Patch­ing Things Up by Wendy Clarke

Fran­nie and Kevin had been through rough times as well as smooth in this old house . . .

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FRAN­NIE looked up from the com­puter, ir­ri­tated. The ham­mer­ing had been go­ing on for over an hour now. “How long are you go­ing to be, Kevin?”

Her hus­band put down his ham­mer and in­spected the floor­board, run­ning his hand over the grain to make sure that the nail was flush be­fore re­plac­ing the car­pet.

“All fin­ished. Just as well as I want to go up on the roof. There’s a tile loose.” He stood up, rub­bing at his knees. “What have you been up to?” “Noth­ing much.”

The screen in front of her showed the flat frontage of a mod­ern town house. As her hus­band walked over to her, Fran­nie quickly clicked off the page.

There was no point in show­ing him the brand-new river-front houses that had just been built on the edge of town. He wouldn’t be in­ter­ested.

“I’m pop­ping out­side, then,” Kevin said, plant­ing a kiss on her head. “The roof shouldn’t take long to fix.”

Once he’d gone, Fran­nie brought up the web page again. How smart the houses were with their wipe-clean win­dow ledges and red tiled roofs that wouldn’t need see­ing to for a long time.

No, if she showed Kevin these houses, he’d just laugh.

“Make do and mend, Fran­nie. That’s what our par­ents had to do, and if it was good enough for them it’s good enough for us.”

The last time he’d said it she’d pointed out that in the early days of his par­ents’ mar­riage there had been a war on, and that they’d been re­fer­ring to clothes, not houses.

He hadn’t lis­tened, though, just car­ried on scrap­ing the old putty from the sash win­dow-frame that rat­tled when the wind blew.

As if on cue, a gust of wind shook the win­dow and a shiver of cold air fil­tered through the gap where the two panes met. Clearly he hadn’t made such a good job of fix­ing it af­ter all.

She leaned her fore­head against the cold glass. It brought back a mem­ory of her younger self.

She and Kevin must have only been in their twen­ties. They’d had an ar­gu­ment about some­thing or other and he’d stormed out.

She could still re­mem­ber the sick feel­ing in her stomach as she’d sat at the win­dow wait­ing and watch­ing for him to come home, and the re­lief she’d felt when at last he’d re­turned, a bou­quet of flow­ers in his hand and an apol­ogy on his lips.

Pick­ing up a coaster from the ta­ble, Fran­nie stuffed it be­tween the two win­dow panes and the rat­tling stopped. It would do for now.

It was the same through­out the house: there were wa­ter pipes that Kevin had re­sealed af­ter they’d sprung leaks; rot­ting door frames that had been cut away and re­filled; a new piece of glass in the con­ser­va­tory roof that didn’t quite match the oth­ers.

Year af­ter year of re­pairs and patches. Like the quilt that cov­ered their bed.

The back door banged and she saw Kevin strid­ing down the gar­den. She watched as he slipped the pad­lock from the gar­den shed and dis­ap­peared in­side.

He reap­peared car­ry­ing a can of paint. Drib­bles of yel­low had run and crusted on the out­side of it.

Sun­shine Yel­low. It was what their bed­room was painted in and she re­mem­bered the day they’d bought it, think­ing the colour would en­hance the light that spilled through the win­dow each morn­ing.

It was the room where their baby had lain in his crib next to their bed.

Fran­nie closed her eyes, re­mem­ber­ing the tiny white hands and the fine hair. He’d been taken away from them too soon, and even though they’d had other chil­dren, she could still re­call the weight of her sor­row.

She also re­mem­bered the way she had turned away from her hus­band, un­able to cope with his grief as well as her own.

Time had helped them to heal and, as

the years passed, the house had worked its spell once more, wrap­ping it­self around them like a com­forter. They’d started to talk to each other again about how they were feel­ing.

It had made their mar­riage stronger.

A year later, Ly­dia had come along, and then Xan­der. With two more in the fam­ily it was a lit­tle cramped, but they’d re­or­gan­ised the house, patched it up and painted the odd wall.

As al­ways, they’d mud­dled through.

That was many years ago now, and they hadn’t ever changed the colour of that bed­room. Re­ally, the whole room needed a makeover. It would never hap­pen, though – Kevin would just patch things up, as he al­ways did.

She flicked through the pages of new-built houses with their UPVC win­dows and doors. Then she looked at the price.

Was there any way they could af­ford a house like this?

Yes, if they used Kevin’s re­dun­dancy pay-out and added to it the money Fran­nie’s grand­par­ents had left her . . .

But would he agree?

Kevin widened the steps on the metal lad­der and po­si­tioned it next to their bed. Across the wall, a patch of dark yel­low bloomed like a pair of moth wings – a re­sult of the leak­ing pipe he’d fixed ear­lier in the week.

With the paint can in one hand, he climbed the lad­der, winc­ing at a sharp pain in his knee.

Ig­nor­ing it, he set­tled the can on the top step, dipped his brush in the paint and be­gan to cover up the stain. As he painted, he whis­tled. Noth­ing pleased him more than to see the re­sults of his ef­forts.

What did it mat­ter if the paint on the wall had faded in the sun­light so that the colour he was ap­ply­ing was a shade darker? He was fix­ing up the old place as ten­derly as a fa­ther ap­ply­ing a plas­ter to his child’s knee.

When they had first bought the house, over 40 years ago now, he had known it would be theirs for ever. A place to raise their chil­dren and watch them grow.

He ran his fin­ger down the seam in the lin­ing pa­per. He re­mem­bered re­stick­ing it while his chil­dren’s laugh­ter floated into the room from the large gar­den, with its mis­matched fence pan­els.

The chil­dren might have left home, but he and Fran­nie were still here. This old house had heard both their ar­gu­ments and their mak­ings up and, over the years, had grown as com­fort­able as the patched work trousers he was wear­ing.

“I thought we might take a walk. It’s such a lovely evening.”

His wife was stand­ing in the door­way, their coats over her arm.

Kevin bal­anced his brush on the paint tin. “Now?”

“Why not? The paint­ing can wait.”

She looked ner­vous and he won­dered if there was some­thing wrong. They didn’t of­ten go for walks these days. Fran­nie was al­ways at the com­puter, a far­away look in her eyes, and he was al­ways busy tin­ker­ing.

He glanced at the wall. “I know the paint’s not quite the same colour, love, but . . .”

“It’s not the paint, Kevin. I just fan­cied a walk.”

“OK,” he said, climb­ing down the lad­der. “Where?”

“I was think­ing we could wan­der down by the river. There’s some­thing I’d like you to see.”

His heart sank. He’d known this day would come. Al­though she didn’t know it, he’d seen the web­sites she looked at and the way her steps would slow as they passed the es­tate agent’s win­dow.

“That sounds in­trigu­ing,” he said, fix­ing a smile on his face. Af­ter all, he could be wrong. “I hope it’s some­thing I’ll like.”

But Fran­nie was al­ready on the land­ing and he didn’t hear her an­swer.

The last of the evening sun glinted on the river and a moorhen squawked in the reeds.

Fran­nie took Kevin’s arm. “We should do this more of­ten.”

She was pleased when he re­turned her smile. “Yes, we should.” They were al­most at the edge of town and the new houses were ahead of them, their gleam­ing win­dows look­ing out on to the wa­ter. Each plot had a minia­ture square of lawn and hard­stand­ing for a car. As they got closer, she could see there were Sold signs out­side one or two of the houses.

“We’ll just go to the end then turn back,” Fran­nie said.

She was dy­ing to see into one of the win­dows. Maybe, once Kevin had seen what they were like in­side, it would be eas­ier to tell him her idea.

The sun had sunk be­low the trees and there was a light in one of the rooms at the front of the first house. She was pleased that they hadn’t closed the cur­tains.

Un­like their own home, with its al­coves and re­cessed book­cases, the walls of this room were a per­fect rec­tan­gle and painted a neu­tral cream. A sin­gle pen­dant lamp hung from the cen­tre of the room and Fran­nie knew that if she could see the floor it would be limed oak floor­boards or a car­pet of mod­ern sea­grass.

She pic­tured their own liv­ing-room, the spots where the car­pet was worn cov­ered over with bright rugs.

“Isn’t it lovely?” Kevin looked at her. “Do you want to go in the show home? It says they’re open un­til eight. We’ve still time.”

“Re­ally?”

“It’s what you wanted to show me, isn’t it?” He stood with his head bowed and his hands in the pock­ets of his favourite coat.

She’d lost track of the num­ber of times she’d mended the pock­ets for him. Even though she’d bought him a new one for Christ­mas he’d con­tin­ued to wear it.

“How did you know?” “It wouldn’t take a de­tec­tive to know you’re fed up with all the patch­ing up and the mak­ing do.

“Over the years, I’ve been too busy en­joy­ing my­self to see what the house has be­come. It’s like the lit­tle crooked house from the nurs­ery rhyme.”

“It’s not as bad as all that.”

“Maybe not, but the sen­ti­ment’s the same. Ex­cept for one thing.” “What’s that?”

“It’s just the two of us now in the crooked house. It might be time for a change.”

“Do you re­ally mean that?”

“Why not? My knees aren’t what they used to be. Maybe it’s time to hang up the paint brush.”

Be­hind them, the river was a dark rib­bon, bro­ken only by the sil­ver rip­ple of the moon. It would be a tran­quil place to live.

They could go to the show house and col­lect a brochure. Then, later, they could study paint charts with names like cal­ico and hes­sian and think about how the ram­shackle col­lec­tion of fur­ni­ture and bits and pieces that were the fab­ric of their mar­riage, would fit into that neat lit­tle house.

A house with no mem­o­ries . . .

She should feel happy but she didn’t.

A light rain had started to fall, mist­ing in the light from the new street lamps.

Fran­nie pulled up her col­lar and took Kevin’s arm. For 40 years they’d been mak­ing do and patch­ing up, not just their house but also their mar­riage. And some­how it had worked.

They were still to­gether and they still loved each other. It was enough that he was pre­pared to do this thing for her.

“Come on,” she said, giv­ing his arm a squeeze. “Let’s go home.” n

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