Owen met Serena over a potter’s wheel. It wasn’t like the film Ghost. Although it was equally messy there was no romantic spark and Owen stayed well back from the mess Serena was making.
He showed her how to throw a pot and then stepped away while she attempted to follow his instructions. He’d never met anyone so hopeless at centering the clay. Most beginners struggled to slap the clay down in the middle of the spinning wheel, but after a few attempts they usually got close enough that with a little persuasion it could be forced into place.
Serena got nowhere near. Her best attempt left the clay wobbling erratically for several circuits before leaping off the wheel. Her worst didn’t even stay on for a full rotation.
After ten attempts he broke one of his rules and centred the clay for her.
The art of pulling a pot takes a long time to master. After ten years Owen could do it with his eyes closed, and frequently did. It was his way of demonstrating that fingers were more important than eyes. Some of the people he taught had a natural feel for the clay and could throw small pots even on their first attempt. Others took hours to reach that stage.
He began to doubt Serena would ever manage. He couldn’t work out what she was doing wrong. She didn’t seem heavy handed. She was all fingers and thumbs, which was exactly what she needed to be. Her touch was gentle, consistent and controlled as she caressed the clay.
The walls of the pot would start to rise, he’d offer praise and encouragement and then the clay would over-extend, flap and collapse.
Owen was thankful that he only taught adults. It meant those most annoyed by the clay could simply leave and never come back. Serena didn’t look frustrated. Each time disaster struck she would simply smile and talk to the clay in a language he didn’t understand.
Her calmness didn’t help. The pot still refused to grow and Owen started to think he might have to break his most fundamental rule. It was a rule that set him apart from other teachers and one that he firmly believed made him a better teacher. He never touched.
Most teachers would guide student’s hands to help them develop a feel for the clay but not Owen. He learned from his best friend who taught computers. His friend would never touch someone’s computer or mouse. It would almost certainly mean the student getting in a mess and clicking on things they shouldn’t, but that was more like real life.
Learning how to control well behaved clay wasn’t enough. His students needed to know how to bring clay back into line. He was about to step in when Serena stopped the wheel.
“This clay does not want to be a pot.”
She picked up the clay and weighed it in her hand while studying it intensely.
“This clay wants to be a dancer.”
Owen laughed. “It has certainly been dancing all over the place. Do you want me to demonstrate again?”
Owen held out his hand for the clay.
“Oh no. I must help this clay to dance.”
Serena moved away from the wheel. She delicately placed the clay on the bench and started to caress it. For a moment Owen stood watching but then his attention was caught by a wobble on another student’s wheel.
The dancer miraculously survived their boisterous toddlers and overexcited dogs. Gradually with each house move it faded deeper into the forgotten depths of their busy lives.
Owen didn’t recognise it until he removed the final newspaper wrapper and held it in his hands.
“Look, Serena. Do you remember this?”
“My best work.”
“Your only work.”
Owen studied it with his expert eye. He had become used to appraising pieces. Over the years his reputation had grown and he’d moved from winning ceramic competitions to judging them.
“It’s good,” he said. “Actually very good. Once I get the new workshop set up you should do some more.”
Serena waved at him with a pile of papers in her hand. She’d be busy with her interior design business. Despite Owen’s great success she still bought in the majority of their income and made it possible to purchase the new Victorian villa with its large garage that would become his workshop.
Owen placed the dancer on a shrine-like alcove by a window near his potter’s wheel. Every day it grabbed his attention. Often he’d stop and stare for several minutes, thinking back to that first meeting. Thanking the sculpture for the part it had played in bringing them together and wondering if life would have turned out so well if it hadn’t been for that little lump of clay.
It was his first major solo exhibition. He could hardly believe that one of the pieces had won the Baldwin prize that he had always coveted.
Serena dressed him and he liked the way he looked. He liked the person he was and even more he loved the person he was with.
Owen accepted the applause and spoke into the microphone.
“I’d like to dedicate this prize to my wife Serena. Serena please come up here.”
It took a while for Serena to be convinced that he was serious.
“As I said, I’d like to dedicate this prize to my wife, but I can’t.”
A few in the audience laughed falsely, hoping that there was a happy punch line.
“I can’t dedicate it to her, because I need to give it to her. You see the success of this exhibition is all down to her.”
The audience clapped in relief.
“It really is. You see, the central ceramic, the one that wowed the judges was made by Serena. That’s why it is such a departure from my usual style – it wasn’t me!”
Owen took Serena’s hand and led her away from the aftermath of his bombshell into the quiet of the gallery. For several minutes they didn’t speak as they gazed at the dancer splendidly lit for the whole world to admire.
“I hope that I’ve got the word and translation right,” said Owen.
“Mudita,” read Serena. “The pleasure that comes from delighting in other people’s success.”
“I think it would be a great name for you, and it is something you’ve shown me and taught me.”
The picture of the two of them holding hands, with contented smiles, overflowed from the arts press into the national newspapers. It proved to be a sensationally effective way to launch a late career in ceramics. One that quickly overshadowed Owen’s own and caused him nothing but joy.