AN EVERYDAY DOOMSAYER IN SANDWICH-BOARD ABRUPTLY walked away from what over the last several days had been his pitch, by the gates of a museum. The sign on his front was an old-school prophecy of the end: the one bobbing on his back read FORGET IT.
INSIDE, A MAN WALKED THROUGH THE BIG HALL, PAST A DOUBLE stair and a giant skeleton, his steps loud on the marble. Stone animals watched him. “Right then,” he kept saying.
His name was Billy Harrow. He glanced at the great fabricated bones and nodded. It looked as if he was saying hello. It was a little after eleven on a morning in October. The room was filling up. A group waited for him by the entrance desk, eyeing each other with polite shyness.
There were two men in their twenties with geek-chic haircuts. A woman and man barely out of teens teased each other. She was obviously indulging him with this visit. There was an older couple, and a father in his thirties holding his young son. “Look, that’s a monkey,” he said. He pointed at animals carved in vines on the museum pillars. “And you see that lizard?”
The boy peeped. He looked at the bone apatosaurus that Billy had seemed to greet. Or maybe, Billy thought, he was looking at the glyptodon beyond it. All the children had a favourite inhabitant of the Natural History Museum’s first hall, and the glyptodon, that half-globe armadillo giant, had been Billy’s.
Billy smiled at the woman who dispensed tickets, and the guard behind her. “This them?” he said. “Right then, everyone. Shall we do this thing?”
HE CLEANED HIS GLASSES AND BLINKED WHILE HE WAS DOING IT, replicating a look and motion an ex had once told him was adorable. He was a little shy of thirty and looked younger: he had freckles, and not enough stubble to justify “Bill.” As he got older, Billy suspected, he would, DiCaprio-like, simply become like an increasingly wizened child.
Billy’s black hair was tousled in halfheartedly fashionable style. He wore a not-too-hopeless top, cheap jeans. When he had first started at the centre, he had liked to think that he was unexpectedly cool-looking for such a job. Now he knew that he surprised no one, that no one expected scientists to look like scientists anymore.
“So you’re all here for the tour of the Darwin Centre,” he said. He was acting as if he thought they were present to investigate a whole research site, to look at the laboratories and offices, the filing, the cabinets of paperwork. Rather than to see one and only the one thing within the building.
“I’m Billy,” he said. “I’m a curator. What that means is I do a lot of the cataloguing and preserving, stuff like that. I’ve been here awhile. When I first came here I wanted to specialise in marine molluscs—know what a mollusc is?” he asked the boy, who nodded and hid. “Snails, that’s right.” Mollusca had been the subject of his master’s thesis.
“Alright, folks.” He put his glasses on. “Follow me. This is a working environment, so please keep the noise down, and I beg you not to touch anything. We’ve got caustics, toxins, all manner of horrible stuff all over the place.”
One of the young men started to say, “When do we see—?” Billy raised his hand.
“Can I just …?” he said. “Let me explain about what’ll happen when we’re in there.” Billy had evolved his own pointless idio-superstitions, according to one of which it was bad luck for anyone to speak the name of what they were all there for, before they reached