Short story | The Chair

“’Scuse me mate, can I take this chair?”

The man slowly lifts his head to look, as though waking in slow motion from a deep trance. “Sorry, what did you say?” he responds, his eyes finally resting for a couple of seconds on a fresh-faced young man with brown hair, before dropping his gaze to his own hands.

“I was just asking if anyone was using this chair”, the young man repeats, tapping the one diagonally opposite the man sitting by himself at a table. He indicates towards a nearby table where four university students are already seated.

“No. It needs to stay there” says the man firmly, without looking up.

The young man straightens up, tilting his head slightly to one side and frowning, miffed by the older man’s bluntness. He stays exactly where he is.

“Who’s using it?” he demands. The man ignores him, frowning at his hands.

“WHO’S USING IT?!” he asks a little louder. “George, leave it!” barks one of the girls at the other table, embarrassed by her friend making a scene”

“I don’t have a chair!” George barks over his shoulder at his friend, opening his arms widely with upturned palms to accentuate the injustice of the situation.

“Can I help you, sir?” asks a pleasant female voice. George turns to see a waitress has arrived. The man seems oblivious to her arrival and checks his watch.

“I was just asking my friend whether I could borrow one of the three spare chairs he has on his table so that I can sit with my friends” George replies.

“Perhaps you could use one of the chairs from that table instead?” the waitress replies with a tone that is both infinitely polite but clearly also the final word on the matter.

George becomes aware that everyone in the cafe have stopped their conversation to watch the incident. He considers squaring up to the waitress but thinks better of it. Shaking his head slowly, he shuffles backwards, grabbing a chair from another table and dragging it with deliberation to the table where his friends sit. Positioning it back to front at the end of the table where his friends sit, he sits on it and rests his upper arms on the top, mumbling “I didn’t realise university students were second class customers in here.” His friends and the other customers return. to their conversations. The waitress returns to her duties.

“Didn’t realise you can get your own bodyguard in here,” he says casually over his shoulder to the man, inwardly seething over the incident and determined to get a response out of him. The man closes his eyes and tightens his lips as if to say something, but then exhales through his nose and relaxes his shoulders as if he’s thought better of it. He checks his watch.

George continues to observe the man, who retrieves a tatty piece of folded paper from his jacket, which he unfolds, reads, and then places face down on the table. The man checks his watch again.

“I hate to break it to you, mate,” says George, as obnoxiously as he can, “but whoever it is you’re waiting for, something gives me the impression they’re not coming!”

The man jumps up out of his seat and slams his fists on the table, his eyes finally locking with George’s. For the briefest moment, the man’s whole body communicates an intense rage and utter contempt for the student. But then his eyes and shoulders drop again, he sighs deeply and then walks out of the cafe.

His friends laugh under their breath, relieved that the tension in the room has finally dissipated. “What a nutcase!” one says and the others start to discuss what syndrome the guy might’ve had that they’ve attended psychology lectures about this term.

But while he flinched at the sudden anger of the man, George had seen something different in the man’s eyes. He’d seen anguish, pain, loneliness, despair.

George looks back to the table where the man was sitting and sees the bit of paper he’d taken from his jacket. Pondering, he walks over, picks it up and turns it over. On the other side is a child’s drawing of what looks like two adults and two children playing on a sunny day amongst trees and flowers.

He senses the waitress standing nearby and looks up to her, as if asking permission to look inside to confirm what his intuition has just told him has told him about the man. She just stands there and looks back at him with what feels like infinite kindness and infinite wisdom.

George opens the card, which practically flops open due to the fragility of the paper.

Dear Daddy,
See you at 12 for the picnik. Don’t be late!
Love Ben, Sarah and Mummy

George looks up to the clock on the cafe wall. It’s 12:01. He looks back at waitress, who nods almost imperceptibly.

“Shit” says George under his breath, and sprints out of the cafe with the man’s treasured card in his hand, leaving his bewildered friends calling out after him.

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