The Basak Pottery By Alice Read

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From advert to interview the time had finally arrived. First day nerves fizzed through her. She rang the bell, straightened her skirt and checked her phone one last time. Mrs Basak welcomed Eva in, told her to wipe her shoes and hang her coat up next to the grandfather clock.

‘The bedrooms are mostly guest rooms and the bathrooms should be cleaned everyday,’ Gita explained.

Three floors toured and they arrived at the threshold of the final room.

‘This room should be cleaned at the end of every day so as not to interrupt Mr Basak.’

‘No problem, Mrs Basak,’

‘Call me Gita.’

Eva smiled. They moved to the conservatory. Through the seamless wraparound of glass the expansive garden could be seen in all its glory. Eva could see the appeal of this room. It was not a classic conservatory like the ones you might see on the back of the TV guide but one far more luxurious. One you might see the landed gentry enjoying on a summer’s day in a period drama bedecked with wisteria. Gita explained how she spends her days in here designing new ceramics and researching new techniques. Eva pretended to be surprised by this apparent hobby of Gita’s when in reality Eva’s mother had been collecting Gita’s work for years and was delighted when Eva got the job. From her pocket Gita produced a flyer for her most recent exhibition with her portrait centre stage cradling one of her vases like a baby. Eva wondered if she had any children.

‘Let me know what you think,’

‘I will, my mother loves ceramics. I will take her,’

‘Perfect. So, lunch is at one and dinner is at six. You are welcome to eat in the kitchen with our chef at those times but you can bring your own lunch or go to the local cafe. Take your time to write up a schedule of how you think you might manage your time here and what you think needs doing. Let’s meet in here at three to discuss. If you need any keys just let me know,’ Gita added.

Gita seemed like the sort of employer who would notice the care Eva took in her work. They needed someone like her, she thought and she would endeavour to do her best for them.

After opening what felt like a million doors Eva came across one that looked like another front door. She pushed it but it was locked. Locked from the inside. I’ll ask for the key later, she thought just like Gita said.

The scents of cumin and coriander led her to the kitchen. The creaking of the door alerted the chef to her presence. In professional chef whites with a hair net Eva realised this was a richer household than she previously understood. Stainless steel and white it was a kitchen you might expect in a restaurant rather than a family home.

He introduced himself as George. Clean shaven and probably mid-forties she asked him how long he’d been here. Too long he replied. How long is too long and he replied ten years. He offered her a seat and a dollop of curry and rice.

‘What a treat to have a lunch like this every day,’

‘You like it then?’

‘It’s delicious,’

‘Thank you, it’s Gita’s favourite,’

‘Is it a special occasion then?’

‘Well, yes, I guess so, your first day, she’ll want to impress you,’

‘Ah, that’s sweet. So she chooses the menu for every day?’

‘Not every day, some days she’ll make a special request. Other days she’ll just tell me to be creative. After ten years I know what she likes and what she doesn’t, so she’s normally happy,’

‘And what about Mr Basak?’

‘Oh, I hardly hear from him. He just eats whatever. Never any complaints,’

‘What does he do for a living, do you know?’ Eva asked.

‘He’s a lawyer, but almost retired I think.’

Eva liked a light lunch so thanked him but refused his offer of fruit salad and opened up her notepad to start on her daily schedule.

‘What do you think a fair start and end time to the day is?’ Eva asked George.

‘They haven’t given you one?’

‘No, is that bad? Gita just told me to draw up my own schedule and we’d discuss it together,’

‘Well, it depends what you want to get paid I guess, she pays by the hour you know,’

‘I know. How about eight to three? I think I could get everything done in that time,’

‘It’s tricky, she’ll want you to work around the… actually I shouldn’t say. I don’t know. I’ve said too much. I’m sure you know what you’re doing. You crack on. I’ll leave you to it.’

Pen in hand Eva hesitated. Too new to push him on what he meant.

At three she headed for the conservatory. Gita looked as though she hadn’t moved since Eva had left her.

‘How have you found the house? Did you have a nice lunch?’ Gita asked.

‘It’s amazing. So many rooms. Yes, I met George, he served a delicious lunch. Such a treat,’

‘Excellent. Now, have you got a rough schedule you’d like to show me?’

She had to move things around a little. Start a bit later, finish a bit later. Make sure to take your lunch at one every day without fail, Gita firmly put her hand on Eva’s leg and looked her directly in the eye. Eva nodded in agreement.

Eva asked for the key to the locked door she had seen earlier.

‘Oh, you don’t need to go in there,’ Gita replied.

A shelf behind Gita full of pottery caught Eva’s eye. Plates, bowls, mugs and vases.

‘Is that your work?’ Eva asked.

‘It is indeed. Do you like it? I have a gallery who sells it for me,’

‘It’s beautiful. You’re so talented,’

‘Why thank you my dear.’

‘I was wondering if I could see your workshop, and if I need to clean that for you as well?’

‘Oh no, it’s in another building. I share it with other potters. It’s cheaper that way. You needn’t worry.’

Eva never expected Gita to rent a workshop with other potters because it was cheaper. They lived in a sizable house with multiple rooms and outbuildings that could surely be converted into a workshop but perhaps her pottery was not making her enough money to warrant this and who was she to judge.

It was decided Eva would start on the agreed schedule tomorrow and would work five days a week. She was happy with this and so her life as housekeeper for the Basaks began.

She cleaned the bathrooms first then the bedrooms. Fresh sheets every day, just like Gita liked. When Gita left the conservatory for lunch Eva would dust each and every pot, plate, mug and bowl carefully admiring the colours and craftsmanship. Sometimes she would pick them up and feel the shape of Gita’s fingers in the clay wondering how long it took to make one.

Over the next few weeks Eva stuck to the schedule rigidly but the more comfortable she felt in the house the more she delayed things here and there. Slowly slipping from lunch at one to just a little later and later.

Each time she went into the kitchen she felt more and more relaxed around George. She got to know a bit more about his family, his wife and kids and would ask how they were by name. Together they would talk about the Basaks and what funny requests Gita had made to each of them. Eva asked George about Gita’s pottery. He wouldn’t say much apart from that he admired the craftsmanship and had been gifted a few things for birthdays and christmases over the years.

One day on her way to lunch at almost quarter past one she noticed the locked door was slightly ajar. Temptation overtook and she pushed it open with intrigue. Two doors at right angles to each other with only a square patch of carpet in between. Coats hung on the wall all bundled and covered with mud. Perhaps this was what people called a mudroom. The entrance to the house through which visitors came if they had been on a long walk or horse riding. She’d read about it in an edition of Country Life left in the downstairs loo one day.

She pushed the door to her left. Four or five rows of stripped down old wooden benches lay in front of her. Eight or nine sets of eyes upon her. To the right five clay-splattered pottery wheels with two more elderly men hunched over their work. Racks and racks of grey vases, mugs and bowls drying out. In the corner a metal tube hummed.

‘What… what is this place?’

‘We’re the potters, this is our workshop,’

‘Do Mr and Mrs Basak know about this?’

‘Of course they do. Who are you?’

‘I’m… Eva, the new… housekeeper,’ she stammered.

‘Oh great. We want to talk to you about the toilet actually,’ one of the men took his foot off the wheel.

‘Yes?’ Still dazed from what she had stumbled upon. There had been no mention of this at the interview.

‘The flush isn’t working properly. It’s an old one with a chain. When you pull it it only does half a flush,’

‘Right, I’ll talk to Mrs Basak, see what we can do,’

‘And the paint on these windows could do with a tidy up,’

‘Ok, I’ll see what I can do.’

She stepped backwards out of the room and onto the square of carpet. Her brain started to try to piece things together. Was this where Gita made her pots as well? The pots looked so familiar to the ones on her shelf. Was this a con? Was this why she didn’t want Eva to have the key?

In a daze of confusion she managed to get to the kitchen where George asked why she was late but then he simply said: ‘You know’.

‘What on earth is going on? Who are these men?’

‘They’re ex-prisoners Eva. Men who struggle to find work. She thinks it’s a good thing she’s doing. For the community,’

‘But she’s selling their work as her own, isn’t she?’

‘That’s not for me to judge,’ George served out dessert.

‘Isn’t it? You work for someone who is essentially a fraud? How long has this been going on? How long have you known?’

George asked her to leave and have lunch at the cafe down the road. He didn’t want to discuss it anymore. She worried she had blown it but perhaps it mattered that someone questioned him. She can’t have been the first.

That evening Eva sat in bed reading her book wondering what to do about this moral quandary. In other jobs she found it best to ignore whatever problems these households had. If the father wasn’t around enough for the kids she never felt it was her place to say. If the husband was too strict with the wife she kept her mouth shut. But never before had she worked for someone seemingly exploiting other people in this way. She needed to know the full story but George was reluctant to tell her. Perhaps she needed to talk to the men but it was risky. She couldn’t afford to lose her job. All her references were gleaming. Not only did she need the money but she needed a good reference from Gita if she ever wanted to work again.

In the morning she said goodbye to her mother and walked to the Basak’s home instead of cycling. What if she confronts Gita and Gita fires her? If she ignores it but the men find out about the gallery? If the men already know about the gallery? Eventually she decides the best course of action is to talk to the men. See how they are being treated. If it was really bad she would call the police. If it was debatable she could always leave and find a new job. If it was all above board and the men had agreed and were being paid properly then she would stay. Why had George kept quiet for so long?

She hung up her coat in the hallway and went straight to the bathrooms like normal. She would see the men just after lunch. They scared her a little. There were seven of them and only one of her and she had no idea what they’d been in prison for. But Gita seemed happy to have them in her home and the door was locked from the inside so they weren’t locked out. As she cleaned the toilet George walked past and told her she wouldn’t be able to refuse his pudding today. She thought for a moment he was trying to make up for yesterday.

Just after one she pushed open the door.

‘Ah, Eva, we haven’t seen you in a while, did you ask Mrs Basak about the loo?’

‘Hi, I haven’t had a chance yet. I wanted to talk to you a bit more actually,’

There were only three of them in today. She wondered where the others were.

‘What’s your name?’

‘Oh sorry, it’s Joe. That’s Michael,’ Michael waved. ‘And that’s Terry,’

‘Do you just come here when you like then? What’s the deal? Does she pay you?’

‘Who?’

‘Gita, Mrs Basak,’

‘Oh right. Yeah, we don’t live here if that’s what you mean. She pays us per pot. Depends on the size but probably about three quid for a mug. A fiver for a plate. We make quite a few, so it doesn’t work out too bad for us,’

Eva thought about the leaflet for Gita’s pottery. The fancy gallery she sold it at would surely charge far higher than Gita was paying these men.

‘Do you know what she does with all these pots?’

‘She sells them on. We’re part of the Basak pottery collective she tells us,’

‘Right, have you ever seen any of them for sale?’

‘Oh no, but as long as she pays us for our work we don’t really mind. We struggled to get a good job after prison. Each of us in for a different thing. We were grateful when Gita set this up,’

This muddied the waters a little but still it wasn’t fair. They had no idea the profit Gita was making passing their work off as her own. Eva wanted to ask what they thought of the leaflet in her pocket but she didn’t know them well enough to know how they would react. If they would confront Gita. If they would tell her it was Eva who showed them the leaflet. If they would cause a scene. She was relieved that they were getting paid something at least. They didn’t have to live there. It felt a little better than what she expected. But was it right that Gita was pretending this was her own work? Presenting herself as an experienced potter when she was not?

Eva thanked the men for the chat and said she would talk to Mrs Basak although in reality she knew she would not. It perplexed her that the men did not realise Gita was keeping them a secret. How this had gone on for so long without someone speaking out was baffling to her. She headed to the kitchen to see George and have her lunch.

‘Hungry?’ George asked.

‘Starving,’

‘Good – you’ll have to eat quickly, Mrs Basak wants to see you,’

Her skin burned. So quickly after going to see the men and talking at length. She hadn’t checked if anyone was behind her when she pushed the door open again.

‘Actually, I feel a bit sicky, maybe I’ll just have a small portion,’

‘Suits you. Come back for dessert before you go home then?’

‘Oh yes, what is it?’

‘Chocolate brownie with walnuts,’

Eva blushed. It was her favourite.

She ate quickly. In the other room she could hear Mr and Mrs Basak’s chairs pushing back into the table.

‘Have they finished already?’ Eva enquired.

‘Oh yes, Gita wanted an early lunch today because she’s going to an early cinema screening this afternoon,’

Panic and dread rose within her. It was possible Gita had seen her go through the door. She headed for the conservatory with angst.

It was the lightest room of the house but the rain on the glass was deafening. Eva wondering how Gita coped. She shouted to make her presence known. Gita liked to have the lamps on not the main light. In the corner she sat facing out towards the garden framed by the climbing rose.

‘So you found them?’ Gita asked.

‘Found who?’

‘You know jolly well what I mean. I told you not to open that door,’ Gita turned to look at Eva. Her face was red and blotchy and covered in tears. ‘So who are you going to tell first? Who will you expose me to first?’ Her voice cracked.

Eva had not expected this. She was expecting to be told off. Shouted at. But instead she was confronted by an emotional wreck. The crying made Gita look older. More vulnerable.

‘I’m not, I mean, it isn’t my place to say, is it?’

‘Not if you want to keep your job,’ Gita turned.

‘What?’

‘I’m sorry. Look, this is the one time I’ve been successful. Don’t make me feel guilty. I have nothing else. I have no children, please,’

‘But it’s not your success. It’s these men. Michael, Terry, it’s them. Don’t you think they deserve some recognition? Isn’t what you’re doing, fraud?’

At that moment Eva felt a presence behind her. A voice she’d only heard at a distance before filled the room. Mr Basak moved round her and sat with Gita. He unfolded a piece of paper and began to read as though this was the hundredth time he’d read this outloud to a woman like Eva.

‘Since as early as the fifteenth century artists have had assistants to help them create their work. One example of this is Rembrandt. He didn’t sell his work as Rembrandt and assistants. We are only following history and working in a way that famous artists have done so for years. Therefore we believe this is not fraud,’

The use of the word ‘therefore’ confirmed in Eva’s mind this was a pre-prepared speech.

‘But the problem is the men don’t know, they don’t know they are your assistants, you are telling them it’s being sold as by a collective. Do you not owe them the truth? They might agree to be your assistants anyway?’

‘These men are ex-criminals Eva. Who knows what they will do if they know we are deceiving them. Some of them are completely unhinged, you don’t know them, how dare you suggest how we run our business?’ Gita gesticulated wildly.

‘But you are making a huge amount of profit, and I…’

‘Just leave. I’ve had enough. Don’t come back,’ Gita cut in.

‘Are you firing me?’ Eva could feel her whole body shaking.

Outside Eva looked up at the house she had only spent a few weeks in and thought perhaps it was a good thing she had been fired. She couldn’t stay in that house knowing the inequalities going on. She didn’t want to pursue it anymore. She wanted to forget about it. Go home, get into bed, eat the last of George’s brownies and worry about what to do the next day.

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Alice Read

Alice Read is a writer living in Surrey. She studied at City Lit and is currently working on the first draft of her novel.

@alicereadwrites on Instagram

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

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