Harriet was one of two women who had a serious, usually detrimental, effect on my mental wellbeing. Short, petite and blonde, she was the last in a long line of carbon copies who had abruptly ended things with me when they realised something wasn’t right. She left me but after a few months I knew I was the lucky one. I often shook my head in wonder, usually in the middle of sanding a wall or after finishing a ceiling, thinking, ‘Benny, man, you got out just in time.’ So why, when she sidled up to me at a party in Westmere, all sweet and innocent after months of silence and a blanket ban on all forms of communication, did I not run?
‘Ben,’ she said, ‘what would you charge your first love to paint her bathroom?’
I told her she wasn’t my first love and that I didn’t know. She watched me for a while then asked why I wouldn’t look her in the eye. Instead of saying because having anything to do with her would be harmful to my long-term health, I said I needed to see the space first.
We took an Uber to her studio on the third floor of a new concrete building off Parnell Rise. She led me around the apartment. She kept her distance. We ended up in her closet-sized bathroom and while I surveyed the job she stood in the doorway.
‘You know, you invited me,’ I said. ‘It’s not like I’m going to jump you.’
‘Sure. I know that.’
Shaking my head, I asked her what colour she wanted.
‘I was thinking beige maybe, or a warm yellow.’
‘Do you remember our plans for Greece?’ I said.
She didn’t, she smiled knowingly and said that she did, but she had no idea what I was talking about. I didn’t care. I wasn’t about to let that stop me from promising her a blue bathroom so dreamy it would evoke the same calm sense of the infinite she would one day feel standing atop Santorini.
I told her, less loftily, it would, if nothing else, remind her of the sea.
I don’t know where the spiel came from. I don’t usually upsell. Most of the time I am told to paint walls white, and I do so, without comment. Then again, most of the time my clients aren’t former lovers. Most of the time our shoulders aren’t grazing and we’re not standing silently, waiting for the other person to breathe so we can hear the heavy exhalation, so we know they too were holding their breath. It’s not that I thought we would get back together. I knew we were over and I wanted it to stay that way. All I hoped for was to linger on in her life for a while after we lost contact; I wanted to be who she thought of as she sat on the loo, admiring her perfectly blue walls.
And even as she tried to act detached and nonchalant, I noticed her standing straighter, almost hopeful, in the doorway of her little bathroom. She looked like she believed a bit of colour could change her life.
The second woman who continued to have a detrimental effect on my mental health was my mother. I had barely spoken to her since she moved to Christchurch to look after Granny a few months earlier. The truth was I enjoyed the respite; she worried too much, too vocally. But I spoke to her for the first time since she moved two days after running into Harriet. She called to tell me about a letter. I only answered because I thought it was Harriet continuing her seduction.
‘Why’d they send it to you?’ I asked.
‘It might not be for you,’ she said. ‘You just need to call and explain the situation.’
‘It’s for me,’ I said.
‘So you’ll call?’ she said. When I didn’t answer she said, ‘Benny honey, you’ve got to stop this. You won’t just lose your licence. If you don’t pay, it can affect your credit score for years. I promise, you will regret it if you don’t.’
I said, ‘Just send me a photo of the letter.’
She admitted she didn’t know how.
‘Well, how am I meant to sort this out?’
She asked if I had a pen and paper, then she read the letter out and I wrote down the PPN number and the ID number and the 0800 number. When she was done and I had repeated every number back to her, she said, ‘She would love to see you.’
‘How is she?’
I didn’t say anything.
We were in Resene, Teed Street searching the catalogues for the perfect blue. I couldn’t keep any of the names in my head. There were a multitude: Powder Blue. Tiffany Blue. Carolina Blue. Cornflower Blue. Yale Blue. Space Cadet Blue. Admiral Blue. The blue she decided on, slightly less lilac than I’d hoped, was called Stromboli Chess Club Blue. She giggled at the name and I had a bad feeling that was the reason she chose it.
I read the information sheet to her. ‘A vibrant, cornflower blue inspired by the Mediterranean sun and the Aeolian island of Stromboli.’
‘Not Greece,’ she said.
‘But close,’ I said, surprised she remembered my spiel.
Back in the apartment, I told her she wasn’t needed right away. A job like this was so much harder if you got the early steps wrong.
Alone, I covered the floor with an old sheet and sanded away all of the obvious uneven patches of old paint. If I was expecting to be paid I’d have sanded the whole bathroom down. To be honest I wasn’t thinking about money. I was thinking about our differences – how she didn’t like movies or live music or any of my friends, how I didn’t like clubbing or brunch. As I taped around the sink and toilet, around the bathtub and the door, I dwelled on brunch, wondering why I hated it so much, so vigorously.
She reappeared in old white shorts and a pale green T-shirt, holding a roller like she knew how to use it. She looked chic and yet didn’t quite pull it off. It was like she was acting or dressing up, and I was reminded of the TV show Stars In Their Eyes, the original version, not the local version with Simon Barnett, a show I hadn’t thought of in twenty years. I imagined her giggling and saying, like it was so very unbelievable, ‘Tonight Matthew, I’m going to be a painter.’
I filled the wooster and put the wide roller in her hand. This way she could go wild on the bare walls while I focused on more difficult areas around the sink and toilet.
She talked as she painted. I interrupted her only to provide directions. I warned her to roll the paint on evenly and asked her to watch out for paint flicks. She told me the same old thing – long days using Excel spreadsheets, followed by dreary evenings studying to become chartered. She said it like there was no alternative; she was always destined to work for ungrateful old men who patronised her for being young, or who squeezed her leg too hard and too high. ‘Since Me Too, though,’ she said, ‘they’re freaked out. Now they just stare.’
Later, she asked about me. I offered the minimum: how I lived in a flat with six yuppies, how I paid $295 a week for a gloomy, narrow room that was cold and shady most of the year due to the neighbour’s London planes; how I had a reasonable landlord who, according to my flatmates, had never inspected the property nor raised rent; how my main issue was that I had three leaks in my ceiling and I was too afraid to tell her in case she put the rent up.
‘I just move my bed during the winter,’ I told her.
When she had her back to me I watched her work. I discovered the following: she kept as far from the edges as she could. Though we had a wet rag, she was afraid to get paint on the bathtub. She went over her areas twice as much as necessary. She could be reckless – she swung the roller from wooster to wall, leaving a trail of minor blue explosions across the sheet. Yet once she was painting again, she was slow and self-conscious. There were gaps in her concentration. She was not wearing perfume. I noticed when she started to slow down. I told her to take a break. While she was gone I took a wet rag and wiped away the splashes she had left across the sink and tub, then admired what we’d accomplished. The first coat was nearly done. The bathroom had bloomed. Sure, we would need to do a few touch-ups. But so what? Every job, like every relationship, required a few touch-ups.
‘I was talking to Kate,’ Mum told me, ‘and she thinks a defensive drivers’ course could really help.’
‘Oh yeah, and how would it help?’
‘Once you understand how dangerous it is, you’ll stop speeding. I really think it could help. I’ll pay for it, Benny. Please.’
‘I understand the road rules, Mum.’
‘Then why do you continue to break the law? Why do you continue to act like you’re nineteen?’
I think she’s ready for the final coat, Harriet messaged late on Saturday night.
It had been two days since we painted the first coat. I’d been drinking. I wasn’t drunk, but I couldn’t drive either. Better expense an Uber, I messaged back. I didn’t have many rules for painting. I took it seriously, I used high-quality paints, and I never did it drunk. Even so, the moment I saw her message I knew I was going over.
We didn’t get started until it was almost 1am. Quiet and tentative, we went over our previous work. She hopped up on one of her chairs to reach a blemish in the corner. The chair wobbled. I grabbed her. When she was done, after she had painfully, slowly, dabbed at the corner, she told me to help her down. We got undressed and comfortable on the sheet. She put her hand in the wet paint. She looked at it and then she pushed against my chest. She told me I wasn’t allowed to wash it off.
Afterwards, we lay in the bathtub. She splashed playfully and told me she was seeing someone. She said we should get brunch in the morning. I didn’t speak; I just watched the water turn blue. She only realised later, when we stumbled out into the apartment in the middle of the morning. The windows were bright, the walls were spinning, and she was yelling at me, demanding to know where her handprint had gone. As for me, I was regretting ever agreeing to this.
On Sunday, Mum left a message. ‘Have you called them? The letter said you have ten days. They sent it on Monday. I’m not sure if they count the weekend, but if they do then you have until Wednesday to sort this out. Call me back as soon as you can, all right?’ she said.
I knew Harriet would enjoy removing the tape, seeing the straight lines rush into existence. Ripping it off was the best part. The motion was unreal, the sort of perfection that made you feel like a machine.
‘Most people start with a wall,’ I said, ‘but you conquered a bathroom.’
When we were finished and the tape was a sticky bundle in the sink, we sat down as far apart as possible in her tiny bathroom and admired our work. I considered asking her if she had ever gone to court. Before I could though, she asked how much she owed me.
‘We should keep this professional,’ she said.
I told her how much it would be.
She looked at me. ‘That’s market rate, is it?’
‘You tell me.’
‘Fine,’ she said. ‘Fine, fine, fine.’
She loaded her banking app and asked if it was the same account. It was. The bathroom was chilly all of a sudden. She said the money had gone through, I thanked her for her business and walked out the door.
It was Thursday evening and I never got around to calling the government. I should have sorted it out. I didn’t forget. I just didn’t want to wait on the phone, listen to Bic Runga, explain myself, have to defend myself. I should have told Harriet I had a fine to pay, a court appearance to make. I should have told her I wasn’t punishing her. But I didn’t tell her anything.