Authors: Lesley Glaister
Limestone and Clay
From the bedroom, Nadia can hear Simon clattering in the kitchen, as he prepares Sunday lunch. Poised on her shoulders, black nylon-clad legs straightened above her head, she inhales the meaty smell. This moment reminds her of moments in her parents' house. Sunday morning was a long plain space, a light tunnel until lunchtime. It was a roasty flesh-scented boredom, quiet but for the sluggish ticking of the pendulum clock and the light tapping of her mother's whisk against the side of the batter bowl.
Nadia exhales and lowers her legs over her head so that her toes touch the floor. The stretch in her thighs is exquisite and the blood pulses in her ears. The Plough.
The lamb is for Simon's friends, Miles and Celia and Celia's husband Dan. There will be roast potatoes too, and Nadia knows that Simon is at the sink peeling them, his brow furrowed with concentration as he attempts to peel a potato in one long unbroken spiral. It is a silly ambition. But harmless. Unlike some.
Nadia turns onto her stomach. She bends her knees up and reaches back to grasp her feet. She inhales and draws herself up into a taut rocking arch. Her hipbones are two sharp points against the floor. The Bow.
âShit,' Simon says and she lets her legs go and flops, smiling, knowing he's broken the peel. She turns over and lies supine, drawing air deep into her lungs, flattening her diaphragm, holding the air tight and trapped and then letting it out in one long smooth stream. She hears the pop of the cork from a winebottle.
Nadia draws in another breath and smells rosemary. She sits up and draws each foot in turn up to bounce on the opposite thigh. And then she stands before the full-length mirror. She is short and well-built ââstocky' is her mother's unflattering description. Her breasts are large and her hips curved above strong thighs. Her belly is a sad hollow. No, no, not sad: it is a scoop of space, of freedom, look at it that way. She turns her back on the mirror and shakes out her hair. It is long, wiry hair, and it stands out around her head in a brown bush. She puts on her red dress and catches her hair back with a black ribbon. She notices the calendar, a photograph of stalagmites; among them, dwarfed by their glittering immensity, a small caver. She keeps her eyes on the picture rather than the date.
Simon is beating something now in a bowl. The tap, tap, tap of the whisk reminds her again of her mother in the steamy Sunday-morning kitchen, the radio on very softly, hardly audible above the cooking sounds, the bubbling and simmering and the spitting of the roast.
it would be, with the names of unknown people in places with unknown names that made her both restless and glad to be at home. Her mother would sometimes join in with the radio, singing softly, beating time with her whisk or tapping with a spoon. When lunch was almost ready, the pressure cooker would give a fierce, startling hiss and fill the kitchen with the sudden wet aroma of cauliflower or Brussels sprouts.
Nadia stares at her face in the mirror. Her hazel eyes are insignificant without make-up. Her nose is small and sharp. She draws black lines around her eyes, and fills her pale lips in with scarlet, like sheeny poppy petals. Better, she thinks, and pokes shiny red hoops through the holes in her earlobes.
Simon is sipping wine, standing by the kitchen table flicking through the colour supplement. He looks up. âNice,' he says.
I didn't put it on for you, she'd like to say. The sharp half of her would like to say. But that can't be true for she knows it is his favourite dress, a dress he bought her, insisting that it was just her colour. âIt makes you glow,' he'd said. He indicates the winebottle and she shakes her head.
âNot yet. Anything I can do?'
âAll under control.'
It is April. The window of the flat is on a level with the tops of flowering cherry trees in the park across the road. They make her think of snow. It is April. On Friday, Simon and Miles and Celia are going caving. They are seeking a way between Curlew Cavern and Boss Hole. They will drop down beneath the buzzing sunlit moorland, far down to places never seen, dead places gurgling with sinister streams, places where water rises without warning, where slabs of rock fall and crush and block the way without a sign on the surface. Where people disappear. They are planning to penetrate the secret places of the earth, to find a way between one cave and another a mile beyond. This is their ambition. She thinks of grubs wriggling; she thinks of worms.
Simon opens the oven door to check the progress of the lunch. The kitchen fills with the hot fragrance of lamb and rosemary. Nadia's stomach growls. âLook at this,' Simon says, holding out the colour supplement. Nadia doesn't look at the glossy page. She looks instead at him. He is stubbornly good-looking. Even with her eyes narrowed with resentment, she can't see anything that displeases her. He is tall and golden, hair curls over the collar of his old denim shirt, his cheeks are sharp with a half-grown indecisive beard. His lack of effort annoys her and yet she is impressed.
âAnything up?' he asks. His eyes are pale grey and capable of probing.
âNo,' she sighs, âthere's nothing up.'
âYou don't mind them coming?'
âOf course I don't. You haven't set the table.' She turns away to find a tablecloth.
Celia is as much Simon's type of woman as Nadia is not. Celia is tall and smooth and fair with a dry ironic voice. Whenever Simon and Celia stand together, Nadia thinks spitefully of the Master Race. They could be models for a eugenics campaign. Indeed, they were lovers once, long ago; and although it didn't work â they were too alike, fought like tigers â Nadia resents the warmth that passes between them, the meeting of their eyes, the way Simon will always spring to Celia's defence.
âWhy is she always so brittle? Such a smart-arse?' Nadia has often complained.
âIt's just her way, a sort of shell, you'd see if you got to know her â¦' And Nadia has scowled, twisting her fingers in her rough brown hair.
Simon carves the lamb into thick pink slices. Celia leans forward, breathes in the smell and groans appreciatively.
âWhy don't you come?' Miles says to Nadia. âNot on Friday, but we could organise a trip, just get you down there to see. You ought to know â¦'
âWho says?' Nadia asks.
âOh Nadia, Nadia â¦' Miles stretches out his hand.
âCatch me underground!' Nadia shudders.
âAnd Yorkshire pudding,' sighs Celia. âWhat a little gem he is.'
âOpen another bottle of red, my darling,' Simon says. Nadia reaches for the corkscrew, flicking him an irritated glance. He only ever calls her âmy darling' when Celia is there, and always with a dry inflection mimicked from her.
âYou're looking great, Nadia,' Miles says. âHow's life?'
âFine.' Nadia thrusts the corkscrew viciously into the cork.
âDan sends profuse apologies,' Celia says. âSorry, but speleological talk is not his forte over Sunday lunch. Causes acute dyspepsia. The whole business, actually. You two ought to get together.' She smiles once more at Nadia, who avoids her eyes, pouring out the wine. âYes, on at me to pack it in, actually.'
âNo â¦' says Miles.
âYes. Oh don't worry. After this jaunt we're going in for a sprog, if that's the appropriate terminology nowadays. Had to solemnly promise Dan to stay on terra firma,
terra firma, actually. Quaintly superstitious as always, he fears me giving birth to a troglodyte.'
âMore a trog than a sprog in that case!' Miles winces at his own weak joke.
Nadia presses her lips together, feeling them turn papery thin in an imitation smile.
âWell, congratulations.' Miles raises his glass.
Nadia waits for Simon's response, but âGravy?' is all he says, offering Celia the jug.
âHold your horses, Miles, mission not accomplished yet,' Celia says, looking at Simon through her fair lashes.
Nadia splashes wine on the tablecloth. âBloody hell,' she says.
âSalt,' cries Celia. She stretches over for the salt mill and grinds a little heap onto the red pool.
âAll right?' Miles covers Nadia's hand with his own.
âAll right,' she says. She watches the redness creep through the loose grains. There is enough wine in her to stave off the worst of her feelings. Miles has the sensitivity Celia lacks. She looks at him gratefully.
remembers, that is clear. She narrows her eyes at Celia, who is clinking her glass against Simon's and laughing. Celia catches the look.
âOh hell,' she says, putting down her glass. âI didn't think. Oh shit.'
Nadia shrugs. âLet's eat.' The meat is tender in her mouth and the talk is carefully general. Miles asks her about her work, Celia admires the clay masks that hang upon the walls. They are primitive faces, glazed pewter-blue and green. All their eyes are sad shadows, only holes, and Nadia knows she will never make another. As the meal progresses the talk slides inevitably down through pottery and clay into rock and caves, and Nadia closes her mind to it.
The earth turns and the sun shifts across the diners at the table and leaves the room. Clouds gather. Nadia flicks on the light as she makes coffee. Her lunch hangs in her stomach like a greasy ball. There are shreds of lamb caught between her teeth, a rotting, intimate taste. She grinds coffee, her hand on the lid of the grinder, the hard vibration travelling up her arm and making her teeth rattle as the pungent fragrance is released. There is something she won't tell Simon, there is something she will not even let herself think. She smothers the moth-wings of hope under a blanketing sadness.
It has happened before, too many times to count.
She tips the grounds into the coffee pot and pours in boiling water. She arranges four cups and saucers, of her own making, green and white marbled glaze. She pours thin cream into a jug and knows she cannot drink coffee herself. She puts a peppermint teabag into one of the cups.
âDoing much teaching?' Miles asks.
âNo,' Nadia sighs. âI want more â¦ there isn't the money for “non-vocational skills” nowadays. I might get a few hours in September.'
âIt is. I'd like to be teaching now. I'm not doing much else.'
âIf you can, do, if you can't, teach,' says Celia, inevitably.
âWatch it,' says Simon, who is a geography teacher.
,' Miles objects, and Simon grunts his agreement.
,' Celia says.
âThe inside of this flat is bloody proof of that. Masks, vases,' Miles casts around, âcups â¦'
Nadia squashes the teabag against the side of her cup with a spoon and watches the greenness spread through the water. âI
,' she corrects.
âPotter's block?' asks Celia.
âI don't know â¦ maybe.'
Miles leans towards her, his brown eyes searching. Nadia wishes, not for the first time, that she could fancy him. He would be so
. He would do all the worrying for her, all the bolstering and massaging of her ego. But he has a long shiny nose, dented on either side where he constantly jams his glasses back, and all she can possibly feel is fond.
easier,' Simon concedes. Celia, who tried it once, splutters.
exactly, but clearer-cut,' Nadia ponders. âYou go, you teach, you come home, the job is done. And pottery's a good thing to teach. It's a skill that anyone can learn. There's evidence of progress. People are
. It's satisfying to please people. And it's tactile â¦ there's something about that, using the hands, playing with mud â¦'
âSounds horribly like some sort of icky primal therapy,' Celia remarks.
Nadia shrugs, suppressing her irritation. âWhereas I don't know where I'm going with my pots. I've lost the â¦ oh, I can't explain â¦ I've lost the