Behind the Scenes at the Museum

Behind the Scenes at the Museum

by Kate Atkinson

Paperback(First Edition)

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Overview

A deeply moving family story of happiness and heartbreak, Behind the Scenes at the Museum is bestselling author Kate Atkinson's award-winning literary debut.

National Bestseller

Winner of the Whitbread Book of the Year

Ruby Lennox begins narrating her life at the moment of conception, and from there takes us on a whirlwind tour of the twentieth century as seen through the eyes of an English girl determined to learn about her family and its secrets. Kate Atkinson's first novel is "a multigenerational tale of a spectacularly dysfunctional Yorkshire family and one of the funniest works of fiction to come out of Britain in years" (The New York Times Book Review).

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312150600
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 11/12/1999
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 60,643
Product dimensions: 5.65(w) x 8.26(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Kate Atkinson is the author of Behind the Scenes at the Museum, winner of the Whitbread Book of the Year, Human Croquet, Emotionally Weird, Not the End of the World, Case Histories, One Good Turn, and Life after Life. She lives in Edinburgh, UK.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

1951

Conception

I exist! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall. The clock once belonged to my great-grandmother (a woman called Alice) and its tired chime counts me into the world. I'm begun on the first stroke and finished on the last when my father rolls off my mother and is plunged into a dreamless sleep, thanks to the five pints of John Smith's Best Bitter he has drunk in the Punch Bowl with his friends, Walter and Bernard Belling. At the moment at which I moved from nothingness into being my mother was pretending to be asleep – as she often does at such moments. My father, however, is made of stern stuff and he didn't let that put him off.

My father's name is George and he is a good ten years older than my mother, who is now snoring into the next pillow. My mother's name is Berenice but everyone has always called her Bunty.

'Bunty' doesn't seem like a very grown-up name to me – would I be better off with a mother with a different name? A plain Jane, a maternal Mary? Or something romantic, something that doesn't sound quite so much like a girl's comic – an Aurora, a Camille? Too late now. Bunty's name will be 'Mummy' for a few years yet, of course, but after a while there won't be a single maternal noun (mummy, mum, mam, ma, mama, mom, marmee) that seems appropriate and I more or less give up calling her anything. Poor Bunty.

We live in a place called 'Above the Shop' which is not a strictly accurate description as both the kitchen and dining-room are on the same level as the Shop itself and the topography also includes the satellite area of the Back Yard. The Shop (a pet shop) is in one of the ancient streets that cower beneath the looming dominance of York Minster. In this street lived the first printers and the stained-glass craftsmen that filled the windows of the city with coloured light. The Ninth Legion Hispana that conquered the north marched up and down our street, the via praetoria of their great fort, before they disappeared into thin air. Guy Fawkes was born here, Dick Turpin was hung a few streets away and Robinson Crusoe, that other great hero, is also a native son of this city. Who is to say which of these is real and which a fiction?

These streets seethe with history; the building that our Shop occupies is centuries old and its walls tilt and its floors slope like a medieval funhouse. There has been a building on this spot since the Romans were here and needless to say it has its due portion of light-as-air occupants who wreathe themselves around the fixtures and fittings and linger mournfully at our backs. Our ghosts are particularly thick on the staircases, of which there are many. They have much to gossip about. You can hear them if you listen hard, the plash of water from Viking oars, the Harrogate Tally-Ho rattling over the cobblestones, the pat and shuffle of ancient feet at an Assembly Rooms' ball and the scratchscratch of the Reverend Sterne's quill.

As well as being a geographical location, 'Above the Shop' is also a self-contained, seething kingdom with its own primitive rules and two rival contenders for the crown – George and Bunty.

The conception has left Bunty feeling irritable, an emotion with which she's very comfortable, and only after much tossing and turning does she succumb to a restless, dream-laden sleep. Given free choice from the catalogue offered by the empire of dreams on her first night as my mother, Bunty has chosen dustbins.

In the dustbin dream, she's struggling to move two heavy dustbins around the Back Yard. Now and then a vicious tug of wind plasters her hair across her eyes and mouth. She is growing wary of one dustbin in particular; she suspects it's beginning to develop a personality – a personality uncannily like that of George.

Suddenly, as she heaves hard at one of the bins, she loses control of it and it falls with a crash of galvanized metal – CCRASH KERKLUNCK! – spewing its contents over the concrete surface of the yard. Debris, mostly from the Shop, is sprawled everywhere – empty sacks of Wilson's biscuit mix, flattened packets of Trill, tins of Kit-e-Kat and Chappie that have been neatly stuffed with potato peelings and egg shells, not to mention the mysterious newspaper parcels that look as if they might contain severed babies' limbs. Despite the mess, the dreaming Bunty experiences a flush of pleasure when she sees how tidy her rubbish looks. As she bends down and starts picking it all up she becomes aware of something moving behind her. Oh no! Without even turning round she knows that it's the George dustbin, grown into a lumbering giant and now towering over her, about to suck her into its grimy metallic depths ... Somehow, I can't help feeling that this dream doesn't augur well for my future. I want a mother who dreams different dreams. Dreams of clouds like ice-cream, rainbows like sugar-crystal candy, suns like golden chariots being driven across the sky ... still, never mind, it's the beginning of a new era. It's the 3rd of May and later on today the King will perform the opening ceremony for the Festival of Britain and outside the window, a dawn chorus is heralding my own arrival.

This garden bird fanfare is soon joined by the squawking of the Parrot down in the Pet Shop below and then – DRRRRRRRRRRRIINGG!!! The bedside alarm goes off and Bunty wakes with a little shriek, slapping down the button on the clock. She lies quite still for a minute, listening to the house. The Dome of Discovery will soon be echoing to the exultant cries of joyful English people looking forward to the future but in our home it's silent apart from the occasional chirrup and twitter of birdsong. Even our ghosts are asleep, curled up in the corners and stretched out along the curtain rails.

The silence is broken by George suddenly snorting in his sleep. The snort arouses a primitive part of his brain and he flings out an arm, pinioning Bunty to the bed, and starts exploring whatever bit of flesh he has chanced to land on (a rather uninspiring part of midriff, but one which houses my very own, my personal, Dome of Discovery). Bunty manages to wriggle out from under George's arm – she's already had to endure sex once in the last twelve hours (me!) – more than once in a day would be unnatural. She heads for the bathroom where the harsh overhead light ricochets off the black-and-white tiles and the chrome fittings and hits Bunty's morning skin in the mirror, making ghastly pools and shadows. One minute she looks like a skull, the next like her own mother. She can't make up her mind which is worse.

She cleans her teeth with some vigour to dispatch the taste of George's tobacco-fumed moustache and then – in order to keep up appearances (an important concept for Bunty, although she's not exactly sure who it is that she's keeping them up for) – she paints on a shapely ruby-red smile and grins at the mirror, her lips retracted, to check for mis-hit lipstick on her teeth. Her mirrored self grins ghoulishly back, but in Bunty's 35mm daydreams she's transformed into a Vivien Leigh-like figure pirouetting in front of a cheval mirror.

Now she's ready to face her first day as my mother. Downstairs, step by creaking step she goes (in daydreamland a great curving plantation staircase – Bunty, I am discovering, spends a lot of time in the alternative world of her daydreams). She's being very quiet because she doesn't want anyone else to wake up yet – especially Gillian. Gillian's very demanding. She's my sister. She's nearly three years old and she's going to be very surprised when she finds out about me.

Bunty makes herself a cup of tea in the kitchen at the back of the Shop, relishing her few moments of morning solitude. In a minute, she'll take George up a cup of tea in bed – not from altruistic motives but to keep him out of her way that bit longer. My poor mother's very disappointed by marriage, it's failed to change her life in any way, except by making it worse. If I listen in on her airwaves I can hear an endless monologue on the drudgery of domestic life – Why didn't anyone tell me what it would be like? The cooking! The cleaning! The work! I wish she would stop this and start daydreaming again but on and on she goes – And as for babies, well ... the broken nights, the power struggles ... the labour pains! She addresses the front right burner of the cooker directly, her head wobbling from side to side, rather like the Parrot in the shop beyond. At least that's all over with ... (Surprise!)

The kettle whistles and she pours the boiling water into a little brown teapot and leans idly against the cooker while she waits for it to brew, a small frown puckering her face as she tries to remember why on earth she married George in the first place.

George and Bunty met in 1944. He wasn't her first choice, that was Buck, an American sergeant (my grandmother had a similar struggle to get married during a war) but Buck had his foot blown off fooling around with a land mine ('Anything for a lark, these Yanks,' Bunty's brother Clifford remarked with distaste) and got shipped back home to Kansas. Bunty spent some considerable time waiting for Buck to write and invite her to share his life in Kansas but she never heard from him again. So George got the woman. In the end, Bunty decided that George with two feet might be a better bet than Buck with one, but now she's not so sure. (Buck and Bunty! What a wonderful-sounding couple they would have made – I can almost see them.)

If Buck had taken Bunty to Kansas think how different all our lives would have been! Especially mine. In 1945 George's father died by falling under a tram on a daytrip to Leeds and George took over the family business – Pets. He married Bunty, thinking that she'd be a big help in the shop (because she'd once worked in one), unaware that Bunty had no intention of working after her marriage. This conflict will run and run.

The tea's brewed. Bunty stirs the spoon round the insides of the little brown teapot and pours herself a cup. My first ever cup of tea. She sits down at the kitchen table and starts daydreaming again, moving beyond her disappointment over Kansas and her ham-tea wedding to George to a place where a flimsy veil moves in a summery breeze and behind the veil is Bunty dressed in gauzy white organza with an eighteen-inch waist and a different nose. The man at her side is unbelievably handsome, remarkably like Gary Cooper, while Bunty herself bears a passing resemblance to Celia Johnson. A huge cloud of orange-blossom threatens to engulf them as they clasp and kiss passionately – then suddenly, an unwelcome note of reality interrupts our reverie, somebody's pulling at Bunty's dressing-gown and whining in a not very pleasant fashion.

Here she is! Here's my sister! Climbing up on Bunty, all arms and soft legs and sweet bedtime smells, crawling her way up the Eiger of Bunty's body and pressing her sleepy face into Bunty's chilly neck. Bunty unclenches the little fists that have fastened on to her hair, and deposits Gillian back on the floor.

'Get down,' Bunty says grimly. 'Mummy's thinking.' (Although what Mummy's actually doing is wondering what it would be like if her entire family was wiped out and she could start again.) Poor Gillian!

Gillian refuses to be ignored for long – she's not that kind of child – and hardly have we had our first sip of tea before we have to attend to Gillian's needs. For breakfast, Bunty cooks porridge, makes toast and boils eggs. George can't stand porridge and likes bacon and sausage and fried bread but Bunty's stomach is a little queasy this morning (I'm privy to all kinds of inside information). 'So if he wants it he can get it himself,' she mutters, doling out a bowlful of (rather lumpy) porridge for Gillian. Then she fills a second bowl for herself – she thinks she might manage a bit of porridge – and then a third bowl. Who can that be for? Goldilocks? Not for me surely? No, indeed not – for here's a surprise – I have another sister! This is good news, even though she looks a little on the melancholic side. She's already washed and dressed in her school uniform and even her hair – cut in a straight, rather unbecoming bob – is brushed. She is just five years old and her name is Patricia. Her plain little face has a somewhat dismal air as she regards the porridge in her bowl. This is because she hates porridge. Gillian is gobbling hers down like the greedy duck in her Ladybird book The Greedy Duck. 'I don't like porridge,' Patricia ventures to Bunty. This is the first time she's tried this direct approach over the porridge, usually she just turns it over and over with a spoon until it's too late to eat it.

'Pardon me?' Bunty says, the words dropping like icicles on the linoleum of the kitchen floor (our mother's not really a morning person).

'I don't like porridge,' Patricia says, looking more doubtful now.

As fast as a snake, Bunty hisses back, 'Well I don't like children, so that's too bad for you, isn't it?' She's joking, of course. Isn't she?

And why do I have this strange feeling, as if my shadow's stitched to my back, almost as if there's someone else in here with me? Am I being haunted by my own embryonic ghost?

*
'Mind the shop, Bunt!' (Bunt? This is even worse.)

And then he's gone. Just like that! Bunty fumes to herself – He might at least ask. 'Would you mind, Bunty, minding the shop for me.' And of course I would mind, very much. But I'd still have to do it, wouldn't I? 'Mind' – why was it called 'minding'? What kind of a mind did you need for standing behind a shop counter?

Bunty doesn't like the promiscuity of behind-the-counter contact. She feels that she's not really selling dog food and kittens and the occasional budgerigar, but that she's selling herself. At least, she thinks, when she worked for Mr Simon ('Modelia – Ladies' Quality Fashions') it was sensible things they were selling, dresses and corsets and hats. What was sensible about a budgerigar? And, what's more, having to be polite to everyone all the time wasn't normal. (George, on the other hand, is born to it, chatting away, making the same remark about the weather twenty times in one morning, scraping and grovelling and smiling and then ripping off his mask as soon as he comes backstage. The children of shopkeepers – me and Chekhov, for example – are scarred by having witnessed their parents humiliate themselves in this distressing way.)

Bunty decides that she's going to have to say something to George, point out that she's a wife and mother, not a shop assistant. And another thing, where does he go all the time? He's always 'slipping out', off on mysterious errands. There are going to be some changes if Bunty has her way. She sits behind the counter clicking her number nine needles as if she's a tricoteuse at George's guillotine when she should be knitting my future – tiny little things, lacy shawls and matinée jackets with pink ribbons threaded through them. Magic red bootees to see me on my journey. The Shop Cat – a fat, brindled tabby that spends its days squatting malevolently on the counter – jumps up on her lap and she swiftly knocks it to the floor. Sometimes Bunty feels as if the whole world is trying to climb on her body.

'Shop!' George returns. The budgerigars rise up and flutter in their cages.

Shop! Why 'Shop!'? George and Bunty always say this when they come in at the Shop door – but it's supposed to be what the customer says, not the shopkeeper. Are they addressing the shop in the vocative case ('O Shop!') or naming it in the nominative? Reassuring it of its existence? Reassuring themselves of its existence? Pretending to be a customer? But why pretend to be the thing you hate? 'Shop!' I fear, like the thing it signifies, will remain an eternal, existential mystery.

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "Behind the Scenes at the Museum"
by .
Copyright © 1995 Kate Atkinson.
Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions

1. What do cupboards have to do with the story?

2. More than one reviewer compared Behind the Scenes at the Museum to Tristram Shandy and to the works of Marcel Proust and Charles Dickens. What might these novels have in common? How does Kate Atkinson update or expand upon the earlier books' use of narration and history?

3. One of Atkinson's innovations is her use of footnotes. Why do you think she adopted this non- fiction technique in a novel?

4. Although this novel is very much about a specific time and place, it has been embraced by audiences in twelve countries, in as many languages. What gives Behind the Scenes at the Museum such a universal appeal?

5. What is the meaning of the book's title?

6. What other fictional narrators does Ruby Lennox bring to mind?

7. What does Behind the Scenes at the Museum say about women's roles and opportunities in the family and in the world at large? What do the four generations of women in Ruby's family have in common?

8. Behind the Scenes at the Museum generated controversy in England when a critic called it "anti-family." How would you defend the book against this charge? What other novels, now considered classics, might have had to face this sort of accusation?

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