Catherine's hair was palest ash blonde, styled by a master sculptor, cut close to her head, every strand perfectly, individually carved, wisps arriving delicately on her forehead, above the tiny pixie nose. Her eyes, brilliantly green, danced with the hope of spring, drew you in, drowned you in their emerald depths. Talking to her wasn't easy when you were so easily distracted by those eyes, as green as new grass.
Catherine. I had always loved that name.
Her father was a bishop, she told us once, defiantly, but she didn't see her parents now, only her sister. She was the black sheep, the wild child, she had disappointed them all. She was a painter, a potter, an art lecturer, still in her mid-twenties but enjoying a little success and approbation at last in her chosen field. What had she done to be "so bad" that her mother would not talk to her, her father refuse to have her in the house?
She was teaching an evening class in the pottery department of my local college, where I hoped to while away the time now that the children had left home. That first session she gave us no lumps of clay but sat us around an island of tables of different heights, of varied surfaces once, but now uniformly a scrubbed potter's grey. She led us in getting-to-know-you games, asking us in turn to make silly comments about ourselves or each other, and somehow we didn't recoil and rebuff but laughed and felt warmed by her intimacy. She got us thinking about what clay could do for us, before, the second week, giving us all a lump each to see what we could do with it.
I loved that white hair. I envied the subdued flamboyance of it, the bravery of the short cut which exposed temples, ears, neck, which made a statement that, myself, I had always lacked the courage to make. Was it too late at forty-five to die my mousy frizz blonde? I wanted to do it. I wanted to be like her, daring, challenging, loved by all around her. I knew I would never do it now. Anything I ventured, however bold and flamboyant, would be just an imitation, a poor reflection in a pitted mirror, a lesser, aged copy of her.
I was just old enough, and Catherine just young enough, that I knew I was looking at her down the gentle slope of time. She represented not just challenge and vitality but youth and lost past.
Nobody left her class. Most evening courses dwindle by some mysterious unstoppable process; 21 the first week, 16 the second, down to half a dozen by week five and the class struggles on before being abolished by an unsympathetic college administrator. The pottery class had a waiting list the second week, as we, the favoured, battered our bits of clay, carved them with potter's implements. The tables were scattered about the studio now, so that our muse could move among us, giving advice here, a pointer there, showing a technique, imparting secret knowledge. Next, she promised us, we would have a try at the wheel.
I wrestled with my resisting lump of clay, forming a simple disc, a round plaque, flat as my hopes of attracting the attention of our bright star, and imperfect, wavy around the edges, like the rest of my life. I cut miniature teddies, dolls, ships and other emblems of childhood and fixed them on my plaque, working the edges with water and sculpting tool so that the pieces were firmly attached and the whole smooth, with no points or edges to break off in the kiln. Then I started to carve the letters. It was a nameplate for the door of my long-gone daughter's room.
Catherine's hands were elegant, with long, slim, white fingers and pearly nails, natural, buffed, cut short. She handled the clay gently on the electrically driven wheel, coaxing the clay into a smooth tower, greyish-white liquid running in streams over the delicate skin of her hands. Like water trickling over soft skin, baby skin. I remembered my little ones in the bath as I squeezed the sponge on their shoulders and water sparkled down their thin backs.
Then Catherine pushed her fingers through the top and suddenly the tower became a squat bowl, then a tall vase. Up and down it went, as her expert hands teased it into one shape after another, the electric motor humming a note that made me want to sing a harmony. If I were the wheel or the clay under her hands, I too would sing.
Under my own, spade-like hands the damp clay refused to behave. My short stubby fingers could not make it dance as she had. My polished long nails pierced the shell and collapsed the clay pot so that there was nothing but a shapeless lump of clay turning, turning on the wheel.
Catherine pressed the switch, stopped the wheel. It took practice she said, almost smiling.
I must keep practicing, I told her. I want to make my eldest daughter something. My lovely daughter was always keen on making things with clay. I remembered her vividly, tall and ungainly with recent growth, her long dark hair hiding her face in adolescent awkwardness, standing behind a stall at her school's art and craft fair, selling exquisite models of animals she had made and painted herself. I'd never really appreciated the effort that had gone into it. I wanted her to get good grades in maths, science, languages, arranging extra tuition where she faltered.
Now, long after she'd left home and created a life for herself, I was trying to find out what it was about the clay which had attracted my daughter. I couldn't bring myself to tell Catherine this. What would she think of me?
I could see the attraction in the clay now. It came from the earth, it was amorphous, a blank, malleable. It could be shaped however the potter wished. There was no predefinition, the path was open. To mould clay was to create freedom. If what you created was flawed why then just crush it back to the unformed lump and start again. There was always another chance to create something wonderful.
I wanted to create, to be free. I'd laboured for years to make my family's home beautiful. I wasn't good at creative things like flower arranging or interior decorating, but I kept it simple, clean and neat. Always tidy, always spotless. Any child would be proud of a home like that, wouldn't they? But my children no longer visited, my husband locked himself in his study and hardly noticed the rest of the house. We seemed to have more to say to one another when we were out of the house, at an official function, or on one of the long walks which we'd taken up. Suddenly, the orderly house seemed stifling. There was no life in it. I wasn't that old, there was time to do more with my life, wasn't there?
I stabbed at my plaque. I couldn't even manage to make the potter's wheel spin for me. The wheel of life was too much to take on. There was a dent marring the level surface of the clay disc. I bent to smooth it away, carefully.
Catherine took my unresisting hands and placed them on the mound of clay on the wheel. She set the electric motor going, showed me, sitting close, how to keep the clay in the very centre so that I could manipulate it, form the grey mass into an elegant, symmetrical shape. Under my hands, with help from her magic, a tall vase grew.
She wanted to me to continue on my own, but I shook my head. Not yet.... perhaps not ever. I couldn't do it alone. How could I manage without her encouraging presence? But I could not beg her to stay with me, there were other novice potters awaiting her help. She offered us chunks of advice which we fixed to our clay creations with damp sponges and plastic knives. I met her eyes, making mute appeal. Catherine, stay with me. Come home with me. Illuminate my tidy plain living room, lend the green of your eyes to brighten up my scrubbed pale oak kitchen, let your graceful contours soften my square ash dining table.
She smiled and moved away. At the end of the session, she asked those of us who had completed pieces to leave them with her for firing. She offered us white or blue or oatmeal as a finish. We would learn later in the course much more about glazes, but it was time we had something to take home with us, they would be ready next week. Pieces not finished could be wrapped in damp cloths as usual and laid on our named shelves to work on further next week.
I presented her with the vase and the plaque. She was collecting pieces, some very beautiful, from far more talented students than I, and she did not look closely at mine. They were pitiful compared with the others and I made a movement to scoop them up, thinking to smash them into pieces, re-use the clay for another effort, but just then Catherine placed them carefully into a basket and bore them away.
The next week she was subdued. She gave us a lecture on ancient pottery and the different styles through the ages, and how to recognise them. She proposed a visit to a local museum to study the development of pottery more closely. The idea of spending a Saturday in her brilliant company was welcomed by all.
She handed out our fired pots at the end, as her students filed out one by one, examining these first efforts, more real now they were glazed in shiny white, smooth blue or speckled oatmeal.
She handed me back my vase, and turned the plaque over in her hand. We were alone now.
"You should really have painted this before it was glazed," she said. "I didn't look at it closely until I got it out of the kiln this morning."
"I can paint it with acrylics now," I suggested.
She nodded. "You've put so much love into this plaque," she said slowly. "Do you know, I never knew my mother loved me. She took me to ballet school, tennis class, piano lessons, Brownies or Guides, sent me to Church camps and Summer Schools and on foreign exchanges. She always bought me anything I wanted, but I didn't really feel she loved me."
"I made it for my beloved daughter," I said, quietly, because I was still afraid to give too much away to this vibrant Catherine. "Whom I have have always loved, though she never knew it. I don't even know where she lives at the moment. Her name is Jessica."
Catherine looked up at me, and her green green eyes were full of reflections, light on the water.
I embraced her, as I'd wanted to ever since I first saw that pert white head and that oh-so-thin but elegant frame. My lovely Catherine!
To continue, follow the theme
Last amended on 19th May 1998 / copyright H. M. Whitehead