I’m having trouble sleeping so I just sat here writing, and this came to fruition. First little story I’ve written in a while, so apologies if there are any glaring grammatical errors. Also, I don’t know whether they’d even let Primary School kids play with plaster of Paris these days. Health and Safety…
The Potter and the Clay
_______‘What’s wrong?’ I asked, searching my pockets for a clean tissue.
_______‘I don’t know,’ she said, dabbing her eyes with the back of her fingers ‘I just don’t know.’
There was something soft in my pocket. I pulled it out, but it was a tissue I had used earlier in the morning, I replaced it.
_______‘You must have some idea?’
_______‘Well, you know… you know what this is about.’
_______‘Oh,’ I said. She was looking down at her lap. I detected slight movements in her arms that seemed to indicate she was playing with the pleats of her skirt. I placed two spoonfuls of sugar in my cup and stirred.
_______‘I want to tell you a story.’
_______‘A story?’ She looked up with wet, red eyes. My hands began automatically searching for a clean tissue. I reminded myself gently that I had none.
_______‘I was working at a school in Derbyshire, a primary school in the middle of nowhere. It was an idyllic place; the school was surrounded by fields in all but one direction, and the headmaster had a relationship with one of the local farmers such as, when the fields were not in use, the children could play on them. In summer we’d often take them outside for lessons, teaching maths, English, or science outside whilst the weather was warm.’
_______Jenny nodded and wiped her face with a tissue she had found in her handbag.
_______‘I decided to take my class out into the fields for our art lesson thinking I could kill two birds with one stone; we could all make the most of the weather, and the mess that would inevitably occur from the plaster of Paris would simply end up in the field. I’d have no mess to clean up, the kids would enjoy themselves, and we’d all go home happy. So I’d taken them all to one side of the field where the trees grow thickest and sat them all under the shade. I went through what we were going to do, and gave each child a mould which they could pour the plaster into. I can’t remember exactly what the moulds were now, but I distinctly remember there being only a very small amount of moulds in the stationary cupboard – so I’d taken two handfuls of two different shapes. They were something hopelessly gender-specific, like cars for the boys and rabbits for the girls, or something silly, but I had no other option. There was also only a small amount of powder left, which lead me to believe that some of the other teachers had had the same idea I’d had, but operated sooner. Perhaps they’d lost or kept some of the moulds in their lessons.’
_______‘Yeah, sorry. So we start the lesson and I mixed up this big batch of plaster of Paris. I help all of the kids pour the plaster into the moulds and then I tell them to leave them alone whilst they set, but these are young kids, and they’re picking up the moulds and feeling them as they harden, shaking them around, pressing them in and opening them up, and I’m there running around from kid to kid, making sure none of it gets in their eyes or mouths or whatever. So then I have this idea, I say something like, ‘the boy or girl with the best rabbit or car gets a star’, hoping they’ll all behave. They calm down a little, but there’s still a lot of mould-pinching and pushing.’
_______‘More tea?’ says a voice by my ear.
_______‘Oh, sorry?’ I turn to the waitress beside me, ‘Urr, yes – well, no. Coffee for me, please. Black, no sugar. Do you want tea?’
_______‘No, thank you,’ said Jenny, ‘I never took you for a coffee drinker.’
_______‘I’m not, really, but it smells good here. I like good coffee, not the instant stuff.’
_______‘Anyway, go on.’
_______‘Yes. So the plaster sets and I start going round helping each of the children open the moulds and write their initials on the bottom. We put them all on a light plastic table I’d taken out there for the kids to sit around when decorating, and I chose one car and one rabbit that I thought had come out the best. I picked up the car, read out the initials, and the boy I’d expected to ‘win’ had won.’
_______‘How did you know he would win?’
_______‘He found insects more interesting than plaster of Paris. I had a hard time encouraging him to hold the mould as I poured the plaster in, so it seemed appropriate that after I’d forced the activity into his hands he’d go back to watching the insects instead of poking the art.’
_______‘So I gave the boy a star and he was happy. Then I picked out a rabbit and read out the initials, H. S. I still remember them. Hannah Sampson. I read out her name, but she didn’t answer, and for a minute I was worried I’d lost her but she was there, on the fringes of the group, holding her eyes.’
_______‘She’d got it in her eyes?’
_______‘I’d figured as much, so I rushed over with the water – ’
_______‘ – you hadn’t given them goggles?’
_______‘No, no. I’d given them goggles, but they wouldn’t always keep them on.’
_______‘Oh okay, Good.’
_______‘So I rushed over with the water and she was sobbing really quietly, not bawling like she was in pain, but just tearing up. So I took her hands away from her eyes just to check that everything was okay, and she was fine. Nothing there. No powder, no plaster. So I asked her what was wrong and she said, ‘the rabbit’. ‘What’s wrong with the rabbit?’ I asked, and she said something like, ‘I want my rabbit! I want my rabbit!’ So I took her over to the table and gave her her rabbit, and said ‘here it is, here’s your rabbit’ and she stopped for a second, looked at it, then started crying again. I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know if it was a personal thing – perhaps her family had had a rabbit in the past and it had died, perhaps she was hoping for a real rabbit – I had no idea. Then she said, ‘it’s not my rabbit. It’s not mine. I want my rabbit.’ I showed her the underside of the sculpture but she still wasn’t happy, despite the H. S. on the underside in her handwriting. I didn’t know what else to do then, so I gave her a star and spent the rest of the afternoon trying to calm her down.’
_______The waitress came over with my coffee. I cupped it in my hands, raised it to my nose, closed my eyes and breathed it in. When I opened my eyes Jenny was staring at me quizzically from across the table.
_______‘Have I missed something? Is that the end of the story?’
_______‘For Hannah it was, but you’re right, it wasn’t really the end – not for me, anyway. I realised later when the kids had gone home what the whole incident was about. The rabbit wasn’t hers. None of the rabbits belonged to any of the kids. The moulds had all been my moulds, the plaster was my plaster, and though they had held the moulds I had been the one pouring, and then had kept an eye on them afterwards. The rabbits and cars had come out different to one another certainly, due to the various pressures the kids had put on them, but the shapes were essentially the same.’
_______‘So, I’d forced that upon them, and I think she knew that. She realised she’d had no choice, she was in an environment of complete inaction. Not only that, but I was actively encouraging further inaction by saying, ‘leave the moulds alone and you’ll get a star’. It wasn’t art, in no way was it art, it was pure force – that of containing the plaster within a mould, as you might contain a child’s behaviour, and that of the pouring; of nourishing those children only with the things I had chosen. I had acted as a dictator that day, and perhaps she knew it.’
_______I raised the cup to my mouth, took a sip, then looked at Jenny; at that poor receptacle shaped into her husband’s image which he would pour himself into daily, nightly, between the sheets and at the breakfast table, forcing selected headlines down her, into her, pouring situations, excuses, apologies, hopes and fears into that woman who sat opposite me poor and prodded, pricked, pinched and pressed by her own conscience.
_______She looked at me, puzzled.
© Hayden Westfield Bell, 2013 (and all that crap).