Portrait of a Chair

Reggie Oliver has been a professional playwright, actor, and theatre director since 1975. Besides plays, his publications include the authorised biography of Stella Gibbons, Out of the Woodshed, published by Bloomsbury in 1998, and five collections of stories of supernatural terror, of which the latest, Mrs Midnight (Tartarus 2011) has won the Children of the Night Award for “best work of supernatural fiction in 2011”. This year Tartarus also reissued his first collection The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini in a new edition with new illustrations by the author. His novel, The Dracula Papers I — The Scholar’s Tale (Chomu 2011), recently nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award, is the first of a projected four. An omnibus edition of his stories entitled Dramas from the Depths is published by Centipede, as part of its Masters of the Weird Tale series. His stories have appeared in over forty anthologies. The following story, “Portrait of a Chair,” is collected in Dadaoism (An Anthology), published earlier this year by Chômu Press. - The Editors

Oliver Portrait © Anthony Christian

Slider art © Bigeyebrow (from Dadaoism cover)

***

It began in our local auction rooms at Glemford. They are not worth describing in detail: a collection of sheds — once a farm, I believe — off a B road. Every week the detritus of other people’s lives is deposited in these buildings and is bid for by dealers and ordinary members of the public, while outside, on fine days, plants and vegetables and huge sacks of grain, and hens in cages too small for them are disposed of. Each Monday, when the auctions take place, marks the end of a thousand small worlds and their dispersal goes unlamented.

I don’t deal professionally in antiques any more — some years ago I passed the business on to my son — but occasionally I dabble. I think I do it to test my powers. I was known in my heyday to “have an eye”, as they say, and out of curiosity I sometimes test out my eye to see if it is deteriorating in the same way that my body appears to be. It offers me a kind of satisfaction to note that “the eye” (as I like to call it) is as fresh and discerning as ever. But then, I reflect, if the rest of me is decaying — as it is, and rapidly — what is to become of the eye? Perhaps it could be hooked up to some electronic device on E-bay and used to hunt out rarities across the vast wilderness of cyberspace, but I don’t think so. I am enough of a traditionalist to think that would be rather dreary, a sort of death-in-life. But then life on the wrong side of seventy is becoming a death-in-life. I am beginning to look around for a death-in-death.

I am not quite there yet. That is why I go to Glemford every Saturday morning for the weekly viewing. I go to see if something might happen which could take me down some irrevocable road, either to life or death: really either will do. And that is how, one Saturday in June, I came to find the chair.

Of course, as Magritte might have written in similar circumstances, it was not a chair at all. It was a picture of a chair, and it interested me immediately.

In my day I was something of an expert on English rural primitive paintings, and this was before they became the fashionable accessories of gastro-pubs and rural second homes for weary bankers. You know the kind of thing: paintings on board of grotesquely fat prizewinning pigs or cattle seen in severe profile, flat face-on portraits of men and women who look as if they have just come from a very long sermon in a Methodist chapel, detailed views of buildings with curiously skewed perspectives. The best of them date from the early part of the nineteenth century. There is a kind of earnestness about them, a dedicated attention to detail, but withal an innate strangeness which seems to us both comic and touching. The painting that I had found that Saturday in Glemford had all the right qualities, but it was not the representation of a prize ram, or a Congregationalist Minister, or a farmhouse: it was of a chair. I had never seen a primitive painting of a chair before.

It hung upon the wall of the main auction room, amongst the faded Victorian watercolours and the sepia prints of forgotten Old Masters and the embroidered samplers trapped under glass. It stood out because it was the only oil painting on that wall and it had a fine black ebonised frame with a gold slip. There would be bidders, I suspected, for the frame alone, but I was for the painting.

I cannot say that I liked the painting, or that I disliked it. Long years in the business has bred out of me the spontaneous aesthetic pleasure of the amateur: I know too much simply to enjoy. What I understood was the quality and the rarity of the thing: it was these objective attributes alone which stimulated me. They gave me a frisson, not exactly of pleasure, but certainly of a kind of alertness, a sense of being alive, and for a purpose. You may call that pleasure if you like.

The chair in question stood against a background which was split horizontally into two halves. The upper half was a pale green colour and was presumably intended to be a wall. The lower half which was the floor was represented by bare yellow floorboards which the painter had drawn meticulously but with little sense of perspective so that they seemed to descend almost perpendicularly from the wall. The chair itself was a relatively plain late Regency mahogany dining chair with splayed legs, a concave wooden back and scrolled finials. The seat would appear to be of black leather secured to its carcass by plain brass tacks. It was quite accurately painted and the artist had obviously taken more pains with it than he had with the background.

I suppose I was attracted to it because furniture is, or was, my other area of expertise. I thought I might even keep the picture, though I have not much use for art as art. I used to, of course, so I would not categorise myself as a philistine; but, as with other desires, the candle has burned low.

On the Monday when it was to be sold I decided, on impulse, to go to bid for the lot in person, instead of sticking to my original intention which was to leave a maximum bid on it of fifty pounds by phone. As it happened the bidding went quickly over fifty pounds and I eventually secured the painting for slightly less than three times what I had intended paying for it. Why I was being so reckless I did not know, but the process did quicken me a little, so I suppose it may have been worth it. I took it back to the little cottage where I live alone with my cat Seth and found a space on the wall of the sitting room where it should hang. I put it up that day. For once there was no delay or indecision: I usually take ages to hang a picture or site an ornament. There it was, and I did not quite know why.

It is at this point, on the few occasions I have told this story, that my listeners begin to suspect which way it is going, and so perhaps will you. You will assume that, having got this picture home and hung it on the wall, it began to exert some kind of baleful influence over me; and that, moreover, there is a denouement in which I discover that the chair had originally belonged to a murderer, or had been painted by a murderer, or some such. It is the kind of story I used rather to enjoy myself, so I can sympathise with your disappointment when I tell you that nothing like that occurred. The picture in question did not — I think — have a baleful influence on my life, nor have I discovered anything about the chair depicted or the artist who painted it. In fact my story is barely a story at all, in the ordinary sense, but it was an experience.

For some days I lived with the painting and my cat in perfect contentment. I did not question my impulsive purchase; if I thought about it at all I was rather pleased with it. I supposed that eventually I would sell it on, but I doubted very much if I would get much profit out of it. That did not seem to matter. From time to time I would speculate on why the unknown artist had taken such trouble to depict an inanimate object.

My leisure hours these days are many and I have time for such ruminations. One of the curses of old age is boredom. You think, when you are younger, that retirement will present great cultural opportunities. At last you will finish Proust, study Dante, or listen intelligently to the whole of Wagner’s Ring Cycle; but somehow I have lost the appetite for such things, if I ever really had them at all. Perhaps it is simply that I no longer have that capacity for sustained concentration which Proust and the like demand. I still have some pleasures, but they are simple ones, like going for a walk on a fine day, or playing with my cat Seth, or eating well. Sometimes I just like to sit with a glass of Malt whisky, staring at the wall and contemplating the slow pageant of my thoughts as they pass through my mind. It was as I was doing this one day that the experience happened. The piece of wall at which I was staring happened to have the portrait of the chair hanging on it.

If I may briefly interrupt my narrative flow yet again, you may well assume that what happened next was a dream. This is, after all, the convention: that anything which appears fantastic can be safely relegated to the status of a dream and all will be well. We can then accept the narrative on some symbolic level because, it is commonly believed, dreams are full of symbolism. When we dream of flying we are really reflecting on our loftiest aspirations; when we suffer from nightmares about subterranean passages what we really want is to return to the womb, and so on.

In my experience, though, dreams are quite unsymbolic, far less so, in fact, than our fully conscious existence. Tortoises in dreams are just tortoises, even when they wear bowler hats; talking cats — as it happens, I often dream of talking cats — are simply cats that talk. But my point is this: the experience that I had, whatever it was, was not a dream; nor, for that matter, was it in any way symbolical.

One afternoon, as I was staring at the picture, my thoughts slowed to a halt and I was held in the present moment, simply and without reflection. The effect was curiously exhilarating. I don’t need to describe these things in detail. The main point is, I felt so refreshed that I thought I might go for a walk, even though it looked as if it was coming on to the rain. I got up, put on my hat and stepped out of the front door.

But I was not outside; I was not in the small garden which fronts my cottage; I was not looking at my front gate or the lane beyond. I was instead in a large room, brightly lit but from no particular angle; and the room was full of chairs. There were all kinds of chairs: armchairs, dining chairs, modern chairs, antique Chippendale or Sheraton chairs, deck chairs, garden chairs. You get the picture: I was surrounded by chairs of every description. There were no tables or sofas or furniture of any other kind, just chairs.

Now I am quite fond of chairs, as you may have gathered, but I did not feel altogether comfortable in this atmosphere which seemed to me rather oppressive. You see, this room that I said I was in was not an ordinary room, or rather I did not see it in an ordinary way. It seemed vast and tiny at the same time: that is to say I was not looking at it in perspective. Every part of it looked as big as it was; nothing diminished into the distance, and that applied to the chairs too, of which there seemed to be an almost infinitely large number.

The effort of trying to grasp this from an intellectual point of view seemed to paralyse my mind. I couldn’t move; I felt stiff and confined. I tried to flex my fingers and found that I couldn’t, so I looked down at my arms to find that they were covered with glazed chintz cloth like the covers of my armchair in the cottage. The pattern was one of pale pink roses which my wife had chosen shortly before her death. I never liked it, but had not bothered to find another more congenial to me. It would seem that I was wearing a jacket made out of glazed chintz , like Max Miller or Victoria Wood, the comedians. Then I noticed that there were no hands at the end of my arms which were curiously long and fat.

I don’t want to prolong this sort of thing any further. The fact is, I found, rather to my annoyance I may say, that I had become an armchair — that I happened to be my armchair was small consolation — and I had no idea why.

Some moments after this I began to hear voices. The main voice, quite educated and articulate but with a slight rural accent — Devonshire, I think — came from a wooden Windsor chair which seemed to me, as far as I could tell, to be closer to me than the other chairs.

You’re new, aren’t you?” said the Windsor.

I have no idea what I’m doing here,” I said.

What do you mean? You’re a chair.”

Yes, perhaps I am, but I wasn’t.”

If you are what you are, what can you mean by saying that you weren’t?”

I mean that I have been a human being. I think in a sense I still am, but I seem to have taken the form of a chair.”

I see. You believe that your nature is dual, both chair and not chair. That is interesting.”

It’s baffling.”

And you claim to be a human being, or a ‘maker’ as we sometimes say, because we know that human beings are the makers of chairs. Can you prove this?”

Do I need to?”

It would help. You see, a great many chairs have claimed to be in actual fact human beings disguised, as it were, as chairs, and we have listened to their words, hoping to gain some kind of superior wisdom from them, but they have proved to be charlatans, false prophets. They had nothing to offer and so they were destroyed.”

By whom?”

On the orders of the upholstered armchairs. Like you, but the leather ones. They are the ones with authority.”

Why?”

Show disrespect to a leather armchair and you’ll soon find out.”

This is ridiculous.”

If it is, you don’t appear to be laughing.”

I mean, it’s impossible. Chairs are inanimate objects.”

How can you say that? The evidence before you contradicts your statement.”

You are made out of inanimate matter.”

And so are you.”

I tell you, I am not a chair. I seem to be a chair at this moment, but I am not. I am simply a human being whose spirit — soul — whatever you like to call it — appears to be inhabiting a chair.”

So you say. I must take your word for it,” said the Windsor chair. “But then you must take my word for it that I am a chair, but not an inanimate object. After all, you would I suppose concede firstly that I seem to you to be animate and that, moreover, that I am composed of organic material.”

Yes, but dead organic material, fashioned by human beings.”

What is dead organic material? If you mean that we are composed of matter which has belonged to another form, that is true of all of us.”

By this time I was conscious of a general background murmur and the close proximity, insofar as these things could be gauged in a world without perspective, of other chairs who were taking a close interest in our conversation.

May I say,” added the Windsor chair, “how strange it seems to me that I am experiencing no existential difficulties about my situation whereas you are. After all you claim to be an avatar or incarnation — I might say insellation to be pedantically accurate — of the creator or creators of chairs, yet you seem to be doubting your present existence as a chair. Surely it must be self-evident to you that you are a chair now whatever you may or may not have been in the past.”

I believe I am suffering from an illusion, albeit a curiously vivid one.”

I agree that the world of chairs is a strange one,” said the Windsor.

How can you know it is strange when you know of no other?”

One has intimations. Mystery is an inherent part of life and those who fail to accept it are doomed.”

Do you know why you exist — what you have been made for?”

The general consensus is that we have been made so that our makers my rest in us or take their ease. There are of course some of us who find this traditional belief absurd, a mere superstitious relic of the past, but most of us still hold fast to the old belief.”

Aren’t you aware when someone sits on you, then?”

Not exactly. We believe that this happens in another dimension where we chairs occupy a thing called space. There are those we call ‘sensitives’ who claim that they can tell when they are being sat upon by a maker, and it is they who have taught us the great gift of rational speech and thought. This, at least, is what we believe. Some of us also believe that occasionally someone — as it might be you perhaps — comes from the world beyond chairs to enlighten us.”

When was the last time that happened?”

Some time ago. It came in the form of a Sheraton Carver. Beautifully made with a lovely seat. He was smashed up eventually, of course.”

Why?”

It always happens. The leathers — that’s our name for the leather armchairs — the leathers thought he was undermining their authority and upsetting the other chairs. He was even suggesting that the armless ones were just as good as us which was absurd, of course. Everyone knows that chairs with arms are superior beings. So you see I must warn you to be on your guard against making extravagant claims.”

Do chairs die?”

Die? Now that’s a word we don’t hear very often. Yes, we collapse, we disintegrate; sometimes we spontaneously combust. We are smashed by mysterious agencies, or the leathers of course. Sometimes this is called dying. No-one knows why or how it happens. It’s not talked about.”

The Windsor was perfectly civil, but our conversation was becoming hateful to me. I felt the oppression of a world without perspective in which I was surrounded by chairs and nothing but chairs.

How can you bear to live this life of chairdom?” I asked. “Doesn’t it drive you mad?”

We know no other life.”

But you have intimations. You said.”

Those who have too many intimations are often driven mad by them. They rave about other worlds full of clever and delightful things like space and light and music, and we listen to them for a while with pleasure. Then they begin to upset us too much, so we isolate them and they go mad and disintegrate, or we let the leathers smash them up. It’s a mercy destruction really.”

So you go on being chairs. How terrible!”

What else would you have us do? Would you want us to dream like you of being something else?”

You must!”

Oh, must we?” By this time the Windsor was beginning to sound rather troubled.

Excuse me,” said a low voice. It was a leather armchair which suddenly felt very close. “Is this glazed chintz number bothering you, Windsor?”

No, no,” said the Windsor. “Just having a slightly metaphysical discussion.”

So it’s metaphysics now, is it?” said the leather, with unmistakable menace. “You want to watch your lip, sunshine. There’s some leather lads I could get to smash your arm off and take the stuffing out of your fat seat.”

What I will never understand is how a chair could acquire a vocabulary that included the word “metaphysics”, or, for that matter, “sunshine.”

If you think I am afraid of you and your fellow leathers, you’re very much mistaken,” I said with a bravado that I did not feel in the least. “I am not a chair. In my world I sit on chairs. I buy you and sell you, if you can understand what that means. I can mend you or destroy you and I feel not a whisper of compassion or empathy in doing so. To me you are disposable objects, nothing more, like tables and beds and sofas. As a matter of fact I’d rather sit on a sofa any day of the week.”

Sofa?” Growled the leather. “Did I hear you say sofa?”

You did.”

You want to watch your language, sunshine. That’s a word we don’t say here.”

What? Sofa?”

He’s said it again. This chintz ponce has said it again. Now you listen to me, Sunny Jim, you button it from now on, or we take you apart. Understood?”

I’ll say what I like! I’ll say anything I want! I’ll say table; I’ll say bed; I’ll say sofa; I’ll say rocking horse!”

There was a sound like a gasp; I heard a low twang, as of a spring exploding inside upholstery.

He said Rocking Horse! The little stool said Rocking Horse! Right lads, get him!”

I do not know why I said Rocking Horse, but I did. As soon as I had I knew that sympathy had been withdrawn from me and that only wood, leather and aggression surrounded me. Chairs cannot move. Everything in me but my mind had to remain immobile, but I still could feel. I sensed also that the chairs, led by the leathers, were bearing down on me. My whole structure began to splinter and disintegrate. I felt pieces of me inside my body — my frame, my upholstery, call it what you will — crack and, with each fracture, release a ricocheting gunshot of pain within. The pain was terrible, but the senselessness of it all was worse still. The world I had entered had no perspective and no meaning, but why should it have agony, this splintering agony of ruination? How was it that even idiocy could ruin itself? Chairs hemmed me in, blackened my sky; I was in a dark cellar of chair. It now seemed strange to me that I had never thought of my human existence as having much sense to it, yet how much more sensible it was by comparison with this.

The grinding down of my being went on until I felt too dissolved to be much in agony. I was now a mere vortex of discarded chair fragments, turning in the vast abysses of space whose vastness might have offered some relief if only I could see them, or know them in anything other than my intellect. I longed to lose consciousness and yet was afraid that if I lost it I might lose it forever. That of course is the fear of death, an irrational fear because one should only fear conscious agonies. Oblivion should be fearless, but it is not. My mind was swept and twisted through darkness but it would not extinguish itself. It would not.

Suddenly I felt directed movement. I was being hurled through the viewless darkness towards some point and that, for all the sickness of motion, gave me the prospect of relief. I felt myself carried many miles through space until, eventually, I arrived back in the front garden of my cottage. I was lying on my back on the grass while a gentle drizzle of rain moistened my upturned face. Yes. I had a face again, and I was glad to see that my arms were no longer draped in glazed chintz but in a rather dingy greenish tweed which is what my favourite jacket is made of. To cut a long story short, I was no longer an armchair but a human being again. To say, however, that I was me, might be inaccurate. My sense of self has taken something of a knock and I have yet to recover from it. So that was the experience I had.

There is one more thing, though. I mentioned earlier that I had discovered nothing about the chair, nor the artist who painted it, and this was perfectly true at the time I wrote it down. I see no reason to go back and expel this passage from my narrative simply because there has been a development. Stories would never get told if one did that: revision often destroys more than it improves; the inconstancy of truth is the hardest thing we have to bear.

So let me tell you that today, or perhaps a few days ago, depending on when I finish what I am now writing, I did discover a little about the portrait of the chair. I decided to undo the backing of the picture which had a great deal of brown paper stuck onto it. Under the brown paper I discovered a label which had been attached to the back of the board on which the chair had been painted. On this label the following had been written.

True representation of the chair on which the Rev. Elijah Purdue breathed his last 18th November 1843, having but a few moments previously completed the delivery of a sermon upon the Incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ which had lasted no less than two hours and thirty five minutes. Several of his grateful parishioners thought fit to celebrate their pastor’s passing by commissioning this painting from one of their number, Jabez Twill, signwriter, who willingly undertook the task January 14th — February 3rd 1844.”

You are, of course, perfectly entitled to discover no significance whatsoever in this epilogue. I do. In fact, I believe that my discovery offers sufficient, if not irrefutable proof that there is, after all, a God.

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