I call it a travelling icon. It is slate, heavier than it looks: dull brown in colour, a little longer and wider than the palm of my hand. On one side, roughly incised, a crucifixion, and on the other a Madonna and Child. It is a triptych. On the fold-out doors are saints and patriarchs. They have big wobbly heads. They are all smiling, except for those at the foot of the cross.
When I first held the object in my hand, a few minutes before noon prayers on March 14, 1984, the feeling it communicated to me was one of hardship, near-desperation. You can pick out Christ’s ribs, but I don’t think this was the reason. The incised lines were filled with fine grains of sand, but I thought ‘salt’. I have no idea why.
I bought it in a souk in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, for almost no money at all. Later someone said to me, ‘It’s Coptic’, so I took that to be true. Common object or rare, old or new? No idea. Sometimes I wish I were a collector – that I was avid in that way – but when I meet people who really are collectors, I stop wishing it. Ignorance of the history of the object means I’ve never endowed it with more meaning than it had at the moment when I picked it up; I prefer it that way.
I had been living in Jiddah for sixteen months with my husband, a geologist. A childless couple, bottom of the heap in the allocation of our company’s property, we lived in the city centre in an apartment block known as Faulty Towers, because it had been comprehensively mis-wired. A common hall, floored with dusty marble, acted as no-man’s-land. My Pakistani neighbour, so long as her head was covered, would flit like an exotic bird to ring my doorbell, fluttering in lapis or cerise, but my Saudi neighbour, who was nineteen and married to a man of conservative views, couldn’t make the thirty-second journey downstairs unless she was fully veiled-up, black-kitted head-to-toe. It took so long unwinding her, while she laughed at her own daring. She had questions about my life. ‘Where did you meet your husband? Was it an office romance?’ The small change of a western marriage was gold dust to her. ‘What do you talk about when you are by yourselves?’
On the day I bought the icon I was with the only friend I had in that city, a coltish American girl with a string of higher degrees and the human sensitivities of one of those machines with a steel maw that digs up pavements. She wore an abaya, but drifting from her shoulders it looked like a scholar’s gown. ‘Hey, look at this!’ she called, every few seconds. There wasn’t much to see. Snub-nosed coffee pots clustered together on balding carpets; Yemeni trinkets made of cheap salvaged beads and silvered metal that turned your skin black when you touched it. I can’t remember bargaining for the icon. My neighbours had dressed me in an abaya properly pinned, and a veil that covered my hair. Though my face was uncovered, I was clearly a respectable woman, and the souk man treated me gently. When I got the icon in my hand at first, I knew enough to pretend I wasn’t interested in it. I put it down and walked away, but the thought that anybody else might swan in and pick it up made my skin creep, made me cold, sick and weak.
It hadn’t been easy to fix this trip. It was never easy to arrange to go out and, once out, I didn’t want to go home, to rooms so dim that the overhead lights had to burn all day. They didn’t get dim by chance; Saudi builders were suspicious of windows. Someone might look in; someone might look out.
Two years later, almost to the day, we left the kingdom. The icon has been travelling with me since, to five addresses, never more than fifteen miles from Heathrow: it’s as if I were thinking of going somewhere. The triptych’s wings are tied to the main panel with grubby purple thread, which I have never disturbed. But when I took it down to write about it, one of the threads frayed to nothing, and one door unhinged itself, and now it will have to be mended by me, in clean thread that won’t match. It occurs to me that, though I care for it, I have no one to leave it to when I die. I asked my husband to confirm that it was made of slate, and he tasted it – geologists do this – and said, ‘Yes, I can taste the clay.’
Image © Dru