They’ve Come to Paint the Doors Again
Rumbling and bubbling happily to itself, the kettle sends out a whistling cheekful of steam that tickles the cheeseplants, that runs under shelves in spectral waves.
He steps into the kitchen when he hears the kettle click; an older man, and weathered, in light blue shirt and faded jeans, his hair a thatch of slate and grey, thinner at the crown, and with a bristling roll of charcoal hair upon his lip.
He makes his daily brew with almost silent economy—there is naught but the fragile tinkle of the spoon circling the cup, then the one-two chime that knocks it dry.
Standing in the kitchen, stout-legged at the sink, he salutes the mists of morning with the base of his cup.
Swallowing sweetly pleasing tea he sighs.
What colours will he paint today?
Ceramic warm on knuckles and trailing a wisp of steam he slowly ascends the stairs, step by careful step. Grimacing, he eyes the cup.
Filled it too full.
Teasing hot stuff bumps the lip, sends a bulb of liquid brown down the curve of cup to hang, belly-shaking for a second before—
It hits the carpet with a pap.
The landing gained he softly knocks upon her door. “Love?” he calls, “Are you awake, love?”
Beyond— something like a yawn or wordless whisper— he puts his head around the door. There the air is warmed and scented by long days of confinement, where breaking folds of dawnlight make gelid air a honeywax, coming through curtains thick and soft.
On blankets, framed in widening shafts, she lies in monochrome; hair black, skin white, grey scoops holding the wet and tired bruises of her eyes.
“Mornin’ Da,” she whispers, dimpling thin cheeks with a smile. A hand slips out from duvet and inclines in open-palmed hello.
He returns the gesture. “Mornin’, love. How are you feeling?”
Fingers run the soft arm of a teddybear. “I think I’m on the mend, Da. I haven’t felt as good all week.”
He closes the door behind him with a heel. “That’s good love, that’s good to hear. I brought you some tea. If you feel up to it.”
He places the mug upon the bedside table— the slither of tea beads on the wood— then sits. Her limbs are the merest suggestion under the covers.
Flat dull fingers work a strand of hair behind her ear. “How did you sleep last night?”
Her smile widens. “Well. I slept well. Three, maybe four hours.”
But when he says nothing, when he looks at her with heavy eyes, she turns away, long-lashed, shadows in her pitted cheeks. “Two,” she whispers, “Nearly two.”
The tea steams.
“But I feel much better. I think I could even walk into town.”
She looks at his sombre face.
“Da. I feel like trying.”
He clears his throat. “I don’t think that would be a good idea, pet.”
He reaches out a hand but she moves her face away.
In that long silence sounds his phone, a buzzing rattle in that close space.
“I have to take this,” he says, “We’ll talk when I get back.”
The phone, unanswered, trembles in his hand.
“Get some rest, love.”
But she has turned her back to him, has shrugged under the covers, leaving nothing of herself that he can see.
And tea has gone untouched.
He looks at her; tiny, still— softly he closes the door.
Descending the stairs he answers the phone.
He is told where he needs to be.
Walter Sould is waiting when his van stops by the mouth of the estate. Grinning, the little man strolls away from the police car, waving them on; the butt of a cigarette cupped in his hand, a newspaper folded under one arm.
He thumbs the brim of his cap as the window is wound down, as the guards drive away. “Mornin’ Tom,” he says cheerfully.
The little man points with the ragged newspaper. “Number 26 Tom, second there on your right.”
Tom rubs his chin. “Number 26… Can’t say I know them…”
“Ah, you do Tom,” says Walter. “The butcher and the wife. Second wife, that is.”
“Two. Boys. Twins, as a matter of fact.”
Tom shakes his head, lets loose a tired breath. Walter fixes his cap. “It’s a red job, Tom.”
“May the Lord have mercy on them, then. What happened, Walter?”
“They’re keeping that hush-hush. Just told me the colour. Fair to say something came through.”
Tom folds himself out of the van. The side door rolled open with a clunk, he retrieves a yellow-handled brush, a sweating tin of bright red paint.
He passes Walter with a curt nod.
“Don’t listen to whatever’s behind the door!” says Walter, giving him a jolly thumbs up before sauntering away, whistling.
Standing by number 26, stout-legged in front of the door, Tom daubs the white wood with the head of his brush— a swathe of crimson wax glistens with each stroke, bleeds a cage of lines that creeping bead upon the pavement.
As Tom works the brush in stabbing dabs around the handle, around the taped-up letterbox, a mother and child leave the house next door. He nods a greeting, dips the tip of the brush in red.
But when the mother sees the half-painted door, sees those vivid waxen strokes, she stops, in an instant whitened— gripping her child so tight it screams they cross the road and hurry on their way.
Tom turns back to paint the door and tries not to listen.
For beyond it there are noises—
Something rhythmic, something soft and heavy landing—
Something sliding, slithering on wood—
And a voice.
Neither male nor female.
Tom finds it hard not to listen, especially when it calls his name.
When it offers him things.
His hand falls and rises, slathering, covering every inch of white. Chemicals scald his nostrils with their stink.
He paints the door red.
And everyone in town knows what that means.
Sitting in his van as unregarded cars drone past, he eats cheese sandwiches—paintsmells making them taste like warm plastic— and picks at a crossword with the point of a pen..
“7 Down… Study of monstrous abnormalities…”
Nib prodding white squares…
“10 letters… Begins with T. Ends in Y…”
The pen taps against his lips.
“Well… chances are the last part is OLOGY…”
The letters scratched in little boxes seem to fit.
As he wonders how the word begins, his phone jerks on the dashboard, a bluebottle buzz. He grabs it, cracks it open.
“Where are you, Tom?” –Walter’s voice.
“Just beyond Trevet. We’ve another one?”
Walter laughs. “We do. Johnstown Lane. Fifth on the left. You’ll see me.”
Tom folds the newspaper, tucks the pen into a pocket. He starts the van, nudges it out into traffic.
“On my way.”
Walter is sitting on the pier when Tom pulls up the driveway.
“We meet again,” he laughs, jumping down. “People will talk!”
“Another red, Walter?”
“Many in the house?”
“Just the one. But one’s enough…”
Tom nods. “That’s something at least… Self-inflicted, I suppose?”
“At first,” said Walter, darkly. With a beaming salute, he turns, crunching back down the drive.
Tom looks up— enclosed by trees the house is tall and slate-grey, its windows filthy, gutters streaming brown, with cavernous jardinières by a slant-pillared portico. And the double doors are white metal, inset with coloured glass; flowers and birds in blue and gold.
One by one they are painted red—each petal, every feather.
And kneeling by the letterbox Tom hears… slow… measured… thumping— something, pulling itself down the stairs.
Hitting every step on the way.
And a voice, like meat sizzling, buzzing like a dying fly:
Don’t look through the letterbox. Don’t look— and gritting his teeth he splashes red in the eye of the last glass bird, gathers his things and leaves—
And trees seem to lean close, seem to seal away the sky.
He hurries— Go home. Check on her.
A sudden loud buzz stops him halfway down the path—
It got out!
But no— Just his phone.
Taking a breath he answers it.
A pause, a breath, a breath and—
“Is something wrong, Walter?”
“There’s another one. Another red.” His voice is sharp. High.
The rasping of breath.
“There was something in her, Tom.”
Something cold in Tom’s stomach.
“Answer me, Walter. Where?
“Go home, Tom.”
The phone dies.
And now Tom stands at his own front door.
Only this morning—only three hours ago—
Walter stands in before him, arms outstretched.
“Tom,” he says, eyes like wobbling currants, “Look at me, Tom.”
“She’s in there,” Tom gasps, trying to get past.
Walter pushes back— “Tom—it’s a red case. A red case! There’s nothing anyone—”
Tom lunges for the door handle but the little man snatches at his hand, pulling it, shrieking— “Don’t, you’ll kill us, you’ll kill hundreds Tom— hundreds!”
Growling deep in his throat, Tom presses forward and little Walter bunches his hand into a fist, swings at Tom’s jaw—
Knocks him to the ground.
Walter looks at his fist, suddenly pale. “Sorry Tom. Sorry. Sorry.”
And Tom just sits there.
His voice comes now, a cracked, defeated thing. “She was feeling better, Walter.”
The little man helps him to his feet. His voice is soft. “Tom, Tom, I know Tom.”
“Why did it choose to come through her?”
Walter’s voice hardens “You‘ve got to listen to me. There’s no decision here Tom. We have to paint the door. We have to let people know.”
Tom’s blunt fingers rub behind his ear. “Was it something I did? Something I should’ve done?”
“Shhh Tom. C’mon now.” Walter picks up the paintbrush, puts it in Tom’s hand and curls his fingers around the handle.
“Hold it,” he says, “hold it.”
Fingers tighten and Walter guides the hand, plunging the paintbrush into bright red. Bristles break the surface, dip and rise again, dangling crimson strings striping fingers, streaking wrists.
“Do your job Tom. Paint the door.”
Tom takes a ragged breath, gulps “Ah Lord. No, no…”
“Even strokes,” whispers Walter, “Even strokes.”
The guided hand slashes paint right to left, splashing vivid spots upon the pavement, upon their shoes and trouser legs.
“Good,” gasps Walter, “good…”
They stand before the front door and Tom holds the paintbrush and Walter holds the paint and both can hear soft sounds beyond—
Something thumping along the ground.
Followed by the pattering of far too many little feet.
Walter drops the paint—it slops over his shoes. He grips Tom’s arm— “Don’t listen. It’s not her anymore.”
WHY IS THIS HAPPENING TO ME DA?
WHY ARE YOU LETTING THIS HAPPEN?
The head of the brush slowly strokes along the door, sends bulbs of red slicking slow tongues down the wood.
The smell of it.
Stinging eyes unmerciful.
Making things taste wrong.
“Walter,” says Tom, “Walter.”
Movements in the hallway, the voice, the running feet—
Still his wrist is held, and it slashes along the door, right to left, left to right.
Until it’s done. It’s done.
Tom lets the paintbrush fall.
Something softly thumps against the other side of the door.
Tom presses his hands against the wet wood. Slowly paint rises through his fingers. “Leave me,” he whispers. “I’m not going to do anything. I’m not going to do anything.”
Walter hovers silently. He reaches out.
“Leave me!” shouts Tom, pressing his forehead into the red.
Finally Walter walks away, cradling his fist.
For a long time Tom stands there, hands resting in drying paint.
Whispering “Why her? Why her?”
And it calls:
His fingers hover.
Over the wet paint.
Over the handle.