‘You know who you look like?’ he asks.
I run my trowel through the muck in my bucket. Needs a touch more water.
‘Prince. That’s who. He’s the spit of him, right?’
A couple of brickies and a sparky hum noncommittally.
I look nothing like Prince. I’m a short Black man, that’s all.
There’s a weighted pause until someone says, ‘Yeah, that’s right, Boss.’
‘That’s what I’m gonna call you then,’ the boss tells me.
He calls the lumpy Welsh brickie Tom Jones, too.
Nobody’s surprised when, instead of answering, I splash in enough water to sort my muck out; they expect plasterers to be taciturn. I’ve been told by more people than I can be bothered to remember that they couldn’t stick the monotony of my job. Its meditation suits me, though. And I’m bloody good.
They’ve been renovating this basement for three months. Down here it’s a building site of pokey rooms off a big cellar space with stone stairs down the middle. The house is Victorian or Georgian, something like that. Not that you’d know from the shiny, modern entrance hall I glimpsed when the boss opened the front door for me this morning.
He said, ‘I’m Trevor, but you can call me Boss.’
Apparently that’s not a racist thing, because all his builders do it. I’d wondered because he’d already told me, ‘I didn’t realise you’d be – Like, on the phone you didn’t sound. . .’ but thought better of finishing.
Unsurprisingly, I’m the only Black guy on the team.
Until lunch, I face the wall, sweeping my arm from side to side, smooth and soft, letting my mind peel off to tangents. With plastering you never really work with anyone else. They do their own stuff in their own groups. Closest anyone gets is the chippy fitting skirting boards. On this job that’s a middle-aged Polish guy.
‘Don’t mind him. No English,’ says Boss. ‘I call him Lech.’ He pronounces it like the start of lechery, though I’m sure it should be a hard K.
Lech puts a length of new skirting up to my wall, gets sandpaper out of his pocket, but knows better than to start using it near wet muck. He backs out. I skim.
Boss is still talking. ‘Like that Lech Wałęsa. You’d be too young to know about him.’
I have read about the Gdańsk Shipyards, actually.
Most of the men go out to McDonald’s for lunch, but I’ve brought a packup. In the backyard Portaloo, I soap up to my elbows then squirt-squirt-squirt the little tap. Coming back indoors, I spot a pair of grubby jeans heading up the steep back stairs which must have been built for servants. There’s no dust sheet on that staircase, marking it out of bounds.
I edge forward, see that it is Lech ascending them. There’s nobody else about, so I stick my boots behind the door, silently follow him. It’s easy to creep soundlessly on this thick, red carpet. I can’t hear Lech. I think I’m following a trace of his body odour, but it might be my own. I keep my elbows tucked away from the pale cream walls and shiny black banister.
Off the first landing is a glass-panelled door. I cover my hand with a clean sweatshirt cuff, pulled out from under my overalls, to twist the shining doorknob. The wood swishes open against minimal resistance into a dark corridor smelling of synthetic rose and lemon.
Soft light and a heavy splashing sound cascade from an open door. Approaching it reveals a brass shower rail, then a heavy, matching lever and showerhead behind an etched-glass door; there’s a claw-footed bath perched on a tray of unnaturally symmetrical stones in the middle of the room and lastly there’s Lech’s grimy back view, the source of the prolific pissing noise.
I stand still and, as far as I can tell, silently, but when Lech has finished with the loo and turns, dick still in hand, he does not look the least surprised to see me. He walks to a satin swag of curtain patterned in shades of turquoise that perfectly match the striped wallpaper, and wipes his penis on it, giving me only the faintest smile.
I nod solemnly in return, stepping to one side so he can pass me while tucking himself away. I follow him down the backstairs. There’s still plenty of time left to eat my sandwiches.
That night, Lisa wants to go to a bar but neither of us have been paid yet, so instead we sit on my bed, eating pasta out of the saucepan and watching Pottery Throw Down until I distract her by stroking her thighs. She smells of Surf fabric softener and the Colonel’s secret recipe.
In the morning, there isn’t enough time for both of us to shower, and no room to get in together, so I let her be the one to wash and I carry her scent in to work on me.
‘Who does he look like, eh? Prince, isn’t it? The singer from the eighties?’
I am flicking subtle window trowel scrapes round the tiny high windows while Boss gives a basement tour to a white bloke in a suit.
‘Glad to see you’re plastering at last.’ The voice is younger than I expected and not so posh.
‘Prince, say hello to Gordon Politan-Ellis. That’s his wall you’re slopping muck all over.’
I don’t slop.
I turn to greet Mr Politan-Ellis because I want a look at him. Tall, tanned, maybe mid-thirties. His temples look like they ought to be distinguished grey, but he’s not there yet. His suit is as weighty and well-cut as you’d expect, with a glint at his cuffs, shined shoes, a thick watch and a spiced, clean fragrance I have to hold myself back from deeply inhaling.
I nod at him.
‘We need to finish as quickly as possible,’ he says.
I stick my window trowel in the bucket, fold my mortar stand and move to the main room. The window work isn’t as finished as it could be, but there’s no point providing perfection for someone who won’t appreciate it.
Lech is working in here. We don’t look at each other until lunchtime, when we wait for the rest to go, slip off our boots and go back to the bathroom. While he’s pissing, I lift the brass cap off the shower drain, peel plaster from my arms and drop it down. I turn the heavy lever of the shower. There’s a pause, then warm water pelts down from the oversized head.
I check Lech’s reaction; there isn’t one.
Leaving my overalls, socks and sweatshirt on the marble tiles, I step onto the shower tray in my underpants. The hard stream works clean rivulets over my skin. Diluted plaster spouts from my fingers. The permanent ache across my shoulders submits.
Through steam, I see Lech’s arm at the shower door, offering me a block of something amber. It is the size of a half brick, with a stalk of rosemary and dark speckles embedded through. It might be an ornament or paperweight, except that when I take it, it’s slippery. Lech has gone before I can thank him. I sniff. Definitely soap.
I rub it over my arms. Its edges are still sharp. I foam it between my palms, use that to lather my neck, chest, legs. I clean the muck off the lever. Finally, I shove the bar into my underwear, rub it front then back, then ease my waistband to rinse. There’s a soft clunk when I stop the water.
I look for a towel. Should have thought of that earlier. None on the heated rail or the brass hooks. They must have packed them away when they moved out for the duration of the building work. No bathmat either so I’ll have to be careful.
I shake as best I can, place the soap on my pile of clothes for now, gingerly tiptoe to the landing. The wet fabric of my pants clings awkwardly and water drips down my leg hair.
I head towards a chandelier, but before I reach it there’s a door. It’s not locked.
Folded on the bare mattress of an ornate double bed is a set of bedlinen: thick, crisp, ivory-white, smooth. I press my damp palms onto the top sheet. A movement behind startles me but, of course, it’s just Lech. He is holding the fluffiest, whitest towel I’ve ever seen.
While I’m drying myself with it, he runs his dick over the edge of the stack of bedding.
I blot my underpants one last time, hold up the towel. He tucks himself away as I follow him along a wide landing overlooking the entrance hall, then into a much larger bedroom. He passes its four-poster, eyeing the lace drapes, through a doorless arch, to a narrow room with a good view of the landscaped back garden. Its deep greens catch me for a second. A wave of goose pimples brings me back to the dressing room.
One long wall is entirely mirrors. Opposite them sit a pale wood dressing table topped with three adjustable mirrors, a tallboy in slightly darker wood with a shaving mirror on it and a freestanding, full-length mirror with an ornately carved frame.
Lech slides back one of the wall mirrors to reveal shelves heaped with thick fabrics in esoteric tones. I fold my towel into a geometric bundle identical to the other bath towels. Lech lifts the top half-dozen of the stack and I manoeuvre in the damp interloper.
He returns to the lace bed curtains, reaching into his fly as I leave to get dressed.
There’s no time to eat my sandwiches before the builders and sparkies get back, so I spend the afternoon hungry, with moist underwear. Every time I move my arm though, I’m breathing in rosemary and vanilla.
From the top deck of the bus on the way home, eating my lunchtime butties and reading Hegemony or Survival, I spot Lech clumping across the side road by William Hill with his tool bag across his back. Despite straining round, I can’t see where he is headed.
I exchange texts with Lisa. She is going to babysit for her sister tonight.
Soon as I’m in my bedsit, I undress and chuck my clammy boxer briefs in the laundry bag. I should have showered naked. I can’t see Lech being bothered; he has kept his knob in his hand for most of the past two lunchtimes. I drape my overalls across the one radiator, crotch central, hoping their blobs of plaster won’t scrape its chipping paint and that they’ll be fully dry by morning.
My duvet cover feels scratchy and thin when I sit naked on the bed. Its print has faded. I hadn’t noticed before.
My forearms, feet and calves still smell great. Not my armpits. I should have looked for deodorant in that dressing room. I bet Gordon’s got nice stuff. Cologne, too, like I smelled on him. I bend down, getting my nose as close as possible to my groin’s raw, puckered, impression of underwear. Pretty fragrant.
To keep the smell from drifting off, as much as for the warmth, I snuggle under the duvet.
I text Lisa, ask if we can video call. She says she’s too busy with the kids. I tell her I’m naked. She replies, In that case definitely not!
Next day, I look through the tallboy. In the top drawer are jewellery boxes, silk pocket squares, tweezers, toenail clippers and – what I was hoping for – tiny glass fragrance bottles. I sniff each one. Woody, leathery, citric. . . I can’t find the spicy one he was wearing yesterday morning, but there’s a bergamot and cardamom which I like even better. I dab it along my clavicle and unbutton my overalls to anoint my belly button.
Lech leaves the cocktail dresses he’s been marking, to go through the jewellery boxes, replacing each one exactly when he’s done with it. Cufflinks, tie pins, watches in silver, gold, platinum and leather, all their faces studded with precious stones. He wraps a metallic link strap round his dick.
I stick one of the slick, pastel hankies down the front of my open overalls to rub it about a bit. Lech watches me, nodding approval, smiling slightly. I fold it, pick off a hair, replace it.
There are just three pairs of socks in the next drawer. Cashmere. Imagine the socks he did take with him. I unroll the racing green pair, turn one inside out and shove it into my arse crack. Lech jerks his bare bum across the carpet like a dog with worms, his angular image multiplied in all the mirrors.
We close the drawers, adjust our dress to disguise ourselves as respectable, respectful workmen, head down the stairs. I’m halfway through my ham and cheese bap when the crew get back.
That evening when I see Lech through the bus window, I hop off to spy on him from the bus stop. He goes in the door beside the Londis. It has a dozen, unnamed doorbells. I get on the next bus.
Lisa doesn’t mention the cologne which heats up while I’m making love to her.
Next morning, there’s a red car parked down the side of the house. It’s one of those that’s the size of a minibus, but there’s only actually room for four passengers. It’s so tall I have trouble looking in to work out what the sound system is.
‘Get away from my car!’ The supercilious blonde might be in her thirties, but it’s hard to tell through the layers of gloss on her face and the tight tone of her body. Her hair is as brittle as her spiked heels.
I escape down the narrow passage she’s left us to reach the back door.
‘Oh no you don’t!’ She clips every consonant. ‘I’ll call the police.’
I’m in plaster-specked overalls. There’s building work in the cellar. I don’t need to explain, don’t even know who she is.
Tom Jones and Vin Diesel, having a smoke against the Portaloo, are chuckling their heads off. I can’t look at them.
Boss speeds past us. ‘I’m ever so sorry. Estelle. Mrs Politan-Ellis. Nothing to worry about. He’s with us. I know what it looks like.’
Lech stands unsmiling, just inside the back door, arms folded. I can’t meet his eyes. Boss is asking Estelle Politan-Ellis whether I’m the spit of Prince.
For most of the morning I shut myself inside the smallest cellar annex. I soothe myself by sweeping creamy muck over then back, left then right, over then back. At some point I hear wheels move off above my head.
I’m startled when Lech opens the door. God knows where my mind had taken itself. My upper arm aches.
He tugs my elbow. I lay down trowel and hawk, go with him. There are still a couple of men around. They smirk at me. Lech gets hold of my hand at the bottom of the stairs, keeps it until we get into the dressing room. I’d rather have a bath.
He opens a dressing table drawer to show me a tangle of necklaces, make-up, hair pins, rattling acrylic nails and gruesome objects which could be dead spiders or false eyelashes. It’s the messiest thing I’ve seen in the whole house, nothing like Gordon’s neat handkerchief collection. Lech selects a lipstick, rotates its base. Most of a newish burgundy-brown stick rises. He grins at me. I’m not ready to smile yet.
Inevitably, he pulls out his limp, pale cock to run the lipstick round and round its head. My mouth does twitch upwards then.
He offers me a coral pink one, which would look great on Lisa, but could only ever make Estelle look even older. I shove it down my pants.
Lech pats both sticks back into shape before returning them and taking out a couple of liquid eyeliners. He paints eyes onto his shaft. I paint under my balls. Once we’ve played with concealer, blusher brushes and a powder puff between my buttocks, I’m grinning too.
I’d still like that bath. I take a towel and a bodywash, leaving Lech to put things back to rights. Well, back to the untidy state we found them in.
Lisa doesn’t stay over that night, has to get back because it’s her Dad’s birthday the next day. I’ve never met her family. I wonder whether that’s because she hasn’t told them I’m Black. I’ve been with her for eight months. I don’t know how to ask her.
I drag prongs across walls all the next morning, while my mind circles. There’s only two people living here (I may not chat, but I do eavesdrop), so I can’t see why they need all these rooms. What can be on the top floor? Why do they want this cellar habitable too?
I’m done with scarifying just before lunch. I’ve eaten my sandwiches before the rest of the team leave.
I go up beyond the first floor. Lech watches me through its glass-paned door. The prongs of the scarifier in my front pocket poke me. I don’t know why I’ve brought it.
There’s no door separating the attic floor from the servants’ stairs. Turning the last corner, I get hit by the glitz of sunlight through Veluxes, which is bouncing between mirrors and chromed gym equipment. I can’t imagine anyone working out in this glare. Maybe that’s what the cellar’s being converted for. Would be easier to buy blinds.
Their free weights don’t pose me any challenge. Last thing I need in the middle of a working day is more arm exercise anyway. Running the scarifier lightly over the tread of the running machine, I can’t see how to connect them, so I sit my bare arse on the exercise bike, but only to keep up tradition. There must be thousands of pounds worth of stuff here, but most of it isn’t very interesting.
The rowing machine could be promising. I gather my train of overall to shuffle to it. My socked feet fit nicely in the footholds as do my naked bum cheeks on the sun-warmed seat, I pull back the handles. There’s a swishing noise of real water.
When Lech arrives, I’m pissing into the hole on the side of the tank attached to the machine.
Lisa texts that she wants to stay over tonight. I don’t reply.
I spend the afternoon scarifying ceilings. My neck and shoulders are killing me by the time I leave. I’d love to soak them in a big bath with pointless spherical pebbles under it, but have to make do with my black-spotted, cramped shower.
Two wet strides land me on my bed. I read the same Brian Pearce paragraph three times before it makes sense, put the book down and channel-hop for a while, finally answer Lisa’s text by suggesting that I stay at hers for a change. She doesn’t reply.
Next day, because it’s Friday, lunch is early and short so we can down tools at two thirty. Boss herds us out and makes a great show of locking up. I rinse my arms at the standpipe, make him wait by the back gate with his clutch of keys until all the plaster is off. I don’t flick my wet arms at him.
Lisa texts when I’m on the bus. The first few words include sorry. I don’t read the rest of it. If Lisa saw a Black man looking at her car, what would her assumptions be? Lisa hasn’t got a pot to piss in, never mind a flash car, but none of her family have met me. Eight months we’ve been together.
I grin to myself imagining taking a dump in that claw-footed bath on the pebbles. I think through all the potential consequences of actually doing it. Still tempted.
I didn’t know I was going to, but I get off at the stop opposite the Londis. I cross the diesel-gusting road, go inside. The washing powder smell switches my brain back on as the door’s bell chimes. A woman watches from behind the counter.
I stride down the middle aisle to stand purposefully in front of their toiletry shelves. I bet Gordon and Estelle never shop at Londis. I bet there’s not a thing in here they’d ever deign to own. I try to smell a bar of soap through its wrapper. I don’t know why I’m here. If Lech walked in I probably wouldn’t even speak to him, don’t know whether I’m here because I’m hoping he will be.
My phone chimes an alert into the over-lit air. I daren’t check whether the shop assistant is watching me. I don’t want cheap soap. This isn’t a museum; if I don’t buy anything it’ll look like I’m shoplifting. Toothpaste. I don’t need it yet, but it’s not like it goes off. I get a bag of Brazil nuts off the reduced section on the way past.
The shopkeeper tells me to have a good evening when she gives me the receipt.
Lisa has texted again. Three more times, actually. Her pay just came through so she wants to take me to Xiangqi, a new Chinese place on her side of town. She suggests we meet at her place.
The bus comes. There’s another text alert as I’m sitting down. Her address. I reply ok 7.30.
After a long, but soapless, shower, I can’t face using any of my four-for-three body sprays. I do wear my newest shirt and cleanest jeans. My overalls form a meniscus on the laundry bag. I always go to the laundrette on a Sunday.
The house at the address Lisa gave me has rusted metal heaps on its eczemic front lawn. I double-check the text. No bell so I rap on the bubbled-paint door.
Her neat clothes and hair contrast against grubby wallpaper and stairs with filled plastic carrier bags on every step. We grin at each other. She gives me a soft kiss on the cheek, steps out of the house.
‘That him is it?’
Lisa’s face sours. She shrugs at me and walks back in.
He sits in a beige armchair with uneven patches of grey, wearing a vest and tracksuit bottoms, nursing an overflowing ashtray. Beside him is an identical empty chair, with an identical ashtray. The TV plays a muted horse race.
‘We meet at last!’ he says, extending a bluish arm. His face is split with a warm smile.
‘This’s my dad,’ Lisa mumbles.
While I’m shaking his tacky hand, he says, ‘Pleased to meet you.’
I believe he is.
‘And you,’ I reply, meaning it.
‘Finally,’ he adds, looking sideways at Lisa. ‘Anyone’d think she was ashamed of us.’ He shifts his weight forward, pressing a hand onto the misshapen arm of the chair, begins rising.
‘We better get going,’ Lisa says.
Her highly polished court shoes look superimposed on the cellophane-and-hair-streaked vinyl flooring.
‘See you later,’ I tell her old man.
Walking down the road, I hold her pristine fingers. Her neck is pink in patches. She is avoiding my eyes.
‘He seems nice,’ I say.
She shrugs. ‘Can we go to yours after?’
The food is sweet and greasy, but I’ve had worse. Lisa’s lipstick wipes onto the wineglass with her first sip. Lisa deserves quality. I’d like to steal her one of Estelle’s. Wonder if she’d even notice. Then I remember where some of those lipsticks have been and put them out of my mind.
We make tipsy love in my bedsit, with soy sauce kisses. The scratch of bobbled sheet wakes me in the early hours. Thoughts stop me from getting back to sleep.
When Lisa wakes, she has a shower. I’m aware she’s having to stand between the cracked tiles of my scratched-up bathroom. I wish we could share a deep, enamelled tub. I’m not bothered about the pebbles, and it could sit against the wall. We’d relax in there all morning, topping up the hot water.
I check emails on my phone. One asks me to quote for re-plastering the whole downstairs of one of those villas that got flooded. That’s got to be a few weeks’ work. They want it sized up in the next few days, which would mean taking time off from the Politan-Ellis job, so I don’t reply.
I haven’t even seen most of their rooms yet. I want to touch everything they own. I look from my damp-stained ceiling, to the foxed library books piled between discoloured patches on the windowsill, to the swollen chipboard edge of the headboard. I close my eyes.
My phone rings. The bloke calling sounds flustered. He got my number off a friend of Lisa’s sister. His plasterer’s broke his wrist, and took four days to let them know. I ask how much he was charging.
When he’s told me, he adds, ‘But we’ll pay more if you can start soon. We can’t use the bath or shower ’til it’s done. It’s been weeks and we’ve got kids. Got to get the plaster on so we can seal – ’
I say, ‘I’m on this other job.’
‘Please, mate. You’d be a life saver. I’m a nurse. I’ve been trying to dry me uniform in the kitchen but that’s full of all the bathroom stuff and –’
I suppose I could rush through the Politan-Ellis job. Gordon doesn’t care about craftsmanship after all.
‘I’ll have a look this afternoon.’
‘Thank you so much.’
It doesn’t really matter but I ask anyway: ‘Would anyone else be in the house while I was working?’
I don’t know whether I’m disappointed or relieved that they would.
I may not be a Politan-Ellis, but I can afford new bedding. I search on my phone. There’s a lot of choice. Silk sounds luxurious, but it might be slippy. But then, that might be nice. There must be a reason why that’s not what the Politan-Ellises have. I’ll check the labels on their bedsheet stack on Monday.
‘Who was on the phone?’
Lisa curls into me, smelling of synthetic grapefruit, warm, damp and naked. Clean.
‘A job. Work’s getting regular. Yours too, right?’
No reason not to say it, so I do. ‘Maybe nearly at the point where we could look for a place together? What d’you think?’
‘You want us to live together?’
It’s been eight months. ‘Sure.’
‘Couldn’t I just move in here?’
‘Here? But it’s a shithole.’
She sits up, laughing. ‘I love this place. You’ve seen where I’m living. You keep things so nice here.’
‘Be nicer with you living in it.’
I reply to the email about the villa, offer to look at it before work on Monday.
I write their quote on the bus, get that sent off and reply to an email from the nurse asking for my bank details before I’ve even walked past the Portaloo on the Politan-Ellis patio.
At lunchtime, I check the bedlinen labels in the spare bedroom. Egyptian brushed organic cotton. It has a nap like suede. Lech walks in on me, comes close. I lean away because I’m expecting him to wipe his pecker on the pillowcases again.
‘She’s coming up here now,’ he says. Perfect English. A bit of an accent but it isn’t from anywhere further east than South Shields.
We scuttle down the backstairs. I’m tying my bootlaces when a light comes on behind the glass-panelled door above me. My stomach’s too clenched for my sandwiches. I can’t think through what evidence we’ve left up there. Hands shaking, I mix new muck.
In a shadowy alcove, alone with the sped-up slap and slide of fresh plaster over scraped wall, my pulse slows, temperature drops, heart returns to normal. I stay as late as I can.
I see Lech crossing the road when I’m on my way home. I stay on the bus.
Lisa is lighting scented candles in our bedsit. I’m glad I never found any of the Politan-Ellises’ candles. No doubt their expensive fragrances would have spoiled me for enjoying these. She has arranged our mugs by colour on the shelf over the kettle, mine mingling in the same stacks as hers. Her oversized hardback on ceramics photography leans against my library books. We order a set of brushed cotton bedding from John Lewis in cool grey.
I finish the second coat of plaster the next morning. It’s thin and sloppy, but I gather my tools together anyway. Diesel asks me if I’m off already. I don’t reply. I tell Boss I’m done when the rest have left for their lunch. It’s only the second time I’ve spoken to him, so I’ve never had to call him anything to his face, which pleases me. He wants to write me a cheque, but I don’t trust his accounting, so I wait on the dust sheet protecting the back hall, while he goes round the corner to a cashpoint.
Lech watches me through the glass panels of the door off the first flight of back stairs. I’m not tempted to follow him. I’m busy thinking up nice things I’ll be able to buy for Lisa. I wave to him; he nods in return.
When I pocket Boss’s banknotes, he doesn’t thank me for my work, so I don’t thank him for the pay.
I go to the nurse’s house to get started on plastering his bathroom so he’ll be able to wash his kids.
Image © Steve Johnson