Post Uni and still in Brighton, the time came to find yet another shop job in the Laines. Having already worked in five shops in a three street radius, I did sort of have my pick. I’d always quite fancied working in a pottery painting café- slightly more artistic and creative than your average retail job. I already had the kids party experience and fancied myself a crafty sort, I thought this would compliment my new, gentle, wholesome, beachside existence.
On my first day I turned up and immediately recognised the type of manager Vanessa was. Vanessa was a party girl in her 40’s, smoked like a chimney and worked hard to develop a business that could facilitate her lifestyle. She had the marks of recent trauma etched into her being but she was warm and friendly and encouraging, the kind of lady that instills confidence.
She took me through the little, glass windowed corner shop and showed me the rows and rows of gleaming white pottery. Plates of all sizes, tiles, wreaths, piggy banks, penholders, anything and everything in neat little identical piles ready to be adorned. I was allowed to paint as much as I liked as long as the weren’t customers, in my head this meant Christmas presents for everyone sorted for the next decade.
She then took me downstairs in to the kiln room. As you can imagine it was hotter than the sun. Rows and rows of tissue papered and bagged pots, ready to be collected, lined the walls and drying racks full of people’s artistic outpourings covered every service. Fag in hand Vanessa taught me to mix the glaze in a massive bucket with the entire length of my arm.
And then it was just me… alone. In a fishbowl of gleaming white. I’d paint a bit, learning the exact strokes to best do clear writing, learning the colours and techniques; a teapot for grandma, some chili pots for mum, increasingly surreal patterned plates as the isolation started to set in.
The arrogance of youth didn’t do me any favours. My theatre and Visual Arts degree was burning a hole in my sock drawer and I felt stifled and lonely and unfulfilled; this was the wrong environment to be in.
Some days the only contact I would have with the outside world was a phonecall with the Buddhist trumpet player who was managing the Eastborne branch. He too had no customers, but being slightly less on display and probably slightly more self-sufficient than myself, he used the time to improve his trumpet and Buddhism skills. I just started to go a bit loopy.
When I did have customers they were always odd. Pottery painting it seems is not something well balanced, normal people do! Who knew?
Occasionally you’d get a cute loved up couple celebrating an anniversary or birthday; all painted hearts and cups with each other’s names on. I smiled sweetly as they giggled and whispered but glazed their trinkets with bitter resentment. Mostly it was panicky Brighton mothers, with their Tetris like ability to tessellate their Bugaboos, anxiously hosting birthday parties for Jemima, Poppy, Thor and Oscar.
Interesting fact about boys and girls- Vanessa left me with one instruction- don’t give the boys under 8 black paint. ‘What rife sexism and patronizing gender stereotyping is this?’ my inner protector of children’s autonomy shouted- Vanessa, however, was right. The little boys would spend 40 mins meticulously painting red and blue stripes on their little cars or multicoloured polka dots on their eggcup. I would turn my back for 20 seconds and turn back to see that their cars, eggcups and little selves were completely covered in black paint. I will leave it up to the child psychologists to explain this one; this did not happen to the little girls.
In no other job have I experienced such hysterical mothers. I hate to use the word hysterical when referring to women; the historical basis for the damage that word has done is enough to render it disgusting but I just don’t know how else to describe them. For example the lady who’s little boy wee-d on the shop floor, it happens a lot, no worries but instead of apologizing the irate and inconsolable woman blamed and shouted at me as I soaked up Jimmy’s wee-wee with paper towel on my hands and knees. Then the mother of a 6 month old baby who had decided she wanted baby’s footprints on an entire dinner set; 6 Plates, 6 side plates and 6 bowls. The procedure for baby footprints is thus; Bubba sits on my lap, I hold Bubba’s ankle, paint Bubba’s tiny foot and roll heel to toe over chosen piece of pottery. Cute and fun for all the family. Not when said Bubba is visibly distressed, wriggling around with 9 pieces still to go; neurotic mother screaming, “Just keep going! Don’t stop! She’s fine! She’s fine!” while all three of us soldier on traumatised and with at least two out of the three of us either in or on the verge of tears.
On a side note, and do not judge us, but I will let you into a secret of the trade. I could be cast out of the Pottery-Painting-Magic-Circle for this information and heaven forbid never work in pottery again; but occasionally in the kiln a piece of your precious, priceless, heirloom-to-be pottery may explode. Being that the clientele, as previously described, are all completely neurotic; in order to save the trauma for all involved- we copy your style. I laugh sometimes to think of the vases so proudly on display in Sussex homes that are actually a result of a pottery café wide conspiracy of forgery (by the way did you know that the side of a clenched fist and five little finger prints look an awful lot like a baby’s footprint- just saying.)
After a couple of months of this madness and isolation I packed it in, unceremoniously crying at Vanessa that I couldn’t take it anymore. She marked it down to me having a nervous breakdown, which maybe wasn’t far off the mark, and gave me one of the best bits of advice anyone’s ever given me; with a quizzical look and a shrug “It’s only Pots.” Nowadays in my more manic moments I do try to remind myself that it’s all “…only Pots” after all.