The week before Christmas was always going to be a challenge. The conflict was clear. On the one hand, I am, or was, an unsociable man and in the past have found house guests difficult [see ‘A bit of bah humbug does you good’, 23 Dec 2009]. On the other, on the 18th of December a family of four would be coming to stay from Brittany, and two days later the four would become five when one of my sons would arrive from Germany. Add in me and my wife and that makes seven- surely far too many for our essentially modest house? I had fears of people tumbling over one another, of my being unable to escape noise and of having to queue for the loo each morning. Moreover, for days on end I would have to be sociable and polite, and possibly amusing! Worst of all, with my study doubling up as a bedroom, there would be nowhere to escape.
But the decision had been made and, with careful planning, I felt confident that I would cope. With months to go we started to prepare. One room was re-decorated, another was cleared of books and boxes (it had become a general repository), bedside tables were bought, new curtains were hung, a long-damaged bed-head was repaired and arrangements were made to borrow bed linen. Then, as the week came closer there were provisions to be bought and ‘strategic’ decisions to be made – so, what to do, where to go, what to see, how to travel?
Then came the snow. In the hours before expected arrivals we checked the web for news on the flights in and out of Brest, Berlin, and Luton. We watched as weather forecasts worsened and planes were delayed. Then the inevitable, the phone rang and there were tearful calls as cancellations had forced our guests not to travel. Ultimately, no one came.
In the next days, the absence of Josh, Christophe, Vero, Camille and Corentin, filled the house. They should have been there. Conversation should have been flowing, the fridge should have been emptying, but most poignantly the chairs around the dining room table should have been full. For me it was they, the unoccupied but defined spaces, that provided the most telling reminders of absence, that prompted the strongest feelings of persons missing. And such powerful feelings about spaces deprived of their rightful occupant might well be universal. How very moving it was when this year’s Nobel Peace Prize was essentially awarded to an empty chair. Not any empty chair, but the one on which the laureate Liu Xiaobo was to have been seated had he not been detained in a Chinese jail. It was impossible not to feel for him. Objects themselves, such as keepsakes, can make one think of a person, but an empty space somehow gives them a more tangible presence.
It is natural that the meaning of such spaces will change over time. Five years ago a close friend died. Roy was almost 90, and for several months after his death his favourite chair opposite the TV was kept steadfastly empty. Later, one day at tea, his widow asked if I would sit in it. Somehow for her in some way I could fill his space. Just recently she herself has started sitting in it. I assume mourning is now over. The space had served an important purpose.
In the past, and as ‘unsociable man’, I would have felt relieved when guests failed to materialise, now I felt more a sense of bereavement. Interestingly, it was the site of the empty chairs that the guests did not occupy that was emotionally the most poignant. Who would have thought that such emptiness could be so expressive?