Manhood Peninsula, West Sussex
This is a pilgrimage to be here in this place. Day six, the start of every day the same. When the sun rises, a breakfast of plain bread, one slice left overnight on a plate to dry. And water, to help me swallow it. Then out. Outside or be damned.
Outdoors, I can almost smell the sea a short drive away—clean air moving over dirty land. On the deserted lane, my destination is a word, not the beach. SLOW. Four simple letters writ large, the same number as my name but each character is different from the ones by which I am known. Unlike her name, NORA, where one letter is the same. The hollow O, the heavy O, emptiness running right through it. Rhymes with NO, with Joe. The shape a mouth makes in surprise, in shock or dismay, sometimes pleasure but I cannot think of that. SLOW. The sound when spoken is leaden, in the pit of the throat.
I check the lane is clear, say it once and bend towards the word slicked in thick white paint on the asphalt, my fingers lightly palpating the surface. The letters, damp with early morning dew, are as wide as my palm. They speak of so much loss. ‘I will make it right, Nora,’ I say and her impatience with me prickles on my skin. Whether she was impatient in life, or it’s how I see her now, I don’t blame her. My mission has remained undone for so long, I welcome the itch.
Should someone peek through a drawn curtain, it may appear as if I’m trying to pick up fragments of something minute. Or, it occurs to me, I may appear touched. I shouldn’t worry but I do, what people think. It’s a free country but outside, having lived with so many rules over the last six years, it feels lawless and wild. There ought to be a law against me being here but there isn’t. My moral code is infected. It’s been festering for some time.
Straightening to stand, the synovial fluid pops in my knees, a new thing in recent years, the push of time squeezing, making the air inside audible. Bad living. Little opportunity to stretch my legs. Little opportunity full stop.
SLOW. A word with many meanings. A long time, low speed, inability to comprehend or think, dull, uneventful. In the case of the painted letters on the road, an instruction. In my case, the letters deliver another message entirely.
Messages. I am here to deliver one myself. This pilgrimage isn’t where one simply goes to receive. I also come to give, to bring news on a summer’s day. I picture Joe shadowed and alone inside his cottage, beneath the heavy thatch, behind the small blank windows. He doesn’t know it yet but he will welcome some light to brighten the darkness.
Listen, the rumble of a car drawing closer. Time to disappear myself. I must not be found here.
Longing—211 days left
She is running, breathing with ease. The salt wind rushes at her legs, the firm sand yields beneath her feet. One more night before the frenzy of work begins again and nine more days until her first London exhibition opens. Her head is cluttered with vessels. How she’ll pack them, how the light will catch them displayed on blocks of pure white. When she works, she becomes hyperaware of the scent of clay in its various states. Dust when bone dry. Home baking when warm. With a finished piece—glazed, unglazed, fired multiple times, whatever can be called finished, she sets it down and there it is—the scent dreams release as they settle. On Friday, she threw the final vessel for the exhibition and straight off the wheel it was the perfect facsimile of cooling earth in summer rain. Should she name this piece? Normally she numbers them. Still Life, Female Vessel: Womb. It’s curvaceous enough. No. Dictating a response isn’t her style. People should make up their own minds.
Rounding the headland, she sees Joe waiting against the dunes with Rufus at his feet. He’s changed out of his wetsuit and his surfboard is nowhere to be seen. It must be on the truck already. When she reaches them, she ignores a persistent ache in her shoulder, raises herself onto her toes and nuzzles Joe’s neck. Sunshine is neat on his skin.
They walk along the sand where the tide flattens it, and Rufus tries to catch a gull picking at a dead aquatic thing on the water’s edge. Grasping Nora’s hand, Joe traces the rune-like, swirling tattoo above her wrist with his thumb.
‘You’ve been so wrapped up in work lately,’ he says. ‘I understand, I do, but have you thought about having another go? It’s been seven months.’
Seven months without injections, scans, sympathetic voices saying, 'not this time' feels momentary. Nora retrieves her hand, fiddles with the tie holding back her hair. Since they started trying it’s been five years, three of those with the clinic. ‘Of course. But we’ve got nowhere.’
He’s quiet before taking hold of her wrist once more. ‘Time’s ticking by—we haven’t got forever.’
She has been expecting this conversation since she threw the final vessel. On Friday evening, when she crossed the grass from her studio to the cottage, she had seen him through the kitchen window chopping garlic, waiting for her. She had thought it might be then. ‘Hallelujah,’ he had said, ‘I’ve got you to myself all weekend’ and she had laughed. Such simple pleasures always light him up. She’d been thinking about the article in The Guardian, which came out that day: ‘The New Ceramicists: Four Young Ceramic Artists Have the Contemporary Art World in a Spin.’ Of the four, her photograph was most prominent. Seated beside her Vessels as Still Life, she was wearing a Mona Lisa smile, looking inscrutable when all she was trying to do was appear serious. Time has a habit of running away with itself. She’d waited years for coverage like that. In her mind, it was a small miracle. They’d read it together, Nora reading the copy aloud, Joe stroking her hair, his hand catching a few strands at her scalp. ‘You’ve worked hard, I’m sure the show will be a success,’ he said, and when he said nothing else, her spine had warmed and lengthened. She’d relaxed over the weekend, allowed herself to think this conversation would wait, at least until after the show.
‘No, we haven’t got forever’, she says to him now. ‘Neither has my business. Besides, we’ve both needed a break. We were so young when we started—we still are.’
‘Not that young. Work’s open-ended. This isn’t.’
‘It’s not that simple.’
‘It is that simple.’ He rubs her tattoo with more persistence. ‘When your show’s over, we ought to see Dr Hall, try again in a couple of months. Would that be enough time?’
His gentle voice thrums with hope but it is at odds with the firmness of his fingers. Sometimes she feels like one of his plants at the nursery being trained and coaxed, encouraged to thrive. His fingers are saying keep the faith, yet the solemn ambition of fertility treatment has always unnerved her. Its lack of lightness. Those syringes, their precious liquid shepherded from cool bag to fridge to her flesh, dreams at the sharp end of a needle.
The pain in her shoulder returns and she reaches for the offending muscle.
‘The treatment schedule takes up so much…space. I need to be ready, that’s all.’
Joe’s hand flutters to her aching shoulder. Enveloping it, the careful pressure of his fingers brings them both to a halt. The sky haloes blue around his head, behind his unclouded eyes. She can’t look away.
‘I’d be there for you, all the way. If we’re lucky, work will cut me some slack. We’ve got more capacity now.’
‘You’d soon be able to get back to work. That’s why we built your studio—you don’t have to miss out on being a mum.’
She slumps against his chest, pictures her graceless womb lying cold and wet and darkly in her pelvis. Last time, one egg fertilised. Borderline quality. In the clinic’s waiting room, she wept openly, full-throated, not caring who heard her. The intimate seating arrangements were separated by fabric-covered screens—fine for discreet sorrow, too flimsy for a woman turned wild.
Joe embraces her. A protective reflex—she knows he can’t help it—for when she’s uncertain, small, in need. But his embrace means something else—total belief he’s right. She didn’t intend to conclude their discussion so soon, which is where they’re heading. A simple hug shouldn’t mean all this and that’s the difference between them. She turns things over, reflects on them deeply, repetitively. Joe prefers to race to the finish, dusting himself down ready for the next big decision before he’s even reached the line.
‘We can do this,’ he says, confirming what she thought. His arms push into her ribs, her breasts crush sore against his chest. ‘We’ll try again in a few weeks?’
The Longing Room. The women she’d met amongst the screens, many made weary by dreaming. Her own dreams, rich scented ones, were as real as the sea air right now. A newborn’s cotton peachiness. Sticky-fingered children making creatures from clay sausages and spheres. Just-made souls fresh as new paper. Lately, the only scent in her imagination is clay.
360 degrees — 200 days left
The gallery lighting enhances the piece’s powerful outline. Its tiny base and broad sides make it appear to float. Displayed on a tall white plinth in reverence to its technical difficulty and scale, it has been the show’s crowning achievement. Nora lifts it, her hands stretched wide around its shallow form. The sharp circular edge where all the weight rests presses into her little fingers. Grey-black like basalt, its smoothness is thrown into relief by granular fault lines that course up towards the narrow opening.
‘It’s so tactile. I won’t be able to keep the children’s hands off it.’ The smart woman from Kensington insists she’ll have it now rather than have it couriered when the exhibition ends. Another piece on standby will have to fill the gap. A tall one, skinny, like Vessel no. 3.
Nora takes the piece behind a screen to wrap it, cradling it in her arms before resting it on packing paper. She strokes its audacious curves, remembers the balance, the supreme focus it took to bring them into being. Hopefully the smart woman’s kids are smart enough to leave it alone.
Afterwards, she watches as the woman weaves through the crowd holding her purchase stiffly in front of her like a grubby child. An attack of motion sickness comes out of nowhere and Nora steadies herself against one of the display blocks—she doubts the piece will make it home intact. At the exit an upright man in flawless clothes, maybe the father, strides forward and takes the vessel. The woman smoothes her silk sleeves and relaxes her shoulders as he carries the vessel away with ease. Nora feels her own shoulders loosen.
A younger woman bends over Nora’s exhibits, her face concealed. All angles and strong colour, her bobbed hair is rose-pink, crimped into bold zigzags. She unbends and turns.
‘Yasmin, I didn’t recognise you.’ Nora points at Yasmin’s hair. When they first met at an art festival last year, it was white blond, ironed straight, falling to her coccyx.
Yasmin laughs, running a hand along the edges of her crenellated bob. ‘Cut it off a few weeks ago, then recycled it in a 3D portrait of my mother. Wrapped it round her torso like an umbilical cord.’
Nora breaks into a wide grin. Yasmin’s as provocative as she remembers.
‘London’s loving your work.’ Yasmin indicates the gaps left by several of today’s sold pieces. ‘You have more back-ups?’
‘Plenty. Also one to show your colleagues. Give me a few minutes to set up for tomorrow.’
Behind the screen, the pieces she should display next jump out straightaway. There’s a distinct hierarchy—how much the piece moved her when she created it combined with how the clay rewarded her. Increments of scale in a beautiful game of chance. So much of life is about chance. It’s what brought wild-haired Yasmin here today, a conversation sparked up in the art festival’s registration queue. Now she’s standing in the foothills of Yasmin’s illustrious clan, a handful of moments away from meeting them. Perhaps to become one of them.
The art collective’s base is a converted industrial warehouse in Clerkenwell. Yasmin, Bod, Monika and Fergus accompany Nora on a tour of the facilities where the air hums hot and thick with creativity. Fergus, a graceful man whose huge hobnail boots seem disproportionate to his lean sinewed limbs, leads Nora from his glass-working studio to the vacant ceramics studio next door. He ushers her in, then hangs back with the group so she can explore it alone. It’s cavernous, larger than hers at home, spacious like Fergus’s. She inspects the kiln. It’s good. Her hands trace the edges of sturdy drying racks. She paces the perimeter of the wedging benches, tilts her head towards the windows, the vaulted roof, turns 360 degrees, then beckons the others.
‘We all appreciate that,’ says Fergus. ‘There aren’t any bad units.’
‘You’ve got to see the communal studio space,’ says Yasmin.
A brick-lined corridor leads to another huge bright room, long rows of workbenches flanked by metal stools with well-worn wooden seats.
‘This is for collaborative projects and teaching,’ says Yasmin. ‘We share resources, critique each other—whatever works. It’s also an add-on to the permanent gallery.’
Nora paces the length of the room. The opportunity here is obvious. ‘God, it’s incredible. The space, the cross-fertilisation of ideas, your reputation as a group’—she takes a breath, she’s sounding too desperate—‘Is there anything else you’d like to ask to push this forward?’
‘How do you feel about working with others, our sharing ethos?’ says Yasmin.
‘Ideal. What I’ve always wanted.’
‘And your home base?’ asks Bod. ‘You’d split your time between Sussex and London?’
Nora pauses. She hasn’t devoted any serious thought to the practicalities, only to the idea of a complementary existence to hers on the peninsula—another life among the bohemians.. ‘Two, sometimes three days a week in London—more if I’m actively involved in projects or workshops. I could easily alternate between sites.’
‘What does Joe think? It’ll be a big change for both of you,’ says Yasmin.
‘Joe?’ Nora swallows. She hasn’t even mentioned Yasmin’s been in touch yet: her mind has been consumed by the show. ‘Oh yes. Firmly on board.’ Nobody challenges her so she switches on her widest smile. ‘He’ll have to do more than his fair share of dog walking though.’
‘Rufus, isn’t it?’ says Yasmin. ‘Well-behaved dogs aren’t a problem.’
Nora pictures Rufus here, his muscular russet body catching the corner of her eye as he moves through his day in tandem with hers. The scuff of paws on the sealed concrete, heavy head on her knee, chestnut eyes imploring her to caress the short fur in the dip of his skull.
‘He’s no trouble,’ she says.
She has the remainder of the tour, nods on cue, radiates enthusiasm. Having only eaten a cereal bar since breakfast, she’s nauseous. She craves steak. Fibrous, bloody, leaching out iron. Her thoughts drift to Joe. They’re a partnership. She should have discussed it with him. He’ll fret about the long days, the expenditure, their other dreams. She must convince him she can become a master juggler.
The world feels sharp and right. Euphoria flaps its wings through her chest.
My life has been lived in several states of being, but I’d say there have been three big ones. There was Before, when everything was so different. Before all was lost—love, security, family—when there was nothing unusual about me. Apart from near relatives in old age, nobody I had known well and loved greatly had died. An objective observer wouldn’t have singled me out as different. Nothing would have made them say, ‘So this sort of person reduces another life to nothing, fritters it away like small change.’ There were no clues. If anything, my Before was a wakeful sleeping, an unconsciousness growing in magnitude as my circumstances became more comfortable and I less hungry. Blameless and entitled. Your good fortune protects you from life’s truths, my sister once said, not without bitterness.
And then there was During. If you were to take a stopwatch and measure the hours, minutes, seconds, this state of being was extremely short. My life changed—in one wretched moment. The seconds, minutes, hours surrounding that moment have never left me. They are here to stay, as constant as my breathing.
Then—After, the permanent state, the difficult truth for people like me. That there is no return to Before, no matter how hard I try. I will live in the perpetual ever-after of that single moment until my own breath stops.
Day seven. There’s no saint to be found in this village, just Joe Blake, an ordinary man. I’ve been watching him. Pulling his Nissan truck into the drive, taking out the bins. I’ve kept my distance, behaving with casual nonchalance like a holidaymaker on a coastal break. Yesterday I followed him. In the car. As far as the end of the lane before I doubled back. I can’t afford to lose my concentration. Ever. I must keep my head. For my sake, for Joe’s.
I’m close to his cottage, a couple of houses down the lane across the road. I’ve been efficient. My few bags are unpacked and I’ve two pieces of furniture. A cheap two-seater sofa. A single bed. The bed tethers me to what was lost, prevents me from forgetting how I ended up here.