Herbert decided to volunteer at Havering Museum because he liked history. He was fascinated by the Romans, intrigued by the Tudors and curious about life during the Second World War.
After his interview with the Volunteer Manager and a museum director, he was hired as a volunteer to help on Thursdays as a Front of House person. He had to greet the visitors with a smile and cheery ‘Hello!”. Another volunteer then taught him how to answer the phone and take messages. He folded leaflets and patrolled the galleries in case visitors had questions or tried to take sneaky photographs. Herbert even made the tea some days for the clubs and meetings which hired out the end rooms.
It was all quite a bit different from his job as an artist’s model, posing silently like the mannequins in the museum’s biggest case. At work he sometimes wore costumes like the Collections Team dressed them in, only his were old theatre cast offs, never an accurate copy of an Edwardian gentleman’s evening suit, let alone a real one. He stared at the delicate Victorian dresses, wondering what the lady who had once worn them might have seen.
“There would have been no television when she was alive.” He told himself. “Or cars, or aeroplanes, or mobile phones. Not even chocolate bars and crisps. How different the times she lived in were.”
“Herbert, sweep up the end room would you?” Marg, another of the volunteers interrupted his thoughts. She wheeled the tea trolley back to the staff kitchen with a loud clatter. “And put the chairs away and fold the tables.”
He tramped to the cavernous big room at the end of the museum.
Sweep, sweep, sweep. His brush swept the floor, but his eyes swept the walls hung with an art exhibition. He was so busy looking at the photographs, Herbert didn’t realise his brush had snagged until it was well and truly struck. He tugged on it, still more interested in the photograph of an Indian dancer, and tugged it again. When he couldn’t free it, he finally looked down.
A clump of his brush had become caught under a latch in the floor. Herbert had never noticed the latch or the trapdoor before. He crouched down to take a closer look.
The latch was round like a ring and fixed to a trapdoor on the floor. He pulled on his broom again and loosened it, pulling up the latch just a little bit.
“Marg!” He frowned.
She didn’t answer.
Herbert hesitated, but curiosity got the better of him and he slid his fingers under the latch. It was stiff and moved slowly, like it had not been opened in years. It did not creak and when he tugged, the latch didn’t open the trapdoor.
Disappointed, he sighed. His knees felt stiff, bent down as he was. He fidgeted as he waited for Marg, but then he lost his balance and topped over. He heard a click, and for a moment lay very still, thinking he had broken something, but he didn’t feel any pain.
Herbert sat up. The latch, which he had been holding when he fell, had twisted. He took hold of it again and, feeling shivery, opened the trapdoor.
“Phew!” He pinched his nose. “What a stink!”
A gust of cold, wet air blew in his face, bringing with it a horrible smell of rotting weeds and wet rat.
Nobody responded. Herbert waited, hoping someone would come and find him. The smell eventually disappeared and he peered down into the darkness, fanning his hand in case the stink came back.
“I wonder what this is,” he asked himself aloud. The museum was housed in an old brewery and he supposed the trapdoor led to a cellar. “I wonder if the brewers left anything behind.”
He fetched the spare torch from the little kitchen. Shining it down into the hole he found a step; then another, and another again, until he was standing in the cellar itself.
Nothing here. He thought glumly, flashing the torch around.
Herbert found himself in an empty room, nothing but bare stone wherever the torchlight landed. He could hear the river flowing but not see it, but the he reminded himself that was probably a good thing given what rubbish could end up in the river.
Just as he turned to climb back up, he spotted a bright flash out of the corner of his eye. Scanning the walls with his torch he found it again, sitting in a nook in the wall.
Herbert stepped up for a closer look, wondering what on earth it could be.
Probably just a pipe.
He shone the torch directly upon it. Glinting in the light was a gold ring with a big blue stone.
“Treasure!” Herbert cried out happily, and picked up the ring.
It was cool to the touch and heavy for its size. His fingers tingled a little. Herbert shivered, and like most people with a ring, he put it on his finger to admire it.
“What a lovely thing,” he said to himself. “It looks very old.”
He held the torch up, twisting the ring to make the stone sparkle.
Suddenly, his whole hand began tingling. The feeling danced up his arm and quickly spread to his whole body.
Oh no! He thought. Oh dear!
Herbert disappeared in a flash of rainbow light.