Wet Paint

I sort of clocked them as I got off the bus, but I didn’t pay any attention. A gaggle of geezers in orange Hi-Viz vests.

But these days, any time, you can’t go more than 10 metres without seeing someone in a Hi- Viz vest or jacket, sometimes an entire Hi-Viz outfit. Like a pair of pyjamas. Or a Halloween costume. So you don’t pay attention. Every time I see one, or a group of them, I think ‘Thank Christ I’ve got away from all that’.

It was a gorgeous morning. Not a cloud, but not too hot. The ‘Bank Holiday’ weekend tomorrow. Quiet on the street at 8.00 a.m., but Jazid is already there, waiting.

“Jaz!” “Fellah!”

We do spuds. I don’t know why. It’s not like we’re ten or anything, but we always do spuds.

As I opened the office I thought, where does the phrase “Bank Holiday” come from? Is it, like, when the people in banks have a holiday, then we all have to have one as well? Whether we’ve arranged one or not? And if it is, how come banks get to arrange our holidays? What’s so important about these banks, anyway.

My keys jangle brilliantly in the lock. I love the hefty clang of the plate glass door as it swings back onto its frame, like a cymbal. It always feels like a crazy sample in a house record. Since I started doing this job and getting all the money I’ve put the two together: the clang of the door and the money I get.

It was the usual smell of polish, solvents and incense left behind by the cleaners.

The rule – sorry, policy – is that the first person in has to put the coffee on, to make an inviting scent.

The coffee was actually vile. Evil, even. You’d never want to drink it. But the smell was nice, and Fliss said that we’ve got to have the right ‘atmosphere’ when punters come in. That includes an inviting scent.

Punters never actually came in, of course: they only ever e-mailed or rang from their iPhones. But, whatever! Fliss was the boss. The big boss. So when she said it, we did it.

“Do the coffee, man,” I told Jaz.

Jazid’s a dude. I like him: young, sparky, always wearing a good suit with a fat tie. He’ll do well. Already has: exceeded his targets every month since he joined

He’s come from Leeds. “I’m seekin’ me misfortune,” he said. “I’m the fookin’ anti-Dick Whittington, me.”

Strict Muslim upbringing, and still a Muslim, although not always completely observant. A bit chubby, smooth face, and these fat eyes that make it look like he’s about to fall asleep.

But there are no flies on him. Sharp as a nail. Brilliant on the phone. And incredibly charming with the prospect at the property.

I was looking forward to Friday. It was just going to be me and him in the office. Everyone else had taken the chance to make the long weekend even longer.

I didn’t have anything to do, anyway. And after ten years I think “Bank Holidays” are some of the best days in London. No one around – time to wander – nice weather – just stay away from Carnival

Last year, last ‘Bank Holiday’ weekend, Fliss arranged this party at her other house in Kent. Well, it wasn’t exactly a house. More like a castle.

And it wasn’t exactly a party either. We all had to turn up at the Embankment to get on coaches at ten o’clock on Saturday. Everyone in the company, from our office and all the other branches. I sat on a bus for two hours and ended up at this country place. We got stupid little glasses of wine and canapés. I hate canapés.

The week before, I told Emma I wasn’t really into it and I had other plans. She said it wasn’t optional. It was part of being in the family, she said, and if I didn’t go, then there would be questions about my commitment.

This year Fliss sent out an e-mail. Or rather an f-mail, as she or someone in her private office cleverly decided to call it. Because of current market conditions, it said, sadly there will be no summer party this year. It would send out the wrong message to our clients.

Result, I thought. That’s the kind of message I want to hear. There was loads of moaning. But I was relieved.

We got the coffee going, the workstations sparked up, Sky News on the plasma screens, checked the e-mail. All that morning stuff. Even though there was just us two, we had to make it look like the place was humming.

August is always weird. You get your leads, like usual. But most of them – half at least – just don’t answer. It’s crap. Then the ones that do mostly want to tell you about their holiday: either just been on it, or about to go. In Barbados or the Maldives or the Seychelles or even the Isle of Wight. Never understood why it always seems to be an island.

It can be great or it can be shit, August. But once you get to the end of it at least you know it’s over.

I made my calls and non-calls. All the time I was on the phone I was kind of watching the geezers over the road, painting that hoarding.

It used to be a really nice old Victorian factory. In the 70s, the council bought it and rented units out to small businesses. But a couple of years ago they sold it, and in a fortnight the developers knocked it down. Now they’re building a massive mixed-development: expensive flats at the top, cheap ones in the middle, shared ownership at the bottom, with some offices and shop units on the street. They’re going up all over the place, these deals.

Now and again another bloke would come out. He had a yellow Hi-Viz jacket, and a clipboard. He wanders around talking to the painters, the orange-men, writing stuff. I can see the geezers talk back, but only as much as they have to.

We tried to get the marketing on that development, but like lots of new-builds they said they’re doing it themselves. “Good luck”, said Fliss.

It looked like a real drag. A hundred meters of hoarding, three metres high. With paint as thin as water, probably. And outside it was at least 70 degrees in old money. Like I said, I was glad to be out of all that.

But it was gorgeous. The sky was as blue as it can get, and I could tell from the waft of the struggling sapling by the frontage that there was a bit of breeze.

I took a notion, as Mum used to say.

“Jaz! mate!”

“What?”

“You done all your calls?”

“Yeh. I fookin’ did ‘em an hour ago.”

“What you doing now?”

“Angry Birds.”

“Right. Fuck that. Take your tie off, get two of those chairs from the back and I’ll see you outside in a couple of minutes.”

I divert the office phone to my mobile, bang out of that door and stride up to the corner shop. Two minutes later: Jaz and me, in the sun, on our folding plastic chairs.

I hold out a Red Stripe to Jaz.

“‘Ang on, man! It’s Friday. I’ve got prayers laters. I can’t be drinkin’ no fookin’ lager!” “Ah, come on, Jaz. You weren’t exactly worried about it last Friday.”

“Don’t mention last Friday, man.” He pauses, looks at me and grins. “Alright, give it.”

We burst our cans and toast each other. It was pure gold. We traded war stories: cheeky deals, backdoor romps, close shaves, intimate encounters, who was getting what. We laughed, loudly and a lot in the beautiful August sun.

There was no warning. We were both fuzzed by the ‘Stripe, the spliff, the warmth.

I was looking a mile away, thinking about my mum and Selma, the way we used to dance to “The only way is up! Baby!” Jaz was gazing at a beautiful girl in a short summer dress as she sashayed past in special shoes.

I see them coming just in time, jump out of the chair sideways, like a fly.

They look at me. I look at them. I weigh the odds and make the calculation instantly: there’s no contest. Not only outnumbered, but also outclassed. Even maximum threat and instant violence wouldn’t work for us here. They have so much more form and anger and heft than both of us, put together, multiplied by ten.

Jaz is too late.

The big one, a tall, tall guy reaches out with his leg, an athlete, and tips him over backwards.

The second and third ones have the paint. Bright blue and watery, but it makes the point. Jaz gets both barrels. Both buckets.

It’s slow motion as they pour it – chuck it – over Jaz, sprawling on the ground. Like that thing on telly ages ago – liquid and solid, both at the same time. Pure colour. Gleaming in the sun.

The fourth one steps forward. He’s holding his arms behind his back, like a bouncer or a maitre’d. He brings out a sheet of paper.

He holds it over Jaz and lets it go.

It sort of floats down. Like a seed or something. From one side to the other. Then back and forward and back again. More slow motion. Landing on his face

“WET PAINT”

The fifth one. Suddenly I recognise him. From school.

There is a stink of solvent from the paint, exhaust from the road, the drains. I feel faint.

Snizzle, we called him. Skinny, big pointy nose, freckles. He didn’t get it as bad as some of the others because he was clever and kept himself to himself. Invisible most of the time.

He sticks his face right into me as Jaz slips and swears in the paint on the pavement next to us. There wasn’t an inch between Snizzle’s nose and mine.

And I could feel his breath on my eyes. Smell it, too. Strange. Bitter. Chemical.

“You two: you reckon you’re all over it. Well so are we.”

He says it gently, quietly. Almost like a blessing.

He cocks his head and quickly brings his left hand up. I flinch, expecting the punch. Instead he holds his thumb and forefinger right in front of my eye, a millimeter apart.

“There’s nothing but a breath between us.”

***

 by Malcolm Blythe
@malcolmblythe

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