“He’d never heard of, let alone seen, a geriatric burglar before, so he kept on the lookout as the old man tried several keys in the lock and then banged on the glass.”
Clay was alone in his backyard office when a strange man entered the property. So he crouched on the floor, wielding a blunt pencil, and watched him. The man walked up the driveway and, on the back porch, cupped his hands against a stained glass pain. Now the man was staying put, He could see. The hunched back under a red flannelette shirt, little frail arms, grey hair poking out of a worn baseball cap, heavy lean on his right foot.
He’d never heard of, let alone seen, a geriatric burglar before, so he kept on the lookout as the old man tried several keys in the lock and banged on the glass. He thought about calling the police, of course, but did frail seniors count as threats? He thought not and, instead, sought comfort by texting his girlfriend Maya who’s usually reassuring in a crisis.
Clay: Getting robbed by an 80-year-old.
Maya: OMG. Haha.
Clay: I could die.
Unable to break in, the old man seemed to get flustered. He rattled the keys and hit the door with his fists like a monkey before he finally gave up on the pick locking method and picked up a long timber pillar, otherwise known as a window javelin. Then, he looked around each shoulder, leaned on the pillar, slowly cocked his leg, and farted. At which point, Clay went, Oh-h-h-h-h-h-h-h-h-h-h. The painter.
Everything came back to him. His housemate Hugo’s long message last week. The accusations about him not pulling his weight. The list of reminders. Put bins out, clean kitchen, don’t drink the Peroni’s, something about a painter. At least he’d remembered the bins.
Eventually, the painter found the right key, which Hugo must’ve given him, and began lugging buckets and rollers inside. Meanwhile, Clay remained working on the floor with his laptop, not wanting the painter to know he heard him let one off on his porch. He planned to stay here the entire day, to save the embarrassment for both of them, but he became famished and decided to crawl past the kitchen, down the driveway paved with jagged bricks, and enter through the front door to look like he’d just arrived too.
Inside, black plastic covered the tables and the painter was brushing dust off the ceiling with a ragged cloth. Standing in the doorway, Clay did a fake cough, but there was no response. He took a step closer and said, ‘Looks good,’ even though the painter hadn’t done anything.
The painter wobbled on the ladder. ‘Fuck. You scared me.’
‘Sorry. I’m Clay.’ He held out his hand.
‘Pete,’ the painter said. ‘Nice to meet you, Kaye.’
After shaking hands, the painter made his way off the ladder and sat at the dining table, holding his chest. ‘Why are your knees bleeding?’ he said.
Clay looked down and with his palm wiped the broken bits of brick and blood off his knee. ‘That’s weird,’ he said and, to change the subject, added, ‘How long you been here for?’
The painter sipped from his water bottle on the table. ‘Was it from the crawling?’
‘You crawled past the window before. On the gravel. Is that why your knees are bleeding?’
His face hot, he stared at the man for a while then said, ‘I don’t think so.’
The painter turned his head to either side and arched his back. ‘Hugo tells me you’re an Art Director?’
‘I used to be a copy clerk for an advertising agency in London. Let’s see. 1963, that was.’
‘You started in advertising and ended up as a painter,’ Clay said, not to be facetious, but to feign interest. Although now he said it, he realised how it sounded and added, ‘Love that. So what was it like, working in the ad game then?’
He told Clay there were a lot of martini lunches and then he veered into recounts of his schooling days (where he failed every subject at school, except history and English), details of his divorce, and finally to now where he divides his time between painting and frequenting a library in the suburb of Cockburn (pronounced with a silent ‘ck’, according to him and no English book ever).
‘I like investigative journalists. Whistleblowers. Stuff like that,’ he went on. ‘After every book, I find the address in the back and write to them.’
‘What? Like you email them?’
‘First I handwrite a letter. That way there’s a better chance they’ll reply, and then we correspond via email.’ He spoke with a refined accent and was well-groomed too, for a painter. The buttons on his flannelette were done to the top, his pants creaseless and, on the bench, his set of paintbrushes formed a perfect line.
‘The best reply I got was from a journo in London. I told him I found the subject of his book very interesting, but I couldn’t get past page sixteen, because his style was an insult to the English language.’
‘Yep. In cap locks, he sent me an email saying I should shove my feedback up my ass and called me a condescending piece of shit.’
‘Heavy,’ Clay said to sound diplomatic. Secretly though, he took the journalists’ side, because he was a geriatric painter in Perth, not a critic.
‘I revere the English language, you see. So when people write a book that is illegible, they ought to know.’
Clay paused for a moment, gauging whether this was his way of showing off. The painter smiled and slicked back his hair again, which said to Clay he was.
‘Okay,’ Clay said, jumping off the kitchen bench. ‘I have to go back to work.’
‘Nice to meet you,’ he said and walked outside. Back in his office, he texted Maya again.
Clay: False alarm. He was the painter.
Maya: Good work, detective.
Clay: Painter by day, literary critic by night.
Maya: Stopped texting. I’m trying to finish my assignment.
He opened his laptop and began drawing concepts for a plumber’s logo. Upon sketching the first line, he felt a stabbing feeling in his abdomanan and realised he forgot to make lunch. Not wanting to endure another monologue, he promised to wait until the painter left the room, and over the next hour, watched him clean the ceiling, tape the edges, and paint with long precise strokes with his tongue furling up the side of his mouth. The progress was slow and leisurely, which was nice for him, but Clay thought he might die from malnourishment. The hunger brought on increasingly bigger aches in the middle of his stomach and also confidence born out of desperation that led to him closing the laptop and storming into the kitchen to announce his intentions.
‘I’m going to make a sandwich,’ he said. ‘Now.’
‘Okay.’ The painter climbed down the ladder and quickly took the plastic off the bench. ‘I’ll get out of your way.’
Struck with how easy that was, Clay remained in the doorway and wondered if speaking his mind could have remedied all the other past sufferings in the name of politeness. Then he stepped to the side of the door and the painter, holding three brushes and a roller, walked outside. On the porch, he folded the material into a neat square, sat on his crate, righted his posture, and placed his hands on his knees.
‘You can sit on the couch,’ Clay said. But the painter just gave him the thumbs up and remained put. Or, you could work around me like a normal person, he thought.
As Clay got the ingredients, the painter continued to watch the door, seemingly waiting on him like a hungry collie. Pressured, Clay made the baguette quickly, carelessly swiping the mayonnaise on and slicing the cheese thick. He thought about making the painter lunch too, of course, probably not a baguette, maybe a vegemite sandwich or something. But the painter could leave a letter, critiquing the texture of the bread. So instead, he glad-wrapped the left-overs and, and went outside. ‘Done,’ he said to the painter before walking back to his office. Here, he inhaled half the baguette, stared at his shitty plumber’s logo, and contacted Maya again.
Clay: Not sure where this painter came from.
Clay: He’s really judgemental.
No reply. He typed again. My sandwich is disgusting and I’ve barely got any work done.
Maya: Let me finish my assignment. I’m not answering for the rest of the day.
Clay: You always get so uptight.
She didn’t reply to that either.
Clay: Sorry I said that. Can I help you with your assignment?
After 30 minutes, nothing. So he told her she could stick her assignment in an unsavoury place and stared at the screen again. It was 4 pm and very hot. An hour later, at the end of the day, he drew another concept and then the painter knocked on the door.
‘What?’ Clay said.
‘I printed out my email correspondences,’ the painter said, holding up a manilla folder. He smiled and told Clay that the folder contained emails to a very famous Australian author. What one? Clay couldn’t recall because he’d stopped listening then. He faced the computer, contemplating the unoriginality of his logo. When he turned back to the painter again, he caught the words, ‘6 hours and 17 minutes.’
‘What’s that?’ Clay said.
‘So far, I’ve worked for 6 hours and 17 minutes. Just a small patch of the ceiling to go.’
He remained in the doorway and, after a while, said, ‘Everything’s looking top-notch.’
‘I believe you. I have work to do now.’
‘Oh, sure,’ he said and handed over a manilla folder.
‘Look,’ Clay said. ‘I don’t want your folder. I’ve got enough emails to read. Now if you’ll excuse me.’
‘Sure. Of course. I just have a bit to go inside,’ the painter said. ‘Then I’ll go.’ Pulling the manilla folder into his chest, he turned and limped toward the kitchen. Inside, he dipped a roller into a plastic plate of white paint and, with his other hand, massaged his shoulder. Then he considered the final patch in the corner above the fridge and began rolling. Although, the strokes were faster now, less careful as if the pride had gone.
Maya hadn’t replied and Clay had nowhere to be. From the little fridge in the corner of his office, he fetched a beer and scrolled through Instagram, which displayed mostly women in tiny bikinis. They arched their backs and pouted into the camera. They looked desperate, but they did have good bums, which is maybe why he lost track of time. When he looked up again, it was dark and the painter had gone. Placing his phone on the table, he got up and, in the kitchen, inspected the new lick of paint, for splatterings or bleeding on the edges, mainly. Surprisingly though, he searched every crevice — twice! — and failed to find a mistake, even above the fridge, where you had to stand on the kitchen bench and contort your body awkwardly to reach the corner.
Outside, the wind chimes resounded and heckling on the street corner began. On his way to the close the office, he passed through the lounge room and on the edge of the coffee table noticed a neatly folded note. It was crumpled and half-torn, but inside the handwriting was neat and beautiful, almost calligraphic.
I got paint on the floor and, after numerous attempts, failed to get rid of it. A small smudge remains next to the back porch door. I took four hours worth of work off the bill.
Pete, The Painter
The heckling got louder, and Clay walked outside to lock the front gate. On the way back, on the driveway, where the painter’s ute had been, he found more paper, this time a loose pile of pages fluttering in the breeze. He wiped the dirt off the cover and, upon discovering these were excerpts of the Painter’s correspondences, took the pages back to the office.
The first email was addressed to the best-selling author Mimi Glaser. He thanked Glaser for her meditations on ageing and death, and in the second half divulged his personal details. He said he lived by himself in a ‘nice but ramshackle apartment’ and his family didn’t speak to him anymore and he didn’t blame them either. On the next page, Glasser responded.
The correspondence spanned forty-two pages and lasted a year, which is when Glasser stopped. At the end of the booklet, the painter sent four emails to her and when she failed to respond, he sent one to the Dean of Arts and Sciences at the university Glasser was teaching at. He asked the Dean whether her health was okay and that he was worried. Four days later, the Dean replied saying he had inquired about her health and he had nothing to worry about. She was fine and healthy.
Clay put the booklet down and stared at the wind chimes dangling in the breeze and the withering pot plants in the garden. The temperature had dropped and after turning on the heater, he unlocked his phone and texted Maya, saying he was sorry for being a needy little bitch. Not waiting for a reply, he opened the laptop and drafted an email. He thanked Pete for the amazing job he did and said that he shouldn’t worry about the smudge.
Clay signed his name and leaned back into the chair. He considered the screen for a long time. Then he clicked on the document and added, Also, you left the correspondences behind. You’re a good writer, Pete. I’d love to read more.