…before you, life was desolate – the past hardly worth remembering – and now, each moment a keepsake I can’t throw away …
John Geddes, A Familiar Rain
When we were kids my brother was in a judo championship in Queensland and our Dad accompanied him across the country to attend it. When they came home they brought some souvenirs of their visit. My little sister got a T-shirt that said, “Kid for rent. (Cheap).” I don’t remember what my T-shirt said but I know I loved it. My Dad and my brother had been to Queensland and this T-shirt was from there. I’ve been obsessed with having keepsakes from places I’ve visited and of experiences I’ve had ever since.
Some of these keepsakes are more controversial than others. No-one could complain, really, about the hand-painted Armenian and Palestinian pottery from Jerusalem. Or the Japanese doll that was a gift from my favourite student in Gifu prefecture, Japan. Or the fridge magnet that my sister bought for us the day we visited Annecy.
My favourite memento from Egypt, though, has caused a bit more of a stir. When M and I visited that country this time two years ago, we fell into that old tourist trap of paying a small fortune to ride camels around the pyramids. It was magical. At one point our guide, walking beside my camel, bent down and picked something up from the ground. He told me to look at it. “See the colour of this stone?” he said. “You can see the layers of pink and white. Now look at the top of that pyramid. See the one with just a bit of the alabaster left at the top? This is a piece of that alabaster. I want you to have it.”
He tried to pass it to me but I wouldn’t take it. “No! If everyone took home a piece of the pyramids there’d be nothing left,” I said. He argued that it was sitting on the ground, being trampled under the feet of an endless stream of horses and camels. It wasn’t like we’d pulled it off the pyramid.
“No,” I said, “I couldn’t possibly. It belongs here. I can’t take it.”
“I insist,” he said. “I want you to have it.”
So I took it. I wanted me to have it too.
When I told M’s family this story I felt the heat of their condemnation. I came to understand how Ian McEwan must have felt when he was criticised for apparently encouraging people to pick up stones from Chesil Beach. I didn’t mention that my accepting this gift made me part of the long history of theft of artefacts that has made the British Museum so great. I just looked at the piece of alabaster that sits on my desk and felt the usual quiet thrill that I have it. I’m just looking after it for Egypt. Perhaps I’ll take it back one day.
The keepsake that I have from the gorgeous experience of being in The Vagina Monologues is a dress. Our costume dress code was black and teal. Anyone who knows me could guess that I had the black pretty much covered – I’ve lived in a fairly consistent uniform of black for as long as I can remember – but the teal was a bit more challenging. So I went out and bought a teal dress. And every time I wear it from now on, it’s going to remind me of all the gorgeous black-and-teal clad women who surrounded me on those beautiful nights in a theatre in Geneva in March, 2014. They’re not so ancient as the pyramids, but have every bit as much grace and beauty and wonder.