Conservation

The agency cleaners worked in pairs, flitting through the buildings like ghosts. His brother found him the job. ‘You can’t be proud,’ he’d said, dumping the suitcase in the tiny room they shared. ‘You have to take anything.’ His voice had been defensive, as if he expected an argument.

Jalal wasn’t proud. He wasn’t anything. He didn’t mind the cleaning; found it soothing. Bringing order, making good. He learned quickly, spray from the right plastic bottle, clean cloths and hot water. Artificial scent, sharp lemon to wipe the sweetness of decay. He didn’t even mind Zuzanna, the Polish woman he’d been teamed with. She had clumsy big hands and emitted a stream of chatter. Her voice was white noise, blocking the channel of his thoughts.

He worked in silence. Speaking in English was tiring. It was easier to say nothing, keep his mind on the high-gloss surfaces. Marble and onyx, smoked glass and chrome. Occasionally he glimpsed his reflection: a pinch of anxiety between his eyebrows, thinning grey hair. He switched the focus of his gaze so he could see only the fingerprints that he polished away. He had never seen the owner of this apartment; knew only that she was Russian, the daughter of someone rich enough to buy this vast palace in the grey London sky.

His wife would have had plenty to say, if she could see him cleaning this woman’s toilet. For a moment her rich voice broke through to him, vigorous with humour. ‘Eh! You never so much as swept the floor for me!’ He wished he had. He allowed himself to imagine them working together in their home. He would open the glass door to the balcony and shake the rugs, while the Mosul traffic hooted five stories below. She would run a duster over her china cats. Dozens of them, on the television and the windowsills. God knows what had happened to them.

The bathroom had been used that morning. Zuzanna removed damp towels. He plucked a swirl of blonde hair from the walk-in shower. He buffed the round black basins to a bottomless sheen, battling the hard London water. The room was warm and humid, with a scent of roses and something darker that made him think again of Hanna. Oud, perhaps, the perfume she wore on special occasions like their wedding anniversary. He caught a flash of memory, Hanna unhooking her brassiere while he sat on the bed and watched. She’d seen his gaze in the mirror and smiled. He leaned his forehead on the cool tiles and forced the image from his mind, almost relieved to hear Zuzanna’s shout from the corridor.

‘You got the metal polish? What I do with this one?’ She brandished something in her fist, swamped in her yellow rubber glove. He hurried towards her. She was quick to resort to harsh chemicals when you needed only patience and a soft cloth.

She opened her hand. It was a gold figure, female, no taller than his middle finger. Jalal’s breath stopped in his chest. Had he conjured her up with his dreams, or was she real? He took it gently, held it cupped in the palm of his hand.

‘Where did you find it?’

She pointed through to the biggest of the reception rooms, where windows from floor to ceiling gave a dizzying view of Hyde Park. ‘On the table by the window. New. It wasn’t here yesterday.’

He walked to the window and examined it in the light. Was it the same one? Could she possibly have followed him here? Two braids flowed down her back. Her face was smooth, expressionless, her arms upraised. Either his statue or her twin sister. He squatted before the table and set her down.

She was Lama, an Old Babylonian goddess. Her blank face reminded him of Hanna’s icon of the Virgin. Lama too was a channel to the divine, her arms raised to mediate with the gods on behalf of the worshipper. He had hoped once she would answer his prayers: to be allowed to stay.

He and Hanna had been among the last Christians to leave Mosul, after the men with black flags arrived in their armoured trucks. Their families had left months before, as life became increasingly dangerous for non-Muslims. They took what they could, fled to Syria or Lebanon, where they slept eight to a room in friends’ apartments. His brother had used his business contacts to get to London, from where he urged Jalal to join him.

But he did not want to leave. He loved his job in the conservation department of the Mosul Museum. He trusted in the friendship of his neighbours, the modest but respectable apartment block where they had lived since their marriage. He shrugged off the street harassment, the threats. If they’d had children, they would have left. Too many friends had suffered the agony of kidnap. But they had not been blessed in that way. A blessing in disguise, he’d said. They would remain. He would keep his family’s place in the world, for when it was safe for them to return.

When the men arrived at their door that evening, they had been presented with a choice. Pay, convert, leave or die. They stank of unwashed flesh, beards tangled with desert grime. He’d pushed Hanna through to the kitchen while the men argued, the sum of money demanded as ‘tax’ growing ever larger. They had been given one day to decide.

He gazed at the little gold figure. You failed me, he thought. She stared back, impassive. Someone had placed her among a small group of objects. An ivory box, carved with elephants. A marble foot that might have come from a Roman statue. An African mask of polished dark wood. Below the window, billowing trees surged like the ocean. What are we doing here, he asked.

‘Making money,’ said Zuzanna, emphatically. He hadn’t realised he’d spoken aloud. ‘Like everyone else.’ He looked down at the smooth wooden floor, registered a patch of dust under the table.

‘Don’t touch the figure,’ he said. ‘I’ll look after her.’ He gestured to the dust. ‘This floor needs to be swept properly.’ He returned to the bathroom.

Money. He’d thought that was the answer. All night he and Hanna had argued, as gunfire crackled through the city. At first he’d tried to persuade her to convert. God would understand, the Virgin would intercede for them, he’d said. A temporary measure, until the Americans came. She had scorched him with her scorn. ‘You convert,’ she’d said. She would leave or die. ‘Your choice.’ When he left for work in the morning, she had begun to pack. One more option, he’d thought. Pay.

Only a handful of staff arrived at the museum that day. The deputy curator, an elderly man Jalal had always liked, was running through the galleries in his shirt sleeves. They must move the most valuable objects to the vaults, he’d said. The Daesh had no respect for history. The museum would be plundered. Jalal had worked with him all day. Together they shifted intricate gold head-dresses and jewellery into the underground stores, leaving only the heaviest stone statues.

As they toiled, he’d tried to explain about the ‘tax’, which had finally been settled at $50,000 US dollars. The curator had shaken his head. ‘You should leave. Take Hanna and go to Erbil. It won’t be safe for you here.’ He’d reached into his pocket, handed Jalal a crumpled wad of dollars. ‘For the journey.’ He’d taken the money. And then, as he left in the heavy heat of the afternoon, he had taken the little golden goddess, wrapped in a handkerchief inside his jacket pocket.

She was already out of place. She was not from Nimrud, the ancient city in the desert near Mosul, but from the south, excavated from the ziggurat of Ur. Even so, he had been washed with hot shame as the curator embraced him and thanked him for his work. He remembered trying to hold the man at sufficient distance that he would not feel the statue through his thin jacket.

The bathroom was done. He picked the used dental floss from the bottom of the rubbish bin, then moved to the kitchen and ran the hot tap. A glass of green stuff sat on the black marble counter, next to a complicated machine for making juice. He poured it away. The coffee machine needed cleaning, too.

He’d taken the gold figure to his usual cafe on the way home. A frantic press of men clustered around the white plastic tables. There was a brisk trade in petrol, passports, US dollars. He spoke to Khalid, who ran an export business; unwrapped the little goddess. ‘You’re crazy,’ he’d told him. ‘If you can get it out of Iraq, sell it in Turkey. The Daesh will take it if you try to sell it here. And then they will kill you.’

He’d run home, scared that Khalid would report him or he’d be searched by the bands of fighters who roamed the streets. Breathless with relief, he’d flung himself around the corner to his apartment building. A kid stood outside the door smoking a cigarette. He held a big machine gun, which he pointed at Jalal.
‘Christian.’ It was an accusation. Jalal nodded. ‘You pay tax,’ the boy had said. He’d ended up giving him most of the curator’s money. Inside, he’d run up the stairs, shouting Hanna’s name.

A note on the kitchen table. ‘They came back. I will try to get to Erbil. Find me there.’ Three scrawled kisses. She’d taken her documents and the emergency dollars from the bathroom cabinet. He’d folded the note into his pocket and looked around, unable to think of anything else of use. He’d grabbed the icon of the Virgin from the wall and run through the streets to the bus station.

In Knightsbridge, Jalal plunged his arms into the sink, letting hot water scald his bare hands. The bus station had been chaotic. After an hour of queueing for tickets, the fighters had arrived and announced there would be no more buses that day. He’d joined the slow columns trudging out of the city. Within a few miles, he’d seen the first dead body, congealed blood blackening the dust. Women shielded their children’s eyes and hurried past. By the end of that nightmarish day, bodies no longer shocked them.

It was on the second day of walking that he found her. Four women, in a drainage ditch by the side of the road. He did not know the others. Glittering bluebottles rose as he lifted the familiar yellow headscarf to see what remained of her face. His stomach clenched as he breathed in the cloying stench, felt it absorb into his nostrils, his flesh. The bullet had destroyed the back of her head. He’d placed the icon in her hands, pulled down her skirt to cover her thighs. Sat beside her for an hour, maybe more. Eventually he got up to rejoin the dismal parade.

He’d kept walking. East to Erbil, then after a day or two at a camp, he’d walked north. At the border he’d sold the goddess for a couple of hundred dollars, glad to be rid of her. The money had been enough to get him into Turkey. From there, he’d called his brother.

If he had been with her. If he had stayed home that day, if they had left together. If they had left weeks before, months. If he had not wasted those minutes, trying to decide what to take.

He tipped the dirty water into the sink and watched it swirl. He had seen the video many times now, the men in white smashing their way through the Assyrian hall with sledgehammers. He imagined them forcing the curator to unlock the stores, hand over the precious pieces they had tried to save. He will refuse, thought Jalal, and they will kill him.

His brother told him not to watch the news. Iraq was finished. ‘Mourn Hanna. But think of yourself, your future. Don’t look back.’ His brother was young, he had plans. Jalal could not believe in his own existence. Nothing he did mattered. His work was undone daily, to be done again. All that made sense of him was in Mosul.

He filled a small bowl with warm water and liquid soap, then fetched the statue. You are four thousand years old, he told her. Her dead eyes had seen nothing of the centuries that separated the man who made her from the man who held her now. He used a sable brush to lift the dust from the statue, then bathed her to remove any remaining grime. He dried her with a clean cloth, burnishing the gold to a soft glow. He wrapped her in a duster and placed her in his overalls pocket.

That night, while his brother was at his English conversation class, Jalal swathed her in acid-free tissue paper and bubble wrap. He addressed the box with care: The Deputy Curator, Cultural Museum of Mosul, Mosul, Iraq. She, at least, could go home.

This story was first published in Mslexia magazine, summer 2015.