Twenty-five years ago, my brother-in-law, Bob, stepped into the courtyard back of a London pub to take a piss. He walked into six Asians with a grievance and long, sharp knives. When he got up off the floor he thought his nose was bleeding all over his white shirt. Bob says, "I was a snappy dresser in them days, gold all over, you know?" His nose-bleed turned out to be seventy-four identifiable stab and slash-marks and they put 117 stitches in his arms, his face, his back. The longest, widest, cut was so close to his jugular, the surgeon told him he should start backing horses.
"I told him I already did," Bob says. "I ad no luck wiv them or Pakis."
Bob is stopping here a while, living on our top floor, decorating our hall, stairs and landing, the kids' room, and if there's any money left, the bedroom at the back. The house is 102 years old, a Bath Stone Victorian monster tucked into a central position in a city famed for being Georgian. We saw it, liked how close it was to town, and grabbed it at a price. It needed work but we bought it for its potential. Two weeks ago we finished spending what we'd put aside to fix it up, and Bob is on sixty-quid a day. And Bob's a real decorator. He doesn't rush.
Bob is married to my sister, Pat, at least he was, but he left her, way back, disappeared for a while, and she divorced him. Then about ten or eleven years ago, he moved back in with her, into their little council-house in Wembley. "Sixty bloody sovs a week, Ron, bloody rent! - I give up the drinkin, watched a bitta telly, you know, did a bitta gardening, went fishin." Nah," he says, "Y'start with the lids, give em two coats, make sure nothing is goin' t'fall down, do the makin good with filler, rub it down, undercoat the skirts, the dadoes and the sticks, coupla coats've emulsion on the wood-chip, then finish off by cutting in the Joe Loss."
I haven't got a clue what Bob is talking about. I'm making a mug of coffee. Bob drinks a lot of coffee. He eats every second or third day, sleeps dressed, with the television on, chain-smokes, plays sixties music on a scratchy transistor, covered in paint.
"Lids." He points at the ceiling.
He points at the uprights on the stairs. I know what a dado rail is and say so but I don't know Joe Loss.
"Gloss," Bob says, "Joe Loss, gloss."
"Ronnie, your sister says you're a clever bloke, yeah?"
I'm a writer, an academic. "Big sisters are never wrong, Bob."
Bob grins and one of his scars kinks, turning light blue. "A bloke hasta paint all the number nines in a terrace, right? One undred ouses."
"So ow many nines does ee ave't' paint?"
I answer straight away. "Eleven!" I've thought, nine, nineteen, et cetera, and remembered that ninety-nine needs an extra digit.
"Hee-hee," Bob says and runs a brush down one of the sticks. "Yer jumped in too quick, see? Yer wrong."
"It's a trick question," I answer, "you meant house number nine."
I count through on my fingers, get to nine houses and add the extra one for the last but one house. I'm sure I'm right. Bob's taking the piss, I tell him. "Nope," he says. I say OK, I give up. Bob smiles and shakes his head. He counts nine through to eighty-nine, pauses, grins, and then goes, "Ninety, ninety-one, ninety-two..."
I'm annoyed with myself.
"See," Bob says, "People, they're always in too quick. They rush. You want a job done right, finished. You prepare. You make sure. Decorating is like that. The answer is preparation. Anyone can paint, but it's preparation. What's underneath is what matters." He turns back to painting the stairs, chuckling. Over his shoulders he says, "What's half of two plus two?"
I say two and he says no, three. I say it's all in the inflection, the pauses, where you put the comma.
"Nah," Bob says, "Yer wrong."
"Bollocks," says I.
Bob grins again and his scar changes colour again.
It's strange having Bob here. I always knew him as a London hard man, just possibly a villain. He was always well-off, sometimes very well off for a decorator. Once upon a time, I went down to see them. I was about twenty, desperately in love with a girl called Kathy, she still with her puppy fat but carrying my life around on a light, tight lead. We were going to stop with my sister and her husband - they had a house in Wembley. I had warned Kathy, my sister had said her husband swore a lot, was a bit of a lad, you know, called a spade a fucking shovel. Kathy had laughed. I laughed. That night we were in their kitchen and Bob grinned, said, "Hey you're a bit of all right, Kath', Ronnie fucked you yet?"
I married Kathy the following year, but I wasn't ready. It lasted three years. I loved her, I think, but when I think about her now, it's Bob's kitchen I remember, Bob embarrassing me, and Kathy answering, smiling, "Not yet, Bob, tonight, perhaps."
Maybe I didn't really know Kathy. For sure, we weren't ready to get married. Had Bob been into advice then, I presume he would have said something about taking time, learning to go with the flow, and everything being in the preparation. But then he wasn't this quiet, older, thinkin, fishin man.
We're on the top landing, Bob's done the lids and the hatch to the attic is leaning against the wall, glistening with a second coat. In the roof is an ominous square of black.
"See them," Bob says, "Don't matter which ouse I'm in, they all want the atch put back. You know why?"
I don't know why.
"Fear," Bob says. "People are scared. Leave the atch open and they start to see the dark. Their imaginations start up. They don't like to admit it, but it's primitive, fear like that."
"Maybe they worry about heat loss, Bob."
He looks at me. "Farking eat loss? I'm telling yer. It's fear."
Bob's been with us four days. I wake early, work on my novel. We don't have a kitchen yet and Bob, awake most of the night, has the kettle and toaster in his room. After about an hour's steady work it's almost seven o'clock and I step up the echoing stairs and tap his door. Over coffee he tells me about Mrs Honeybone's ghost.
"Mrs Who's what?"
"Last night," Bob says. "Half-past two in the morning." He nods at the doorway. "That door was shut. Bang! Someone kicks it open. I tell you what, I didn't know what the fuck. I was North, South, North again and four inches off the bed. When I come down, I'm at the door like Jack and no-one's there, nuthin."
"Like the law'd come mob-'anded. Size twelve boots, no messin."
"And Mrs Honeybone. Who's she?"
"Check it out," Bob says. "She'll've lived and died ere. Probably doesn't like all the walls yer keep knocking down. Did y'check the 'istory of the place before you bought it?"
"I had a survey done, if that's what you mean."
"Nah, I mean did you check for stories? What people lived and died and that?"
"Well, you should ave, you should ave," Bob says quietly.
About a year after I married Kathy Bob was attacked in the pub yard. He should have been dead. Pat used to say it was like he'd died that day and got a second chance. Only trouble was he carried on like before, she said, and once his scars had healed enough he went back to his beer, his fags and gambling, his dodgy East End mates, blokes they said knew the Krays
"Then they found the coloured boy," she told me. "Someone had caved in his face with a hammer or a brick or something. They came to talk to Bob, of course, but he said he'd had nothing to do with it. He had a lorry-load of mates who swore he'd been at an all-night game of brag."
Bob is telling me about some of his London jobs, jobs for rich geezers, one a Spanish Contessa. I look up at the void in the roof-space, the missing hatch.
"See?" Bob says, "yer feeling worried aren't you?"
"Heat loss," I say. I'm remembering things, thinking about card-games, hard men, men who take their time. I look at the loft again.
"I tell you," Bob says. "One place in London, there's these Paki's get into a loft, knock through into all the lofts in the street. When they find them, there's about thirty of the fuckers living up there."
He sees my face and misreads what I'm thinking.
"I'm telling you. You jest don't know, Ronnie. Y've got a nice soft life writing books and stuff. You need to get where it's happening, mate. London's full of ginger-beers and Paki's now. They don't fuck about you know. Look at me."
Bob's scar is shining as he points at his face.
"Guy did this, met some bad luck, did y'know?"
He smiles as if he's not there, looks at the hole in the ceiling.
"Yeah," I say. "I think Pat told me."
"I was playing cards," Bob says. For some reason I look up again. "Don't worry, " he says. "I'll put the hatch back when I've finished me coffee. Can't be too careful, Ronnie."