The Best Plasterer in the World
Posted: 15 June 2010
Word Count: 4153
Summary: A surreal look at the power of addiction, I think
This piece and/or subsequent comments may contain strong language.
This piece and/or subsequent comments may contain strong language.
The best plasterer in the world lived in Wigan. It’s fact.
This guy was so good at plastering that not one sign of a trowel-line or even the slightest air-bubble had ever appeared on walls and ceilings in his three-year reign as the world’s best plasterer. Steve was the man that property developers tear hair out for, the type of craftsman that homeowners dream about and councils can never find.
He was a one-off, like a long line of fishermen in a village that takes the best catch day after day.
The only trouble was, Steve had a problem.
At the age of two, he discovered skirting boards, and when he noticed his first piece of skirting, just behind the ex-rental TV, Steve instinctively knew that skirting boards would taste like manna from heaven. Even as early as one-and-a-half, he yearned to gnaw on those skirts but couldn’t quite pinpoint their significance.
At two, he’d eyed the long, glossy, curvaceous lengths with adoration from the corner of his eye while his Mum shook a rattle in his face, and for the first time in his life he felt sure that he had found something that belonged to him.
The slop his Mum had weaned him on tasted vile but he ate it all the same, knowing that one day those skirts would be his.
Soon enough, he was at it every day, concentrating on right angles behind furnishings, to stop his Mum and Dad from knowing too early on.
His Mum never cleared up and Steve reckoned he could get through at least four feet of carefully selected skirting before anyone noticed.
His Dad’s mouth dropped when he went to pick up the lit fag that had dribbled itself out of the armchair’s in-built ashtray.
‘Fuck a duck,’ he said, gobsmacked. ‘We’ve got mice.’ Then he realised that vermin with teeth this size had to be bigger than mice. (Steve had tucked into whole foot-long chunks, leaving the nails bare of housing, still firmly set into the walls). ‘Must be fuckin’ rats!’ he screamed. ‘Denise! We’ve got rats!’ He sprang out of the chair and ran out of the room while Steve pretended to watch Come Outside on the box.
It just so happened that the police turned up the next day to tell his Dad that he’d be spending the next seven years in prison, and he went without a fight.
Steve stood between his Mum’s legs and waved goodbye as they bundled him into the back of the unmarked Maestro.
Steve couldn’t have been happier than in this new arrangement.
With only his Mum to fend him from the skirts and no money to bring in Rentokil for the imaginary rats that chased her through the tiny corridors of the flat, Steve’s work-rate could flourish.
He knew how hard it was to come off a good strip of lean skirting once he’d started gnawing, and quickly learnt how to train his ears to pick up the slightest of movements from his Mum. His teeth became the tools of his trade and Steve devised a system that maximised effect and minimised wear-and-tear on his enamel.
Being a 1970’s council flat, the skirts had been made of MDF. Unlike natural wood, this mix of wood-chippings and plastic deteriorates irreparably under bad conditions, but it’s way cheaper and easier to fix into walls, especially for smackheads, and there were plenty of those in the seventies.
To Steve, though, the only difference between wood and MDF was that, with the latter, it was possible to break down. Although he secretly longed for real wood, he knew that he could never enjoy it and was happy with this mongrel version.
His system of grating off the gloss, licking into the MDF and then moving onto a previously licked area was ingenious. The nails presented a small problem (they were difficult to gnaw around and tasted funny) but Steve worked through it, gnawing into and around the nail and then starting again about a foot down the strip, literally dissecting the skirt. Then he could just flip the remaining section off, put it under his shirt and smuggle it up to his bedroom for laters. Sadly, it never tasted as good as when he was down there on the floor, doing it, but that didn’t stop him.
As his Mum retreated to her bedroom more and more, the flat’s skirting boards disappeared one by one. It wasn’t worth holding back on a piece because she hardly ever came out of her room. If she did, he’d hear the toy-trap he’d set up outside her door and clamber onto the living-room sofa to stare at the TV like a moron.
‘Want something to eat, Stevie?’ she’d say.
‘No, thanks, Mummy,’ he’d reply, without turning to look at her.
Did she imagine that he fed himself? Could it be that he was entirely self-running? Denise didn’t dwell on the whys and hows of the world. She just let shit happen.
One fine morning, Steve woke up and went downstairs.
Bounding into the living-room, he tried hard to avoid what was painfully obvious. He glanced out of the PVC window, praying that the skirts were still there.
As he turned to face the room, he knew what he had to do. Striding out to the kitchen, he made a quick inspection and walked out again, disgusted. No skirt.
All the way up the stairs, the balustrade and spindles stood footless, its skirting gnawed to the bone. The landing’s skirt was gone as well, and so was the skirt in his bedroom. The bathroom didn’t have skirting but it did have bath-panelling and beading, which he’d polished off months ago.
Steve looked over to his Mum’s room.
The doorway stood naked.
The skirts that once complemented the door-frame were gone. He’d done those last night, and she hadn’t even stirred.
It had been an odd experience tearing into those skirts.
As he worked his way across each of the two sections that stopped at her door, he would feel pure shame one moment and the next he would be filled with shameless love for the skirt.
Even as he pondered over whether his Mum could hear every bite, ready and waiting with a frying-pan in her quivering hand for the hoard of vermin, scared out of her wits, still guilt eluded him, for love of the skirt was too great.
He knocked on her door. No reply.
‘Mummy, can I come in?’ he asked.
Opening the door, which clung awkwardly to the carpet as it moved, he went over to his Mum and saw that she was dead as a doorpost, so he wasted no time and tucked in.
Those lengths of skirt were the best he’d ever had.
With all its angles, working on the staircase had shoved his nose into his face and his cheekbones had bent inwards.
He had become a burrowing machine, a human rat, and nothing was going to stop him enjoying what he knew was his final task in the flat. With his Mum dead and his Dad far away in prison, he gnawed relentlessly into the MDF, shaving around nails in no time, pushing away furniture, blowing off or scraping the dust and hairs of a decade’s neglect, completely unaware of the noise he was making. All his facial muscles were tight.
His Mum lay there motionless.
Faced with only the skirt behind her bed to go, Steve jolted it into the middle of the room. This was no mean feat for a two-and-a-bit year old, but he did it all the same.
Once he’d done the skirt, all that was left was the bed’s wooden surround. Steve grated tentatively at its surface, sensing that this real wood would present him with his finest or final hour. He knew that the shards and splinters of wood would have an adverse effect on his stomach lining, but did he stop?
When the frame fell apart, his Mum’s head fell off the pillow and dropped over the edge of the bed to where Steve was working, but that didn’t stop him either. The pine was so refined and well perfumed, a different animal to the MDF altogether.
She looked at peace, even from upside down, he thought, and he was glad that she was now resting.
Once he’d finished in her room, he took himself on a tour of the flat and felt a sense of enormous satisfaction, much like a housewife after a thorough spring clean. Coupled with his quest to gorge upon the skirting boards of the flat, he realised that there was also a Zen-like quality to his work. Elated by this inspired thought, he went to bed and slept like a log.
The next day came and went badly for little Steve.
He spent most of the morning sniffing around for other bits of MDF, which he thought he’d found in the kitchen. The sideboards looked like they were made from laminate-surfaced MDF, so he got at them from underneath, but they tasted awful. They were full of hard shavings and raw plastics. Even with a twenty-minute lick and wait, he still couldn’t get into them.
He tried the heavily glossed wooden spindles on the stairs but they were horrific to taste and kept giving him mouth-ulcers, which dug into his gums and stayed there bleeding.
The wood shavings and plastics of the sideboards hadn’t agreed with him at all. After breaking three ribs when his Mum’s bed fell on top of him, his appetite had temporarily faltered.
He tried watching children’s TV but it didn’t help. Nothing could replace skirting boards, so he ran out of the flat and went looking for it on the streets.
But it’s a cruel world out there and people don’t take kindly to Steve’s sort of behaviour, even at his age.
When he found a skip, he asked a passing man to lift him into it, saying his ball was in there, and the man helped him up. He stayed in that skip for twenty minutes but found no evidence of skirting or MDF. The man had long gone, so old Stevie boy started crying and an old woman lifted him back down again.
He returned to his flat, where a brief attempt on cardboard boxes and items of clothing was cut short by the arrival of social services.
A whirlwind of placements followed, which various tabloids documented after news of his mother’s death (she died of starvation).
The Sun gave him the affectionate nickname of ‘Rat Boy’ and did snippets on his antics every day for a week.
‘Rat Boy tears into Mum’s skirts as she lies dead in bed’ and ‘The skirt that Rat Boy never found’, then ‘The skip with no skirt’, ‘Rat Boy’s Dad in prison for poisoning lover’s hubby’ and ‘Twenty foot-a-day Rat Boy loved every bite.’
When the naming and shaming was over, years of psychotherapy followed and Steve responded well.
Aged six, and with a loving gay couple as his new Mum and Dad, Steve’s life changed for the better. The gay couple lived and worked from home. One designed garments for New York fashion shows and the other invested in stocks and placed bets for known criminals. They were very kind to Steve.
The press drained the story dry after a final page five headline, ‘Gay couple adopt Rat Boy’.
They took him to the best school in the area and he reciprocated their love by learning the basics without fuss.
By the age of seven, he was top in every subject and led his house in athletics, football and swimming. Steve thrived on success. After all, those skirting boards didn’t eat themselves. He’d done that, and there probably wasn’t another person in the world that could tuck into so much skirt and live to tell the tale.
One evening, though, Steve discovered the beautiful taste of plaster.
It happened in his room.
He was doing some homework as usual when he found himself drawn to the plaster around a double plug-socket under his desk.
He picked away at the wall lazily and a bit of wallpaper came away in his hands. Stuck to it was a lonesome bit of plaster.
Steve looked at it for a full ten seconds, in which he remembered every single ounce of skirting he’d eaten in loving detail. Then he put his tongue to a part that had crumbled. It tasted good, so he bit down into the more solid chunk and chomped away at it, deep in thought.
How could it taste so good? he wondered. Why didn’t supermarkets stock it? He could make a killing on bite-size plaster-chunks in the playground. Kids would love it.
The heavens opened up again for Steve, just as they had in his real parents’ living-room.
How incredible it would be to eat plaster for the rest of his life! He could rent a place, eat the plaster and blame the landlord. Or, he could babysit and tuck in there. He could easily just stroll into someone else’s place and start gnawing away. He could even buy a new house, bang the plaster down and then claim on home insurance for a new skim, which he’d eat again! The list was endless.
As the pros attached to tucking in wore away at the cons, he got down there and attacked forthwith.
As he wriggled into position looking for a place to get started, his skirt days came flooding back. His elation was undeniable and he let out a snicker. When he realised that he hadn’t laughed since the good old days back with his folks, he sighed.
Around the socket, some more wallpaper had peeled away so he pulled it back further, careful not to rip it. Once he’d revealed a square foot of naked plaster, he pinned down the loose wallpaper with a book on the edge of his desk and tucked in.
His teeth were sharp but his facial muscles had been out of training for years. Thankfully, plaster was far easier to break down, and it tasted superior, but after only an hour’s worth of constant gnawing, his whole face ached.
Steve took a breather on his bed and lay there admiring his work. His cheeks twitched spasmodically (it looked like a pair of frogs were inside his mouth taking pops at each other) but he knew that this could be remedied with a good work ethic.
Every day for the following week, Steve spent six hours biting down into plastics. There were the rubbers, of course, but they didn’t last long. Then there were the toys, which he’d never played with, clamping down hard on every part of their anatomy. Arms, legs, heads and chests were squeezed so tight that the air inside the toys burst out through holes that had emerged as a direct result of Steve’s strength and will.
Apart from his ten-step facial exercise program, he did a hundred push-ups and fifty sit-ups to sure up his neck tension.
His new parents noticed a change in Steve early on in his new regime. He’d feigned illness and had hardly stepped foot outside his bedroom for a full week and, in the bargain, he’d eaten everything they’d given to him, hoping to strengthen himself for what he saw as another gruelling week ahead.
A doctor had visited but Steve was found to be fit and healthy. Given his history, the doctor allowed him two weeks off school, ‘for emotional reasons’, which fitted in perfectly with his plan.
And so Steve started, bright and early Monday morning.
Switching on his TV to dampen the noise, Bob The Builder could be heard telling his workers what to do on a new job.
He’d drawn a plan of where he’d begin and end but he didn’t need it. The housing of his brain was so tight that nothing escaped it. Every muscle in his face was under his spell.
By Monday evening, Steve had tucked into fifteen different areas behind movable furniture.
On Tuesday, he made progress with areas behind fittings, like the wardrobe and the wash-basin.
On Wednesday, the plaster behind posters and other wall features was taken care of, although you wouldn’t have noticed any change the way he replaced everything.
All the way through the operation, he pulled back carpeting at given areas and sucked up loose plaster that had escaped his mouth on first contact, so there was absolutely no sign of debris.
With his bedroom done for the time being, Thursday morning saw Steve scurry out for the first time in nearly two weeks. The airing cupboard was small, but he knew that his new parents never used it. Also, its positioning (just outside his bedroom on the landing) was such that his burrowing would be very difficult to hear. His adopted parents worked the same hours as Steve downstairs, and they only came up the once to bring his lunch at one. The couple had begun to tire of Steve and, like all their other new toys, he became increasingly invisible to them.
Steve tackled the airing cupboard with ease. He took out the lower section and then clambered up to where the towels sat and tucked into the surrounding plaster at that level.
By one, he’d finished the lot, and only just managed to smuggle himself back to his bedroom to receive his lunch, which went down rather badly. There had been a spillage of wallpaper paste into the plaster mix for the airing cupboard, and Steve was paying the price. He took sixteen excursions to the lavatory that afternoon and finally got the paste out of his system.
On Friday, Steve knew what he had to do. He had to start on piecemeal plaster around the house. It was all he could do. After all, his adopted parents would notice sometime, so he had to just take a chance and tuck in at random. If he’d done any more in his room, they’d have been sure to notice soon enough.
So he began work in the spare bedroom, tucking straight into areas that were hidden by furniture. But there wasn’t that much in the spare room plus it was over his parents’ study, and there were no cupboards to go behind.
With the aid of a chair, he worked his way around the framed pictures and finished work early at about four-thirty.
He felt robbed at the end of it. Not even a full day’s work.
As far as Steve was concerned, the game was up and the fun was over.
He sat in bed that lonely Friday evening. The job had hardly started. There was so much more plaster left in the house.
He thought of the living/dining room that he’d never be able to tuck into, and there was the double-garage with concrete flooring for easy suction.
The next day, though, just as he was deciding where to start, his parents came in and told him that he’d be looked after by a young babysitter for the weekend. They had to go to a management conference in Birmingham.
Saturday morning arrived and his parents gathered around Steve to wish him a fun weekend. Leaving him would be hard for the two men, they lied. Steve said nothing, but managed to look adequately disheartened by their imminent absence.
The babysitter arrived five minutes late and was given an almighty ticking-off by his parents, to which she offered a lazy, eyeless apology about buses.
After sixty-three waves goodbye, they finally departed with tightly pursed lips.
The babysitter introduced herself to Steve without looking at him and he returned the favour by ignoring her and stomping inside.
Once out of view, he shot into the double-garage, locked the door and began work on the walls, starting from the bottom and working his way up until he needed to use a chair.
The babysitter took full advantage of her resentment to his parents’ outburst by lolling in front of the telly all day, eating their food and calling her friends from the house phone. She had no intention of looking out for Steve.
By suppertime, he had demolished the double-garage and begun preparartion on the master bedroom for a full day’s work on Sunday.
He’d decided to go for his folks’ room because he knew he wouldn’t be interrupted by the babysitter and it was the perfect size. His parents would know what he’d done before he could finish the whole house off, but that didn’t concern Steve.
However, in a weak state of loneliness, the babysitter had called her friends and invited them to stop by before clubbing. Steve sat at the top of the stairs, wishing them away as numbers grew and swelled to twenty, then fifty. After a while, there were too many to count.
Couples and drug-users took over the first floor so Steve scampered down the stairs and through the hallway into the double-garage, where he sat huddled.
At around six am, everyone had left so Steve skulked out from the garage into the hallway to find the babysitter asleep on the sofa.
‘Best get to work, then,’ said Steve, more to himself than the babysitter.
But the babysitter had heard him from a corner in her mind.
Stretching and then sitting up as he was making his way upstairs to the master bedroom, she scraped through her hair.
‘Where am I?’ she said sheepishly.
‘You’re in my house,’ he replied without heart. ‘Now get out.’
The babysitter looked up dolefully as he stood at the bottom of the stairs, grabbed her things and ran out, leaving the front door open.
Steve wasted no time in shutting it, ran upstairs and polished off the bedroom by five on the dot.
At six, his parents returned to find their home a shell. The sofa on which the babysitter had slept was the only remaining item of furniture to be seen. Even the kitchen and bathroom units had been ripped out.
They cried out for Steve but he was fast asleep.
They ran upstairs and found him. ‘Thank God you’re OK!’ said one of them, holding him up to his breast.
‘Thank God,’ said the other man.
For Steve, the intervention of Slough’s clubland had been fortuitous. With the house robbed, there was only the one point that foxed the police and insurance company: Who in their right mind would hack off and meticulously dispose of plaster, leaving the brick apparent and to no financial end? They put it down to the possibility that these cunning thieves had tried to find a built-in safe, and left it at that.
During the months that followed, apparent brickwork became extremely fashionable and Steve withdrew from his parents.
The two men were finding it hard to get over the robbery and were incensed when they found Steve chomping away at plasterboard in the garden shed. On further inspection, behind the shed, they found another thirty-odd sheets of plasterboard that Steve had had delivered from Jewson’s.
They were resigned to having failed the poor boy and opted to call in the childcare agency to wipe their hands clean of him before he graduated to bricks.
His third family was a couple old enough to be his grandparents. They had recently lost their only son to cancer and did everything in their power to make Steve’s new home a happy one. He was given a great bedroom with his own bathroom and was delighted to hear that his new Dad was a retired plasterer, something that had escaped the dippy childcare agency.
But Steve decided to curb his taste for plaster and set out to win over his Dad in order to understand all there was to know about plastering.
‘So, young lad,’ his Dad had said when Steve showed an interest in his trade. ‘You want to meet the old enemy head on, do you?’
Steve just nodded innocently, and from that day on his old man taught him everything he knew until the day came when he could go out and find work for himself in the building trade.
Like a keen guitar student with high aspirations to emulate Clapton and King, Steve studied drying time against mix quantities, smoothing down, differing wall preparations, tool maintenance and mixes for varying weather types, from eight to sixteen years of age.
Unfortunately, there came a time when resistance to temptation dissolved once again.
Steve had found himself down on his knees, transfixed by the eerie beauty of some electrical cable that had suddenly caught his eye in a new-build he was plastering.
He was chomping down on the outer rim of the oven cable, just to see what it tasted like, when the kitchen-fitter switched on the mains and Steve died instantly.
God bless his soul.
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