Chairs were important to Dunc. He loved to sit on his arse at any given opportunity (and often remarked on the lack of such opportunities since the arrival of our two lively boys). Dunc had a very special chair during the first few years of our relationship. In fact, initially at least, he had two, until I moved in with him, accompanied by furniture that was twenty years newer and which required space in our less-than-capacious first home together. His chairs were gold, tassled, 1970s, patterned family 'heirlooms', perfect for a lazy evening in front of the television. The remaining chair met its end six years ago as we prepared to transform Dunc's 'gaming room' into a nursery for Sam, and its loss was significant to the man who had spent many a long evening reclining in it over the years, playing his Playstation 2, or watching films until the small hours. I'm sure many of our friends would think of Dunc's precious gaming chair when his name is mentioned in conjunction with any form of seating.
The empty chair of which I am thinking, however, might be the other half of our soft, brown, leather sofa that slopes inwards after six years of wear, so that we always ended up sitting half on top of each other, even on occasions when we didn't intend to do so. The evenings are often shorter now, by the time I have done the chores by myself, but I don't relish sitting alone on the sofa once I've finished. There is no-one flopped next to me, letting out a satisfied, "Aaaahhh!" as they sink into its soft cushions at the end of a long day; there is no-one sitting on it for me to drape my legs over when watching a film, and no-one to cuddle up to on it, under a blanket on a cold, dark night.
Then there's the spare chair in the hospital consultant's room where once - many times, in fact - Dunc sat in an act of mutual support when fighting for our boys' interests and wellbeing. When I took the boys to appointments by myself, I often felt that doctors listened attentively to me, before writing 'fussy mother' at the top of the notes. On the occasions when Dunc came with me, I always felt that we were taken a lot more seriously. Usually, he didn't even speak much (claiming that my memory of events and understanding of all things medical lent themselves better to such conversations), but the mere presence of both of us seemed to make medics sit up and take notice.
We now have a spare dining chair at the table each mealtime. It causes Sam distress because he says he no longer has anyone to sit by. In the early days after Dunc died, I moved to sit in his chair as I could not bear anyone else to be sitting in his place at the table. I ended up staying there because Thomas often needs support with eating his meal. I didn't even realise that Sam was feeling lonely at the opposite side of the table until he cried one day and explained. I tried moving him next to me, but it didn't solve the underlying problem for him, or for me.
As we set off somewhere in the car, Thomas has said to me several times in the last four months, "Daddy should be sitting on that seat next to you, Mummy." He says it mainly when we are going off on an exciting outing and it demonstrates his awareness of the situation in which we now find ourselves. We all know that, by rights, Dunc should be sitting there next to me. Having adventures without him is better than having none at all, but they are just not the same. It's as if we all have to make an extra effort to have fun, just because Dunc is not there to enjoy them with us.
Tonight, the actual chair in question is in the shed. The very fact that I am sitting in our tent, in our back garden, in the semi-darkness, with two sleeping children nearby, without my partner in crime sitting in his camping chair next to me (usually reading his book by the light of his head torch), brings a lump to my throat and creates a physical ache in my chest. I never thought I would go camping on my own with the boys and, actually, at the moment, I'd feel too vulnerable to do so, hence the fact that the garden will have to suffice for the time being. Putting the tent up was surprisingly manageable without Dunc. Sitting in it during the late evening without him, is both lonely and heartbreaking.
I am fully expecting the most difficult 'empty chair moments' to be those in the future when I will sit and watch our boys participating in events such as their Christmas nativity plays, their graduations, or on their wedding days. I have every confidence that one of my many supporters will be there to sit next to me, but it should be the boys' daddy who is there to watch and be proud of them, alongside me.
In all these situations, we can not get around the fact that the presence of an empty chair represents our loss and reminds us of it every time we sit down. Maybe eventually, if Sam gets his way, Andy Murray, or someone else with slightly curly hair, will fill the empty chair, but, right now, that seems unthinkable and a very long way off. Currently, at this early stage in our new lives, I still prefer to think that Dunc is actually sitting next to us in some form. I just have to remember not to tread on his superhero cape!
Dunc and his camping chair, in the Lake District, 2005.