Thursday, 19 April 2012

Do it yourself

   The kids looked scared half to death when they entered the store.
   They were a familiar enough trio in any university town: the beanpole science or IT undergraduate towering ginger-haired and bespectacled above the others, a six-foot under muscled beanpole who was doubtless also a lord of Middle Earth; the tubby daydreamer whose comic books and two left feet had exiled him from the football field and sent him onto the darker paths of imagination; the white-haired, not-too-pretty girl whose intelligence and self-doubt had propelled her first into Goth and now beyond it into a world where darkness was no longer any fun at all.
   I didn’t pay much attention at first because they were too obviously furtive to be effective shoplifters. And seriously, what heavy, expensive items that might cost the company much could those less than mighty muscles even shift? Decorators’ supplies and hardware are scarcely the favourite loot of Rag Week dares or members-only club initiations. Besides, the store manager was hypersensitive about hassling kids and it was rumoured to be a part of her police warning that neither she nor any of her staff would ever again be over-zealous with teenage miscreants. Property rights and the shareholders could just go to hell. I tend to keep a low profile with the customers myself; not wanting to strain her limited sympathy for me nor to imperil her Board-level instructions to get along with the local police and Probation Service. Her sympathy and the company’s shallow, publicity-hungry Community Outreach policy had led her to hire me in the first place. Despite my record.
   Provided I don’t approach the customers more eagerly than the hello-can-I-help-you routine and if I don’t linger near the paint thinners or other flammables the manager and the Board stay happy. 
    I didn’t see the kids again until they neared the checkout; pushing an overloaded trolley. The three of them looked very much like a team then, but unbalanced: perhaps missing a fourth member. I recognized their selections straight away, having much the same kit myself under the floorboards and hidden by my multigym in probation-defying secrecy. There was a pair of cordless power tools - ideal for shifting rusted screws and removing neglected doors far from mains electricity and WD-40 to loosen any hinges. Next there was a crow bar for prizing out heavy brickwork or pushing off ornamental masonry, and a couple of heavy hammers: a long sledge that none of them looked able to lift (let alone wield accurately), and a hickory oak lump hammer for the main event. Then three hand torches and some headband LEDs as worn by plumbers and loft insulators with a yen for the dramatic... Oh, there were also some cool-looking tool belts and knee and elbow pads in black and charcoal for hard scrabbling in gritty, sunless places. They looked enticingly military, though someone had exercised some foresight about low stonework or joists and had picked up a brace of decidedly uncool yellow hard hats - though I also noticed some matt black spray paint. Kids, eh? Next were spray painters’ respirator masks for the dust. They'd would look o-so Darth until they got to the place where it would no longer to be anything at all like a game. A tenon saw and chisels for whittling.
   The timber was all wrong so I stopped them straight away before they could load up the checkout conveyor. “You need to take the wood back and replace it. This is pine. Soft wood’s no use, see? You need ash or oak for this job. Go back and get a couple or three stair rods. They’re on special offer this week. If you need more than one each then you three won’t be up to the job and you’d be better off just leaving town.”
   The girl glowered at me with eyes that had recently stopped being young. Her jewellery looked to be solid silver and brand new, as did the boys’. Expensive. This would be a credit card transaction then. Her hair was luminous white like mine. Hers was bleached; unlike mine which had always grown a rich and wavy chestnut until the morning after our teenage son went on a date with the new girl in town and my husband stopped speaking forever.
    “Also take plenty of rags and newspapers and perhaps some bags of wood shavings for kindling. Paint thinners to get it all started. Apart from the dust, there isn’t much flammable stuff in the sort of place you’re going. If you can’t get the roof down well before dusk then setting a fire’s the only way to be sure you’ve finished the job properly. And just you make certain it’s full daylight when you go in. Give yourselves a good hour after dawn and to hell with being reported to the police. There’re worse things in this world than being convicted of arson. You understand me?” She didn’t ask me anything. 
   Later, she left the store with her pair of beta males who I prayed might hew nuggets of courage out of their fear as their grandfathers had when they left their studies and offices and banks to face down the Luftwaffe.

   It was only later when I noticed a lingering smell like all the kebabs in England that I thought I should have explained it’s the flowers rather than the bulbs that might just keep them alive. Damn.

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