five litres of tranquil depths

Painting & Decorating.

About as enticing as Diarrhea & Vomiting. I’m being melodramatic, of course. The thought of it is always worse than the thing itself (unlike D&V, which I’d say is the exact opposite).

But like chores the world over, once you’ve run out of excuses, and through bad planning or bad luck you suddenly and unaccountably find yourself with the time to do it, then actually – it’s not too bad. A bit like going to prison. Don’t think about freedom. Keep your head down, your nose clean, and do your bird (which I’m pretty sure is prison slang for rubbing down).

All of which is to say that I’m not a fan.


The paint store we go to is on a small industrial estate on the outskirts of town. We make a special journey here because last time the woman who served us was so nice and helpful. It’s been a while, but that’s the thing about good service. It stays with you.

It’s the hottest day of the year. We stand outside the paint store, reading the notice.
One customer at a time. Wait to be let in. Wear a mask.
So we wait, slowly cooking on the concrete walkway. There’s no shade to be had, and we can’t go back to the car and shelter there because we’d lose our place in the queue.

Eventually, a customer comes out and we’re waved through.
‘Nice and cool in here!’ I say to the guy who let us in.
‘No it isn’t,’ he says. I laugh, but I’m not sure why.

He doesn’t acknowledge us, but strides back behind the perspex shield in front of the till, where he plants his arms right and left and then stares at us over his mask, like a giraffe about to drink at a waterhole but unsure whether we’re logs or crocodiles. He doesn’t say anything else or make any other sign. We go up to the till.
‘We’ve come to buy some paint for the kitchen,’ we say.
‘Well!’ he says, slumping deeper between his arms. ‘It’s a paint store.’
Kath tells him about the colour we want for the kitchen. She points it out on the colour chart. Tranquil depths. It feels wrong to say it out loud. Like we’re being ironic.
‘What sort of finish?’ he sighs, looking over our heads. ‘Matt? Eggshell? Soft Sheen…?’
‘Matt,’ says Kath.
‘No you don’t,’ he says. ‘Not for a kitchen. One wipe and it’ll come off. You want Satin.’
‘Okay! Satin, then!’
Kath hands him the drawing of the kitchen we made, with all the dimensions. Last time we were here the woman had worked out how much paint we needed in no time at all. Made it seem fun, like a game. This time, the guy stares at us, then down at the drawing, then at us again.
‘I bet we’re the kind of customer you dread,’ I say.
He drops his chin and looks over his mask at me, Billy the Kid sizing up the cowboy who just insulted his horse.
‘Honest answer…?’ he says.
‘Yes!’ I say. ‘I like a bit of honesty.’
‘Yes, then,’ he says.
I laugh. The shop seems a degree cooler. I look around, wondering where the nice woman is. I’m worried she’s gaffer-taped to a chair out back, rocking from side to side, desperately trying to warn us.

The man taps out the figures on a calculator. It looks like a toy, big enough to drop on the floor and dance on. Which he looks like he’d much rather do. With his heels.
‘Five litres,’ he says, tossing it to the side. ‘So that’s what you want, is it? Five litres of Tranquil Depths?’
‘Thanks. That’d be great.’
He shakes his head, turns and goes into the back of the shop, about a thousand miles, to the mixing machine there. He jabs a few buttons, waits a moment, walks back.
‘We haven’t got the base,’ he says. ‘I could order it.’
‘How long would that take?’
He shrugs.
‘Maybe Wednesday,’ he says. ‘Maybe longer.’
‘Yeah – but – the thing is, we need it now. I’ve got the time off work.’
‘You could always try the paint shop the other side of town,’ he says. ‘Five minutes away.’
‘I’m sure there’s some other colour we could use. I’m not married to Tranquil Depths.’
Kath unfolds the paint chart.
‘What about Cornflower Bunch? That’s not far off Tranquil Depths. Can you do us a Cornflower Bunch?’
It doesn’t look like the kind of bunch he wants to give us. He shakes his head.
‘Same base’ he says.
‘Would it be quicker if you said what colours we can choose from?’ I say.
He turns to look at me, his head tilting a little to the right, as if just that small movement was all it took to slacken the bolt.
‘We’ve got about a million bases,’ he says. ‘You want me to go through them with you?’
I feel like saying yeah – but you didn’t have the base we wanted, though, did you? but of course I don’t.
‘No!’ I say. ’You’re alright!’
‘I’m guessing it’s the lighter tones that need that particular base,’ says Kath. ‘What about Blue Babe? I think Blue Babe would go? Do you?’
She shows me the chart and points.
‘Yeah. I could live with Blue Babe. Definitely,’ I say.
The man stares at us, neutral as a camp guard.
‘Blue Babe,’ he says. ‘Five litres. Satin.’
‘Yep. That’s it. Fingers crossed. Blue Babe.’
It makes me think of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. That anticipatory shiver of music falling to a general thrum, pending the answer. But if this is WWTBAM, Chris Tarrant is having an off day.
‘Yes. I can do Blue Babe,’ he says.
‘Great!’ says Kath. ‘We’ll take it!’

And we look at each other, flashing our eyes.

We’ve yet to ask about ceiling paint.



Groucho had it about right: I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.

Except – the arguments were stacking up:
– I fuelled up at pretty much the same petrol station every other day
– I already used a reward card at the supermarket – and look at how much that saved every Christmas!
– It was one more card to carry, but hey? my wallet could stand it.

So I finally caved and said yes, okay, fine, I’ll be a member of the Shell’s Drivers’ Club, even though it made me scratchy to think of myself as part of a drivers’ club. What next? Lambskin gloves? A pine tree car deodorant? A SHOVEL IN THE BOOT?

I took the card.

But one thing I hadn’t reckoned with was That Woman Who Works There.

I’m sure she’s perfectly lovely, given the right kind of people. Except, TWWWT has made it perfectly clear, over the three or four years I’ve been stopping by her station, that access to The Right Kind of People would be a little more problematic for someone like me than simply saying Yes, I’ll be a member of the Shell Drivers’ Club and holding out my hand for a card.

Maybe I’m reading too much into a face. But it’s difficult when that face has the kind of brutally fixed expression that wouldn’t look out of place on a camp governor in Colditz. I can only be grateful she doesn’t have access to a uniform, because I’d probably faint clean away if she came stomping over from the bread aisle wearing shiny leather boots and a monocle. I’m a nervous wreck as it is, and I have to say, the bloody Shell Drivers’ club card was only making things worse.

I mean – it never, ever works. Not for me, anyway.

‘Don’t swipe it so hard’
‘You’re swiping it too quickly’
‘The other way! The other way!’

And then – inevitably: *The Sigh*

It’s *The Sigh* I find most distressing. And the fact that no matter how hard I try I still end up getting it only makes the experience worse. Because I know it’s coming. And though it’s probably true that a coward dies a thousand deaths and a brave man only one, it’s also probably true that the person who first said that never had to use their Shell Drivers’ card with TWWWT watching, and the thing not working, and then *The Sigh*

Because *The Sigh* means that the next terrible thing is about to happen.

You see, TWWWT is only about five five. It doesn’t bother me. I’m five seven. I know what it means to be compromised in the leg department. But crucially, for TWWWT it means that if the swipe card doesn’t work she’s not tall enough to reach over and do it from behind the counter. She’s forced to walk all the way round and come and do it herself. Which admittedly must be annoying for her. Hence *The Sigh*

And it is such a sigh, such an explosively expressive communication of her utter and abiding contempt, that I can’t help thinking I’m the only one this happens to. Certainly that’s the feeling I get from the look she gives me – how I imagine it feels to dunk your head in a vat of nitrogen.

*The Sigh*
‘Give it here…’

And then I make it worse by trying to say something to ease the pain.

For instance, yesterday I said: ‘It’s all in the wrist action!’ – which was meant to be a quote from an advert for a kid’s toy in the 70s. Battling Tops I think. Anyway, it sounded crude when I said it to TWWWT, which is why she frowned at me with such severity I think I actually whimpered.
‘Thanks!’ I managed, waving the card in the air and backing away, straight into a builder with a coffee and armful of doughnuts.

That night I checked my points online to see how I was doing. In all that time I’d accrued five pounds worth of credit. Five pounds! Exposing myself to the wrath of TWWWT for three years, for five pounds?.Hell – I’d pay twice that to avoid it! So I decided to toss the card and take the hit.

Today I filled up as usual and presented myself at the counter.
‘Pump number four’ I said, as breezily as I could, putting my debit card in the machine.
‘Take it out,’ she said. ‘I’m not ready.’
‘Oh. Sorry.’
She stabbed a few buttons – then paused, looked up and narrowed her eyes.
‘Where’s your Shell Drivers’ card?’
‘I … erm… I don’t want to use it,’ I said.
*The Sigh*
‘Pump Four…’ she said, heavily, as if it was typical of me to choose that one, and then stared out of the window as I tapped in my pin, like she was hoping to see someone else, someone better – anyone – a real driver, to come fill up at her pumps.