Monday, October 7, 2019

Mosaic By Steve Haywood

Derek's granddaughter is digging for shards of pottery in the garden while he reflects on his life and career in Steve Haywood's sweetly sentimental story.

It was a hot day for April. Derek peeled off first his jacket and then his sweater as he toiled in the warmth of the mid-afternoon sun. The spade dug deep, sliding through the soft clay soil like a knife through butter. He lifted a wedge of soil out of the ground and upturned it next to the newly made hole. The soil was dark, almost black, except for a small creamy white shard sticking up like a crescent moon shining against a midnight sky.

"Grandpa, we found another one!" He smiled at Amelia as she dived in to retrieve the newly found treasure, curly golden locks bouncing off her slim shoulders.

"So we did! Does it have any patterns on it?"

Amelia wiped the mud off on her sleeve before shaking her head sadly. "Just another plain one."

"Never mind, there'll be plenty more where that came from. Help me plant the potatoes and then we can do some more digging."

Patiently he showed Amelia how to scatter the fertiliser pellets into the newly dug hole and then wrap the potatoes in a thin sheet of yesterday's newspaper, making sure the creamy white shoots were facing up. Amelia knelt down on the ground and scooped up soil from the side to fill the holes in.

This should be one of those perfect days, Derek thought to himself; fresh air, warm sunshine, an afternoon with his beloved granddaughter. It should be, except it wasn't. It was one bright star against a dark sky, a lone shaft of sunlight on a dull grey day. No come on, that's not right, he told himself; stop being so morose. There were other bright stars in his firmament; Vera for one, his soulmate and best friend. There were flashes of colour in there too - great holidays, family celebrations, one or two really good days. They just didn't add up to anything. Since his retirement last year, he'd been feeling down more often. He'd lost the anchor that his work, dull though it was, had given him. The problem was, he'd got to sixty-six years of age and yet had never found his calling, never worked out what he wanted to do. Now it was almost too late; he was rapidly picking up pace on the downhill slope to the finish line. He'd always sought out some coherent narrative for his life, one inevitably with ups and downs but always managing to overcome each setback to scale new heights. He'd always thought when he got to this age he'd be looking back on life's journey with some satisfaction. That wasn't the way his life was though; instead it was full of jagged pieces and random chunks, scattered across the years, adding up to nothing much.

"Can we do some digging now? Can we? Please!"

"Let's stop and have a drink first shall we? Let an old man get his breath back? I've got biscuits too."

"Oh, alright then."

Derek poured out the orange juice into two plastic beakers. "Here you go, a green cup for a green fingered girl."

She laughed indignantly. "They're not green Grandpa! They're all brown and dirty."

"Green fingered means good at growing things little one, and I think you'll grow up to be green fingered."

"What about your blue cup? What does that mean?"

He thought about it for the moment. He was going to say how he felt blue sometimes, but at nine years of age life for Amelia was all bright and beautiful. He wanted to ensure it stayed that way for as long as possible. "Blue as in the sky. You need sunny days like this to make the green things grow."

She giggled again. "You are silly Grandpa."

They went back to work, digging another neat row of holes for the potatoes. Every now and then there would be a squeal of delight from Amelia as she found another piece of pottery. "Look Grandpa, this one's got a pattern on!"

Sure enough the off-white fragment, no bigger than his thumb, had the outline of an intricate leaf pattern on it, the brown glazed lines standing out against the mottled background. Amelia once again used her sleeve as a cleaning cloth before swishing it in the watering can and leaving it out to dry in the sun. It joined the growing collection of other pieces of broken pottery.

"Why are there so many bits of pottery here? I hardly ever find any in our garden at home."

"Well, you know we call this whole area the Potteries? Do you know why?"

"Because you can find lots of pottery in the ground?"

He chuckled. "Good answer Amelia, but why can you find so much pottery in the ground?"

Amelia just shrugged. "Dunno."

"It's because they used to make lots of pots here. Cups, plates, bowls, saucers, you name it, they made it here." He crouched down and pointed into the distance. "Can you see that funny shaped building over there just peeping over the tops of those houses?"

Amelia squinted. "Yes! It is a very strange building. It looks like a gigantic bottle made out of bricks."

"Well you're spot on. That's exactly what it is. It's called a bottle kiln and it was there that they used to make the pottery. Once this whole area would have been full of pottery factories and bottle kilns like that one. It's not surprising there's so many bits of broken pottery in the ground here."

"Can we look for some more, please Grandpa?"

"Well go on then. We've got another row of potatoes to dig, but then we really need to be getting back home for dinner. We don't want to keep Grandma waiting."



Amelia was desperate to show off her finds to Grandma. After she had helped clear away the dinner plates, and Grandma had made a pot of tea, she finally had her chance. She tipped the plastic ice cream tub containing the pottery onto the table.

"What do you think, aren't they lovely?"

They both nodded their agreement.

"Which is your favourite? Mine's this red one here, the colours are just so bright!"

"I like them all honey," Grandma said diplomatically. That however wasn't a good enough answer for Amelia.

"No you must have a favourite, which is it?"

Grandma dutifully studied them. After a while she picked out a small, delicate piece that looked like it had come from a fine china teacup. "I like this one best."

"Ooh I like that one, good choice Grandma. What is that blue symbol on it, I don't recognise it?"

"It's a fleur de lis. It's French for lily flower. The fleur de lis was the symbol of French kings and queens."

"Wow! So this was on the king's dinner table?"

Grandma laughed. "Sadly not. This was a very popular symbol at one time. It looks like it was part of a teacup or a saucer. There would probably have been lots of them, perhaps as a border round the edge."

"Grandpa says there were lots of pottery factories round here a long time ago."

"Not too long ago. Did you know that Grandpa's father worked in a pottery factory? Do you want to know what job he did?"

Derek rolled his eyes. He knew what was coming.

Amelia nodded eagerly. "Tell me, what was it?"

Grandma smiled mischievously. "He was a Saggermaker's Bottom Knocker."

Amelia giggled. "That's silly, there's no such thing!"

"Oh there was. Ask your Grandpa."

Derek sighed. "My father worked in a pottery factory just down the road from here. He was a Bottom Knocker when he was a young man, before I was born, just learning the trade he was. After he became more skilled, he went on to make lots of fine pottery."

"But what is a sagga wotsit wotsit?"

"Saggermaker's Bottom Knocker? Well, when you made nice looking pottery, you didn't just want to put it straight in the kiln..." Seeing Amelia looking confused he said, "That's a sort of big oven where you cook the clay pots to make them go all hard and shiny. Well if you put your lovely decorated pots straight in the kiln, they might get damaged, so you put them in special clay containers called saggars. It was a skilled job, but making the bottom was the easiest bit, so they used to give that to the young apprentices..."

"I'm going to try and see if I can fit the pieces together," Amelia said. "It's just like a funny looking jigsaw after all."

While she sorted all the pieces on the table, Derek sat back, cup of tea in hand, thinking back over fifty years. When he was a young boy, he'd always thought he'd go to work in one of the pottery factories, maybe Middleport or Doulton. It's what most young men in the Potteries did when they left school.

"I think I'd have made a good potter you know," he said finally.

His wife scoffed. "Here we go again..."

"Why didn't you Grandpa?" Amelia asked without looking up.

"Lots of pottery factories were closing down then. Other countries started making the stuff cheaper, then there was plastic and other materials that were becoming popular. They stopped taking on new apprentices, and eventually started getting rid of many of the workers they already had. It was a sad time."

"You wouldn't have liked it," his wife said. "Long days of hard graft. We wouldn't have had a nice house, holidays to Spain, all the good things. We'd have been poor."

Derek shrugged. "Perhaps. You knew where you were with a job like that though. You could come home at the end of the day and you'd made something. As time went by, you'd get better at it; you'd progress, and have a job for life. Not like me. A career spent in a series of pointless jobs, mainly in boring airless offices, nothing to show for it at the end of the day..."

"It's not fair, none of them match up," Amelia said, interrupting their discussion. "There's no more than two that go together. There's plain ones and patterned ones, ones with writing, fiery red ones, blue, green, brown. All from different things. This is useless!"

"Come on now, it's not useless," Grandma said. "They don't have to fit together, they're beautiful on their own. Sometimes, lots of beautiful individual parts that don't go together are much better than lots of dull, boring pieces that fit together like a jigsaw."

"I suppose..."

"Tell you what, why don't you make a mosaic picture out of all the pieces? I'm sure Grandpa can find you a piece of wooden board in the shed we can use as the base, and some strong glue."

As Derek went out to the shed to find the requested items, he thought about the individual pieces of pottery, all different sizes and shapes and colours. His life had been like that, one long jumble of bits and pieces. He'd had lots of different jobs, more hobbies that he could count and a long parade of friends that came and went. No real enduring connections, no common thread. Except Vera of course, forty-eight years married and counting. Maybe that was the point. The common thread was that there was no common thread. A full life, a busy life, was that enough in itself?

Back in the kitchen, Amelia had sorted all the pottery shards into different colour groups: all the creams and whites in one pile, the browns and blacks in another and then several smaller piles with varying shades of blues, greens and reds. She set to work.

He must have dozed off - he was doing that more and more these days - because when he awoke, the light outside the kitchen window had faded to a dusky hue, and the mosaic was all but complete. Amelia was just gluing the final pieces into place.

"What do you think Grandpa, do you like it?"

He looked at the picture for a long moment. It was a picture of a multi coloured heart against an off-white background. "I love it. It's perfect." Perhaps this was one of those perfect days after all.

3 comments:

  1. Cool story, the different elements of Derek's life all put together in a completed theme like Amelia's picture.

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  2. Well planned. Neat how the metaphor slowly revealed itself just when Derek needed it most.

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  3. Love it.
    Ties together so neatly and gave me a warmth I didn't expect.

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