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ClAy BodieS

By Rosie Dalton

Cradling the patterned mug, I found myself absent-mindedly fingering its organic outline; tracing the tell-tale grooves where the ceramicist’s fingers had impressed upon the clay. I could feel the gentle coercing of nature from one form into another. And began to tug at what that might mean for humankind.

Cradling the patterned mug, I found myself absent-mindedly fingering its organic outline; tracing the tell-tale grooves where the ceramicist’s fingers had impressed upon the clay. I could feel the gentle coercing of nature from one form into another. And began to tug at what that might mean for humankind.

 

 

On Thursday we took the train down to the coast. It took us just over four hours to get from Gare de Lyon to Cassis, with one changeover at Saint-Charles. I was riding with Manuel, who I had met at Lucien’s poetry reading the week before.

‘Want to come visit one of our ceramicists in the coastal commune?’ his text had asked the night before last. ‘She is cooking us lunch’ he promised, as if to sweeten the deal.

I hadn’t been to the Riviera in years. Not since we would holiday there with the family as kids. So the deal didn’t need much sweetening, as far as I was concerned. Nostalgic memories flooded in of the salt-kissed breeze and sand beneath my toes. Of swimming in the great blue, as limestone cliffs towered up above us into the sky. And of that bittersweet skin tautness one gets from sitting too long in the sun.

‘When do we leave?’ was my only reply.

 

 

 

On Thursday we took the train down to the coast. It took us just over four hours to get from Gare de Lyon to Cassis, with one changeover at Saint-Charles. I was riding with Manuel, who I had met at Lucien’s poetry reading the week before.

‘Want to come visit one of our ceramicists in the coastal commune?’ his text had asked the night before last. ‘She is cooking us lunch’ he promised, as if to sweeten the deal.

I hadn’t been to the Riviera in years. Not since we would holiday there with the family as kids. So the deal didn’t need much sweetening, as far as I was concerned. Nostalgic memories flooded in of the salt-kissed breeze and sand beneath my toes. Of swimming in the great blue, as limestone cliffs towered up above us into the sky. And of that bittersweet skin tautness one gets from sitting too long in the sun.

‘When do we leave?’ was my only reply.

“There is a lot that is unspoken about a place — its darkness or lightness. What has transpired there and how that might impact future events”

 

 

So it was that we came to be sitting huddled over a cup of coffee some time before lunch, waiting for Noémie to collect us from the train station.

‘It is not much of a drive,’ Manuel told me. ‘But one hell of a walk.’

He handed me half a croissant, which he had just ripped in two. And proceeded to dip his half in the hot black coffee that was sploshing about his paper cup.

There was something very unselfconscious about his demeanour, giving the impression that he couldn’t care less what anyone else thought. He seemed to slouch his way through the day, dressed in dark cotton trousers that could be classified as trackpants and a white t-shirt with a few ambiguous stains peppered about the place. Upon his feet were slip-on skate shoes that reminded me of the boys I used to date in collège.

‘Have you seen Luc lately?’ I asked him, trying to sound casual.

‘Not since before his reading,’ Manuel answered, biting off another chunk of pastry. ‘Heard he came down to the coast, though, to visit Noémie or one of the other artists.’

I wondered if we might be seeing him at lunch today.

‘And how long have you been with The Commune?’ I asked then, taking a bite out of the flaky croissant.

‘Just under three years. I met Rose through a mutual friend and we dated … briefly.’

Manuel’s emphasis on the brevity of their affair struck me as a little odd, though perhaps no more so than anything else Manuel said. In the short time we had known one another, I had come to realise that this was a man of few words — which is not to say that he was unfriendly.

‘Do you have any siblings?’ Manuel asked me then, apparently unperturbed by the abrupt change in our conversational direction.

‘Two. One brother and one sister,’ I said, though the answer wasn’t quite so simple as that.

‘And were you already sketching when you met Rose?’ I steered him back to our original topic.

‘Oh yeah. I have been sketching since I was a kid. Where Rose really helped was in giving me the confidence to hone my subject matter.’

‘Oh?’ I tried not to sound like I was probing.

‘You know, just growing up, I guess. When I was younger, it was all about the female form. But Rose taught me to scratch beneath the surface. To interrogate where it all comes from — the impulses behind human desire to lift it all up or burn it down to the ground.’

‘Deep,’ I replied, with more than a little sarcasm.

‘That led me into landscapes,’ he carried on without missing a beat. ‘Because there is a lot that is unspoken about a place — its darkness or lightness. What has transpired there and how that might impact future events. Sketching that is like laying down the blueprint for further intellectual interrogation. Providing an outline that serves as a sort of invitation.’

I felt, then, that my sarcasm had perhaps been a little misplaced, but before I could make amends, Manuel had sprung to his feet and begun waving enthusiastically at a blonde figure in the distance.

‘Ready?’ he asked, as he began striding towards our host.

So it was that we came to be sitting huddled over a cup of coffee some time before lunch, waiting for Noémie to collect us from the train station.

‘It is not much of a drive,’ Manuel told me. ‘But one hell of a walk.’

He handed me half a croissant, which he had just ripped in two. And proceeded to dip his half in the hot black coffee that was sploshing about his paper cup.

There was something very unselfconscious about his demeanour, giving the impression that he couldn’t care less what anyone else thought. He seemed to slouch his way through the day, dressed in dark cotton trousers that could be classified as trackpants and a white t-shirt with a few ambiguous stains peppered about the place. Upon his feet were slip-on skate shoes that reminded me of the boys I used to date in collège.

‘Have you seen Luc lately?’ I asked him, trying to sound casual.

‘Not since before his reading,’ Manuel answered, biting off another chunk of pastry. ‘Heard he came down to the coast, though, to visit Noémie or one of the other artists.’

I wondered if we might be seeing him at lunch today.

‘And how long have you been with The Commune?’ I asked then, taking a bite out of the flaky croissant.

‘Just under three years. I met Rose through a mutual friend and we dated … briefly.’

Manuel’s emphasis on the brevity of their affair struck me as a little odd, though perhaps no more so than anything else Manuel said. In the short time we had known one another, I had come to realise that this was a man of few words — which is not to say that he was unfriendly.

‘Do you have any siblings?’ Manuel asked me then, apparently unperturbed by the abrupt change in our conversational direction.

‘Two. One brother and one sister,’ I said, though the answer wasn’t quite so simple as that.

‘And were you already sketching when you met Rose?’ I steered him back to our original topic.

‘Oh yeah. I have been sketching since I was a kid. Where Rose really helped was in giving me the confidence to hone my subject matter.’

‘Oh?’ I tried not to sound like I was probing.

‘You know, just growing up, I guess. When I was younger, it was all about the female form. But Rose taught me to scratch beneath the surface. To interrogate where it all comes from — the impulses behind human desire to lift it all up or burn it down to the ground.’

‘Deep,’ I replied, with more than a little sarcasm.

‘That led me into landscapes,’ he carried on without missing a beat. ‘Because there is a lot that is unspoken about a place — its darkness or lightness. What has transpired there and how that might impact future events. Sketching that is like laying down the blueprint for further intellectual interrogation. Providing an outline that serves as a sort of invitation.’

I felt, then, that my sarcasm had perhaps been a little misplaced, but before I could make amends, Manuel had sprung to his feet and begun waving enthusiastically at a blonde figure in the distance.

‘Ready?’ he asked, as he began striding towards our host.

“Tiny teeth and a man’s handprint. Macabre pieces sitting alongside the prettiest of clay flowers and seashells. An incongruity that felt right at home amongst the other oddities.”

 

 

Noémie’s studio was as charmingly erratic as Noémie herself. It was one in a row of small apartments that comprised the single level building — which was entirely white, except for the rouge shutters and red terracotta roof, standing stark against the bleached façade. The paint was peeling away from the walls in places and all around there were trees growing wild of the most verdant green.

Inside there was a ‘wet room’ which seemed to function as both kitchen and clay station, where a weathered old pottery wheel was set up and weapon-like tools scattered all about the place. On the other side of the room was a ‘bedroom’ partitioned off from the clay kitchen by a paper-thin room divider that reminded me of a long-ago stay in a Japanese ryokan. And on the floor in said bedroom was a sparse double mattress dressed in crisp white linens — the ceramicist’s bed, beneath which lay little more than a plush knitted rug of the most vibrant shade scarlet.

‘Sorry, it is all a bit disorganised at the moment,’ Noémie said, as she flew about the kitchen gathering things for our lunch. ‘I am right in the middle of producing my summer collection now and it has been a bit manic.’

‘Looks tidier than last time I was here,’ Manuel joked, picking up one of her pottery tools. An ambiguous wooden instrument with a sharp-looking blade at one end.

‘If you need to use the toilette, it is through that poky little door in the back,’ Noémie ignored him and turned, now, to me. ‘Don’t mistake it for the linen closet, like I did when I first got here.’

‘When was that?’ I asked her.

‘Oh about two years ago now. Right before my first summer collection, actually.’

‘Do you always produce seasonally?’

‘Yes, one collection for summer and one for winter. We hold an exhibition of the works in between.’

Inside the linen closet bathroom, I was surprised to find ceramics of all shapes and sizes. Tiny teeth and a man’s handprint. Macabre pieces alongside the prettiest of clay flowers and seashells. An incongruity that felt right at home amongst the other oddities.

Returning to the conversation in the kitchen, I really took our host in, for what seemed like the first time since we had arrived. This long, lithe woman of sandy hair and bare feet, with clay coagulated upon her palms and splattered about her flared jeans.

‘Right. Lunch!’ she announced, as she whirled from the kitchen and led us out onto the terrace.

It was a perfect, simple feast of home baked bread, herbed salad from the garden, and local clams cooked in beurre blanc. All washed down with a skin contact white wine made by one of Noémie’s neighbours — another member of The Commune I guessed. Sofie actually breezed into our lunch briefly, plonking a fresh bottle of wine down in the centre of the table and then plonking herself at the head of the lace-dressed dining table.

‘My latest vintage,’ was all she said, by way of introduction.

Her feet, like Noémie’s, were bare but her toenails were painted a deep blood red. Not unlike the wine she had just produced for us, which was a poulsard that she had apparently pre-chilled.

‘I like red wines better when they’re cold,’ she said then, before stretching out a hand in my general direction. ‘I’m Sofie.’

After exchanging pleasantries, Sofie stubbed out her cigarette and sprung to her feet again.

‘Anyway, must dash. I’ve got a pot of bouillabaisse on the stove. So lovely to meet you!’

And then she was gone, just as quickly as she had arrived.

‘Just can’t sit still that one,’ Noémie laughed, as she set about clearing our plates and rearranging the table with a large board of local cheeses and candied fruits. ‘This one is a chevre handmade by our neighbour,’ she announced. ‘The finest in Cassis.’

‘Does The Commune own this entire building?’ I asked then. To which she only shrugged, as if to say ‘more or less’.

Noémie’s studio was as charmingly erratic as Noémie herself. It was one in a row of small apartments that comprised the single level building — which was entirely white, except for the rouge shutters and red terracotta roof, standing stark against the bleached façade. The paint was peeling away from the walls in places and all around there were trees growing wild of the most verdant green.

Inside there was a ‘wet room’ which seemed to function as both kitchen and clay station, where a weathered old pottery wheel was set up and weapon-like tools scattered all about the place. On the other side of the room was a ‘bedroom’ partitioned off from the clay kitchen by a paper-thin room divider that reminded me of a long-ago stay in a Japanese ryokan. And on the floor in said bedroom was a sparse double mattress dressed in crisp white linens — the ceramicist’s bed, beneath which lay little more than a plush knitted rug of the most vibrant shade scarlet.

‘Sorry, it is all a bit disorganised at the moment,’ Noémie said, as she flew about the kitchen gathering things for our lunch. ‘I am right in the middle of producing my summer collection now and it has been a bit manic.’

‘Looks tidier than last time I was here,’ Manuel joked, picking up one of her pottery tools. An ambiguous wooden instrument with a sharp-looking blade at one end.

‘If you need to use the toilette, it is through that poky little door in the back,’ Noémie ignored him and turned, now, to me. ‘Don’t mistake it for the linen closet, like I did when I first got here.’

‘When was that?’ I asked her.

‘Oh about two years ago now. Right before my first summer collection, actually.’

‘Do you always produce seasonally?’

‘Yes, one collection for summer and one for winter. We hold an exhibition of the works in between.’

Inside the linen closet bathroom, I was surprised to find ceramics of all shapes and sizes. Tiny teeth and a man’s handprint. Macabre pieces alongside the prettiest of clay flowers and seashells. An incongruity that felt right at home amongst the other oddities.

Returning to the conversation in the kitchen, I really took our host in, for what seemed like the first time since we had arrived. This long, lithe woman of sandy hair and bare feet, with clay coagulated upon her palms and splattered about her flared jeans.

‘Right. Lunch!’ she announced, as she whirled from the kitchen and led us out onto the terrace.

It was a perfect, simple feast of home baked bread, herbed salad from the garden, and local clams cooked in beurre blanc. All washed down with a skin contact white wine made by one of Noémie’s neighbours — another member of The Commune I guessed. Sofie actually breezed into our lunch briefly, plonking a fresh bottle of wine down in the centre of the table and then plonking herself at the head of the lace-dressed dining table.

‘My latest vintage,’ was all she said, by way of introduction.

Her feet, like Noémie’s, were bare but her toenails were painted a deep blood red. Not unlike the wine she had just produced for us, which was a poulsard that she had apparently pre-chilled.

‘I like red wines better when they’re cold,’ she said then, before stretching out a hand in my general direction. ‘I’m Sofie.’

After exchanging pleasantries, Sofie stubbed out her cigarette and sprung to her feet again.

‘Anyway, must dash. I’ve got a pot of bouillabaisse on the stove. So lovely to meet you!’

And then she was gone, just as quickly as she had arrived.

‘Just can’t sit still that one,’ Noémie laughed, as she set about clearing our plates and rearranging the table with a large board of local cheeses and candied fruits. ‘This one is a chevre handmade by our neighbour,’ she announced. ‘The finest in Cassis.’

‘Does The Commune own this entire building?’ I asked then. To which she only shrugged, as if to say ‘more or less’.

“The silences felt roomy and comfortable, like swimming in an ocean all to oneself.”

 

 

The three of us sat about in the dying sun for a while, sipping red wine and snacking on cheese. The silences felt roomy and comfortable, like swimming in an ocean all to oneself.

‘You know, it is Mercury Retrograde right now,’ Noémie said finally, piercing one of those silences as she plucked a grape off the plate. ‘My kiln has been all over the shop.’

‘Well that’s why we are here,’ Manuel squeezed her shoulder and I wondered at his use of the collective ‘we’.

Noémie shrugged her thanks in his direction.

‘Come on then, let’s take a look at the old girl,’ he rose from the table and took her hand.

I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to follow, but did anyway, traipsing after the two of them and around the back of the little studio, where a large kiln was purring away.

‘She gets up to about 2200 degrees,’ our ceramicist host turned to me, then. ‘Sometimes even hotter lately, with Mercury in Retrograde.’

‘What does that actually mean?’ I asked hesitantly, afraid of seeming ignorant.

‘It is when Mercury moves backwards through the sky,’ she replied. ‘Sending all of our gadgets into a spin.’

‘We will get her working good as new,’ Manuel reassured her as he started tinkering with the kiln’s wiring.

All around the place where the kiln stood, I saw the broken detritus of failed works and new bisqueware, still waiting to be fired. I saw tiny models of works yet to come and a few moulds, too — including one that looked an awful lot like a human thigh bone.

I wondered again about this mysterious host of ours — maker of checked coffee mugs, ceramic shells, and who knew what else. But before I was done wondering, Manuel seemed to have fixed the kiln and was reminding me that we had to make the last train back to Paris.

After we had said our farewells and were settled back in the train car, I realised that I had forgotten to ask Noémie if Lucien had been down to visit her lately. And I couldn’t ask Manuel either, since he was too busy sleeping off the wine we had drunk over lunch. So I took out my favourite pen and decided to write a letter home instead.

 

 

 

 

 

The three of us sat about in the dying sun for a while, sipping red wine and snacking on cheese. The silences felt roomy and comfortable, like swimming in an ocean all to oneself.

‘You know, it is Mercury Retrograde right now,’ Noémie said finally, piercing one of those silences as she plucked a grape off the plate. ‘My kiln has been all over the shop.’

‘Well that’s why we are here,’ Manuel squeezed her shoulder and I wondered at his use of the collective ‘we’.

Noémie shrugged her thanks in his direction.

‘Come on then, let’s take a look at the old girl,’ he rose from the table and took her hand.

I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to follow, but did anyway, traipsing after the two of them and around the back of the little studio, where a large kiln was purring away.

‘She gets up to about 2200 degrees,’ our ceramicist host turned to me, then. ‘Sometimes even hotter lately, with Mercury in Retrograde.’

‘What does that actually mean?’ I asked hesitantly, afraid of seeming ignorant.

‘It is when Mercury moves backwards through the sky,’ she replied. ‘Sending all of our gadgets into a spin.’

‘We will get her working good as new,’ Manuel reassured her as he started tinkering with the kiln’s wiring.

All around the place where the kiln stood, I saw the broken detritus of failed works and new bisqueware, still waiting to be fired. I saw tiny models of works yet to come and a few moulds, too — including one that looked an awful lot like a human thigh bone.

I wondered again about this mysterious host of ours — maker of checked coffee mugs, ceramic shells, and who knew what else. But before I was done wondering, Manuel seemed to have fixed the kiln and was reminding me that we had to make the last train back to Paris.

After we had said our farewells and were settled back in the train car, I realised that I had forgotten to ask Noémie if Lucien had been down to visit her lately. And I couldn’t ask Manuel either, since he was too busy sleeping off the wine we had drunk over lunch. So I took out my favourite pen and decided to write a letter home instead.

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