That’s My Boy

He’d tried so hard to be like his grandad and failed, yet he knew the old man would be proud of him…

I looked round the house and hoped the decorator wouldn’t judge me too harshly for my efforts.

It had taken a lot of courage to finally admit I was useless and call in an expert.

My paintwork had more curtains than a block of flats and my attempts at filling cracks in the plaster left the walls looking like a relief map of the Lake District.

It had seemed like such a good idea at the time, buying Brook House at auction with every intention of doing it up and making it my home. Yet so far I’d failed at every turn.

Grandad would be ashamed of me.

He’d been the family handyman, always ready in his overalls when someone needed him.

Grandad decorated his house every two years. One year downstairs and upstairs the next.

I was his trusty assistant, stirring the paint for him and cleaning the brushes. It was also my job to put out all the dust sheets, making sure everything was covered.

He made it look so easy. Swish-swash he’d go with his brush and he never painted over the edges or made mistakes.

He’d left me a bit in his will and it seemed like fate when this house came up for auction with a ridiculously low guide price.

I’d sat in the auction room clutching my paddle and thought I heard Grandad say, “Go on, son. You can do it!”

Everyone was sitting in silence, watching the auctioneer, fingers twitching on their paddles.

My heart sank every time a lot went for way over its guide price.

I’d been to look at Brook House and thought it seemed structurally sound, but in need of a lot of TLC.

It stood halfway up a hill overlooking the brook that divided the village in two. The thick stone walls had felt solid. There was no sign of damp or rot and I could imagine Grandad following me round nodding his approval.

The auctioneer asked who’d start the bidding and after hesitating I felt a sharp poke between my shoulder blades and my arm shot up.

I was sitting in the back row with no one behind me, but I thought I heard Grandad chuckle. “That’s my boy.”

I waited for someone else to bid, but no one did so I got my sturdy house and I was as pleased as punch.

That feeling lasted right up to the moment I tried plastering over a crack.

Grandad said houses were like nests. They needed regular maintenance to keep the lady of the house happy and content, otherwise they were likely to fly off.

Not that I had anyone to build a nest for.

Probably just as well since I was useless at it.

There was a knock at the door. I imagined the decorator standing there in his paint splattered overalls. For the sake of my pride, I decided to tell him the house was in this mess when I bought it.

In all honesty the cracks in the plaster had looked better than my repair attempt.

He’d be big and burly, a proper man like Grandad. The sort of man that could do all the things men were supposed to do. Not like me.

Opening the door, for a moment I thought there was no one there, but then I looked down and there she was, small and dainty, wearing a smart suit.

“Mr Murray?” she said, thrusting out her tiny hand. “Jenna Hartwell. I’m a little early, I hope that’s OK.”

The wind ruffled her sleek tawny bob and I stepped back quickly.

“Yes, thank you. Come in. And please, it’s Charlie.”

“Nice to meet you, Charlie,” she said, brown eyes twinkling as if she meant it.

She stepped out of the biting cold and wiped her feet. I thought I’d asked a local tradesman to give me a quote, but now I was starting to wonder. Perhaps this was a big company masquerading as local and I was about to be given the hard sell.

“Don’t look so worried,” she said. “We’ll take it one room at a time, talk about what you want and then I’ll crunch some numbers.”

Number crunching sounded like something someone who dealt in big figures might do.

“I see someone already made a start in here,” she said, looking at my efforts in the sitting room.

“Terrible, isn’t it?” I said. “I can see why they gave up.”

She looked at me. “Hmm,” she said.

“I mean it’s dreadful. Look at the curtains on the paintwork and the bad plastering.”

“Not everyone can be good at decorating,” she said with a sniff. “I’d soon be out of a job if they were.”

“That’s true,” I said, but I’d started digging a hole for myself and I stuck my shovel in deeper. “But why would you even attempt it if you were so awful? I mean, you’d have to be stupid.”

I poked at a bit of plaster and it crumbled and fell off the wall.

“Hmm,” she said again and looked at me over the top of her glasses.

We went round the house and while I told her what I wanted she tapped the screen of her tablet.

When we’d finished, I offered her a coffee. She didn’t seem quite as friendly as she had at first.

“Thank you,” she said. “While you’re making it, I’ll work out the figures.”

I tried to think what I’d said to make her go so frosty when she’d been so warm to start with.

If I’m honest, my social skills are about as refined as my decorating ones.

Grandad was the sociable one in our family. Whenever I went anywhere with him, I’d be happy to listen as he chatted with his mates.

I took it all in and learned a lot about the past. I used to write it down when I got home so I wouldn’t forget.

Grandad was amazed when I showed him my first published book.

It was a month before he died.

“I had no idea,” he said. “You kept that quiet!”

“I didn’t want to tell anyone in case it didn’t go anywhere.”

When he saw I’d dedicated the book to him, his eyes went all red and his lips wobbled.

“Sorry, Grandad,” I said as he blew his nose.

“What for? This is incredible.”

“I have a contract to write two more,” I said and he hugged me. He hadn’t hugged me since I was three.

“That’s my boy,” I heard his voice murmur as the kettle boiled. “You’re getting it at last. Very few of us are good at everything.”

I returned to the sitting room and put the coffee on the upturned box I was using as a table. Jenna was sitting in Grandad’s old fireside chair which I’d rescued when we cleared his house and I perched on a bean bag.

She was tapping on the tablet, her forehead creased in a frown. I started to speak and she held her hand up.

“Shh! I’m trying to concentrate.”

By the time she held out her tablet, the coffee had gone cold.

“This isn’t an estimate,” she said. “It’s what we’ll charge. No hidden extras.”

I looked at the figures on the screen.

“There must be some mistake,” I said. “How can you possibly do it so cheaply?”

“You think my figures might be wrong?”

There it was again, that tightness in her voice.

“No,” I said quickly. “When can you start? Or rather your dad? Or is it your husband?”

She smiled. It was the sort of smile Grandad used to say was dangerous where women were concerned.

I knew what he meant. He asked Gran if she’d remembered to put the eggs in the Yorkshire pudding batter once and I was surprised he hadn’t turned to dust on the spot.

“I will be doing the work, Mr Murray,” she said.

“You can paint?”

I thought of Gran who had regarded paintbrushes as something to be avoided at all costs, and Grandad who maintained that decorating was a man’s duty.

“I might not be very quick at working things out, but I’m very good at painting and decorating. Do you have a problem with that?”

“No problem at all,” I said.

She looked at the mess I’d already made.

“You shouldn’t knock whoever did this,” she said. “It’s very disheartening when you try to do something you know you’re not very good at and it all goes wrong.”

“Yes,” I said. “I know.”

She looked at me and let out a small dry laugh as if I didn’t know at all.

“I have dyscalculia,” she said. “Number blindness, if you like. So I have to check my figures over and over to make sure they’re correct, which is how I know they are.”

I stared at her for a moment, then blurted out, “It was me! I did this.”

“Did what?”

“This mess,” I said. “The terrible plastering, the messy paint and that creaky floorboard at the top of the stairs wasn’t half as bad before I fixed it!”

She laughed. “Why didn’t you say so in the first place?”

“I was ashamed.”

“Why would you be ashamed of having a go? At least you tried.”

I thought of Grandad, how expert he was at decorating, yet he couldn’t toast a slice of bread without incinerating it.

“When can you start?” I asked.

“Not for another month, if that’s OK with you?”

“Perfect,” I said. “Is there anything I can do? I’m good at the prep. You know, cleaning down the paintwork and doing a bit of sanding.”

She looked at me over the top of her glasses in a way I found most disconcerting and I thought I’d put my foot in it again.

“Are you for real?” she said.

“I’m sorry. No. I shouldn’t have said that. You clearly have it all covered. I’ll just back off.”

“Hold on a minute,” she said. “If you want to do that, you go right ahead. I love decorating, but I hate the prep.”

She came back a month later, hair tied back in a ponytail and she nodded appreciatively at what I’d done.

I stirred the paint for her and cleaned her brushes. I spread out the dust sheets and watched as she went swish-swash with her brush and brought about an amazing transformation.

We chatted as she worked and she mentioned the deadline for filing her tax return coming up next January and how she panicked every time she had to do it in case she jumbled her figures up.

She’d done that last year and the tax people were very understanding, but she didn’t want to make a habit of it. It had been her first year of trading and very nearly her last.

“I’ll help you,” I said and could have bitten off my tongue.

She was a strong, independent woman. A woman like Gran who never forgot to put eggs in her Yorkshire pudding batter.

She stopped brushing and looked down at me from the top of her step ladder.

“You’d do that?”

“I’ve been self-employed myself for a while,” I said. “I’d be glad to help.”

“OK, but only if you let me cook you dinner,” she replied with the smile I’d grown extremely fond of.

I froze and, like at the auction, I felt a poke between my shoulder blades and pitched forward a step.

“I’d love to,” I said and somewhere I thought I heard Grandad laugh.

“That’s my boy.”

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