The only other thing my wife and I had ever before attempted to paint was a single paling on our then newly built front fence. It had taken almost an hour to do what we did of it and as there were another 20 or so to do afterwards, we worked out that we couldn’t possibly finish by tea-time and so paid a professional to do it instead. He insisted on cash so I have no record of his name, but judging from what he charged and the result I assume it was either Paul Klee or Kandisky. We had resolved though to stick with it this time and complete the little cupboard in the backroom ourselves. It wasn’t just the extortionate sum of money we’d otherwise have to part with—it was a matter of pride.
We had already pleasantly surprised ourselves at being able to successfully paint the whole of the kitchen. We’d cheated a bit in that we had simply painted over the faux wood panelling the previous owners had glued onto the plaster, but it looked remarkably good if you liked yellow. More importantly, we hadn’t killed each other as we almost did a month earlier when we’d varnished the floorboards in our hallway. On that occasion we’d pulled up the carpet without incident but the Baltic pine underneath was quite thirsty and required several expensive coats and a number of visits to the Paint Pot before the floor showed any signs of sheen. At three in the morning we’d faced off at each other at either end of the hall with a seething more at home in the Rhode Island manse of Klaus and Sunny von Bülow, both armed with buckets of lacquer and threatening to douse each other if one dared again tell the other how to do a job that neither was qualified to carry out in the first place.
The back room was also covered in faux wood panelling and this time we had painted it green; again, pretty good if you could stomach the hue—and as we had some left over we thought we may as well use it on the little cupboard in the corner, which was a scuffed and ugly beige. There was a small argument about whether we should paint the interior of the cupboard as well (I thought we should; my wife, on the other hand, thought me an idiot) but otherwise the experience was largely without incident. The problem came when we ran out of paint with one side to go. My wife felt I should pop down to the Paint Pot and buy some more green, whereas I thought, given that the unpainted side would be up against the wall anyway, that we’d finished.
Fortunately there was no paint left to threaten each other with; unfortunately though, my half-eaten bowl of breakfast cereal was still on the servery and, soon enough, all over my beautiful silver-blond hair. The truth was, I didn’t mind blowing some more cash on a tin of Asian Lime; it was the owner of the store I couldn’t face again. We’d run out of conversation after my fifth visit; by the eighth, all civility had gone and when I’d last popped in (to buy some mineral turpentine to un-green the Florentine light switches I’d splodged) we were just grunting at each other. I really couldn’t bear to see him ever again. And so the little cupboard remained unpainted and I slept that night on the couch smelling of muesli.
Then we bought a house. Lacking the necessary skill and temperament to complete even the most inconsequential home improvement, it was clear to both of us that, even at our most deluded, renovating an entire house would be a quantum leap that neither of us had the glutes to accommodate, so we handballed responsibility for the whole vainglorious folly to our architect. For some reason I couldn’t fathom at the time though, I found myself quite literally falling asleep whenever we had a meeting with him.
The moment he started to explain what he was doing or how much it would cost I would nod off, only to be roused moments later by a sharp nudge from my wife or my own palatal snores. I now realise my narcolepsy was part of an ingrained survival mechanism. Long ago, my primate ancestors, when faced with some lethal predator, would neither fight nor flee; they would instead faint and be reawoken by others in their flange once the danger had passed. Not that our architect was a lethal predator, it’s just that, as my therapist has since explained, subconsciously our architect represented the slavering jowls of the financial impossibility of ever paying for the thing.
My wife has always been much better at wrestling this particular beast than I have. Taking holidays, having children, career changes—it is she who takes me by the arm, twists it behind my back and pushes me into its maw; urging me down its gullet with a combination of endearments and sighing. And while we have always somehow escaped unscathed it is hard to stop and smell the roses when you’re being mewed up, swallowed and passed through a digestive system. Not that my trepidation is without grounding in reality. Prior to buying our dream house I’d been unemployed for approximately a year. My previous job had been hosting a chat show that the network felt would satisfy audiences more if it were not on at all. As our savings dwindled, our three children increased in size and soon the house we were in—and particularly the room they shared—seemed too small. The five-year-old, particularly, began to resent the cot we were still forcing him to sleep in.
I had just returned from the city where I been visiting the bureau de change (I had found some British pounds in an old box left over from a holiday years ago, the value of which I thought might come in handy should we need to eat at some point) when my wife—all Cheshire cat smile and the sass of Peter Pan—announced that she had bought a property down the road at an auction she was lucky enough to be walking past at the time. ‘Oh, yes,’ I had said through a fixed but probably unconvincing smile. My wife’s eyes blazed defiantly as she told me how much our new pile had set us back. My legs, on the other hand, buckled beneath me and I had to steady myself on a pair of apple puree–spattered high chairs.
And so into the belly of the beast we slalomed—but as so often happens, Providence was there to meet us on the other side with some Wet Ones. Commercial radio had beckoned with its fickle middle finger and before I could say ‘Under no circumstances will I so debase myself’, I had. The money was sufficient to pay off the vast concord of mountebanks who hoodwinked their way through our property over the next two years and the hours meant I was never home to endure any of it. It was the perfect arrangement. We had to cut some corners when the radio station went into voluntary receivership but my wife and I convinced ourselves that we could one day attend to the landscaping, rainwater tanks, solar panelling, driveway, carport and lawn ourselves. The new front fence was a problem though—we desperately needed it so we could have a gate to lock to keep the neighbours out and we knew it was beyond us. Approximate cost in a sane world: $1200. Actual cost because of heritage overlay: $13,000.
We moved in our old furniture on the backs of our children and convinced ourselves that it all looked passable so we didn’t have to buy anything new. The only item that didn’t really work was the little cupboard from the backroom. We didn’t have the right corner to put it in and so its unpainted side was now visible. Rather than dump it in the river as I suggested, my wife decided to sell it on Gumtree. We had it valued by a friend of a friend who knew about such things. With a look on his face that reminded me of Kenneth Williams at his most astonished, he advised us that the cupboard was an eighteenth-century French Tambour Cabinet. Estimated worth $13,000—had not some idiot painted it green. •
Shaun Micallef is a TV writer and performer who works mainly for the ABC but sometimes earns his living in the real world as a rogue, vagabond and poltroon.