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The Coffee Table

Shaun Prescott

Living room totems loom large in this new story from Shaun Prescott

The new coffee table was an event. It was meant to be a prized relic. It was adamantly yet futilely historic in its design. It seemed like a BBC Pride and Prejudice coffee table. It was forbidden for anyone to place a cup on this table, and it was considered rude and punishable to place a magazine or Blu-Ray case on it too. You weren’t allowed to do anything with this coffee table, because it was meant to just be there—it was not allowed to have a function. It existed to remain the way it was forever.

There were several conflicts surrounding the coffee table. Dad insisted that the children give it a wide berth because he didn’t want it marked. Dad and Mum would lie legs-to-shoulders on the couch in honour of the coffee table. A foot on its surface was, for the kids, a declaration of war, and for the parents, an abasement of principle.

Dad bought the coffee table on a whim. It was $300 at the local furniture retailer, and he had bought it because he felt unhappy in his lounge room. A good coffee table, when poised between lounge and television, feels like a hole plugged. The room is rendered newly civilised and, depending on the table’s quality, potentially decadent. But you don’t realise this until you see the right coffee table. You can understand why a man who has paid $300 for this sensation would like it preserved, no matter the energy and anguish such preservation requires. There was even a ceremony when the coffee table was first placed in the centre of the room, during which Dad laid down the rules, the kids in a semicircle around it, eager to dive into its newness. ‘No feet. No food. No cups’ was the rule. Always nothing, always the absence of something. And fair enough too—it was an expensive coffee table.

When the coffee table was brand new, Dad would spend more time watching DVDs in the lounge room. He watched films he’d already seen and filed away, just for the sensation. He would glance at the coffee table and know it was there. Rather than sitting at the kitchen table of a morning, Dad would instead opt to sit on the couch in the lounge room in order to be close to or, in a remote manner using, the new coffee table. Mum and Dad would talk about the coffee table and the ways they could help it reach its potential. A rug beneath, maybe. Or a TV cabinet with the same oak panelling. Or a similarly wrought table in the adjoining dining room. For at least two weeks the coffee table was something to be discussed, and acted as a launching pad for dreams. And it was true that when any member of the family returned home from school or work, the mere sight of this new coffee table in the lounge room was satisfying. You could pretend that it’d always been there, and that yes, having coffee tables of this calibre is a fact in your life that you may now take for granted because there it is: you are capable of having it.

There were punishments for infractions against the coffee table in that first fortnight. The youngest of three, Greg, aged nine, ran a toy truck upon its surface. Dad smacked him twice on the bum and sent him to his room. It was a statement of intent on Dad’s part: a declaration that preserving the coffee table was a priority in his disciplinary regime. For a time there were few transgressions that could equal this. ‘One day you may inherit this coffee table,’ Dad told Greg later. ‘Then you will know what it’s like.’ In tears, Greg could only nod and walk away.

Dad had never had a coffee table before, had never gained a history with one, and he admired households with longstanding coffee tables that simply bled into the room without announcing themselves, and he hoped that one day this coffee table would inherit a legacy of some kind, that it would provide him with an entitlement to history. Let’s not deplete this item too quickly; let’s make it bear witness to something first: some essential moment that speaks of us.

But when Jennifer, eleven, was caught sliding the remote control across the table to Greg, Dad believed his plans for the table were being openly violated, and he felt for the first time—and not the last—that it might be sensible to have the coffee table locked away in his shed next to his second car and security system. In a rage, Dad lashed the back of Jennifer’s legs with his belt and sent her to her room. How dare they when he had surrendered everything else, a man halfway through, with the little that he had to show for his life being eroded day by day, usually by invisible forces but occasionally by visible ones, right in front of his eyes, directly challenging him. And he had control over nothing at all. It was pure luck that the incident left no marks, but who can rely on luck.

Eventually he covered the coffee table with a thick grey blanket that smelt of dog. The same rules applied—‘no feet, no food, no cups’—but they were mere tokens now, and this was a test. Dad stopped sitting in the lounge room and spent more time in his shed, gazing blankly at his security screens with their footage of his home’s front door. The stillness of the live footage—the way the verandah and the bricks and the steps never shuddered, even though live—was appealing to him, because in contrast with the Blu-Ray films he owned, this was how he would arrange his life: objects suspended in steady impassive time, his own and his loved ones’ figures present but at a safe distance, the objects buffered by some sympathetic gelatin. In Europe, he speculated, the air you breath is objects turned to dust. Centuries of transient goods turned to cinders, their molecular pieces inhaled and exhaled daily, and what a fate! But let these objects accrue decades and maybe a couple of centuries of steadfast witnessing first, and let them transfer humble familial sentiments to revering descendants, because only then are they worthy of the air. That was his theory as he gazed blankly at the front door via a monochrome security screen, and wondered whether there was an alternative to this, wondering too what was happening right now with the coffee table.

For a while the coffee table stood and was not interfered with. There were no events. Time passed around the coffee table: the item was autonomous. Greg edged to the lounge, and Jennifer avoided the room altogether. And in the name of preservation this was preferable, but Dad now felt the coffee table was being taken for granted. Why are we not celebrating the coffee table, and marvelling at what it signifies, that is, the beginning of a history, as if pressing the record button forever from here. He conceived a few possible objections to the coffee table: for example, that it was not historical enough, and that the history he had conferred upon it was negligible and petulant. And he would go to work and make files and feel angry about it.

He needed to explain himself to someone. On a Friday night it was his routine to drink a bottle of Jim Beam mixed with Coke. He would do this methodically: the bourbon the length of his thumb upright, the Coke a centimetre from the top, and then three lumps of ice. He would marvel at the bubbles. And during these Friday nights he’d tell his wife that what would become of them and their kids was as unknowable as it was arbitrary, and that through some innate condition of things eventually they would have whole landscapes of dreams set out in plastic photo books, eager, in their very design, to be burned or destroyed someday. There is a great weight bearing down, he would tell his wife, drunk, that offers no quarter. Everything will be destroyed, so this object, which he wanted so much to serve as his legacy, needed to last for as long as possible. And his wife thought this was noble, because of the family. But for him it was a tapeworm, this instinct towards posterity. This desire to taunt the future with the memory of him.

‘Fucking cunt,’ he would mutter whenever something went astray. ‘Cunt’ when swearing with brevity. When the bottle of Coke was empty it was a cunt. When the son or daughter mishandled the coffee table, they were cunts. It was a cunt of a life, he would sometimes say to himself, as if it were a bluntly poignant insight. And he hated everyone not exactly situated as he was: the poorer and the richer, because both groups could lay claim to something he couldn’t, because both groups had their own extreme forms of coffee table: the bad and the grandiose. What a cunt, he would think as he stared at the non-events on his monochrome screen, the door firmly shut, untampered with. That brand new coffee table inside, which he didn’t know how to exploit.

About a month after the coffee table had been installed, Rowan, his eldest son at fifteen, was home on holiday from boarding school. Rowan had heard a lot about the coffee table from Mum, who sang its praises with a zeal approaching the evangelical. He was ambivalent towards the coffee table but praised it nonetheless, to his Dad, who was proud of it. ‘It’s definitely a nice coffee table,’ he said to Dad when it was presented to him for the first time, and this unveiling—the dog’s blanket was removed for the occasion—proceeded in a very earnest and eventful fashion. ‘How much was it?’

Dad buckled. ‘It was expensive!’ What right has the child to question?

‘I bet,’ Rowan said, and turned his attention elsewhere, chiefly to his brother, who was destroying their sister’s dolls in the bedroom.

Rowan was home for a fortnight, and he spent a lot of time in the lounge room watching pay TV. He was aware of Dad’s policies and so, when Dad was away, would rest his feet on the table’s surface. It was something that he felt obligated to do: seriously, what the hell was the story with this coffee table? Eventually he felt so audacious that he stood on it, and then bounced twice, and then he lifted the coffee table onto its side and spat on the underside, and he would have liked to piss on it, this coffee table, which was so pathetic, this badge of an ageing man with three kids and a sports car and a job that eroded his passion, a man already dead in many ways. Rowan looked at the blanket that lay draped—and probably forever would—on its surface and wondered whether this was waiting for him, and wondered how to cancel it. Because were he to inherit this cheaply made piece of chipboard, he would burn it twice. He would burn this one, buy another the same, and burn it, and the second would feel just as great as the first. And he did indeed take to flicking a cigarette lighter to its underside, very briefly, just the spark, leaving no obvious marks, but the very act of doing so felt important. And he ran the edge of a fifty-cent coin vigorously on the underside of the coffee table’s feet, for minutes at a time, leaving deep marks that no-one would ever see. And he swore at the coffee table, he called it a ‘cunt’ while kicking its ridges, with the blanket on. And he spilt whole pint glasses of cola on its surface and then rubbed it meticulously clean. He imagined how the coffee table would splinter at the blow of an axe, and how funny that would be, destroying this stupid cipher right in front of Dad, as he melted like a witch.

And all the while, as he filed at work, Dad fought dread and tears and wondered about the future of the coffee table.



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