On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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Kevin Miller was a painter by trade. He could also plaster, and install a new kitchen, do a bit of electrical work and some light plumbing, but his main work — and by far his preferred occupation — was decorating walls. He was much sought after, and accordingly he was very picky about his working environment.
The usual process was that people would hear about him by word of mouth, give him a call, and ask him to come out and take a look at the job needing done. Kevin would do so, and then get back in touch within a couple of days, either giving a quote for the work and a possible start date, or otherwise an apology that he was just too busy at the moment and couldn’t fit the job into his schedule. Time was the only criterion he ever mentioned, but in truth he had plenty of it. When he made an initial visit to assess what needed done, what he was really checking for was one thing.
He would only work in an empty house.
If the owners were going away during the redecoration, that was fine. If they didn’t live there at all and were freshening up a rental property, that was fine too. But if others would be in the same place most or all of the time, Kevin would always say he just couldn’t schedule the job; too busy right now, very sorry.
Today’s work was in an empty house, as always, and this one was virtually ideal. A big place, out in the country, no neighbours, with large rooms and complete privacy. The owners were overseas and had left him a key and the security code a week earlier. They wanted each of the six bedrooms repainted in particular colours, and had contracted Kevin to remove the furniture, protect the flooring and fittings, do the job, and then restore everything. A sizeable project, with a healthy price tag, and Kevin had agreed readily.
He stood in the upstairs hallway, deciding which room to begin with. He had two sheets of printed paper giving the details of the colours needed, all of them custom mixes with fiddly finishes. It didn’t matter. His van sat outside in the enormous turning circle, and it did contain some decorating equipment that was suitably bashed and splattered. He’d bought both the van and the equipment from a friend a few years back for almost nothing. Its purpose was to head off any awkward questions, though he’d never actually needed to show anyone the brushes and rollers and dust sheets. The van’s sides prominently bore the company name he traded under: Beautiful Walls.
Kevin had a reputation as a perfectionist who was impeccably clean and tidy, and would take the very utmost care of your home during the work he did. He was proud of that. It was hypothetically a matter of principle for him, though really it was a practical consequence of his methods.
He walked into the master bedroom. The furniture was all teak, expensive and heavy, and there was a lot of it. The carpet looked like it cost as much as a family car, and Kevin was pretty sure that a lot of the objects on the dressing table were made of real silver. Shifting it all away from the walls, covering the floor completely, and then putting it all back after painting would be a swine of a task. Ordinarily.
Kevin closed his eyes, and began to whistle the old melodies, gently and barely audibly. He’d always known them, right from his earliest years, and he had a vivid memory of lying in his crib before he could even speak, making sounds with the right tones, and watching his toys dance above him.
The wardrobes and dressers and chairs, and the enormous bed, and the dressing table, and the bedside tables, and the floor lamp, and the plush sofa in the bay window, all silently rose and then drifted lazily towards the horizontal and vertical centre of the spacious room. They hung there, perfectly still, like an illusionist’s trick but very real. Kevin nodded, glancing at the first piece of paper again to confirm the needed colour, and then he lifted the paper towards his mouth and gently blew on it.
A fine dust came off, even though none had been on the paper to begin with, first just a puff but then more and more, until it formed a diffuse haze in the room. A moment later, it leaped towards the now-exposed walls, neatly avoiding the cluster of furniture, and spread itself evenly over the flat surfaces.
Kevin nodded once more, and whistled another strange melody, watching as the furniture all returned to its original positions. It had taken less than half a minute. The room had been a dated opalescent beige before; it was now a clean and contemporary storm grey. The woodwork sparkled in fresh satin white.
One down, he thought.
Fifteen minutes later, allowing for some time to wander around and appreciate the grandeur of the residence and to imagine the lives of the people who lived in it, Kevin’s work was complete. He had estimated two and a half weeks for the job, which was entirely reasonable and even quite speedy. He would bill the owners after that amount of time had elapsed, and they would be as delighted as all of his customers were.
Coming from nine generations of decorators, he felt a real sense of connection to his trade. There was no-one else who could paint a room the way he did — not since his father had retired, at least — and he felt blessed to be able to enjoy the end result and the satisfaction it brought without having to break a sweat.
In the meantime, he had another job starting in two hours, and it was a fair distance away, so he had better get back on the road.
He had a schedule to keep.
I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. If you have any thoughts or questions, I’d love to hear from you; I'm @mattgemmell on Twitter.
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