The Chair by Emma Steele
It shouldn’t be here. No matter how much I turn it, angle it, try to squeeze it into our spare room, the chair just doesn’t look right; doesn’t fit the space at all.
In a flat full of muted tartan, faux-vintage furniture and buttery carpets, it looks far shabbier than chic: a thistle amidst the flowers. But it’s comfortable, I’ll give you that. Like an old jumper kept in the closet for bracing winter days.
“Do we need it?” James asks, watching me lug it across the lamplit room yet again. “We’ve had that chair for three years and I’ve never seen you sit in it.”
“That’s not the point,” I snap, feeling instantly guilty. It’s not his fault.
“Okay. Tea, my love?”
He doesn’t wait for my reply before disappearing off into the kitchen and a second later I hear the comforting flick of the kettle, the clip of ceramic on granite. Next door, I know that our tiny baby, Daisy, is sleeping safely, dreaming those early dreams she’ll never remember, but which will weave into her consciousness, threading themselves through her anatomy like spun gold.
But the usually soothing background of domestic calm doesn’t help. I sit on the bed and reach for my phone, wondering if I should call, or keep waiting for a call that will inevitably, inexorably come. November is a miserable month at the best of times, I think, looking out into the ever-dimming light, listening to the sound of rain weeping against the window, the occasional car tearing by, spraying water as it goes. I hear the kettle boiling up to an agitated hum.
I remember another kitchen as a child, up in the Highlands of Scotland. It was filled with floral chipped plates, roasted chicken and never-ending tea; homemade raspberry jam went on toast, whilst grandchildren with sticky fingers scraped up metal stairs into an attic full of priceless wonders: sparkling jewels, tea sets, dressing-up clothes and sepia photos tumbled from every dark orifice, like Aladdin’s Cave. I remember the scent of the house so perfectly—warm, homely and porridge-filled, like them.
During the day Granny would wash dishes, wash clothes, make calls; take calls with a cheery, “Oh hello, dear!” Rock-buns were baked, their solid exterior no match for my eager milk teeth. And soft lentil soup brewed all year round, simmered to a pleasing pulp. I still use the same hairspray that Granny did, the scent of it carrying me back to her bedroom each time. I watch in my mind’s eye, as a ten-year-old me sits on her bed, observing the delicious mist being sprayed over soft, near-transparent curls, before she smiles back from the mirror— my own reflection sixty years on.
Elsewhere in the house, Grandpa would play the piano with his ever-withering fingers. “Practise, practise, practise,” he commanded when I took my mandatory turn. He read books too, as often as humanly possible; always learning, always breathing in words and exhaling his favourite passages with gusto into the unassuming air. His skin was wonderfully weather-beaten, his cardigans permanently patched up like countries on a crinkled map: war time austerity never forgotten.
He was the first to go of the two of them—oh, years ago now. Granny told me their story many times with her glasses perched atop her nose, a filmy layer across her once vibrant, but now paling-blue eyes:
The world was on the brink of war, while she was on the brink of becoming a woman, an inevitable, unstoppable, blossoming to womanhood; impervious to the bombs and bullets in unknown lands. But one night changed everything, as one night often does. For the really big events in life don’t appear gradually, they explode into our lives like a confetti bomb, tangling in our hair and coating our bodies in quickly-fading colour.
She’d been friends with his sister, at the tender age of nineteen, and so recognised him immediately across the room in the uniform of a naval officer, the familial wide set of his eyes set in sallow skin. He was standing still, smiling at her through a shape-shifting crowd: a blur of giddy colour. He saw her eyes glitter back even in the low-lit dance hall—he said later—as though she’d just heard a really good joke.
He walked across.
And she’d replied, without missing a beat, “You’re Arthur.”
And just like that, they were one, like the inosculation of two trees, her hands on his shoulders, his hands on her waist, dancing the rest of the night away together, carefree and light-footed, still with blood-filled hearts and vein-smattered skin, unaware of the children they would have, the grandchildren, the great-grandchildren. They couldn’t conceive then of the ripples they sent out into the universe that night, as though a tiny pebble had been flicked against a still pond, casting ever increasing circles on its gleaming surface.
“Here’s your tea,” James says, calling me back to the present.
“Thanks,” I reply and take the steaming mug into my stiff hands.
“Why the worry of the chair today?”
I shake my head. “I don’t know.”
But I do.
He nods lightly, a slight frown upon his increasingly lined face.
We hear Daisy wake up next door at the same time, a soft incantation coming from the warm darkness and we both turn our heads in unison, as though pulled by an invisible string.
“I’ll get her,” James says quickly.
“Would you? I think I might call Mum and check in now.”
“Sure. Do what you need to do.”
James heads to get our daughter, creating yet more early comforting images that she will certainly never recall later on, but will feel in her bones and still-forming brain for the rest of her life. I sit back with a sigh, knowing she is safe. She is happy.
I call Mum, and as I do so, I stare at the chair again, wondering why the space in this room is too small; why it seems to push the alien form from its belly.
“Hello, dear,” she says, as always.
“How is everything?”
A pregnant pause.
And I know what is coming. I feel it in my bones as I stare at that chair again, at the painful arch of its back, the indents on the armrests like soft dimples in maturing skin; the discolouring of once vibrant material like liver spots on hands. It is old now. It aged while we were running through fields, screeching through teenage years and vaulting into adulthood. (Oh, how we yearn to grow up, then scramble to grow down.) But I remember it sitting throughout in their living room by the merry fire, with the piano tinkling in the background and the wind howling around the exterior of the incongruously contented house.
Mum gave me the chair three years ago, when Granny relocated to a slow, flower-filled nursing home that smelt of antiseptic, watery soup and something else unidentifiable—the scent of twilight, perhaps? But her room was still the same: warm, homely and porridge-filled, like them. She surrounded herself with a sea of pictures, which rose and fell on the walls, undulating in no particular pattern; a swell of youthful limbs, white-capped by toothy smiles that looked upon her, all because of her. And on the far wall, in his favourite armchair, sat her Arthur like a ship out on the ocean, captured in lively smudges of yellow ochre, brilliant blue and titanium white. He smiled peacefully at her—he waited quietly for her.
“Granny died,” Mum says, matter of fact. Her voice is thick with unspent tears.
“Oh Mum,” I reply, finally. The fact that she used the word “Granny” tells me she’s still protecting me, even in her most acute grief. And I sense that she can’t bear to utter the word she has lost forever.
“I’m so sorry. I wish I could give you a hug,” I add. Because I don’t know what else to say. My mouth is filled with a steely taste, as though a coin lies beneath my tongue.
“I wish you could too.”
“When did she pass?”
“Around an hour ago. I was going to call, but I’m waiting on the funeral director getting in touch, you see. There’s quite a lot to sort out.”
Dearest, ever predictable Mum. Taught by the dearest, ever predictable mum. Consistent as the day turning into night.
“Okay,” I say softly, wondering if I will ever have the grit to deal with her death in the same way, then keep drinking tea and eating jam-on-toast until the ferryman comes for me too. “I’ll let you go then.”
“Okay, I’ll call later on. Goodbye, dear.”
I lower the phone and sit quietly on the lily-white bed, noticing the room has grown even darker. The rain has stopped for a moment; the pelting of glass no longer appropriate. It’s been a long time coming for Granny, filled with far too much pain. A gentle, then ferocious compression of too-old bones against juddering, spongy organs. I’ve cried already for the past, for my childhood, for Mum’s childhood; that she will never have a mum again and one day I will never have a mum again. That one day my baby—my tiny, fresh-as-a-daisy baby—will be old and decrepit. And she too, will be an orphan.
I hear James come around the door with our daughter, her pink, pliable cheeks glowing after her nap.
I can see that he heard the conversation. “Are you ok?”
I pause. “Yes,” I say and nod to him, to myself. “I just might need to go for a shower.”
“Sure. Whatever you need today.”
In the steam of the shower, I glance up at the ceiling, noticing the spotlight directly above me has blown. As I look into its dark, unblinking eye, I wonder when the other spotlights will go too—it’s only a matter of time. I sigh with relief, my eyes closed to the searing water, which bleeds down my face. Showers have always calmed me down, shifting my body back into neutral, washing away troubles and allowing me to receive fresh thoughts. The hot liquid hits my collarbone, rushing over my breasts and I open my eyes to see it through a glistening curtain, pooling around my pinkening feet, before running eagerly—unwittingly—into the dark pipes below. I imagine that water coming out into a great vast nothing, losing itself in the process. Disappearing. But then later, it will emerge once again—not the same, but similar— into a brand-new sky.
Turning off the faucet, I hurriedly clamber out the shower, my skin blotchy as though a rash has set in. I pull a towel up, and with my hair still slick against my skull, I dart back into the spare room. I feel James follow behind me, clutching our baby to him.
I look over at that chair.
“I’m going to move it out.”
I sense his eyebrows rising up. “To where? Let me do it.”
“No, no,” I say. “You’ve got the baby. I’ll do it. I want to do it.”
And so, I lug it out of the spare room, next door and into Daisy’s room; towards the space by her bed, underneath the bookshelf from which she will breathe in her first words, before exhaling them into the world where confetti will explode—I hope—all around her, sticking to her skin, her clothes, the soles of her well-travelled feet.
“Great idea,” James says quietly, pushing it further into the space with his foot as he holds onto the watchful baby.
We stand back and observe the chair, feeling it fill up the room perfectly as it rests finally in its new domain. It should be here—a thistle amidst the flowers. I take Daisy from him and smell the sweet top of her head; the scent that only babies have for a fleeting period. The one that makes us love them so very, very hard.
“Hello, dear,” I whisper into her bud-like ear, as I sit down on that chair. She turns and looks at me wide-eyed, with petal lashes, the world like a sapling in her determined fist.
Emma lives in Edinburgh, Scotland. The striking backdrop of her home country and the people in it never fail to inspire her work. She writes short stories and is currently on a Curtis Brown Creative course to work on her first novel. When she’s not writing she likes exploring Edinburgh and finding new places to drink coffee.
You can find her on Twitter at @EmmaSteele85.