top of page

Paperhanger

By Sofia Genco-Billington


Edward Hopper, Night Windows, 1928, Oil on canvas, 29 x 34" (73.7 x 86.4 cm), 1928, Museum of Modern Art, https://www.moma.org/collection/works/79270.


If it wasn’t for the baby shower, I never would have noticed.


Actually, my sister’s children noticed it. It was a summer baby shower, so I was destined to get half drunk, and probably go home wearing some clothes of Dan’s. Kiera’s husband would have left me to play water-guns with his children while he stuck to his old grill. I couldn’t take the smell of burnt meat on a barbeque, I couldn’t take the dead wasps in my drink or wet T-shirt or paddling pool full of grass. But my sister, Kiera, was pregnant, so I had to go.


‘Uncle Adam,’ approached Davey, ice lolly round his mouth from where he’d tried to eat it width ways, giving him a sort of uncanny Chelsea smile of sugar ‘What’s your tattoo?’


I sat disconsolately in the paddling pool playing the role of ‘sinking ship understudy’ with quiet stoicism and took a moment to process. Davey started to pat haphazardly about my back. I flinched as something at the base of my neck zinged like smacked sunburn.


‘I’ve not got a tattoo.’ I said at last, causing Dan to peep over the lid of his grill with vague interest. ‘That’s a mole Davey. Do you mean the one here?’ I pointed to the middle of my back. I’d always been suspicious of that mole. Kiera said I’d always had it, but I knew she was just placating me so she wouldn’t have to take me to the doctors.


‘Nooooo.’ Davey drawled. ‘Here, here, here.’


He smacked the spot again and my skin sizzled.


I wasn’t like Kiera. Kiera played hockey and spent her teenage years boasting to me about which bone stuck out of what place this week, what treat she got out of dad on the way home from a physio appointment for some pulled or broken or snapped something or other. All while I put my fingers in my ears. Health turned my stomach. Having a body would have been top of life’s risk assessment, if I had made it one that is. Unnerved, I said, ‘right, in you go.’ And lifted a wriggling Davey into the pool to be splashed at by his sisters for a while.


‘Oh Adam he’s in nice clothes. Why have you done that.’ Kiera protested as I went inside, treading grass into her cream carpets and bypassing two distant cousins bobbing children on their knees and gossiping about an Aunt Emma who I didn’t know.


The floor tiles were greasy under my wet feet. It felt like going swimming as a child, soggy and cold. I stopped and took a breath, saying aloud.


‘If it’s a new mole, we just go to the doctors. We just go to the doctors.’


But awful images of the paper towel they put on the beds, and yellow bin bags, and blue floors spun about behind my eyes. Davey was just four. Maybe tattoo was a new word he’d learnt. No, actually, he couldn’t speak very well for his age. Mum told Kiera that, but she wouldn’t hear it.


I turned my back to the mirror and finally looked over my shoulder. No mole.


For some unknown reason. Tattoo. The words, ‘Albert Main Paperhanger 1936’ encircled in a swift circle. That shows how much attention I get, I thought. It looked like pencil, decorators’ pencil. I had words on my skin. Right at the base of my neck where I usually couldn’t see. It was faint, thankfully. I wondered if I’d slept funny on a label, maybe the ink had transferred. I grappled wildly with a flannel I hoped was Dan’s. But it wouldn’t come off.


It is illegal in the UK to drive bare footed. Be that as it may I drove home and opened the door to the stuffy hallway.  I called for Max. He must have been out at god knows where. I went to the living room and hesitated over the corner of the wallpaper. I’d saved for months to get that mould removed, to get these walls papered over and rid the living room of its black flowered decorations. The decorators had been arseholes too. But my neck began to itch. I found a shoddily pasted corner and began to peel.


It was still there. About the size of the bottom of a pint glass. Circle. Albert Main Papermonger 1936.

I ran to the bathroom to check the tattoo. Still there. Maybe even darker. Or the bathroom was darker? I went back to the living room. There it was. The decorators had found it. Called me away from a phone call to show me.


‘Maybe we should start calling ourselves paperhangers again.’ One quipped.


‘Sounds a bit dark for me.’


‘What’s wrong with that?’


‘Bit depressing.’


They both, for some reason, laughed, and I left the room nonplussed. Later that night, Max had pointed it out.


‘Have you seen that?


‘Yeah.’ I said. ‘Builders showed me.’


‘It’s cool.’


‘Is it?’


‘I think so.’


‘Right.’


I didn’t want to live with Max anymore I hardly did as it was. He was never in, and when he was, he had some abstract notion that we had a kind of mutual, masculine rapport. And that I wanted to do his drugs with him. I sometimes think what I considered to be mould hallucinations were in fact a second hand high from all the weed he smoked. Or, that he put cocaine in my toothpaste or something like that. But it was definitely there. On the wall and now, for some godforsaken reason, on my back. Kiera hated Max, so did Mum. I think they expected me to start coming to Sunday dinner like something from Trainspotting. I actually just became more anxious.


I rang Max. The music down the other end of the phone sounded like hellish tinnitus.


‘Did you tattoo me in my sleep?’ I asked.


‘What? Mate you’ve got to be louder they’ve got a fucking DJ in the pub, on a Sunday!’


‘Go into the smoking area or something this is important.’


‘Alright.’


The line crackled about, Max said hello to about three different women on his way out.


‘Right,’ he said, tipsy, ‘say that again.’


‘Did you tattoo me in my sleep.’


‘Are you taking the piss?’


‘No.’


‘Did you eat the chocolate chip biscuits in my bedside drawer, in the sandwich bag?’


‘No?’


‘You’re just going mental again then. Great.’


‘Shut up just answer me.’


‘No Adam obviously I didn’t how I would of even done that.’


‘I don’t know maybe you don’t remember it.’


‘Oh, piss off.’


And Max hung up. I went back to the bathroom mirror. It was darker again. Pencil to ink. On my sunburnt skin, I looked like a branded pig. In a vane sort of way I thought I looked ridiculous. I went on the NHS website but obviously they had nothing about appearing tattoos. It still didn’t wash off. I checked housing prices in my area, there was a nice flat in the town. I screenshotted it and went back to the mirror. It was going red. The word Paperhanger started to look slightly infected. I decided I’d not look at it for a whole day. Then tomorrow if it was still there, I’d book a flat viewing and not tell Max, and also go to the doctor. Kiera’s name flashed up on my phone.


‘Have you died in the toilet.’


‘I’ve gone home.’


‘What? God, Aunty Emma was looking under the door she thought you’d collapsed or something’.


‘Whose-. No. I went home I felt ill. I’ve been gone for an hour.’


‘Adam,’ Kiera pauses. ‘Do you actually have a tattoo? Davey told me you did. He called it ‘scribble.’’


‘Davey is four, and’ I looked at my back in the mirror and cursed at the immediate rule break, ‘no I don’t. I’m going to bed I feel rough.’


‘Ok. If you need anything text-’


I hung up and went to lay down. I awoke, hours later judging by the fact it was summer and dark in my bedroom. The sound of Max’s headboard banging and the smell of weed, like a gas leak, lingered in the corners of the room. I rolled over and felt a sharp pain on my skin. I shot up, put the light on and looked at my back again, which to my horror was a mess. The writing at the base of my neck was jet black and weeping blood, a sticky chaos lingering with another, pinker cluster of scratches on my shoulder blade. Albert Main Paperhanger 1936. Scratched in. I must be high, I thought, I must be off my absolute face and Max is drugging me. That is the only explanation for why I now am branded with some decorator’s scribble from 1936. The house was a new build? It was built in 2010 along with all the other crap, damp, plastic houses on the estate. I stopped. Max’s crashing and banging, I realised, mingled with some awful indie pop that sounded like if a shopping centre made noise. It hadn’t occurred me to why the mark was there.


I ran back downstairs. The smell of Max’s cheap weed like a carpet of miasma across the landing. The writing was faded on the yellowed wall. I could barely even read it, only knowing what it said because it was now branded twice across my back. It hurt like hell, bits sticking to bits and scabbing against other wetter bits of broken skin. I couldn’t even reach to put antiseptic on it if I tried. I sat down on the edge of the sofa and, limbs obscurely heavy, went to sleep sitting up.


Sometime before sunrise I woke again to a silent house. It was freezing and my bare skin, all but my boxers, was riddled with goosebumps. The house smelt of nothing, and there was no noise. The lights had been turned off. I tried to stand but found that my legs ached. A terrible, muscle spasming ache. I fell heavily to my knees which gave way with immediate effect. They stung like grazed skin. Like falling over on the tarmac. In the dark, my fingers grouped about for the rug to soften the blow while I somehow got to my feet. But the ground felt sharp and uneven, and a splinter pushed under my thumb nail. I swore and put my thumb in my mouth to try and get it out, but my thumb felt wrong. Bumpy. Like the wormy lines of a new burn, or a raised cat scratch. Chest pumping, I pulled myself up to my feet and stumbled towards where I hoped the wall would be, hitting the light switch with my shoulder.


I had no idea what I was seeing. The white room was yellow. Yellow like tobacco-stained wallpaper, like the very first layer of paint in old houses, an awful sunny yellow underlayer. The floors were blank wood. The room a bare square of yellow and brown with no window. Like some form of hive, across every surface was scratches, and on them more carvings and scrapes, giving the room a distinctly picked at look. Albert Main Paperhanger 1936. Countless times. In countless places. The palms of my hands. My knees. My cheeks and neck and chest and feet looked and felt covered in it. Some scratched, some inked, some burnt. In all the confusion I seemed to lose the door entirely. My boxers, a nice touch, now said Albert Main Paperhanger 1936 round the waistband. The light was a sick yellow. All was silent but for my own movements. Scuffling and breathing, scuffling, and breathing. Everything was peeled. The walls itched. Nothing in front of my eyes felt real. All computery. All old. The way new lamplight pixilates its throw through the leaves of trees. The one thing I did not want was to see my face. I knew if I saw my face, in some strange way, I’d die. I knew it very seriously, the same way you know if you walk into water and don’t try to swim you’ll drown. So, when slowly the man in the overalls stepped out from behind the mirror, I shut my eyes immediately.


‘You don’t want to see it?’ He asked in a broad Midlands accent. Voice echoing in the empty room.


I wondered if he’d painted his names on my insides too.


‘No.’ I said in a voice coming from the walls. ‘No thank you.’


‘You want me to put it back then.’


It was a long mirror, dark and carved. His overalls were blue with a few streaks of white paint. Images came to me from behind my eyes, but I pressed the heels of my writhing palms into the sockets.


‘Yes please.’ I said. 


I heard music. Thrashing its notes through the tiny gaps. Awful empty trumpet, echoing in a nutshell. Some fucking waltz that sounded like sickness and gone-warm liquor. A crooning choir lilting out Albert Main Paperhanger 1936. You’d be right if you think it has no rhythm to it. Maybe that was the point. I don’t think the man in overalls could hear it, if he could, it made him feel nothing.


‘You’re sure you don’t want to have a look?’


Something was loud and the other quiet, but I couldn’t understand which was which.


‘No please. I don’t want to. No thank you I don’t want to.’


‘Alright.’ He said sadly. ‘It was a long job. But alright.’


Such was his acceptance of my decision.


A female voice, some place off, asked if I was dead. Why does everyone think I’m dead? I thought. That was the second time somebody thought I was dead on the floor? Did I need to get more sun? Do I just have to lay down to look dead?


‘Adam!’ Max shouted into my ears.


I flailed and punched him in the chin. He doubled back against the white wall; the sunlight was shot against it like a spotlight. No peeled paper. I got to my feet, my head full of water, steadying myself on the flat wall. A woman in running gear stood in the living room doorway, looking scared.


‘Hello.’ I said, turning to vomit on the floor at Max’s feet.


I think it was the only time Max willingly took me to A&E. I hardly remember getting there. I, apparently, just kept reading the street signs.


‘You freaked me out.’ Max had said. ‘You looked, I don’t know, like really interested in them.’


Sepsis they said. Dirty needles maybe, from that tattoo. The only tattoo on my otherwise clear skin, left at the nape of my neck. My skin rejected the ink and, in simple terms, peeled off. The several courses of medicine curbed the spread of the apparently nasty sepsis. Kiera came to see me the next day.


‘How are you feel- Jesus Christ you look dead.’ She said.


I couldn’t breathe much, but I used what air I had to say I was fine, and that they’d caught it just in time.


‘Thank god for that. Dan said you didn’t look right on Sunday.’


‘What day’s it?’ I wheezed.


‘Wednesday Adam.’


I’d somehow lost a few days. But didn’t have the words to say it.


The hospital quietened at night. Sometimes, I’d accidentally read an exit sign, or timetable, or my forearm as Albert Main Paperhanger 1936. But they’d all soon turn back. The hospital walls were so lovely and concrete and white, with no paper masks to be seen. He’d only wheel past the mirror sometimes when an old person died down the ward. And the trumpets found it harder to fit through the gaps here, having to make do with the sad little tunes of the ECG. From time to time he’d stop, hopeful that I’d look. I’d always tell him no thank you, not right now. One day. But not now.


‘It may scar.’ The Doctor had said from behind her tablet on the day I was discharged. ‘So I hope you like the design.’


‘That’s alright.’ I told her. ‘It was a long job. But it’s alright.’

Comments


Recent Posts
bottom of page