The potter sensed the presence of the child in the corner, but smiling quietly to himself, he pretended not to notice. Deftly, he cranked the wheel with his foot and the pot sprang to life under his wise old hands.
From a lump of clay he pulled the long, graceful stem and fragile egg-shaped body of a water-jug. Carefully, he slowed the wheel and, taking a thin stick in his right hand whilst balancing the new jug with his left, he gently scored the rim with a feathery pattern of curves.
The child inched closer, staring in fascination as the magic unfolded.
The potter worked by touch alone, twisting a slight spout in the mouth of the jug and shaping a simple handle from the extra clay that he had worked to the rim. Taking a sharp knife, he wet it and slid it quickly under the jug, which came away clean in his hand. He placed it on a smooth board where there were several other similar jugs and a few simple bowls waiting to go to the kiln for firing.
For a moment his long fingers lingered around his creation, imparting soul to the living clay.
Do your job well and take pride in it, his fingers told the jug. Carry water safely for many years, don’t leak or crack otherwise people will say, “That old potter – ought to have given up years ago … doesn’t turn them out the way he used to, poor old chap!”
And if I give it all up, thought the old potter, what then, eh? Who will make the water-jugs then? Not my son Rashid who knows how to read and write and wants to be a teacher. No my son Faisal who has a fancy job at the Ministry and drives a car that breathes cold air in the summer and hot air in the winter. And certainly not my eldest son, Muhammed, who works in the bank … he handles the dry, dead notes with the same love as I handle the living clay, the potter mused, without rancour. I was the one who did without food on the table so that they could have a decent education. Now it is that very education that has taken them from me.
Ah, these new ways, and the young men wanting everything now – wanting excitement and a bigger, better way of life.
My ambition was all for them, but their ambition is all for themselves and sometimes I fear that it gnaws away at the very root of happiness, this ambition they have.
As if seeking comfort, his questing fingers found the wheel, and spun it once, full circle.
New ways, thought the potter, new ways … but what about the old ways … and who will turn this wheel, when I die?
Not that they would go without water-jugs or bowls – the Souk was full of them. They had come from the far reaches of the earth, so the merchants said. He had turned them in his hands, curious and without resentment. They were smooth and cool, these foreign pots, and thin and light as a pigeon’s egg-shell.
They told him that wonderful patterns and pictures had been painted on the clay before firing, so that afterwards the colours were burning bright. He would have liked to have seen the strange animals and pale men with eyes like long almonds. His own pots were simple and useful and the colour of the good earth.
The good earth, he murmured, and sighed.
In the corner the child shifted, startled. The potter remembered his unseen audience and cocked his head to one side, straining to hear the child’s breathing. Perhaps he had gone?
But no, no – there it was … the almost imperceptible fidget of a small boy, at once longing to scamper away into the sunlight to throw pebbles at the goats, but drawn, despite himself, by the magic of the clay and the wheel.
How well he remembered the spell, that magic spell, and it could have been himself sitting in the corner hoping desperately not to be noticed.
I wonder, mused the old potter … I wonder … and suddenly his heart began to pound.
“Come here, boy, and feel the clay,” he said quietly.
There was a moment of terror and then he heard the light footsteps of the child, hesitant and wary. As softly as a passing moth’s wing, the little hand fluttered into his own. He took the fingers gently and scooped up a small lump of wet clay. With his foot, he cranked the wheel and started to work the clay.
The child’s hands closed naturally around the growing shape and together they pulled a small bowl. The potter could feel the quick delight and laughter welling up from clay and child, both together.
He stopped the wheel and squeezed the child’s hand, his sightless eyes wet with job. “What is your name, boy?” he whispered.
“But Grandfather, it’s me – Nabilah!” said the little girl with a giggle.
Like a flawed pot, his dream shattered.
“What are you doing here, girl?” he demanded. “Why aren’t you helping your mother washing, or cooking or whatever it is women do in the afternoon? You should not come skulking around here – this is not your place.”
“But Grandfather,” said the little girls softly, “I’ve finished my work … and I do love to sit here and watch you making the water-jugs and the big bowls for the dates. I promise to be very good and very quiet only, please, don’t send me away.”
The potter felt her anxious eyes on him, and suddenly there was the glimmer of a smile. After all, wasn’t she his only grandchild? As bright and as merry as any of his sons, by all accounts …
Well, why not, after all? Women to carry the jugs and fill the bowls, and now a woman to make them. And the secret, the art, would be passed to the next generation, after all. Not father to son, true … but grandfather to grand-daughter. Something new – new ways to preserve the old. Yes, I like that, that’s a nice touch, he thought, and the smile grew deeper.
He sensed the child’s relief and belatedly he glowered in her direction.
“Give me your hand, girl,” he said sharply. “That bowl was as warped as an old olive branch. I wouldn’t put chicken feed in that bowl.”
With ill-disguised pride he slipped the first bowl from the wheel, and laid it carefully beside his water-jug.
“No, Grandfather,” said Nabilah meekly, and her eager little fingers closed around the new lump of clay.
November 25, 2015 copyright Suzi Clark
First British Serial and Broadcasting Rights purchased by the BBC 1984
The Potter is inspired by the potter of A’ali village, in Bahrain. The short story was adapted into a full-length stage musical by its author, staged in Bahrain in 1983 as Who’ll Turn The Wheel and televised later that year.