I think I was early-20s the first time I did evening classes. They were doing Ironmongery for Lovers down at the college, so I signed on. Maria and I used to walk to the college together, kiss passionately outside her class (Jewellery Making For the Besotted) and then we would reluctantly part.
I wanted to work with Maria, but she was far more subtle than I, a delicate, precise creature, hence the finest jewellery-making. I was bigger, blunter, given to immense gestures and clattering declarations, so I worked with a blow-torch, welding tools, the rasp and file, the clamping vice, the cutters, shears and heavy instruments.
Our first projects were quite different. Maria produced a little thing, so fine and soft it was like a cobweb, a dandelion clock about to be carried away on the wind. "What is it?" I asked, and she told me, "Why, John, love, of course."
I had built a giant heart, not really that big (but it was heavy). I made it from steel plates, dark as night, and cobalt (tough to work) and the top unscrewed and inside were dark, bleeding lights and sudden flashing lasers which fired randomly from an intricate M to a jagged J and back again.
After we married, and when Maria fell, I took the extra shifts at the aircraft works and Maria stayed home with the twins. Once a week I took her down to the college with Moonie and Junie in the back-seats. She did Mosaics for Mothers then, building pictures from small matter, detritus. A landscape with a wicked tree (cornflakes, part of a half-eaten rusk, an ink-stained bib for a river); or a lost woman at night, staring, made from sour milk, something dark-brown, and from leather-scuffs and scabs. When she brought them home the children were frightened by them. We wrapped them in baby-clothes and brown-paper and put them in the attic.
When Maria fell again and the doctor said, twins again (this was a thing with her line) I think Maria only forced her smile. "Are you pleased, my darling?" I asked one night when I was home, and she said, "What comes, comes." And I said, perhaps she might want to try a few months of the jewellery class while she wasn't too big? She told me no, because fat fingers did not good jewelers make.
Peter and Paul were much quieter babies, but they grew up loved. They were loved, I'm sure. Their older sisters were little artists, while they were not. They hammered, and drummed, dug holes in the garden, blew trumpets and clattered. And Maria became someone I did not know.
There was a new course: Heart Pottery. That morning, Maria was still in bed, but I knew she'd be interested. I ripped out the page from the paper, circled the advertisement and pinned it next to my other notes on the board; "Back by ten." and "Boys, soccer training, 6PM."
Maria failed to mention the course that night when I took her hot drink up.
"Hey, Moo," I said, "You see the heart course?"
"I saw it," she said. "You do it."
"Are you sure?" I said.
"I'm sure," she said. When would she have the time?
I have to say it wasn't easy. As I say I'm a big project type of man. But there was something about the concept, and Miss Trenton, quite a sweet lady, she said she thought I had a potter's soul and I should stick at it.
I'm afraid my first attempts went a little bit off. Getting the rotation exactly so, having the clay just right, neither too wet or dry, and the heft must be close to perfect, else...
But I managed my first heart.
"And whose heart is this?" Miss Trenton asked. I put my hand up.
"Yours, John?" she said.
"Well, no, not mine. I mean I made it. It's my wife's."
"Ah, that's okay, then," she said.
I was promoted at work. Moonie and Junie were doing well at secondary school (especially at fine arts). The boys were in a marching band and were both going to be engineers. Peter wanted to build dams, the bigger the better, and Paul was fascinated by Land-Fill. He liked the big yellow trucks.
At college I worked on another Maria Heart but it simply would not come right. Between lessons I made a vase, a fruit bowl and a set of mugs with initials, M-J-P-P-M-J. We knew our mugs because they were larger. But the heart never came right until Miss Trenton said, "Try another heart, John. Try mine for example. It's spare. Maybe you can manage mine."
And I did. It was so easy. I felt so loving as I made the clay, absolutely the right texture, absolutely the right amount. I made a lovely heart and took it home for Maria. "You, utter, utter, BASTARD!" she cried, and my heart, (her heart) (modeled on Miss Trenton's spare heart) was dashed to the floor and broken into small pieces.
I never normally raised my voice, but I'm afraid I did, right then. I told Maria, this really was not good enough. She shouted something, and I said she could use the damn pieces, the wine bottles, the dirty washing and make another 'useless' mosaic. She stormed up to her room.
I confess the anger helped. It was a beautiful heart and Miss Trenton had been so kind letting me use her as a model. And I realised right then that Maria's heart was somehow impossible to capture as it should be, or that it was too complex an undertaking for me. I should have given the heart to whom it belonged. I vowed to throw another and make amends.
I became a good potter. Jennifer (Miss Trenton) believed in me and with her guidance I learned subtlety, the ability to mould, and meld, and how to create wonderful curves, hearts so shapely they appeared to beat and bleed. Of course all my hearts were Jennifer's heart, but what choice did I have if Maria's was so difficult?
Maria is back at the college now. She goes Monday, Tuesday, Thursday. I go Wednesdays and Fridays. That way we avoid meeting, avoid those bitter exchanges. I find, for one thing, that after an encounter my potting is too harsh and what should be beautifully curvaceous is blobby and fat, what should be young, vigorous and elegantly slim, somehow becomes a frumpy pot or a boring waste-basket.
Maria is doing Single-Parent Watercolours.