Sent: Monday, 15 May, 20— 6.38 pm
It was such a surprise to bump into you at the fair on Saturday. To be honest, I nearly didn’t go over to your stand, but I overheard you talking to another customer about your process and your favourite glazes, and curiosity got the better of me. I do hope it wasn’t too weird, or that I made things awkward for you – I never quite know how I come off sometimes. It all felt so surreal, I couldn’t believe it’s been three years since we last saw each other!
I just wanted to say – since I didn’t want to hang around and make things even more awkward than they already were – how pleased I am for you that you did follow your dream of retraining as a ceramicist. I thought your work was truly beautiful and I’m sure you’ll make a great success of it. In fact, I have to confess an ulterior motive in writing to you – I was very taken with the tall, slender vase with the red-and-blue salt glaze on the corner of your stand, but I was in such a flap it didn’t occur to me to ask you the price. It would look perfect on my mantelpiece (oh, I didn’t get a chance to tell you – I finally bought a place last year, after I got the promotion I’d been hoping for for ages). Would you be willing to sell it to me, or, if it’s already spoken for, could I maybe I commission a copy?
Sent: Thursday, 18 May, 20— 8.12 am
Subject: RE: vase
I was more than a bit surprised by your reply – surprised and confused. I thought the vase was for sale like everything else on your stand; in any case, I could have sworn I saw a price tag beside it. What exactly is the problem? As I said before, I’m happy to buy another version if that particular vase is already taken.
Sent: Saturday, 20 May, 20— 11.31 am
Subject: RE: vase
Let me get this straight – the vase is specifically not for sale to me? Well, frankly that’s a bit hard to swallow. How is my money any different from that of some random stranger?
If you’re going to be that precious about who buys your pots then I have to say I don’t hold out a lot of hope for your getting your business off the ground.
Sent: Sunday, 28 May, 20— 2.43 am
Subject: not about the vase
I know I’m going to regret this but after your last email I can’t keep silent. I should have deleted it and got on with life but your words have lodged in my brain. Ever since I read it I can’t sleep, I can hardly eat, I find myself, out of nowhere, almost suffocating with rage. It feels as if my heart is some kind of enraged phoenix, beak and wings battering my ribs, the flames sucking the air from my lungs.
You say that you’re ‘always uncomfortable running into anyone I have been “involved with” [the bloody nerve it must have taken to put that in inverted commas] in the past, no matter how brief or innocent it was’. That ‘as a rule, I avoid contact with anyone from my past’. What kind of crazy thinking makes you believe that you can just traipse through life completely avoiding anyone you’ve ever had anything to do with? You may have aged in the past three years (in fact I’m sure I noticed some new lines around your eyes, a few more grey hairs) but you certainly haven’t matured one damn bit.
So it was ‘uncomfortable’ for you to run into me, someone you have been ‘involved with’ and who you thought was banished to the past, never to be encountered again. You, who are clearly the kind of person who can stroll away, unscathed and whistling with your hands in your pockets, from a totalled car. Imagine, just for a moment – that is, if you’re capable of doing so – what it was like for me, three years after you disappeared, to run into you.
I never saw it coming. We’d been together for a year – a year like no other. I’d never been happier. I thought you were too. I thought you were the one. When I suggested, over the last glass of fizz at the end of our anniversary dinner, that we move in together, you seemed over the moon. Then, the day before our appointment with the estate agent, I was having my usual post-lunch espresso before heading back to the office and my phone pinged.
I can’t do this.
I deleted that text years ago but I might as well not have bothered, it’s etched into my memory. I was late back to work that day; it took me the better part of an hour to pull myself together enough to present a semblance of my normal self. I spent the whole of that evening and all the next day trying to get hold of you by text or by phone – nothing, no answer, number engaged, and then, the day after that, number invalid. I went round to your flat that weekend, desperate, and there was another name on the bell, someone who’d never heard of you. (Is this your MO every time you dump someone? God, phone companies must love you! Landlords must hate you!)
I searched for you online for months (if I’m honest, years) but your name is so common you could hide in plain sight among thousands of other yous. There was no one I could ask about you, or so I believed – at least, you’d told me when we met that you were an only child, that your parents had both passed away while you were at university and I wasn’t cynical enough at the time to question that. It never occurred to me until it was too late to think how odd it was that in the space of year, you met all of my friends but I don’t recall ever meeting any of yours, apart from a few work acquaintances I encountered so fleetingly I’d have been ashamed to hound them about you (assuming you hadn’t cleared out of work as well with no forwarding address).
Honestly, what embarrasses me the most is how many sleepless nights I wasted beating myself up over whether it was my fault that you disappeared. Whether I’d spooked you. Whether if I’d kept my mouth shut and just let us go on as we were, we’d still be together. When all along the question I should have been asking was how many other people have you done this to?
And oddly enough, what rankles the most is you asking why I’m so set on that vase. Is your memory really so short? Have you forgotten that weekend we spent in Paris, the afternoon we were wandering round the Musée d’Orsay and you were stopped in your tracks by one of the Art Nouveau vases? The one with the same shimmering red-and-blue salt glaze dripping down its sides, as fresh as if it had only just been dipped? Have you forgotten how you said, very quietly, that you’d love to be able to mould clay into something that beautiful? You looked so shaken that I sat you down in the nearest café and listened to you telling me you feared you’d wasted your life. Have you forgotten how I said you only had one life, and if that was what you truly wanted to do, then why not try?
Would you be where you are today if not for that afternoon? If not for my encouragement and all the practical help I gave you, up until the day you vanished? From that point of view, it seems like a more than fair trade. You: a flourishing new career, a life undarkened by regret. Me: a scarred and battered heart, a vase.
Just sell it to me, for heaven’s sake, and I promise you’ll never hear from me again.
Sent: Sunday, 28 May, 20— 3.58 pm
Subject: not about the vase. seriously.
Kindly ignore the last three paragraphs of my previous email; they were written under the influence of stupid amounts of Scotch. Speaking of which, whoever coined the phrase in vino veritas was an idiot (probably a drunk one). There was nothing remotely truthful in those last lines.
The truth: I don’t want your vase, or anything else you’ve made. I don’t want to bring anything into my home that reminds me of you, of what you are and what you did. The last thing I want is a piece of clay with your fingerprints fixed forever in its surface by the heat of the kiln. A constant reminder that someone I once loved didn’t just have feet of clay, but legs, arms, torso, hands, head, heart: all made of cold, dead clay.
Sent: Saturday, 15 July, 20— 5.02 pm
At the design fair yesterday, you sold that vase – the tall, slender one with the red-and-blue salt glaze – to a woman named A.
A is a friend I met a year and a half ago – after your time. She’s a photographer and a documentary filmmaker. I very much doubt you’d be able to recall her face; one of A’s distinguishing characteristics, which serves her well in her line of work, is her uncanny ability to melt into the background. Nothing could please her more than to hear someone say that they’re sure they’ve seen her before, but they can’t place her.
When she came round to mine to drop off the vase, she told me that you couldn’t have been more charming, and that she was surprised what a low price you were asking for it.
I don’t know whether to be offended or amused.
Sent: Sunday, 23 July, 20— 10.47 am
Subject: (no subject)
[This email contains no text. There are four files attached: images which at first look like black-and-white photos, but which, on closer inspection, turn out to be film stills.]
[Although no sky is visible, the light and the lack of shadows suggest an overcast afternoon. In front of a nondescript brick wall, K fixes the camera head on, expression blank. Held in both hands, at chest height, is a ceramic vase. Despite the lack of colour, it’s clearly M’s vase, the one purchased by A and given to K nine days previously.]
[The same. Except that K now stands with hands spread apart, palms tilted up, and the vase hangs in mid-air over the pavement, mouth tipping toward the camera. K’s expression hasn’t altered – although the longer one looks, the stronger the impression that it isn’t as blank as it first appeared. Is there a wry twist at the corners of the mouth? A glint of mockery in the gaze? Or is that just a trick of the light?]
[K stands, hands still raised, expression unchanged. The vase, or part of what’s left of it, lies in pieces on the ground. Shards fly outward from the point of collision, like sparks from a Catherine wheel, like the corolla of a sunflower, like a galaxy being born.]
[The shards lie scattered around the larger pieces; a fragment of the vase’s base can be discerned, as can another of the neck. The former identity of the rest of the shards is anyone’s guess. Chalked on the pavement in front of them are the following words:
ASHES TO ASHES
DUST TO DUST
ALL RETURNS TO CLAY]
Rachel Sloan is an art historian, curator, and writer. Born and raised in Chicago, she has lived in the UK – first in London, now in Kent – for most of her adult life; her accent is still stranded somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic. Her short story ‘The Judgment of Paris’ was Highly Commended in the 2020 Bridport Prize and her nature writing is forthcoming in The Stonecrop Review. She has also recently written a novel.
Her Bridport Prize-winning story is available in the printed anthology and as an ebook but not online. (However, it can be purchased here: https://bridportprize.org.uk/shop/)
Her most recent work has also been published in Stone Crop Review which can be found below:
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