I was eight when the meth-head came to paint our house. We didn’t know he was a meth-head then, which was why my mother gave him a key and said he could come and go as he pleased and help himself to the hummingbird cake. She’d found him in the classifieds, in a little ad that said Experienced Painter & Paperhanger No Job Too Miniscule.
“Can he paint a flea’s arse?” said Dad. “Can he wallpaper a grain of rice?”
“You’re being ridiculous again,” said Mum.
The meth-head’s name was Dean and he took off his boots at the front door, which showed good character. As Mum led him from room to room she tsked at the choices the previous owners had made – the avocado lounge, the salmon kitchen. “What were they thinking?” she said to Dean, waving her arm at the lurid walls as if to wipe them back to white.
“Some people,” he agreed, shaking his head, pocketing the little cardboard swatches she’d chosen at the paint shop: bone, stone, eggshell.
“But look at the leadlights,” she went on. “The timber floors. It was the character features we fell in love with. Somewhere underneath all this is a beautiful home.”
Dean wore an earring and a lot of hair gel and as soon as I saw him I wanted to be his girlfriend.
“This is Jess,” said Mum. “Feel free to tell her she’s in the way.”
My parents had bought the house two years earlier; they’d really stretched themselves, so we had to live with the ugly bits for a while. The carpeted bathroom, the brown mark on the ornate plaster ceiling where the rain had got in, though the leak had been repaired and was definitely no longer an issue. An important lesson to learn, Mum told me, was that you couldn’t always have what you wanted the moment you wanted it. She, for instance, wore a rubber band on her wrist and snapped it if she felt hungry.
“Wow,” said Dean when he saw the original fireplace in the lounge.
“I know,” said Mum.
It had hand-painted tiles showing the sun setting above bulrushes and reeds while herons flew home to roost. “We can’t use it, of course,” she said. “The place would fill with smoke and smother us all. But it’s not about functionality.”
“Right,” said Dean.
As Mum moved away he checked his reflection in the mirror above the mantelpiece. Bared his teeth.
He started in the hallway, covering the carpet with drop cloths, masking off the rimu panelling with lengths of filmy plastic. It billowed when I passed, brushing against my bare legs like skin.
“Mum wants to know would you like a tea or coffee,” I said.
“I’ll keep going if I may,” he replied, sanding the fancy ceiling, working with the lightest of touches around all the scrolls and curlicues. “But thanks. Nice of you to ask.” Fine white dust drifted through the air like pollen.
I shut myself in my bedroom and tried on some of my dress-ups. Our neighbour Mrs De Vore had been a ballroom dancer and had given me a couple of her tiny-waisted gowns: stiff moiré taffeta and satin-lined chiffon with metal zips that smelled like money and bit into my soft midriff when I tried to tug them all the way up. I twirled around in the lilac one for a bit; it had a smear of lipstick on the bodice and a tear in the hem that I’d tried to fix with ugly black cotton. I’d always regretted it. I could hear Dean sanding, sanding, and his strokes were the rain on the roof, the sea gushing over the shore. He would take me to a restaurant where the serviettes were folded into swans and the chef put little paper frills on the lamb bones. He would pull the chair out for me and tell me I looked exquisite, and then he would open a velvet box to show me a diamond bracelet. Treasure for my treasure, he’d say, feeding me chocolate mousse.
Outside in the blue afternoon the power lines shone like liquorice and the starlings squabbled in the maple tree. I took off the lilac gown and threw it across my bed as if I’d just come home from a dance. Scrunched at the bottom of the dress-ups box was my mother’s old babydoll nightie with its red nylon ruffles and tickly black bows. She told me once that it was a very special garment – that I would never have been born without it – but it can’t have been that special if she demoted it to the dress-ups box with all the castoffs, all the torn and faded things. I held it up to myself and it was practically weightless, practically nothing, and I pulled it on over my head, standing on tiptoe to see as much of myself as I could in my dressing-table mirror. Through the nylon I was all hazy and secretive. I twisted my hips and jutted my chest to change my shape: to make myself more like my mother.
Then I saw Dean’s reflection behind me, looking in through the open window, his thumb flicking a flame from a lighter, and I let out a scream and ran to yank the curtains across.
“Shit!” he said. “Fuck. Sorry. Fuck.”
I could see his shadow through the curtain and I knew he was waiting for me to say something.
“I just went outside for a smoke,” he said. “I wasn’t spying on you or anything. OK? OK? I mean you don’t have to mention it, right? I really need this job.”
His silhouette skimming the folds of the curtain, shifting and changing in the breeze.
“OK,” I said.
He wouldn’t even look at me after that, wouldn’t even talk to me. I took to collecting his cigarette butts from the garden and storing them in a matchbox that I kept under my pillow, placing them in my mouth when I was sure I was quite alone. They tasted of dead leaves, old books: something bitter. One day Mrs De Vore saw me picking one out of the lavender and beckoned me over to the fence, and I tried to think how I would explain what I was doing – but all she said was, “I thought your mother might like to come over for a coffee. I thought she might like a bit of company.”
Pretty soon after that, Dean’s work started to go downhill. He was showing up later and later, or some days not at all. There was a bug going round, he said, and he hadn’t wanted to pass it on. His van had broken down. His grandfather had been rushed to hospital.
“That’s what you get for taking the cheapest quote,” said Dad.
Mum opened the fridge and stared inside. Snapped the rubber band on her wrist. I could feel the cold pouring onto the floor, spreading through the house.
I was sleeping in the lounge by that stage, so Dean could make a start on my bedroom. At night I could just make out the herons on the fireplace, watching me with their painted eyes; the reeds and the bulrushes, velvety in the low light; the sun sinking into the fireless grate. After Dean’s second day in my room, when he’d packed up and gone home, I went to have a look. How strange to see it empty of all my things, the windows bare, the floor covered up. Then, under my feet, something crunched and shattered: a little whorl of plaster. I bent down, peered at the white canvas drop cloth: there must have been a dozen pieces broken off the ceiling, littering the floor like stubs of hopscotch chalk. I called Mum and Dad and they picked them all up and laid them gently in an old chocolate box, as if they might be able to repair the damage.
The closer we looked at the house, the more problems we found. Bone-white paint lodged in the grain of the kitchen floor where he’d had a spill. Patches of primer showing above the front door. The bathroom window painted shut.
“I’m not going to say I told you so,” said Dad.
It didn’t take him long to find Dean online. “He knocked over a pharmacy for the Sudafed,” he said. “Then we have breaking and entering…possession of a Class B drug…”
“Well, we can’t have known that,” said Mum. “He seemed very nice. He took his boots off at the door.”
But of course we could have known that. If we’d looked. If we’d bothered.
“Lynn, we have a daughter.”
“I’m well aware.” She snapped the rubber band.
Mum lodged a complaint with the Disputes Tribunal and when Dean turned up to collect his things from the house she told him she’d see him in court, like we were on TV. He just carried on loading the drop cloths and the brushes and the fuzzy roller sleeves into the back of his van. I thought I saw a mattress in there too.
The hearing fell in the school holidays, so I went along with Mum. She’d printed out photos of all Dean’s shoddy work, all the damage, and carried them under her arm in a manila folder. She ate an entire Moro bar in the waiting room, snapping her rubber band all the while. ‘Let’s nail the bastard,’ she said when they called us in.
I thought he’d turn up in a suit and tie, but he was wearing a stained tracksuit and no hair gel and his pierced ear looked infected. He seemed thinner, too, and kept scratching at his face. He did a double-take when he saw me, like he thought I might say something about him looking through my bedroom window when I dressed up in the babydoll.
“Hi,” I said.
He gave a confused nod in my direction.
Mum kicked me under the table.
The mediator asked Mum to describe the nature of her complaint and what she was asking for by way of compensation. She flicked through the manila folder as Mum spoke, not really taking much time over any of the pictures.
“He destroyed our decorative plaster ceilings,” said Mum. “They’re a character feature – one of the reasons we bought the house. He gouged the walls with the sander in several places. He painted windows shut. He painted door frames but not the inside.”
“Meaning?” said the mediator in a bored voice. She must have missed that picture.
Mum leapt to her feet and strode over to the meeting-room door. “Meaning he painted here,” – she gestured to the visible edges of the frame, then opened the door to show the inside – “but not here.”
“OK,” said the mediator. “And you’re requesting five thousand dollars to engage another contractor to fix it all.” She glanced at the printed quote.
“If they even can fix the ceilings,” said Mum. “I mean, we’ll always be able to tell. We’ll always know.”
Dean had nothing to say in his defence. He just sat there chewing on the side of his thumb, biting off the dead skin.
“And are you able to pay this five thousand dollars?” the mediator asked him.
” Nup,” he said.
“Do you have assets you can sell to raise that sum?”
“Nup,” he said.
“He has a van,” said Mum.
“I already sold it,” said Dean.
“Receipt?” said the mediator.
He handed over a Post-it note.
“Seriously?” said Mum.
In the end he had to pay us back at the rate of twenty dollars a week, which would take five years, so where was the justice? After a year the payments stopped, and we found out he was serving another jail sentence; six months later they started up again.
One afternoon, when Mum was drinking wine with Mrs De Vore at the kitchen table, I put on the babydoll and paraded past.
“Look at you!” said Mrs De Vore. “Like a beautiful fairy!”
“I think you’re a bit old for that now, Jess,” said Mum.
“A bit young, surely,” murmured Mrs De Vore. And then, when I hovered unseen in the hall, “Where did that thing come from?”
They both laughed.
“In my defence,” said my mother, “we’d never have had her without it.”
I fingered the grainy nylon, the little synthetic bows you couldn’t undo.
” All the primping and trussing up,” Mrs De Vore was saying. ‘What a performance.”
“What a performance.”
I suppose I forgot about Dean, though I kept the cigarette butts for longer than I should have, and when I was twelve I let a boy in my class feel me up because he wore an earring and hair gel.
Years later, when I was tidying the lounge – my parents paid me my pocket money in return for household chores in order to teach me a good work ethic – I found a bank statement. There he was, right at the bottom of the page: Dean Bowman, still depositing twenty dollars a week.
“It’s a mistake, right?” I said to Mum.
She was rinsing the breakfast dishes, though she never ate breakfast herself. “I’m not sure,” she said, opening the window and letting in the cold morning air that tasted of iron. “You should ask your father.”
“Not our fault he never cancelled the direct debit,” said Dad. “He’s probably raking in so much money, illegally, that he doesn’t even notice it leaving his account.”
“But we must have got hundreds more than we were owed,” I said. ‘Thousands, by now.”
My mother was still standing at the open window, gulping down the air. Snapping the rubber band on her wrist.
“People like him deserve to pay,” said Dad. “A bad apple through and through.”
I moved out soon afterwards, when I turned sixteen, but that’s the house I still dream of when I dream of home. The panelled hallway; the leadlights with their chunky bevelled glass. The herons and bulrushes on the blocked-off fireplace. The decorative ceilings.
Sometimes, when I open my eyes in the morning, I expect to see all the white scrolls and curlicues above me, bordering the room like bleached shells. But then I blink, blink again, and remember where I am and where I am not.
The guy who repaired the damaged plaster in my parents’ house did a beautiful job. It was a dying art, he told us, and we’d have to wait six months before he could fit us in. It seemed like forever, but when he’d finished we looked up at our restored ceilings and all agreed it was worth the wait, worth the cost. You couldn’t even tell.
Catherine Chidgey’s novel The Axeman’s Carnival won the $64,000 Jann Medlicott Acorn Fiction Prize at the 2023 Ockham New Zealand national book awards held last week.
Next week’s short story is a contemplation of a scorched Earth by MIchael Morrissey, featuring a special photographic spread by Ivan Rogers, the Upper Moutere artiste who has illustrated the short story series at ReadingRoom these past three years. Next week’s story marks his final appearance.