Heirlooms

Because they were in storage, my grandparents’ chairs survived when the Luftwaffe dropped their bombs on Coventry.  Had they been at home that day in 1942, the outcome would have been different.  In my mind’s eye, I see them clambering over rubble with their cardboard suitcases.  My grandparents that is.

During my childhood, the chairs, a pair of 1930s club armchairs, were tobacco brown.  I remember sitting with my grandad watching the racing ‘on the box’ maybe with sixpence each-way on a rank outsider.  And I remember the smell and the feel of the leather, soft and flaky as ready rub beneath my fingers as I picked away at its scales. 

‘Stop that desquamation at once, you destructive little minx,’ he said.  ‘Your grandma will have your guts for garters.’

Grandad worked, in some administrative capacity, for Myers & Bowman who had the servicing contract for all the West Cumberland busses, and this was back in the day when bus seats were leather.  One weekend, he half-inched a quantity of thick green skin or perhaps syphoned off some surplus stock.  Grandma must have turned a blind eye, surely, she wouldn’t have colluded?  Anyway, the chairs soon sloughed off their old skins and were reborn as two proud green alligators.  She sat in one, but I could see from the shape of her mouth that she was not entirely pleased.

              ‘The castors,’ she said. ‘The buggering castors.  You were supposed to get them changed.  These little brass ones chew my carpets.’

I held my breath, never having heard her use such language.  Grandad hooted with laughter and like a fairground roustabout, twirled her, and the chair around, then, jingling money in his pockets, he set off to the bookies.

Decades passed, and the chairs were handed down through the generations, perhaps the ugliest of heirlooms, and they became mine.  They were shabby again; stuffing spilling from their wounded flanks, bones exposed.  My dogs, in for the kill, finished them off, gnawing away on that thick green hide.  ‘I’ll have your guts,’ I muttered.

Time for regeneration.  Good reupholstery costs more than the price of new armchairs, but my stout-hearted veterans were survivors of the blitz; IKEA would certainly not be the death of them.  So, when at last I could afford it, they were tricked out in a supple smoke-grey leather with cushions in rose chenille, a nod to a more modern design aesthetic.  Still they teetered on those impossibly small brass castors, like hippos in dancing slippers. 

The curve of their arms is an enduring constant in my life, though they are not particularly comfortable, being slightly too deep and slightly too narrow.  My offspring don’t admire much of mine, but despite being L-shaped-sofa-types, they both covet these deco relics, these time-travelling chairs.  When I am dust, they will have one apiece.

  • Longlisted in the Quiet Man Dave flash non-fiction competition 2020

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