Thrown untidily about the kiln were the charcoal burner’s tools – shovels, a rake, a grading table, some old tarps. A pair of welding mitts stuck upright on two hazel posts, stiff with wood tar, oddly grotesque. To one side sat a dumpy bag, distended with small black chips. I picked a piece out and turned it in my fingers; it was weightless and tinkled in my hand like glass, its surface flashing an iridescent, magpie blue.
I turned back towards the kiln. It was a cheerful thing full of industry, and if one could imagine it sentient, something that loved its job. I asked Joby when he’d lit it. He scratched his head, answering roughly ‘Six this morning. She’ll be done by nine tonight’.
It had only been going a few hours and was still in its most elemental phase, belching hydro-carbons into the atmosphere. I watched the smoke, transfixed by its shapes, its helicoid mass. From the chimneys grew giant florets of vapour, nightmarish excresences like a super-crop of gruesome cauliflower. The florets expanded, then multiplied, their silent blooms the colour of winter slush. Twelve feet above the kiln, the vapour started to disperse into drifts of white. Higher still, it appeared diluted to almost nothing, broken up in a tide of sea air which drew back through the top branches of the wood.
The kiln jogged something powerful in me. I had come across charcoal burners once before, but that had been long ago, close on forty years. My memories had since been without sound, just static, faded impressions, like charcoal drawings that hadn’t been fixed. But the sight of the kiln and the smell of its industry had sharpened their ghostly forms. Resurrected, they stood as bold as the day I first saw them; as fresh and vivid as charcoal on crisp, white paper.