‘Pot’ Short fiction by Susan Elsley

Here is where I’ll leave it. On a ledge a metre wide on a slope of brittle heather and golden grass. 

The pot looks majestic. It’s exactly what I wanted with its crackles of grey and white and the brown ridges around the neck. The bottom half is as smooth as a pebble while the top feels like baked ruts of mud. I sit with my feet hanging over the rock and listen to the fluttering skylarks high above the moor. 

She would have loved it here, my Mum. She never came to places like this. Instead she had books lying in stacks around the flat, hardbacks that the light bounced off. Photographs of lochs covered with water lilies. Stags silhouetted against ridges. Pinking skies above jagged coasts. 

‘Quality,’ my Mum would say, rubbing her hand over the silkiness of the paper. ‘None of that tourist tat.’

When I visited her, I would call out, ‘it’s only me, Mum’. She would answer, ‘in here, love’, as if there was the possibility she could have been somewhere else.  In the living room, she would lift her eyes from her latest book with a cup of coffee in one hand and the other pressed against a page. 

‘It’s forests this week, Mina, dear. Look, this tree’s hundreds of years old.’  

I would put the shopping on the table and sit cross legged on the floor next to the sofa. I followed her fingers as she traced the shapes of mountains and oak trees. A river of silver hair fell over her shoulder as she leaned towards the book. Every so often she flicked it back and smiled at me. The photo on the bureau showed a young woman with raven hair tied up with a yellow scarf. Now she wore it loose, occasionally plaiting it so it hung like a ship’s rope.

After Dad died when a truck smashed into his car, she refused to go out.  I thought it was some weird mourning ritual but after six months I asked, ‘why?’

She turned away, her hand shaking as she pointed towards the window to the other blocks of flats and the curve of the city streets. ‘I can’t, Mina. I can’t go out there.’ Her voice rose and she pulled at her hair. 

I brushed off the silver threads clinging to her fingers. Her breathing slowed. I made us coffee and picked up a book from the floor. We stared at the picture of a spume of water falling into a pool as we ate chocolate digestives. 

Afterwards I ran home with my feet skimming the pavement.  At the traffic lights, two women stood next to me. The younger one held out her phone and the older woman peered at the screen. ‘You didn’t go out like that? You’ll catch your death.’ The younger one giggled and took the woman’s arm to cross the road.

I ran past them when the lights changed. The young one called out, ‘go girl’. I lifted my hand. In the flat Mum would have pulled her curtains tight against the midwinter sky. I stopped and bent over, tears dropping off my nose. We would never meet for lunch or have a walk in the park. I was the only one left to go out in the world. I was our family adventurer.

In her last years, Mum retained the ethereal look of her youth. She got fresh air from a window she sat next to each morning. Her skin remained chalky white, unburnt by the sun or brushed rough by the wind. 

I was different. My hair was auburn red, some genetic throwback which haloed my head in a frizz of curls. My nose was splattered in ginger sunspots from spending each weekend up north. The climbing had started as a challenge when Mum pointed to the photograph of a conical hill which sloped to a sea loch. 

‘Mina. That hill’s for you.’  Her voice had an urgent beat I didn’t recognise. 

I said, ‘yes, maybe,’ and forgot.

On my next visit she dropped an ordnance survey map in my lap and pointed to a cross in red pen.She stared at me with a crack of a smile. I nodded, thinking her eyes looked like tadpoles with their blackness and the flick of something shifting.

I climbed the hill in November when early snow had iced the summit. I took the map and a compass which I learned how to use from a video. I wore a waterproof jacket that crackled and boots the man in the shop said would be fine wading across a stream. The silver flask Mum had given me was in my backpack.

At the top, I twirled with my arms outstretched, tripping over my feet on the umpteenth spin. My yells echoed round the corrie below, startling me and the rooks that perched on the boulders. On the way down I did sliders on the scree and felt the sting of the air on my cheeks. I bought myself fish and chips before I drove home. I ate the soggy batter with a hunger I hadn’t felt for years.

Mum wanted to know every detail.  ‘Mina, love, what did the loch look like from the summit? Was the snow wet or dry? Did you see ptarmigans?’

After that I worked out a way of remembering. On my walks I made recordings describing what I saw. Sometimes I stood for two or three minutes searching for the right words. ‘Red campion floating above grass.’  ‘Tumble of stones on a mound.’ ‘Dragonflies over brackish water.’ I tried to look with the eyes of two.  

She loved my tiny soundscapes. She would listen with her eyes closed and then trace my walks on the map. ‘Show me, Mina, darling. Which side of the stream were you on? Did you see that waterfall?’ She flicked through the photos on my mobile but hung onto my words as if they told her something she couldn’t see.

Afterwards, a handful of miles from her home, her tears soaked the hospital gown.‘I should have come with you,’ she said, rubbing my hand. 

‘You would have loved it,’ I said.  I stroked her fingers, feeling their tepid warmth and watching the liquid flow through the cannula in the back of her hand. I had brought her favourite books, but she had left them in the bag. Our misery hung in the antiseptic air, broken by the ping pong of her drip.

A week after her funeral I bought a pot from a ceramicist who had been profiled in a magazine.  She met me in her workshop which was covered in flecks of grey like out of season snowflakes. 

She pointed to potslined up on a plank. ‘I carve the clay and fire it in a pit.’ She balanced a bowl on the palm of her hand. ‘They’ve been made like this for thousands of years.’  

I picked the one with the widest neck which looked as if it been hewn from charcoal and stone.  ‘It’s perfect,’ I said, and paid the woman one hundred and fifty pounds.

The pot was wedged next to the brown box in the passenger seat going north. I didn’t stop until I came to a car park by a copse of alders and birches. It was empty apart from a minibus and a beat-up four-by-four. 

I fingered the parchment label attached to the box.  On it was printed ‘Ada Munro’ and the date which I’d forgotten in the limpid weeks since the funeral. I put the pot on the flattened earth by the car.  I opened the box and tipped a beige stream into the pot. A couple of centimetres of dust covered the bottom. 

Dust and ashes. It was nothing, I thought, sucking in the sharp air before taping cardboard over the top of the pot. I wrapped it in Mum’s moss coloured shawl and wedged the pot in my pack amongst screwed up tissues.

I had identified the grid point the week before, a place where the mountains looked as if they had been pushed into the air by a giant’s fist. In between each peak were the flat lands of lochans and bog myrtle. Her favourite kind of place. 

The spot was away from the path, so I veered across the moor. I jumped from tussock to tussock avoiding the oily peat puddles.  A cuckoo called and I glanced up. The ground flexed and I tripped. My yell bounced back from the rocks.

I lay with the earth against my cheek and closed my eyes.  Something buzzed around my head and a bird chittered nearby. I stretched my hand round my back and jiggled my pack. The pot hadn’t moved.

The last few hundred metres took forty minutes.  I shielded my eyes and looked for the rock ledges before the hill became a cliff. I picked one halfway up where a stunted pine grew out of a cleft.

***

On the ledge I sit next to the pot and sip coffee from the flask. I watch as the sun sends its end of day glow across the hills.  

My hand rests where the pot bulges into roundness. I bend towards it and whisper. ‘Kestrel hovering. Clouds coming in from the west.’ I put my hand over my mouth and bite the edge of a finger until a drop of blood tastes bitter on my tongue.

I pat the pot and hack down the slope towards the path.  When I reach the car, the hill is a dark mass and there is only a sliver of light left in the sky.

I decide to stay in the local hotel. I eat scampi and chips and talk to climbers in the bar who buy me a double whisky.  During the night, I hear the wind tossing the branches outside my window. In the morning I eat scrambled eggs and stare out of the window at the hill. I can’t leave yet.

I walk across the moor and pull myself up on the ledge. A gust pulls at my jacket and I crouch down. A speckled feather lies across the top of the pot. Twigs are scattered around its base. 

I tip the pot towards me. There is only a smattering of ash left at the bottom.  I stroke the rough and smooth surface of the pot and stare across the moor. Perhaps her dust is blowing in a swirl around the heather. Or resting like tiny seeds on the bog cotton. Maybe speckling a pool where a birch dips towards the water.

I lift up the pot and wait for the wind to rise before tipping the last particles over the ledge. I shout but my words fall away in the breeze. I call out again, ‘Go, Ada Munro, go.’ 

I set the pot down on the ledge and sit cross legged next to it. I weave the twisted twigs around its base and stuff the pot with moor grass.

 The wind settles to something softer. Mackerel clouds cover the sky with thick lines. I hear the mewing of a buzzard and look up to see the bird hovering.  I open my flask and pour yesterday’s coffee. I raise my cup and watch the bird soar to a speck. The clouds have turned to pinkness. Dust, ashes, blood.

About the contributor

Susan Elsley writes fiction and poetry with a focus on the connections between people and places. She was shortlisted for the 2019 Emerging Writer Award run by Moniack Mhor in partnership with The Bridge Awards for her fiction. Her poetry has been published in Northwords Now and the anthology, The Darg. Susan also writes about children’s human rights. She lives in Edinburgh, Scotland and goes north and west whenever she can.

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