Signature smear

by Jenny

Alan had started at the museum a full two days before Steve, just a week after his seventeenth birthday. He’d been handed three pairs of crisp new overalls in deep navy and a gleaming cart that he had cared for as if it was a prize racehorse. He introduced himself proudly to Steve as the museum’s handyman and cleaner.

Steve had smiled and shaken his hand, shown him the enormous bundle of shiny keys at his belt and accepted a cup of strong coffee from Alan’s new green thermos.

Down the decades the pair had watched museum exhibits come and go, while they remained, a comforting fixture and reminder of the old days.

Now the overalls were more grey than navy, much patched and darned at the elbows. The cart had a squeaky wheel and a dodgy brake and a tendency to veer left if given its head and Steve’s keys had long been replaced with a single, lonely fob.

The green thermos was still going strong. At 4.30, as the museum closed its doors for the day, they would meet at the turtle skeletons in the natural history section and Alan produce two stainless steel mugs - red for Steve, blue for himself - and pour them both a cup of hot, black coffee.

“Decent day Steve?”

“Not bad, aye. Yourself?”

“Can’t complain.”

And, after all, what else was there to say? Their silence warmed the drafty halls as much as the coffee did.

Wednesday was Steve’s day off and Sundays were Alan’s and those days never felt quite right for either of them, though neither would be able to put a finger on exactly why.

On Sundays Steve would go visit the turtles anyway. He found their little skeletons fascinating and would press his face against the glass to get a better look at them. But before he left he would always take care to wipe away any marks with the hanky in his pocket, so he didn’t make extra work for his friend

And on Mondays Alan would smile, take out his bottle of glass cleaner and a special glass cloth patiently wipe Steve’s signature smear away and never let on that he’d seen it at all.

Then, one Monday, Alan arrived for work and, as usual, went straight to the turtle skeletons,the necessary bottle to hand, only to find the glass perfectly clean. Frowning, he hurried back to the front desk, but instead of Steve’s comfortable frame leaning back in the sagging chair he saw a thin young woman who stood up briskly.

Her face was serious when she told him, but her voice was impatient. It had been sudden, she’d said, nothing anyone could have done and she hoped it wouldn’t have too much impact on Alan’s work. And she was gone.

Alan walked back to the turtles and stared at the unnaturally clean glass like it was an affront. Slowly he pressed his face into its surface fogging it with the heat of his breath and staring in at the little skeletons.

Then Alan took out his own spotlessly clean handkerchief and wiped the glass once, leaving Steve’s signature smear one last time.