Ben Greenhalgh: The Paint Factory

I’ve always thought there’s something beautiful about neglect. Buildings left alone, untainted, and unspoiled by repair. Let the weeds and vines grow around the shattered glass and broken stone: a new birth from a fragmented origin.

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I’m not sure of the exact time, but I recall it being around my sixth birthday when He first took me to the woods at the top of town. The wind was snapping at the tear trails on my face, but hand in hand, we pushed through the branches and thorns, and as children do, I quickly started to forget why I was so upset.   It was a regular outing every weekend from then on. mum didn’t come. she caught up on sleep.

As the winter progressed, I’d run to beat the fatigued sunlight for precious extra minutes. Dad always wanted to tell me about the animals: how to spot the badger dens, and where the elusive sounds within the branches came from. Snow sometimes fell at night, hiding the woodland paths from us. Dad would get me up early on those mornings, but they weren’t my favourite. I’d trip over fallen branches or rocks, and spend the day with numb fingers. Dad said snow was golden. The footprints of the animals were easy to see in the snow.  He told me about which footprint belonged to what, and we used to follow the trails of little feet back to their hides and leave food out. I didn’t like that, it felt sneaky. Hides aren’t meant to be found. Dad knew all the hides by the spring, when the snow melted away there were no tracks.

To this day I think He secretly wanted a son. I wasn’t interested in animals much. I only wanted to know more about the house.

It sat sleeping in a corner of the woodland off the main path. The red brick chimney was noticeable first, supporting a fallen tree that had rotted from the inside. Dad said it was a farmer’s house before the trees moved in. His stories about its tenants overtime gave a breath of life to each brick, each hollow window that had, at another time, with other eyes, been looked through. My favourite was a story about a convict who used the house to hide after escaping from the jail a few miles down the road. He hid for weeks living off the land Dad said. I used to ask Him to tell me it every time we visited the house, so much so that from then on we called it The Hideaway.

I wanted to be there all the time, but Dad told me all buildings are shared. It could be ours now, but sooner or later, maybe when we are old or gone, someone else would find it and it would be theirs. I would become a story myself as if I were now part of the walls. Maybe someone would tell a story about me I thought.

Before we found The Hideaway, I used to wonder if humans could live underground like foxes. It seems like a smart place to live, in dark tunnels where no one can find you.

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We would take the long route back over the fields and towards the back of town. Past the pubs. Some of the landlords used to nod to Dad and ruffle my hair if they were out collecting glasses.    I would carry my feet heavily. Little miss Glum Plodder Dad called me, or Fanny Fanackapan, which always made me laugh. He’d pull me up under my arms and throw me onto his shoulders for the rest of the way. He didn’t mind my wellies muddying up the front of his jumper. I’ll wash it all later He’d say. Little girls need to get muddy.

My house was always covered in shade no matter what the day was like as if a cloud had permanently made its home just above. My room was a long, tinny hollow block with a bed right at the end, and toys stacked close to the door. Dad had put a lock on the inside with a slide bolt just where I could reach. He showed me how to do it. I liked his tool belt, and I wondered what else He could make. I asked if we could fix the windows in The Hideaway on our next trip.

My room’s window looked out onto the rest of the town into everyone’s back gardens and bedrooms. Everyone’s lives are so busy through the windows; the houses stay the same. Birds must think everything is always the same, but things change more inside.

I didn’t like my long thin room, and I didn’t like school either with its cracked brick and plaster, and all the boring teachers. I preferred to be in the Factory with Dad. He was proud of his job even though He didn’t do much more than hammer lids on the paint cans.

Mum. she was house proud. Home is where the heart is, she used to say. You should always care for your home. Putting effort into a home is like putting effort into yourself. I liked her when she was like that, giving advice that way, teaching me to be better. I should have listened to her more, especially about forgiveness. Don’t be such an unforgiving bitch she’d say. she used to cry after she shouted, but Dad said she was joking of course. Dad said she loved to joke, and that’s why He fell in love with her. She was right though, perhaps I should have just forgiven.

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My husband and I had been married for just over a year. We’d met at the end of university as part time shift workers in a local cafe. Soon after, he’d found a job, and I had time to make myself a small business taking photos, but it never made much money. I had to borrow most of the spaces and equipment for my photography, and at the time, I’d rented a black room for a few days to develop some prints. It was his birthday, and we were due to go out for dinner as we always did, but I decided to slip out of the black room early, and surprise him at home with a romantic lunch for two and tickets to a gig for the evening.

I didn’t discover them the way they do in films or books opening the door to naked flesh writhing on the bed. All I noticed were shoes by the front door that weren’t mine: high heels and I never wear them. What hurt the most though was how they were arranged. Not flung across the hallway or in the bedroom with careless passion, but neatly side by side. It was the mark of comfort, of belonging, of security, and having them all for a long period of time.

I only remember fragments now: a curvy pastel coloured dress leaving the house.  She refused to look me in the eye, slipped on the heels, and tenderly closed the door as if not to disturb me further.  I thanked her for that small decency, not to try and speak to me, as if her words would placate me. I cleared up the lip stained wine glasses, and threw away the bottle. A second nature. Washed my hands. I imagine he came down a few minutes later after compiling his thoughts to unload on me, passing the moral burden, but I had already left. There was nothing I wanted there, and it was easier to leave than I expected.

I always hated the house: the one left by Dad and mum. We’d changed a few things in the time we’d been living there to make it ours, but it never felt like a home.  The thing that sticks in my head now is the curtains. Even though we got them professionally cleaned, the weight of the linen still held the same thick gravity as before. Take away the different colours and accessories, and you are still left with the same shapes, the same corners. The same curtains. mum never figured that out.

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When people live in the same place all their lives you assume they aren’t explorers. In reality, they see enough in one place to be constantly content. Explorers are greedy people, skipping from one place to the next without really looking.

Everything I needed was in the town, and I always knew where to find work or a place to stay when I needed to. Photography was something I could move with, so it fitted in well with part time work. A job’s a job Dad said, but in His old age, He used to worry about me and my lack of career. I told Him people don’t have careers anymore, Dad. I knew how to find work. I knew people. In truth I barely knew anyone, but the town council had erected a job board years ago which advertised for short term work and labour mainly aimed at people half my age. I returned to not long after leaving my husband, but most of it was filled with weight loss classes except one onion-thin slice that had clearly got the message. It was hiding under a yoga session pamphlet as shelter from the rain. Although it was written in comic sans, a font I hated with a passion, it was advertising a live in caretaker role at Dad’s old paint Factory. It was a perfect fit. A roof to live under, a place to take photos, but most of all, I was filled with excitement to see it again. I arranged to come and look round that afternoon.

The previous caretaker was young and portly with a failing attempt at a beard and a pit stained Atari T-shirt. There was little in the way of an interview to speak of. He admitted straight away that it wasn’t great money, but it came with free accommodation. He kept saying it again and again. He was eager to move on the responsibility and was glad I’d called. I could almost sense the plane ticket in his pocket, the unabated joy at the prospect of escaping the tedium of his current existence. I didn’t wonder where he was going. It wouldn’t make him happy anyway. I felt sad for him, so eager to find something else.

After searching through countless boxes caked in dust, he found the key to a set of cast iron doors that were open anyway, held in place by a collection of welcoming weeds. It was as solid as the last time I saw it. Tall and commanding: a place that demanded a strong beating heart in order to churn through its life. Seeing it now, it was resting, allowing the nearby tree branches to reach inside and take hold, keeping it upright until it was ready again. It reminded me of The Hideaway in the woods, as if it had grown up with me.

The pungent damp of naked concrete invaded in response to our unwelcomed entrance. The rain from the previous night was falling from the loose timbers of the roof and tumbling from plank to plank until finally dying on the paint cans dotted on the floor giving a pleasing note with each suicide.

The tour wasn’t extensive, but I knew my way around from memory, coming home from school early to find Dad at work.

He told me to go home, lock the door and do my homework, but Mr Franklin said it was okay for me to stay most of the week as long as I didn’t wander. Fridays were the exception, because that’s when the machines were checked. I hated Fridays. Dad had rushed once before, and a man had been hurt. Mr Franklin insisted that all workers stay for a longer shift at the end of the week to be thorough. Dad didn’t blame Mr Franklin for the longer hours. He’s a good man, He said, and I agreed. He used to save a bag of toffee for me in his office just off the main floor. Dad told me that he had a daughter once, and that I reminded him of her. I started calling him Uncle Frank, which he seemed to like; I got more toffee after that.

My first night in the portakabin I didn’t sleep well, it felt like my old room, and the wind battered the walls causing the thin plastic to cave towards me. I had to think about The Hideaway again: imagining myself deep within its impenetrable walls with a new window only I could see through. I imagined it being ripped from the ground and thrown in the ocean. The pressure, sharks, and the darkness held at bay by its frame. Within it, I would laugh at how weak the sea was.

I woke at about three in the morning to a view of the tall chimney of the Factory, and the smell of toffee.   I began to feel compelled to be there as often as I could. The nights dragged in the portakabin, and I have never been one to sit still.

Soon after I started doing evening rounds with my camera, a cat decided to follow me around. She had moulting black fur and big eyes. I would walk the building alone until she pounced from the unrelieved black surrounding the torchlight to play in the beam. I think she hunted her own food, and I imagined her in the woods by The Hideaway catching mice and then returning to see me. Maybe she was the farmer’s cat once, or maybe a friend of the convict, but now she preferred me and the Factory. I called her Whisper.

I didn’t like returning to the portakabin much from then on. I preferred the thick walls of the Factory. If it was my job to look after it, it made sense fairly early on to spend all of my time there.

The windows at the bottom were in fairly good shape. They were small enough for me to see out, but dusty enough for no one to see in. The others had been broken by bricks from yobs and drunks throwing them from the roadside over the fenced wall. I patched them up with some old boards and was surprised how much it really warmed the place up.

I had a little money left from the returned deposit on the black room, so I bought a second hand sofa and moved it in myself through the iron doors. I left them unlocked and ajar so Whisper could leave when she wanted. Soon I’d have to lock them though for peace of mind.

Back when I was younger, Dad used to make fresh coffee before our weekend trips to The Hideaway while I packed my escape bag. He said mum would wake up to the smell and think of us. She will wonder what adventures we were having today, He would say. He said mum always wanted to join in, but I was glad she never did. It wouldn’t be the same.

Rain or shine, we still went to the woods. In fact, the aroma of rich grounds and salted wet mornings were my favourite to wake up to. Wellies and oilskin jackets that guided warm droplets down the back of your neck. I didn’t care. The rain, unlike other things, is something fun to escape from, to the safety of a roof and uncontrollable giggles.

It seemed to work: the coffee. While we were away, mum changed the house around. she’d smile when I came in and say a few changes is a new nest; a new start for everyone. she’d kiss me, hold me, and apologise for the other woman who she promised each time would never come back.

I still enjoy the smell rather than the taste of coffee, so I bought a small Kelly kettle stove and some fresh grounds and made the first pot to celebrate my hard work.  I kept it boiling for longer than was needed and didn’t buy any mugs.

The evenings felt more tranquil after moving into the Factory full time. Maybe it was the hard work which brought a hypnotic relaxation: the calm that comes from building pride around yourself, but I suspect it was more the vampiric summer sun that drained us. The storms that followed lulled us with a soothing orchestra after the days of draining relentless heat.

Despite the drum-like hammering of the rain and punishing gales whipping through the fluted beams, the walls were solid. I was wrapped within them. A Hideaway of purely my own making, and I never slept better. It was that way for a long time.

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I only got the call by chance one Saturday evening in December. A woman wanted to come and see the Factory. It was the first call I had received, and I only overheard the ringing by chance through the gossamer-thin portakabin plastic, as I was leaving to get milk. She said she was looking at old buildings around the local area. I was cautious at first by her impending visit, but I spent all day making the place look as fine as it could, and rehearsing what I would say as I showed her around. I opened the iron doors all the way to let it breath, tidied up the garden around it, repainted some sections of the lower walls with the old paint: Salsa Red.

The morning was overcast but crisp with the satisfying smell of distant burning mixed within its thin weight.  She arrived late dressed in a blazer, pulled tight across her by a delicate hand. The other nursed a cup of steaming coffee that smelt of ginger. The cold seemed alien to her. She smiled as she approached, and surrendered her grip on her jacket to present me with a cold set of fingers to shake. Dad hated a weak handshake. She laughed when I commented on the Factory’s beauty, confident that I would join her, which I did out of respect.

As we walked inside, she asked if anyone else had shown interest in the building. She had stumbled upon it quite by accident. It was perfect she kept saying. I explained to her that I hadn’t been there for long. She shot me a grin and said she wanted to show me something. I’d love it. She disappeared for a few moments and returned with a long cardboard tube. Inside were a set of building plans, sketched in a robotic coldness that I didn’t care for, but I feigned interest as one does with a guest.

For the rest of the visit she insisted on sketching and didn’t seem to care much about the tour or Whisper. What kind of person doesn’t like cats? She was surprised I had a sofa, but I told her that she needn’t be shocked, that it was my home, and homes are supposed to be comfortable. She was awkward after that and kept making excuses to leave.

I took her arm, and guided her to a stop. I explained if she spent the night she’d change her mind and wouldn’t want to build anything new. She’d see how beautiful it was. She would. I offered her the sofa and told her about the paint can orchestra, and my father, and Uncle Frank’s toffee, and the windows only I could see through. The Hideaway. She wouldn’t listen, and moved towards the doors again.

I suddenly noticed how cold The Factory had become. The Kelly kettle was whistling away to itself, and through the high windows, all I could see was a cloud that was so large it became the sky. It was cinereous grey with wounds of black, bruising the remaining light.

It’s still there. It’s starting to snow.

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They don’t go down like cartoons, stiff like a plank and fall to the ground with a thud and a puff of dust, they stumble and try to speak, scratch on the floor like drunks. You have to hit them more.

I drop the Salsa Red paint can beside me, but it doesn’t seem to make a noise when it hits the floor. I kneel down to stroke her sticky clumped hair. I say to her that I’m sorry. I say it again and again. When she wakes up she’ll see the real me. While she sleeps I’ll move things around; I’ll build a new nest.

Whisper darts outside into the silence of falling snow. I watch her bound away, her paw prints slowly revealed in the untainted white. I can follow her later. But then I remember snow is a fake deception Dad said. Paths can be revealed, but there always comes the inevitable thaw to hide them again.

Ben Greenhalgh mugshot

Ben began writing with drafts of alternative ‘Simpsons’ episodes with his best friend. He sold his first screenplay, (which was awful), at 16, but he rarely returns to screenwriting now; although, he doesn’t use much direct dialogue in his prose, which is probably a hang up from those days where ‘show don’t tell’ was more of a biblical must!
He currently manages part of a charity working with young people with special educational needs, mental health conditions, and behavioural problems, and in his spare time he writes for a number of publications including the New Internationalist, The Leveller, Red Pepper Magazine, and peer reviewed academic journals. He is currently working on a neo-noir novel: ‘The Whip’…which is taking sodding ages.

black tree

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