Nicole Kidman starred in an advert for Chanel no.5. At one point she’s on a rooftop in New York or somewhere. She laughs and says: ‘I’m a dancer! I love to dance!’
Well – to paraphrase Nicole. I’m a writer. I hate to paint.
I don’t mean the opaque That’s a cat, that’s a man on a boat, that’s an angel, and I’m calling it: Prayer no. 5 kind of painting. I mean primer, undercoat, eggshell.
My antipathy goes back years. One of my first jobs coming to London as a teenager was painting the outside of a housing block in Putney. I was lost in more ways than I could tell. No belief in the future; certainly none in the present. Breakfast was a Mars bar and a bottle of milk on the tube on the way in. Supper at night I stopped off at Mickey’s Fish Bar in Ladbroke Grove. I was staying in lodgings – a dreadfully cold and downbeat room with a cracked sink, scummy bathroom down the hall, and fights next door so regular you could set your watch. Ella, the owner, lived in the basement with a budgerigar called Rico, who she’d draw out of the cage from time to time and press to her lips. (I had feverish visions of her reaching into my room and doing the same to me). Ella was kind enough, though, so long as you paid her on time. She always accepted the money with a profoundly sad expression, holding the cheque as tightly as she held Rico, her broad face collapsing over the red crease of her lipstick, so thickly and crudely applied it looked worse than anything I was slapping on in Putney.
Since then I’ve always associated the smell of paint with cold hands and existential horror.
Which goes a little way to explaining why it took me so long getting round to painting Jess’ room.
What happened was, I suddenly found I had to take two weeks’ annual leave. I’d been called into the office – to get the sack, I thought. So a lovely surprise, then, to be told I’d underused my leave for the financial year, and had been allocated two weeks on spec. With such a generous stretch of time, there was no way I could defer the painting any more. Kath bought the materials; I cleared the decks and got everything ready.
The thing with jobs you put off for a long time: they never actually seem so bad once you start. I had the radio on, regular cups of tea. There was almost a meditative aspect to it all, the sanding down, the sugar soaping, the taping of the windows and carpets, the laying of dust sheets. Why had I made such a fuss? In fact – maybe there was a job here for me? I could quit work and set up on my own – Jimmy C’s P&D. Or something classier: St James Interiors. I could get a little van, with a big fibreglass brush on the roof, and a sweet little collection of tools neatly hung on a rack in the back.
It wasn’t so bad. I was over my phobia. I was actually starting to enjoy it.
Kath came to help towards the end of that first afternoon. A couple of times whilst she was painting the top of the cupboards she said Oops.
‘Try not to spill any’ I said.
I went downstairs to fetch up a ten litre bucket of emulsion.
‘How are you going to get that in the paint tray?’ Kath said when I struggled in through the door.
‘I’ll be careful,’ I said.
‘Oh. Okay,’ she said, and stopped to watch me from the top of the ladder.
I prised off the lid, lifted the bucket, and started to tip a quantity of paint into the tray. It was heavy and hard to control, and I didn’t want to overfill, so I tipped the bucket back towards me, overcompensating because of the weight, and slopping paint down the front of my trousers.
I put the tub down and took my trousers off, covering my socks in the process. Whilst I was struggling to hold the dripping trousers in one hand and take my socks off with the other I fell backwards against the wet door, getting paint down my t-shirt and boxer shorts.
I stripped everything off, stuffed it all in the trash bag, and ran naked into the next room.
When I came back half an hour later dressed in fresh clothes, Kath smiled down at me from the top of the ladder
‘Okay?’ she said.
I hate to paint.