An Albino Raven in the Museum of Soviet Values

Оповідь українською

Inspired by real events

Story by Marichka Melnyk

Illustrated by Iryna Lysenko

“Oh, that’s probably for us!”

Having heard the metallic jingle of keys echoing from the first floor, two senior ladies struggled to stand, pushing themselves up from where they had been sitting on the stairs gossiping. I didn’t quite catch what they had been talking about, but they were always discussing something pedestrian; the garden that waited for them at the dacha; their horrible daughters-in-law that were ruining the lives of their dearest sons. And their tiny pensions, which forced them to keep working, even in their golden age, etcetera, etcetera.

They got up quite slowly, one – leaning against the two-hundred-year-old museum wall, the other – pushing herself up with rough, worn-out arms using the handle of her mop.

A moment later I came into view, emerging from the semi-darkness of the ancient vestibule.

My watch said it was six minutes to eight, my fitness bracelet had recorded a total of two thousand six hundred forty-seven steps.

Quickly slipping out of my coat, I hung it on the rack in the cloakroom, and deposited the flat-white I had purchased on my way to work on the counter nearby. I nimbly sprung up the last few stairs, hurrying to open the exhibit hall for its morning cleaning.

Two thousand six hundred forty-eight…forty-nine…fifty… My footfalls were silent, the sound muffled by the plush dark green carpet that guided me up to the second floor of the museum.

“You’re working today? I thought it was Maryna from Archives, and here I was all relaxed, and thought we could take it easy today.” One of the cleaning ladies, Nina, recognized me in the dim light softly penetrating the stained-glass window which had illuminated my path up the stairs.

“Yes, Nina, it’s me. Good morning! Good morning, Svitlana!” I ascended the last few stairs and made my way toward the entrance into the museum exhibition hall, trying to avoid the cleaning supplies randomly scattered on the floor. For someone watching my acrobatics, it probably looked like I was winding my way through an obstacle course.

If at that moment a thief burst into the museum searching for some ancient and extremely valuable treasure, according to every movie ever made, here is where he would encounter the first line of defense. The unfortunate robber would trip on the broom, knocking over the buckets as he fell backwards, spilling the water down the stairs, slipping on it as he tried to climb back up the last few stairs while trying to avoid the overturned buckets that had started rolling down the stairs causing a loud racket. To top it off, as he scrambled to stand up at the top of the stairs, he would step on the flat end of a mop, the handle would come up and smack him in the face, giving him a black eye…

I smiled to myself at my imagined scene but was yanked back to reality when I heard Nina speaking.

“This one’s always on time, even though she lives farther away than the others,” pushing a few wayward locks of her hair back under her scarf. Nina directed the remarks to her colleague Sveta, who by this time was silently getting to work, bent over one of the buckets. “I just can’t remember where she comes from… Where do you live, child?”

“In Brovary,” I said, running my hands along the smooth wall, searching for the light switch. I wound up having to use the flashlight on my phone to find the appropriate switches. Click, click, click – and voila! Almost like Prometheus, I granted fire or, uh, light to humanity. Light, which the cleaning ladies could have easily turned on themselves, but for some reason chose to sit in the dark, waiting for someone else to do it for them.

“Yeah, I remember now. You’re not from Kyiv. The ones from Kyiv take their own sweet time getting to work. And then it’s a miracle if you can get the cleaning done before the museum opens,” Nina fumed.

By this time both women were swishing their mops around the water in their buckets.

“And today’s going to be a pretty rough day. Today everyone gets into the museum for free, right?” Sveta joined in on the small talk. Not waiting for a reply, she sighed in relief.

“Thank God I don’t have to work all day…”

One day every month all the museums have a sort of open house, when the entry fee is waived. That day the museum has seven, eight, even nine times as many visitors as on a regular day. For that one special day you hear the heavenly savior praised over and over again. “Thank God I am not the cleaning woman on the day shift today.” “Thank God I am not manning the security post today.” “Thank God I switched out my shift with another fire safety officer.” “Hallelujah, I have a sore throat and won’t have to deal with the unending conveyer belt of visitors.” After working at the museum for six months I discovered that I work with people who are always first in line to receive a bonus, but last in line to actually do their jobs.

This was particularly evident when searching for someone to volunteer to be the “administrator-of-the-day” during the open house. Magically, the administrator position has always remained vacant and so, other museum staff had to take turns performing the job. The hunt for a volunteer resembled the game of musical chairs we all loved to play in kindergarten. When the music started, we would run around chairs laid out in a circle in the middle of the room. As soon as the music stopped, the kids would scurry and stumble to claim one of the chairs. But there was always one kid left standing.

In contrast to my fellow kindergarteners, who gave it their all to find a seat and win the game, none of my museum colleagues, and there were about 50 other historical researchers who worked here, wanted to sit in the chair of the administrator-of-the-day. I stood out like an albino raven among the other crows, the only one who cawed agreed, “Okay, I’ll do it.

“She’s batshit crazy!”  The others whispered behind my back.

And that’s the job I was doing today alongside Nina and Sveta.

Both cleaning women had already soaped up their mops and were waiting for me, the girl whose name they couldn’t even remember, to choose the right key to open the doors to the museum. I found the key, inserted it into the lock, sharply drew in a breath, holding it in for a moment…

You see, to unlock the door on the first try was a tremendous stroke of luck. Almost like winning the lottery. Everyone in the museum knew about the tricky lock, and each one of them shared that information with the next person on duty, hoping that someday the lock would be fixed. But this was all for naught.

Days, weeks, a month, six weeks go by – and the same administrator-of-the-day once again stood in front of the same door facing down the same busted tricky lock. Once again wishing for good luck. Because if your luck runs out – you are screwed. This door opens the entire museum, leading the way into the exhibition halls laid out one after another in a big loop. If this door isn’t opened, there is no way to open the remaining 15 doors hidden on the other side. The longer you struggled with the lock, the less time there was to clean the place before the first visitors arrived. In other words, this was a disaster in the making…

“Maybe the tricky lock is there for a reason? Part of the anti-theft system that acts in concert with the buckets and mops?” I thought to myself.

“Yesterday Karinochka had to ask the security guard to help her unlock the door. Today Vadim’s on duty. He’s never any help.” Nina piped up.

The women stood, shifting from one foot to the other, talking to each other as if I wasn’t there.

“Yeah, that one won’t pick his ass up off his chair for anything,” her partner agreed, glancing at me over her shoulder.

“If anything, maybe she could ask the fire safety officer for help.”

“Don’t jinx it. Maybe she won’t need any help…. Maybe she’s got the magic touch.”

Ignoring the verbal ping-pong behind my back, I inhaled like a diver, rotated the key – click, click – turned the doorknob and triumphantly pushed the door open. “Whoosh!” I let out my breath and stepped across the threshold.

There is something elusive, a magical feeling in meandering through an empty museum in the morning before the crowds of visitors invade the space. You get to open all the doors, turn on the lights and throw open the curtains on the windows. Then, you get to check to see that all the exhibit pieces are in place, and that’s when you pause for a few seconds in front of your favorite painting, the portrait of a beautiful stranger in a dark blue dress with a sheer golden wrap draped around her shoulders, mentally wishing her “Good morning, beloved” and then you move on to the next hall. The old parquet floor creaks beneath your feet and every step echoes back at you in the empty hall. For a brief few moments you are one-on-one with history, waking it from its slumber. Slowly, quietly, and gently, like your mother used to wake you up for kindergarten and later for school.

“Antoniiiiina!” I was already running down the stairs when the silence was pierced by the coarse voice of the security guard calling my name from the first floor. My father would use the same tone of voice when he wanted to talk to me about a bad grade for conduct from the homeroom teacher on my report card.

“Why is this happening to me? Of the four policemen who take shifts as security guards at the museum, how did I end up getting this one? It can’t get any worse than this …”  These thoughts were rolling around in my head as I waltzed up to him in the entrance hall.

“Here I am!”

“There is a truck by the gates, they say they have a delivery for tomorrow’s event.” Having a conversation with Vadim is like playing Russian roulette – you never know if the gun will go off when you pull the trigger while pointing it at your temple. This looming, two-meter-tall man wearing a bullet-proof vest on top of his police uniform, with a holstered weapon on his belt and accusations in his voice, complained: “Nobody told me anything about it.” “Should I let them in?” he added after a short pause during which I readied myself to take a bullet to my head.

“Me neither. I don’t know anything about it,” as if from a great distance I heard a faint trembling response. “Is that MY voice?” Under his penetrating gaze I shrunk down to the size of Thumbelina, craning my neck to look up at the guard and feeling cowed by his Mount Everest-sized enormity.

Remembering that the schedule of events for the week is supposed to be on the administrator’s desk, I grew back to my human height of one meter sixty-eight-centimeters. Let’s see, the journal of opening and closing the exhibits, the journal of excursions, the journal with the workers’ schedules, the journal containing the reports of the person on duty…Aha! Here it is at last!”  The most important things always get lost under a pile of garbage.

Throwing my coat on over my shoulders I made my way over to the truck, scanning the list of events as I walked. The driver was standing next to the truck parked at the gate leading to the museum parking lot, smoking.

“Good morning! Are you from the children’s architecture festival?” I called out as I was approaching him, still a few meters away.

“Yeah, hi.” He waited until I had come up closer, and exhaled, blowing a cloud of cigarette smoke right in my face. “Probably. I don’t really know. But if that’s what’s written down there, then yeah. They gave me this address, told me to drive here this morning and unload the truck. I didn’t get any other instructions.” He continued, unperturbed as I coughed out my lungs. “You gonna open the gate or what?” he threw the cigarette butt on the ground nearby and started pulling himself up into the cab of the truck with his nicotine-stained fingers.

“Have another smoke. I need to check on something,” I shot back, turning away and walked toward the museum, imagining forcing the driver to stuff his cigarettes down his throat. Together with the thousands of cigarette butts scattered around a thirty-meter radius around the museum.

No one likes phone calls or messages first thing in the morning, but I was left with no choice.

“@Artem, are the pieces for the architecture fest supposed to arrive today? Because there’s a truck waiting outside.” I wrote in a work chat with the hope that in the public chat with all the other employees my boss wouldn’t tell me to go to hell if my message woke him up.

Leaning against the railing on the porch in front of the museum, I kept checking my phone every 30 seconds. “Sure, I’m the only one who replies to messages right away,” I thought, angry at myself for being that way. Time crawled by so slowly that it seemed as though I could have already driven over to Artem’s place all the way over in Poznyaky, gotten the answer to my question, and come back, and still no reply to my text.

“So, what’s going on?” the driver pushed, trying to speed things up. He had managed to run out to buy an “Expresso” and smoke two more cigarettes before Artem, finally, replied: “Yes, I forgot to tell you. Sorry.”

Gathering all my courage, I peered into the one and a half by one-and-a-half-meter closet that served as the security post.

“Vadym, can you please open the gates? The truck IS here for us.”

“Do I look like a doorman to you?” asked the guard, not taking his eyes off the pretend tanks lined up for an attack.

“No, of course not. But you have the remote that opens the gate to the parking lot, and I don’t.” His feigned indifference didn’t fool me for an instant. The gun was once again pressed against my temple. A cold shiver ran up my spine.

“That’s not my problem. Tell the director to give the person on duty a remote,” Vadym hit pause on the game and turned his attention to me.

“But I need to let the truck in right now, and the director won’t be here for two more hours,” I could practically hear the click of the safety coming off, got weak in the knees, and leaned against the door jamb.

“I don’t have a copy of the work order that says there was supposed to be a delivery today.”

“That’s not my fault. I’m sure that the secretary faxed the instructions to the police station and simply forgot to leave you a copy.”

“I don’t care about the details. I’m telling you again, there is no work order…”

“C’mon! I’m just trying to deal with the situation at hand…”

“If anything goes wrong, it’s going to be your problem,” the guard grumbled, and taking the remote out of the drawer, tossed it at me like he was flipping a coin in a beggar’s cup to get them to stop the harassment.

“Thanks,” I rasped through clenched teeth, and added to myself “Jerk.” I didn’t have the courage to say it out loud. The day was just beginning — it was too early to piss-off the person whose help I would likely need at some point today.

Ultimately, I was able to survive the encounter with Vadym, alive and with remote in hand. Hurray!!

I opened the gate, let the truck into the parking lot, showed the driver where to unload the contents, and returned to the museum hall.

Today my workplace is here.

Today, I am the person in charge. I open and close the exhibits. I welcome and speak with the visitors. I coordinate the visitor guides.

I am the Queen of the Muuuuseeeeuuum!

These tasks are usually performed by a full-time administrator. But not in my museum. In my museum they are done by historical researchers. Taking turns. Today it’s my job, tomorrow someone else’s, day-after-tomorrow, a third person, and the day-after-the-day-after-tomorrow, a fourth person will be assigned to do this job.

In this place every one of us is President, Lady of the Museum, administrator.

That means that tomorrow, the administrator-of-the-day will welcome the visitors with a smile, advise them which excursion is most appropriate for them, and will tell them about the upcoming museum events for the week. On the day-after-tomorrow, not wanting to interrupt the conversation they are having on their mobile phones, the new administrator-of-the-day will wave off visitors like a buzzing fly, and the day-after-the-day-after-tomorrow, the next one won’t even acknowledge the visitors, not bothering to look up from the detective novel written by Dontsova.

What can anyone do. This is the human factor.

“Do you know how much was put in the budget for the position? Half of the salary of a historical researcher! Where am I supposed to find a normal person to work for that kind of money?” The Director shot back when the griping about the situation came to a head. “Maybe I’ll take away some of your bonuses,” he would suggest, and after that proposal, nobody else brought up the need to hire a permanent administrator.

I sat down behind the administrator’s desk. My watch said 08:37AM, my fitness bracelet had recorded four thousand two hundred twenty-seven steps.

Sipping the cold coffee that I had managed to forget about; I perused the list of excursions for today. Twenty-eight! Starting from the moment the museum opened at 10:00 up until 4:10PM, when the last tour was scheduled. There was barely 15 minutes between each new group–and that was when we were fortunate. For one grade of schoolchildren – only five minutes separated the start of the tour for each group.

“Oho, this is going to be great!” I thought ironically, while I conjured up a scene from Braveheart in my imagination, in which handfuls of Scottish farmers, armed only with pitchforks and axes, face off against the unending hordes of English horsemen and foot soldiers armed to the teeth pouring forth onto the field of battle.

Except in my head, the army of King Edward I, known as Longshanks, was made up of schoolchildren. A mixed bag of fifth, eleventh, second, third, ninth and seventh graders.

I could hear the rattle of their weapons against their armor, the thunderous sound of the horses and rhythmic marching of professional soldiers, and…I wondered whether I had made the right decision in engaging in this battle.

When they are spread out over time, it’s okay. But when you have a situation where a hundred kids are all crammed together in a limited space – watch out! Walls that have withstood revolutions and wars begin to tremble when these kids are around, and the paintings sway back and forth in rhythm with the shuddering walls.

This happens only once a month – on the last Tuesday, when the museum doesn’t charge admission, and schoolchildren arrive by the busloads. Some of them are just entering the museum, others have completed their visit and are getting ready to leave – but they all end up in the great hall, where it’s not the battle for life, but for death, that begins.

For this reason alone, the search for a volunteer to take the administrator job on this day is so difficult. “You simply have to survive it,” my colleagues repeated like a mantra. But what I heard was “Three hundred well-armed cavalry! We are doomed…,” “So many! I didn’t come out to fight so the nobles could own more lands so that I could work for them.” “Nor did I! That’s it, boys. I’m not going to fight for them. Let’s go home…”

That’s not how it’s going to be!” William Wallace’s courage flared up inside me. “You can be ready for anything – even the end of the world!” I valiantly threw my empty paper coffee cup into the waste basket and strolled over to the children’s center, keys in hand. “Not much to choose from…” Perusing the scant potential of what the museum called a “center,” I already knew what I had to do. Three minutes later I was standing in front of the door leading to the firefighter’s post.

Yes, you heard right – firefighters.

In a museum with no administrator, we had four firemen. Their main function was to watch over the fire alarm, which went off at the first sign of an emergency. After deciding if this was a real emergency or not, they would then get in touch with the local emergency services station and confirm or call off the deployment of the actual fire brigade.

In all my time working at the museum, I heard the alarm go off only once. There was no fire – thank goodness – but the fireman on duty at the time, the old-timer “uncle” Kolya, couldn’t turn it off. Woo-woo-woo… it wailed for about half an hour. “What do you want from me?! God have mercy!” his arms akimbo, the husky, no-longer-young man yelled at the alarm until he was red in the face. Obviously, after the Great Flood, which he managed to survive, he hadn’t expected any more challenges from God.

For all that, most of the time the firemen passed the time listening to chanson – Russian pop music, playing Solitaire and drinking alcohol.

Knock-knock! – Silence. Another knock-knock, this time louder, still producing no response. Knock-knock-knock-knock-knock-knock! I banged on the door with all my might. Little time remained to enlist allies, bolster their fighting spirit with inspiring speeches and ready ourselves for battle. I heard a high-pitched creaking and the door cracked open, revealing “uncle” Kolya’s wrinkled visage.

“Good morning! I really need your help…” I said hastily. And would have continued at that speed, but I noted that the person on the receiving end of my words hadn’t completely tuned in yet.

“Hello…” the overpowering scent of sweat, boiled eggs, onions and ale wafted my way.

“Uncle Kolya, I am on duty today, we’re expecting a lot of visitors, please, I need your help.” I was forced to take a step back to avoid the aromas that assailed me, threatening to disable the only brave heart that was organizing the defence of the museum.

“What do we have to do?” the man asked with zero enthusiasm, yawning and scratching his head. And one more step back for me.

“We need to move the tables. Well, and move a few benches into the hall…”

“Eehhh, but what about my bad back…”

“I understand, but you won’t be carrying everything by yourself.”

“Who’s the security guard today?”

“Vadym.”

“Oy…Okay, so who’s going to help me?”

“Me!”

“Aha, great. Give me five minutes, I’ll meet you downstairs in the hall.”

While grabbing the fourth table that needed to be carried out of the children’s center into the hall, the fireman directed his complaints to the back of my head: “I didn’t take a job here to be move furniture.”

“And I thought that the position of historical researcher meant I would be doing research. But the two of us understand that no such official position as “mover” will ever be added to the roster of employees at the museum,” I said while carrying the front end of the table, guiding it into place. “Here we are. Let’s put it down.”

“Is that it?”

“No, Uncle Kolya. We need some chairs, about twenty of them, bring them out and put them here.”

“You’re kidding me!” sputtered the old man, massaging his arms.

“Come on, please… I would carry them here myself, but I still have to check if the elevators are working. And if the bathrooms are clean, and if there’s toilet paper. And put some activities out for the kids…. The chaperones will be here soon, and I have to assign them to the groups…”

“Fine, you’ve talked me into it. I’ll do it, but only because you remind me of my granddaughter Virochka. She’s always full of energy too…” His last words were mumbled under his breath, as he shuffled his feet back toward the children’s center.

I threw out a “Thank you!” to the fireman, moving toward the administrative side of the building, where all the museum departments were located and in particular, the exhibitions department, which housed my command-and-control center.

09:14AM and six thousand eleven steps.

Just my luck, the office printer creaked and squeaked, stubbornly refusing to print the coloring pages for the kids. My defense strategy was in danger of complete failure.

“Please tell me you haven’t caught the ‘I don’t want to work’ virus. I know that it’s hard not to get infected in this place. C’mon, please, please, pretty please!” I danced around the printer pleading with it as if it was alive.

When after the third system reboot this piece of equipment failed me, I closed my eyes for a second and took in a deep breath. Unfortunately, this simple breathing exercise didn’t work. Instead, I imagined swinging an axe at the useless piece of plastic with all my might, pummeling, chopping and essentially obliterating it – and I couldn’t get myself to stop.

I would have reduced it to rubble, but the printer’s execution was interrupted by the ringing of the land line.

“Hello,” I answered the phone, annoyed.

“Tonichka?”

“Yes.”

“Tonichka, we’re all already here in the entry hall, we’re just waiting for you.” I recognized the insincere, cloyingly sweet voice of the head chaperone. She had worked for thirty years as the headmistress of a school and had never gotten used to not being in charge –to this day she was still bossing people around. She was known at the museum as the “crazy empress.”

“I’ll be right there, Oksana Yuriyivna, I’m already on my way!” rudely awakened from my flight of fancy, I tried to get the printer to work one more time.

In response to either my pleading, or in fear of the repercussions, the printer, as if exorcised from evil spirits, finally began spitting out sheet after sheet of the desired documents. One….two…..three…. When you’re in a rush, everything around you seems to deliberately slow down to a snail’s pace.

I added one hundred twenty more copies to be printed, hit Enter and took off like a bat out of hell back to the hall.

The time had come to divvy up the museum’s “grandmothers” into the different exhibit rooms. They are the ones that are supposed to prevent visitors from touching the paintings with their greasy fingers or breaking the stained-glass windows by bashing their heads into them. This was one more morning ritual allotted to the administrator-of-the-day, who once more ascended the stairs to the exhibition hall and divided the guardians, each one signing for the room under their care.

“Good morning! You’re assigned to the first room, sign here,” I presented the journal of openings and closings of expositions, offered a pen and indicated where to sign. “Thanks and have a great day!” I repeated fifteen more times, only changing the room number, and just as many times I heard their reply

“And I hope you have a pleasant shift!”

“It will be pleasant, if you don’t grab and smack the kids’ hands away and won’t interrupt the museum guides to put in your own two cents.”  Vitriol was on the tip of my tongue.

“You have reached your goal of eight thousand steps,” the fitness bracelet vibrated on my wrist.

Coloring pages were laid out on two of the tables, on the third – the game “Memory,” and on the fourth – puzzles of the most popular paintings in the museum. I had gathered everything that could scatter the enemy soldiers spread out the kids into every available corner and bring to a halt their rampage while they wait for their excursion.

One last stroke to complete – the sharpening two hundred coloring pencils. As I was leaning over the garbage can trying not to make a mess two buses full of kids drove up to the front gate.

In an instant my sense of confidence at having been prepared for the avalanche of children evaporated and was replaced by panic. Seven minutes before ten. The first visitors are on our doorstep, but neither the cashier, who hands out the free tickets and takes payment for the excursions, nor the coatroom staff, nor the museum guides have shown up to the museum. “Maybe I didn’t see somebody come in when I was upstairs in the exhibit,” I thought, dialing the number to the excursions department. The phone was answered on the first ring, but I was not very comforted by the conversation:

“Alina? Super! Glad you’re here. You can come down now, your first group has arrived.”

“Okay. But the excursion starts at ten, so I’ll come down at ten.”

“But I could really use your help now. The cashier and coat check are running a bit late.”

“That’s not my problem,” and then – the busy signal as she hung up on me.

Picking up my jaw from the floor, out of the corner of my eye I spotted the cashier running toward the museum entrance, out of breath, looking over her shoulder at the schoolchildren pouring out of the buses, trying to outrun them.

“Good morning! Welcome to the museum! Please pay for the excursions at the cashier’s desk, and for now have the children hang their coats here,” I greeted the teachers from behind the counter of the cloakroom, waving my arms about as though I was directing traffic at a cross walk. “Jackets, hats, backpacks, water – boys and girls, leave all of that here. Don’t lose your numbered tags. The bathrooms are downstairs. Who’s ready to go on the first excursion – raise your hands! One, two, three….fifteen – the first group is ready. Here’s your guide – Alina Olehivna! Follow her up to the second floor. You’ll get to know each other better up there.”

The biggest challenge in this whirlwind was for the children to hear you. As a rule, the teachers would help organize the schoolchildren. Although occasionally that didn’t work out. I was especially grateful to the teachers who were here today, they quickly split up the children into groups to avail themselves of the three different activities on the tables.

“You shouldn’t have given them the tags! They’ll lose them,” the coat check clerk Laryssa screeched from the entryway who was ten minutes late for work and didn’t even consider apologizing, or thanking me for doing her job.

In my imagination, I was halfway along to picking up the axe I left by the printer.

“Antonina, why is it so messy in the hall?” rather than wishing me “Good morning” another accusation was flung in my direction. This time from Olha Victorivna, the deputy director.

“I’ll ask the cleaning lady to come down. The children tracked in some mud with them from the street.”

“I certainly hope you had them put on shoe covers, so that they didn’t drag it all over the exposition?”

“The cashier is supposed to hand them out.”

“True, but you are in charge today. It’s your responsibility!”

“Responsible for shoe covers! What wonderful career advancement! I was shaking with rage inside. But it was easier to have the forty-five third graders who were coloring and building the puzzles put on the shoe covers than it was to argue. The main thing was to stop myself from stuffing the shoe covers down the deputy director’s throat.

“Why do you get so upset, Tonya? There was a nervy woman who worked here before you did, and she ended up losing her mind…” one of my older colleagues noted with feigned concern as she nonchalantly walked by, apparently unaware that I was dead on my feet. Yuliya’s grim experience of being taken straight from her desk that day as administrator-of-the-day’s to a psychiatric hospital four years ago, after experiencing delirium, hallucinations, and disorientation on the job, did not engender empathy in the rest of the museum staff. Instead, it convinced them that conscientious work never leads to anything good.

There were occasional ten-to-fifteen-minute pauses in the flow of visitor groups. During the breaks I shuffled among the tables, laid out coloring pages, rearranged the scattered pencils and sharpened the broken ones. I picked up the pieces of torn shoe covers which the kids had not managed to throw away in the garbage. And let’s not forget – I was opening the gate to the parking lot, letting the school buses in and out. Anything so as not to distract the security guard from his engrossing computer game.

“Remember the saying: the best workhorse in the collective farm will never become the director?” some well-wisher commented with a laugh.

11:47АМ and almost twelve thousand steps. One hundred twenty kids behind us, and the first visible result of the open house – a nervous tic in my left eye.

“The visitor is a client of the museum. They should be treated kindly and with a smile,” echoed in my head. When I had just started working at the museum, I couldn’t understand why you would have to codify something so obvious in the employee manual.

Several months passed by, and the reason became crystal clear. EVERYTHING needs to be set down in writing. For example, that the administrator on duty has to be welcoming and part company with each museum guest with a goodbye. That you can’t condescend to the visitors, raise your voice to them, disrespect them or insult them. That it is rude to ask a disabled person “Should I open up the handicapped bathroom?” Because if something simple is not written up in an official document – of course with the director’s signature and the official stamp of the museum – nobody will lift a finger.

Throughout the day I compiled a list for my firing squad.

The first one on the list was my colleague who proudly told me “I am a senior researcher, and not a children’s entertainer in a shopping mall! I’m not obligated to entertain schoolchildren while they wait for their excursion. And seriously – a museum is no place for children.”

“The excursion is scheduled for 14:30? Let them wait! It’s not my fault they can’t plan their schedules properly and they arrived earlier,” another one told me over the phone, out of sight.

And the third one almost killed me with the phrase “Who said that it has to be ME that should lead an unplanned excursion? What am I – the youngest one here? Get someone else to do it.”

After each of those inspiring conversations, smiling became harder and harder. The realization, that only three, five, or a maximum of ten out of over a hundred museum staff are on the same wavelength as you, is truly demoralizing. And bit by bit you begin to have doubts. Your brain projects white slides with black bold text in your head of phrases heard during the day: “Nobody will value what you do or thank you,” “You only get the minimum amount of work for minimum wages,” “This is not in my job description,” “I won’t get a bonus anyway,” “What, am I the only one who can do this job?”

The time on my watch was 3:45PM, and on my fitness bracelet – nineteen thousand eight hundred fourteen steps.

With a dark cloud hanging over me, I was counting the minutes down to the end of my shift. The weather, it seems, was synchronized with my mood. The wind picked up. A grey-black mist descended over the sky. Rain spattered on the windowpanes and threatened to transform itself into a downpour.

“This was the only thing missing,” I would have responded on any other day, but not today. Today the rain extinguished the fire burning inside of me.

At that moment a door slammed. The director stormed in from the administrative wing, moving toward the exhibition hall. A drop of water fell from the ceiling landing smack onto the middle of his bald head.

“Tonya! Do something about this!” Little did he know he had just dumped fuel on a bonfire.

“What do you suggest? You want me to do some kind of voodoo? A rain dance to stop the rain? Maybe give you a tissue to wipe your bald head?” – I mumbled under my breath, although my body’s muscle memory already had me carrying over a clear plastic bucket to place in the spot where the offensive raindrop had made its assassination attempt on the director.

And one more bucket to another spot where it was dripping. And another. And another. And another. For dozens of years the museum roof was like a sieve, and they had still not managed to repair it. However, they had managed to draw a map of all the spots where the roof leaked and purchased just as many buckets. Good that the buckets weren’t wooden or metal – at least some progress had been made. Although in a downpour, like we had now, the buckets wouldn’t help. Five minutes later the museum looked like a waterfall.

Standing up to my ankles in water, I phoned each of the departments, calling on my colleagues to come to the rescue.

“What, it’s flooding there for you?”

“Yes, it’s flooding. But it’s not for ME, but for us. WE have a flood. I don’t want to disillusion you, but you work in the same museum as I do. So find some pails or buckets because I’m inviting you to bail the water out of our mutual boat,” I upbraided my colleague, not bothering to hide the anger in my voice.

I was exhorting them but, honestly, I didn’t expect it to work. Because there are no written instructions for “What to do in case of a flood in the museum.” And I understood perfectly what that means in practice.

Spilling out the water from the buckets into the toilet, emptied of all strength, I sat down on the toilet seat, smiled crookedly and….broke out in hysterical laughter.

Other stories written by Marichka Melnyk

Other stories illustrated by Iryna Lysenko

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