Under the watchful Gaze… by Stewart Wright

 Full title: Under the Watchful Gaze of Iron, Paint and Mum

The front bedroom at twenty-two Morlich Crescent was the most painted room in Dalgety Bay. The room belonged to Colin’s mum. She had slept in many bedrooms before moving to Dalgety Bay, and she liked to remember each of them by having her current bedroom painted the same colour as those which she had previously slept in.

When Colin was off his game, his mum would be despondent.

“No, no. More….” She would stare at the wall opposite her bed. “Blue! That’s it. More blue.”

And Colin would apply more blue, when the room his mum was remembering called for blue. Sometimes she called for more red, more yellow, more green. It just depended on her memory, and her bedroom became ever more layered with paint until he got it right.

When Colin was on his game, his mum would sleep soundly.

He was a regular at his local hardware shop. Colin was just another reason the owner, Henderson MacKay (of MacKay and Sons), was glad he did not do loyalty cards.

“Anyone would think you’d be sick of paint,” Henderson would say, always, when mixing Colin’s chosen pantones.

“Some jobs are never finished,” Colin would say, always.

Whilst he could never condone it, Colin allowed the new painters under his charge a certain amount of horseplay. It was usually confined to the younger ones; coming from a background of window cleaning in Edinburgh or Glasgow, they were always anxious to showboat, to prove that the height did not faze them.

There would always be one cowboy who took it too far, and slipped. And, dangling over the Forth, gripping his safety harness like it was his umbilical cord and crying in a complementary fashion, this year’s cowboy would teach the rest to observe the rules, and take the job seriously.

This year, only one painter was assigned to Colin. No chance of him being a cowboy either.

“So… What’s your name then?”

“Cat, nice to meet you.” Cat outstretched her hand in a move that would have been almost military if not for her boiler suit.

“Cat?”

“Cat. Short for Catriona.”

“A good Scottish name,” Colin said, taking Cat’s hand. It looked soft, but he could only feel its smallness. Too many years painting had robbed his hands of gentle sensitivities, but he liked it all the same.

Even before lunchtime, Colin was smitten. Cat wore her hard hat at all times, even though the heaviest object in danger of falling was rain; she wore her hi-viz vest despite it being of use only to errant seagulls. She never unhooked her harness from the scaffolding, and she covered more area with a paintbrush than any window cleaner from Govan.

Having noticed Cat’s hair spilling out from her hard hat all morning, as well as her diligence with a paint pot and brush, Colin was driven to comment over a corned beef sandwich on white bread which he had unwrapped from a piece of foil.

“Your hair is the colour of this bridge. Did you know that?”

Cat turned to him on the scaffolding, still chewing whatever pastel matter was in the dainty plastic tub she ate from.

“Aye, a wild guess I suppose. I change it quite a lot.”

“It’s nice.”

Sitting next to each other, Cat tutted and nudged her knee against Colin’s. They finished eating, and Colin folded up his foil for another day. Cat shoved her tub into her satchel for the same reason.

“More… Pink! Yes, pink. That’s what we had at Crathie Avenue.”

Colin was off his game, and his mum hadn’t slept properly for days. MacKay and Sons received ever more business.

“Anyone would think you’d be sick of paint,” Henderson said, extending his usual welcome to his usual customer.

“Some jobs are never finished,” Colin replied.

When pink had combined sufficiently with red to produce a suitable and pacifying fuchsia, Colin’s mum beckoned him to her.

“Do you remember?” she asked, her hand waving out and pointing to a landscape existing only in her memory. “Your dad took us to Blackpool. There’s the tower, there’s you on a donkey. And there’s my pink bedroom.”

Colin’s mum fell asleep.

His feet were chilled by the concrete under the linoleum on the kitchen floor, and his fingers made greasy with Aberdeen rolls spread with butter from an olive handled butterknife. Movements under the watchful gaze of the Forth and the railway bridge above it.

In the silence, Colin’s thoughts turned to Cat.

Cat painted well. She didn’t complain, she didn’t fool around, and she didn’t care for breaks.

And, despite her boiler suit, hardhat and steel toe-caps, Cat remained feminine: the gap between her collar and the rim of her hard hat; where her cuffs failed to meet the sleeve of her glove; when, climbing up or down a ladder, her trouser leg rode up beyond the rim of her boots.

Colin considered them all just as soon as he considered the paint she layered.

“Up there! You’ve missed a spot.”

Cat descended two flights of ladders; neck, wrists, ankles. She pressed into Colin’s side as he pointed upwards at the apparently dry girder, her cheek brushing against his shoulder.

“It’s painted,” Cat assured. “It’s just a different colour. Here,” and she curled her hair between her first and index finger, inviting Colin to look. “Petunia. It looks dry from afar.”

Colin accepted Cat’s invite, noticing how closely her hair matched the colour of the new paint being used.

“You can touch it if you want,” Cat said, still flicking the small bundle of hair between her fingers.

“I can’t be bothered going all the way up there. I’ll take your word for it.”

“I didn’t mean the girder, Colin.” Cat pushed the hair back under her hard hat, and returned to her paint pot.

There had been rumours circulating about the future of the bridge for months, and when the logos on the painters’ hard hats and hi-viz vests changed from Network Rail to Balfour Beatty, Colin knew the rumours would soon become fact. And it was announced that in six months time, there would no longer be a need to have any painters working on the bridge.

The old timers took it badly. Some of them had spent their every working day for the past thirty years on the bridge, and were annoyed that a life’s work could be so quickly dismissed.

There was even talk of a strike, which ignited more passion amongst the old boys than hearing they were to be made redundant.

“Never! I’ve worked on this bridge for thirty-five years, and if you think I’m going to leave her to the elements now, then you’re mad.”

“Too right, boy-o. We’ll have a work-in. That’ll show them they cannae replace us.”

“Och, away wi’ ye. Who dae ye think ye are? Jimmy Reid?”

The bickering looked set to last the full six months on the strength of this early exchange.

Colin and Cat sat beside each other, having lunch and watching their soon to be ex-colleagues.

“You’re taking this well,” Cat said.

“Progress, isn’t it.”

Cat wasn’t wearing her hard-hat, and Colin saw that she hadn’t dyed her hair in a while. Her natural brown was seeping up into the red and pink above it, the way rust sometimes rotted through a badly painted girder.

“What’s up? Run out of dye?”

“Run out ideas more like it.”

“What do you do on Saturdays?” Colin asked.

Colin’s mum liked Cat straight away. She had been restless for days now whilst Colin had struggled to recreate the flamingo pink of the bedroom in the Cairndale hotel his mum and father had stayed in on their wedding night.

“Come here you lovely little thing,” Colin’s mum gushed, waving Cat towards her. She stroked her hair. “Oh! That’s it! Colin, look!” His mum flicked a band of Cat’s hair between her first and index finger.

After holding his pantone chart against Cat’s hair, Henderson MacKay mixed Colin’s paint for him.

“Sorry to hear about the bridge, Colin,” Henderson said. “What’ll you do with yourself?”

“Some jobs are never finished,” Colin said, tapping the paint pots.

Colin and Cat painted, and his mum looked happier and happier as she became a coy and giddy and giggling bride once more. She fell asleep with lips as sweet as she had smiled on her wedding night forty years ago.

Dusk was falling, and the Railway bridge was becoming shadow as Colin and Cat looked out over the Forth.

“Is your mum ok?”

Colin nodded. “They reckon she’s got a couple more good years left. I want to make them as nice as possible.”

Cat leaned her head against his shoulder, and Colin at last ran his hands through her hair.

“It’s really nice what you’re doing,” she said.

“It’s the least I can do for her.”

Cat hugged him against her. “I didn’t mean your mum, Colin.”

Stewart Wright was born in Dumfries.  He is the author of many short stories, both published and unpublished.

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