The carpenter and the potter had an explosive relationship; fatally so after he gave her one of his old aprons.
The coroner’s enquiry delivered a verdict of death by misadventure. But there were those who were not so sure.
They first met at the Old Biscuit Factory, a building converted in the nineties into a suite of artists’ studios. She rented a space in which she could create avant-garde ceramic artworks. He had the studio next door, where he ran a one-man reproduction-antique furniture business.
As she pointed out in the first words she ever addressed to him, he shouldn’t really have been allowed studio space in the Old Biscuit Factory. Strictly speaking, he wasn’t an artist, but an artisan. The Old Biscuit Factory was for artists.
He retaliated by demanding to be shown the clause in the lease where this was stipulated, together with the sub-clause where a legal definition of “artist” was offered. A moment later they were tearing each other’s clothes off.
So began their tempestuous relationship, in the manner in which it continued over the years. Spiky, critical antagonism from her. Gruff, defensive counter-aggression from him. And from both of them, unmanageable sexual tension spontaneously relieved.
Naturally, they never saw eye to eye on the question of their work. He dismissed her ceramics as wilfully wonky and self-consciously non-utilitarian. She loathed his furniture for pretty much the opposite reasons. And for the fact that it was phoney. Of course, it was not art. Art had to be authentic. It could never be useful. And the very last thing it could be was comfortable.
She threw the word “craftsman” at him as if it was an insult. He embraced it, saying she had just paid him the greatest compliment imaginable. This only infuriated, and exasperated, her all the more.
She mocked the care he took over his handiwork. (Her emphasis was sarcastic.) “All that effort to produce fake antiques for second generation nouveau riches.”
He accused her of pretension. She said he was the pretentious one. Worse than pretentious, he was vapid.
He threw down his sandpaper and ripped off his apron. They fell down together on the unfinished Empire style chaise longue.
Then one day, after the usual ritual of antagonism and sex, he noticed something distant in her eye, something devastating in her voice. “We have to stop doing this,” she said.
“Because we’re no good for one another. We’re incompatible. In every way. This is not healthy, you must see that. We have to stop.”
But he didn’t see it. What he did see, that evening, was her leaving the Old Biscuit Factory in the company of a lean, stubble-cheeked painter. (His speciality was covering enormous canvases with great swathes of oil paint applied with a draught excluder.)
He saw them kiss. He heard them laughing. Laughing at him, he didn’t wonder.
He went back to his studio and worked through the night, artificially aging a fake Queen Anne tall boy by rubbing nitric acid into the grain. But his mind was on other things.
The psychology of accidents is fascinating. Freud and his disciples would argue that there are no such things. They would argue that he meant to knock the tin of nitric acid over. That he knew what he was doing when he mopped up the spillage, and the acid-soaked sawdust, with his apron. That all along it had been in his mind to give her the apron as a parting gift. And that he knew full well what the fatal consequences of his gift would be.
The following morning he took it into her studio and left it with a note. “I just want you to be happy. This is something for you to remember me by. I hope you will wear it and think of me when you are working on your art.”
She was touched by the gift, particularly its grunginess. If he had washed it, she wouldn’t have wanted it. He knew her well enough to understand that.
She put it on immediately, breathing in the fumes of nitric acid and sawdust. She felt inspired as she threw a bowl and then deliberately malformed it. That was her style. Mutant pottery, she called it, and one or two art critics had even taken up the label. She was beginning to get noticed. Some tipped her for the Turner Prize, the shortlist at least, in a few years time perhaps.
She placed the pots in the hot kiln and hung her apron on the door handle, while she sat down to read a book and wait for the firing process to run its course.
The carpenter had seen her do this with her own apron hundreds of times. He knew that she would do it with the apron he had given her. Did he also know that nitric acid mixed with sawdust produces a highly combustible material, which when absorbed in cotton is known as gun cotton? And that the application of heat to gun cotton would inevitably result in an explosion?
The coroner gave him the benefit of the doubt. There were others who did not, among them a certain lean, stubble-cheeked painter. But that is a tale for another Twistery.