"Thus open the gates of paradise."

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Keith Aiken

17 Oct 2004

Keith on the Wenis Causeway,
December 2001. Saqqara, Egypt.

I've been putting off writing about Keith for more than is a decent amount of time. He died last month, in September 2004.

I first noticed (as opposed to "met")  Keith in an Egyptology course I took at the ROM about 6 years ago. I last saw him at ROM lecture earlier this year fort he "Eternal Egypt" exhibition. But I guess it's the years in between that need some explanation.

There is a group of people with whom I feel quite close, though I mostly only see them in  basement classroom in the ROM in Toronto. It's almost always a course given by Egyptologist Gayle Gibson, something that tends to attract a core set of students in addition to a those who come and go. The lectures would run for about 90 minutes, break for 15 - 20 minutes, and then go on for another hour or so. We mostly dashed upstairs to the cafeteria for coffee/tea and cookies.

"Never run up stairs," he once told me, as I was taking them two at a time, thinking more about a hot cup of coffee than anything else. He said this very plainly; it wasn't a suggestion or a request, and yet I knew he was right, and continued the climb more carefully. To this day, I still hear his voice when I catching myself skipping steps on the way to the top of a staircase.

And so it's ironic that when some of Gayle's students found themselves in Cairo a couple of years back, it was Keith himself who took a tumble on the stairs down to the subway at Tahrir Square, near the Egyptian Museum. He was fine, apart from a bump to the head, and subsequently wore brightly coloured kids' band-aid on his forehead for the next couple of days.

"I was a soldier, you know." It seemed that if you talked to Keith long enough, you could eventually tease a story or two out of him from his days in Egypt when he was a solider for the British Army. "We weren't supposed to be there," he would begin, most mysteriously, and then recall the days as a young man when he did what young British men still do today in the Middle East -- maintain the peace, and stop terrorists. This was all 50 years ago, illustrating once again that some things never do change.

But the story I think he got the most pleasure out of telling is how he met and married his wife, Anne, how she had been initially dating his brother, but that once she saw Keith, that was it. That too, was years ago, and she remained the love of his life to this day.

There was a reception at the Aiken house following his funeral. It was there I first saw his library -- a massive collection of books on history, militaria, numismatics, and anything else that was in any way decent, including "When In Doubt,  Mumble", and "Cover Your Ass!", two titles on surviving the government workplace of the 1970s. His friends and family had also brought together a collection of pictures from Keith's life: as a young man in the army, marriage, the birth of children, paling around with friends, the birth of  grandchildren, and then into old age -- the whole arc of his life, in photos, filed in albums and stuck onto white bristol borad.

It's this sort of thing that makes me realize that I barely knew Keith at all, that he really was on the periphery of my life,  and that no amount of recounting his stories, or our shared experiences could now change that.