The odd shaped domes, atop the squat towers of the little church, gleamed silver in the last rays of the setting sun as the old man paused to catch his breath. He clasped his precious parcel to his chest. The new building seems toy-like to local eyes, with its yellow bricks highlighted with brown, for all the world like a children’s construction kit; but to him it was familiar despite its newness. A sudden nostalgia seized him, churning his stomach and catching his breath. He drew the sleeve of his free arm across his eyes. Vasili Ivanovitch had nearly reached his goal.
He paused to allow the stitch in his side to relent, he had walked ten kilometers from the railway station, and stood at the end of the long path that led to the door. The church, a cathedral in miniature, seemed to have been transplanted from the old country and looked incongruous surrounded by empty Australian paddocks. Clutching his precious burden, he started on this, his last, lap, the dim lights sparkling through the stained glass a beckoning beacon.
Father Dimitri hummed tunelessly to himself as prepared to leave for the night. It had been a long long day. His volunteer assistants had left more than an hour ago, but he had found it hard to leave undone those things that demanded immediate attention if he were to ready the new church for its initial service, the birth of Saint Sophia’s Orthodox church, Bangholme. The founding ceremony was almost upon them, the Metropolitan himself had promised to attend, and he, Dimitri, must welcome him to his new church. He felt tremendously proud, and thoroughly intimidated. Everything must be perfect for this Day of Days. He began to switch off the lights. The colourful interior succumbed to the dusk but the muted tones still glowed with a richness that warmed his heart. He turned to set the newfangled alarm system insisted on by the insurance company. Who would steal from a church? He sighed and reached up to the numerical pad. A timid knock on the door stayed his hand. He switched on the porch light and answered the door. He saw an old man.
Vasili saw a priest of his faith. Young man, hardly forty, black beard showing no sign of grey, slightly harried expression which rapidly gained authority as he fell into his role. “Greetings, my son, and how may I help you?” He spoke in English so Vasili answered in that language.
“I bring gift for church, for Saints day of Church.” And with both hands he proffered the oblong package.
“Come in, Come in.” said the priest, and led the way into a little office untidy with paper strewn desk and half unpacked cartons. He swept some packing materials of a chair. “Sit here.”
Vasili sat, his package across his knees. Once more he offered it to Dimitri who looked doubtfully at the plastic wrappings which bore the name of a well-known supermarket.
“Tell me about yourself. Where are you from? I haven’t seen you in this district before. I’m sure 1 have visited all the families we know of round here.”
“I travel long journey, many miles, many years. I do this to bring you gift. Take it please.”
On the third offering, the priest took the parcel. It was heavier than he expected and felt very solid beneath its plastic covering. “What have we here?”
The old man was silent as Dimitri placed the package on the desk and began to unwrap it. Beneath the plastic was a tough canvas cover, sewn tightly shut with small neat stitches. Wordlessly the old man proffered a large penknife. Thanking him, the priest cut the securing stitching and unwrapped its contents. All he could see was a blank piece of board; some close grained wood with the patina of age. Vasili looked at him expectantly.
“Over.” he said. The priest turned the board over, and for a moment the world stood still. On his desk, enamel colours glowing as if they had just been painted, was an icon depicting the Virgin and child embracing. “Not Copy!” Vasili stated firmly “Very old!”
Scarcely daring to believe his eyes, Dimitri gazed on an example of Byzantine art, which, if genuine, was priceless. There was no way that it could be Our Lady of Vladimer, that was in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. But it was not a copy, the pose was different. Perhaps it was a Russian work in the Umileniye style known as Merciful or Compassionate. Dimitri looked closer; it was very old, there were tiny cracks in the paint but the colours were undimmed. “Tell me.” he ordered.
An hour later, the old man’s story came to an end. According to him, the painting had been taken from his church in the Ukraine and placed in a museum. “Stolen,” he said. “Stolen! so I took it back!” The rest of the tale was of Vasili’s flight from the Soviet Union during the war, the displaced persons’ camps in post war Germany, emigration to Australia and, all the while, the secret of the hidden painting. When he heard of the consecration of the new church, he decided it was time for the painting’s return.
The priest’s head was in a whirl. If the painting was a genuine twelfth century Byzantine art work there was no way he could keep it. It was a national art treasure. Yes, but whose nation? The Icon had been stolen from a Russian museum, but it had initially been stolen from a Ukrainian church. Perhaps God has intended it for St Sophia’s. He didn’t know what to think. Was it pride that made him want to keep the Icon for his new church, it would certainly put it on the map. What would the bishop say? The Archbishop, the Metropolitan himself. Dimitri put his head in his hands. Belatedly he thought of his benefactor, “If you’ll hold on a few seconds, I’ll drive you back to Dandenong.” But when he looked up the old man had gone. The painting, breath taking in its beauty, smiled up at him.
Propping it up against some books, Dimitri knelt before it and prayed.
(c) Copyright H.St.V.Beechey, 1994