The first day of his new life. In the kitchen, he takes his time with the espresso machine. One of the things he’s going to enjoy – one of the many – is having the real stuff every day, after years of putting up with that instant shit they served at the office. He reaches into the fridge for the milk and when he closes the door he sees, pinned up with a magnet, the list. There are many things on it – painting and clearing and Polyfilling and assembling – but he is not daunted. Far from it: he has been looking forward to this, now that, finally, he has the time.
‘Right,’ he says out loud to the empty house. ‘Best get started.’
The store is a labyrinth of shelves filled with wonders. A man stares at the instructions on the back of a packet of glue, while nearby a woman shakes some seeds, as if by doing so she can work out how many there are. A toddler picks through a box of fuses, holding each one up to her mother and asking again and again, ‘What’s this for?’
He wanders and stops, and wanders some more.
‘Can I help you?’
He turns. A lanky young man is staring down at him. The badge on his uniform lapel says ‘Ask me’.
‘I’m looking for sandpaper.’
They go deeper into the maze, turning left then right, then right again, on and on. He wonders if he will be able to find his way out again.
‘Here we go,’ says the Ask Me man. ‘What grade are you looking for?’
‘What grade of sandpaper do you need?’
‘There are different grades?’
A blank canvas
He lays all his purchases out on the kitchen table. Quite a spread! He has a sudden memory of his dad in his workshop, his tools laid out around him. His dad would be proud of this – his son doing something.
He puts on the pristine white overalls, and thinks for a moment that he might resemble one of those CSI people on the crime shows. All he needs are those blue slip-on overshoe things and latex gloves and he’ll be able to enter the crime scene and find the vital clue.
He takes up the sandpaper and the masking tape. He has decided to start with the main bedroom. It has not been decorated since they moved in. The previous owners left a feature wall of patterned wallpaper, but the first thing his wife did was rip it all down. Anna tore it off in great long strips in a kind of frenzy. She’d wanted to decorate the other rooms first, though – the nursery above all, given the urgency – and she was the one then who had the time to paint while he went out to work. But Aaron came early, then Lottie followed as soon as biology allowed, and they had been so caught up in baby stuff they had never got around to their own room.
So, he has never done this before. The truth is, he has rarely ever had to do anything with his hands. His job – when he had a job – was accountancy. He has a brain that understands profit and loss rather than one that can command his body to do practical things. He used to think that when he became an adult, or failing that, when he got married, or at the very latest when he became a father, he would miraculously be handed the knowledge by the god of DIY. But he has been bypassed. There has been a mistake somewhere along the line.
But, really, how hard can it be?
There be dragons here…
It’s obvious even to him that the first thing to do is move the furniture away from the walls, but when he pulls out the chest of drawers he sees something very, very bad.
The damp patch is large, and there is mould around the edges. He steps back, as if afraid it could infect him. He has no idea how long it has been there, nor what has caused it, but he knows enough to know that this is something he is not going to be able to ignore.
He stares at it, and now he sees that it looks a bit like a map of North America. The wide-open prairies of the mid-west. The sparsely inhabited northern swath of Canada. Places he has never been.
The postman doesn’t ring
The clatter of the letterbox sends him hurrying downstairs, his heart racing. He’s like one of Pavlov’s dogs, salivating over a promised treat. It’s a hangover from the days when he used to receive letters, proper ones, handwritten, from people he loved. From Anna. But when was the last time that happened?
Even before he gets to the bottom of the stairs he sees that today’s delivery is nothing to get excited about. A single letter, window envelope, and as he gets closer he can make out that it carries the logo of Byron Mather, his erstwhile company.
He picks it up and turns it over, as if there might be some explanation on the back. But of course there is only the return address: that huge slab of 60s concrete that he travelled to and from every working day for the best part of ten years.
No point reading it now, because he has work to do. He shoves the unopened letter into the back pocket of his overalls.
He still loves the house. It was their first proper home, after the succession of rented flats. He can still recall the excitement he felt picking up the keys from the agent, then entering the house for the first time as its owner. There was so much space. So many nooks to put their things in. He thought they’d never be able to fill the place. The house would echo with emptiness. But they filled it soon enough with the clutter of everyday life. The clutter of family, of love.
A quick pick-me-up
Back in the kitchen, he starts to make another coffee, but when he opens the fridge, the first things he sees is a bottle of Chardonnay. And he knows he shouldn’t, but he doesn’t have a boss telling him what to do anymore, so what the hell? He is a free man, let off the leash. He should live a little.
The first glass slips down so easily it’s as if he has barely had any at all. He pours another and takes both the glass and the bottle upstairs.
Once more he faces up to the damp patch. Is it his imagination or has it grown a little in his absence? There are a couple of offshore islands on this map of North America that weren’t there before. The whole of this continent seems to be mutating before his very eyes.
He refills his glass, and retreats to contemplate his next move.
‘Hey,’ he says into the phone. ‘It’s me.’
‘Dan, I’m at work.’
‘I know that—’
‘Is it important?’
‘Of course it’s important. It’s always important. When are you coming home?’
There is a pause then, and he thinks he can hear her sighing. He tries to imagine her at her desk, and wonders if she still has that photo beside her computer.
After a moment, she says, ‘We’ve talked about this.’
‘We talked, yes, but I don’t think we really ever got to the bottom of it, did we? I don’t think we really came to any kind of decision.’
‘I still need time.’
‘How much time?’
‘Don’t put me on the spot like this, Dan.’
‘Sorry. I’m sorry. How are the kids?’
‘They’re fine. They’re looking forward to the weekend.’
‘Me too. Tell them that, won’t you?’
‘Listen, Dan, I’ve really got to go.’
‘Oh, yeah – I almost forgot to tell you. I’ve started the list.’
‘The list! The DIY list! All those jobs we never quite got around to doing, what with one thing or another. I’m going to paint the main bedroom – our room, I mean. It’s going to look great. When it’s finished. I can’t wait for you to see it—’
‘Dan – have you been drinking?’
The book, the bible
He should ring someone – someone else, an expert – about the damp, but he is supposed to be doing things himself. That’s why they call it DIY, after all. He could look things up online, of course, but he still likes to feel a book in his hands, the weight of it, the words more authoritative, somehow. He needs to find the book, the bible: DIY Made Easy.
It’s not where he thought it was. It’s not where it should be – on the main bookshelf in the living room, along with all the other reference books he hasn’t referred to lately – the dictionaries and the thesaurus, the medical tomes, the baby-naming guide. He goes from room to room and can’t find it on any of the shelves.
Then, finally, he sees it, and remembers. It’s propping up the table in the spare room. The table he could never get to sit right. He’d sawn off a bit of one of legs, then realised he’d sawn off too much and tried to make amends by sawing off a bit from all the other legs, only to find that he hadn’t measured things properly. It was still uneven, only now considerably shorter.
He’d made a joke of it, to Anna, at the time, as he slid the book, the bible, under the shortest of the legs: ‘This really is DIY made easy.’
She hadn’t laughed.
Have a break
He carries the book with him. The Chardonnay is warm now, but he had the foresight to put another couple of bottles in the fridge. Except that, when he goes there to look, he sees only one. Strange, but never mind. This will do nicely.
He yawns. Time for a break, he thinks. A lie-down. All this activity has taken it out of him. In the bedroom he makes sure he can see the damp patch from where he is lying on the bed. He doesn’t want to turn his back on it.
He shifts around and tries to get comfy, but there is something in his pocket. He pulls it out and realises it is a letter. It appears to be addressed to him, but he doesn’t remember seeing it before. How then did it get in his pocket? Did someone – some thing – put it there without his knowledge?
The thought disturbs him, but maybe the answer lies inside. The envelope is unopened. He slips his finger under the flap, then slides it along the top.
End of an error
The text is blurry and doesn’t seem to be in complete sentences. Only the occasional word or phrase seems to come at him clearly out of the haze: complaint … not taken lightly … harassment … company policy …
And of course he knows he is never going back there, to the offices of Byron Mather, that place with all those misunderstandings, all the things that Anna, despite what he has tried to tell her, has misunderstood.
He screws up the piece of paper and throws it at the wall, hoping that the damp patch might somehow digest the letter, make it disappear. But the letter falls limply to the ground and lies there, accusingly.
In the bleak midwinter
It’s dark already, the day shutting up shop in the middle of the afternoon because it can’t bear the grey any longer. He turns on a light, but it does little to take away the gloom.
He closes his eyes and he’s with his father again in the workshop. Dad is using an electric saw and there’s dust everywhere, a mound of it growing at his feet. He tells his son that the machine is called a jigsaw, and Daniel asks if he is making a puzzle for him. His father says no, but Daniel doesn’t believe him. Christmas is coming up and he is convinced his dad is making him a present. He keeps on, asking over and over, and even though he knows he is being annoying, he continues the badgering until his father gives out a strange sound, a kind of yelp, and he sees blood dripping into the mound of sawdust, and something pink half-buried.
The damp patch is definitely spreading. He is watching it, and even in the semi-darkness he can see that it is on the move. He doubts there is anything in the book, the bible, that covers this eventuality.
The damp is heading up the wall, and soon it will reach the ceiling, and when it gets there it is going to start to come towards him. From somewhere deep in his brain he dredges up the one thing he does know: that water will seek points of weakness. It will exploit the cracks.
It’s coming for him. It’s going to drown him. He has to get out of here. He lurches off the bed but he can’t find his feet and the next thing he knows the side of his face is chafing against the floor, the roughness of his days-old stubble rubbing up against the coarse fibres of the carpet.
He has to move. If he stays here he is a dead man. And there are others to save, aren’t there? He mustn’t just think of himself. That was one of the things Anna said when she said those things she said: ‘You always think of yourself.’ He is determined to prove her wrong.
He crawls towards the door, feeling the dampness closing in at his back. Finally he is out on the landing. He pushes the door shut behind him, a temporary barricade, but he knows it will be easily breached. The barriers are all permeable. Nothing stops damp, and especially not if, like him, you have no idea what you are doing.
He pulls himself up. He is unsteady, but at least now he is upright. He comes first to Aaron’s room, but there is nobody there. Perhaps he has gone out to the park with his friends? But no, it’s dark, so where is he? Lottie is not in her room either. And there is something stranger: everything is too tidy. There is no clutter at all. He calls out for Lottie, but the only reply he gets is her name coming back at him. Now he shouts out for Anna too, and the echo comes back: Anna, Anna, Anna …
He is looking for them, his family, but instead he finds a sledgehammer. Probably, he thinks, a leftover from a previous job he never started. But now it might be useful. Now he hefts it, and as he does so he feels suddenly stronger, alert, focussed. He knows what he must do.
The damp patch has no idea what hits it. He swings the sledgehammer against it again and again, each percussive thud sounding like the drumbeat of victory. The vibrations shiver up his arms and through his body. He is going to knock down this infected wall, this diseased house, and start again.
And as he swings he thinks, ‘Yes! I have mastered this! I don’t need a book, or anybody else to tell me what to do! I am Mr DIY!’
Crime Scene Investigation
The stench is nothing they haven’t experienced before. They work their way methodically around the room, aware at all times of the body on the bed. The cause of death might seem obvious – witness the empty bottles of booze and pills – but they will not jump to conclusions.
In his gloved hands, one of the investigators picks up a sheet of paper from beside the body. It appears to have been torn from a book, perhaps the one lying on the floor, DIY Made Easy. They can match it up later. A handwritten note is scrawled in the margin of the torn-off sheet. The writing is cramped and untidy, but the message is just about decipherable.
I’m sorry. I can’t do this by myself.
The body has been here several days, judging by the decomposition – four, maybe five. It was the wife who found it, when she came to drop the kids off for the weekend. Terrible shock for all of them, but in this line of work you can’t afford to get caught up in the problems of the living.
‘Give me a hand with this,’ his colleague calls over.
Together, they shift a chest of drawers away from the wall.
‘Nasty damp patch, that,’ says one.
The other nods. Then they both get on with the job.
Ian Critchley is a freelance editor and journalist. His fiction has been published in Staple and Neonlit: The Time Out Book of New Writing, Volume 2, and his journalism has appeared in the Sunday Times, Times Literary Supplement, Literary Review and Daily Telegraph.