She worked the clay with her fingertips. A sore spot, a tear, she worried at then kneaded into a complete line. Chatter surrounded her, nervous laughter; the stench of perfectionism.
She just worked the clay.
She certainly was no expert. There wasn’t an age when you were meant to have this ‘pottery’ thing licked, there wasn’t a desired number of pots that you should have made in pristine condition. At least not when you were an amateur, when you weren’t competing, but instead dabbling on the side-lines.
This was additional, this was quiet. You could ‘throw’ a pot on a wheel, you could test, you could trial, you could experiment.
This was the soft silence, the in-between time on the shore as the water drags back out, before the next wave crashes down.
In other lessons she hadn’t been watched, she hadn’t been noticed, but here there was a frisson of competition, of comparison. Each looked over the other’s shoulder, to impress upon themselves either their skill or what they lacked. They wanted a solid trophy to take home and prove their worth, to prove they’d invested their money well.
To show what they were really capable of.
She repeatedly smoothed the flat clay with a wooden tool so it shone; the room disappeared, the chatter dissipated. A smirk spread across her face as she became lost in her own thoughts. It was enough for other people’s faces to crinkle in confusion.
The teacher did a tour of the room, cooing over odd-shaped pots and cups, murmuring over the over-zealous and over-confident, bolstering the timid and risk-averse, pressuring the rigid perfectionists. She reached Cassandra and started a conversation.
“Looking better – a coffee cup?”
The teacher nodded at the sheets of paper at Cassandra’s elbow, where the plans were sketched out in intricate detail and where there were not one, but two clear designs.
“You’re making a couple?”
They both smiled pleasantly but impersonally and continued on their separate performances.
“Uh-huh, a set.”
Organizing the delivery of hot drinks was a main-stay of Cassandra’s profession. People might not want canapes, or to pay for lunch, but they’d probably want tea and coffee at their meetings. She was the Catering and Events Manager at Global Elite, a prestigious hotel chain, its branches were dotted round the world in every major city.
“A tea-cup,” she thought as she wound the clay round so it made a pot like shape, “So strange, that this would be the beginning.”
In the interests of cutting costs she found herself managing a broad sway of these hotels’ catering staff, if only through their procedures. It was her training manuals that were replicated across the globe, her menus that were found in every country, her desired uniform, her dining-room set-ups, her preferred flavours.
Her preferred tea cup that was sat at each place-setting, just so many centimetres from the customer, turned with the handle at a clear right angle, a drop of fudge on each saucer, an elegant weighted spoon, laid just so. Never patterned china, always a bright marine blue.
It was her preferred tea that was ordered by the truck-load.
She found the edges of the large strip of clay and hacked away at both sides, filling them with sticky ‘slip’, a watery clay, before she smoothed the two together, blended them with a small wooden tool. You had to hack at the thing to bond it, to make it strong.
It had been nine months ago when she was approached.
She sat at the hotel bar, wearing her hotel uniform, eating her hotel branded bag of nuts and sipping on a hotel-approved Martini. The petite woman slid beside her, and looked her up and down.
It was just the two of them sat at the bar. A quiet Tuesday in January, when the hordes of people that usually flocked to the hotel were now recovering from the festive season, few were to be found at an extravagant hotel.
The petite woman sat far too close, she smiled too sweetly. The hotel uniform did this to people, you weren’t off the clock, you were ready to serve. They were paying guests, it was their right.
Cassandra smiled back, and considered the best exit strategy.
The woman sipped her fresh Martini, “Could I get you another?”
Cassandra began to shake her head.
“I could really do with the company.”
Now Cassandra could place her: the smile, the sidle, it wasn’t as predatory as it first appeared. She’d arranged this woman’s business luncheon, and spoken to her multiple times on the phone as she had very specific tastes. When the day finally came to pass, she let her in early and showed her round, had her meet the catering staff. Not something she would usually do.
She could see it in her clothes, this woman was a control freak. How much thought and effort had gone into that simple black dress, those heels, the mask of make-up that sat almost like real features?
She played with the olive in the glass. She was asking the wrong questions. The lady beside her wouldn’t do these things, Cassandra nodded to herself: she would have staff.
“Beth, I’d love to.”
The two of them moved to a further corner of the bar, to one of the cabaret style tables. The bartender lit the red candle that lay between them. From the tinted windows, they could see out to the windswept beach.
Three or four Martinis in and Cassandra’s tongue had loosened. They were getting on well. Beth with her smeared mascara and her slurred speech had lost her pristine gloss. She was relatable when she slung her heels under the table and picked at her nail polish.
Cassandra cut out a long strip of clay and began to bend it and smooth it like a handle, to fix to her mug. Beside her another woman complained about the cracks spreading through the drying clay, she was told to soak it in water and wrap it in plastic. Cassandra watched as the small mug was covered in a little white shroud, to sit in the corner and wait.
That small meeting with Beth led to a regular catch up, quick drinks after-work, a coffee on the run, lunch when they could. Over two months she felt she knew Beth, or at least she knew everything Beth presented to her. There was an undercurrent in all their conversations.
Beth worked tirelessly with a security agency that supported international higher-ups from companies, governments and institutions. She and Global Elite had become a constant fixture; it was her job to handle these meetings with iron-tight fists, to make sure that she knew every mechanism, every exit and every staff member. Yet at every meeting she found herself the only woman in the room, and when she mentioned security precautions, the group looked at her burly, male, security guard for confirmation.
Now when she spoke it was deafening, and when someone listened she didn’t stop. She was so used to people not acting on what she said that she found herself constantly checking up, unable to let go. She watched every dropped thread and considered it a criticism. If they had listened, if they respected her, the error wouldn’t have occurred. A lifetime of following up was dragging her down.
The pristine self was sloughing off. Each morning a new layer of lacquer was applied to the fraying body beneath. But when each night consisted of hours of tossing and turning, soon there would be nothing but an amber-like globe, with a small withered cocoon of Beth within.
“Couldn’t you do something else?” asked Cassandra, when the constant cascade of woes got too much.
“I’m the only woman in the room,“ was Beth’s constant reply, as if that was to mean something.
Why fight so hard for something that nobody saw, wondered Cassandra. Who would know she had stepped away? It’s not like she added to the table, her one small seat added nothing, changed nothing. It didn’t register. She told them when it was safe, and even then, they didn’t listen.
At 4am in March Cassandra got a call. Beth talked an endless soliloquy. She’d lost hold of herself. Cassandra hung up the phone. She didn’t rush to her friend’s side, she didn’t offer empty sympathy or comfort.
All she said was, “We’ll find a strategy.”
Then she put it together piece by piece. Like the mug. Like ordering for the 5,000 to be delivered food and drink at bite-sized increments throughout the day.
She started work on her next mug, rounded this time, she hacked triangles into, what would be the mug’s base, and curved these round to meet another flat piece of clay. Slicing notches into the connections and smothering them in slip to seal these small wounds.
Once smoothed with small wooden tools, the mug would be whole, and once fired, water-tight.
Like her current alibi.
She paced it out, like when she paced the room with her servers, like they rehearsed back and forth when there was a function that required perfect coordination. So perfect it was as if she and her crew didn’t exist. Glasses refilled by magic, plates appeared and disappeared in a flash, all without a thought, an action.
That was the key, the fluidity, the cracks couldn’t be visible, the underbelly would only be clear to those who created the illusion.
It was then she started to see tiny cracks in her beautiful marine blue cups and saucers, turned with their handles just so. Once she spotted one, she noted many. How long had they been in rotation? How long had she’d been working invisibly, seamlessly?
Cost-cutting saw her beautiful teacups look battered and worn. She realised she had long been covering for wear and tear, using cloth to cover the tables, centre-pieces to cover the stains, chair-backings to cover the grime, placement of chairs to cover the carpets’ dredge. Lighting to cover the gloom. Showmanship to cover the shabby.
Global Elite wasn’t so elite anymore, and with that realisation, it wasn’t so hard to influence the change she needed.
She suggested various suppliers, pointed out the best, the one she would prefer, that she felt met their brand’s needs and under duress the other that was the most cost-effective.
They would never listen to her adamancy that they were making poor, short-sighted decisions; that it would cost them more in the long run.
She didn’t understand the intricacies of business they’d mutter looking at the finances rather than her small smile. She wrote lengthy emails, popped up in meeting’s minutes, held impromptu crisis discussions. She was so much on the record it was almost farcical.
While she laid down the frame-work, Beth’s contacts worked to tie up loose ends.
Beth pushed for events to take place simultaneously across the globe, or on the face of it she appeared to try and poke this particular idea full of holes. A logistics nightmare she implied, a terrorists’ dream. Her negativity it seemed only spurred them on. They insisted it was her job to deal with these issues rather than derail proceedings. It became a running joke, that Beth was predicting ‘the rapture.’
Cassandra smiled, as she carved her name into the base of one mug and Beth into the other.
Cassandra couldn’t even imagine Beth sipping from this cup, she always clutched a take-out coffee, adding to her appearance as always being both busy and ready to leave at a moment’s notice.
As Cassandra finished her mug, news alerts pinged around the room.
Gloom descended over those who picked up their mobiles; shock and disbelief.
They all looked to her as she carefully laid down her tools.
“Don’t you work at Global Elite?”
Cassandra laughed, “My day off and they make the headlines. What’s happened?”
All the blood drained from their faces.
Beth would be the only one sat at the table now.