The Ceramicist is about a couple who meet an artist at a party, and what happens when they visit her in her studio. It is also about art and generosity, memory and forgetting:
We receive an invitation to the ceramicist’s open studio day, and I decide that we should go. Jim says, Experimental ceramics? Are you sure?
The ceramicist lives in a gently tilting house on the corner of The Hill, a desirable part of town where the houses are proud of their exposed sand-coloured brick, their facades wreathed in climbing roses.
The Ceramicist appears in Ambit 240, and it is my first print publication. Special thanks to Kiare Ladner for her brilliant, energising short story workshop at Collage Arts Writing Room in October-December 2019 which helped me to start writing again after a dry spell, and to Kate Pemberton and the editors of Ambit.
Uncle Leslie was a kind man with a huge dark face, his chin brushed with a beard, his head topped with a luxurious, curly Afro. He looked like John Holt on the cover of 1,000 Volts, except that his nose wasn’t straight. It was broad, proudly Jamaican. I used to watch him play records: Gregory, Bob, The Mighty Diamonds, Marcia Griffiths, while talking and drinking with Dad, Mum and Aunty Monica. I was fascinated by the way he would slip the disc out of its sleeve and hold the edge in the ridge of his thumb, with a finger holding it steady on the underside of the disc. He would place it on the turntable and move the arm to the beginning. I would hear that gentle gulp sound as the stylus made contact with the vinyl. The record would spin, 33 1/3, and I would watch the label turn: Island’s palm tree upside down, the Trojan helmet against orange and white, mouth open like a skull. I was a small girl who lived for Top of the Pops, but I was steeped in reggae. There was no contradiction.
On one particular visit, I was playing outside with Aunty Monica’s cats, who had been banished to the garden for one too many accidents on the sitting room carpet, when I heard a familiar tune, one of my favourites, an English guy’s squawking approximation of a reggae singer’s croon:
bed’s too big without you
cold wind blows right through that open door
I couldn’t believe my ears. Uncle Leslie was playing The Police! I went back indoors to listen. The song lasted longer than the version I was used to. He had the 12” single! It’s a good tune Sone, he said. I was Sone to him, that drawn-out ‘o’ letting me know he was from elsewhere, a place where elongated vowels matter.
He nodded and turned up the volume, notched up the bass a little, both men clouded in cigarette smoke while Aunty Monica, my mum drank Babycham and chatted about Aunty Monica’s latest night school achievements. Their voices blurred into a background hum as I followed the bass of the extended dub.
I felt so proud that my music – mere pop music – was good enough to be played by Uncle Leslie, reggae enough to have a place in his collection. I felt such love for my nearly-uncle, one of so many Jamaican men, first-generation Black Britons who have come and gone.
For Leslie & Monica Henry, for Stanley & Maureen Hope.
i) The Runaways, June 1984
Kay and I are best friends. We’ve just left school, forever. We are three weeks into the summer holidays, and I’m walking to her house down the North Circular Road. The grass verge with its pink cherry trees that runs between the dual carriageways is beautiful, like a postcard from the country. I love the familiar smell of cherry blossom mixed with ever-present traffic fumes.
I have my homemade map with me. Kay will tease me a bit because I’ve bothered to bring it, but then she will take out hers from her wardrobe and we’ll put them together. The only roads and buildings we include are the ones that matter to us: my house. Kay’s house. The A406 from Edmonton to Palmer’s Green, the sharp left of the road onto Green Lanes. On mine, the way to Kay’s house is drawn as a sharp backwards ‘L’ with a dislocated tail. Our maps are more like constellations, felt tip dreams of our reality.
Kay and I became interested in maps when we joined the Science Club at school. It was run by our unfeasibly good-looking science teacher, Mr Forster. We were fascinated by his laborious experiments to measure longitude and latitude: building a quadrant, waiting for the midday sun. We had to take his word for it when it came to working out latitude and identifying the North Star, because we were forbidden from meeting him at night. But our imaginations soared. We called ourselves the Mappers, and spent hours poring over ordinance survey maps and atlases in the school library.
We agreed that we would run away today – only for a day. Kay thinks it will take my mind off the fact that I failed all my O’ levels except two: Maths and Physics.
‘Let’s catch the 29 bus all the way to Trafalgar Square and wonder down the Thames towards Docklands,’ Kay suggested. ‘Don’t worry. In twenty year’s time school exams won’t seem so important anymore.’
I’m not sure I believe her.
ii) A Baby, August 1992
I receive a letter from Kay. It begins,
Guess what? I’ve had a baby! It’s a boy, 7lbs 9oz. I’m so happy! The labour was hell, though, I could barely walk afterwards!! Dave’s been brilliant, he’s going to be a great Dad…
I begin to lose interest. Kay writes that they are going to christen the baby Perry, which is a horrible name. She regrets that I couldn’t come to their wedding (that was a year ago), is sorry that I missed their housewarming party.
I concentrate on the hum and trundle of washing machines and dryers from the launderette beneath my flat. I stare down at the busy street full of shoppers through my living room window.
When we were teenagers, Kay and I said that we cared about most in the world is freedom, and in order to remain free we wouldn’t have kids. We didn’t tell anyone about this. It was the Mappers’ secret. Kay has broken the pact between us. Worse, she’s obviously forgotten that we made the pact in the first place. We are no longer the Mappers.
iii) On Not Meeting, March 2004
I’m forty. My soul is lost to Barclay’s Bank and banking is what I do for a living. The Maths O’ level came in handy. I’m divorced, I kept the Mappers’ pact. I travel to work, walking from my flat to Turnpike Lane station. I get the tube to Moorgate, and walk five minutes to the bank. If I was still updating my map, I would represent this journey with one-dimensional Monopoly houses of different colours (red for home and green for work) and a tangle of felt tip lines to indicate direction and method of transport. It would make sense.
I have an account on the Friends Reunited website. I waste time scrolling through the profiles of my ex-school acquaintances, now remarkably transformed into happy, successful adults. I look at Kay’s profile occasionally, and she is now on Baby Number Four. Kay posts pictures of camping holidays and family Christmases, and nights out with work colleagues. One day, unexpectedly, after years of silence I receive this message:
Hiya! It’s Kay – great to find you on here, it’s been ages!
We send each other messages, promise to catch up, make a date to meet. But now we are plotted on a map not made by us I want to erase the timeline.
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