Ian followed Adam slowly around the room in sidesteps. First the steam, then the blade.
The thick gloss bubbled and melted before their eyes. They talked and sometimes laughed and everything rebounded off the bare walls and floor. Occasionally they stopped for cigarettes, Adam rolling his own unless Ian offered one from his packet. Despite all the doors and windows having been open for weeks, despite the chemicals and cut wood, the offensive scent of other people’s bodies dominated the air.
‘So how much altogether?’
Adam half-smiled, sidestepped and applied the head of the steamer to the wall. A black plastic tube trailed from beneath his hand down between his legs and to the bubbling box behind them.
‘Too much. Not as much as they’d wanted.’
Ian laughed, too much probably, he thought. He sidestepped into the dusty footprints Adam had left and scraped at the wilting paint.
‘I knew a girl who lived her’ he said. ‘Years back now, fifteen maybe.’ The bubbling stopped. Adam lifted the head from the wall and looked at it’s face. ‘I’ll fill it.’
He unplugged the plug and detached the hose as Ian looked down on him. He carried what was left out of the room and out of the front door to the tap on the garage wall, feeling Ian’s eyes on his back long after they weren’t. Ian scraped at the wall, glancing over his shoulder every few seconds. He heard the water hit the bottom of the reservoir and pictured it immersing the element. He wanted to finish his story. He scraped the wall too hard. Through the paint, through the next layer, then the next, gouging the plaster and shifting from one splattered trainer to the other, the ache in his arm numbed. He heard Adam close the door behind himself. Stop. He collapsed inwards. He wouldn’t finish the story for now. He would keep it to himself. He would talk about the game and the rigmarole of house-buying, how tradesmen are. He wouldn’t finish the story for now.
Adam was crouched behind him, re-plugging and attaching. His thighs burned in the squat. ‘Feeling old’ he thought. ‘Not old, just fucked’. Weeks of this now, ripping out and scraping, sanding and skimming, taking hold of the bathroom carpet, feeling the decades of steam and sweat soaked into it leaking out into your hands and pulling it from the floor. He looked up from the steamer to the backs of Ian’s legs. The bunch of keys in one back pocket and the wallet in the other, underneath the fadings of the denim where they had been before. The fabric pulled to the contours of him as he shifted his weight. It was tiresome t work for hours on end in an empty house with this prick and a broken radio, but we don’t truly choose our friends. Besides, they were moving in that weekend. Adam stood unsteadily, feeling the joints and muscles working, looking at the back of Ian. They would probably go for a pint when they were finished, he thought, at the Tippings Arms at the end of the street. He was resigned to it. Ian would talk. He would never be funny, though he would try. After a couple of drinks he would start leering at the barmaids, talking too loudly about them, making Adam his accomplice in the embarrassment. Adam thought about ending the day there and then with a convoluted lie involving a falsified phone call and an elaborate story about Emma, his new, pregnant, wife in trouble. But the idea of having to actually go home, as he would have to, in Ian’s car, was worse than his current situation. The steamer began to bubble.
‘I went to school with her.’
Ian stopped, staring into the wall, not scraping, not quite believing what he was doing.
Adam looked at the back of his head then down at the steamer. Silence. Long seconds go by. He could hear the tone of the voice. He hadn’t heard it from his friend before, but knew that it implied a dangerous desperation. Not quite believing what he was doing –
Ian pursed his lips and inhaled through his nose, a rush of blood roaring from his feet to his head. License.
‘Yeah, in my year. Fucking gorgeous. We all used to hang around here. A few of them lived in this street, all around here. Just kids though, bladdered off three tins. Funny though. You’d be at home getting ready not knowing what was going to happen. You’ve seen fuck all at that age, haven’t you? Birds who though they were shit-hot at school having a couple of drinks and getting their tits out. Fucking brilliant at that age, as a kid, like, as a young lad. Sat on the park usually, just boozing. Or if somebody’s mam and dad were away you were in there, fucked, seeing what happened. This house, you should have seen it. Her mam and dad were old, in their sixties, she was the youngest. She had this dickhead brother in his thirties who tried to have a go at us all once when she came home pissed. We just stood there laughing at him and he did fuck all. This house though, light brown leather couches and sad clown ornaments on the fireplace. Paintings of little girls with puppies. It stunk of old slippers and food that’s been on all day.’
Adam hadn’t moved. He stood at Ian’s right shoulder before approaching the wall and applying the steamers head to a thick lump of paint. He held it there for a few seconds, then moved it. Ian began to scrape.
‘One night we ended up here. Her brother didn’t live here anymore. About ten of us, lads and girls. A Saturday night. Bladdered. Music on, loud. I was talking to her, this girl, the one that lived here. Everybody else was in the kitchen, we were in here. She was plastered. I started asking her all these questions, taking the piss like, about what she’d done with lads. She was just laughing and saying ‘Wouldn’t you like to know’ and all that shite. I carried on, trying more, seeing how far I could go with her. For a laugh, like.’
Adam put the steamer down and walked over to his jacket. He pulled his tobacco from the pocket and began to roll a cigarette. Ian stayed at the wall, scraping harder.
‘Well, she stops laughing. I carry on. Now she starts giving me a load of shit. She slaps me in the fucking face and storms off, storms upstairs. And I’m just sitting there, on the fucking brown leather, holding a bottle. I couldn’t believe it. I was looking at the kitchen door hoping nobody heard. Then I was looking at the front door, thinking about going. I couldn’t believe it. Then I was looking at the stairs. The fucking bitch. Couldn’t have a laugh pissed up on a Saturday night. Couldn’t play along. Stuck-up bitch. She was laughing, she was playing along. I necked the bottle and put it on the rug. I didn’t know what to do but I stood up. I was going to kitchen but I stopped. I was going to the stairs.’
Adams phone rang and he looked at Ian, standing motionless, silent, never taking his eyes from the wall. Both men breathed heavily. The ringing stopped.
Adam walked out of the room to the hallway. Ian couldn’t hear, he didn’t move. Then Adam said –
‘I have to go…now…it’s Emma.’
Christopher Veasey lives and works in the North of England.