Painting the Shed
I hear the first scream while I am painting the shed, kneeling in my brother’s old school shorts on a pile of yellowed newspapers.
‘No! She’s not dead!’
Great Uncle Jazeps, known to me as Uncle Jaz, gave me the timber shack today. It leans towards the fence, and one of the boards has slipped, leaving a triangle of sunlight on the back wall. He also let me have all the old tins of paint and second-hand brushes on the shelves.
‘You paint, make pretty, huh? Ya?’ Uncle Jaz had offered. ‘Maybe Auntie Pauline will give you mat for floor?’
‘Ya, Uncle Jaz.’ It was almost the only Latvian word I knew, along with Soodi, which I knew meant shit. I wasn’t allowed to say shit but Soodi was all right. I watched him lever the lid off with an old chisel, turquoise paint flaking onto the floor in bright flecks.
Great Aunt Pauline often shouts, but the shrieks sound different now. I scoot forward to look out of the door.
As she bellows, Auntie Pauline folds in the middle, until she runs out of sound, thin curls hanging down. Then she unfolds, the air squeezing back into her with a wail, like a pair of nylon, floral bellows. Uncle Jaz pats her as she rises, shaking his head. All I can pick out is the word ‘Jimmy.’
I hope he’s not coming home to take his old room back.
I dip the most pliable brush into the paint. It’s the colour of the bathroom wall, where it clashes with the primrose bath, sink and toilet. Where Uncle Jaz goes every morning with the Angling Times. At some point he sings some of the Latvian anthem, partly in Russian because he learned it at school. The first brushful glows against the faded creosote.
Words float through the missing window pane.
‘That T’resa, she was never good enough for our Jimmy.’ Hiccoughs punctuate Auntie Pauline’s shrill voice.
I like Teresa, she gives me sweets when she babysits, sherbet lemons that fountain sharpness and sugar into my mouth, butterscotch blocks in silver paper.
‘Is accident. It must be accident.’ Uncle Jaz, stretching the English words into funny shapes, shaking his head, white hair flowing onto his collar, blue eyes lost in nests of wrinkles.
The turquoise covers five long boards and starts the sixth. It rolls off the edges where creosote has oozed in from outside, forming balls of glossy colour. The next pot is called ‘Autumn Peach’ and is the colour of the best back room, the one reserved for guests. It has twin beds and matching polyester bedspreads that slide off the second you sit on them. The paint smells like new plasters, and is a similar shade. It’s thin at the top, solid at the bottom. It runs down the boards and streaks the floor.
The neighbour’s in the garden too, the one Auntie Pauline calls “that fat slut.” She’s soothing, I can hear lots of ‘loveys’ and ‘pets’.
‘I know he never done it, Cath.’
Cath’s voice doesn’t quite penetrate the shed, so I stand on one of the other tins to look through the dust and spiders’ webs on the window.
‘It must have been an accident. Don’t you worry, pet. It will all get sorted out.’
‘The police have always had it in for my boy.’ Pauline starts wailing again. The police are always arresting Jimmy, he seems to spend every winter in HMP Portsmouth.
Looking back at my work, the end wall of the shed is now more gravy-coloured than Autumn Peach, so I try another tin. It’s bright pink, and covered in a thick layer of khaki oil. I stir it a bit with the screwdriver. I pick a slat at random and touch the brush to it, paint oozing down the bristles and dropping a lazy ‘S’ and a few spheres of colour into the dust of the floor.
Uncle Jaz is shouting now. ‘Pauline!’ Then a lot of words, some Latvian, some words I’m not allowed to say. I peer around the door to see two policemen holding his arms. He’s crying, great sobs barking around the garden.
‘Is good lad, means no harm…’ He keeps lapsing into Latvian, which only Auntie Pauline can understand. Everyone is shouting.
‘My boy wouldn’t hurt a fly!’
‘There’s a young woman dead, Mrs Balodis. Someone knocked her down.’
The other neighbours hiss and growl like cats, standing by the shed.
‘I hear he ran her over with her own car.’ Mrs Madderly, whose husband always wanted us to reach into his trouser pocket for a toffee.
‘I hear he reversed over her.’ Mrs Pruitt, who told my brother off for falling off her wall and breaking his arm. ‘That Jimmy was always trouble. His mother is a bag of nerves.’
‘Poor Teresa. She was such a sweet girl. Not too bright, though, hanging out with Jimmy.’
The inch of blue in the battered tin is thick, the skin trampolining the brush off until I stir it a bit. I wipe it off on the corner of some newspaper. It goes on like blue cheese spread, and smells similar.
Mrs Pruitt has to speak louder over the commotion. ‘They’re a bad family, I’ve always said it.’ Mrs Pruitt, who Uncle Jaz took to the hospital when her husband has his veins done.
‘And those kids, in and out of care.’
I slide back into the shed, crouch over the tins and brushes with their broken promises. I will go back to the children’s home. Pea-green walls and urine flavoured mattresses. My eyes start to itch with tears, and I rub my sleeve over my face, leaving a smear of wetness from the paint. It might be for Teresa, but it’s probably for me.
Rebecca Alexander is a fiction writer and poet living in North Devon. She left a career as a psychologist, listening to people’s extraordinary stories, to write her own. Her first novel, Borrowed Time, was a runner up in the Mslexia competition, and attracted a literary agent. She blogs at http://witchwayblogspotcom.blogspot.co.uk/