The Tile Setters
by Ami Chopine
The first time Paul Atkinsley saw a Massys floor was at an engagement party for
one of his clients' daughter. He enjoyed these kinds of functions. It gave him a
chance to network, gain new contacts. This was where business happened, at least
for the first half of the event. After that, unless there was someone of particular
interest he was talking to, Paul got bored and started thinking about going home.
Such was the case now, but something held him there, sitting alone at his table and
watching a few lingering couples dancing on the floor.
He looked up to see Lawrence, his client, watching him.
Grasping for something, Paul said, "That's a fantastic floor." As soon as he said it,
he knew it was the tile floor that had drawn him in. Each tile was an exquisite piece
in itself, the patterns in soft golds and greens, weaving and swirling. Each one was,
as far as he could tell, completely unique, yet they matched together perfectly. The
whole of it invoked a focused calm that Paul found rather pleasant.
"You like it?" Lawrence asked.
Now that Paul was aware of the floor, there were no words. He wanted to get down
on his hands and knees and touch it, let his fingers follow the patterns. And
suddenly there he was, on the floor. The tile was warm and soft, like flesh turned to
stone yet still alive. A few people in the room stared at him, but Lawrence got
down to where he was.
"It's remarkable, isn't it?" Lawrence said.
"Do you want a floor like this?"
The possibility hadn't occurred to him. Yes. Of course he must have it. At the
agency. That was where he needed a floor like this. It would pull customers like it
"I would," Paul said, but instead of the take charge voice he meant to use, it came
out in a whispered awe.
"Arthur Massys made and set the tiles. I'll get you his address."
Paul nodded. The people were still staring. He stood up.
Lawrence looked at him a while, with concern. "Paul, there hasn't been time or
circumstance tonight but how are you?"
A question about his father. That is what it was. Lawrence didn't care about Paul,
but about his father being gone. People still wondered if he would be able to
handle business without the great experience and whatever else they thought his
father had that Paul didn't.
"I'm doing great, Lawrence. The business is great. We've just hired some new
creatives that are going to take us in great new directions," Paul said. Must keep
the client confident in their abilities.
Lawrence nodded, the concern not quite wiped from his face.
"I'm almost the last one here. I really should go."
"Paul, if you need anything, don't hesitate."
Paul walked towards the door, but he couldn't leave before he turned around to see
the whole floor. He stood there a few seconds, then his gaze touched on Lawrence,
who still held that concerned look on his face. Paul turned and left.
Paul tried not to show his irritation to the young woman who answered the door to
the grayish, run-down cottage that turned out to be the residence of Arthur Massys.
It was not what he expected. An artist of this ability should live in something as
beautiful as his work. Not this dump. He struggled to be respectful.
"I'm here about the floor," Paul said.
The woman lead him through the halls to the back of the house where there was a
workroom. She seemed to be about college age. Wisps of light brown hair escaped
the clip that she attempted to hold it back with.
Paul assumed it was Arthur at the table, kneading clay, sweating so much that it
dripped into the clay. Sometimes he dipped his hands into a little bowl of brown
powder. The girl took a jar of powder from a shelf, poured some into another bowl
and set it by the first. He looked up at her, put a hand on her shoulder, and smiled.
"I don't have time, use my daughter," Arthur said, not bothering to look at Paul.
The girl looked surprised. "Really?"
"It's time, Gwynne."
Paul rolled his eyes at the touching scene of a father and his daughter apprentice.
"You're Arthur Massys?" Paul asked.
"I'm hiring you, not your apprentice."
Arthur glared. "Look at the floor."
For the first time, Paul saw the floor of the workroom that was dingy everywhere
else -- everywhere but the floor. Here was the stunning beauty he thought should
be here. In fact, he'd walked all the way through the house without seeing it. It
wasn't quite what Paul wanted.
"I want something a bit more . . . expansive. Bolder."
Gwynne looked disappointed.
"You'll know," said Arthur.
"She'll know what?" Paul asked.
"She'll know exactly what you want and your floor will be exactly what you
"I don't want your apprentice." Apprentices were not to be trusted without the
"You will have my daughter or you will not have a Massys floor. That is what you
want, isn't it?"
Paul considered. What he wanted was the best image for the company. Advertising
firms had to have an image to advertise their ability to sell images.
Arthur looked at him for a while. "People will come to your firm, and they will see
a Massys floor, and they will be stunned by its expansive fabulousness. My
daughter is actually a better artist than I am."
"No. I want the man who did the floor at Lawrence Tyler's house."
Arthur went on, ignoring Paul. "Tomorrow she will come to your office. She'll be
in and out, wandering around for about a month. Don't restrict her. Then she'll
come back here to make tiles, which will take about three months, and then she
will go back to your office and lay the tiles, which will take another month."
This isn't how it is supposed to happen. Paul should be telling them what to do. He
turned around to leave.
"If you want a Massys floor . . ."
No floor was worth this.
"No other advertising firm will have a floor like this, and you will gain clients you
don't even dream of having now."
Paul knew it was true, but he didn't know why. He just stood there, watching the
patterns of the floor that somehow didn't quite grab him like the floor at
Lawrence's house, yet promised an ability to do so . . . if he could only see what
the pattern did beyond the wall. Arthur nodded, Gwynne smiled, and then Paul
walked away, knowing she would be at his office tomorrow.
The next day, Paul's secretary told him that Gwynne Massys was there and asked
if she should show her into the office. No, he would go out and show her around.
Gwynne needed to understand what this place was about. It was important to
convey an image to people that was strong and colorful, creative and energetic, but
focused -- even when getting that image included getting a Massys floor from
He walked out of the office and into the reception area. The girl was so quiet that if
he had not gone there specifically to meet her, he would not have even noticed her.
"Hi Gwynne," he said, extending his hand to shake.
A wry smile passed briefly across her face before she returned the grip. "Hello,
Paul contained the scowl and the urge to demand that she call him Mr. Atkinsley.
"Let's start at the beginning. What did you see when you walked in?"
"A tired receptionist."
"Yes." Paul laughed. "She does do a lot around here, yes Stephanie?" The
receptionist laughed with him a bit, but Gwynne just stared. Insolent little twit.
"Okay, I meant the décor. What does the room look like?"
Gwynne sighed. "There is a big logo above the big desk where the tired
receptionist sits. It says," and her voice deepened, "'Atkinsley Advertising' all in
colors meant to attract the eye and give the impression that this is a place where
things happen. This is a place that people should pay attention to. The furnishings
are meant to make visitors happy and alert. Comfortable, but not relaxing.
Stimulating." It was exactly what Paul wanted to convey, but it sounded like a
school lesson coming from her.
Paul wondered if he should ask the next question he'd prepared in his mind, but
nothing else was there, so he did. "Can you make me a floor that will do that?"
"I don't know. We'll see."
"I need a floor to do everything this room does."
"No, you want a floor that does those things. You need a floor that will attract
many clients and give you a good steady business."
"You are a snippy little girl."
"My dad's better at talking to people."
"Not from what I experienced."
"He was working on the clay then. Besides, you were being a toad."
Paul got the impression that she still thought he was being a toad.
"Is it okay if I just walk around now?" she asked.
"Let me show you around."
"No, thank you." Gwynne walked away into the other side of the reception area
where the offices were. Paul looked at the receptionist who watched him. If he ran
after Gwynne to stop her, he would look out of control and powerless. He'd
already let too much of that show. That irritating slip of a girl. The receptionist was
The receptionist went back to her desk. "But it's just as well," she said. "I think
you have that meeting with Mr. Robertson."
How could he have forgotten Robertson? It had taken Paul the better part of six
months to figure out exactly which of his old man's cronies were useful to him or
not. Paul had to see them in action without his father. Firing Robertson had been
saved as the final action Paul accomplished to purge the agency of his father's
Paul remembered the time he'd seen a layout that would have worked better in
yellows. He mentioned this to the guy working with him, who loved the idea and
had decided to experiment with it to see if the company might like it better than the
original blue they'd asked for. Robertson called a meeting with Paul's father,
where he informed Paul that the company had requested the blue colors that had
originally made the layout and that Paul really should know his stuff before he
went snooping around other people's work. Father had kept silent.
When Robertson walked in, Paul made a show of studying the files in front of him
and then studying Robertson himself. By the time Paul spoke, Robertson was quite
Paul said what he'd wanted to say with Gwynne. "That's Mr. Atkinsley."
"Mr. Atkinsley," Robertson said, shrinking into the chair.
"Mr. Robertson, why should we keep you?"
"I'm one of your best account managers."
Paul nodded. Robertson was arrogant even when he whined like the sniveling suck
up he was. There were five applicants this very afternoon interviewing to take his
place. None of them remembered putting Paul in his place. At least one of them
would be as good.
"I've . . . only got two more years . . ."
"To retirement. And?"
Robertson shrank into the chair, thoroughly defeated.
"Our financial officer will meet with you to discuss your severance benefits. You
have some good years left. But not in this company. Goodbye."
And Robertson left. It should have felt good, getting rid of the man who had
humiliated him. But he couldn't get that girl off his mind. She stood there now, in
fact, her eyes somber, watching him.
"How did you get in here?"
"Through the door," Gwynne said, her gaze never leaving his face.
Paul wondered how long she'd been here. The look of distaste suggested it was
"He was hard to get along with," Paul said.
She remained silent.
It was infuriating. She didn't even know the whole situation.
"He will be getting a very generous severance package. Six weeks pay."
Still, she stood there unmoving.
Who was this girl to say it was wrong? Paul clenched his teeth. "You are very hard
to get along with."
"I'm not really here to get along with anyone, I'm just trying to get a sense of the
"Not in my office." Paul needed a place where he could just be and not worry
about what anyone else thought.
"Okay." Gwynne turned around and left. He didn't see her the rest of the day, or
the next day or the next. She'd left for good.
That was fine. He really didn't need a Massys floor. Something else would do very
A few weeks later, Lawrence threw another party at his house, to which Paul was
again invited. He didn't want to go. He even made excuses and then bought tickets
to the theatre to keep himself away. But when he drove up to his destination, it was
Lawrence's house and not the theatre where he found himself. He sat in his car an
hour, the thought of going in too humiliating to consider. But he couldn't even
entertain the idea of leaving.
Finally, someone must have mentioned the man who was waiting in his car, and
Lawrence came out.
"Paul, it's good to see you. I thought you couldn't make it," he said through Paul's
"I can't." I can't go in there.
Lawrence nodded. "We'd love to have you. It's much more interesting in the
Paul looked at the house, longing to go in and feel what he did that first night he'd
been on the floor. He couldn't say what the feeling was -- belonging? Life?
Something that he didn't have.
Lawrence broke the silence. "Hey, did my secretary get you the address of Arthur
"So? How is your floor coming along?"
Paul shook his head. "Not getting one."
"Oh? I thought . . ."
"It's too hard." What a stupid thing, he wouldn't get a floor because he was
worried about what a woman apprenticed to her father thought of him. "They'd be
ripping up the floor, and we can't work like that."
"I imagine." Lawrence said. He seemed somehow disappointed. It was just a damn
"Sorry to bother you, I'll go now." Paul was backing out before Lawrence had a
chance to reply. It was time to consider which was worse, dealing with Gwynne or
not having those tiles under his feet.
Gwynne answered the door again.
She looked at him in the same calculating way that made him want to flee. He
stood his ground.
"Come in," she said after a while. She led him back to the work room. Arthur was
still there, kneading at the clay. Gwynne picked up a lock of hair and started
snipping bits of it into her father's clay.
"You do realize," she said, "That you will get the floor that you need. It might not
be the one that you want."
"I know what I need."
"Hmmm." She shrugged. She finished with the hair, turned around and said, "You
must let me see everything."
His irritation must have shown on his face.
She smiled up at him. "I don't mean to be so irritating."
"Okay." No, no. It was not okay. He hated having his soul weighed by her stare.
Why was he doing this? He stood at this floor, with its tiles, and looked down and
struggled to not need a floor by the same maker. "Okay." Just let him be.
She was at the agency the next morning before he even got there. He saw her a
few times in his office, during meetings, with clients. Other people didn't notice
her much. Gwynne was that way, blending into the background. He came to know
her gaze and wonder what she thought of his actions. Sometimes the woman just
stared at him in that infuriating way, but it was her very silence that made it
Then there were the times when her eyebrow rose just a little and she smiled. And
when that happened, his heart burned.
He looked up one day after letting one of the producers take their vacation early,
unconsciously expecting approval from Gwynne. But she wasn't there. It dawned
on him that he hadn't seen her all day. The month had passed. Gwynne would be
back in the workshop making the tiles now.
Paul waited, at first more aware of her absence than he'd been aware of her
presence. He remembered the smile and imagined what it would take to make it
appear on her face -- and that is what he did with his clients and his employees.
He'd look up, but there was no smile, or even that cold gaze that made him wither
inside, so after a while he didn't look for it. The longing faded. The struggle and
need crept beyond conscious thought. The comfortable feelings of power and
control settled back in.
He had, in fact, completely forgotten it until Lawrence dropped in to discuss
business one day. The rest of the day Paul couldn't stop thinking about Gwynne
and her stare. It had been four months now. He determined to go see what was
taking so long.
On the way, Paul realized that he wasn't worried about the floor being put in at the
agency, but rather that Gwynne wasn't there anymore. The more he thought about
it the more he realized that the floor was nothing to him, the girl was everything.
He remembered the curves of her neck, and the way her hair was never quite in
control. Details that he'd forgotten tumbled into his memory and filled him with
But at the door of the run-down house that Gwynne and her father lived in, he
wanted to flee. She'd see him again. He was glad when she didn't answer the door
this time. It was Arthur who answered it.
Arthur looked him up and down and grinned.
"You're lovesick," Arthur said, stroking the whiskers on his face thoughtfully. "I
wonder if that was necessary. Well, come in. She's in back almost finished with
Paul took steps that brought him into the house, down the hall, but all he could
think was of what Arthur had said. Lovesick. Necessary? Had he ever imagined
that she loved him back and wanted him? When that question occurred to him, he
realized that the answer was obvious. He had only ever thought of what he wanted,
not of what she wanted. Why did she smile in that way that made him yearn to
have her smile at him again? He was being manipulated.
By the time he got to the room, he had decided that he would not give in. He was
not in love with Gwynne.
It was her now, kneading the clay, working so hard in this stuffy room that sweat
poured down and dripped onto the clay, just like her father.
"What's taking you so long?"
Arthur came up behind him. "Did you know that this was her master work? After
this, I'm retired." The middle-aged man walked to Gwynne and quietly asked her
something. She gestured up to the shelf in reply, and he brought down a small little
vial. Paul forgot his anger and watched in fascination as she unstopped the delicate
bottle and poured a drop onto the clay.
"What are you putting in there?" There was more they'd put in, other times.
Powders, hair, and he suspected that it wasn't accidental that the sweat got in there
or that there wasn't a machine to knead and roll out the clay.
Gwynne grunted as she put all her body weight into smashing the folded clay back
into itself. It was Arthur who answered.
"Just a little something that gives the clay what it needs."
"Hair?" Paul asked.
"A beautiful shimmer." Arthur grinned. "And the powders, liquids -- color and
texture, various things you wouldn't know about. Even the sweat of someone
working hard -- added into the clay it gives a property useful for the workplace."
"The spirit of working hard." Arthur laughed, as if it were a joke. Paul looked at
Gwynne, who had stopped and was glaring at her father.
It was beautiful, that face, even when irritated. Paul was struck, and she would
never want him.
"You manipulated me." The anger in him grew as he said the words. "You judged
me and then you made me become what you thought was morally correct."
"I only watched you work." She stared at him with a gaze that made him, he finally
admitted it, detest himself.
She turned back to the clay.
Even her back accused him. He looked around the room, avoiding it. In one corner
were stacks and stacks of tiles. He walked over to them and picked one up,
examining it. They looked nothing like the tiles here or at Lawrence's house.
"But, they're so plain. They're ugly." He looked at her as he said it. More sweat
dripped from her face. But no, it wasn't sweat. He walked over to her, still holding
the tile, and saw that it was tears, rolling down, falling into the clay. She kept on
pushing and folding and pounding. The tears, the ugly tile, maybe it was all that
could come of him. Maybe there was nothing in himself of beauty.
Arthur stepped in and took the tile from Paul. "The tile is nothing without the
pattern," he said.
Arthur put it back on the stack, and then turned back to the shelf, muttering,
occasionally giving something to Gwynne to add to the clay. Paul stood there for
what seemed like hours, confused and angry. Finally he left.
During the next week, Paul closed a deal with new clients, but it meant nothing to
him. It should have been exciting, giving him an adrenalin rush. But he only sat in
the office, feeling empty.
Gwynne came. He looked up and there she was, staring at him again.
"Are you here to lay the tiles now?" Paul asked.
"Well, where do you want to begin?"
"We've already begun."
"I mean, what room?"
"I don't know. Whatever room it needs to be."
"Don't we have to clear things out of your way?"
She shook her head. "We'll move what we need to move when we are ready, but
its important work goes on here as normally as possible."
"But how long before we can step on the tile?"
"Oh, we have a special mixture of cement. It only takes a few minutes."
Paul nodded. He thought that she'd only come to tell him she was there, but she
stayed in his office just like before. She looked tired.
"Why are you still here?"
Paul could see a range of emotions pass through her face as she considered every
meaning of that question. He considered it, too. Why would this woman have
anything more to do with him? But he had been asking why she wasn't laying tiles,
and that was the question she answered.
"It takes two of us to set a tile. Dad is in another room. I don't know which."
"I'm listening. It's just like before, but now someone else is here laying the tiles
It was one of those feng shui things. A little oddball, a little off the wall, but it
meant the elder Massys was actually laying the floor. It meant Gwynne would be
here, just like before.
Gwynne, I'm lost, I'm drowning, I'm dying. "I'm sorry."
He didn't know how the Massys expected the agency to go on normally. Tiles were
set randomly across the floor. He didn't even think they set them to a grid. Chunks
of the old carpet were everywhere. The place was a mess. But things did go on. In
fact, it seemed like Paul was the only one who noticed how torn up the place was.
Clients didn't say a word, and his people worked as if nothing were out of the
ordinary. In fact, they seemed to work even better than before.
Arthur was always underfoot when Paul tried to go anywhere, but Gwynne was
almost invisible. It was the floor now, incomplete as it was, that caught his eye.
Arthur had been right. While alone they were just square pieces of clay; together
they seemed to draw the colors off each other and the room, and even the clothes
people wore, so that each tile was unique and dynamic while being part of a whole
pattern. A sense of rightness settled on him, increasing with every tile laid.
He began to see what his clients needed, and tried to steer them that way in spite of
what they wanted, because he began to want them to succeed more than he wanted
He met with some clients one day who had a great product, but the recent
economic crisis had left the company with little ability to pay for advertising. So
Paul made them a deal in which Atkinsley would get a percentage of the profit
until they paid off the bill. It was a little risky, but Paul was confident in what they
had. It surprised him to see Gwynne walk out after the last of the clients. He hadn't
known she was there.
The next morning when he walked in, the reception area was almost finished. The
tiles were bright and beautiful, and he smiled as he knelt down to touch them. He
followed the completed section up to the counter of the desk.
His receptionist, Stephanie, was there. She was always there before him, making
sure he and everyone else had what they needed and were properly organized into
timeslots for the day. She looked worn out.
"Yes, Mr. Atkinsley?"
"You have two children."
He had often kept her there late hours, his hours.
"Why do you work here?"
"My husband is on disability." He could see the fear in her. Then it dawned on him
that Stephanie had been with the business for years even before he started. And
she'd watched him systematically fire almost everyone who'd worked closely with
his father. Damn, what an asshole he'd been.
"You need an assistant. Write up an ad. You know what you need better than I do."
He escaped into his office before she could say anything.
It wasn't many days later when the floor was finished, with the tiles all set in place.
He walked through the agency, no longer stunned or brought to his knees, but
comfortable and at home. It was exactly what he needed. The mess was cleaned up.
Arthur was no longer there. And Gwynne's subtle presence was now gone.
Only that left a longing in his heart.
It was a few weeks before Paul could get up the courage to see Gwynne again. She
smiled when she saw him.
"You're back," she said.
"My work was done."
"Your father says it was going to be your masterpiece."
He stood for a long time, the fear keeping him silent. Finally he asked, "Was it
Now she looked confused. "What?"
"I think I . . . I think I'm in love with you."
She looked down, the slightest upturn of her lips as she shook her head. "No. Not
necessary. But," she looked up, "very difficult to avoid."
He knew, with her standing there, that it had been difficult because she had loved
him first. It was beyond imagining. He could hardly bear to remember what he'd
been, and she'd loved him then?
"You can't have loved me."
"How could I not, when I had to understand every part of you in order to make the
These people didn't just make floors, they changed lives. It was something he
wanted to be a part of. The tiles in the patterns in the floor were only a tool.
Understanding came first. "I was your masterpiece, not the floor."
"I only tried to find the thing you needed."
"Then you aren't finished."
"You seem to be coming along nicely." She smiled.
"I need you." He would do whatever it took to be the good man worthy of her.
"I know," she said.
She took his hand and led him into the house.