Home Features Lebensraum—a short story by Liz McSkeane

Lebensraum—a short story by Liz McSkeane

Cafe (1928) painting by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Original from The Detroit Institute of Arts. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

‘There is a time to yield, and a time to stand your ground. The problem is, knowing which is which.”

Lebensraum, a short story by Liz McSkeane

One hundred and thirty-five days have passed since it was possible to linger in a restaurant or café with a cappuccino and a book.

Even though we’re not yet allowed to sit indoors, the return to outdoor dining is such a relief, a step back towards normality after three-and-a-half months of confinement, punctuated only by the occasional treat of a takeaway coffee.

This is one of the few local places with outdoor seating properly organised to comply with the latest Covid guidelines, so today, at last, you’ll be able to indulge in the illusion that some semblance of normality has been restored.  

It’s a reassuring set-up, carefully planned to maximise ventilation in the interior, the double front doors opened wide, allowing the summer breeze to waft all the way through to the new patio doors at the back. 

Printed notices on the walls remind customers to “Use the Hand Sanitiser” and “Keep Your Distance – 2 Metres!”, measurements reinforced by outlines of feet stencilled on the floor for the benefit of those of us who are hazy about what a distance of two metres looks like. 

As usual, an orderly queue is snaking from the front door to the cash register where customers, many of them regulars of the take-away service of the last few weeks, order and pay for their coffees and teas and the limited range of pastries and buns available.

All the food is wrapped in cellophane and handed over in paper bags, all the drinks, including those for customers heading out to the newly-opened terrace, are served in paper cups. A notice in cursive script taped to the cash register urges customers to “Please Be Kind,” whether to the staff or each other, it doesn’t say.  

As you inch towards the top of the queue, you crane your neck to check if there are any free tables on the terrace, which has been refurbished. It’s a pleasant patio, now bordered on three sides by a new pine fence embellished with terracotta window boxes hooked on to a wooden rail.

In spite of the chilly breeze and the clouds rolling in from the sea, the tumbling petunias and busy-lizzies and fuschia give the area a faintly Mediterranean air. A few colourful golf umbrellas are stacked in the corner for the benefit of any die-hards willing to endure a bit of drizzle, keen to convince themselves that something like normality has been restored.

As far as you can make out from here, the bistro tables seem to have been re-positioned to be two metres apart, there are only a couple of chairs at each of them. With a flutter of anxiety, you note that a few are already occupied.

Luckily, most of the people in the queue ahead of you are getting takeaways. When your turn comes, you tap your card – contactless payment only – take your coffee in its paper cup and your muffin in its paper bag from the counter where the barista deposited them before ostentatiously sanitising her hands with colourless gel. 

If all the tables really are occupied, you’ll just have to bring your coffee and muffin home or maybe find a bench on the sea-front, as you’ve done for many of the last hundred and thirty-five days.

Cafe (1928) painting in high resolution by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Original from The Detroit Institute of Arts. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

It wouldn’t be the end of the world. But how lovely it would be to relax, to breathe, to take half an hour or an hour alone, have a short respite from the strange combination of confinement and enforced proximity of all these weeks, just read a book, silent in the convivial surroundings of a real café… that would be such a treat. 

You take a step out onto the terrace and yes! There is a free table after all, just one, on the far left of the entrance, positioned two careful metres away from its neighbours.

There are two chairs, one facing out across the patio, towards the back door of the café, the other turned away from it. You choose the seat looking towards the fence and the flowers in their window boxes, so you can read your book in peace without being distracted by comings and goings in and out of the café interior.   

The other five tables – there are only six in total now, not eight as before, they must have removed a couple to make space for social distancing – are all taken. The one beside the door is occupied by two women deep in conversation.

In the opposite corner, four young girls are chattering. They’ve pulled up two extra chairs which, strictly speaking, is against the Guidelines but what the hell, they’ve been cooped up at home for months and maybe they’re sisters and it’s none of your business anyway. 

Only the table in the centre has three seats, one of which is occupied by a young man, a teenager really, wearing headphones, scrolling intently on his phone, oblivious to all around him. 

On the opposite side of the terrace, two middle-aged men in sports gear are engaged in noisy banter, their jokes and laughter adding a festive air to the ambience. Next to them, at a suitable distance, is a grizzled man who is sitting, no, lounging, on one chair, he is leaning back dangerously, these are fold-up bistro seats and it wouldn’t take much for him to tip over, his legs are raised, his knees are bent, both his feet are planted on the empty chair. 

via raw pixel

The next person who sits there will get their clothes messed up by the dirt from the soles of their shoes. Excuse me, would you mind putting your feet down and dusting off the seat for the next person? 

It would be justified, even reasonable but possibly a bit mad and also none of your business so you just concentrate on getting yourself organised. 

Coffee and muffin on your table, jacket off and on the back of the chair, book and glasses retrieved from the depths of your shoulder bag. 

You hesitate. In pre-Covid times, you would always leave an empty seat free of your belongings in case the place filled up and someone else wanted to sit down. But today, three-and-a-half months into the pandemic, in these tentative new days of open-air seating, sharing tables with people outside your bubble, especially with strangers, is not allowed. You place your bag on the empty chair, where you can keep an eye on it, with a clear conscience.  

Half-way through your muffin and a few pages into your book, a presence intrudes on your peripheral vision. You turn around. An elderly lady wearing a pink coat is standing on the threshold of the glass door that separates the café interior from the terrace.

Blinking rapidly, she gazes across the patio and rests one hand on the door frame. Of course, all the tables are occupied. Slowly she turns and with her free hand, signals to someone in the queue inside. But instead of leaving, she swivels back and takes a couple of steps onto the terrace where she hovers, scanning the space and its occupants, her neck thrust forward as though trying to catch someone’s eye.

You look down at your book. Actually, several chairs are free, but they are all at tables, which – like your own, or the one beside the grizzled man or the young guy scrolling on his phone – are already occupied. 

In the days before the pandemic, there’d have been no problem. Is this seat free? May I? Of course! But as sharing tables is no longer allowed, making space at a table is not enough. The only way this lady will find a place on the terrace now, is if some person or persons gives up their table and leaves. Here, I’ve finished, you sit down.

No-one does. The four young girls go on chatting, the two women deep in conversation side- look up, return to their earnest confidences. Everyone continues talking or listening to music on their phone – that young guy probably hasn’t even noticed her – or reading. 

Your coffee is in a take-away cup, your muffin, which you have just started, is on a paper plate wrapped in a paper bag which you have torn open. You are doing nothing in particular, just sipping coffee and reading. It would not be difficult to gather up the lot, stand, smile.  Here, have my place. Bring your coffee home, or find that quiet park bench. It would be the kind thing to do. 

Liz McSkeane

But you don’t want to be kind. You want to finish this chapter and perhaps the next, drink your coffee, maybe even have another one, breathe the fresh air, feel the weak sun on your face, inhale the scent of summer flowers, hear the background buzz of conversation unencumbered by the reproachful gaze of the lady in the pink coat who could easily do what you were prepared to do a few minutes ago – turn around, bring her cup of tea or coffee home or somewhere else. 

She takes a few more steps onto the patio, her hovering more purposeful, her pink coat conspicuous, difficult to ignore. 

Her hair is not completely white, rather grey but thin, her scalp showing through. She shuffles, moving with a slight stoop, which makes the inattention especially pitiful, even cruel. You turn another page.

Suddenly, one of the men in sports gear looks up from the joke he is telling his friend, raises his raises his hand in an affable wave towards the lady in the pink coat and points towards the teenager, whose head is still lowered, intent on his phone. 

            ‘I’m sure that young man will be happy to give you his seat!’

Insulated by his headphones, the teenager scrolls on. The lycra-clad man and his companion, both remaining seated themselves, frown, exchange disgusted glances, shake their heads at each other and at the lady in the pink coat, united in disapproval that this generous offer of someone else’s space has been ignored. 

            ‘Not a chance.’

The grizzled man at the next table, who has been watching this exchange with interest, takes his feet down from the seat and sits up, suddenly alert, in solidarity with the other two and with this elderly person who is left without a seat because of the selfishness of the younger generation who have no respect for their elders’ lavish generosity with space, as long as it is other people’s.

It does not seem to occur to any of them to offer up their own place. Even so, their support, albeit only verbal, earns a grateful smile. The woman’s sad gratitude seems to propel the grizzled man into action. He leaps to his feet.

            ‘Let’s see what we can do!’ he cries, in rescue mode. 

He stands, feet planted apart, hands on his hips as he scans the patio, a swift analysis then a decision, as he picks up the empty chair from his own table – the one grubby from the soles of his shoes – which he brandishes before him like a shield as he weaves his way around the terrace. 

You supress the impulse to point out a couple of things. That chair is dirty from your shoes and therefore not much of a favour to anyone. And more importantly, Where are you going to put it? All the tables and chairs are two metres apart. There’s nowhere to set up another space. Also not your business. 

Until suddenly, it is. Appalled, you watch as he strides towards you, bearing the chair aloft in both hands. He wouldn’t. 

He does. As if by magic, it appears directly in front of you, planted a little to the side of your table: so, technically, not sharing it, but turned towards you and very close. You open your mouth to object but it all happens so fast, the pink-coated lady is no longer hovering, she has made her way swiftly past you and is already sinking gratefully onto the seat. Maybe she’s not so old after all. 

 ‘There you go!’ The grizzled man beams and the lady, who is not wearing a mask, smiles up at the nice man who was considerate enough to find her a seat and kind enough to place it as far away from himself as possible. Her face is now about a metre away from yours. 

Now you really would be justified in addressing the grizzled man. Excuse me, this is not a good idea. We are observing social distancing to protect ourselves from a deadly disease and such proximity puts both me and this lady at risk. Perhaps you would like to give her your own table? 

But he has already returned to his own table. And just because you would be within your rights to speak up, doesn’t mean you can.

Any objection you make, however mild, is sure to provoke disapproval, possibly even aggression – from the grizzled man, from the two  athletes, from the pink-coated lady herself, perhaps, or from anyone else who happens to be listening, not to mention drawing attention to yourself and revealing unpleasant aspects of your character: that you are the type of person who remains stubbornly seated (but so has everyone else!) while an elderly person who has few remaining pleasures in life is left standing; that you care more about your own convenience than simple kindness (the same as everyone  else!). And now, when someone has taken the trouble to find a solution (at your expense!) you have the effrontery to complain. Who do you think you are? 

True, you could always take the straightforward approach and gently mention the problem to the lady herself. Out of the question, you would be instantly wrongfooted, you might as well whack her over the head with one of those golf umbrellas.

No, you have been outmanoevered, even before you knew that moves were being made, oblivious of the covert purpose of the grizzled man’s swift scan of the terrace – to identify the person least likely to kick up a fuss if a stray spare chair and another body materialised in their space. You. With no memory of what you’ve just read, you glance up from your book. The lady in the pink coat looks you straight in the eye. You look back at the page and consider your options. 

Given the current circumstances, you can think of only two. One: you can stay put and say nothing, just endure this enforced proximity. Two: you can get up and leave. Or perhaps there is a third option? Perhaps you really should say something to her? After all, she is high risk and much more likely than you to become seriously ill, or worse, should she become infected by the virus.  

Even so, it’s probably best to cut your losses and go home.

Which is not fair, but now you are uncomfortable so there’s no point in sticking around just to make the point. Also, you will be old like her one day if you live long enough, and a little compassion from you now would solve this current problem of space, remove you both from risk of infection, and make you feel like a good person.

Bon Bock Cafe (c.1881) painting in high resolution by Edouard Manet. Original from National Gallery of Art. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

Of course, a really good person would not have had to think about it, they would have retreated straight away, with tact and grace, whereas if you do decide to leave, you’ll be doing it through gritted teeth, out of discomfort and guilt.

But hey, it’s what you do that matters, not why, right? And after all, the woman has endured nineteen weeks of lockdown, this cup of tea in pleasant surroundings could be her last, whereas you have many, many more such treats ahead of you, stretching far into the future. 

But do you really? This is a deadly virus, they haven’t found a cure or a treatment or even a vaccine yet and maybe they never will. Yes, if you did catch it you’d probably be OK. Probably.  Or you might get very sick. Or worse. It’s like Russian roulette, there’s no telling when or why an infection might turn out to have serious or even fatal consequences. We are all potentially vulnerable, you as much as anyone else. Unpredictability has democratised risk. 

And now, your mind as well as your space has been invaded.  

The truth is, you don’t actually give a shit about this lady and her possibly final cup of tea in the fresh air, plus she’s not really that old and if she is, what’s she doing out in crowded public places in the middle of a global pandemic, disrupting your first real excursion for the first time in three-and-a-half months? 

Whether it’s fair or not, or kind or not, all you really want right now is to stay where you are until you’ve finished your coffee or your muffin or the next chapter or all three preferably, without having to think about other people breathing their germs in your direction. 

Who decides what’s fair or kind anyway? And who decides that one person deserves to be treated with more fairness and kindness than another? Who makes that judgement? To get it right, to prioritise degrees of merit and need, you’d have to know everyone’s back story, for external appearances can only take you so far.   

Which means, there is no real way to balance the books, no objective measurement which defines the right thing to do or to think. All that’s left, then, is strategy. Incursion, yielding, standing your ground. Struggle.

So, you are not completely surprised when a shadow falls across your book and the pink-coated lady smiles at someone approaching from behind. A leather-clad arm appears over your shoulder and extends towards the pink-coated woman, who half-stands and reaches out to receive the paper cup offered by the newcomer, a relative, perhaps a daughter, elegant in a soft leather jacket, her highlighted hair cut in a flattering bob.  Standing on your right, she leans across you to place a second paper cup on the table, beside your muffin. 

Both hands now freed, she pivots and surveys the terrace with much the same authority as the grizzled man had done a while before.

The nearest empty seat is at the table where the young guy is still scrolling on his phone. She strides across the deck and without looking at him, picks up the chair – it’s a bit of an effort, they’re made of iron and heavier than they look – which she carries over and places beside you, opposite her companion in the pink coat.

She sits down. As she is on your right and the table is on your left, in order to retrieve her cup of tea she is obliged to lean across you again. Which she does, without a glance. 

No-one has asked Do you mind? because they know that you do; or Is this ok? because they know it’s not. 

The lack of a word, of eye contact, the absence of any acknowledgement that you are there, stings you into action.

You snap your book closed, sit up straight with a jerk, two sudden movements which draw an involuntary response from the leather-clad woman. She turns towards you. This allows you to catch her eye, hold her gaze, glare, even, your eyebrows raised as you extend both hands, palms up, the gesture accompanied by a deep shrug crafted to mimic a Tony Soprano hench-man, the whole an expression of silent exasperation universally understood to convey a question: 

What the fuck?  

Her eyes slide off into the middle distance. She takes a sip of tea and although flushed, leans across you again to deposit the paper cup on the table. 

‘I’ll just leave this here’.

OK. If that’s how you want to play it. 

‘You really need to keep your distance. You are much too close to me. Both of you.’

Her companion in the pink coat is studying her nails. The leather-clad woman grimaces but her tone remains firm. 

‘I think this is OK’.

‘It really isn’t. That’s nothing like two metres. There’s a deadly disease going around.’

She gives you a hard look and glances over at her companion, just stopping short of an eye-roll. She has no intention of yielding. 

What can you do about it? Well, not much. In theory, you could pick up her paper cup, which is taking up space right beside your muffin, and dispose of it. But how? What would you do with it? There is nowhere to put it. More to the point, to lay a finger on that paper cup in these circumstances would be but a hair’s breadth from putting a hand on its owner and therefore almost tantamount to a physical assault, an overt act of aggression, an unthinkable escalation which, she has calculated correctly, you are not prepared to make. 

Still, you hold her gaze. This is not over and don’t think for a minute that it is. You very much want to suggest that unless something is done, decisive action will ensue. 

The message must have got through, for she sighs and shifts her chair, which scrapes on the wooden decking. There. Happy? Technically, she has done something, she has responded to your objection with a degree of compliance, she has moved her chair. But not really, for she has simply moved it on the spot. There is no more distance between you than before. So what are you going to do about it? Her elderly companion is the trump card, of course, the best. Except perhaps for a baby. But no, no one feels sorry for a baby, they’ve got their whole lives ahead of them, whereas no one wants to oppose an elderly person or anyone accompanying them.  

This is a familiar moment, the moment when you decide it really isn’t worth the bother, when yielding is simply less exhausting than standing your ground. Anyway, it’s not that important.

You unhook your glasses from the collar of your sweater where you had tucked them in, the better to glare at the lady in leather, when the pink-coated woman smiles again and waves towards the door behind you. You know what is coming next. You put your glasses back on, retrieve your medical grade mask from your bag, put it on and return to your reading. 

Yes, a third individual approaches. This time it’s a man, that’s all you know, for you keep your eyes trained steadily on your book. There are greetings, another chair is pulled up, and now a group of three is clustered beside you, someone leans across you again, another paper cup is placed beside your cooling coffee and half-eaten muffin, you are on high alert, the impulse to yield to the tyranny of the group is very strong, resistance takes such effort, holding on to your place is now more than uncomfortable, for the arrival of this third person has conferred a critical mass which strips you of your right to this space, which the group has appropriated through sheer force of numbers, your refusal to submit to being crowded out starting to look, to feel, like a provocation. How rude! You are one and we are many. And we have an elderly person in our midst. Move on!  

Powerful forces are ranged against you. Many are arising from within: from your currently dormant best self, generosity and compassion; at a distant second, good manners; and at worst, even if you are seething, reluctance to cause a scene and be revealed as a nasty, selfish person. And from without: the tyranny of the group and their brazen entitlement to flout the rules, to oust you from this place, to claim it for themselves.  

Certainly, there is a time to retreat, to be generous, to be the better person if you can and if you can’t, well, to at least pretend and who knows, maybe some of that virtue will stick. 

Is this such a time? 

And yet. How many oppressions are endured in the service of being the better person? How long before the occasional willingness to yield becomes a habit? And if you’re not careful, mightn’t that stick, too, until you have quietly acquiesced in your own disappearance?

Resistance is a like a muscle, it atrophies through lack of use. If you get used to capitulating on the little things, what will you do when they storm the Dáil or claim that the General Election was stolen? 

So there is a time to yield, and a time to stand your ground. The problem is, knowing which is which.      

Today, you have a trump card of your own. The main thing you have going for you, is that the rules are in your favour. You can therefore appeal to the system, loudly and publicly. That doesn’t mean you will prevail, for even those who are charged to uphold the rules of the system may well side with those who infringe them, if force of numbers or influence or personal interest win out. But even if you lose, you will see those tactics broadcast, and witnessed.        

You turn your chair away and consider your strategy at this decisive moment. You could get another coffee, thus reinforcing your intention. I’m going nowhere. Get used to it.  

But to do that, you’d have to get up from your seat and that would leave your space vulnerable. One of the baristas is out on the patio clearing away the debris from other tables. She knows you. You could ask her to get you another coffee and explain, loudly, why you don’t feel comfortable getting up to fetch it yourself.  

Or you could take an official line and just ask to speak to the manager. She is there, at the cash register. She knows you, too. Explain that these people are not with you, they have insisted on sitting on top of you, breaking all the Guidelines and putting you and others at risk. Let management slug it out with them. Even if you lose, they will have to say what they are doing, out loud, for all to hear. You won’t have acquiesced.   

And that’s not nothing. It’s something.  

‘Hi there!’ The barista smiles. 

‘Would you mind, could you help me out over here?’

As she makes her way towards you, the three of them look up, startled, and you wonder what’s going to happen next.

Liz McSkeane‘s collection of short stories, Lessons, will be published by Turas Press in June, 2022.