MEET THE BUILDER
Looming over me in my lounge, his barrelling chest and thick tanned arms shout builder.
‘What are you then?’ he asks.
‘I’m a writer.’
‘Then you should write about me. You won’t believe what’s happened in my life; you simply won’t believe it.’
He waits for a response.
‘Shit doesn’t happen to me, it falls on me.’
‘I see; I’m not sure it’s a workable image.’
‘Don’t get fresh now.’
‘Give me an example then.’
‘You wouldn’t want to know.’
‘Oh, but I would.’
‘I wasn’t brought up, I was dragged through a hedge backwards and then all the goodness was kicked out of me.’
‘I was sent to Borstal at fourteen.’
‘Can’t tell you.’
‘How did your parents react?’
‘“Parents”, “react”: you’re showing your class, my son. What parents?’
We pause. He looks around my room. He takes in the books, the music collection and the two large abstract art posters on the walls.
‘You like art,’ he observes.
I nod in agreement.
‘I was good at painting at school,’ he adds.
This is the problem, you tell some people you’re a writer and they want to be in on the act. They want you to ghost write their life and turn them into a celebrity. Ask them for specifics and they’re less forthcoming. It’s an internal brag that they can’t express without resorting to cliché or generalisation: “Could have been a contender”, “I come from the school of hard life and hard knocks”.
‘My father was executed on the Isle of Man for crucifying a goat.’
‘No, I said that because you were miles away. Rude that, very rude: my life not good enough for you? What were you doing anyway: writing a novel in your head?’
Now there’s animosity, a grudge bruising the atmosphere. Another pause, longer than before, his muscles twitch and uncertain smiles are exchanged.
‘So how long do you think the job will take?’ I ask, gesturing at the bubbling patch of damp wallpaper above the fireplace.
‘Oh, want to talk about work now, do we?’
‘That’s what . . .’
‘Put the books away and get the plaster board out, my good man?’
‘Well, you need to . . .’
‘I need to break into some manly working class sweat because I’m not worthy to discuss writing with?’
‘We could talk about books whilst you work.’
‘What will you do: sit behind me with your literary thoughts and time me? No, keep your books to yourself; I’ve got a job to do.’
He stares at me with a blank expression, and then breaks into a fit of high-pitched giggling: ‘I’m just busting your balls, my friend, don’t take life so seriously.’
He picks up his wallpaper scraper and slides it under the paper and tears off a long strip, then digs his thumb into the wet plaster behind and smells it. He presents his damp thumb in front of my face.
‘I love the smell of damp in the morning; it smells of money.’ He keeps his thumb close to my face: ‘Remind you of anything?’
I reluctantly inhale. ‘Rotten eggs?’
‘Not really, but you might end up with an egg on your face one day.’
‘Look, I’ve got to sort a few things out. Will you be okay until I get back?’
‘What do you think might happen? Do you imagine me emptying a tin of paint down your computer screen?’
‘I’ll be back.’
‘Like the Terminator,’ he shouts as I close the front door.
I take an outside seat at my local café and order a coffee. Now I can indulge my favourite past time of sitting and watching.
At the next table an old man in a white shell suit, red Armani logo T-shirt, black socks and grey loafers, is doing a passable impression of Mike Read by smiling two rows of dazzling dentures at his bubble-perm companion. Meanwhile, a very old, very thin man in a khaki raincoat is being pulled sideways by an impossibly large, unusually ugly black-and-white dog that will one day probably end up eating him. I’m storing all this information and just about to bite into my custard tart when I feel a presence in front of me blocking out the sun.
‘Coffee break, eh? I thought you had things to sort out.’
‘How’s the job going?’
‘Sorting thing out in your head, perhaps? You have a very rotten wall, Sir; the whole thing will have to come down.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘Can Wayne Rooney kick a ball?’
His eyes are bulging. Incredible, he wants me to answer: ‘Yes Wayne Rooney can kick a ball.’
‘And I’m a builder and I know how to build. I may not be able to kick a ball that well but I know how to give a wall a good kicking.’
He orders a beef sandwich and a can of coke, then lights up a cigarette. He taps out another cigarette from the box. ‘Share the pipe of peace?’
‘No thanks, I’m trying to cut down.’
‘Of course you are, Michael.’
‘That’s not my name. I try not to smoke before the sun goes down.’
‘Brought up in the tropics were we?’
‘Why do you ask?’
‘“Sundown”: very colonial.’
‘I didn’t say “sundown”.’
‘And I saw the picture of you and your parents in the lounge. In India were you?’
‘Zimbabwe? Had many servants, did we?’
I finish my custard.
‘Probably better to eat fat than smoke,’ he says.
‘For fuck’s sake, give me a cigarette then.’
He hands me one. He is about to light it when his sandwich arrives. He clips off his lighter.
‘Don’t mind the swearing but it’s rude to smoke when people are eating, don’t you think?’
‘It is, yes.’
He laughs and lights the cigarette. ‘I’m pulling your dingle-dangle, Michael. Enjoy a smoke when you can, and don’t be so solemn.’
He takes a big bite of the sandwich and sucks in a long strip of fatty beef between his lips. Mouth full, he continues: ‘I’ve got a degree, you know. A degree in life, not books.’
‘You surprise me.’
‘I surprise myself. Have you got a notebook and pen to note all this down?’
‘I don’t want to write about you.’
‘You say that now. Who else are you going to write about? A bunch of arse-wipe academics: Polly, the peephole Professor? Henry, the horse-hung historian?’
‘You don’t know about people like me.’
‘I don’t want to.’
‘What do you write about then? Who do you write about?’
I don’t like this kind of conversation, and I certainly don’t want to have one with him. In any case I don’t really know any answers, but find myself answering anyway: ‘I write about life.’
‘Of course you fucking do; what else is there?’
He lights another cigarette and offers me one.
‘I still have one.’
‘Your crumbling wall is a metaphor for your life, the wailing wall of your wailing mind, the damp spot on which you chose to lay your foundations. Something rotten in the state of Denmark methinks.’
‘Look . . .’
‘Read Hamlet, have we?’
‘Surprised that I have?’
‘I don’t care.’
‘Of course you don’t.’
‘Give it a break. You have a chip on your shoulder and I’m not here to rub vinegar on it.’
‘Ugly image, I wouldn’t use it, Writer Man.’
‘That’s enough. Here’s five pounds for my order; use the change for yourself. Finish your meal, and then come round to collect your materials and leave.’
He puts the five-pound note in his mouth, tears of half and lights it, and then eats what is left.
‘Aren’t you going to leave a tip?’ he shouts as I walk away.
When I return to my flat I find my lounge upturned. The picture of my family has been smashed into the carpet, and the computer screen is covered in white paint.
I try to wipe it off with toilet paper, and only make it worse. Then there is a loud series of bangs on the front door. I feel my heart thumping.
‘This can’t be, this can’t be,’ I repeat like some kind of Donald Sinden old thesp about to have a heart attack.
I go to the front door peephole. Pink flesh blocks my view, and then a hammer blow against the frame makes it and me shake.
‘I’m going to phone the police!’ I shout.
I run back into the lounge and see the multi-coloured tumbleweed phone wires ripped from the wall. I find my jacket in the hall and search for my mobile in the top pocket. The hammer taps out a question against the front door. And when I look through the peephole I find what I was looking for.
‘Want this?’ he asks, rotating it around his fingers like a cowboy’s six-gun.
‘Would you just go away?’
‘If you ask nicely I won’t hurt you. Of course it will depend on your pain threshold.’
He swings the hammer hard at the door again. This time the lock starts to separate from the doorframe and the frame itself begins to splinter apart.
‘Two more should do it,’ he shouts and swings again. A huge crack appears across the middle of the door.
‘I’ll write it, I’ll write about you!’ I scream.
Silence. I look through the peephole: he’s gone.
I walk back into my lounge and pick my chair off the floor. I close the curtains, find my notebook and pen, and sit at my desk and start writing.