The Great Exhibition

February 9, 2010

I actually wrote this a year ago but since I’m trying to collect things I’ve scattered to the winds, here you go.

* * * * *

“Tom, I found the most amazing thing, you have to come see it!”

Robert’s face was flushed with excitement as he grabbed Thomas by the arm and tugged. Thomas tugged back.

“Here now, Nobs, I’m busy,” Thomas said. “They’ve got more bobbies lined up guarding that big diamond and people are narked about having to wait to see it.”

“So?” Robert asked.

“So if there’s any action, I want to watch,” Thomas said.

Robert rolled his eyes. “Oh pssh you, come along. I’ll even pay for you if you want.”

That sparked Thomas’ interest. “Where are we going?”

“To the best part of the fair,” Robert said, grinning broadly.

Thomas followed Robert through the ambling crowd that browsed the many wonders on display at the Great Exhibition. The giant room was a broad central avenue flanked by two-story corridors, with a ceiling so tall that ten men could have stood on each others’ shoulders and not reached the top. The enormous crystal dome that covered this section of Hyde Park mimicked the greenhouse after which it was patterned, making it warmer inside than outside. The cast iron bars holding everything up crisscrossed each other, forming a lattice of triangles and diamonds that cast geometrically precise shadows on the masses below.

As they walked, Robert completely ignored the amazing exhibits they passed. Half-naked marble statues, cannons, some kind of barometer with jars of leeches, even the man showing how to pick locks–Robert was intent on whatever he had discovered. Thomas tried to pause at the image telegraph but was pulled along with an impatient huff.

Robert stopped short and Thomas ran into his back, nearly bowling him over. Fortunately, Robert was saved from falling by colliding with a gentleman in front of him. The man’s hat was knocked clean off and he turned around with walking cane already raised to strike.

“What’s all this, then!” the man barked, his thick white mustache bristling. “Just what do you think you’re doing!”

“Nothing, sir!” Robert exclaimed, raising his arms reflexively to guard his face. “Sorry, sir!”

“Bloody hooligans,” the man muttered, retrieving his stiff black hat and brushing the sleeves of his tailcoat. He returned to the same spot where he had been standing before he was jostled. Thomas realized that they had just added themselves to the back of a long line of fellow fairgoers.

“This queue is almost as bad as the one for the diamond,” Thomas said.

“It’s worth the wait,” Robert replied.

“It had better be,” Thomas muttered darkly.

The queue moved more rapidly than Thomas had expected, given its length. As they got closer to the front, he realized that the men and women were being divided into separate lines by a prim butler type in a spotless black coat and white shirt. When the man saw Robert, he grinned. Robert returned the smile.

“Back again, young master?” the man asked.

Robert nodded. “Brought my friend!”

“The more, the merrier, eh?” the man replied with a twinkle in his eye. He directed them to step over to the line on the left.

In front of them was a row of modest black doors atop black wooden staircases, being attended by half a dozen men dressed in the same black coats and white shirts. As far as Thomas could tell, the doors led into small, individual rooms, but he couldn’t see what was inside them. Men entered the rooms, stayed in them briefly, and then exited, whereupon the butler-types handed them a towel and something Thomas couldn’t see. Then their shoes were shined and they left.

“Hey Nobs, what’s in the rooms?” Thomas asked.

“You’ll see,” Robert replied.

“What does that mean?” Thomas pressed.

“It means you’ll see!”

“What if I don’t want to?”

“Don’t be such an infant, Tom, it’s nothing scary.”

Thomas punched Robert in the arm. “I’m not the one what pissed himself over a spider in his hair last week.”

“You said you wouldn’t tell, you git!” Robert punched him back, harder.

“Bugger this exhibit,” Thomas said. “I’m going back to the diamond.”

“No, look, it’s almost our turn!”

Thomas paused. The line behind them stretched well into the main exhibit hall. If he left, he’d either have to come back and wait again, or he’d never find out what was in the rooms.

“You still paying?” Thomas asked.

Robert eyeballed him for a moment, then shrugged. “It’s just a bloody penny.”

Thomas stepped back into the line and they waited together until an attendant approached them.

“One penny, sir,” he told Robert, who handed him two.

“For my friend,” he explained, and the attendant nodded. The man guided Robert over to a vacant room and primly held the door open for him, closing it firmly once Robert was inside.

“Ready, young master?” another attendant asked Thomas.

Thomas took a deep breath and nodded, following the man to the room. He ascended the staircase and stepped inside. The door closed behind him with a bang, making him jump. Above him, the room had no ceiling, allowing the natural daylight to illuminate the small space. Thomas stared at the central feature of the room, the like of which he had only heard of but never seen before.

Affixed to the wall was a white ceramic cistern, from which a metal pipe descended into the back of a large, white ceramic bowl elevated from the floor. Another, thicker pipe emerged from the bottom of the bowl and looped up toward the wall before curling back and into the floor. A wooden grip attached to a small length of chain hung from the cistern invitingly.

As if answering some primal call, Thomas’ bladder began to protest. He clumsily unbuttoned his pants and relieved himself in the bowl. He stared at the liquid, which didn’t move, and realized he was supposed to do something. He pulled the chain thinking maybe it would call the attendant, but instead a great rush of water flooded into the bowl, washing away his leavings through the hole in the bottom. He watched in fascination and reached over to pull the chain again, but the door opened behind him and he had to button himself quickly, flushing with embarrassment.

“All done, master?” the attendant asked.

Thomas nodded and exited the room. The attendant handed him a towel, with which he wiped his hands clean, and then gave him a comb so he could fix his hair. Meanwhile, his boots were shined efficiently, after which he was sent on his merry way.

Robert was waiting for him off to the side, a huge grin on his face. “Well?” he asked. “Wasn’t it amazing?”

“Let’s do it again,” Thomas whispered.

“Here now, I’m not paying for you twice–“

“I’ll pay,” Thomas interrupted.

Robert stopped. “For me, too?” Thomas nodded.

“Well then,” Robert said. “Should we go have some drinks first or just get back in the queue?”

Thomas was already walking to the back of the line. Robert jogged to catch up with him.

“Nobs,” Thomas Crapper said with a beatific smile, “I think I know what I want to do with the rest of my life.”

“Stand in queues?”

Thomas punched Robert in the arm as they stood together, waiting for another turn in the Monkey Closets.

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