Having decided to try the Story-a-Week challenge, and write each week’s offering about a different character from the novel I’m currently working on, I sat down last Monday to decide which one. That was the easy bit. I chose Ellie, a particular favourite. The hard bit was trying to visualise her in a different context. In my novel she’s an old woman, or rather a middle-aged woman who everyone thinks is old, and a bit of a sharp tongued hermit who lives in a squalid, crumbling old farmhouse. But she is very supportive of my main character who, being the main character, is having a difficult time of it. What could Ellie have done, or been, before she became the Ellie I’ve come to love? I needed to find a formative moment.
I tried to imagine nasty things happening to her as a student, mocked by her peers, ignored by her tutors, bullied. Did she lose a child, a love, was she held back from promotion? It all seemed a bit old hat.
In the end I resorted to using a constraint. This was to pick up the book nearest to me, turn to page 45 (any page would do, of course), and use the first five words on that page as the last five words in my story. This, I told myself, would give me something to aim for.
The book nearest to me was Madame Bovary, and the first five words on p.45 were: ‘…ordinary chairs. The half dozen…’ I spent the rest of the day pondering those two part-sentences, and wondering how to make them into a single whole. Then I read a handful of stories from Lydia Davis’s Varieties of Disturbance, and left everything to incubate.
Later that evening I decided to try and write a log line but found myself writing the opening scene. And once I started I couldn’t stop, after an hour or so I’d written 1125 words and only needed a last paragraph to resolve the story. I didn’t touch it on Tuesday, but finished it on Wednesday. Friday I read it, winced at some horrible sentences, cringed at repetitions, and did my best to sort them. On Saturday I ignored it, and on Sunday I reread it with fresh eyes, and made the changes I deemed necessary.
It’s not quite a thing yet, the last five words feel shoehorned, and there’s still a slovenliness to it that makes me feel faintly nauseous. But I said I’d publish it this morning, and so here it is, carbuncles and all:
The cherry trees, like party frocks waiting for the next dance, shimmer with anticipation in the park across the street; magnolia buds point skyward, lipstick dipped candles, waiting for their moment of transformation. I put the coffee pot on the stove, both receptacles, the one for water, the other for grounds, as full as I could make them, and feel the warmth of the sun, slanting in through the window to the left of the kitchen penetrate the back of my neck. I heat milk in the small pan I’d liberated from a stack in a junk shop, hoping the chipped enamel won’t taint its flavour. And watch so I can take it off the flame as soon as it threatens to boil.
My dad taught me that: ‘watch carefully, it can go from placid to volcanic in seconds,’ as he had taught me everything. My mother died before I reached the age of two: pregnant with my twin brothers, something went wrong. I still don’t know what, I just know it killed them all, and left Dad and I alone to work things out for ourselves. He was a scientist, careful and methodical. She’d been an art teacher before they married. In those days women stopped working after marriage, if they were middle class. Working class women were allowed to keep working, or, rather, had to, something I learnt from my aunt, my dad’s sister. She thought that was unfair, she liked work, but I reckon the jobs they had to do: clean other people’s houses; gut fish in factories; wait tables in smelly cafés, weren’t exactly the kind my aunt would have enjoyed. Still, it did seem unfair to my eight year old self that she’d had to give up a job she loved just because she fell in love with my uncle and married him. She’d been a librarian, and it had suited her well, not because she liked to read, she didn’t, but because she liked organising. Which is why we saw so much of her, she liked to organise us.
Dad didn’t seem to mind. He let her move our furniture around; clean out our fridge and restock it with food she thought we should eat; endlessly prompt him to look at the calendar on which she’d written all sorts of reminders and stuck on our kitchen wall.
‘Now, don’t forget to look at the calendar, Jonny,’ she’d say, as she pulled on her gloves, and tugged at each fingertip in turn ‘Ellie has a dentist appointment on Tuesday.’
And, smiling, he’d assure her he would remember.
As I got older I began to resent her interference, but Dad advised me to think of her as one of those violent but short showers that sometimes beset hot days, ‘they only ruin your picnic if you let them,’ he’d say.
And when one day I came home to find she’d thrown out a slice of treacle tart I’d been looking forward to all through algebra, he said: ’She thought it past its best, El, she was only trying to help, gives her purpose.’
‘Why do we have to be her purpose?’
Two days before my sixteenth birthday, I got home from school to hear my dad shouting on the other side of the still closed front door. I had never heard my dad shout. Never. He maintained a carapace of calm at all times, you might have thought him placid, but today something had caused him to erupt. I stood there in the rain, key in hand, trying to imagine what could have happened. Had I done something wrong? Was he in trouble? Was he in pain? My waterproofs crackled like a pig on a spit. Then I heard my aunt’s voice hurtling towards the door,
‘but they were so tatty, Jonny, and…’‘Get out,’ my dad yelled, ‘OUT!’
I dashed to the side of the house, so as not to be in the line of ejection, just in time for the door to open and my aunt to burst, weeping, from the hall.‘He’s gone mad!’ she said seeing me standing there dripping like a sick child’s nose,
‘I wouldn’t go in yet, if I were you.’
‘Come on Ellie,’ he looked at me with his half smile, ‘she’s my only sister.’
So I shower-proofed myself as best I could, and we ticked along, like a mildewed clock.
When I walked in he burst into tears. ‘Look what she’s done,’ he said gesturing toward the kitchen.
Our kitchen was the sort estate agents call a kitchen diner. The house was a modest Victorian terrace, two up, two down, and the kitchen was the back room. It had been extended by the previous owners, and the dining part was in the extension which was mostly made of glass. I went in to look.
Around the table, which had come from my father’s childhood home, a farm, were six glistering new chairs.
‘She took Maggie’s chairs to a charity shop!’ he whimpered.
I looked at the scratchy chintz covered pretenders, all bubble-gum pink roses and filigree edging. They were the kind of chairs you might see in Barbie’s English Cottage. Everything about them screamed fake
‘Why?’ I wondered out loud.
I had an idea, ‘Which one?’
He shrugged, and took some sprouts out of the vegetable basket.
As he began to top and tail he retold the story of the chairs. It was our Origin tale.
My mother had enjoyed cooking since her mother allowed her to help sift flour and grate cheese as a child, and she loved the idea of a kitchen full of friends sitting round a table eating and talking. So when she found the chairs in a skip she took them, two at a time, to her student flat. They were the kind of plain pine chairs you see in the servants quarters of country houses, sturdy and a bit wonky. When she and Dad married and bought the house she brought them with her. They were the only furniture they had for a while (‘we slept on a mattress on the floor for months!’) When pregnant with me she painted each one a different colour by mixing small amounts of oil paint into separate jars of household gloss. So there’s a greyish purple, a stewed broccoli green, a raffle-ticket orange, a poster-paint blue, and a pink the colour of strawberry ice-cream. For Dad they were the only things left that spoke of her. He always called them, ‘Maggie’s chairs.’
By now they were shabby, the paint had faded and become powdery and scuffed. On certain edges it had quite worn away, but I, a child, had known not to meddle with them. How could my aunt not? I phoned her.
‘Where did you take the chairs?’
‘Oh for goodness sake, Ellie,’ she answered, ‘what does it matter now? He’ll…’
‘Where did you take them?’
‘You’re just as bad as he is! I got the new ones specially for your birthday lunch on Sunday. Couldn’t have a birthday lunch on those tatty old things.’
‘That was… thanks, but where did you take them?’ I couldn’t let her sway me.
‘Oh, for… Ellie? That place on Russell Street, the big one, RSPCA?.’
‘Thanks,’ I said and put the phone down.
Dad and I loaded the new chairs into the car, an old Vauxhall estate, and drove to Russell Street. It took some persuading to get the woman to give us our chairs back, but when Dad broke down in tears she muttered something like, ‘all this fuss over such ordinary chairs,’ and relented, but refused to take the new ones, ‘too good, you could sell them!’ So we returned with both sets piled in an orgyesque tangle in the boot, the back door tied with string to keep them from falling out.Until I left home a few years later the new chairs lived in the garage behind the house. We didn’t keep the car in there because the lane by which it was accessed was barely wide enough for a double-buggy, but it was useful for dumping stuff we didn’t quite know what to do with. All my toys went in there as I grew too old for them; mum’s easel and brushes were in a corner, showing, still, her predilection for pea-soup green in the smears and splutters that adorned them. On one brush her thumbprint was clearly visible. I used to go in there as a child just to hold that brush, and press my own thumb against the impress of hers. I think Dad hoped I’d take up painting, be like her, but it turned out I was more like him, and I eventually graduated in Geography. Two of my aunt’s chairs went with me to uni, one as a desk chair the other to heap clothes onto, the remaining four had to wait until I could afford a flat with more than one room which wasn’t far off ten years later. Since then they’ve performed various roles (piano stool, stepping stool, cat bed) and been recovered in plain canvas, but three days ago I gave them to a friend’s son.
The milk now warm enough, the coffee brewed, I combine them in Dad’s old mug, sit down on my favourite poster-paint-blue chair, sip, and read, for the umpteenth time, the order of service.
My aunt didn’t come to my sixteenth birthday lunch. As far as I know she and my father never spoke again, and I’m ashamed to say I made no effort to persuade him otherwise, or contact her myself. I got on with the business of growing up and let her slip from my mind, until a month ago, when I realised the cancer was winning. I remembered her then, as Dad muttered in his half-sleep and her name rang out from him like an SOS. The next day I chapped her door, she is, after all, his only sister, my only aunt, and I was able to reconnect them, if only briefly. They seemed pleased to see each other, and reminisced about lost youth and favourite uncles in the way old people do. Neither of them mentioned that they hadn’t spoken in thirty years. Maybe one day I’ll ask her what she was thinking when she gave away Mum’s chairs, but not today. Today aunt Iris and I will travel in a hearse to the church in which they were both christened, and as we move through the town we’ll point out the blossom on the cherry trees, and talk of how lovely the magnolias will be by the end of the week. In this way, I hope, we’ll be able to bury my father. No, today isn’t the day to cry over half a dozen ordinary chairs.