Herbert and the Wallpaper; a short story about decorating…

Once there was a house. An impossibly old house. From the outside one wouldn’t realise immediately exactly how old it was. It sat like a squat square cake at the end of the street. Two ordinary floors, with a grey slate roof covered in moss. Its walls peeling ancient whitewash like icing that had long since dried up and become in-edible. Four ordinary sash windows, wood frames rotting to mush like melting chocolate. Each cracked pane of glass blocked by dirty brown net curtains obscuring any possible view inside. The house that Herbert had been born in.
He rarely opened its black front door. Usually he only ventured out on a Tuesday morning to make his weekly trip to the corner shop. Bread and milk and a small bit of cheese was all he needed, apart from his pipe tobacco. He liked to keep thin; needed to keep thin. His knees creaked like the ancient flaking door whenever he opened it and he was always careful to scour the vicinity to ensure that no one could see into his hallway.
His neighbours were so used to his hermit-like existence that it was as if he and his house didn’t actually exist. The house was simply a part of the landscape that they walked past on the way to the next busy thing in their busy lives. They ignored his small rocky front garden; all unkempt weeds and dandelions. They didn’t notice when he twitched the upstairs curtain to watch them, hoping that no one would come near.
It was July when he decided, the air was warm and Herbert knew it was time. Time for his excursion to the high street. The same trip he made every year. Sometimes he made the trip two or three times a year if he felt brave enough. The same trip he had made over and over for the last fifty years. Fifty years, that was how long Chislehurst’s Ironmongers had been trading on the high street. Before this he had had to take bus to Shrumpton. For years he took that dreaded bus. He hated it because it meant he had to converse with more people than he felt comfortable with. He hated buying the ticket from the conductor, especially if it were a girl. Before the bus he could remember hitching a lift on a hay cart and he had hated that too. He had been so much younger then.
Chislehurst’s was much more satisfactory, and he had been delighted when it had opened. He could walk there and Mr Chislehurst himself always served him with no fuss or bothersome questions, and, over the years, Chislehurst had come to know the kind of wallpaper that Herbert liked best. Usually a nice patterned flock; always some kind of classic pattern with repeating flowers, maybe lilies or a nice fleur de lis. Chislehurst always knew the right kind of thing. And Chislehurst knew that none of that fancy new ready-mix paste was ever going to be good enough.
So Herbert almost felt good as he turned the corner to the high street, although he didn’t allow himself to smile. That could wait until the decorating was done. Annoyingly his trolley wheels were squeaking loudly, he should have oiled them, years of rust attracting attention from everyone he passed. The trolley was big, it needed to be, but he had nowhere else to keep it except the back garden where inevitably the rain ate away at its joints like arthritis. So he grimaced at every face that stared at his squeaking progress. Grimaced to ward them off.
The noise and annoyance of it was so distracting that he didn’t notice the new blue sign above the door as he chained his trolley awkwardly outside the shop.
Once inside though he couldn’t help but notice that something was wrong. Very wrong. The counters and shelves were all in the wrong place. Where was the tool section? Where were the bins where you could buy individual nails or screws? Where was the grass seed and rubber gloves? Where were the light bulbs? And most importantly where was the wallpaper?
He stood confused for a moment, scratching his head and wondering if he had entered the wrong shop by mistake.
“Can I help you?” said a young boy in a bright blue shirt. He had a rectangular badge with his name. ‘Brian, happy to help,’ it said.
Herbert stared at the badge. “Where is Chislehurst?” he asked,
“Sorry?” said Brian,
“Chislehurst? Where is he?”
Another man approached.
“What seems to be the problem?” he asked and smiled a fake smile. Herbert looked at his badge; ‘Eric, happy to help,’ it said.
“If you are actually ’happy to help’” said Herbert, “then you will find Mr Chislehurst at once,”
“Ah,” said Eric, “I am sorry sir, but I’m afraid that Mr Chislehurst passed away eight months ago…”
“Oh…” said Herbert,
“We have revamped the store since ’DIY-4-ALL’ took over,” continued Eric, “many of Mr Chislehurst’s old customers seem to like it. What is it you are looking for?”
“Wallpaper,” said Herbert,
“Oh yes, I can show you our catalogue,”
“Catalogue?” said Herbert,
“Yes, we don’t keep wallpaper in stock in our high street stores, but from the catalogue you can order anything you like from our online store and we can deliver it right to your door, free of charge…”
“Deliver?” said Herbert. He was confused and feeling hot.
“…or you could always visit our out of town superstore, where they have a wide selection of papers,” said Eric,
“Oh…” said Herbert,
Eric showed him the catalogue. He flicked through the pages not knowing what to do. Delivery would mean someone coming to the house, but he simply couldn’t bear the idea of trying to find some ridiculous out of town shop. That would mean a taxi ride. It was all so unacceptable. Too much change, and he hated change.
He turned the pages quickly. Most of the designs were hideous to his eye. Geometric patterns and terrible colours. Cheap tat, simply hideous. In end he felt he had no choice, he would just choose a simple red flock with stripes. Pretty much the only suitable thing in the whole damn catalogue; he had already spent to much time out of the house. Chislehurst’s demise had well and truly flustered him.
Herbert paid and Eric arranged the delivery for the next Wednesday. Which meant a whole week of fretting about it for Herbert.
Wednesday came and Herbert spent the morning nervously waiting, shoulders stooped, just inside his front door. It was two in the afternoon before the dreaded knock finally came.
He hesitated and then looked through the letter box. Standing there was another man in the same stupid bright blue shirt. He couldn’t see if he had a badge.
“Just leave it there!” he said through the slit,
“Err…sorry mate but you gotta sign for it,” said the man,
Slowly he opened the door and stuck his face in the small gap. The man showed him a clipboard and pointed to where he needed to sign. He would have to go outside. Quickly he opened the door a bit further and squeezed his thin frame through the gap, before shutting it sharply behind him.
Herbert signed with the blue pen the man gave him. The same annoying bright blue of his shirt and his badge. ’Dave, happy to help’ it said.
“Where’s my wallpaper?” said Herbert,
“It’s on the van, we’ll bring it in for you,” said Dave,
“Oh no,” said Herbert, “you can’t possibly come in,”
“You’re having a laugh aren’t you?” said Dave, “you ordered seventy rolls! We can’t leave it here on the path, it’ll get ruined, it’s gonna rain in a bit! Old fella like you, least we can do is give you a hand lugging it in. Terry! Get unloading!”
Herbert was dumbfounded, flustered even, he hadn’t thought of this eventuality. Not knowing what to say he just stood there and before he knew it Dave and Terry were bringing the plastic wrapped rolls of wallpaper down the path. His heart was pounding, it felt tight in his chest and he began to struggle for breath. Dave squeezed past him quickly and pushed open the door.
Except that Dave couldn’t open the door very far, so he pushed harder and, even though he wasn’t an especially big man, it was a very tight squeeze for him to get in, what with armfuls of wallpaper.
Once inside Dave was stuck. He tried to go further into the hallway but found that he was wedged in even tighter. His unshaven face pressing against the dark green fleck of the wallpaper. He realised with a start that the whole hallway was less the six inches wide.
“Hey Dave! I think this bloke’s having a heart attack” called Terry from outside…

*****

The policeman was stood in Herbert’s kitchen. Well as far in it as he could get from the back door. His body squashed against the lilac pattern, cheeks rubbing against the flock. It was hard to breath the gap was so tight. The other policeman was stood outside.
“This is bloody weird,” said the first one, unable to turn his head,
“You’re telling me!” said the second,
“It’s like no one’s ever taken any wallpaper off the walls. There must be hundreds of layers of the stuff filling every room,”
“The neighbours say they hardly ever saw him, bloke at the DIY shop said that he was asking for old Chislehurst, remember him, the old Ironmongers,”
“God he must have been wallpapering for years,”
“And then some!” said the second policeman.
The first policemen got down on his knees by the kitchen counter and crawled out under the overhang of layers of wallpaper and back out to the garden.
“How on earth are we going to find out who his next of kin are?” he said, “We’ll have to get someone to rip all that paper down to get in there, or get someone very thin to go in! Heart attack didn’t you say?”
“Oh he ain’t dead,” said the second policeman, “just in hospital,”
“Oh…” said the first…

*****

The young doctor sat down by the bed and held Herbert’s wrinkled brown hand.
“The police were just here,” she said.
Herbert just looked the at ceiling. He was frightened of women, especially young and impossibly pretty ones.
“They told me about your house,” she said wrinkling her nose, Herbert could see her out of the corner of his eye. He wondered what it meant when someone wrinkled their nose.
“Anyway,” she continued, “your tests are back, and surprisingly you are incredibly healthy. Well for a man of your age. Exactly how old are you Herbert? I hope you don’t mind me asking, it’s just it doesn’t say in your notes,”
“I am one hundred and ninety-seven next birthday,” said Herbert, still not daring to look her straight in the eye. She laughed and squeezed his hand.
“Well I never!” she said, “I have never seen a fitter man of one hundred and ninety seven years of age!”
She laughed again. Herbert didn’t like her laugh, it felt like she was laughing at him. He couldn’t tell.
“Anyway, I think we will get you as right as rain soon enough. If I didn’t know better I would say that you simply just had a bit of a shock. But by the look of you, you could do with feeding up a bit, you are awfully thin,”
Herbert looked at her, his eyes wide.
“No!” he said, “I like to be thin,”
“Well, we’ll see about that,” she said as she stood to leave. She hesitated.
“One thing,” she said, “I’m curious, and I just have to ask, is it true what they said about your house?”
“I’ve always liked wallpaper,” he said, looking at the ceiling…

© 2013 Simon Poore

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