Renovator’s Heaven – Cate Kennedy
October 25, 2008
Original story: Renovator’s Heaven, Cate Kennedy
Adapted by: Sajbrfem
Changes: Pronouns and gender specific terms reversed, Main character name changed to reflect common gender assumptions.
Story length: Aprox 2000 words.
License: Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Australia License.
Caitlin’s up, she’s been up for hours. Lay in bed at dawn thinking about preparing the woodwork, now she’s got the colour sample cards and she’s thinking it over. She’s considering. Bayleaf? Firtree? Eucalypt Forest?
The three greens swim together. When she blinks she sees rectangles of pink ghosting before her eyelids. She blinks rapidly, tucks the samples away. She’ll think about it later. Plenty of time to get it exactly right.
It’s still a pleasure to stand out on the verandah, running her hand occasionally over the handcut eaves. Christ! How much timber had she discarded before she got that perfect? And the fitting! The chiselling and clamping! The slow wiping away of the bead of glue, the ache in her neck as she sanded with the finest grade paper. Some other craftswoman in the future, Caitlin thinks absently, is going to pull a stepladder under these eaves and do a double take when they realise how they’re made. She’s invited friends round, pointed stuff out to them. It’s a labour of love, she’s told them, following their eyes around the ornate cornices and hand-stripped dado. Sure it takes time and effort, but, well… and here she’s made herself trail off with a wry, resigned smile, a poet’s helpless gesture of perfection.
Look at this, she’d said, pulling open kitchen-cupboard doors lined in Baltic tongue-and-groove. Had to strip all that down. She couldn’t help herself. You can’t use a machine for detail like that – you’ve got to do it all by hand. Taking the drawer out entirely and showing them the dovetailing she’d repaired.
It had been the For-Sale sign that had hooked her, the Sunday she’d come round for the auction, a year ago.
“Renovator’s Heaven!” it had said. “Needs the Touch of a Skilled Craftswoman to Restore to its Former Glory.”
And Caitlin was the woman. Not everyone had it in them, but she did. When she raised her hand to bid, she did so gravely, like a woman earnest with the responsibility bestowed upon her. Now she goes inside and snaps on the kettle for her fifth coffee of the day. She’s tending towards Eucalypt Forest now, but there’s plenty of time to decide. There’s a clearing sale of building materials on, she’s seen in the paper, on the other side of the city, but they’d listed Edwardian windows, and Caitlin’s pretty confident she’d find some usable glass panels in them if she went. She’s got a few stacked in the garage; more than she can use at present, truth be known, but they just didn’t make glass like that any more and it never hurts to have proper materials in reserve for new projects. That makes sense to a craftswoman but try telling that to her bastard of an ex-husband. Caitlin’s got brackets running up the walls in the garage, stacked with tongue-and-groove Baltic pine boards, the wides and the narrows, and sometimes she just goes in there and does an inventory of how much she has and how much floor she could replace if needed. It’s a good feeling, being prepared for anything. So there’s the decision on the paint, and there’s the clearing sale option, and perhaps she could swing past the Restorer’s Warehouse on her way home. She’s confident that if she just strolls around the garden, she’ll come across something that needs doing, something that will pull the day into an ordered and useful shape. She’d lain in bed last night and listened to the wind gust across the roof, and felt the pleasurable anticipation of checking the roofing iron the next day. Just that worrisome spot she’s had her eye on, where she’s replaced a piece on the diagonal.
Don’t overdo it, her doctor had advised early on, frowning and examining the rash Caitlin had got up her arms after heat-stripping off layers of lead-based paint in the bathroom. You’re no spring chicken. She’d loosened the blood-pressure cuff and rubbed her chin at the result. Just take it slowly, you’ve got all your retirement for renovating, right? Idiot. Like she was some kind of amateur do-it-yourselfer.
Caitlin sniffs and picks up the claw-hammer and goes up the ladder onto the roof. It’s windy up there; best not to stand upright. Best to crawl carefully pushing your boots against the washers of the roofing screws. All perfectly aligned. She inserts the tip of the claw hammer under the suspect flap.
Rust. She’s not imagining it. Three red marks of rust.
It’s not that she’s scared of heights. It’s just sensible to back down crabwise to the last sheet of iron and feel the guttering with your boot, make sure it’s solid as a rock before you put any weight on it. No, it’s not heights; the wind chill would make anyone’s heart work overtime up here. That’s good, useful adrenaline. Eighteen rungs and then the ground. Then into the laundry for the new silicone-gun, then back to seal these spots, and she won’t have to climb the ladder again till Autumn. The thought of the rust irritating her like prickly heat, hard to keep your mind on anything else once you knew it was there, eating away your roof.
Five steps down, she has one of her giddy turns. A stab of pain rises and recedes, the roofline skews, and Caitlin’s vision drenches red for a few seconds. The world tears grey and papery around the edges. Then it clears: a familiar rising horizon of galvanised iron, ladder set firm against the eave, the coppery aftertaste in her mouth.
When she opens her eyes, the light is dazzling. She climbs down, shaking, her legs turned cottony and weak, like she suddenly weighs nothing.
As she collects her mail she happens to glance down the road. Strange. She can’t remember that old Edwardian place six doors up being renovated, but there’s the blue garbage skip out the front, piled full.
She strolls down to investigate. The house is finished but deserted, glittering with fresh paint. Caitlin’s heart jumps and squirms. Inside the skip there’s a pair of French doors. Perfect condition, not even the glass broken. Thrown out! That hardly seems possible, but here they are, tipped sideways into the mouth of the bin, some snapped framing timbers stacked on top.
Caitlin swallows, fingers her tape measure. She’s already modifying what she feels she’s entitled to expect here, already readying herself for disappointment with a small knowing smile, because stuff like this, that you just happened across, never turns out to be really exactly what you wanted. Like as not, in Caitlin’s experience, the work you had to put in getting them right ends up costing you as much as getting them custom-made anyway, like these doors for example, there was no way they would be 1.85 metres, which was the odd size she’s planning on getting custom-built for her sunroom. But even as she’s talking herself out of it, she’s pulling out the tape, hands trembling a bit, and measuring them.
Caitlin glances around. She could get these home right now and have them in by the end of the day. Even the hinges are perfect. She tries to lift one, and fails with a grunt. Weigh a ton, of course – quality old wood. Her mind’s starting to race, wondering who could she call on to give him a hand. She knows almost nobody in the street, hadn’t had the time to socialise. Too busy with the house and getting her affairs in order and one thing and another. The place seems deserted, anyway. Like the builders have finished the job and just left, and cut their losses and left these valuable doors….
Caitlin’s squinting down the street when she notices the other blue skip at the corner. She has to blink a few times to focus on what’s filling it, because the light this morning seems headache-bright somehow, all glancing dazzle and flash like the surface of water, but she clears her vision as she hurries down there, seeing timber stacked and upended inside. She’s smiling again, preparing herself, as she jogs down. Probably rotten floorboards.
But she gets there and puts her hand on it, and she can’t believe it but it’s kiln-dried cypress, looking brand-new. No nailholes, no nothing.
Caitlin feels beads of sweat collecting, slippery, under her hat. Worth a fortune, worth several dollars a metre, she knows that for a fact, and hers for the taking. Enough for the doorframes and the yawning hole in the laundry wall where she’d impulsively taken out the old copper. Enough to take home right now and get started. It’s Renovator’s Heaven out here today, Holy God.
She wipes her mouth, trying to think if there’s anybody with a truck she could borrow. Or just a flat-bed ute, and someone to help her out. Wonder if I could take up half an hour of your time, Caitlin would say, extending her hand. Just couldn’t help noticing up the road….
Couldn’t help noticing another skip.
Caitlin’s mouth is rank from all that coffee. It tastes as if she’s had nails clamped between her lips, or coins. Her arms and legs, though, feel like she’s been hanging on to something huge and jolting and percussive, like a jackhammer. She hurries to this one. It’s a house she doesn’t think she’s noticed before, double-fronted Victorian, weedy front garden. The verandah’s been left, sagging, in the process of being pulled off.
Thrown carelessly into the skip, unbelievably, is more wrought-iron than she’s ever seen. Her hands scrabble at it. She needs help. By Christ, she needs to race back home for her trailer and try to haul this stuff home before the owners wake up to themselves. She can pull it out herself, one piece at a time, she’s sure of it. And maybe if she gets some ropes she can pull the doors out too, slide them to the ground somehow, pay someone to come and…
Caitlin sucks on the metallic sharpness in her mouth, trying to swallow dryness, blinking again to clear her blurred vision in the bright glare, because she can’t help but shade her eyes and look further down the road. She can’t believe the road’s so long, now she comes to think about it; it’s always seemed like a smallish suburban street to her, but here it is, stretching away, all the way to the intersection, and when she squints she can see them lined up, bang, bang, bang, in cubes of unmistakable aqua blue. Skip after skip.
Caitlin stumbles along at a half-jog, hier breath rasping. How can she begin to catalogue what’s in those skips, how can she even start to plan?
She sees windows, stacked against another skip, genuine rolled-glass six-pane windows, the kind with brass snibs you can’t buy anymore. Boxes of deco tiles. A pedestal sink with original old taps, even the porcelain heads; she’s only ever seen pictures of those. And they’re in skips, these treasures. Without her, they’re all headed for the tip. To be dropped by machines onto mountains of garbage, splintering and warping and shattering. It’s criminal. Unthinkable. Caitlin runs back towards her place, her nerves jangling, and inside her chest anxiety and desire twist and flex together into one unbearable clenching torment. She’s winded with it, aching. Maybe that’s it, maybe she’s feverish, horrified by the thought of losing, the prospect of missing any of it. And here’s her own house, every inch of it hers, but suddenly so bitterly unfinished, so needful of everything she’s seen waiting for her. Jerked to a halt there, she hears something which soaks her in a fresh flush of sweat, although she’s staring with such blank horror at what lies crumpled on the grass at the base of her ladder that her mind can’t attend to it at first. One horror at a time, says her brain, just take in one thing. That noise. That could only be the worst possible thing, the skip-company’s truck, coming to collect. She hears it pull up at the first distant skip with a kind of delirious panic, hears the hydraulic hoist grab it and the faint, delicate sound of glass tinkling, timber frames bursting under impact. Not delirious, her brain registers, sorting. And not the worst possible thing, either. That would be what she can’t drag her eyes from. The thing that lies sprawling at the foot of the ladder, still resting against the eave. The thing in her shirt. Not delirious, because it’s still clutching the claw-hammer, and Caitlin for the life of her can’t remember what she’d done with it when she’d got down. She swallows back the whimper in her throat, gazes wildly round.
It occurs to her again, the horrible bright silent strangeness of it.
There’s not another soul in sight.