Fiction by Annina Claesson
I moved into my grandmother’s pottery workshop three months after she died. Nobody else saw it as anything but a ramshackle pile of expensive renovations. No running water, barely any functioning heating, miles away from any patch of forest that could be considered remotely interesting. Grandmother had not been able to use it for six of her final years.
Dad put one of the bouquets from her funeral into one of her older ceramic vases without even thinking about it. We all let it stay perched high on the mantelpiece, as venerated as an urn.
I had never given much thought into the process from which her homemade flowerpots and coffee mugs must have emerged until my card started getting declined at supermarkets. Once I had gone nine months unemployed and the DWP caught a whiff of my occasional copywriting gigs, immediately sucking up my Universal Credit, I had to leave behind all thoughts that did not cling to the word survival. I started thinking about oats and how to mix them well with water, about hot air and how to blow it onto my fingers, about sleep and how long I could go without.
I thought of my mother first of all.
Will you help me through this thing? I asked her over the phone, leaving the thing undefined.
She said no, assuring me that I would find something eventually. As if she knew better.
A couple of wet-pillowed nights later, I thought of my father.
Will you help me, I asked over coffee, letting him choose the method.
He said no, saying that I was a big girl, and would get through it all just fine. He offered me nothing but biscuits that grew soggy in my mouth.
We are all practical folks in my family. When I thought of Grandmother, I thought of tools. Oatcakes, wire clay cutters, threads through needles. Before leaving my dad by his table, I double-checked the old vase for ashes. That was when the workshop flashed into my mind.
Will you give me this thing you do not want, I asked my father. To that, he agreed.
That was how I liberated myself of all hopes of something better coming along and drove to this patch of forest just south of Inverness, where something better had no hopes of finding me. Soon, my days were kiln-fired into freedom.
I set up a sleeping bag and a few yellowed-out caseless pillows in a corner. Another corner housed a kitchenette. One stovetop, an oven made more for clay than food, and room for a kettle. I bought water by the litre. I ate on the floor or on the workbench, when I was sure Grandmother’s ghost was not looking. I tethered my computer to my phone’s mobile data when I needed to write marketing copy for upholstery and inflatable mattresses, making just enough to pay for water and instant noodles.
Then there were the pots. Rows and rows of them, crammed into every crevice, a solid half of them unfinished or defective or plainly unlovely. In my childhood memories of this place, Grandmother appeared as a grand and wise master, blowing life into clay like some primeval goddess. There was nothing divine about this terracotta army of wonky bowls and malformed cups and asymmetrical vases. It was as if she could not bear to kill anything she had started to create, no matter how unsuited for the world.
On my second morning here, I resolved to go on a glorious spree of violence, smashing everything to cacophony, but the whole day slogged on and every single pot was still intact by the end of it. Touching them felt dangerous.
All I could do was to teach myself to give them more conventionally attractive companions. Grandmother had tried to instruct me a little, but without her guidance I resorted to Youtube tutorials when the signal was strong enough. I started with coiling plates and bowls. Most days, all I could do was to squint my eyes at grainy footage of burly hands holding down lumps of clay on the wheel, as if pacifying a child.
My hands looked nothing like that. They were small, for starters, too small for both piano and guitar. They were pale and prone to eczema. My fingernails, spotted white, were always chipped down to uneven stubs. Splintered bits of skin around the edges always tempted me to pull them off. They bled at the slightest provocation. I used to paint them to distract from all that, but I could hardly justify nail polish in the workshop.
When I tired of my clay body company, I went outside, raked leaves, checked the always-empty mailbox, and biked to the shops. My nearest neighbour was an old chicken farmer, with an apparent side interest in gardening. He was often out tending to his almost-dying pansies when I biked past. He spoke in sign language. I learned that fact too late after spending five embarrassing minutes rephrasing my panicked demands for directions the first time I lost network connection. I always reminded myself to learn some BSL with some of my many free hours, but it always slipped my mind. Regardless, he always waved at me when I passed his garden. Once, he offered me a basket of apples.
My second nearest neighbour was a woman named Ruth. A tad older than me, maybe by five years or so, she tended to some kind of sheep farm. Badly, if my impression was correct. Whenever I caught her outside, she was always running after some bleating animal, swearing loudly at old machinery, or smoking. I could not tell what she looked like happy, but I quickly learned what her unhappiness looked like. With her shoulders up over her ears, she would untie and retie and untie and retie her ponytail until she found some other thankless task with which to occupy her hands.
We spoke a couple of times, as people did out here, looking to converse with something that talked back for once.
Are you alone, she asked me. I got too flustered at the question before spitting out a yes.
She was too, she told me. Just her and the sheep. She had grown up in Edinburgh and was not born to this life, but it was her family’s old farm, and there was no one left to take care of it. It would be a shame to let it all go to waste.
I told her my situation was something like that, too.
Sometimes, while waiting for sleep to take me away, I entertained fancies of writing about this place. Putting my years of journalism school in service of a patch of wood and a handful of houses that the world would otherwise never bother to remember. I imagined my bike path on the cover. I could tell stories of the shopkeepers and the chicken farmer and Ruth. In the morning, the instant coffee reminded me that not all stories were worth telling.
The first time someone knocked on my door, it was Ruth asking to borrow a cup of sugar.
As they say, she said, but no, actually, she wanted to ask if I could help her with a thing.
She just needed an extra pair of hands. I told her that I had that much to offer, at least. We got on our bikes. Most of the way there, Ruth just swore under her breath.
We swerved a corner around her sheep farm into a bare-branched grove, cut off like an outhouse to the vaster woods. Ruth left her bike to fall miserably on its side into a ditch. I reached down to rescue it, but Ruth called me over to the obvious problem at hand. Two young ewes, peering at us with petulance from between the pines.
We spent the next hour trying to catch them with the harnesses Ruth pulled from under her coat. Even within the small grove enclosure, the sheep always skipped just one step out of reach every time we almost got to them. Ruth hovered around the periphery, her square torso and outstretched arms forming a wall to keep them from scuttling off further where we had no hope of catching them. She remained quiet with gritted teeth, but I could almost hear her heartbeat through her coat. I sweated my way through an increasingly desperate dance, starting with timid flailing and ending up body-slamming into the moss. I tasted mud on my tongue. Both sheep remained infuriatingly blasé through the whole routine, barely even bleating. I wondered if this was their idea of fun.
Crawling on my belly, I clawed my fingers in a spidery grasp around a bony back leg and yanked it towards me. At last, the poor creature had the dignity to whimper. I grabbed hold of the wool around the ewe’s neck and pulled the harness over her head. She wriggled, but I held her down.
Soon, Ruth threw her arms around the other fugitive and clicked the harness into place. We both sat like this on each side of the grove for a few ugly, huffing moments, each hugging our unwilling plush toys.
You didn’t have to be so violent, Ruth said.
I tried not to, I told her.
But thanks anyway, she said.
A moment later, she burst into sobs.
I stared at her from over twelve feet away as Ruth folded over the sheep’s awkward frame. With the oversized coat, she looked like a muddy and moss-covered chunk of rock, whimpering in a register I had never thought her voice was capable of.
I just can’t do this thing, Ruth said. The fence. I can’t keep all this shit in my head at once. I had to watch the other lambs and the ram who needs the vet I can’t afford and the kettle, so I missed the hole in the fence. There’s just not enough of me.
I’m sure you’ll get used to it, I said.
I can’t ask them to help me with something no one wanted, she said. They were going to bulldoze the whole farm. I was here every summer when I was a little girl. I couldn’t let them. But I was such a stupid kid. Never watched what they did properly. Do you know how hard shearing is?
I told her I had no clue.
Ruth cried until both teenage sheep had enough of us and started bleating in harmonized protest. We led them back to the farm and I stayed silent while Ruth shook out all the water she had left in her body. On the threshold to her house, she let her sweat-soaked hair fall to her shoulders. She did not invite me for tea.
I biked home, passing the chicken farmer’s stubborn pansies, and sat down in the rickety chair by the potter’s wheel.
Dipping my hand in the plastic bowl filled with dirty water, I slammed a lump of clay onto the wheel and let it spin. I could never get it centred enough. The clay slipped through the crevices of my palm. I pressed down anyway, until the lump resembled a rectangle. I dented it with my thumbs, going all around, picturing the shape of a cloud, but the texture was too rough to resemble wool.
An impulse to carve out the shape of a head caused me to lose grip of the clay entirely. The indentures I formed had left too much air between the lump and the wheel. It rolled off the rings, lolling around like the product of fresh decapitation, until it fell with a wet thud on the dusty floor.
I stared at it, waiting for tears of frustration to spill from my own eyes, but nothing came. The lump was just a lump. It looked nothing like a cloud, much less a sheep.
I wetted my fingers in the milk tea-coloured water and tore out a new piece of clay. This time, I could at least force it into a cylinder. My forearms were already shaking. A lifetime of extending my limbs no further than keyboards had shaped them into useless stumps. I bit the inside of my lip until I was certain enough it was bleeding.
All I mustered was a slight increase in pressure around the middle of the cylinder, almost like a caress. If I pressed too hard, I knew it would turn out uneven, so I stopped the second I could recognize enough curvature from all sides. I held it tight as the wheel slowed down to a stop.
The clay was still a little warm. My palms missed the texture as soon as I let go, leaving what only I would recognize as the shape of a woman’s torso on the wheel. Hardly a Galatea. Stocky and robust, with only the hint of a waist.
I left her on the wheel and crawled into my sleeping bag without washing my hands.
When I woke up in the middle of the night, more than six hours later, I could not bring myself to get up. The remnants of clay and water had crusted between the lines of my palm, those that were supposed to signify life and love and wisdom. I felt mummified. I could not even roll onto my more comfortable side. Stealing back into thoughtless darkness, I wondered if Grandmother would visit.
When the grey light slipped through the window to wake me again, I did not remember any dreams. My hands were now more ossified than stained.
A week passed like this. I got up only occasionally, to drink from lukewarm plastic bottles of water, to eat oatcakes, to stare out the window from the chair by the wheel. I read messages that pinged on my phone, but none of them were urgent enough to warrant a response. At my most ambitious, I wandered to the outhouse, and I could feel the cold oxygen decompose my lungs in real time.
Once, during the many hours I spent looking around at Grandmother’s body of work and the woman on the wheel and the lump of clay I still had not picked up from the floor, a breakthrough realization split through my dull, aching head. This was a museum for failure. All this time, I had thought myself only a visitor. Now, I took my place among the exhibits.
I wanted to weep only because I feared this was how Grandmother had once felt between these sandpaper walls. I should have realized it while she was still alive.
I did not weep, because all I could really feel was a comfortable, hopeless peace. I had my spot in the exhibition. I had a number and a tag. My place was here, in the sleeping bag, osmosing into oatcake crumbs on sweaty polyester.
On the day that my first official visitor came, I realized we needed a ticket office. Someone had to take the steps between the sleeping bag and the door. The knocks were polite but grew in firmness. I decided to wait them out. Only when I heard Ruth’s voice did I drag my limbs across the floor.
Ruth appeared with a Tesco bag-for-life and her hair resting on her shoulders. She asked if this was a bad time.
Sorry, I said. I mean, I said. It’s fine, I said.
Sorry, she mimicked. I hope you don’t mind.
She explained that she had spoken to Rob the other day, and that he had said that he had not seen me out in a while. She told me that he seemed a bit worried. She hoisted up the shopping bag, and said she got me some stuff, just in case.
I asked her who Rob was.
You know, she said. Your neighbour. With the flowers.
Oh, I said.
Ruth took a welly-booted step over the threshold.
I had no idea what I looked like, but my guesses made me want to bite through my lip again. My hair must have turned into a collection of metal wires. I hoped Ruth’s time among the sheep had killed any squeamishness about foul smells. She looked around, unfazed, and asked if I had a free table.
No, I said. Well, I could take off the wheel, but.
Absolutely not, Ruth said, that looks too important.
She set down the bag on the chair instead, and unpacked a whole-wheat loaf, soft cheese, Braeburn apples, six packs of instant noodles, four packs of powdered soups, and a bottle of blackcurrant cordial.
Like Little Red Riding Hood, she said, and that was the first time I saw her crack into a smile.
I’m not about to eat you, I said. It came out far too dry and serious because I had nothing but clay dust in my mouth, but the curves of her lips did not break.
We did still eat. Ruth found a knife I had not used in weeks and sliced the loaves and spread the cheese and put the kettle on for two cups of instant coffee. We sat with our legs crossed on the floor. Chewing on something soft made me feel like my teeth had fallen out. They were used to more resistant textures. Speaking stuffed cotton into my throat, so I made myself another sandwich and let Ruth tell me about Rob’s red geraniums that were not supposed to grow around this time of year but did anyway and her pregnant ewes who were supposed to grow around this time of year though she wished they would not.
I am terrified, she said. I’m going to fuck it up, it’s just a fact. So I bit the bullet and asked the shopkeeper if he knew any sheep farmers who were free to help. He said he would ask around.
Isn’t there anyone from your family, I asked. Anyone far away, even. Someone who used to take care of the farm?
Those who ever listened enough to learn are dead or incurable dickheads, she said. This thing is just too big for me. The lambs deserve a fighting chance.
She finished her slice of bread and craned her neck to scan the shelves. She took her time, as if she were giving every wonky pot a personal greeting. Studying the labels. When her gaze arrived at the woman still left standing unfired on the wheel, my heart stopped, but she only gave it as much time as she granted all the others. Her eyes landed back down, where the lump that was supposed to be wool had fused with the floor.
So this is what you do, she asked. Pottery?
No, I said. Curating.
Sure, she said, drawing out the vowel, and sipped her coffee.
The woman on the wheel loomed over Ruth’s left shoulder. I feared I was starting to blush, petrified that she would comment on it. I prepared responses in my head like I used to when talking to a source, worrying about every wrong word that could come out of their mouths. It is a work in progress, I decided I would tell her.
Ruth finished her instant coffee, and her visit came to an end without so much as another glance at the figure on the wheel. There was no gift shop through which she could exit, but she lingered on the threshold.
Before she left, she told me she would see me before the lambs were born.
When the door had closed, I trod over the floor, noticing bits of human hair and tufts of wool and drops of spilled coffee scattered among the dust. It was too much at once to clean up. I had no idea where to start, until I saw the lump of clay. Suddenly, it looked entirely out of place. It needed to be archived somewhere else.
Bending down seemed like too much effort, but my legs were already keeping me upright, so my feet worked well enough to kick. Just a nudge at first, knocking at its surface as if it were another door, until I realized it deserved no such courtesies. I kicked it loose all at once. It cracked in two upon impact. One half flopped on its side, and the other crashed into the wall and broke into uncountable pieces, sighing out a cloud of dust that rose in the sunlight.
The floor was now in a worse state than I had ever seen it, but I could not imagine anything more suitable. Curating had little to do with curing, after all. The workshop had been left here for someone to find, exactly as I found it.
Annina Claesson (she/her) is a researcher and writer currently floundering around Paris. Her work is featured and forthcoming in journals including the New Reader Magazine, The Lumiere Review and Lost Balloon, and has also won awards at the Charroux Literary Festival.