A PLACE AT THE TABLE

First there were three chairs, and then there were two — a powerful and moving tale of these extraordinary times by Emma Inch  

A few days ago, my partner put away one of our kitchen chairs. She didn’t tell me she was doing it, and I wasn’t there to see it happen, but the next time I went into the kitchen I realised there were only two chairs at the table. I stared at the space where a third should be and cried.

We bought our kitchen table when our daughter was still in a highchair. She didn’t need to sit with us as her tray provided plenty of room for her chubby, yoghurt-covered hands. We only added the third chair later, as she grew bigger. The table is small, too small for three really. Whenever we sit together for a weekend breakfast our elbows nudge with each spread of the butter, and our hands bump together whenever we reach for the salt. My partner complains there is never enough room for the marmalade, but for the past few years three chairs have sat at that table and we’ve made the best of it. But now there are only two chairs once more. 

There are still three people living in our house — me, my partner and our now seven-year-old daughter — it’s just that one of us can no longer join the others at the table. Since lockdown began back in March, I have been ‘shielding’. I don’t have COVID-19.  I’m not infectious; I’m not even sick. But unfortunately I have an underlying condition requiring the use of daily medication that lowers my immunity, meaning I could become seriously ill if I do get infected. 

As a result of shielding, I’m unable to leave the house, even for a short walk. I now sleep in the spare room, use a separate bathroom and prepare my food alone. Such is my apparent vulnerability, I mustn’t go within two metres of the people I live with. No hugs. No kisses. No tickling my daughter until tears of laughter run down her face. No holding my partner when things all get too much. 

And no sitting at the same table.

+++

The last time I was in a pub I sat at a table with only two chairs. 

I arrived with three friends late on a Saturday afternoon. It was bone cold outside but as we opened the door to the pub we were met by a damp rush of heat and noise. England were playing Wales in the Six Nations rugby tournament that day and the match was flashing away on television sets positioned all around the room. Lots of people were stood at the bar, their heads raised to the TV screens, in places two or three deep, and we had to squeeze sideways past the door to fight our way inside.

None of us were particularly interested in the match, so we briefly considered moving on somewhere else. However, the pub served great beer — brewed only a mile or so across town — and we were more than ready for a pint. We stayed and were surprised to quickly find an empty table by an open window, the only place in the venue without a clear view of the television. It was very nearly perfect apart from the fact that there were four of us and only two chairs.

Being pub friends, the answer was simple: we would swap in and out of the chairs — two sitting first and then the other two taking a turn — until the match ended and more seats became available. It was a tall table meaning that sitting or standing, we were all at the same eye level and could chat together easily. So, with the rhythm set by the buying of each round, two of us sat for the first beer, then stood for the second, sat for the third, and so on.

The ebb and flow of the rugby match caused intermittent surges of people, their heads tilted back, and faces lit by the screens, willing their team to get the ball across the line. At our table, arms sometimes touched arms, backs were brushed by strangers on their way to the bar, and at times we had to lean in close, almost grazing cheeks to hear each other’s words. On the table our glasses became muddled in front of us. We took sips of each other’s drinks and shared a bag of peanuts. Occasionally I felt the breath from someone else’s speech or snorted laughter against my face. I kissed acquaintances hello and hugged loved ones goodbye. All the time, standing — then sitting — in a seat warmed by another person’s body heat, in that endless dance of the chairs. Because, in a pub, even when there are not enough seats, there is always enough room for friends.

+++

Due to the restrictions of shielding, I’ve been unable to leave my own house for so long that I’ve not actually seen the empty streets. I’ve not witnessed the supermarket queues or the unfilled shelves. I’ve not seen people in masks, or the grey-empty trains and buses. And I’ve not seen the closed down, boarded-up pubs standing empty on street corners. 

And in a way that makes me lucky. Because as I mourn for what we have lost, and grow fearful of what is to come, I know there is still one table left by an open window where two chairs will always be enough.