People always phone early in the morning when they want a job done in a hurry. Mrs. Ainsworth phoned me at 8am one Monday morning and she was very clear about what she wanted.
“Just one room decorated,” she said, “by Friday, if you would please, Mr. Mordecai. You come highly recommended.”
Customers like her know how to get what they want. I said I’d be along to see her as soon as I’d finished work that day.
Mrs. Ainsworth lived on a road which I’d never been to before. It was across the river, on the far side of the allotments. Number 6, Angel Street, the last in a little row of cottages, quite old, small and tidy. As was its occupant.
The job she wanted done was straightforward. She’d got colour charts and picked out what she wanted. Not to my taste, her choices, and a bit surprising at her age, but it’s not my place to argue with the customers. I told her I’d go to the big DIY superstore at the other end of town and pick up the paint the following day, ready to start work on the Wednesday.
“Could you do me a favour while you’re there and pick something up from me from the shop behind?” she asked.
“There isn’t a shop behind,” I said. “It’s just a big shed. You must be thinking of somewhere else.”
But she was definite, as she’d been about the job, in a way you didn’t argue with. I put the piece of paper which she gave me into my pocket.
Next morning, after I’d bought the paint, I was putting my wallet back into my pocket when I felt the paper Mrs. A had given me.
‘Walk around the DIY store until you reach Heaven on Earth,’ she’d written, ‘and ask for my special order.’ I did as instructed. As I turned the second corner and started walking along the back wall of the superstore I saw a door. It looked like a staff entrance, but as I reached it I saw that it was clearly marked, in shiny gold lettering, “Heaven on Earth”. I pushed the door and it opened into a smoky room. There was a strange, spicy scent in the air. Immediately inside the door on the left was a small display of crystals on a black-clothed table. Otherwise the room appeared to be empty, though the smoke made it difficult to see, or to be sure how big it was.
My opening the door had caused a bell to tinkle and fetch a tall young man dressed in black.
“Good morning,” he said, pleasantly, “Regular or special order?”
I told him I’d come for Mrs. Ainsworth’s special order. He consulted a large book, running his long fingers over the entries in it. Then he disappeared into the smoke. I waited. It was hot in the room and the crystals on the table looked bigger. I told myself it was a trick of the light. The young man returned with a rectangular package, about 3’ by 1’ and surprisingly lightweight. I put it in my van with all the other things I needed for Mrs. A’s job.
That night I dreamt I was in the shop called “Heaven on Earth”. It was big and bright, with a glitter ball spinning above a dance floor where angels with enormous wings were gliding to a half-remembered tune. One of them gestured to me to join in and I did, moving gracefully, as if weightless, flying almost. Then the young man who had served me appeared and said in solemn tones that I had come too soon and should return for my order in three years’ time.
I woke up in a cold sweat.
As soon as I got to Mrs. A’s house in the morning I took in her special package, eager to see the back of it and to get on with my painting. By 5 o’clock I’d done all the preparation and the undercoating. I told Mrs. Ainsworth that I should be able to get the job finished by lunchtime the next day. She clapped her hands and for a minute she looked like the picture of a witch in a book I’d had as a child, her face all angular. I blinked and she was a sweet old lady again.
“You’ll have time to help me with the box then,” she said, gleefully.
“The package you kindly collected for me. It’s a special box. You have to put it together yourself and it’s tricky to do on your own.”
“I’m a decorator, Mrs. Ainsworth,” I said, inexplicable panic rising in my throat. “Not a carpenter or a joiner. You need a specialist to put a box together. It’s the joints, you see. That’s why they’re called joiners.”
My voice trailed off, for Mrs. A had fetched the package and was pointing at the side of it, where it was marked “Easy self-assembly”.
She was definite that it would all work out fine and pushed me off home, saying I was obviously tired and I needed to get home for my tea.
Perhaps I was over-tired. After all, I’d put IKEA furniture together often enough so what on earth was I worried about? I had macaroni cheese for my tea, comfort food, but the cheese was evidently a mistake because that night I had another bad dream. I was back in the “Heaven on Earth” shop and now it was full of dusty boxes, all half-made. I was working against time to get them finished and more kept appearing from the back of the shop, as the dust rose in clouds.
I woke up coughing and exhausted.
On the Thursday morning I painted Mrs. A’s room in her chosen colours, Shocking Pink and Black. When I had finished it looked like a Turkish knocking-shop. What Mrs. A was going to do in there I did not want to think about. I ate my ham and pickle sandwiches in the van and thought, instead, about the money she was going to pay me.
After lunch Mrs. A made me a cup of tea and I unwrapped the package as she looked on expectantly. I could see what appeared to be thin sheets of balsa wood inside. But as I loosened the paper there was a sound like a bunch of whooping cowboys on horseback coming through the wall and I jumped back in terror as the contents of the package flew out in all directions, expanding to twice or three times their length and thickness with terrible cracking noises. The noise ceased as suddenly as it had begun, the wrapping paper settling onto the floor with little flutterings.
As the room quietened I became aware that the colours in which I had painted it had become more intense. The pink was more shocking, and looking at the black was like looking into a deep lake. As I did so the lake rippled and a tall angel stepped out of it, holding out one long-fingered hand to Mrs. Ainsworth who, with a little wave to me, vanished into the dark. The angel turned one elegant shoulder and said, in perfect if somewhat formal and stilted English: “Thank you so very much. It was most kind of you to help this good lady on her way. I can assure you that you will be amply rewarded when the time is upon you.”
“And my…?” Money, was what I wanted to say, but he was gone and my mouth had dried up as I gazed upon the altered scene. Was it the beating of angels’ wings or my own heart I felt as I saw my own name, engraved on a gold plate atop the plain coffin which stood before me? My vision blurred before I could read the dates and I took off my glasses to rub my eyes. When I put them back on the room was empty.
As I turned to leave a voice in my ear made me shudder violently.
“Are you feeling better, dear?” asked Mrs. Ainsworth. “You mustn’t go without your money now. I’m so very pleased with the room, and the box. Michael here kindly helped me assemble it after you had your little turn.”
Behind her stood a tall young man with long fingers and an enigmatic smile, who gestured at the box pew which now stood alongside Mrs. A’s fireplace. And then the fluttering started again and came between me and the world.
I’m fine now, just fine. I realised that I had to give up the decorating business. I stay at home and I’m much calmer. I’m waiting for Michael to arrive. I know that he’ll come here when the time is upon me. I also know, of course, that I’ll recognise him, and that is so very reassuring.