I might as well say, right from the jump: it wasn’t my usual kind of job.
I like to work alone, in my own clean, silent, well-lit laboratory, where the climate is controlled and everything I need is right at hand. It’s true that I have developed a reputation as someone who can work effectively out of the lab, when I have to, when the museums don’t want to pay the travel insurance on a piece, or when private collectors don’t want anyone to know exactly what it is that they own. It’s also true that I’ve flown halfway around the world, to do an interesting job. But never to a place like this: the boardroom of a bank in the middle of a city where they just stopped shooting at each other five minutes ago.
For one thing, there are no guards hovering over me at my lab at home. I mean, the museum has a few quiet security professionals cruising around, but none of them would ever dream of intruding on my work space. Not like the crew here. Six of them. Two were bank security guards, two were Bosnian police, here to keep an eye on the bank security, and the other two were United Nations peacekeepers, here to keep an eye on the Bosnian police. All having loud conversations in Bosnian or Danish over their crackly radio handsets. As if that wasn’t enough of a crowd, there was also the official UN observer, Hamish Sajjan. My first Scottish Sikh, very dapper in Harris tweed and an indigo turban. Only in the UN. I’d had to ask him to point out to the Bosnians that smoking wasn’t going to be happening in a room that would shortly contain a fifteenth-century manuscript. Since then, they’d been even more fidgety.
I was starting to get fidgety myself. We’d been waiting for almost two hours. I’d filled the time as best I could. The guards had helped me reposition the big conference table nearer to the window, to take advantage of the light. I’d assembled the stereo microscope and laid out my tools: documentation cameras, probes, and scalpels. The beaker of gelatin was softening on its warming pad, and the wheat paste, linen threads, gold leaf were laid out ready, along with some glassine envelopes in case I was lucky enough to find any debris in the binding — it’s amazing what you can learn about a book by studying the chemistry of a bread crumb. There were samples of various calfskins, rolls of handmade papers in different tones and textures, and foam forms positioned in a cradle, ready to receive the book. If they ever brought the book.
“Any idea how much longer we’re going to have to wait?” I asked Sajjan. He shrugged.
“I think there is a delay with the representative from the National Museum. Since the book is the property of the museum, the bank cannot remove it from the vault unless he is present.”
Restless, I walked to the windows. We were on the top floor of the bank, an Austro-Hungarian wedding cake of a building whose stuccoed facade was speckled with mortar pockmarks just like every other structure in the city. When I put my hand on the glass, the cold seeped through. It was supposed to be spring; down in the small garden by the bank’s entrance, the crocuses were blooming. But it had snowed earlier that morning, and the bowl of each small flower brimmed with a foam of snowflakes, like tiny cups of cappuccino. At least the snow made the light in the room even and bright. Perfect working light, if only I could get to work.
Simply to be doing something, I unrolled some of my papers — French-milled linen. I ran a metal ruler over each sheet, working it flat. The sound of the metal edge traveling across the large sheet was like the sound of the surf I can hear from my flat at home in Sydney.I noticed that my hands were shaking. Not a good thing in my line of work.
My hands are not what you’d call one of my better features. Chapped, wattled across the back, they don’t look like they belong on my wrists, which I am happy to report are slender and smooth like the rest of me. Charwoman’s hands, my mother called them, the last time we argued. After that, when I had to meet her at the Cosmopolitan for coffee — brief, correct, the pair of us brittle as icicles — I wore a pair of gloves from the Salvos as a sort of piss-take. Of course, the Cosmopolitan is probably the only place in Sydney where someone might miss the irony in that gesture. My mother did. She said something about getting me a hat to match.
In the bright snow light, my hands looked even worse than usual, all ruddy and peeling from scouring the fat off cow gut with a pumice stone. When you live in Sydney, it’s not the simplest thing in the world to get a meter of calf ‘s intestine. Ever since they moved the abattoir out of Homebush and started to spruce the place up for the 2000 Olympics, you have to drive, basically, to woop woop, and then when you finally get there, there’s so much security in place because of the animal libbers you can barely get in the gate. It’s not that I blame them for thinking I was a bit sketchy. It’s hard to grasp right off the bat why someone might need a meter of calf ‘s appendix. But if you are going to work with five-hundred-year-old materials, you have to know how they were made five hundred years ago. That’s what my teacher, Werner Heinrich, believed. He said you could read about grinding pigments and mixing gesso all you like, but the only way to understand is to actually do it. If I wanted to know what words like cutch and schoder really described, I had to make gold leaf myself: beat it and fold it and beat it again, on something it won’t stick to, like the soft ground of scoured calf intestine. Eventually, you’ll have a little packet of leaves each less than a thousandth of a millimeter thick. And you’ll also have horrible-looking hands.
I made a fist, trying to smooth out the old-lady wattle skin. Also to see if I could stop the trembling. I’d been nervous ever since I changed planes in Vienna the day before. I travel a lot; you basically have to, if you live in Australia and want a piece of the most interesting projects in my field, which is the conservation of medieval manuscripts. But I don’t generally go to places that are datelines in war correspondents’ dispatches. I know there are people who go in for that sort of thing and write great books about it, and I suppose they have some kind of “It can’t happen to me” optimism that makes it possible for them. Me, I’m a complete pessimist. If there’s a sniper somewhere in the country I’m visiting, I fully expect to be the one in his crosshairs.
Even before the plane landed, you could see the war. As we broke through the gray swag of cloud that seems to be the permanent condition of the European sky, the little russet-tiled houses hugging the Adriatic looked familiar at first, just like the view I’m used to, down over the red rooftops of Sydney to the deep blue arc of Bondi Beach. But in this view, half the houses weren’t there anymore. They were just jagged bits of masonry, sticking up in ragged rows like rotting teeth.
There was turbulence as we went over the mountains. I couldn’t bring myself to look as we crossed into Bosnia so I pulled down the window shade. The young bloke next to me — aid worker, I guessed, from the Cambodian scarf and the gaunt malarial look of him — obviously wanted to look out, but I ignored his body language and tried to distract him with a question.
“So, what brings you here?”
I was tempted to say something really borderline like, “Business booming?” but managed, uncharacteristically, to restrain myself. And then we landed, and he was up, with every single other person in the plane, jostling in the aisle, ferreting around in the overhead bins. He shouldered an immense rucksack and then proceeded to almost break the nose of the man crowding the aisle behind him. The lethal backpacker ninety-degree turn. You see it on the bus at Bondi all the time.
The cabin door finally opened, and the passengers oozed forward as if they were glued together. I was the only one still seated. I felt as if I’d swallowed a stone that was pinning me to my spot.
“Dr. Heath?” The flight attendant was hovering in the emptied aisle.
I was about to say, “No, that’s my mother,” when I realized she meant me. In Australia only prats flaunt their PhDs. I certainly hadn’t checked in as anything other than Ms.
“Your United Nations escort is waiting on the tarmac.” That explained it. I’d already noticed, in the run-up to accepting this gig, that the UN liked to give everyone the fl ashiest possible handle.
“Escort?” I repeated stupidly. “Tarmac?” They’d said I’d be met, but I thought that meant a bored taxi driver holding a sign with my name misspelled. The flight attendant gave me one of those big, perfect, German smiles. She leaned across me and flung up the drawn shade. I looked out. Three huge, amor-plated, tinted-window vans, the kind they drive the American president around in, stood idling by the plane’s wingtip. What should have been a reassuring sight only made the stone in my gut a ton heavier. Beyond them, in long grass posted with mine-warning signs in various languages, I could see the rusting hulk of a huge cargo plane that must have missed the runway during some earlier unpleasantness. I looked back at Fräulein Smiley-Face.
“I thought the cease fire was being observed,” I said.
“It is,” she said brightly. “Most days. Do you need any assistance with your hand luggage?”
I shook my head, and bent to tug out the heavy case wedged tightly under the seat in front of me. Generally, airlines don’t like collections of sharp metal things on board, but the Germans are great respecters of trades, and the check-in clerk understood when I explained how I hate to check my tools in case they end up touring Europe without me while I sit on my rear end unable to do my work.
I love my work. That’s the thing. That’s why, despite being a world-class coward, I agreed to take this job. To be honest, it never occurred to me not to take it. You don’t say no to the chance to work on one of the rarest and most mysterious volumes in the world.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from PEOPLE OF THE BOOK Copyright © Geraldine Brooks, 2008
The above is an excerpt from the book People of the Book
by Geraldine Brooks
Published by Penguin Books; December 2008;$15.00US/$16.50CAN; 978-0-14-311500-7
Copyright © 2008 Geraldine Brooks
Geraldine Brooks is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of March and Year of Wonders and the nonfiction works Nine Parts of Desire and Foreign Correspondence. Previously. Brooks was a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal in Bosnia, Somalia, and the Middle East. Born and raised in Australia, she lives on Martha’s Vineyard with her husband Tony Horwitz, their son Nathaniel, and three dogs.