Kika sits on the lid of the toilet-seat staring at two days’ worth of plates stacked in the bathroom sink, willing them to disappear. Since this refurb got underway, her dream of working from home, pyjama-clad and liberated from the commute whilst busily churning out marketing copy from the sofa, has vanished beneath a film of plaster dust.
From the room next door come sounds of drilling and hammering as the workman transforms her old kitchen units into piles of rubble. He’s only been here since, oh, last Wednesday a.m. Five days, but might as well be a lifetime since she greeted him, squeezing water from damp hair while Charlie (“call me Chuck”) flashed his tobacco-stained grin designed to make her knees go soft, or whatever he thinks he’s doing. What’s even the etiquette with greeting workmen in your own home? Chuck seems in his element, mind. Even without his entourage of cement-furred tools, he has enough swagger to fill a hallway.
She goes to wash her hands. Twisting the tap, a spurt of water splashes her white t-shirt with the backwashed scum of last-night’s supper of baked beans on toast rinsed down with instant coffee and mouthwash. Any plans to keep the place spick and span in this temporary bathroom-cum-kitchen have gone down the proverbial gunked-up drain.
Scrubbing at the yellow stain on her t-shirt only makes it worse. With the washing machine out of action, she was hoping to get by without a trip to the launderette. Off it comes, and back across the hallway to her room. Oops. Forgot he was here a moment. Hope he didn’t see her cavorting around in her bra.
In the bedroom, a fresh t-shirt and a lick of mascara, then it’s back to the bathroom to sort lunch. Pot Noodles don’t appeal much, but what else is there? A fork would be nice too, but that means navigating the assault course of Toilet-Duck, unplugged toaster, Alpen Bars and a fortnight’s supply of Cup-a-Soups. She’ll make do with a teaspoon.
Head throbbing, Kika returns to her makeshift desk of coffee table pushed up to sofa. Now where was she? Ah, yes. The eCommerce ad. Deadline’s tomorrow. She takes her jotter from the microwave stand-in for a side-table and writes: ‘You’re one step away from becoming a better you,’ then scribbles it out. This racket annihilates any inkling of creativity.
Sometimes she thinks she takes on projects like this refurb just to relish the calm that follows. To be freed from the jackhammer that’s taken up residence between the TV and the fridge-freezer a metre from where she’s sitting will be something.
A few months back, she joined a gym. Since then, she’s been precisely once. The equivalent of over half a month’s shopping-budget for one lousy yoga session. At twenty-six years old, shouldn’t her life be sorted by now? Her online banking says she’ll be broke if she carries on like this much longer. Broke or clinically insane from the regular tap-tap-tap that’s coming from the kitchen, and the tinny boom-ch-boom-chick of reggaeton from Chuck’s mobile. At this rate, she’ll be taking out a loan to pay for a shrink.
She chews her pencil and stares at the page of scribbled out ideas. She’s going through a bad patch. Nothing serious, but why does it feel like it’s always been this way? This hankering to shake things up has been there a long time while she’s drifted from project to project. How long until this new kitchen fills up with more self-propagating aspirations that come from nowhere and lead to nothing? But when she’s on her own, that’s just how it is.
Chuck’s voice jerks her from her thoughts. “S’getting a few bits ‘n pieces from the van. Back in five.” His West-Country burr resounds down the hallway to the disembowelled kitchen. Something odd about the way he smiles with one side of his mouth. Maybe she likes it a bit.
“Take my keys so you can let yourself in. They’re on the side table by the door.”
Kika lets her eyes linger on his figure, his trousers stained and dusty, legs lean and lanky, like an oversized child. The door latch clicks. An automatic alert on her iPhone admonishes her—three hours to get this turned around and back to the client is cutting it fine.
But she has to admit she likes that he’s here with her. Just a teensy bit. Never had a guy around the house before, see? When she was growing up, it was only her and Mum.
Last time she brought a guy home must’ve been three months back—no, more like ten. Before Christmas. She met that guy while she was out with the girls. Gavin, was it? Came back here, and it was going okay, but then she blew it. Her stupid mouth seems to think it’s okay to say whatever pops into her brain.
Problem is, she’s afflicted by these intensely vivid dreams, and keeping them to herself is like navigating a bombsite of mental detritus of shared memories that didn’t happen. Fast forward to her and Gavin in bed the morning after, and there she is blabbing the ins and outs of her dream to him. By the time she has reached the bit where Gavin’s dating her ex- (that twat who cheated on her) and dressed in her clothes, the poor lad’s practically legging it out the front door.
She’s been looking into it since then. Turns out there’s a mental condition that makes you unable to distinguish between dreams and reality, so that the two overlap and muddle. She’s had other one-night stands since the-boyfriend-we-don’t-mention, but she always clams up and the conversation runs dry. She’s basically decided it’s her and the cat from here on in.
5p.m. Chuck invites her to the kitchen to witness the destruction. Her neck aches from the hours hunched over her laptop. He takes his leave with a cheery wink and a, ‘See you bright n’ early tomorrow, darlin’.
Chuck, toolbox in hand, makes his way down the stairs, her husky ‘bye, Charlie, I mean Chuck!’ hanging in his ears. He wishes he’d just left it as Charlie when they’d met. His parents did name him that, after all. But his friends call him Chuck. Talk about a piss-take. He hardly fits the description of your typical buff workman guy. His biceps are virtually non-existent, and he’s always thought he was a bit pigeon-chested. As for the banter, let’s not even go there. Nothing like the Diet Coke ad guy, all wolf-whistles and cheeky grins.
At his van, he loads his tools into the boot, then gets in and starts the engine. Can’t resist sneaking a quick glance up at her window. Stupid thing to do. What if she saw him? But if she saw him, that’d have to mean she’s looking. Oh, to hell with these thoughts!
The road to the flyover’s backed up with traffic. He winds down the window and recites the chat-up lines he’s learned, a half-arsed attempt to match up with the persona he feels a tiler ought to have. Problem is, whenever he says stuff like this, it always sounds a bit forced, and then he just feels even sillier.
The cars in front ease forward and he’s off again. Council estate, local chippy, The Nag’s Head. He’s supposed to meet the boys there later. Perhaps he’ll catch the match on T.V. tonight, though. A late one doesn’t appeal, and his mates will only give him a hard time.
Twenty-five years old and he’s never been on a proper date. No way he’s going to let on to the lads about that. Mum’s dead right: no gift of the gab (her words). But then how do you do it without coming across as sleazy, or worse, a creep?
He admires the rough, cracked hands resting on the steering wheel. His gift. That buzz he gets from helping people achieve their dream home is special. With tiling, technique is everything. The alignment needs to be just right. He’s no dunce, not by a long stretch. Might get into the Guild of Master Craftsmen one day, with any luck. But what young lady’s ever going to appreciate his skill? What he’d really like is to show a girl what he can do. If only dating were about getting things simple and neat, tiled to perfection. If only he knew there was no way he’d mess things up.
Thursday and only just gone ten in the a.m. Kika stands at the bathroom sink again, fixing her hair. The power’s back on at last. She shunts aside cereal boxes, knocking crumbs to the shower-mat, and plugs in the hot-plate—a last minute purchase from Amazon Prime. Of course, she knows: you shouldn’t have electronics plugged in where there’s steam and water and stuff, but what else is she supposed to do? She has a wee while the contraption judders to life. The disconcerting whirr of its extractor cooler is no match for Chuck’s clack clack clack of chisel against tile in the hollowed-out kitchen.
Her ancient kettle spout puffs a thin line of steam, misting the mirror. While condensation fills the tiny space, Kika flushes, then opens the door. “You want a cup of tea?” she calls to Chuck. No need to ask how he takes it, (‘Milk, no sugar. I’m sweet enough already.’)
From the adjacent room, a gut-wrenching clunk. “Fuckety-fuck. Shit, bollocks, fuck.”
“Everything okay in there?”
“Hunky dory,” Chuck yells back. “Yeah, a cuppa would be nice.”
The kettle grunts and fills its lungs, ready for the final ear-splitting chorus. Its trembling sends Kika’s toothbrush scuttering into the sink. She crouches to root in the cutlery-drawer divider wedged under the sink unit. Where is that damn teaspoon?
Hearing a tap at the door, Kika clambers to her feet, spinning in the cramped space. It seems intimate to have him here, sharing a room where she does all kinds of unmentionable things.
Chuck grins, one knotted arm resting on the doorjamb. “Uh, sorry about the language back there. I clobbered my thumb.” He holds up the offended digit.
Kika winces. “I hope I didn’t—?”
The kettle shrieks and Kika giddily flaps her fingers at the switch. The hem of her skirt catches the mug, perched on the loo seat, and it clatters to the floor.
Shards of broken china scatter the bathroom tiles, some coming to rest beneath a pile of cleaning products and empty Tupperware. The cat bolts for safety behind the sofa.
“Damn this muddle!” Cheeks flaming, Kika bends to gather the biggest fragments, lips pressed together. A used teabag has landed amid a pile of laundry whites.
“Oopsie.” Chuck retreats to the kitchen and returns, brandishing the dustpan and brush he’s held hostage in the kitchen these last few days.
“I can do it, don’t worry.” Kika seizes the dustpan, and her hand touches his. A ripple shimmers through her arms, up her neck. Their gaze locks, lingers a beat too long.
The fleeting, hazy-green of her dream last night glides in with a swish of the shower curtain. The scene sways, conjuring an impressionist’s image of them together. They were at an art exhibition—yes, that was it. A huge mural made of dusky green oblongs hung in a gilded frame before them. She and Chuck stood side by side, marvelling at it. A shyness stopped her tongue, though: this exhibit, a mosaic of a million careful tessellations, seemed to contain a piece of his soul, laid out bare. With no words to express her wonder, she took his hand in hers and smoothed her palm against his. Then, on impulse, she turned to caress his finely contoured chest, covered with a Brillo-pad of fuzz. But, oh! He was naked. Then the floor capsized, and they were inside his painting, tumbling into the blue-green depths. Down they plunged, deeper and deeper. His arms wrapped around her, and their lips met in an under-water kiss.
She tips her head away, but her mind sketches out that same chest, now clad beneath the red, paint-flecked t-shirt.
Above their heads, steam has gathered, misting the room. Her dreamworld teeters at the edges, tantalizing.
Kika’s insides fizz and bubble like a cooling kettle, and she nestles into the sensation all the while berating her unruly subconscious: she’s fallen for the workman. Urgh! The corniest of clichés.
“I’ll bring your tea through in a minute.”
“Ta,” Chuck says. “And, uh, I came to say, I need to cut the power again in a sec.”
She tucks a strand of hair behind her ear. “Sure. Now’s as good a time as any.”
An intake of breath and Chuck rises, taking the dustpan and emptying it into the bucket of debris, his jaunty whistle out of kilter. Oopsie? What was he thinking? The back of his hand tingles where her palm brushed it, a flush of warmth spreads through him.
At the control box, he flicks the power-switch to off and replays the moment in the bathroom again. It’s reawakened last night’s dream.
Greens and blues flicker at the edges of his mind, surfing the crest of his consciousness until he’s back in that long room, like an art gallery, staring at a painting that spanned the entire wall. That was it! His creation! Her hand gripped his and then she turned and moved to touch his chest, drawing closer, her body… naked? His face floods with warmth. They were both naked and—yes, that was it—they were inside the picture, swimming and kissing. He summons the touch of her lips, the aftertaste of her mouth tickling his insides.
Friday a.m. and Chuck’s alone in the kitchen admiring his pristine rows of agate-green tiles. Will his workmanship meet with Kika’s approval?
She startles him, creeping up from behind, stirring him from his thoughts. He watches as her eyes take in the latest transformations. At her feet, an ugly mess of tools. Dusty footprints trail to and from the doorway. Should have thought to tidy up.
“Wow,” she murmurs.
Chuck wrestles his voice from somewhere. “I’ll be done here by the end of the day. Carpenter will be with you on Monday to put in the new units.”
She turns to face him, then drops her gaze. Her eyes lift back to the wall. “I’m amazed. So much noise and dust, and then this. It’s beautiful. Thank you.”
Chuck scratches the back of his neck, his chest tingling. He has no response for this eventuality, and now she’s gone.
Down the hallway drifts the patter of her slippers. He pictures her, bound for the bedroom, to the unmade bed where white sheets sculpt out last night’s imprint of her sleeping body. What would she say if he told her about his dream?
Listening to the steady beat of the music, Chuck allows his mind to wander. He feeds wires into the socket and daubs wet plaster over the cracks.
Jenny Torniainen teaches English and Drama at The British School of Valencia, Spain. A French Literature graduate, she studied at the University of London and the Sorbonne in Paris. She put pen to paper only relatively recently (in 2018) and since then has dedicated every hour she can to honing her craft. She has two published short stories. ‘Blood Lines’ was published by The Honest Ulsterman, while ‘Lockdown Hero’, is in print and audiobook in a writers’ anthology. In addition to writing, Jenny sings professionally, with the Valencian Cathedral Choir and the London Philharmonic Choir.