The New Chair by Orla Broderick
Sand creeps over to Kate where she sits. She sweeps it away with the back of her hand, but it just keeps coming.
Anne can see her tense every time one of the children runs past.
“Don’t kick the sand,” Anne tells her sons, “You’re annoying your Granny.” After forty such reminders, her voice is sharp. Anne taps messages into her phone. She scrolls through newsfeed. She chain-smokes. She tries not to look at her mother’s face.
“They’ll soon learn if you give them a good slap,” says Kate.
“I don’t hit my children, Mum,” says Anne. She stares at the other woman straight in the eyes for several minutes.
Ted sucks air in through his nose. He puts his hand up over his heart and scrunches up his face. He winces as though he is in pain, then blows away the air he used. He likes to pretend he’s having a heart attack.
“Is there a shop anywhere around here where we could buy some sort of a deck chair for your mother, Anne?” he asks. “Why don’t you have deck chairs? No one likes sitting on the sand when they can have a good chair, especially with bad wee boys running around.”
Anne turns to stare at her father. She remembers the way she adored him once, she wanted to run away with him and get married to him.
“They are not bad wee boys. They are children trying to play on the beach and enjoy their freedom. The nearest shop for deckchairs is about fifteen miles away.”
Kate’s face crumples. She squeezes tears out of her eyes and flicks away more sand from the corner of her blanket. She likes to cry when she wants something.
“How are we supposed to eat any lunch like this?” Kate asks. “And are you trying to tell me that slapping a child for being bad is against your high and mighty principles, madam?” Her voice is a shrill whine. “Let me remind you that I raised three daughters while your father was at work and I know how to raise children. The odd slap never did any of ye any harm. Children need to be put in their place and kept there.”
“They are not being bad, they are just being children. And we don’t hit them for being children. We don’t call them names, we don’t try and make them feel bad.”
“I suppose you call that progress. I say that that’s what’s wrong with children today. They have no respect.”
Ted is still clutching his chest and breathing loudly. Anne passes him a glass of wine in a plastic tumbler.
“How can I have a drink if I have to drive to a shop to get a chair for your poor mother?” Ted says. “Have you no consideration at all for us?”
“I’ll have a wine,” says Kate. “Do you have a glass? Drinking wine out of a plastic cup is not enjoyable at all. Did you think to bring a few glasses for the adults or did you only think about the children?”
Kate reaches over and pokes around in the picnic box. She takes out packets of crisps, opens one and starts eating.
Jack and Sam run back up from the sea. They have moved a large heap of wet sand into a high pile, then decorated it with pebbles. They heard the opening of a crisp packet from half a mile away. Jack has a pink spade with a wooden handle. He thrusts it at his brother in mock sword fighting. Sam rips the spade from his hands and wrestles him to the ground.
“That’s a girl’s spade,” says Sam.
Jack starts to cry. He thumps his brother. “I love my spade, give it back.”
Ted laughs. “That’s right Sam, you tell him boy, you tell him. Pink is for girls. Only a sissy boy would have anything pink. If I go to the shop to get a chair for your poor old Granny, I’ll get you a proper boy’s spade while I’m at it.”
“Dad, these days wee boys are allowed to choose any colour they like.” Ted doesn’t appear to have heard her. She rolls a fag. She empties her tumbler of wine.
“And some decent glasses for the wine,” says Kate. “Do you remember the time we were all at that fair and Sam won a prize on the Hook-A-Duck and he wanted the fairy princess outfit? Oh I was never so mortified in my life. Didn’t you slap him then, Anne? You did, didn’t you?” She crunches on the crisps. “Sure, you had to beat that kind of thing out of him. You can’t have a boy growing up wanting to dress like a princess. And, do you see now, the way he’s teaching his brother right? He’s a good boy. Aren’t you the best boy Sam, aren’t you? Come here and give your Granny a kiss.” Sam comes over. “No, stand over there, don’t stand on my blanket. Oh I do need a chair Ted, and fifteen miles to the shop isn’t too far at all, will you go to the shop for me?”
Anne sighs into her empty cup. “No, Ma, I did not beat him for wanting a fairy princess outfit. He was six years old and if he wanted to wear high heels and flowers in his hair, I would have let him.”
“I don’t know where we got you from at all Anne. What’s wrong with you? You can’t let boys wear high heels, are you mad?” Kate is sneering, shaking her head. “When you were six you wanted a tractor and I wouldn’t let you have one, do you remember? You went and stole the tractor from the youngfella two doors down. Oh you were a stupid brazen little brat. I didn’t know what to do with you. You scalded my heart.” Kate reaches for another packet of crisps.
“Please Granny, can we have crisps?” asks Sam.
“Go over to the toilets and wash your hands and we’ll see after that,” replies Kate.
“You’ll have to be quick or Granny will eat them all,” says Anne.
Ted starts his inhalation again. He stares at his daughter. “What have I told you about disrespecting your poor mother?” He looks over at his grandsons “Granny won’t eat all your crisps, don’t you worry about that at all. Your mother is just being mean.”
“Actually, Dad,” says Anne, “I brought Tayto for the kids and posh crisps for the adults. She’s on her fourth packet, which means that they’re all gone.”
“Sure, can’t they have bananas?” says Kate. “Bananas are better for them anyway. But make sure they eat them away over there. I can’t stomach the smell of bananas, they make me want to puke.”
Anne looks away in to the far distance somewhere beyond the tide line. She keeps her voice calm and measured.
“I didn’t bring any bananas because I remembered you don’t like the smell of them.”
Ted gets up and smoothes his trousers. “Tell me where the shop is and I’ll go and get a chair for your poor mother. I don’t know what kind you are at all anyway, wouldn’t buy something for an old woman to sit in comfort on when you invited her to the beach. Imagine expecting her to sit like that on a moth eaten rug, have you no pride or self respect?”
“Are you going to the shop Ted?” Asks Kate.
“I am. I think I’ll chance it. It’s no good sitting here on this smelly thing. It was probably the dog’s bed at one point. It doesn’t look like it’s ever been washed. We didn’t beat enough kindness into this one. Thanks be to God we have Deirdre. Now, that’s a daughter to be proud of. She’d always have a chair for her mother. And as many crisps as she could manage.”
Anne has had no contact with her sisters for many years. This is the first time her parents have spent a weekend with her children. Anne escaped the grim grip of her mother when she was eighteen. As soon as she had the money saved, she took the boat to England. She rarely returned.
Her sons come back all soaked. They clearly had a water fight in the public toilets.
“Granny, did you eat all our crisps?” asks Jack.
Kate’s arm flies from her body and her hand greets the boy’s head with a whack. Anne is on her feet with both her arms around her youngest child and murder in her eyes.
“Don’t you dare hurt my children.” Anne hisses at Kate.
“Oh that little tap? That wouldn’t hurt a fly, don’t exaggerate Anne.You always had such an imagination. That was just a light touch, a little reminder.”
“Do you want to come to the shops Kate?” Ted is ready. He has his wallet in his hand. “There might be good shops here, you never know.”
“Give me a hand up off the ground,” Kate says. Ted anchors himself in the sand, digs his feet in and puts out his hand. He heaves his wife into a standing position.
“Oh thank you Ted, what would I do without you? It was awful being stuck down there.”
Jack is still crying. Kate looks at Anne and hisses “Leave him. That’s what works best – the good ignore. They soon learn not to cry if you let them alone.”
Anne remembers being ignored. Her mother’s silent treatment could last for weeks.
Kate looks at her husband of forty five years. “We could get a set of chairs with a table. We could always take it home again for our patio. There might be bargains. If we find a nice garden centre that does a bit of lunch, we could nearly make a day out out of it.”
Sam looks at his grandparents. His eyebrows are wrinkled together and his mouth is a tight line. The fun and laughter from earlier have gone from his eyes.
“Why did you hit my brother for wanting his crisps?” He asks.
“I’ll put you across my knee and leather your arse for you if I ever hear you talk to your lovely Granny like that again.” says Ted.
Kate puts her hand in Ted’s. “Come on” she says, “we’ll go and get a proper bit of food and a decent sit-down. That wee fella needs manners.”
Sam and Jack stare at the departing figures. Anne pulls a bar of chocolate out of her handbag and breaks it up equally for them. “Listen lads,” she says “your grandparents have always been very difficult people, it’s not your fault at all and Jacky baby, she should never have hit you, never ever.”
Sam looks into the picnic box to see what’s left. He takes out some little yogurts and bread sandwiches. Right at the bottom there are three fancy pastries his mum bought from the bakery this morning.
“Can I have a pastry?” he asks.
“Of course, honey.”
The three of them picnic on the old moth eaten dog blanket with the sand creeping right into the middle of it. They stare at the sea and the soft waves breaking in lines all along the shore.
“Did ye see any seals?” asks Anne.
“No, mum, there are none here” says Sam.
“If we go down to the water’s edge and sing our favourite song, they might come for us.” Anne says.
Jack loves to sing. He still likes ‘The Wheels On The Bus’ but he loves Let It Go from the movie Frozen. He begins with the chorus even though he knows all the words and has made up his own actions. His mum and brother join in with him because they know it makes him happy. Soon there’s bits of pastry being spat around the blanket, along with crumbs from the sandwiches. Anne takes her sons’ hands and leads them to the sea.
“The tide is creeping back in,” she tells them, “that means the fish will be coming. The seals and dolphins will be swimming behind the fish, if we sing loud and clear they’ll hear us.”
Jack hops from one foot to the other. The three of them keep a tight hold of each other’s hands and they launch their voices at the ocean. Jack leads them through the dance routine he made up. A grey head pokes black eyes from the depths to the near surface.
“Look mum,” squeals Jack, “It’s a seal, it’s a seal.”
“It’s a baby seal,” says Anne.
“They are coming to meet us,” says Sam. “Granny and Granddad are missing out.”
“Granny and Granddad have missed out on most of my life and all of yours, this won’t bother them at all,” says Anne. “I’ve sat here on this beach for twenty years wondering if my parents would ever show up in my life. Sometimes, I even thought the seals might be my parents.”
The baby seal swims nearer ever nearer, turning and diving in play. The boys laugh with delight. They all sing The Wheels On The Bus, over and over and over. The baby seal splashes her tail and bobs her head in and out of the water. Adult seals come to be nosey. They stare at the family on the beach. One howls a wolf-cry, another answers with watery whines. Soon Sam and Jack are whooping and bawling in tune with the sea dogs.
“Why did you think the seals were your mum and dad, Mum?” asks Sam.
“I was born with flipper feet and a caul around me,” says Anne. “I was different from the moment I was born. My mother couldn’t stand the sight of me and my father wouldn’t protect me from her nasty tongue. I thought they must have found me somewhere.”
The boys nod and grin at their mother. She hugs them tight, kisses their heads, cheeks, shoulders and any other part she can reach.
“I thought I must have been washed up on a beach somewhere in north west Donegal and taken in, but I could never be like them. I could never fit into their world.” Anne sobs and wipes snot on the back of her hand.
“Aye, Ma, maybe you’re a selkie woman. Come on, don’t be sad, sing an Irish song for your long lost family.” Sam grins. He wraps his teenaged arms around her and squeezes. She laughs at her full of love boy.
Anne raises her voice in an old rebel lilt. She is keening loud and clear when her father returns.
“There’s a tune takes me back,” says Ted. “I taught you that as a baby, how is it at all that you would remember it?”
Anne doesn’t stop, just looks over where her mother sits in a new wooden beach chair, with a table, and five other chairs. Her mother raises a glass and points to the ice bucket with a couple of bottles in it. She is unpacking cushions and a matching table cloth from one of the many bags. Kate is grinning madly. It’s twenty six years since Anne left Kate’s house. In all that time she yearned for something her mother couldn’t give her. Anne never wanted stuff bought from a shop. She wanted to sing and dance and be loved by her mammy. Anne sees, clear as the water, how she gave herself the love and respect her parents denied her.
Ted and Anne sing about dead men in County Wexford. Their voices are strong and true and well matched. Jack and Sam try and make up the actions to go with it. Kate warms into sleep. She lies back in her new chair and snores, giving them the gift of an afternoon playing together on the shore.