Undercoat

story about renovation

I sit inside and wait for summer to be over. Sometimes I sit upright in bed and read a book. Fully dressed though, as if I were about to go out. It’s all too easy to fall the long, hard way into bad habits. Sometimes I sit in the bath, the water cool on my skin. I light a candle and pretend it is winter. Mainly, though, I sit on the piano stool in the dining room. I play a little, but I am too conscious of all the workmen hearing – a dud note, a missed note, a pause where it shouldn’t be. The dining room is the coolest room in the house, north facing. It was designed this way, as direct sunlight is not good for a piano.

 

Yesterday, the painter’s apprentice walked in on me with my hands poised and wizened over the keys, and asked me if I’d like an ice cream.

I said, No.

He said, Wouldn’t you like to be out in the sun? It’s lovely out there. He seemed like a nice boy, officially an adult but with a body, a face, that hadn’t caught up to his age.

I’m sure it is, I said. I’ll just pay you to laze in the sun like a grasshopper, eating ice cream.

He did not know if I was half-joking so he provided a short laugh, hah, and his ears turned red. He looked like one of my pupils; maybe he even had been one. I couldn’t be sure. Boys’ faces all look the same when they have done something wrong. He said he was sorry, mentioned his lunch break and backed out of the room with his head ducked and eyes averted. Killjoy, he thought, probably.

 

That isn’t me being negative. I’d overheard a few of them, previously, talking about me in the corridor. I think it was the joiner, or perhaps the plumber, who called me miserable and old and I couldn’t catch the last word he used, but I’m sure it wasn’t pleasant. They didn’t know I was there, of course. I think of myself as a rat in the walls, scuttling quietly past them, the traps. Or perhaps they are the rats and I am the trap. I did put them here after all. Locked them away with me all summer. They will be here at least until it is raining and cold, and I have stacks of term-time marking to do again.

 

Summer used to be my favourite season. Back when I was more concerned about achieving a tan than getting wrinkles. My husband and I used to read together on the swing seat in the garden, with glasses of lemonade. I remember that those tall glasses used to be deathtraps for ladybirds who would smell the sugar and sink in the bubbles, their thread legs woven in front of their bodies. Or we used to pick apples and eat them from the tree. Sunbathe on towels and then spend hours trying to wash out the fresh, green stains. A few times friends would come over for dinner parties and I would pray the food would turn out OK and we would both pray for OK weather. That was a long time ago. We used to have water fights in the garden. That was an even longer time ago.

 

Like Christmas, summer lends itself to comparison. You find yourself saying things like: Oh, remember when we went to the Algarve? Or, God, I can’t believe it has been seven years since we had that garden party and your cousin got so drunk she passed out on the patio. It’s also easy to chart how a person has changed, how a dynamic has disintegrated. My husband changed a lot, without ever telling me he would.

 

It’s a sweltering day and I wander to the utility room freezer for some ice. As soon as I open the dining room door, I cannot miss the unmistakable smell of body odour wafting through the house. The first man passes me in the corridor with his shirt off, white overalls tied at his hips. I follow him from a distance into the kitchen, which is clamouring with deep voices, laughter. The front door is open and it carves a pleasant breeze through the stifle. I eye them through the doorframe and all of them have congregated round the taps, glugging water straight from the source. Some stomachs are curved and pale, others are toned; the painter’s apprentice’s is tight and cluttered with ribs. Speckled arms, pink shoulders. Their skin collectively is a display of masculinity, woven through muscle, flab, flesh – a wrestle. I am briefly reminded of last summer, and force the thought out of my mind before it can hurt. The painter’s apprentice is poked in the ribs. He is the butt of jokes, I have noticed. It’s probably why he is always sent to deliver messages to me. I bet they say things like, Go and ask the old bag if she wants an ice cream, and snigger as he offers his obedience. I take a few steps back, so they won’t guess that I was watching them, and march into the kitchen.

Don’t leave the front door open, I’ve asked multiple times now, I say. Nobody wants rodents in the house.

They mostly ignore me, which I am used to. A few nods. When I have left I hear them once again erupt into playtime.

 

I thought I was safe inside the house. I hadn’t been so callous as to sleep with the other man in the house last summer, under my husband’s nose, and I am thankful for that now. It’s better that he is locked out in the heat, locked in summer forever in my mind. I am not reminded of him in every room I walk into; there are no memories from last summer lingering in the linen cupboards or residing in the master bedroom. And yet, there he was again, making an unwelcome appearance in my mind at the mere sight of male flesh. Bitch, I call myself, thinking of him in that way, after everything that’s happened. I open the freezer and lean over it – a small relief. I slip an ice cube over my temples. I feel a tension headache coming along.

 

At the start of summer I had made myself a picnic, put it in a wicker basket: ham sandwiches, a can of ginger beer, sliced tomato, peach. I had dressed in red; I had pushed my hair back with shades. I applied moisturiser with sun protection in the formula, and put extra on my nose. And then I walked out the front door and wandered across the grass. I felt the strands under my feet, heat on my neck, smelt the air full of pollen, and I looked down again at the picnic basket designed for two. It was a punch to the guts. So hard I thought I might split open like the peach in my basket: a bruised mess, the core of me hard and poisonous. I walked back inside and locked the door. I ate my picnic in my bedroom hours later, when I was done crying and got peckish.

 

I like to remember myself as the good wife. I was doting. I made dinners. I laughed at his jokes. I had only ever been with him. I like to remember the good times with him. We did have a lot of good times together. Everything is good, good, good, I tell myself. Now that I’m redecorating I can enter a room and choose to remember something good. It’s a new room. A clean slate. If I like I can ponder, Oh yes, this used to be that sitting room where you spilled wine in that corner and covered it up by buying a chair. Instead of having a memory thrust upon me, forcing me to kneel at the stain and weep. It’s my sewing room now. I make cushions for the sofas. I don’t have to recall the majority of the last ten years of our relationship – that wasn’t good. I don’t have to recall the good moments either, if I’m not feeling good myself. If I stay inside, I can control how I feel. I can control what I want the house to look like. I can strip it of wallpaper; I can strip it of memories. It is my mind after all. And if I can just incubate myself, self-isolate, until summer is through, I won’t have to think of the other man either. I won’t have to think of last summer. In a few years’ time, I’ll tell friends that I loved marriage but that it was the right time for it to end. I’ll only remember the gloss. That is, if I had any friends to tell. They all sided with my husband.

 

My husband left me on a Tuesday. It was September. I had told him what had happened with the other man under the apple trees, by the stream, the kisses in the public park. I told him details he didn’t need to know, just to be cruel. I wanted him to feel remorse, guilt, for not loving me for so many years. I told him that he had been responsible for turning me bitter. The other teachers thought it. The pupils thought me strict and twisted. I told him that for the first summer since he was practically a boy, and me a girl, that I had felt life inside myself in places I thought were limp.

 

My husband had always been a fair man; that had always been one of his strengths. He did not retaliate. He could have said, At least I’ve always been faithful to you, or worse, I still love you, I just don’t know how to show it. Instead he packed a small bag and backed out of the house, his ears red, his head ducked. As he was leaving I told him that I wanted the house, that I deserved it.

 

I sit at the piano and I play a scale. I let my finger rest on Middle C, Doe, a deer. I did get the house in the end. It’s mine now, legally. The lofty ceilings, dusty chimneys, large wooden beams, piano, Doe – all mine. I wanted the other man to live in this house with me. It’s a beautiful house. Doe. We could have redecorated together, made it our own. Doe. Lived in it through winter, autumn, spring. It seems, though, that some things can only last a summer.

 

Er, Miss, says one shirtless man in his forties, we’ve finished the living room.

I swear I have never seen him before. He collects me from the dining room and I follow him along the tiles. I notice that they have packed up their tools, their paint, their aprons outside the door, ready to make a swift exit. He opens the door for me and takes off his shoes. The carpet is thick and white under my feet. The cornicing is white too. Fog-grey walls. The new bookcase tucks around the window as if it has always been there. There is a little ladder too, custom made, so I can reach the top shelves. A glass pendant light, oval like a precious stone, hangs. Two symmetrical plush pinstriped sofas face the antique rug in the centre of the room.

What’s the date? I ask.

Er, August the 7th, he says after a think. We finished before schedule, he adds.

 

Outside I see that the grass is bleached yellow, the light is honey-thick. Meadow flowers hem the oak tree at the bottom of the garden. Tangerine poppies bow their heads. The banging and sawing and twisting of bulbs has stopped and I can hear the bees with their nectar, hear the spiders weave their webs, hear the leaves whisper secrets to one another. I catch a glimpse of the blue rope still tied to the trees and I almost say before I stop myself, Remember when we set up the hammock and you lay down on it but you were too heavy and it fell straight down with a thud, remember how funny that was.

 

I find a small chip in the paintwork that must have been made when they removed the radiators from the walls, revealing the undercoat.

It’s not good enough, I say. I’m not happy at all with the damage. Do it again.

 

 

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