Paint

“You paint the wall. Three coats, no more no less.” He holds up three stubby fingers in front of me, to emphasise the point. “Always the same colour – ‘Business Blue’, number 20211 in the warehouse. Never any other colour. It’s special paint – never dries properly, so the kids can’t do their graffiti on it.”

I nod. It’s not hard to understand.

“Three coats on this wall, then you move the rig round to the next one, and do the same thing. No changes. No exceptions. Every building in the plaza, the same. It’s a, you know, corporate style.”

I nod again, seriously, showing him that I’m ready to do the job. Mostly, I want him to stop talking, to stop droning on nasally.

“I don’t want any funny stuff, right? No patterns or colours or deviations from the plan. Stick to the plan. We don’t need your fancy art school nonsense here. This is a serious place. Serious people.”

I let the rant wash over me – how I should be grateful for steady work in this economy, how he’s already fired two people who couldn’t follow instructions well enough. Spittle flecks his lips as he talks, and I try not to show that I’m uncomfortable with how close he’s standing. I can see the spiderweb of veins on his nose, see the untamed hair curling from his ears.

Finally, he’s done. I watch his squat body move away across the plaza, a rolled up newspaper tucked under his arm. He’ll be back at twelve, to check on me. I push the rig’s lever forwards, and it starts clanking upwards.

Not a bad job, really. In this economy, with a degree from an art school (my dissertation was on Cubism), it’s as good as I’m going to get. Steady work, every day for the next six months, with an option to move onto his next painting project if my work is satisfactory. Not good – “satisfactory”. No deviations from the plan – there’s no room for “good”.

I’m getting paid, and I’m in the fresh air. A lot of fresh air – six stories up, with the wind whistling about me. Three coats on this side of the building, top to bottom, and then round to the next side. Repeat that for every building – thirty-five of them huddled around the plaza. I won’t run out of work soon.

It’s too big a job for a paintbrush. I’ve got a paint-sprayer for most of it, and a wide roller for the corners and any tricky bits around windows. Between my equipment and the actual paint, there’s not much room for me on the narrow platform.

I slop the first tin of paint into the sprayer. It’s a dull blue, almost a grey, and it moves like treacle. My arms burn from the effort of lifting the heavy metal can, and burn more from having to hold it upside down, suspended, while the last gloop of paint grudgingly slides out.

I flick the switch on the sprayer, hear the whine as the motor starts up, and begin. The paint comes out as a dark mist, mostly spattering over the wall in front of me. An appreciable proportion, however, is blown back into my face by the little gusts of wind that dance round the building. I’m grateful for the face-mask that regulations demand. I’m less grateful that regulations don’t also call for goggles.

The time, and the work, pass surprisingly quickly. By the time the foreman comes back, sausage roll crumbs dotting his tie, I’ve finished the first coat. I eat my lunch on a nearby bench, while he inspects the work so far. No patterns, no colours, no deviations from the plan. You’d think he’d be pleased, but he just grunts at me and walks away.

As I take the rig up for the second coat, I watch the people in the plaza. The lunch rush seems to be over, and everyone is surging back towards their offices. People walk fast, heads down. No sound of conversation drifts up to me, though that might be because of the height.

The workers all look very similar; the men wear dark suits, with one-colour, restrained ties. The women, almost without exception, are in a white blouse/dark skirt combo, with hair pulled back into an ordered bun. From up here, there’s no way of telling which are bankers, which lawyers, which accountants. Everyone looks the same; there are no patterns, no colours, and no deviations from the plan.

And then I see her.

Four stories up, it’s hard to make out fine detail, yet she stands out from them like a diamond in a crisp packet. She’s looking up, for one thing, and she’s wearing red.

Not much red – she’s still wearing the blouse/skirt combo, in the same colours. But she’s got a red cardigan over the top of it, and some kind of red flower tucked behind her ear, nestled against waves of unrestrained brown hair. She doesn’t fit the pattern.

I watch her as she crosses the plaza, red against the sea of whites and greys, and wonder who she is. She notices me, perching on the rattling rig, and I think – though I’m too far up to tell by now – I think she smiles.

That’s the moment I start looking for. Every day is the same – painting grey buildings while grey people bustle beneath me. But once a day, she’s there. A spark of red in a dreary world. It’s not always red – sometimes it’s green, or purple, or sunflower yellow. But it’s always colour, always something bright. And as she walks across the plaza, surrounded by drones, she looks up at me and smiles.

Over the next few months, I paint. I spray wall after wall, lay down coat after coat of paint. Building after building has its old paint (also number 20211 in the warehouse) covered up, coated over with the same sombre grey-blue shade. My hair and skin are speckled with paint, paint that no amount of scrubbing can totally remove.

Every few days, I move the rig from one building to the next. Once, sometimes twice, a day, I move the rig round to a new wall. I try and time it carefully – from three sides of any building, I can see the plaza. Can see her walking through it during the lunch hour. The fourth side blocks my view, so I try and paint that one after lunch. It’s such a minor thing, seeing her, but she brightens up the day, makes the job seem a little less wearying.

We never meet. Not once in the mornings, or after work as I pack the sprayer again. Not even at lunch, the one time we’re both on the ground. She’s only in the plaza for a few minutes each day when I’m around, and either I’m in the rig spraying at that point, or the foreman is demanding to know why I’m slacking off.

I keep hoping that she’ll come out to see me. That she’ll be there waiting when the rig descends at the end of the day, or that she’ll be standing in the plaza when I arrive to start work. But she doesn’t – all I get is a smile.

I speculate, endlessly, about her. There’s not much else to do while holding the sprayer. It’s not intellectually taxing. I wonder what her voice sounds like, what she does for fun. I wonder what her job is, and why she’s the only one who is colourful. Who deviates from the plan. I wonder, most of all, what she thinks about me. Does she smile at everyone? Does she think about me at all? Would she like to meet me, as much as I like her?

I am a little obsessed. I admit it. She’s the single spot of colour in each grey day, the moment of brightness in a dull, if steady, job. Day in, day out, all I see is grey people, grey walls. And her. I think I’m becoming dependent on her, needing the little rush of seeing her to break up the monotony.

The plaza is not a perfect square. It narrows on one side, five blocky buildings instead of ten. That’s the fourth side of the plaza, the side I get to last. After this, I’ll be moving on, moving to a new job. The foreman, though he doesn’t ever seem pleased with my work, seems to think it’s good enough. I’ll get to spend another six months painting walls. No patterns, no colours, and no deviation from the plan.

I won’t be able to see her anymore. She’s in this plaza, not any other. I’ll lose my one bright moment, my daily smile.

This job is steady, and stable. In this economy, that’s a lot. It’s not even a difficult job; I could do it with my eyes closed. I’d struggle to find another job like it. Something that paid the bills, gave me some security.

But I don’t know how long I can keep it up. Especially without her, without her smiles and colours and her difference from the rest of the workers. I don’t know how long I can keep painting grey walls for grey people and a grunting foreman.

I get to the final building on a Wednesday afternoon. I manage one side – the side facing away from the plaza – before finishing for the day. The next day, I manage two more, leaving just the last side, the one looking into the plaza, for the Friday. The final day.

I spend every minute of that Thursday thinking about how tomorrow will be the last time I’ll see her. How, after the last wall, I won’t have bright moment, a splash of colour against the grey. And she won’t ever know – she’ll never realise, never understand, how much she meant. How much she brightened my day, how important it was that I saw her deviating from the plan and being colour in a grey world.

I arrive early on Friday morning. The rig is stored in a maintenance shed, and I have the key. I don’t actually need the foreman there to start work – I just normally wait for him. Today I don’t.

By the time he shows up, I’m nearly done with the first coat. Blue-grey like all the others, with nothing to make it stand out, nothing to make it interesting or special. He shades his eyes with his hand, peers up at me, probably grunts, then walks away. I keep painting. It’s a little trickier today, with the rig loaded more than usual, but I manage.

At noon, I finish the second coat and send the rig clanking back up to the top. In half an hour, she’ll be here. In twenty minutes, the foreman will be back for his mid-day check. It’s time.

I detach the sprayer’s tank and dump out the blue-grey paint. It slops and slides back into its tin, still as sluggish and viscous as the first day. The new paint is different – it splashes and rushes, flowing slickly from its tin into the plastic tank. I change the roller’s tray too, a different kind of paint again.

Then I start painting. Not in number 20211, the dull grey shared by all the other buildings, but in bright, vivid red. Red in swirls and loops and zig-zags, thick curves and squiggles that blare out from the buildings around me. Abstract red – cubes and spirals and spattered streaks. No picture, just patterns, colours, deviations from the plan.

I don’t just use the sprayer. I use the roller too, accenting the red with thinner lines of bright sunburst yellow, adding to and developing the pattern. The rig’s engine wheezes as I guide us this way and that, up and down and all over, rather than the ordered rows it has moved it up until now. I move the whole width and height of the wall, using the entire building as my canvas.

The foreman arrives, but I don’t stop. He shouts up at me, points with a hairy fist to the ground. I ignore him – the rig can’t be controlled from the ground. Until I come down of my own accord, there’s nothing he can do.

The drones stop to watch. The first time in the months I’ve been here, the rush to and from offices stops, stalls. Tight buns and severe, professional haircuts turn and look at me, at the spitting, stamping foreman. At the sixty-foot love letter I’m painting into the world.

And down there among them is her. She’s wearing red again today, another flower in her hair. Just like the first time I saw her. And she’s standing still, not walking. And she’s smiling, still smiling.

She stays there long after the drones go back inside their grey blocks. She stays there while the foreman’s ranting subsides into muttering, and finally into silent apoplexy.

When I’m done – when the entire wall is awash with colour, in loops and patterns and deviations from the plan – I come back down. I lower the rig slowly and carefully, just as the foreman told me to do on the first day.

He starts up sputtering again as I step off the rig, a jumble of rage about bad references, the youth of today, and being immediately fired. I barely hear him.

She’s waiting by the benches, with a red rose in her hair. She’s bright amidst the grey of the plaza, and she’s smiling at me.


Paint is one of my few romantic stories – the other two so far are Scrabble and Kiss-camIt’s not a genre that suggests itself to me very often – everything I write tends to end up darker than I was expecting. I’d appreciate your thoughts on how well it’s all worked.

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