Authors: Colin Thompson
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How to Live Forever
ePub ISBN 9781742745527
Random House Australia Pty Ltd
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First published by Random House Australia 2004
Copyright Â© Colin Thompson 2004
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
National Library of Australia
How to live forever.
For upper primary school students.
ISBN 978 1 74051 914 4.
ISBN 1 74051 914 0.
1. Museums â Juvenile fiction. 2. Immortality â Juvenile fiction. I.Title.
Cover and internal illustration by Colin Thompson
Cover and internal design by Jobi Murphy
Deya, Mallorca, 1968
I was sitting on the terrace of Robert Graves' house
with his wife Beryl and she said:
âRemember this. One day this will be your good old days.'
I wish Beryl had been my mother.
It was raining when school finished, cold heavy rain from a dark winter sky that made the afternoon feel like night. It was only three o'clock but all the street lights had come on and the shop windows shone like bright paintings. The streets were almost deserted as everyone sheltered from the storm, while those who couldn't wait hurried from doorway to doorway covering their heads.
Peter ran through the rain, splashing in the puddles, soaked through, until there was really no point in running. He reached the museum railings and slowed to a walk, savouring the anticipation of going through the gates.
Across the grass, the museum looked solid and comforting, its walls of huge granite blocks fixed to the world like a great tree whose roots ran deep into the earth, standing as if it had been there forever. Peter turned in through the gates and felt, as he always did, that he had entered another world, a world where no matter how bad things were outside, he was now safe from harm. Outside, he felt like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle that had been put in the wrong box, but in the museum he felt protected.
Now, he was home.
âHi, Peter,' the gatekeeper called out to him. âHow was school?'
But Peter was already in another world and didn't hear him.
âAlways daydreaming,' said the man with a smile as he watched the skinny wet figure dance through the puddles between the cobblestones.
Peter climbed the steps and stood under the tall arches out of the rain. A crowd of miserable pigeons huddled together up on the tops of the columns and sparrows twittered anxiously, waiting for the storm to pass. A group of Japanese tourists shuffled down the steps under tidy umbrellas and boarded their brightly lit coach.
A pool of water collected round Peter's feet and he began to shiver. He was small for a ten year old
boy with little to keep out the cold, but being soaked through didn't dull his happiness. He reached up and put his hand flat against the stone column as he'd done a hundred times before. Even on this dark afternoon, the grey stone felt warm, like it was alive. He wanted to stretch both arms round the column, but there were people going past and he felt too self-conscious.
As he watched the visitors leave, he made a decision he'd been trying to make for months. Tonight, he would ask his mother exactly what had happened to his father. He had tried before, but her distress at the question had always stopped him going any further. This time he would make her tell him everything.
He pushed open the huge door and went inside. It was warmer there and the air was full of history, a soft embracing smell, ancient and timeless with a sweet touch of decay.
The doorman greeted Peter with a familiar wave as the boy hurried across the lobby towards the galleries.
Peter hardly glanced at the exhibits as he passed them, wonderful displays of antiquity whose age it was hard to imagine. He had seen them all before, and although he never tired of them, today he was too cold to stop.
In the fossil gallery a new exhibit in a glass case caught his eye. It was the skeleton of the giant bat
that, according to the information on the display, had lived two hundred million years ago in the mountains of Patagonia. High up under the ceiling there was a huge model of the creature in flight, the creation of an artist's imagination. It hung from the ceiling on thin wires like a glider about to soar off into the distant past. In the gloom its eyes shone like two bright yellow stars that seemed to follow Peter as he moved through the gallery.
Peter stopped beneath the model and looked up at it. He imagined himself on its back, clinging to its fur as they flew through the night to wild and wonderful places.
âHi, Peter,' said the gallery attendant. âHow was school? No, don't tell me â boring.'
âYes,' said Peter.
âFantastic creature, isn't it?' said the attendant.
Peter was so cold now that instead of lingering among the fossils like he usually did, he hurried up the stairs through the halls of porcelain Chinese horses. He would look at the bat another time. He went through the rooms of mummies and manuscripts until he was up on the top floor snug under the roof where the rooms were smaller and the
ceilings lower. He could hear the rain, heavier than ever, pounding on the roof above his head.
At the end of the corridor was a small room lined with glass cases full of old leather-bound books. The corridor seemed to be the only way in or out of the room, but Peter went over to one of the glass cases and opened it. The books behind the glass were false and the whole door opened into a small apartment that was Peter's home.
âIs that you, Peter?' said a voice from another room.
âYes, Grandad,' said Peter.
âDid you get wet? It's been thundering down all afternoon.'
âGo and change while I get the dinner in the oven and I'll make us a cup of tea,' said the old man, coming out of the kitchen.
Peter's grandfather looked like a picture book wizard. His hair was as white as paper over his ears and melted into a beard that reached down inside his shirt. But wizard or not, he was wearing an apron and had flour all over his hands. The old man was the caretaker of the museum, the person who collected everyone's keys and locked the outside gates and then the main doors every night to shut out the rest of the world and shut himself, Peter and Peter's
mother in, the three of them frozen in time and in step with the sleeping relics of the past. He also cooked the dinner while Peter's mother was at work downstairs in the museum office.
Peter walked over and put his arms round his grandfather. If the museum was the centre of Peter's world then the old man was the centre of the museum. Peter had no memory of his father. He had never even seen a single photograph. But no father could have been as wonderful as his grandfather. Until he had started school, Peter had thought that was how it was for all children. You had a mother and a grandfather, and that was it. At school he had discovered fathers and an empty space inside him that he had never known was there.
âLook at you,' said the old man, âyou're all covered in flour.'
But there was no hint of reprimand in his voice. His big hands had covered the boy in white snow and Peter had, in his turn, made the old man wet from the rain. Peter looked up into the old man's eyes and smiled. He was safe again, back in the security of his grandfather's kingdom.
It was warm inside the apartment and golden with the glow of a log fire. The rooms were crammed with everything under the sun, like a copy of the museum itself. And that wasn't surprising. Everything
in the place was from the museum â old furniture from great mansions that was too worn out or not special enough to put on display, stuffed animals that had lost feathers or fur, old pots and pans and a million bits and pieces that people had given to the museum in the belief that because they were old, the museum would want to display them in a glass case. Every night Peter and his grandfather and mother ate off porcelain plates with solid silver knives and forks. Even the old cat, Archimedes, ate from a crystal bowl. Peter's grandfather joked that one day their apartment would be made into a display and people would traipse through it watching them have their dinner.
Peter went into his room and changed out of his wet clothes. He sat in the middle of his bed, happy and safe. Outside the museum, he was just the shy little kid who didn't have a dad and never asked anyone home to visit, but here, in his room and in the apartment and in the museum, he was a prince. Although he was alone, Peter hardly ever felt lonely. He could lie back in his pillows with his arm round Archimedes and travel to faraway lands and fantastic places.
Two floors down, in her white office, Peter's mother sat at her computer. On its hard disks were catalogues of every single piece of the museum, from the great Egyptian marbles and the tiniest
bone from the smallest prehistoric shrew that had ever lived, to the dishcloth that Peter's grandfather washed up with, which had once graced the kitchen sink of Queen Victoria's third lady-in-waiting.
When Peter had changed and dried his hair, he sat by the fire with his grandfather and they talked over the day as they did every afternoon. Archimedes rubbed round Peter's legs, pleased to see him after a day sleeping on his bed. Archimedes' day was night and his empire the secret corners and corridors of the museum. No one knew how old he was, and not once in his long, long life had he ever ventured into the world outside the museum.
âDid you see the bat?' said the old man.
âOh yes, it looks great,' said Peter. âI was too cold to have a good look but it's amazing.'
âYou know, Professor Rottnest made the model from my drawing?' said the old man.
âWow,' said Peter. âHow can you tell what something looks like from bits of a skeleton?'
âOh, there are ways â¦' Then changing the subject he said, âHow was school?'
âSame as usual,' said Peter.
âBoring!' the two of them laughed in unison.
âI suppose living here doesn't help,' said his grandfather, putting his arms round Peter. âMost people live with the street in front and maybe a bit of garden out
the back. How many people live in the middle of the biggest museum in the world with all this wonderful stuff around them? I suppose school would seem pretty boring next to that.'
âStill, it's the holidays now,' said the old man. âYou can spend all day in the museum.'
Peter had no special friends at school. He had Archimedes and his mother and grandfather. What more could he want? At school, he felt like he was watching everyone through a window rather than actually being there in the room with them. He also felt that there was no one at school he would want to bring back to the museum for a sleepover. It would spoil the magic.
âGrandfather,' he said, âI want to know about my dad.'
He felt unsure asking the old man about his son.
âThere isn't much to say. He went out one night and we never saw him again.'
âI know that,' said Peter, âbut you and Mum won't talk about it.'
âWell, you know how upset she gets.'
âI know,' said Peter, âbut it's not fair. I want to know what happened.'
Peter's grandfather mumbled something about the dinner and went back into the kitchen.
âI'm going to ask her tonight,' Peter called after him.
His grandfather didn't reply and Peter went back down to the fossil gallery to have another look at the giant bat.
Ever since he had been a tiny child just able to walk, Peter had spent his spare time exploring the museum, not just the places the visitors saw every day, but all the thousands of hidden places and forgotten storerooms. He liked it best when there was no one else there, either early in the morning when only the cleaners moved silently from gallery to gallery, or at night after everyone had left. Long summer evenings were the very best, when it stayed light until late and the drawn-out evening shadows added a sweet enchantment to the air. The city, across the yard, over the high walls and railings, seemed a million miles away, the hum of its traffic faint like the breathing of a sleeping animal.
When everyone was asleep, Peter would take his grandfather's pass key from its hook by the door and go exploring. He and Archimedes would travel from room to room, sometimes together, sometimes each on their own different journey.
Midsummer evenings on clear moonlit nights in the still silence of the great galleries were the most peaceful time in the world, and as he had grown up,
he imagined coming round a corner on one such night and finding his father.
Sometimes Archimedes would wander off down an unused corridor and Peter would tiptoe after him. There would seem to be nowhere to go, but when Peter turned the corner Archimedes would have vanished. The old cat could be away for days, but when Peter asked his grandfather about it, the old man would be vague and unconcerned.
âHe's all right,' he would say. âHe knows this place better than anyone. He has things of his own to see to, cat things. He'll be back.'
And of course he always was. Peter would be fast asleep in bed and suddenly there would be a soft bump and Archimedes would be there, rubbing his forehead against Peter's hair and purring so loudly that Peter, still half asleep, imagined the cat was trying to tell him something.
âI wish I could understand,' he would say. âI want to know where you've been.'
Archimedes would curl up beside him on the pillow and the two friends would fall asleep. In the winter, the cat would crawl under the covers, right down to Peter's feet.
There were secrets in the museum, things half seen out of the corner of the eye, sudden movements, lights and muffled noises, especially at night.
They always seemed just out of reach, as if they were calling through fog, something lost or trapped that was trying to make contact. Peter was sure that Archimedes knew the secrets but, of course, there was no way the cat could tell him. Nor was Peter sure he wanted to. Cats were secretive creatures who kept things to themselves.