An Egyptian Vase


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Photograph by Jago Rackham.

On the top of our fiction bookshelf is an alabaster vase. Its rim is broken. Inside it is a single dried flower, and beside it a faux peach, under a large bell jar. The vase is Egyptian and three thousand years old. I broke its rim a few years ago. Each time I reach for a novel I am reminded of the power of carelessness to undo eons of completeness.

At thirteen I was sent to Lo’s school. Lo’ is my fiancée. We have been engaged since we were twenty-one and we are now both approaching our thirties. We “got together” soon after I joined the school and have been near constantly in one another’s presence since then. Like a medieval romance—somewhat creepy, somewhat sweet.

The school was in a Georgian townhouse at the top of the high street in Ashburton. Ashburton sits on the side of Dartmoor, the region where The Hound of the Baskervilles is set, and its round-shouldered moorlands hedge the town’s northern views. It feels held and contained. In my memory it is always cloudy, near raining, about to break. On the other side of the town is the Exeter Inn, where in 1603 Sir Walter Raleigh was arrested by new King James’s men in 1603, and from there taken to the Tower of London.

I remember long lessons, febrile minds, and a semiorganized chaos, true anarchism. But mostly I remember skipping school with Lo’ to walk around Ashburton and visit antique dealers. Antique dealers use their hands a lot, picking things up and looking at their undersides. The underside of a thing—a vase, say—holds ciphers in the form of marks, of the maker, of the metal, of the date. Secrets in the tops of nails and tacks, the way wood is joined, seams, things that reveal a great deal: fakery, trickery, or surprising authenticity. I began to mimic this looking and holding, the firm grasp on stone or fired clay, and the mimicry turned eventually to something approaching knowledge of the informal kind.

The shops had cutesy names like the Shambles (which is still there) and the Fish Belly (which isn’t), or geographic ones like East Street Antiques (still there) and North Street Antiques (gone). Most were quite large, whole houses or old shops divided into poky rooms. I would find things and find them beautiful and then check with Lo’. If she liked them too, and they were inexpensive, we would buy them with our week’s lunch money. I still can’t quite tell if I like an object before I’ve shown it to Lo’.

The best of these Ashburton shops, perhaps the best shop in the world, is Tom Wood Antiques & Curios. Tom is a portly man, short, teddy-bear shaped, and smiling. He has very little hair and a predilection for jazzy shirts. He wears large glasses and a Rolex—the watch a sign of seriousness to other dealers. His shop is very small and very packed. The uninitiated believe it to be junk and leave quickly. This is a filter.

“Would you like to see something old?” In his hand is a tiny bead, greenish. “It is four thousand years old, jewelry.” Lo’ and I look, mouths agape.

Years pass. We move to London and rent a flat. We have no table, no chairs, two cups, one pot, one knife. I sit up late, reading against the wall. Years pass. We have so much more. Each trip we make to Devon, to see our parents, the verdure, the Dart, we visit Tom’s shop.

“You move like a dancer in the shop, Tom!” Lo’ says. He does. Reaching for a cup atop a tottering tower of stoneware he disturbs nothing. “These you might like.” Two alabaster vases. “They are from the Third Kingdom, Egyptian. Very old, three thousand years old.” I handle them with the firm grasp, looking them up and down, inside and out. Held up to the light they are luminescent, milky, not quite white; they have the effect of sunlight caught behind cotton sheets that have been left out overnight through a frost. They are not so expensive, fifty or so pounds, so we buy one. The feeling of taking cash out as illicit as when it was lunch money.

On the train to London, Lo’ holds it, wrapped in bubble wrap, on her lap. Or no, it was in a bag. We put a lot of trust in old objects. If they have lasted this long and traveled so far, why would they break on a train to London? At home, we put flowers in it, but it is not watertight and weeps, not from one crack but all over, porous ancient sadness. So it lives beneath a sculpture, mounted on two wooden pillars. The pillars frame it, almost grandly, near classically. Soon it does what all objects do—loses its luster. Soon I no longer excitedly point it out to guests and ask how old they think it is. I move on.

I do not cease to love it.

The sculpture it sat below is a wax gravestone by my best friend; it is porous and heavy, on its front are holes as porous and soft as those on honeycomb. One day I’m moving it—it is heavy—and it slips and slowly comes to rest upon the vase. The vase does not shatter but crumbles, the damage isolated. I pull the sculpture up and look at the vase, move it quickly to me. Half its rim has come off, has fallen inside itself, but most oddly there is also a hole, big enough for three fingers, on one side, in its belly. I swear loudly and Lo’ comes in. I point to the vase and walk out of the room. I sit beneath our kitchen table. I fix my face in an anguished grimace, that of a child who has done something wrong but is angry at being told off. Three thousand years and I did not think to move it, just a bit, out of the way. I am as bad as any other Englishman—a destroyer of history, selfish, priggish.

Lo’ comes in. “It’s okay,” she pauses. “You know, it always annoyed me that it was so neat. It didn’t look very old. It could have been from Anthropologie.”


Jago Rackham is a writer and cook. His book about hosting, To Entertain, will be out in 2024. You can see his food @ecstasy_cookbook on Instagran.