best practice is to slide them out from behind like this, if possible–as you can see, a lot of these books have delicate spines, and just grabbing them off the shelf will only make that worse. Often it isn’t possible and then you have to ease them out gently. Look, I’ll start with this grimoire. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? I’d say the binding was human skin, but you’d have to get it tested to know for sure.

The yellow brush is for cleaning the outside of the books and the red brush is for the inside. You flick it outwards, like this. Will, would you start getting the other books while I finish this?

What? Oh no. Okay, everyone stay exactly where you are. Will, I need you to take a closer look at that shelf. This is very important. Try to hold your breath. Is the mould white or blue?

Yes, I know it’s hard to tell. Be very careful. We don’t want to disturb it. How do you feel? Any… odd sensations? Inexplicable goosebumps? The creeping suspicion someone may be standing right behind you? A gaunt, hooded figure in scarlet robes, perhaps? Are his fingers skeletal as he slowly reaches out–

Oh, thank goodness. All right, everyone, you can breathe again. If you all put these masks on, I’ll go and get the brushes for ordinary mould.

(2) A Hut Standing on Chicken Legs Deep in the Forest

Actually, I don’t know why it’s called a ‘break front wardrobe’. I think it might be because it comes forwards at the front like this. There’s a ‘break front cabinet’ like it behind the giant pestle and mortar over there, so I think that might be it, but I’m just guessing. I don’t know for sure.

Anyway, we’re labelling the linen today. It’s part of the grand project to make sure everything in the hut is inventory marked, which you probably know has to be done for our Museum Accreditation. We’ll start with this pile here. Let’s ease it out onto the tissue paper. If we unfold the first thing… I’d say a linen pillowcase, drawn thread work, monogrammed ‘БЯ’. The complete list of textiles is over there–I printed it out earlier. Can you see anything it could be?

Yes, 545133.6 sounds about right. Do you want to write out the booktape label? Check the alphabet guide–they’re very strict about how they want you to label things. You can stitch it into the hem here. Try not to catch more than a couple of threads with your needle. The whole point is to be able to take the label out again without doing any damage.

Ignore those disembodied floating hands, they belonged to the previous owner. Better not ask. Really, it’s much better not to ask.

I’ll take notes for the condition report. ‘Badly stained, possibly blood, has been patched and darned at some point’. I’ll put it on the computer later.

What else have we got? A couple of linen sheets donated by a Ms. Vasilisa… a day cover with scalloped edges… there’s that monogram again… more pillowcases… a set of black, white and red handkerchiefs… the enchantment is fading quite badly here, if you look… no, I shouldn’t think any of this will ever go on display. Where would we put it?

Of course we can’t get rid of it. Museum Accreditation, you know.

(3) Bone-Filled Catacombs Inhabited by a Shadowy and Mysterious Priesthood

Let me introduce you to our tomb guides. They’re all volunteers, so we have to be very nice to them, don’t we, Peter? Aww, you know we’re lovely really! Before I forget, does anyone still need to complete the Volunteer Survey? There are forms in the kitchen or you should all have got a link with this month’s newsletter. You are all getting the newsletter, aren’t you? Do have a word with Elaine if you’re not.

This is Jackie. Say “Urrrrrgh”, Jackie! Jackie’s our oldest volunteer. According to the notes the last housekeeper left me, she’s been here for almost thirty years. The next oldest is Dorothy, who we normally put in the South Catacomb. Have you met Dorothy yet?

Oh dear. Tim, one of Jackie’s teeth went under your chair. Could you?

Maybe you could help me get Jackie into her box in the Tomb of San Domitilla. Come on, Jackie, it’s time to open up. The visitors will be down soon. If you could hold her other arm… yes, I know she smells a bit, but she really is very well preserved. I’ll take you up to see the cave where we keep the volunteers’ internal organs later, if you want.

Sorry? Oh no, they started using zombie tomb guides long before I came here. There was a shortage of volunteers, I gather, due to one thing or another, but especially because most of the volunteers were retired people, so nature rather took its toll. Then some bright spark realised there was no need for people to stop volunteering just because they were dead. Besides, it saves on tea and cake.

Well, yes, we do get the occasional complaint, but most people appreciate the wealth of knowledge and experience our posthumous volunteers bring to the role. The feedback generally is very good. We’re actually thinking of rolling the scheme out across the Unusual Properties Trust. The other thing we do here is that our prehumous volunteers are all electronically tagged and barcoded, which does put people off volunteering a bit, but our retention rate is so high now it doesn’t really matter.

Remind me, did I get you to sign a donation form when you started here? ‘Leave Something More Valuable Than Money’?

No, you’d remember signing in blood. I’ll get you another one, shall I?

(4) An Extremely Small Cottage in the Woods

I still can’t believe someone put the vitrine on the system. Andrea got it out of the skip. The whole point was we could throw it out if we didn’t need it any more. Now it’s got a number, so we’re stuck with it.

Anyway, we’re not going to open it up. Just go over the outside with your blue and white cloth. You can huff on the glass if you find any fingerprints or bits of fly poo. Like here, look, where it’s gone all smeary.

No, you wouldn’t think dust should be able to get inside, would you? Her hair’s really bad. You can’t see it so much on her skin, oh, except her mouth, I suppose. Never mind, we’ll open it up and dust her off during the winter deep clean.

I know, she is pretty creepy. I try not to look at her most of the time, to be honest. She’s only here on loan, though, and Kate says the Royal Collection Trust has finally remembered she exists and wants her back sometime in the spring. Bit of a pity, really. She’s the only really good piece we’ve got and she’s been here for so long. Still, she’ll have a proper display at the palace. We don’t have anywhere to put her except this dark corner. I don’t think most of the visitors really notice her here.

They’ll probably want to put her in their own vitrine. What are we going to do with this rubbishy thing once she’s gone?

(5) A Subterranean Labyrinth Excavated by Gnoles for the Draco Sanguinis Family

Today we’re going to be dusting, so if you could get a fluffy and two dusters from the cupboard… that’s great. I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but I don’t know what you’ve already been told about this, so I’m just going to go through everything we do here, all right? I’ve already done most of the panelling with a fluffy–you know to check the overhead lamps for spiderwebs, don’t you? Good.

We don’t always dust everything, because there isn’t always time, but with four of us today we can do things like those jewelled goblets and the sword Rorate Draco Sanguinis kept to remember the first knight he ever defeated. It was Rorate’s granddaughter who turned this place over to the Trust back in the eighties. She lived in the caves where the new offices are until last year. Now, I know the girls don’t always carry two dusters, but I have a white one for wood and a blue and white for metal and glass, because that’s what I was taught. It prevents cross-contamination. When we do the deep clean in the winter, we get out different brushes for everything. So many brushes! Don’t touch metal without using a duster if you can help it, but if you can’t, the important thing is not to use the pads of your fingers, because it’s the fingerprints that show up.

What? Oh, that’s just a mummified rat. Or maybe it’s a rabbit? Actually, from the shape of the skull, I’d have to go with rabbit. Look, if you scrape back the cobwebs, you can see… oh, don’t you? None of us like spiders much, either. They get pretty big down here. Just kick the bones into the middle of the Treasury and Sara will pick it up when she comes round with the vacuum cleaner.

I like to do the “knight test” when I’ve got time. You can’t always see everything when you’re going round, but if you stand on tiptoes here you can see what the knights see when they crawl down the secret tunnel. There, look. Could you reset the trap by the hearth?

I’ll do the passage next and you do the Trophy Cave and we’ll meet up in the Smoking Cave. The only thing that takes time in the Trophy Cave is cleaning fingerprints off the armour. Use your blue and white for that. Be careful cleaning the display case. I think it’s one of Norman’s jobs. He was here–oh, before I started here, he made another case upstairs. I think the glass is held in by brackets. I’m always worried it might fall out if you push it too hard.

This is the Smoking Cave. It’s where the family used to hang up game to smoke it for later. By the ankles, as you can see. Oh no, it’s real. It’s Sir Walter Caverleigh, whose helmet is above the door in the Trophy Room. There was a debate when the Trust took over this place as to whether we should leave him there, but it was the wishes of the family that as little should be changed as possible and in the end it was agreed it was probably what Sir Walter would have wanted. After all, all the other heads are still up on the walls. There’s an email printout stating the Trust’s position in the volunteers’ break room, if you want to see it.

The door marked ‘PRIVATE’ with all the bolts? That leads down to where Gloria Draco Sanguinis went into hibernation late last year. I don’t know a lot about dragons, so I don’t know if she’s expected to wake up again. But do be careful not to touch that gong–

Yes, that one.

Well, now you’ve done it.

© Julia August. First published in On Spec in 2019.

2 thoughts on “The Care and Conservation of Unusual Properties

  1. Beth Gray

    Hello Juliea, it’s Beth, who emailed you about this story. LOVED it and will be looking up the intertexts for hours. Cheers! ;-D

    1. Hi Beth, I’m really glad to hear that. Thanks so much! Not least for giving me the push to finally upload the story here and do some other housekeeping around the place. Have a great day!

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