If Elliott caught it right, the steel sang under the water.
Cold water makes it sing like a salmon in a sunlit spring river.
Hot water makes it sing like your lover in the shower on a lazy Sunday morning.
Swilling the water around the stainless steel pot he watches the weight of the water curling itself into a lazy circle. Sometimes, something in the movement of the water encourages him to whisper wishes under his breath.
It had belonged to his maternal grandmother. Hers were the first hands to take the stock pot by its twin handles and heave it over an open flame. When she had used it, slow cooking stews, simmering soups and sauces, frying neatly sliced onions, each time she had cleaned it scrupulously afterwards, wiping it with a soft cloth until she could see her face inside. The gleaming inner circle had witnessed her as she had slowly but surely ebbed from a fresh-faced smiling woman of thirty seven, to a contented woman in her late fifties, to a bereaved and buckled widower of seventy five.
The pot always sat on one of the back hobs waiting to be used. The last time his grandmother had used it she had thought that the soup had tasted wrong. There was a sadness shot through it like bad garlic; sadness that belonged not to the quality of the ingredients or the cooking, but was borne of her staring out across the neat walled yard beyond her kitchen for the last time. November had robbed the ornamental pots of their colour, sodden brown leaves papering over terracotta cracks; a chill, ceaseless rain eating into the brickwork; a stiff wind tugging the last of the listless climbing plants from the walls. She had looked out across the unfamiliar, ashen landscape and given herself over to the gnawing emptiness inside.
It had been her daughter who had cleaned the stock pot, over a week later, viciously going at the tide marks with the wrong kind of scourer.
Elliott had recognised it immediately when it had appeared at his mother’s house the following summer, his mother having collected the last of the things from his grandmother’s house – it finally having sold for far less than anyone expected – and in the final a large cardboard box, amongst chipped plates wrapped in old newspaper, faded porcelain curiosities and weathered books with broken spines, was the stock pot.
His mother had placed it on their wooden kitchen table and the two of them had stared at it without speaking. For his mother it was an absence of her parent that left her short of breath and constantly feeling as though she had been left behind. For Elliott – after a day of double history and another rejection from a girl called Lucy with eyes like the ocean – the pot was something familiar; something safe. Seeing it was like waking in the dead of night to see a full moon watching over you, returning to sleep safer in the knowledge.
Before leaving the room he had put an arm around his mother; quickly but with sincerity most find hard to show at sixteen.
For the next few years the pot sat the silent head of the table. Seated for dinner, his mother opposite him, his sister next to her, his brother beside him, the head of the table was reserved for the stock pot. A wooden mat took the heat from the base and the spoon that had announced dinner would be plunged into the pot over and over, each plate filled and passed around the table. As they ate the pot captured echoes of their movements, stealing over the outside of the stainless steel like shadows at Samhain.
Now, stood in his kitchen the back door open to the dead of night, Elliott exhales wisps of cigarette smoke that climb toward the sky like ivy. On a narrow, greasy cooker top behind him is the pot. It has been his for some years now. After he and his siblings moved out, the pot ended up beneath the kitchen sink, filled with scourers, clothes and fluorescent bottles of cleaning products until he rescued it. It would have been the same as it had always been, but for a dent on the outside where Emma dropped it when they moved in to the rented terraced house they still share. Batch cooking in the dead of night, creating vegetarian soups and stews for a local café-cum-bookshop, his thoughts of the owner, Etta, saved for those moments when he is alone in the shower Elliott feels his life has slipped through his hands in a way he never imagined.
It had begun a fortnight ago, after he had finally faced the reality that he and Emma no longer touched each other any more; the reality that actually they’d never really done anything like that. When neither of them was looking they had become two distinct human lives, fizzing and clicking away beside one another; practical appliances pushed up close together yet functioning separately. Faced with Emma’s back, dividing the bed like an impassable mountain range, he had stumbled out of bed and dressed in the dark. Minutes later, he had found himself staring blankly into the stock pot on the hob. Behind it the lid was propped up against the wall, its scratches and tarnishes giving it the look of a worn clock without hands.
There had been a full moon that first night and the pale rinse of moonlight had rippled over the pot like a sparkling stream in May. For an instant the pot had smiled and he had thought suddenly of Henrietta. She preferred to be called Etta and despite a decade of living in Chorlton, still spoke with a rich French accent, one that allowed words to escape from her mouth like the fluttering of butterfly wings.
Three days ago, whilst drinking coffee at Etta’s he had overheard her complaining to one of her girls that although she was confident with cakes and desserts – all of which tasted divine – she was catastrophic with soups, stews and chowders. Having waited until the younger girl had been called away to tease a slice from a towering raspberry and white chocolate cake, he had approached the counter shyly. When Etta had smiled at him the gravity of her mahogany gaze had taken his legs from under him. Mumbling something about being able to make soups and the like, his flapping hands had knocked over a neatly arranged stack of shortbread in the process. She had rolled her eyes, chuckling to herself as she had begun restacking the shortbread. “Perhaps I should try you out.” Etta had said raising one eyebrow slightly as she had looked at him. Seeing dimples break over the corners of her mouth he had wanted to curl up inside them.
That had been that: the first night he had made a white bean and roasted garlic soup which he had followed with a roasted red pepper, sweet potato and fennel soup. Then had had found himself making granary loaves from a recipe he didn’t even realise he knew. Etta had loved the soups and since then, every other night, slipping noiselessly from his bed, Elliott has made soups, stews and chowders in the dead of night. He is sure that Etta likes him, but it’s been a long time since anything like that has happened and he feels awkward inside, like a man learning to walk again after an accident. Hope and panic wrestle inside as he chops, sautés and seasons his way through to dawn.
Sometimes, stirring the pot with an old wooden spoon he thinks about the plans he had before Emma, desperately trying to find a trail of breadcrumbs back to the unspoken dreams he scribbled in notebooks on buses and trains as his twenties passed him by:
‘Eleven Steps to Becoming A World Renowned Chef’
‘The Rungs Of A Ladder To Success As An Author’
‘Ingredients For A Perfect Girl Cake’
‘Undertake vs Actor – the Pros & Cons’
‘A List to Fix All the Other Lists Forever’
The notebooks had tracked him down again during their last move, tucked inside a tattered encyclopaedia. They had been held together with a perished elastic band that had withered at his touch. Opening them he thought he had caught a scent of patchouli. The excessive use of capitals had made him smile. Flicking through the lists, doodles and half-poems, the reality of fledgling hopes that never made it out of the nest of an economy notebook had left his throat dry; his heartbeat quick and restless.
Since reopening those notebooks his heartbeat has become like a clock, determinedly measuring the running out of time.
Emma sleeps, her breath low and long, momentarily warming the empty pillow beside her.
Elliott rolls a cigarette on the unit in the kitchen, pausing to stir a black bean, mango and chipotle chowder.
A reflected, slivered moon glides over the stainless steel of a bubbling stock pot.
Three miles away Etta warms up the remnants of a white bean and roasted garlic soup she has been saving. She sings softly to herself in French as she cuts a few chunks from a homemade sourdough loaf, pausing to gaze up at a thin slice of moon balanced in the dark sky beyond her kitchen window.