Jonny McCambridge: Papa Elf vs the painter - there can only be one winner

As mornings go, this is the Holy Grail.

Papa Elf pyjamas and the paint
Papa Elf pyjamas and the paint

My son is at school, my wife is at work; I have the day off and nothing that I need to do.

That is not to say that there is nothing that I could be doing, rather that I have just decided against it.

Instead what I have decided to do is to go back to bed.

My head is sinking into the pillow when I hear the knock on the front door. My first thought is not to answer, but then I remember some Christmas presents are expected for delivery.

I rush down the stairs in my pyjamas, mumbling and groaning as I go.

Standing on my front doorstep is a man in white overalls who looks even unhappier than I do. I stare at him. He stares at me.

Only now do I remember that last night my son insisted on me wearing my Christmas pyjamas - they are a startling shade of red with the words ‘Papa Elf’ emblazoned across the chest.

‘Can I help you?’ I begin.

‘I’m here to do the painting. Your wife said to come this morning.’

I scratch my head. I do remember Debs saying something about getting the house painted, but I assumed she was talking in an abstract way, like when I say that I intend to tidy the garden. I didn’t think she would go ahead and do it.

‘Uh, you’d better come in then.’

I retreat to my room and hurriedly pull on yesterday’s clothes. When I come back out I realise my error.

In my absence the painter has started claiming his territory. There is a blitzkrieg of flowing white sheets being rolled across carpets.

I am forced down the stairs, which fall quicker than Belgium, and then retreat across the hall with the sheets in relentless pursuit like Panzas.

Soon I have claimed sanctuary in the kitchen, the only neutral territory left in the house. Through the glass door I watch the painter applying tape to skirting boards.

I look around me, there is nothing left to do except make a pot of coffee.

I sit at the table and drink a cup, then another, and a third.

It is only now that a dark and terrible thought occurs to me - I have no safe passage to the toilet.

This is a worry. Even when I have not drunk three cups of coffee, I always like to know my most direct route to the nearest bathroom. I have reached that point in my life when all decisions I take, all journeys I make, are determined with the geography of a toilet in mind.

No sooner does this thought flash through my mind than I realise that I need to pee.

I try to ignore it. I read a few pages of one of my wife’s magazines, I peel some spuds, I walk around the table again and again muttering ‘I have an iron bladder...I have an iron bladder.’

But it is no use, I really need to go.

Hesitantly I open the door and begin to creep across the white sheets. The painter is halfway up a step-ladder at the top of the stairs, right outside the bathroom door.

I cough timidly.

‘Er, could I just get past you for a wee second?’

He doesn’t say anything, but emits a long sigh. It takes him an age to descend the ladder, as if each step is an unbearable physical ordeal. He gathers his brushes and tins and stands aside.

I enter the bathroom.

Two minutes later I leave the bathroom. The painter is halfway up the step-ladder again, blocking the stairs.

I cough timidly.

‘Er, could I just get past you for a wee second?’

This time the sigh is even longer and the descent of the ladder even more tortuous. He also seems to be shaking his head sadly.

As quickly as I can, I scurry back to the kitchen and close the door.

I decide it might be a good idea to use the time productively by starting work on my next column. I sit at the table and turn on my laptop. I open a blank page and watch the cursor blinking provocatively at me. For a few minutes I stay just like this, bereft of ideas.

When I experience writer’s block I have a rule that I just type what is on my mind at that exact moment.

So I type....’Aw no, I need to pee again.’

I quickly abandon the composition as hopeless and go for a walk around my back garden.

I make it look like I am examining the flower beds, inspecting the lawn - but what I’m really doing is trying to ascertain if there is any blind spot in the yard where I can pee without the neighbours on either side being able to view from their upstairs windows.

There is not.

As if to reinforce this, the old woman who lives across the road looks out her upstairs window and waves down at me below. I wave back, then go inside again.

In the kitchen once more I tell myself off sternly. How can I be so diffident to be intimidated by a grumpy painter? This is my house...and my toilet. If I decide to visit it 200 times today then he is just going to have to go along with it.

I march into the hall and onto the stairs with newfound conviction.

The painter peers down at me suspiciously from his ladder. I feel like he is staring straight into my soul.

‘Um, er’, I stutter, ‘I just have to go out for a bit. Will you be ok on your own?’

As I pull my car out of the driveway I tell myself that this was my plan all along.

After all, I need to do the weekly food shop in the supermarket.

Also, by a useful coincidence, there is a customer toilet in the supermarket.

As I drive away I see some movement in the rear view mirror. It is the painter moving his van into the spot which my car has just vacated in the driveway. By now the best I can hope for is that he has not changed the locks by the time I get home.

—— ——

A message from the Editor:

Thank you for reading this story on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.

With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on many of our advertisers - and consequently the revenue we receive - we are more reliant than ever on you taking out a digital subscription.

Subscribe to and enjoy unlimited access to the best Northern Ireland and UK news and information online and on our app. With a digital subscription, you can read more than 5 articles, see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Visit now to sign up.

Our journalism costs money and we rely on advertising, print and digital revenues to help to support them. By supporting us, we are able to support you in providing trusted, fact-checked content for this website.

Alistair Bushe