I was having a cup of tea with an elegant friend in my sitting room, which is almost completely empty. I wondered about recounting to her the recent burglary, how I found the perpetrator’s iPhone in the garden and was moved by the picture of his darling-looking little girl, whose life I didn’t want to ruin … but I would have had to make all that up as there hasn’t been a burglary here.
We were perched on gold metal red-seated ballroom chairs purchased from the Nisbets catering catalogue (discontinued section) for £11 each. On a third chair were our teacups and two buns with cherries on top, as saucy as seaside postcards. From afar, these catering catalogue chairs look mildly glamorous.
I have always been drawn to the thing that you buy before you buy the actual thing: the holding item, the provisional article, the make-do object that suggests what ought to be there while not quite attempting to be it. “Something to keep you going” is its other name. These things are the equivalent of the working title, for not having great claims made for them is woven into their very being. The lack of potential these holding objects have – they aren’t even intended to please – provides great relief from the terror and claustrophobia that accompanies, for me, the taking of big decisions.
These objects have a certain gay abandon to them, they shrug, they are impervious. Yet they can have a vast appeal. The fizzy drinks tin ring-pull or the Christmas cracker engagement solitaire can be full of crazy, wild romance in a way that a three-stone diamond ring from a jeweller never quite will be. The rain hat purchased from a proper pharmacy for 40p will charm in the way a sensible weatherproof garment cannot.
The holding item doesn’t have the responsibilities that an actual rough draft might have, so there is absolutely no pressure there. My catering chairs just aren’t trying to be exquisite Napoleonic gilt bergères, so they can’t be found wanting in that regard. They are above and beneath comparisons. The holding object inhabits a strange position of good fortune. The very canny in-between piece may almost seem to know this. It may even have a dim awareness that, if it plays its cards right, it might be in your life not just for weeks but for years, for decades. A friend of mine’s father covered for the local butcher in his small town one summer and ended up doing the job – one he hated – for the rest of his life. It happens.
Furniture – I don’t mean buying it but even thinking about it in the abstract – is very dangerous. Some people need to keep away from fine clarets or the roar of the circus, and I need to give furniture a wide berth.
I do hope not a single one of my readers is familiar with the syndrome known as the vicious furniture cycle. It is a travesty of romance, longing and desire, with absolutely no winners. It goes like this: you fall in love with a piece of furniture. You buy the piece of furniture. You wait with great excitement for it to arrive. It comes. You realise you hate the bit of furniture. Then you hate yourself. Well, eight times bitten, nine times shy. I am never going through that again.
My friend is talking to me. “You should get a rug for this room,” she says, her voice echoing around us.
“I know,” I say, “but I … I just can’t. It’s not possible.”
“Well, I mean, sometimes I think it would be wonderful to have a lovely old French wool rug, pink perhaps, maybe from about 1850, like something from Gigi, covered in pink and red roses, and I could look at it and I could think it represented a view of the world that, while not entirely true, had some truth to it while you were looking at it. At least you’d want it to be true, you could make believe it was true. But … you know … ”
I stopped talking and blinked and said goodbye to the magic carpet of my dreams.
“But I know where you get those!” my friend cried.
“Yes, I know a shop where they sell them. They have two or three rugs in, just as you describe. They’re not cheap, but … ”
I could not believe it. I stood up, so excited I thought I might be sick.
My friend stood up also.
“Whatever you do just don’t tell me!” I cried.
“Oh go on then. Where?”
And so the dance begins …
More columns at www.ft.com/boyt