Updated: Apr 10
(Second place in the Alice Sinclair Memorial Writing Competition 2022)
My hands shook when filling the bag and now there’s dust on my shoes and across the tiles. People are not as superstitious these days as in my mother’s time. Yet for me, missing the bag is an omen I cannot ignore. There’s quite a bit of dust in the pan, so rather than tip the sweepings in with the rest, I take it into the garden.
Where already the lawn needs mowing again. My son can deal with it when he visits because rain is forecast, and now is not the time for me to be working in the heat. Peter will need to come more often if he’s to stay on top of it.
Feeling the grass underfoot, I decide not to flick the pan onto the lawn. Instead, I make a circuit through the trees and past the rows of sun-wilted vegetables until I reach the orchard. There’s a better spot under the lemon tree my husband planted for my gin ‘n tonics. Perhaps the dust will return some life to the yellowing leaves. Now that the gods are appeased, I return to the house, collect what remains in the bag, and set off to visit the potter.
The potter’s shed sleeps in a gully of ancient tree ferns and towering Mountain Ash. People have talked about a potter in this valley for as long as I can remember. Taking care not to slip on the gravel path down to where he works; I wonder to myself why I’ve never met him before. Well, today is the day to correct that and ask if he does commissions.
Beneath the potter’s heavy eyelids, his eyes are kind and peaceful. ‘Sometimes I do special requests,’ he says. ‘What do you fancy?’
‘I’m after bowls, like those you have over there. Only deeper, and a set of three.’
He doesn’t bother turning to see where I’ve pointed behind him.
‘Large potage bowls? Sure, any colour in mind?’
I had imagined he would be older. It’s hard to tell his age. ‘Dark blue. Like deep ocean water.’
The potter scratches through his beard at the underneath of his chin. ‘I have cobalt bowls at the gallery in town. A little smaller and a set of four.’ He looks at me as though caught in a memory, then adds, ‘You’d have a spare.’
I hold out my bag of dust before me.
‘I’d like new ones, please. Will you put this in the glaze for me?’
The potter unties the bag and rubs the dust between his fingers. They remind me of my husband’s hands, with pronounced veins and coarse hairs. There’s no sign of a ring. I guess he wouldn’t wear one while he worked with clay and water.
‘What is it?’
‘It’s from my house.’
His fingers keep judging the earth’s properties. ‘It’s gritty.’ He goes to dab some on his tongue. I flinch. He stops.
‘I’ll mill it smoother.’ He says, then frowns. ‘Though it may change the colour of your bowls.’
His eyebrows have stripes of white in them, like a badger. He knows I’m looking at them.
‘Please use it all. And only three bowls.’
A long pause is filled by the distant rumble of approaching rain.
‘When can you make them?’
This time he looks over his shoulder at the shelves covered with plates, vases, and bowls.
‘Come back in a week.’
That afternoon, the potter selects a block of pure white earthenware. He hums a psalm as he kneads the clay into a spiral many times over. When satisfied the clay is supple, he pats it into a ball, then carries it to the wet area of his shed. On a potting wheel, a vase the height of a child stands drying. Beside it squats a smaller, rarely used wheel. With a thud, he throws the clay upon the rusty plate, sits to dip his hands in water, then cups them around the mound and softly presses the pedal. Leaning over the spinning mass, the potter pushes the sides as ropes of slurry dribble over his knuckles. Gradually the clay yields to his will as it centres on the spinning plate. He re-wets his hands. Then drives his thumbs into the centre and pulls out and up as a bowl takes shape. Repeatedly, his fingers draw the clay upwards until he curves the lip of the bowl with fingers poised like pistols. The wheel comes to a stop as the potter wipes his hands and slices his creation from its peak with piano wire. It’s placed upon a wooden tray. Twice more he forms from the same wedge of clay until three wet bowls sit side by side on the board. As he rises from his stool, an antique dog shuffles into the shed to the sound of rain on the tin roof. The potter askes her a question as he picks up the bag the sad woman had left him. Understanding the intent, if not his words, his old friend follows him to the glazing room.
The next day, when leather dry, the potter turns the bowl’s bases to square ridges so they will sit flat upon a table. Underneath, in the centre of each, he presses his wooden seal, leaving behind an indented capital P. On the fourth day, he fires the bowls along with thirty other pieces of assorted sizes and intended use. On the sixth day, the bowls are glazed and baked in a hotter kiln. This time, he fires them on their own.
I watch the potter lift a bowl from the box lined with wood shavings. His powerful hands are soft from a morning spent in water.
‘It’s beautiful!’ I say, running my fingers across the dark blue surface. Trapped in the perfect glass, a star-filled galaxy shines up at me.
‘Those golden flecks are from that dust you gave me,’ he says with arms folded across his chest.
The flecks feel warm.
‘They’re handsome bowls. What do I owe you?’
Now is the potter’s turn to study me. I feel his attention as I continue to slide my fingers across the surface.
‘It’s a colour I haven’t seen before,’ he says.
I know he wants me to look at him. He can tell I’m blinking quickly.
The potter softly says, ‘I’ll swap them for more dust.’
My hand stops moving, and I look up into those searching eyes.
‘I’m sorry, that’s all there was.’
With a faint nod, he hands me the box with the other bowls wrapped in paper. ‘If that’s the case, then they’re a gift.’
On the kitchen bench, vegetables from our garden sit in a row. An onion, carrots, celery sticks, potatoes, and a swede. With the largest knife and heaviest board, I peel and chop until the pot is full, then add stock, herbs, and barley. Lunch takes an hour to cook.
Out the window, across the lawn, stands the apple tree we planted forty years ago. Its aging branches shading a round picnic table that was a wedding gift from my parents.
Peter appears at my side. ‘Here, let me carry that.’
My boy takes the tray with its tureen and blue bowls. He has thin hands, not like his father’s.
‘I’ve made too much soup,’ I say, then add under my breath, ‘again.’
I let Peter lead us across the lawn to the waiting table.
‘Just freeze it for later. It’ll keep,’ he says.
As we walk, the air is still and smells of cut grass. I hear spoons clatter on the tray held out before him. ‘Are these bowls new? They’re the same colour as Dad’s delphiniums.’
I’m pleased he sees the likeness.
It’s quiet today; the cicadas are resting. Replaced by a hum of my bees as they collect nectar and pollen from the flowers in the garden. Beneath the apple tree, Lisa is reading her father’s old copy of Mrs Dalloway. She closes it as Peter lowers the tray to the table.
‘Gosh, these are pretty!’ Lisa turns a bowl around in her hands.
‘Don’t you think they look just like Dad’s flowers?’ Peter says.
Lisa agrees and sets the bowls before us on the grey weathered timber. I’m glad she remembered to bring cushions from the verandah, these outdoor chairs are becoming awfully hard on my back. Peter offers to serve and opens the tureen. Cooked vegetables mask the smell of the lawn.
‘What do you think, Mum?’ Peter asks. ‘We were talking before and I said we should go to the ocean, but Lisa says it’s better to stay here in the garden.’
I watch as he scoops into the soup.
‘What would you like? It’s your choice, of course.’
For a moment, the ladle floats above my bowl, then the stars vanish as the soup covers them.
I feel Lisa’s hand on mine. When I turn to face her, I see her father’s eyes.
‘Peter and I were wondering, Mum. What would you like to do with Dad’s ashes?’