Safe as Houses
by Sadie Nott
Format: Short Story | Genre: General Fiction
Content warning: mental illness, child abuse
Paula stands at the new basin. The empty space behind her is where the old bath used to be. She’s suddenly unsure what the frosted window beside her conceals or reveals, which is weird because she’s lived in the house for eight years now. The people could arrive at any time. Should she wash and undress in front of the possibly see-through window? But if she doesn’t, she might smell.
What to wear? Jeans? Yes. Shirt. Do it up to the last-but-one button. Cardigan.
The doorbell rings. “Let them in, I’ll be down in a minute,” says Mark.
Paula shows the plasterers through to the conservatory, and she and the two men stare at the wall that used to be the back of the house. They’re looking at the crack that has been there for so long Paula can’t remember when it first appeared.
One of the plasterers – the boss, skinny with long rockstar hair – knocks on the wall. He smooths his hand over the surface.
“It’s bowed – I can feel a curve.”
Does he mean the wall or the plaster, Paula wants to ask, but doesn’t. Is the structure damaged? Could everything collapse at any moment?
“Best to board it over, leave 10 mm between the board and the wall, then skim over it all.”
The men talk to Mark. The plan is agreed upon.
As Mark leaves, he says, “You’ll be fine, won’t you?” because, despite twenty-seven years of marriage and Mark anchoring her through her doldrums and tsunamis, Paula has never found the words to explain to him why she might not be fine in certain situations. Ones like this. What could she say? After all, it’s just having people in the house.
Paula is alone with the plasterers now. She washes up, rubbing at yesterday’s fish stuck on the frying pan. When she wipes the kitchen surfaces, she makes small arcs, arms close to her sides. The men eye up the wall and pretend not to see Paula through the kitchen window. She pretends back.
There is a rap on the kitchen door that startles Paula.
“Can I trouble you for some coffee?”
“Yes, sorry, yes, I’d already put the kettle on, was about to ask if you wanted one.”
There’s very little coffee left. Enough for four cups perhaps. Maybe she should go out and buy more, but then they would be loose in the house. Paula puts sugar in the cups, but loses count. Did she add the second spoonful?
If Mark had said more than you’ll be fine, won’t you? and not as he was going through the front door, she might – possibly – have been able to explain.
No one ever asks. But someone got close once. When her psychiatrist had tried Paula on seven different drugs and she still wasn’t better after four long years, he sent her for a second opinion. The second-opinion psychiatrist, Dr Stokes, started with all the usual questions. “Is there any mental illness in your family?” Paula told her about her mother and her mother’s mother and Dr Stokes said, “These things are often inherited,” as if growing up inside a house with a mother who was an exploding volcano and a collapsing star had no consequences.
Our inheritance is our DNA. The same initials as Do Not Ask.
More of the usual medical questions followed. However, at the end of the consultation Dr Stokes said, “Did anyone ever harm you?”
Paula dipped her toe in the vast murk and told the doctor about the small awful thing with the man in the park. The one-off thing.
“Did it affect you? Is it contributing to your mental health problems, do you think?”
“Not really,” replied Paula. Not compared to the rest, the big awful things. How her mother erupted, the lava searing Paula skinless, how her mother folded in on herself leaving Paula motherless. How small Paula watched the brimming craters, the quivering stars, in case, in case. And how all this went on and on and on inside her very own home. Paula waited for the next question: And did anyone else harm you?
But Dr Stokes was silent. She had moved on. She was writing out for Paula the names of two new drugs she’d be recommending for her.
The men are attaching batons and boards to the wall now. Paula cannot think through the banging and the drilling.
The crack is more than a crack, but Paula can’t find a better term for it. Gash is a truer word, but is too disturbing. Mark and Paula jokingly call it their water feature although it is not a joking matter. The water ate away at the plaster until it flaked off. The dampness spread sideways forming a reddish stain. The paint on the side of the window curled in places. Peel me, it said to Paula, as tempting as scabs, but Mark said no. The water leached backwards into the wall itself, making the paintwork bubble in the kitchen like the bubblegum seven-year-old Paula would blow just before the pop and would then hold her breath, watching herself in the mirror until she finally sucked the gum back into her mouth.
People have come round before to try to patch the leak in the roof that let this water in, but nothing worked. Now the whole roof has been replaced, which should rectify the leak once and for all. But, with all the earlier failed attempts, the years have somehow passed and sinister moss has grown inside the crack’s core.
Paula knows the men can see her preparing lunch through the kitchen window. She cuts an avocado in half and removes the slippery stone under their watching-not-watching eyes.
The radio is on loud. Paula frowns. Have they borrowed ours or brought their own? It’s a 1970s station. The boss sings along to ‘Comfortably Numb’ and ‘Born to be Wild’.
Paula thinks of the stomping monsters in Where the Wild Things Are. She was never a Wild Thing. Or maybe she was, far off on some impossibly distant island.
The plasterers leave to get their lunch. They return. Paula makes them a second cup of coffee, the spoon scraping out the hardened granules at the bottom of the jar.
“There you are; I hope it’s okay.” Her voice is unusually high.
The silent one nods a thank you. He is bald, although not old enough to be, and has a hipster beard. Paula can’t stop staring at his earrings and the gaping round hole they make in each lobe.
The plumbers arrive. They both have the same name – John. The lanky one who did the shoddy jobs yesterday – Long John, Mark called him – disappears after helping the stocky one – Little John – carry the new bath into the bathroom. Paula gives Little John the snagging list Mark made, and shows him the water escaping from the pipe under the basin, the cupboard door that does not close and the wobbly toilet seat.
“I’ll get it all sorted. See you later.”
“Okay, thanks, thank you, bye.”
He’s gone. Paula has no idea when he’ll be back. She should’ve found out before he left. Mark will want to know.
The plasterer with the long hair is singing again and the sound interrupts her self-recrimination.
The boarding is up. They’ll be back to skim it tomorrow. When the plaster is dry, Mark will paint over it. Two coats or maybe three, he said.
But the crack and the moss will still be there underneath.
Paula imagines the moss growing and growing to first fill all of the 10 mm space, then extending from floor to ceiling, and from one end of the wall to the next – a green monster lurking, choking, unseen.
This image disappears, obliterated by another possibility. The moss will sprout tendrils that will work their way through the boards, through the skim of plaster, through the two or three layers of paint, and the whole world will see its creeping fingers.
The air starts to shimmer and Paula doesn’t know which of these terrible possibilities is worse.
She goes on Twitter to distract herself until Mark returns. People are posting pictures of kintsugi again: Japanese bowls, their cracks repaired with gold to illuminate, rather than disguise, the fact they had been broken.
In bed that night, Mark is hunched asleep. Paula and her hopping heart lie sleepless and the darkness is nightshade green. She tries to calm herself with science: perhaps, without air and water, the moss will die and disappear. As if it had never, ever, been there.
She wakes at 3 am in a chill of sweat. And she knows in her bones, this disappearance is the very worst possibility of all.
At the weekend Paula and Mark have the house to themselves again, the bathroom is all finished and the plaster downstairs is dry. Mark has bought expensive emulsion – duck-egg blue – and they paint the conservatory together. They take a break, Mark brings her tea and chocolate biscuits, and Paula smiles at the gold of the autumn leaves through the finally fixed roof.
“Can I tell you about why I couldn’t sleep the other night?” she says. Paula’s mind unearths one word and the next and one more, and these words tiptoe into the conservatory.