Boating shard



Fossicking in a sports-field-to-be on what was once Cape Town’s dump unearthed this broken shard – a boating scene that once adorned a soup tureen or cup or plate.

I started writing a story about it but could not think of how to end it. Any ideas are welcome. Email me at with your suggestions.


The boat shard

The field was covered in great mounds of mud and puddles lay in the furrows gouged into it. Spaced in ragged rows across the surface were short thin poles with small white flags tied to the tops. A bright yellow earth mover was tipsily parked on one end, its munching arm akimbo. It didn’t take much to work out that what was once the town dump from 1940 to 1960 was being levelled and was about to be turned into a sports field.

Picking her way across the field was a girl, her torso bent over clumped shoes. She squatted down every now and then to pick something up and popped it into the plastic bag she held in one hand. On and on she went, this way and that, oblivious to the muddy pools and slimy earth.

Tertia straightened up and lifted her head. Whilst she had been plodding through the field, her eyes peeled on the ground she hadn’t noticed the joggers or dogs and dog walkers nor the plump hadedahs working the green patch near the path, their beaks seemingly hitting their wormy targets more often than not. She took the briefest break to stretch her back before bending over and continuing her own search.

There was something hypnotic about what she was doing. She found it hard to stop even though the treasure she was picking up wasn’t really treasure at all. Worthless bits of pottery shards, mostly white but sometimes coloured winking at her from the mud. It was the ones that had a shred of coloured pattern that made it worthwhile. The deep blue and white patterned ones, the dainty floral bits from fine china no doubt, the rare ones with dark red or black markings on cream. Rims of plates highlighted in stripes. A semi-circle , like an outline of an ear, all that was left of the handle of a teacup.

As soon as she thought to herself that she might as well pack it in, she’d find herself spotting another twinkle from the mud. She could not resist picking it up and turning it over to check if there was a pattern on the reverse. Not this time. She discarded the piece and looked for the next. Another and another. It was an addictive pastime.

From the second that her eye hit upon the boat shard, she knew it was special. It doesn’t make sense that you can tell from the dizzy height of one and half or so metres off the ground that something the size of the tongue of a shoe angled into mud, is special. Especially when it is not particularly highly coloured and it is covered with mud-brown crackles and half of it is buried in the mud itself. But she did.

As she bent down to pick it up, she could already tell that the shard that had broken off from a plate or pot had managed to break in such a way as to retain a boating scene. And it was not the fairly common boat detail that you find on a blue willow pattern. It was different.

She wiped the shard on the seat of her pants and held it up close to her face to get a good look. She could tell that there were figures in a boat, one definitely with an oar in his hand and perhaps others as passengers. There seemed to be another boat behind the first, also with figures. And what else? A lump of muddy rust at the top of the shard that she couldn’t dislodge by rubbing with her fingers might have been hiding more. She would need to wash it off at home, maybe with a toothbrush?

She lifted her squelching shoes out of the furrow where she had found it and turned for home. Having decided against putting it with all the other shards in the plastic bag, she slipped it into her pocket . A few times on the way home she stopped to have another look at it and when it was in her pocket her fingers kept it company.

When Tertia got home, she was not allowed inside. “Strip off your shoes and pants at the outside tap. Then straight into the bath with you,” her mother ordered. “You might as well get into your pyjamas after your bath.”

At suppertime, Tertia held out the shard on her palm to show her family. The lump of stubborn rust had come off in the bath so there was more of the scene revealed.

“There’s another little boat up at the top here,” her mother said squinting hard.

Her brother wanted a chance to hold the shard.

“But what are those two spotted sacks in front here? Are they part of the seated figure?”

“No, that’s cargo. But why is the man who’s rowing sitting up in the air? “

They looked at the shard, this way and that, angling it into the light and even looking at it under a magnifying glass. But the scene it portrayed seemed to offer more questions than answers. When you looked at a figure in one way, it looked like an old heavily coated man with a white beard. (A passenger in the second boat) When you looked at it again, the white beard became the white hat of a third passenger, a woman! The most mysterious figure of all was the ‘passenger’ in the first boat. Were the shapes below his neck his arms in their jacket outstretched in a kind of open-armed “WEEEEEEE’ exclamation or was he merely stretched out over the spotted cargo? Were the shapes something else altogether? What was the white stuff that was spilling out of the boat from below his waist? And why, oh why was clearest figure of all, the oarsman wearing the potty hat, rowing from a perch much higher than the gunnels of the boat? What was clear was that the boats were about to dock. There was the lapping shoreline and a suggestion of pillars right at the broken edge of the shard.

What happens next? Help!

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