The woman over the road was painting her front door green. I like green, it’s my favourite colour. All calming and natural and neutral; this door was none of these. Of all the shades she could have chosen, her ageing eyes homed in on apple green; too vivid a tone for this conservative street. It cried out, Granny Smith lives here.
I always found Mrs Dailey an oddity. Like clockwork, I’d open up the roller blind and there she’d be, waving her Ken Dodd duster at me from her bedroom window. I had assumed, at first, she was dusting round the window pane and then finishing off by zig-zagging over the glass, like she was waving a wand. But no, she was in fact waving hello to me. Not only that, she’d wind up that taught grin of hers; all teeth, bright white against that red lipstick. She looked like a ventriloquist dummy.
The door looked like the football pitch on my Uncle Arthur’s T.V. We went round last Thursday, as we do every week, to have tea with him. We had a few cans and watched the semi-final of the UEFA game;
Russia v. . He kept adjusting the contrast and colour, so the pitch was humming a glorious green fluorescent anthem. It started to give me one of my ‘heads’, so we had to go. Luckily, we live five minutes walk away, so Brian didn’t miss much of the match. Spain
I shouted over to Brian who was making breakfast; it smelled like coffee and toast.
‘Come and see what Mrs Dailey’s doing, and what she’s got on.’
‘Okay, I’m coming,’ he replied, sounding annoyed at being rushed.
He put down two mugs of coffee; one milky and sweet and the other Audie Murphy strong.
‘Have we time warped back to the forties, or something?’
Mrs Dailey was dressed in blue-grey overalls, with a black belt tied tight round her thick waist; black boots, and a headscarf tied up in a knot on the front of her forehead.
‘She looks like one of those land girls,’ said Brian, kneeling down on the sofa as he peered out of the window. The forties costume was fitting against the backdrop of red brick terraces.
The smell of burning toast stopped our voyeurism.
‘I knew I should have stopped in there till it was done,’ said Brian, rushing off.
‘You know that toaster’s temperamental. Does burnt toast increase our carbon footprint?’
‘Very funny. That’s the last of the bread. Shall we have pancakes; we’ve got flour, eggs and plenty of milk?’
‘Yeah, that sounds great,’ I said, clapping my hands together like a little, giddy child.
‘She must have been up early, because she’s doing the job properly. She’s even sanded down the old paint. Why on earth has she chosen that colour?’
‘Do you think she’s colour blind?’ Brian called out.
‘I reckon she’s been researching for operation Porto de Verde, by watching those do-it-up programmes, and those property developing shows I like.’
‘She won’t be selling up, do you think?’
‘I really don’t think so, Brian. She’s lived here forever, hasn’t she? Remember when we moved in six months ago and the previous owners said there’d been a lot of house moves in the street.’
‘Yeah. And Mrs Dailey had lived there, in the middle of the street, since anyone could remember.’
‘Maybe she’s trying to….Is she coming over?’
Mrs Dailey turned round abruptly as if she was being watched; which she was, and looked in our direction. I wondered if she knew we were gate crashing on her ritualistic method of painting. I noticed it first. She dipped the red handled brush into the pot three times, wiped the excess paint on the rim and applied the green colour like she was playing tennis. Dip, dip, dip; left, right, left, right; down up, down up, down up. I felt quite absorbed by it till she turned round and looked directly at us. She placed the brush across the rim of the pot and walked over with her hands raised up like a surgeon prepped for theatre.
‘She’s coming over. What does she want?’
I opened the door to a serious looking face. She looked smaller than I thought, close up.
‘Sorry to disturb you dear, but I wondered if I could ask a favour of you? You see, I have a Yale lock and when I pulled the door shut to check the contrast of the door within the door frame, I realised I hadn’t put the catch on.’
‘Oh, you’ve locked yourself out?’
‘Yes, but that’s not the problem. The key is in my pocket, and I wondered if you could retrieve it for me. You being a girl, like myself, it won’t be too embarrassing a favour? Would it?’ she said, with her head cocked to one side, pleading with her wide eyes and that toothy grin.
I looked at her hands, still raised in preparation for the operation. She was wiggling her fingers like she were playing an invisible flute. She followed my gaze to her hands and her mouth morphed into an ‘o’.
‘Oh. I can’t possibly get paint on these overalls, dear; they’re new. Can you imagine walking about with hand prints on your posterior?’
Brian sniggered and rushed into the kitchen.
‘I hope I’m not disturbing you.’
‘Not at all. Please step in and I’ll get the keys for you.’
I wished Mrs Dailey had bought a larger pair of overalls and then I wouldn’t feel like I was about to entrap my hand in her back pocket. It was a brief experience and less embarrassing than I thought, after all, I was doing a neighbourly deed.
‘Thank you so much,’ she said, walking out the door and over the road to her house.
‘You’ve forgotten you key, Mrs Dailey.’
‘You will have to open to door for me, dear.’
She waited obediently as I hopped about putting my trainers on. Brian whispered, loud enough for me to hear, for me to have a nosey in her house. I opened the green door and Mrs Dailey nudged me in with her elbow, indicating for me to go into the kitchen. I looked down at my feet as they made a rustling sound on Sunday’s broad sheets, laid out like stepping stones. I looked straight ahead as I sensed her eyes at the back of my skull burning, and daring me to waver. The layout of the house so far was like our own, so I could have done it blind folded.
‘Under the sink, there’s a tub of Swarfega,’ she was stony faced this time. ‘The other one, dear. That’s Bernie’s aches in there.’
I put in on the draining board and watched her methodically clean the paint off her hands. I discreetly manoeuvred into the doorway of the lounge, and had to give it a double take. I scanned the room and what appeared to be ornaments, were stood in there ordinary places, but wrapped in bubble wrap. A quick turn to the right and I could see Mrs Dailey still washing her hands. I walked in a little further to investigate. The table edges were wrapped in the stuff, the T.V cabinet, in fact anything with an edge, up to two-three feet from the ground up. I was tempted to accidentally collide into the coffee table to pop a bubble, but I was worried about how Mrs Dailey would react.
Back in the kitchen she was hard at it cleaning her hands. I coughed a few times to get her attention but she seemed not to hear me, and calling her name didn’t help either. All the while she cleaned her hands in a ritualistic manner. After five minutes I concluded she may have some sort of compulsive disorder, and the bubble wrap issue in the lounge reinforced my concerns.
Then she spoke, and I was almost transported out of my body. I imagined my astral being ricocheting off the padded bookcase, with a popping, gunfire-like sound from my impact. I jumped round, startled to find Mrs Dailey stood directly behind me. She looked up, grinning with a secret.
‘I bet you’re wondering about the plastic wrapping, aren’t you? It’s poor Bernie. You’ve seen him under the sink. We were together a long time till he died six months ago. In fact I remember it was the day you moved in, because my sister Bessie commented on the irony as they drove him away down the street, and your removal van come up the other way. Out with the old and in with the new, she’d said.’
‘I’m sorry. I’m sure you miss him a great deal.’
‘I do. I’m glad he’s safe. It’s a shame though, he was always outside enjoying nature, and that’s why I decided to paint the door green, in his memory you see. The blindness got him down in the end. He started bumping into the furniture, and then he was confined in doors. I came down one morning to find him curled up under the coffee table. He just looked like he was asleep; but he was dead.’
I gasped. ‘What was he doing under the table?’
‘He always slept there, dear.’
I was more than puzzled by her answer, though I really shouldn’t have been, having witnessed her behaviour and strange home.
‘There he is look, with my Jefferson, just before his sight was failing him,’ she said, pointing to a photograph on the wall.
I looked at the man who appeared to be about my age. That can’t be her husband, surely?
‘He looks quite young, if you don’t mind me saying,’ I said, probing for answers.
‘Jeffy? He’s my grandson,’ she said, trying to guide me out of the house. ‘He and Bernie were inseparable. Look there’s his lead on the coat hook; I’ll never remove it, you know. Thank you for your assistance, but I must get on,’ she said, dismissing me from my services, and shutting the green door behind me.