Matthew was a bachelor, looking forward to the freedom and the opportunities that he imagined his new life would offer. Not having to go to work, he tucked into a breakfast of porridge with chopped prunes and two slices of wholemeal toast. He drank a mug of strong, dark tea then settled into an armchair with his cat, Humphrey, purring quietly on his lap. he was comforted by the new Wi-Fi thermostat that he had fitted on the wall and the thought of twenty-four inches of loft insulation above. Light reflected from the perfectly glossed mouldings on the doors and skirting of his living room. It was a moment of pride in a job well done. Over the years he had visited clients' houses and knew that not many had achieved his high standards. Most houses were a never-ending project of half-hearted updating and botched maintenance.
His new status meant more time at home, in his chair, reading the paper, looking out of the window, seeing the daily ebb and flow of commuter traffic and watching the comings and goings of his neighbours. It meant endless cups of tea, too many biscuits and an ever-thickening waistline. In the afternoons he flicked idly through his well-thumbed DIY magazines, more out of habit than with any serious intention of further work.
He was bored!
He would have to get out and make more effort to extend his interests. He needed a new direction and new contacts.
He tried the salsa class in town but that didn't last long. Several women set their caps at him and made the evenings difficult. And it didn't help that he had no sense of rhythm .
After the horror of these classes he found himself drawn back to his favourite DIY store, P&Q. He needed to get his bearings, take stock and enjoy walking those isles again. After all it was important to keep abreast of any new developments in the world of do-it-yourself.
The following Monday, at opening time, Matthew was one of the first in store. The staff were going to their respective posts and the sound of their cheerful banter filled the air. He slipped past a greeter who was engrossed in telling a colleague about a new display of domestic wind turbines and headed through the large lighting section. A gust of cold wind caught him as he passed the automatic door to the garden centre. He walked along the aisles, viewing the goods and marvelling at the high shelving that reached almost to the roof. Sun shone through the skylights illuminating the swirling specks of dust in the air above. He felt at home and quite emotional as he realised that this warehouse contained everything that you could ever want or need in a house. 'What an achievement for mankind,' he thought. 'If only people valued what they had in such a place, with its power to improve lives.'
An elderly lady tapped him on the arm and interrupted his reverie.
"Excuse me dear, can you read this label for me? I want to make some curtains for our John's flat. Could you tell me if I need some tape header and curtain eyelets like these? What do you think? Matthew studied the labels for a moment and then gave her the clear confident advice that she needed."Yes this is the one, They work a treat, ever so easy to fit. I've just used them for my own curtains." The lady was impressed. "Well if that's the case I'll take them. Thank you so much, you can't beat a personal recommendation." And with that she set off for the checkout.
As he wandered the store, Matthew developed a sixth sense; he recognised when customers were uncertain, hesitant or ignorant and they in turn responded to something in his manner that invited them to ask for guidance. They were grateful that his advice was so thorough and thanked him. He knew from experience that many of the staff were far too self important or busy to deal with such queries.
At the end of a long first day he was tired, yet fulfilled, as he went home to bed for an early night. The pattern of his days at P&Q were now set.
In the morning he couldn't wait to visit the store again and assume his self appointed role as an aid to the helpless and uninformed. It was the Wednesday evening of the second week that his new routine took an unexpected turn when he found himself locked in at closing time. He'd been reading an obscure green efficiency label on a new line of Italian air conditioners in one of the less frequented areas at the back of the store. He'd quite lost track of time and the store was eerily silent. He wasn't upset by his predicament but strangely excited at having this temple of DIY all to himself.
He made his way to the power tool section, which he regarded as the real heart of the store. On display in all its glory, he saw the new 'De Wilt' two-gig mega drill with the laser home drilling device. He grasped it, noticed the perfect balance. It was smooth and comfortable in his hand, almost sculptural, like a pebble on a beach. Next to it was the latest electric mitre saw with an eighteen tooth-TCT blade and a base of aircraft grade anodised aluminium with polycarbonate Resin Guard, plus extensions. Best of all, its assorted clamps were in matching colours. Nearby he was thrilled to discover a new display of paint spraying equipment just in from the Far East. It was a technology he had never seen before, developed from the US air force drone programme. A rechargeable version with go-fast stripes designed to paint high ceilings and walls by remote control. Aluminium case included!
Feeling peckish he walked up to the empty cafeteria on the first floor. The coffee machine was still warm and he chose a drink, an assorted packet of biscuits and a cling-filmed egg sandwich. He left his money on the counter and sat at a table on the balcony surveying the scene below and thinking about where he would sleep the night. He could hear odd bumps, creaks and squeaks. 'It's just the metal building cooling down', he thought to himself. Refreshed, he set off to find a suitable bed. The baths in the showroom were far too hard and cramped, but at the back of the store he found a space behind some boxes and on a pile of bubble wrap he had the best sleep he had enjoyed for a long time.
The store was already open when he was woken next morning by the sound of the P.A. system calling for Tracy to go to soft furnishings. The first early customers were moving about. An elderly couple paused near to where he lay.
"Do you think one of those electric fires would do for us Albert?"
"I don't see why not, love. There would be no mess, no cleaning up. It'll be nice and simple and this one's got a lovely mahogany surround where you could display your china. I'm sure our Paul would install it for us. I'm getting fed up lighting fires, and all that bending."
"Yes, love, no more heavy buckets and dusty ash, and it would look so modern. But we'll need a hand taking it to checkout." Matthew startled them as he appeared from behind the boxes of shower units.
"The perfect choice Madam! And it has an automatic timer, to switch it on before you get up in the morning."
"Oh, has it really! said Dot. "Fancy!"
"I'll fetch a trolley from the next aisle," said Matthew. He loaded the fireplace and pushed it to the checkout where he left them with their thanks ringing in his ears. As he passed the hinge department he was able to help a young couple by explaining the crucial difference between adjustable self-closing hinges and rising butt hinges. And so it continued throughout the day.
In the evening he went home to rest and think about things.'Perhaps I should apply for a job at P&Q, they seem to favour more mature people' The thought was instantly dismissed. 'No good, too much of a commitment, I wouldn't be able to come and go as I pleased. But I suppose I could carry on as I did today, just popping in when I feel like it.
On his next visit he didn't leave the store at closing time but slipped quietly behind the racks for a while. When the store had closed down he came out and spent an hour tidying the boxes of screws that had been left hopelessly out of order.
He went upstairs to the empty cafe for a sandwich and a drink from his flask. As he sat on the balcony admiring the view over the store shafts of moonlight sliced through dramatic areas of dark shadow. Suddenly Matthew tensed. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up and he could hear his heart beating. Someone was out there, near soft furnishings. He reached for the million-candle power torch that he had borrowed from 'lighting' and used it like a searchlight in a World War 2 POW camp. The beam slowly traversed the darkened store. He wasn't sure but he thought he caught a brief glimpse of a woman's arm and a neatly turned ankle by the pelmet display. Realising that there might be someone else in the building that night was a shock to him. Who could it be, was there another intruder like him?
Going downstairs he was emboldened as he gripped the powerful torch and headed to where he thought he'd seen the figure.
"Anyone there?" he called. For a moment there was silence, then a shuffling sound as a woman stepped out of the shadows and into the light. She introduced herself as Bridget and was relieved to discover that this man with the torch was not security but another 'overnighter' like her. Matthew in turn was delighted to find a like-minded person and as they wandered the aisles together they talked about why they chose to stay over. Bridget, he learned, loved fabrics and felt it her duty to personalise and improve the goods in some way, working on them quietly, strengthening the stitching here and there or adding a little hand embroidered motif or an individual message to be discovered after purchase.
Nearing the builders yard the air was much cooler. "You must meet Len, he's a retired builder and a regular overnighter. He beds down amongst the rolls of insulation."
"Now then," said Len to Matthew, "you've come to join us, have you? I suppose you want to know what we're all doing here."
"Well, I can't explain it. All I know is it's better than being at 'ome. I'm usually 'ere four or five nights a week."
Matthew looked surprised. "That's a lot of nights, Len, why's that?"
"Well, it's since my wife died. I look at it this way, I've spent my life in the fresh air on building sites and yards like this. I loves the smell of the stuff, and the special silence of a builders yard at night can't be beaten! There's something comforting here." He paused for a moment. "And I keeps it tidy! Bridget," he said, "why don't you take Matthew over to meet Tom? He said he'd be in tonight. He's a right character is that one. He only comes in now and again but he's been an overnighter longer than any of us. He used to work at Kew Gardens! Well, I must push on now, I've got to sort out these racks of plastic guttering.
In the garden centre they found Tom doing a little night-time watering and dead-heading near the stack of recycled oak barrels. He invited them both for a brew-up in one of the garden sheds where a couple of other overnighters had made a cup of tea. Eric, 'the sparks' from electricals, a shy, quiet man with a duff eye, had wired up a kettle, and Deirdre, a retiree from the paint department, had brought in some colourful iced buns to share.
That evening was very significant for Matthew and Bridget. It was the start of a romance that led to their being married under an awning in the P&Q car park. The company, unaware of the couple's night-time trysts, were amused by the idea that anyone should want to marry in their car park and willingly gave them permission, seeing, no doubt, some useful publicity. They even laid on extra help for the reception and served food and cheap champagne from the 'Bacon Butty' van. Len was pleased to be best man and Deirdre made a wedding cake iced in a bold, colourful design based on hand tools. The sun shone and the day was a great success. Matthew was pleased with their honeymoon plans and knew that Bridget would be delighted. They slipped away later that evening to spend three joyful days in Birmingham at the 'Homes and DIY Trade Fair.'
Bridget had been happy to accept Mathew's proposal on condition that she be allowed to redecorate and revamp his bungalow."That kitchen!" she said. " I hope you don't mind but I hate all those stainless steel units. I prefer maple."
"Wonderful!" said Matthew. "Now we can start all over again and turn this house into A PROPER HOME!"
Woodcarving and story are copyright of Peter Murphy.