Patching Things Up by Wendy Clarke
Frannie and Kevin had been through rough times as well as smooth in this old house . . .
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.”
“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