Reflection On A Red Chair

Zoe Fairtlough

At the dressing table in the corner of their white bedroom, she sits on her red-painted chair where countless nights she’d nursed their babies, the children grown up now with babies of their own. She sits on her chair before the mirror, takes her brooch out of its box, and pins it onto her cardigan, NEMRAC it says, a gift from Mama on that last day in Spain.

How loud the aeroplane before it landed at Gatwick that first time, was it really fifty years ago? She’d cried out at its clank and roar. ‘Just the wheels being lowered, it’s all right,’ Richard said, but it was night when they arrived, their luggage the last out, the taxi ride home interminable along the blind windings, nothing like the radiant future in her mind, and then suddenly their house was there, glowing yellow from the streetlamp.

She’d first seen this house in the photographs he’d brought her parents to reassure them about where she’d live when she married him. The taxi drove away, he opened the front door and turned on the light, and she saw that the parts of the house were the same as in the pictures, but the whole was different, smaller, disappointing somehow. She didn’t tell Richard, a little lie, ‘Estoy cansada – I’m tired,’ she said instead.

Over the years she made this their home, this little grey box with tidy green rectangles front and back, two white bedrooms upstairs with neutral carpet floors, downstairs the room for sitting and the kitchen for cooking, where linoleum pretended to be wood. The cork tiles of the bathroom, which would never be the wished-for Moorish tiles of her childhood home, are dogeared now, but she remembers new floors, new windows, and new dust for the new bride to clean in her new country.

Those first days, while Richard was at work, she unpacked boxes and found rightful places for things. He’d returned home in the afternoon and they made love under stiff white sheets. Once, he showed her where he worked, a school for boys which looked like a museum, or a hospital. So many bricks. His students touched their caps as they walked in a long line along the striped grass. In the distance a whistle shrilled. ‘A train?’ she asked Richard and he shook his head, ‘Rugby,’ another word she hadn’t known.

She’d placed the furniture where they’d agreed it should go, the red chair in the bedroom, a brightly painted and straw seated chair of the kind used by flamenco dancers and guitar players – Mama said it would remind her of home. Richard praised it, said it looked nice, but his eyes said different. Through his eyes she saw its garish painted blooms but pretended not to. In her eyes their home was perfect, and the plastic dancer in her yellow flounced dress looked so confident on the antique lowboy in the sitting room, next to her silver-framed pictures of faraway family and friends. Beyond the window, swans glided across a sky-blue pond as pink blossom twitched on the trees that hid other little grey houses. She wondered where the people were. In El Puerto de Santa María, all the people would be shouting, the church bells ringing, the sun blinding, the salt air harsh in her nostrils. It was so gentle here, her blood rippled through her like soft waves of a lake.

She’d take solitary walks to the pond and around the village. The first time at the grocer, with her list of English words, the few wrinkled oranges made her weep. She bought them all and didn’t wait but stood by the pond and tore off the orange peel, bit into the fruit’s dry segments and swallowed them without chewing. When she returned home, she dropped the string bag of food on the floor and sat on the red chair to cradle her bitter oranges and wail. Richard arrived later, when the waves were quiet again. He asked if she was alright, and she replied that of course she was. So many times she should have said no.

When he said they’d be visiting Mum in Dorset, her ears pricked. Getting away quickened her pulse because it was gentle here, but nothing ever happened.

That white house was another photograph with numerous windows and a solid door. On the broad sweep of stone steps, she recognised the woman framed by climbing yellow roses, arms open in welcome. Richard said she must call her Mum. It was different to Mama so her own mother wouldn’t mind, Carmen told herself. He asked her if she was happy and she heard herself say, ‘Yes!’ to the sunny roses, but she craved the smell of bleach and lemons, of salt spray and fresh sardines frying. In Dorset the smell was green cut grass and also, surprisingly, the apple cake of La Camelia, the patisserie in the Calle Ancha where she’d spent her childhood afternoons with Dolores eating tarta decorated with red hibiscus petals.

No hibiscus here. Mum kissed her – a quick dry kiss of face powder and moth balls – and asked about the journey. Richard talked of clear roads while Carmen stood bewitched by the sprays of white and blue flowers in a cut crystal vase in the hall, by the sunlight blinking in the dust stream. She asked what the flowers were, ‘They smell so good.’ She didn’t know the English word for maravillosas or she would have described them so. ‘Freesias and delphiniums from the garden,’ Mum replied slowly, and looked pleased with Carmen’s compliment. It had been the correct thing to say.

Mum said, ‘I like your brooch, it’s very modern,’ and Carmen clasped the warm gold letters of her name. Richard said he’d show her their room. She took his hand and together they climbed up the wide staircase to another scent. ‘What is that?’ she asked, ‘smells of honey,’ and Richard said, ‘Beeswax, come.’

Her sister had said she shouldn’t waste her time with him because his clothes needed patching, she shouldn’t marry him. Her sister said his pictures were lies. Carmen had not believed the pictures either, but she had forgiven his need to enchant her, and then discovered it was the truth after all, and allowed herself to be enchanted.

He showed her his old room, their room, with the sky in the windows and the sombre soldier above the fireplace. Neither the tiny roses on the faded wallpaper nor the ancient sword hung behind the door had been in the pictures. On the tarnished brass bed, she stroked the soft white coverlet that smelt of plastic wrapper. The teacup of trembling blue bells on the bedside table was the prettiest thing she had ever seen, and she held her breath so not to hurt them. Rain tapped at the window. ‘Just a shower,’ Richard said, and apologised as if the weather could be his fault. She kissed him and he kissed her. How they’d loved each other. ‘Nothing else matters,’ he’d said, but perhaps she hadn’t understood his words.

Later, Mum had wanted to show her the garden and Richard said, ‘Let’s find you some wellies.’ He led her to a smell of damp and a line of black boots sitting on sheets of curling newspaper along the ruined wooden floor. Inside the boots, her hesitant toes found warmth. Then how fresh outside, how blinding the greenness, all the different shades of green, as though that was the only colour left in the world that was not as unwelcoming as she’d feared within her secret self. Birds swooped from tree to tree.

A plump red-breast flew down to drink from a puddle of limpid water on the golden gravel. ‘That’s a robin,’ Mum said. ‘Do you have robins in Andalusia?' Carmen didn’t think so, the birds she knew were gulls and cranes. ‘In El Puerto we have gaviotas y grullas – sea birds.’

‘We sometimes get seagulls,’ Mum said, ‘the sea isn’t far.’

Carmen nodded politely and admired the flowers as Mum spoke their strange names. Through an arch of blooms and thorns they came onto another larger lawn where the long limb of a massive tree reached out. A swing hung from it and she imagined children one day playing there, as one day they would. She squeezed Richard’s hand and the low pallid sun flickered through the branches.

Mum said that she must think about dinner and Richard replied he and Carmen would take a quick walk before it grew dark. He led her along a hidden path between evergreens and the high stone wall. He was laughing, ‘Come.’ Twilight was falling on the smell of the earth, his breath in her hair, the salt of his skin, the soft meadow grass under her feet. He led her to a stream tumbling over stones and roots. ‘It must have rained last night – the water’s normally much calmer,’ he said, as if disapproving of its life. Carmen observed the grey reedy banks, how they held tight the stream, and how without them the water might have been dispersed and not been a stream at all.

Under watery moonlight, they skipped back to the house and Richard said, ‘Mum likes us to change for dinner, wear the blue.’ Carmen nodded and pinned her brooch to her new dress. In the mirror, her brown skin mismatched the pale roses, but Richard said she looked guapísima.

Downstairs, Mum was waiting in the drawing room, Richard called it, and the diamonds on her breast glittered in three goblets filled with the smell of the sea and lemons. ‘Mum found a Fino for you,’ Richard said, he knew she liked it best. ‘Cin cin,’ Mum said, ‘isn’t this fun,’ a statement not a question.

But in the dining room, it was three of them at the table for twenty. Carmen imagined Mama and Papi there, and knew then they would never visit, no matter the times they were invited. The white-faced woman on the wall, with the pearl headdress and stiff sleeves of a queen, sat in judgement while Mum spoke and Richard translated into Spanish how his brother and sister couldn’t wait to meet her.

They hadn’t come to the wedding.

She pictured them like Richard, pale-faced and kind-eyed, with vague soft voices and long twitchy legs. Mum’s grey eyes smiled, but the white woman in the painting watched with a small tight mouth. The knife and fork felt massive as Carmen ate the fish in the smooth green sauce that belonged with the garden. ‘How orange the carrots in the salty butter,’ she said, and Mum’s eyebrows raised. Richard’s touch was warm. ‘Everything OK?’

‘Yes,’ she replied, watching Mum who would one day be her children’s grandmother, this person with the silent hands and crossed ankles. Mama had sat rarely – the family shop would not allow such a luxury. But Mum sat and poured tea from a silver teapot into delicate white cups encircled by green dragons. ‘Milk or lemon?’

Carmen didn’t know. ‘Lemon?’ One slice dropped in the coloured water. She took a bitter sip. ‘Sugar?’ Richard asked, and dropped one then another lump into the cup, cubes so proper and white, but there were spiders in the wardrobe, she’d seen them earlier. Not a wooden wardrobe but a tiny room with two clothes rods one above each other, and cobwebs that had repelled her, fascinated her too, and she’d watched the spider gangle up the wall and disappear into a corner.

That night, after the gleaming goblets and the dragon teacups, she bent down to put her slippers under the bed and found the reassuring flocks of dust balls that she’d treasure in her mind and recall whenever the teapot shone too silver on other Dorset visits.

In the Dorset darkness under the white coverlet, Richard would nuzzle her, place his hand on her stomach, and curl in towards her, ‘Shh, Mum is next door,’ she’d say every time. ‘Don’t worry,’ he’d say, ‘these old walls are solid.’ Carmen would hear a window shut, those strange windows that shut from up to down, never opened fully. He was always gentle and quiet, then he’d shiver when he slept. Once, she thought he’d stopped breathing and her heart thudded as she shook him. He sat up. ‘Are you all right?’ She replied she was, ‘Go back to sleep.’

She was always relieved to return to their little house. Inspired by Mum’s flowers, she planted red geraniums in window boxes, like her mother’s in Spain. Her first winter in England, they froze and had to be thrown out. Over the years, while Richard went to work, she’d learnt to plant the pansies and roses that didn’t mind the cold. She’d put her brooch away in a little wooden box, covered her skin with cardigans, and learnt to wear sensible shoes. When the children were born, Richard had hung a swing on the tree in the little back garden. She’d taught them Spanish and made paella on Sundays. When the children grew up and went away, Richard had taken the swing down. Looking back on those times, it seemed that nothing else had happened, although it must have. She’s sure they must have visited her parents in Spain too, but right now she does not recall those times.

From habit, she brushes her hair once more, draws lips and eyes upon her face. She rises stiffly from her chair to take his bag downstairs. The nurse at the care home had said Richard needed new pyjamas and toiletries. Carmen adds a book – maybe today he will try to read. Overcome that she never once thought to lay a blanket over him when he shivered, a chill creeps over her as she tries to imagine who she will be without him, if she will still remember her name.

Before she turns off the light, she checks she hasn’t forgotten anything important. The red chair seems more at ease now in the bedroom that never changed. Its chipped paint and greyed straw are somehow comforting in their permanence, somehow conveying that all will be well – she has already travelled to an unknown land and learnt its ways. She pauses in the hall lined with evidence of past happiness: birthdays and sports days, summer holidays and Christmases, picnics and weddings, and that first picture Richard took of her, when she didn’t know he was watching, of her looking out over the sea towards the sunset, a faint smile on her lips.

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