Stuart was a painter. He wasn’t an artist. He painted people’s bedrooms. He was living in a derelict house down by the cemetery. It was rent free. He had gained entry by kicking the door in. He’d fixed the place up. He got a good deal on a padlock from the Georgian who sold him fags down the market, and hooked up a cable to the streetlight. The only problem was running water. He had to fill buckets from the standpipe in the cemetery. That was a bit of a chore. Embarrassing, too, when there was a funeral on.
He was beginning to get customers. It was all word of mouth. People would leave notes stuck in his door, with their name and a telephone number. He phoned them from the shop on the corner. They usually tried to talk him down, but he was a good negotiator, and they always ended up accepting the price he quoted. He did a good job – he knew how to spread paint without leaving streaks, and if he was running two colours together they never overlapped. His customers commented on his skill. It felt good when they did.
One night he was in the Astoria. As usual, it was full of English teachers, every mouth bigger than the next. He could have done without the noise. But he was in no position to choose his friends. None of them were. A few of them were all right. Mike and Terry – they were a couple. Fair enough. Live and let live, that was Stuart’s philosophy. Mike always had his face stuck in a book, and Terry had a fine line in sarcasm when he thought someone was being an arse. There was an Irish guy called Alan. He didn’t come out much. He was quiet, a real nervous type, but Stuart got on with him okay. It was a pity about his flatmate, though, a student called Benson. Stuart had met him a while back. Within two minutes of saying hello, Benson had informed him that he was at Oxford, reading Modern Greek. He was over here on his year abroad, drinking beer and playing tavli all night, ha ha. He was the biggest mouthpiece of them all, a real bore, but he always had people hovering near him. They were like flies round shit. It wasn’t difficult to work out why. The teachers were skint, and Benson wasn’t. The expats didn’t buy rounds. Benson was the exception. Another thing about him was his clothes. He was always dressed in a suit, a different suit for every day of the month . That was something else he liked to drone on about – the cut of his clothes. This is a Houndstooth. This is a Slimming Herringbone.
‘I want you to paint my room!’ Benson shouted from the other side of the caff. Stuart cringed. He knew Benson was shouting at him, but he didn’t want to discuss business in here, not in front of everyone. ‘Hoy, Stuart! I want to hire your hands!’
What a git. Stuart finished his drink and walked towards the door. He caught Benson’s eye and gestured him outside.
The room was small. It was the smallest he had ever been asked to paint. It would only take three or four hours, tops. He remembered one of the older flats he had done. The ceiling was twenty feet off the floor. His shoulders had seized up for a week after the job. This would be a piece of cake. One room, and Benson wanted the walls and ceiling done the same colour.
‘Are you sure?’ said Stuart.
‘Positive,’ said Benson, and put his finger on a square on the colour chart. ‘Peach Blossom.’
Stuart pressed the chart against the wall. The colour stood out in stark contrast to the grey emulsion. ‘It might be a bit overpowering,’ he said. ‘I mean, doing the whole place one colour.’
‘Oh, you’re quite the professional, aren’t you?’ said Benson. ‘How much is it going to cost?’
Stuart had already worked it out. This is where the negotiating skills came in. He had a number in his head, but asked for fifty per cent more.
‘Fine,’ said Benson.
‘I’ll need something up front for materials,’ said Stuart, trying not to smile. ‘Just paint. I’ve got my own brushes and...’
‘Yeah, whatever,’ said Benson, and took his wallet out. ‘How much?’
‘Half,’ said Stuart, and watched Benson extract a big blue note from the leather. ‘I’ll get a receipt from the shop,’ he said.
‘No need,’ said Benson. ‘Oh, just one thing.’ He patted his wardrobe. One of the doors was hanging at an angle, a large gap along the top. ‘Make sure you cover all the furniture – especially this. I don’t want paint stains on my duds.’
‘Leave it to me,’ said Stuart, and tucked the money into his trouser pocket.
You could lose yourself in painting. It was therapeutic, the way the brush glided over the surface leaving a rainbow. A monochrome rainbow! It was a kind of magic. The result was immediate. But there was a method. You did all the corners first – ceiling/wall, wall/wall, wall/skirting board – then got going with the roller. He added more water to the tin and gave it a good stir. The roller hissed across the ceiling and up and down the walls. Perfect.
Alan stuck his head round the door.
‘Fancy a coffee?’ he said.
‘Sure,’ said Stuart. ‘That’s the first coat nearly dry.’ He’d decided to put on three coats. He’d thinned out the paint just right. There would be enough for the job and nothing left over. No waste. No mess.
‘There you go,’ said Alan, and handed him a mug. ‘That was Benson on the phone asking how you’re getting on. I told him you’re nearly finished.’
‘Is he not coming round to inspect?’ said Stuart. The coffee had too much sugar in it, but he didn’t say anything.
‘He’ll be in the library till seven,’ said Alan. ‘If you can believe it. He said he’ll see you down the Astoria tonight. You know...’
‘What do you think?’ said Stuart. He stepped back to admire his work. It was a bit difficult to take in the whole room because the furniture had been gathered in the centre, and there was polythene covering everything. Alan had given him a huge pair of kitchen scissors to sculpt the sheeting round the wardrobe – it was like gossamer, and the scissors were far too big, but they did the job – then helped him to tape it down flush. But it looked okay as far as he was concerned. A bit monotonous, right enough, but he’d been expecting that.
‘Aye, it’s good,’ said Alan. ‘I might give you a shout when I get paid. I don’t know when that’s going to be, though.’
‘Problems at school?’ said Stuart.
‘Aye,’ said Alan. He stared into his coffee. ‘Not just at school.’
He finished at six. It had taken him four hours. Then another twenty minutes to rearrange the furniture and get his gear cleaned. He used a spray attachment that was on a hose in the bath. He had a good wash at the sink, too. It was a novelty to feel hot water coming out of a tap.
‘That’s me,’ he shouted from the door.
‘Mind and go down the Astoria later. About tennish,’ said Alan.
Stuart laughed. It wasn’t something he was going to forget.
He got there at half past nine. The whole crowd were in. Benson was there, too, crouched over a tavli board. He threw the dice and cursed at the ceiling.
‘Bad luck,’ Stuart laughed.
‘Fuck you,’ said Benson. He didn’t look up. His hand went to his sleeve. There was a streak of paint all the way down it.
‘It takes a while to dry,’ said Stuart. Nothing to do with me, he thought. Still. ‘You could have changed into another suit before you left the flat,’ he said.
‘I didn’t realise it was ruined until Terry pointed it out to me, you twat,’ said Benson.
‘There’s a dry-cleaner’s at the end of your street,’ said Stuart.
Benson waited for Terry to click his counters round the board then scooped up the dice. ‘Listen to it,’ he said. ‘You fucking idiot. I told you Peach Blossom.’
Stuart looked at the stain on the sleeve. What was he on about?
‘This is Orange, you pillock,’ said Benson.
‘Take it easy,’ said Terry. Mike was reading a book.
‘It’s the stuff we looked at on the chart,’ said Stuart. He had the uneasy feeling he knew where this was going.
‘Balls,’ said Benson. ‘If that’s Peach Blossom then I’m a Chinaman. It’s Orange.’
‘It could pass for Nuance of Apricot,’ said Mike, his eyes still on his book.
‘Could it fuck,’ said Benson. ‘It’s fucking Seville Orange with knobs on.’
Stuart bit his lip. ‘Can I see you outside for a minute?’ he said.
‘I’m busy,’ said Benson. He threw a three-one. Useless.
‘You’ll have to square me up,’ said Stuart.
‘Go away,’ said Benson. ‘Go back to your squat, you parasite.’
Alan opened the door.
‘Oh, hi,’ he said. ‘Did you see Benson? He wasn’t very chuffed. He had an accident...are you drunk?’
‘Can I come in for a minute?’ said Stuart. He’d gone home to get something and ended up in a bar. One thing had led to another. He was feeling it. He went to Benson’s room. The paint was smudged on the wall at the side of the wardrobe.
‘Shut the door, Alan,’ he said. ‘You might not want to see this.’
By the time he was finished, the smudge covered the whole wall.
‘See you, Alan,’ he said. He stepped onto the stairhead, the bundle rolled up neatly under his arm.
‘But he’ll know I let you in,’ said Alan, his voice shaking. The poor bastard looked terrified.
‘Stand clear,’ said Stuart, and pulled the front door shut. He moved back and judged the distance. The heel of his boot made contact just below the lock. The wood splintered with a sharp crack and the door flew open. ‘Tell him someone forced their way in,’ he shouted into the hallway. ‘You weren’t here.’
Alan was pressed up against the wall, staring at him.
‘There’s a guy down the market,’ said Stuart. ‘He sells cigarettes. Georgian Gitanes. He’ll fix you up.’
The Astoria was almost empty. Benson wasn’t there. It was just Mike and Terry, chatting.
‘What do you make of this?’ said Stuart, and unfolded the bundle. He smoothed out the first strip on the table. High quality silk, by the look of it. There was a large smudge along the middle. He flicked open the colour chart and stabbed it with a finger. ‘Gentlemen, Peach Blossom Paint. Am I right?’
They looked at the chart, then at the smudge.
‘Could be,’ said Terry. He had his wallet out – he was for the off.
‘It’s fucking Peach Blossom,’ said Stuart. He wanted to hear an opinion. He turned the material inside out. The right way out. There were four buttons on the cuff, and a jagged line where the sleeve had been cut from the jacket just below the shoulder.
‘That’s Houndstooth,’ said Mike. ‘Benson’s got a...’ His mouth fell open. He looked at Terry.
‘What about this one?’ said Stuart. He patted the next strip. Silk again, blindingly white. Very nice. The paint was dry. Silk seemed to be an extremely absorbent textile. He would have to remember that, it might come in handy in future. He fingered the smudge, then the colour chart. ‘See? Peach Blossom. Tell me I’m wrong.’
‘Look, Stuart,’ said Terry. ‘Benson said to...’
‘Fuck Benson!’ said Stuart. He spread out the remaining strips on the table, each with its own Peach Blossom stain. ‘It’s not Orange. It’s Peach Blossom.’
Mike carefully turned back each cuff. Another Houndstooth. A Herringbone. A Prince of Wales Check, and something that looked like thick tartan. Stuart didn’t know what that one was called, there was only so much information...
‘Steady on, mate.’ It was Terry. Terry was saying something, but Stuart was kneading the material in his hands, the fibres were scratching, he could hear them, the silk and the smudges were blurring, it was hard to see, he could feel tears...it was Peach Blossom, he was sure it was...
‘It’s okay, it’s okay,’ said Terry. Someone was shouting outside – at a distance, but it seemed to be getting closer. Something about murder. ‘Benson asked me to give you this when he left.’
Stuart tried to focus. Terry had a piece of blue paper in his fingers, as if he were trying to attract someone’s attention, maybe he was going to shout another round of drinks. But they didn’t buy rounds. Not here they didn’t.
‘I told him he was out of order,’ said Terry. ‘This is the money he owes you.’ He laid the note on the mound of crumpled sleeves.
Stuart looked at it.
The shouting was louder now. Really loud.
‘Oh, shit,’ said Mike, and drew his hand away from the table.
A man raced past the window and bounded up the steps into the caff, breathing hard, his face red, his mouth twisted out of shape.
Stuart quickly scooped up the material; he was on his feet. An empty beer bottle crashed to the floor, along with the banknote and the colour chart. He hugged the stained remnants to his chest, his eyes fixed on the scissors that were flashing in Benson’s hand.
* * *
This story was first published in the Midwest Literary Magazine