Clay


Walk out of our back door (we never used the front) and head down the concrete steps to the right: around the house, past the garage and the plum tree. Step out onto the High Street, turn right and walk a couple of hundred metres (pre-Brexit yards) until you reach Harrison’s Store on the righthand side. Cross the road and pass between the posts of two long, wooden fences – and you’re walking the tumbling, shale pathway down to the quarry where I’d spent endless summer days between the ages of 6 and 10 (before we moved down South where quarries were less easy to come by).

Mountains of shale scattered with slate and ammonites; man-made lakes; a rusty and abandoned crane that I used to pretend to drive. Craig once tried to climb the strutted arm of the crane, which reached up and across one of the lakes. I watched him fretfully and, being 8 or so and a boy, stole myself not to embrace him when he returned safely to the land.

Further down on the edge of the quarry, there was a stream with a muddy bank. In the summertime, dragonflies would hum around the flowers that grew there. I’d marvel at the crystalline lines of their abdomens as they hovered. I thought them strangely futuristic, battery-powered things – and imagined what I looked like through their eyes (a pixelated and fish-eyed boy with his head cocked to the side and his mouth open).

One summer, Craig and I found some newts by the bank of the stream. I ran home and got a tupper, bringing it back to keep them in. We caught two of them in nets and put them into the tupperware container with a bit of cloudy stream water. Immediately, I set about making a house for them from the tangy clay of the stream’s edge. The building of the house; the hovering stillness of the dragonfly; the lost banter between Craig and me – that memory could be an hour or a minute, but it’s lodged in me: a place and not a time. Whole shelves of my character are built on that moment and its little aftermaths. I hope that my memory is faithful.

We placed the newts into their new house and I popped the roof on (another slab of flattened, cuboid clay). I licked the clay off of my fingertips and we headed back up the hill, through and out of the quarry. We pushed through the tall grasses of a piece of wasteground where Craig once knelt down and cut his shin on a hidden shard of glass – his eyes had screwed up into the tightest wince and he hadn’t said a word, just held his breath.

An unending summer of small urgencies it was. Getting up early the next day, calling for Craig and dashing down the shale path, back through the quarry and to the stream’s edge where we’d built a mausoleum for two dead newts.

I lifted the roof off and looked at the two still forms curled fetal about one another. There was a blue glaze about them: as if death had added something to them both. Craig and I must’ve exchanged some words, but I can’t remember them. I imagine something simple, like: “Aw! They’re dead!” (We wouldn’t really have known to swear – not at a moment like that. If we’d have been wearing hats, we’d have removed them and held their brims, two-handed, to our chests.)

Since that time, I have shaped myself (like clay) around similar moments of tragic thoughtlessness. From the hapless to the hubristic, I’ve made myself endure it all:

  • Safely ensconced down South, I bathed Monty (a much-loved, but angry, black mouse) and found him, the very next day, staring at me – a chilled and angry corpse – through the window of his small, plastic house within a cage. 
  • In PE, I scored a try on a dog turd – only realising as I fistpumped to an initially elated audience whose collective gaze fell to my shit-smeared chest. 
  • For a school history project, I built a supine and dying soldier (again out of clay), but placed the silver-hilted bayonet – that he held with two hands and that did for him – too far down his midriff: thus making of him a bizarre, glam-Mapplethorpe figurine complete with gleaming, silver love length.

Oh, the trail of dead and detritus: the damage I have done with clay. I pray to the God of Newts (who bears a passing resemblance to Ken Livingstone) and beseech him to free me from a blooming seed of guilt that has grown into a man typing words. God of Newts forbid that these words should be clay.

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