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  • Jacqueline Le Sueur

Parchment & Papyrus

Updated: Jan 28, 2020

First published on Sunday, 24 January 2010

I saw a man on the bus today on the way to an exhibition about ancient Egypt: his skin captivated me. He was standing next to me as we pulled into my bus stop. I hadn’t seen him board, lost in my podcast as I was; he simply materialised behind me like a shadow I didn’t know I had and equally as silently moved to my side.

He was Chinese, elderly, skin the burnt umber of a Sienna sun and eyes the colour of coal. Straight, slate grey hair shot through with white-crowned, eye-catching, baggy ears. Sunken cheeks, their surface pockmarked with acne of his long lost youth, played house to a gently ruminating jaw.

His dress was traditional for a man of his era - starched white shirt and black trousers bearing a knife-edge crease, their surfaces shining very slightly in the early afternoon sun. Through his shirt the ridges and valleys of his spine spoke of scoliosis; the feet in his flip flops were gnarled and dry.

He carried many denominators of his age but none more so than the skin of his arms. Loose and translucent, it all bunched up at his elbow as he reached overhead for the handhold as we came to a halt. Warm brown liver spots looked as if they’d been splattered over the surface by a wayward child let loose with a paint brush, and weaving through them the fragile indigo threads of his veins looked for all the world like sinuous writing.

And I guess in a way they were - his worn, dry skin the repository, inside and out, of the stories of his life. Thinned by time, indelibly marked by small scars. Just inside the neck of his shirt, on the top of his breastbone, were the faded remnants of an amulet tattoo. What other testimonies of his life were there etched in places I couldn’t see? I will never know.

An hour or so later I stood rapt in wonderment at a papyrus scroll over 3000 years old. Faded and worn, torn here and there, with hieroglyphs scratched by the scribe in spidery, pictorial lines from side to side, top to bottom.

Like the skin of the man on the bus this ancient document tells a story, in this case through chapters from The Book of the Dead.

The parchment of the old man’s skin speaks from The Book of the Living.

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