Exterior Paint, a short story by Kit de Waal
Malcolm X inspires a West Indian to declare his love. This story is taken from Protest: Stories of Resistance, in which 20 authors re-imagine key moments of British protest
Malcolm X on Marshall Street in Smethwick during a visit to the Englishsh Midlands in 1965. He was assassinated nine days later on his return to the United States. Photograph: Getty Images
The estate agent is optimistic. That’s what he said on the phone and now, at the front door, he offers his hand and smiles ‘Baxter. Mike Baxter. Baxter Byrne.’
Alfonse Maynard had been watching from the front room window for fifteen minutes. Saw Baxter pull up in his white car, get out and walk along Marshall Street looking up and down the road, in front gardens and back alleys, peering at the uncut hedge at number eighty-five, the shoddy porch at forty-nine and the permanent satellite dishes on every house but his own. Baxter made notes on his clipboard and tapped the side of his head with his biro, then he rang the bell.
Alfonse leads him through the house from front to back, through the narrow hall and the two sitting rooms where no-one sits, rooms that smell of air freshener, beeswax and unopened windows. In the back room at least thyme and pepper have settled in the nap of his dralon armchair, sticky spots of coffee and rum decorate a little mahogany trolley. There’s a Formica dining table and chairs for his dinner, a display cabinet for his wife, his children and grandchildren, a footstool for his bad foot, a Freeview television for the news and a black cd player for Nat King Cole.
The estate agent moves the net curtains aside to look out on the garden. ‘A proper garden,’ he says, ‘some on the other side of the road have little more than a postage stamp. And you’ve got a shed.’ He scribbles something on his pad and taps the window frame with the tip of his pen.
‘Double glazing,’ he adds. ‘Been here for a while have you?’
Alfonse moves aside so the estate agent can be first in the kitchen, the one Lillian had installed eight months ago, the one she used exactly five times. ‘Since sixty-four,’ he says. ‘I used to rent it, then I bought it. My wife’s idea.’
On behalf of Baxter Byrne, I would like to offer my condolences to you, Mr Maynard. Sorry for your loss
‘Good, good. You’ll see a handsome return on your investment then Mr. Maynard,’ says Baxter running his hand along the work surface like it’s a woman’s skin.
‘Solid timber,’ says Alfonse, knocking on the cupboard doors. ‘It was my wife that wanted it. Then she died.’
Baxter doesn’t turn his head, takes his time then makes his announcement in full.
‘On behalf of Baxter Byrne, I would like to offer my condolences to you, Mr Maynard. Sorry for your loss,’ and Alfonse realises that for Baxter, death is a professional boon.
‘You have a …’ Baxter moves through the kitchen to the little toilet off the lobby. ‘.. ah yes, downstairs cloakroom, wash hand basin, fully tiled, modern white suite.’ Then back through the kitchen, noting the name of the boiler as he passes, ‘Domestic hot water and central heating,’ he says to himself. He motions to the staircase. ‘Lead the way, Mr. Maynard.
Alfonse shows him the little bedroom at the back with its single bed and blue eiderdown. It still has Lillian’s sewing machine set up and the little vanity chair she used to scuff across the carpet to sit at it. Whatever she was sewing when the stroke knocked her backwards has been tidied away. The room is dark and lifeless and Alfonse closes the door quickly. The second bedroom lost its bed twenty years ago when Lillian declared it a dressing room. She had wardrobes built on every wall and mirrors on every door. It reminds Alfonse of a circus or somewhere you might take your child for a day out, a child that might slip your hand and runaway or get lost and the very thought of this room lately has begun to give Alfonse nightmares. So he only stands at the door and lets Baxter go in alone.
‘Useful second bedroom,’ he mutters, ‘large double.’
The biggest bedroom overlooks the street. Why Alfonse is embarrassed to be standing in there with another man he does not know. He has tucked in the sheets and blankets as he does every morning, his shoes are out of sight, there is no dirty washing in the pink plastic laundry basket and no dirty magazines shoved under his mattress. But the room smells of man and not woman and that’s enough.
‘Master bedroom,’ says Baxter, ‘fitted wall lights, central heating radiator, telephone socket.’
Baxter measures up and is done in fifteen minutes.
‘Presentation is everything, Mr. Maynard,’ he says as he shakes hands again with Alfonse on the doorstep and flicks his eye towards the peeling green paint on the front door. ‘Red sells.’
He pours himself a little rum in an amber glass and sits back in his chair
In his chair that evening, Alfonse cries.
The next day, the lady at B & Q helps him choose a bloody red for the front door. Lillian would have been in charge of colour but the woman that helps him is blonde like Lillian with the same good shape and easy smile.
‘There you go, bab,’ she says, ‘September’s a good month for painting. Not too cold not too hot.’
Alfonse buys paint brushes and sandpaper and undercoat and white spirit and a new flap for the letterbox in brass with rope edging. He puts some chicken to stew in his still-new oven and reads the instructions on the tin of paint. He pours himself a little rum in an amber glass and sits back in his chair. This will be a two-day job.
The next day, Alfonse is outside early enough to watch the children go to school. All the children are brown of one shade or another, in headscarves or cornrow and Alfonse realizes that there must have been a time, just before he came from St. Kitts, when all the children on Marshall Street would have been white, when maybe there was a white man, standing at this very gate with sandpaper in his hand and his shirt sleeves rolled up, a man with a tin of green paint, watching white mothers wheel their prams round the corner to the shops. Alfonse has brought out a kitchen chair. He will work from the bottom up, first with sandpaper and then he’ll paint on the undercoat.
The sound of her shoes and her voice, that’s what he first loved
Mr. Kang stands in his porch next door. ‘You’ve been a stranger,’ he says to Alfonse.
‘Oh, I’ve been busy, you know. Tidying up and throwing things out. I got a valuation yesterday.’
Mr. Kang folds his arms across his chest. ‘What colour?’
‘Red,’ says Alfonse.
‘Red is for celebrations, my friend,’ says Mr. Kang. ‘And when you leave, it will not be a happy day.’
Alfonse nods. ‘My daughter lives in Sutton Coldfield.’
Mrs. Kang and the big-eyed Kang girls cluster at his gate. They hold hands with their mother as they cross the road. Alfonse watches them go. Watches Mrs. Kang button her coat tight around the curve of her hip, into the slip of her waist and he remembers Lillian and the tip-tip of her high heels on the pavement after dark, after her shift at the Blue Gate, after everyone had gone to bed. Alfonse would be sitting at the open window with his cigarette waiting. The sound of her shoes and her voice, that’s what he first loved.
He said to put it on for ninety-nine thousand but I must only expect ninety-six
Mr. Kang brings them both a cup of tea, sweet and spicy, boiled with cardamom and spice, thick with condensed milk. ‘You can’t have tea without biscuits, my friend,’ he says and whips the lid off an enamel tin eight inches wide. Alfonse looks inside at the Jammy Dodgers, custard creams and pink iced rings. ‘If they make them, we buy them,’ says Mr. Kang.
Alfonse takes two chocolate bourbons. Mr. Kang takes six. He won’t ask so Alfonse has to tell him.
‘The man was called Baxter,’ says Alfonse. ‘He said to put it on for ninety-nine thousand but I must only expect ninety-six.’
Mr. Kang whistles. ‘Not bad. When did you buy it? Things must have been cheap in your time.’
Cheap. The word makes Alfonse wince. He scours at the paneled door until the scratching noise is so loud he can’t hear if Mr. Kang is still talking, until he is sure that Mr. Kang has gone back inside so that when he turns around Marshall Street will be quiet again and he can remember in peace.
There are two barmaids at The Blue Gate, Lillian and Lillian’s sister. They both have the same job and the same words to say to the black men that come looking for a drink after work or on Sunday afternoons when the loneliness of the long day and the pressure of four walls bears down heavy.
‘Blacks round the side,’ or ‘Smoke Room Only.’ The difference is Lillian only says it with her mouth, not with her eyes.
You only get told once, the second time you remember but this is nineteen sixty-five and there are new black men every week, new reminders from the barmaids or the landlord. The first time Alfonse goes in, he opens the door to The Lounge. Everyone stops talking, stops drinking. Alfonse looks from face to face and sees Lillian’s. She gives the slightest shake of her head and he steps backwards, outside, round the corner and in again through The Smoke Room door. She walks through the bar and is there again waiting.
‘Sorry,’ she whispers and then louder, ‘Coloureds can only drink in The Smoke Room, sir. What’ll you have?’
Alfonse takes his half a stout to the corner where the West Indians sit. They’re men like himself, young in the world, young to the country and homesick. Alfonse hardly joins in the conversation, his drink is untouched. He watches Lillian pulling drinks and wiping the counter.
Come, man, play a hand of cards
One of his new friends tugs on his coat sleeve. ‘Listen, man, over here you don’t even look, never mind touch. You want a woman, you must send for the one you leave at home. Come, man, play a hand of cards.’
Alfonse holds the Jack of Diamonds and the eight of clubs. He doesn’t concentrate on the game and loses nearly two shillings by the end of the night. He walks home slowly with his last cigarette, the collar high on his coat. Alfonse has only come for a few years and the truth is he’s not sure if he wants his woman to come, not sure he misses her. Isn’t it better that she waits in St. Kitts til he comes back? The last time he saw her, she shouted after him, ‘Write me!’ That was nine months ago. Alfonse hears the tip-tip of a woman’s shoe behind him and when he turns, it’s the barmaid. He waits at the corner under the lamplight and she catches up.
‘You left this,’ she says and holds his hat in her hand.
‘Oh,’ he touches his hair and then shakes his head. ‘I’m not myself this evening.’
‘Who are you normally then? Should I call for a policeman?’ If she hadn’t smiled, he would have backed away. Only last week he heard that someone, an Indian man, smacked a barmaid across the face and was being hunted by the Police for assault. Alfonse wasn’t there and doesn’t know if it’s true but isn’t this how trouble starts, with the pretty face of innocence and the sound of laughter?
He puts his hand out for his hat but she perches it on her blonde beehive and laughs again. ‘Does it suit me?’
‘Yes,’ he says. And instead of taking it off her, he taps it down at an angle so she looks like one of the girls that dance with Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire. She spins around as though she can read his mind and when she stops he reaches out to steady her.
‘Whoops!’ she says and grabs his arm. There is a moment then in Alfonse Maynard’s life when his world tilts and he understands that something has changed.
Everyone was talking about it, a house full of single men, single black men
‘You better walk me home,’ she says and keeps her hand on his arm directing him all the way to Marshall Street.
‘But I live on this street!’ he says and she winks at him.
‘Yes, I know.’
She tells him she lives with her mother and her sister on the posh bit of the road that bends around the corner, number seventy-five, and that when Alfonse and his friends moved in she went to have a look. Everyone was talking about it, a house full of single men, single black men, four at least, getting up to who-knows-what. While Lillian watched the house she saw Alfonse open the front door and button his coat. And just like Alfonse’s world tilted when she took his arm, Lillian told him later that her world tilted in direct proportion to the angle of his trilby as he put it on and nudged it to the side.
That night, they stop at the corner and Alfonse kisses Lillian on the cheek. They both look around in case they are seen and then Lillian kisses him back.
‘We’ll have to keep quiet about this and be careful,’ she says ‘My Mum’s a bit prejudice.’
The being careful bit is harder than they expect. Sometimes, on a dark night, they twist suddenly into an entry between the terraced houses and kiss for so long that it’s all Alfonse can do not to ravage Lillian there and then. He feels her slender body beneath her coat, the soft pressure of her bosom, her heart against his and he wants her like food. After six weeks, Lillian has an idea.
‘You go home, Alfonse and I’ll finish at the Blue Gate. I’ll go to my house, pretend to go to bed and slip out when no-one’s looking.’
Alfonse says nothing. It was Lillian’s sister that got the slap in the face from the Indian man she refused to serve. The man is still wanted by the Police. There are slogans daubed on brick walls telling black people to go home. There are demonstrations by the Indian Workers’ Association about the colour-bar at the Blue Gate and to top it all, Marshall Street itself is in the papers for being too full of black people. ‘You don’t want a nigger for a neighbour’ is the headline and Lillian’s mother is involved somehow, part of a local crowd pushing the Council for all-white streets. Alfonse knows what happens in America, black men are beaten with clubs, burned alive, hung from trees and for a lot less than sex with a white woman. This wasn’t the time to let the tilt for Lillian topple him headlong into his coffin. But then again, when she kisses him, touches him and says his name….
‘Alright,’ he says. ‘I’ll wait at the window. Don’t knock. I’ll watch for you and come down.’
On Friday it works like a dream. On Saturday, the same. On Sunday night when Lillian finishes early, she lies down on her bed and falls asleep. Alfonse waits at the window until half past one and then oversleeps for work. On Monday night, not a day they planned to see one another, he hears shrapnel against his window just before midnight. She’s grinning up at him and he takes the stairs two at a time.
Lillian tells him that her mother has the house full of visitors and there’s not a moment Lillian can call her own
‘I missed you,’ he says and he pulls her up the staircase.
They make love under his pink candlewick bedspread and lie in the dark with their cigarettes, her in his arms, pale and soft.
‘I’m going to tell her,’ says Lillian. ‘We’re not doing anything wrong.’
‘No, no,’ he says. ‘Not yet.’
Christmas comes. Lillian tells him that her mother has the house full of visitors and there’s not a moment Lillian can call her own. If she’s not working at The Blue Gate, she’s washing up and making meals. She has one cousin walking her home, another sleeping in the same bed, someone by her side day and night. Alfonse doesn’t see Lillian for three whole days and he begins to wonder if she will forget about him like he has forgotten his woman in St. Kitts. He can barely recall the promises he made to her back there or the sound of her voice or whether she wore perfume. He doesn’t know if she she has dimples and downy hair on the back of her neck or whether the moonlight makes patterns in her eyes. Does she taste of sugar, taste of salt? Does she fit against his body like wet sand under his feet? He can’t remember.
Alfonse spends Christmas Day and Boxing Day with the other boarders, sitting around their kitchen table trying to recreate the festivities of home without good rum, without fruit cake, without pepper and garlic for the small, small ham on a dry pallid bone, without stewpeas and rice and, for the first time in Alfonse’s life, without the white heat of the sun.
But Lillian hasn’t forgotten him. Stones scuff the window at midnight on Boxing Day and he crushes his lips on hers.
Lillian is dressing one February evening when she sits down suddenly on the bed and covers her face with her hands.
‘My Mum knows,’ she says.
Alfonse sits up. He doesn’t reach for her or tell her not to worry. He doesn’t bundle her up and kiss her face. In that moment, Alfonse thinks of himself and of the viciousness of the mother he has heard about for three long months, of her scheming with others on the street to get the blacks out and put the niggers back where they belong, on the boat home. He reads the papers each day now and listens closely to the news on the radio because everyone in the foundry, Indians, Pakistanis, West Indians talk about how bad it is and whether it can get any worse, whether it could get like America with the Klu Klux Klan, lynchings, segregation, assassinations.
Lillian raises her head and looks at him. ‘She knows, Alfonse! She’s furious with me. She was screaming some terrible things.’
Alfonse lights a cigarette and lays his arm on Lillian’s shoulder. ‘Don’t worry, Lily.’
‘She said I was a slut, Alfonse. She said I was cheap.’ Lillian wipes her eyes and grabs his hand.
‘What shall we do?’
‘We have to be more careful that’s all.’
‘Yes, Lily. Watch our step. I don’t want no trouble.’
Lillian stands up straight. ‘I see.’ She pulls the belt tight on her Macintosh and feeds her slender feet into her stiletto heels. She ties her headscarf and places her handbag neatly in the crook of her arm. ‘When you’re ready to be a man, Alfonse Maynard, you know where to find me,’ she says.
He smokes cigarette after cigarette until his mouth begs for water
Alfonse goes to speak but the door slams so hard he’s worried that it will wake the house and give the game away if there is any game left.
Alfonse sleeps not one single minute of that night. He squeezes his eyelids together and lies as still as his mourning body will allow but peace can’t find him. Lily has gone. Morning comes and Alfonse doesn’t move. His alarm alarms and he throws the blasted thing to the ground. Lily has left him. He smokes cigarette after cigarette until his mouth begs for water. It’s Friday. Payday. Alfonse has missed his first ever day of work.
He sits up in bed and peels back the curtains. The road is quiet. He looks at the corner where he first kissed Lillian and wonders if he will ever get to kiss her again. He has to get her back.
Then Alfonse notices at the top of the road, a big group of men have gathered, some with notebooks out, some with cameras and standing in the middle of the group is a tall black man in a hat and glasses. Alfonse pushes his head out of the window as far as he can without tumbling to the ground.
‘Can’t be,’ he whispers. ‘Just can’t be.’
There are two Indian men at the corner and a black woman too.
Alfonse is dressed in his trousers, shirt and socks in seventy-five seconds. He has his arms in the sleeves of his coat as he opens the front door. He stands at the gate and looks to the top of the road and the apparition.
Then suddenly the black man walks away from the crowd, just him alone. He comes down Marshall Street looking left and right at the houses, at the ‘For Sale’ signs in the windows and the group at the top stand and watch. Someone is filming and ‘if they are filming this thing,’ says Alfonse out loud, ‘it’s because it is true.’
Malcolm X,’ his heart says over and over, ‘Malcolm X’
The man gets closer and closer and as he walks past Alfonse, their eyes meet, black man to black man and again, Alfonse feels a shift in his world. The black man walks to the corner of the road and Alfonse has to follow.
‘Malcolm X,’ his heart says over and over, ‘Malcolm X.’
A group of women are waiting for him at number seventy-seven. A group of white women and with them Lillian’s mother. They stand in the front garden and shout, waving their arms and pointing.
‘Go back home!’
‘We don’t want blackies here.’
‘Get out of our country.’
Malcolm X doesn’t turn his head, he doesn’t answer, doesn’t break his stride nor cower. It’s as if he can’t hear them, like he’s thinking his own thoughts, just a man out for a stroll on winter’s afternoon. There is no jeering, no name calling. Nothing.
When Malcolm X goes back to the group at the top of the road, he faces a camera and speaks. Alfonse can’t hear what he says but he knows it will be in the paper, it will be in the news, it will be all over the world that Malcolm X came to Marshall Street and walked strong with his back straight and his head high. The men slowly pack up their things, put their notebooks away and then they are all gone.
Alfonse goes back inside and straight to the kitchen. ‘Malcolm X,’ he says. He puts the kettle to boil and plugs in the iron. He came to England in a good suit and tie. He brings it out of the wardrobe and holds it up to the light. Yes. He cleans the nicotine from his teeth and shaves carefully, closely until his skin complains. He takes a clothes brush to his overcoat and buffs a shine on his shoes.
‘Malcolm X,’ he says and puts his trilby on. He nudges it down at an angle over his eye and he will never know if he really heard the next words but in his heart they are clear and true.
‘Do it, Alfonse,’ said Malcolm X. ‘Go and do it.’
Lillian is behind the Lounge Bar at The Blue Gate. Alfonse stands in the open doorway. The talking stops. The drinking stops.
‘Come, Lily!’ he shouts.
Men look from him to her and back to him. Alfonse doesn’t turn his head. He can’t see them.
‘Come!’ he shouts and she darts into the back, grabs her coat and skips across the carpet.
He pulls her by the hand past Dibble Road and Topsham Road, over Holly Lane and all the way to number seventy-five. He says nothing. By the time he rings the bell, they are both panting.
‘I’ve got a key,’ Lillian whispers but before she can get it out, the door opens. Lillian’s mother. She folds her arms, opens her mouth but Alfonse is quick.
‘Your daughter has come for her things,’ says Alfonse, calm like Malcolm X. ‘Go on Lily and then give your mother your key. You won’t need it again.’
Lily slips past and the woman gasps.
‘Lillian and me will be married next week,’ says Alfonse. ‘We would like you to come.’
Curtains move in the front windows of all the houses along Marshall Street. Women up and down the road and in the shops and in the pubs and clubs and launderettes would talk for many years about the time a black man fronted Lillian’s mother and got the better of her. Alfonse would always remind people that Lillian’s mother did try and speak but he held up his hand, palm to her face and said simply. ‘No.’
Alfonse carried Lillian’s little suitcase and a lightness in his heart that never left until Lily died.
He will buy a nice tin of biscuits from the supermarket and orange squash for the children
Alfonse wipes the sanded door with white spirit. He has gone down to the wood in some places. If he was staying maybe he would strip it right back and peel off all the layers of exterior paint that have built up over the years. But he only needs to smarten it up for the sale. Presentation is everything. He will go inside now. His chicken will be stewed and ready to eat and he will pour himself a good inch of rum tonight, two good inches. Three.
He will paint the door tomorrow and afterwards he will invite Mr Kang and his wife and the Kang girls into his home like Lily used to, when she would lay the table with all sorts of treats and sweets and sandwiches. He will buy a nice tin of biscuits from the supermarket and orange squash for the children. Alfonse will show them Lily’s new kitchen and they can all sit in the front room, sit and sit until it smells of people and not furniture polish.
It’s a good thing to think about the past, to think about Lily. Nine days after he walked on Marshall Street, Malcolm X is killed. Alfonse reads it in the Sunday paper and has to sit down. He tells Lily all about it, how he and Malcolm spoke heart to heart and Alfonse found the strength to stand up and be a man. Lily kisses him and says he should send a card of condolence to the widow and children. So Alfonse does. There are photographs of the funeral a few weeks later and Alfonse imagines the grief of the crying wife and wonders if she will ever recover.
Alfonse sips his white rum and knits his hands together. There is red paint under his nails. When the ‘For Sale’ sign goes up people will come and walk through his rooms and touch his things. They will open Lily’s cupboards and look at her clothes but they will never know her and the gentle touch of her hand and the way she made him feel. ‘I love you, Alfonse,’ she said just before she died.
People will come and look at Lily’s sewing room and the little bathroom and they will think about changing the shower curtain or replacing the roof. They will knock the two downstairs rooms into one like Mr. Kang did and they will think how much better it would be without the dralon chair and photographs of a dead woman, without the old man that lives in one room.
Alfonse holds his glass up towards heaven. ‘Lily,’ he says. He goes to drain his glass and then remembers and smiles. ‘And Malcolm.’
Kit de Waal is the author of My Name is Leon, Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year 2017 and shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and Desmond Elliot Prize. This story is taken from Protest: Stories of Resistance (Comma Press), in which 20 authors re-imagine key moments of British protest, from the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 to the anti-Iraq War demo of 2003, with fictional characters caught up in real-life struggles, offering a streetlevel perspective on the noble art of resistance