Our death room was on the blink again. Judy told me the very moment I got home from work. She’d discovered it the very moment she got home from work, too. I wondered why Judy had wanted to check on the death room so urgently, but I didn’t ask. She’d been crying. She’d been crying a lot recently.
“If it’s not one thing, then it’s another,” said Judy. The flat we rent is very cheap, but there’s lots that’s wrong with it. The flush in the toilet keeps sticking. One time the fridge freezer leaked, we had to spend half the night mopping the water up. The week before, we had this plague of cockroaches crawling out of the vents in the living room. We scooped them all up with kitchen roll and put them in the death room. Thank God the death room was working well that day.
We’ve tried telling the landlord, but he doesn’t care.
Judy took me to the death room right away, I didn’t even have time to take my coat off. We stood in the doorway. It seemed pretty grim. The smell of roses was stale. The background hum wasn’t the calming tone they promised in all the brochures, it was a bit too high pitched, like a dentist’s drill. The lights fizzed and stuttered and kept winking on and off; moths kept singeing themselves on the naked bulb, but the electric shocks never quite managed to kill them.
“I want this sorted,” Judy said.
Now, I love Judy, and I’ll give her anything she wants, but the truth is she wants lots of things, and I’ve found it’s always better to see whether she remembers to want them by morning. But that night we lay together in the loving room, and when I tried to smooch her she was having none of it. “I can’t sleep for knowing we haven’t got a functioning death room,” she said. “What if one of us in the night is taken fatally ill, what would we do?” I told her it wasn’t very likely, really we were both pretty healthy considering, but she said that was hardly the point, I was being irresponsible again. I hate it when she points out my irresponsibilities, it means she’s going to win the argument.
If we were going to fix this, Judy said, we were going to have to fix it ourselves. We would certainly die if we waited for the landlord to pull his finger out, and probably of old age. We got up right then and there, and together we looked through the Yellow Pages. It was rather fun, really, shopping for things we couldn’t afford, and Judy brightened and became almost cheerful. She was attracted by some of the bigger ads, but I was certain they’d be more expensive. I found a tiny ad for a man called Cliff Winnig, builder, plumber, electrician. “Looks like he can do it all!” I said, and Judy sniffed, and said she supposed we could give him a try. As if we had the power to audition manual labourers! She wanted to phone him straight away, but I pointed out that it was two in the morning. She came back to bed then, very reluctantly, but on the proviso that I would call him as soon as it was dawn, and that if she died in the night without the proper accessories installed she would come back and haunt me.
She didn’t die, and neither did I. I phoned Cliff Winnig. When he spoke to me, he sounded like a wise old man who was going to solve all of our problems. He said he’d send someone over to give an estimate in about three weeks. I told him we couldn’t wait three weeks, and that my wife was at death’s door. He went silent, and then in the same measured tones said he’d come over himself that very afternoon. I thanked him, hung up, and told Judy to go and make herself look ill.
Judy didn’t cough very convincingly, and after about ten minutes forgot to do it altogether, but Cliff Winnig didn’t seem to notice. He stood in the death room, sniffed at the rose scent, listened to the hum, watched the moths survive each kamikaze encounter with the light. “Some cowboy’s put this in,” he said. He told us the death room was going to require a complete overhaul. “Your dampeners are blown, see,” he said. “You’re trying to run an entire death room off blown dampeners.” I didn’t know a death room needed dampeners, but I wasn’t about to look stupid in front of Cliff Winnig. He was in his sixties, maybe, but still very handsome and lean, and his voice was gentle, and I wish he had been my father. I wish I could have been Cliff Winnig, a skilled workman, and look at me, just some office monkey. He was twice my age, but he seemed more man than I would ever be. I loved Cliff Winnig.
He had lots of ideas how he could renovate our death room. “You’re letting in natural light with those windows,” he said, “and it’s much more modern to use tinted glass, to make it a little more lugubrious?” I could see his point. “And one thing that’s good, is you can have running water down the walls. Not too much water, but it gives the room that right melancholy buzz. Looks like an indoor waterfall.” Judy liked the sound of waterfalls, she was quite taken with that. I said it all sounded very costly, and Mr Winnig turned his eyes on me with an infinite patience and told me it would be costly, but didn’t my wife deserve a beautiful death room? He promised us a death room to die for. He looked at our bathroom, said he could fit us a new one, offer us a discount on the two jobs. He was very persuasive, but I said we’d just stick with the death room for now.
Judy was charmed by Mr Winnig. She had some holiday due from work, and said she’d take it so she could be home whilst Mr Winnig was there. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust him on his own, she just wanted to see a master craftsman at his trade. Cliff Winnig asked if we had a stepladder – he could bring one of his own, of course, but if we had one anyway it would save the faff. I said we did. I wasn’t going to look slovenly in front of a master craftsman. And after he left, we went around ringing the doorbells of all the other flats, seeing whether we could borrow one from a neighbour. We hadn’t met any of our neighbours before. Some were quite nice. And one of them said we could rent their stepladder, for just a small fee.
On the Monday Mr Winnig started work Judy called me at the office no fewer than four times. “He’s started on the painting!” she said. Or, “He’s taking the glass out!” Or, “He’s swatting the moths!” She was excited, and I was glad she was excited, but I told her she’d have to stop calling me at work, my supervisor kept glaring at me. When I came home that night she took me straight to the death room, I didn’t even have time to take my coat off. “There!” she said, displaying it like it was one of the seven wonders of the world, but I couldn’t see much difference really – there were a few splodges of paint on the walls, and one of the window panes was missing. The lights were still fizzing, but bits of moth were now squashed against the bulb. I told Judy it was very nice. And over the next few days this was the way it had to be, I’d be shown the death room the very moment I got in, and I’d make appreciative noises, and there might be a few more paint splodges to admire, and the stepladder would be standing in a slightly different position. I never saw Cliff Winnig. He had always packed up by the time I got home. I admit, I was a little jealous. Judy sent me to the corner shop one evening to buy Mr Winnig some tea. He liked drinking tea, she said, he drank a lot of tea whilst planning what was best for our death room. It had to be Ceylon tea, Mr Winnig was very particular. I wondered whether all master craftsmen were particular about Ceylon tea, or whether it was just Cliff Winnig.
At the end of that first week Judy said to me, “Do you think it’d be weird to have Mr Winnig over to dinner? It’d be weird, wouldn’t it? Do you think it would look weird?” I said I didn’t think it would look especially weird, it was clear Judy got on well with Mr Winnig, she was clearly spending a lot of time with him. “But do you think Mr Winnig would think it weird?” she asked. Mr Winnig didn’t think it weird at all; Judy told me he accepted the invitation with grace and politeness. Judy dressed up for the occasion, and put on a nice frock, I hadn’t seen it before. She made me iron my shirt and my trousers. And Cliff Winnig arrived in a jacket and tie, he looked very smart, and he’d brought flowers for Judy and a bottle of wine for the table, and I was glad I felt so ironed, I wouldn’t have wanted to stand out. We had prawn cocktails to start with and casserole for the main grub, and Mr Winnig said Judy was an excellent cook and Judy blushed and looked happy. Afterwards Mr Winnig smoked a cigar and drank the whisky I’d won at the office raffle last Christmas and told us about his life. He’d certainly seen the world. He’d been in the army and had killed a man. He’d been to Ceylon and gone big game hunting. He’d ski-ed. I thought there was something rather beautiful about it all, that he’d done so much, and was now giving something back, that he was spending his last days plumbing and fixing people’s death rooms. “And fitted bathrooms,” he told me. “Seriously, I could give you a discount.” I said that we were doing okay.
And some nights I’d wake in the night and realise Judy wasn’t beside me. I’d go to the death room. And there I’d find her, arms stretched out, her face beaming, breathing it all in – and so happy, happier, I think, than I had ever made her. “It’s just going to be wonderful,” she’d say. “Isn’t it? We should move the bed in here! We should eat in here, sleep in here!” I love Judy, and I try to give her what she wants, so I’d never say no outright – but the smell of fresh paint made me feel a little nauseous, the window pane hadn’t been replaced yet so the rain and cold got in. And I know it sounds silly, but I can’t help it – I just think that death is really rather a sad thing, when all’s said and done. Isn’t it, though? Isn’t it a bit? I was glad she liked the death room. But I didn’t intend to spend much time in there.
“We could have a baby,” she said then. Her eyes seemed to sparkle, they seemed to kick into life in spite of the surroundings. “I think we’re good together now. I think we can do good.” I wondered whether this meant we could start smooching again. She might have meant adoption. I don’t like to take anything for granted. I asked her. She pressed me on the nose, and laughed. “Let’s see what happens! Let’s wait and see!” I took her back to bed then, and there was no smooching that night, but she let me lie a little closer and she seemed warmer and softer than usual.
One Monday Judy didn’t phone me at work, and I knew I should be relieved, but I worried all the same. The moment I got home, of course, she told me what was wrong. Cliff Winnig hadn’t arrived that day. Judy hadn’t called him, she said she didn’t want to nag. But when by Tuesday lunchtime he still hadn’t showed, she told me to ring him and find out what was wrong. I tried to ring him, over and over. Each time it went straight to the answering machine.
On Thursday I finally tracked him down. His voice was immediately reassuring and made me feel like such an idiot for being concerned. He explained he had been called away to another job, a more urgent job – doing someone’s bathroom fitting. I pointed out that he hadn’t finished our job yet, and I really said it very mildly, but when he didn’t reply for a while I thought I must have offended him. “I’ll be round again tomorrow,” he said. “Without fail.” On Saturday afternoon he pitched up, and Judy looked so pleased she all but flung her arms around him; she went into the kitchen to make him a cup of tea. “Now,” he said genially, “let’s see what you’re making such a fuss about, shall we?”
We all stood in the death room, surveying his handiwork. “It’s nearly done,” he said. “One more day should do it.” Judy was delighted by that. I couldn’t see how he could finish so quickly – the splodges of paint were separated by whole oceans of peeling plaster; the moths had now been joined by mosquitoes and daddy long-legs, all bouncing around the lights and speckling the ceiling, and not a one showed any signs of dying; he hadn’t even started on the waterfall effect yet. Cliff Winnig said he’d be back on Monday. I asked if he wasn’t going to get any work done now, seeing as he was already here and everything. He told me he hadn’t brought the right tools.
We never saw Cliff Winnig again.
After the first polite messages I left on his answering machine I discovered a brittle terseness I’d never guessed I had. Still, he never picked up. By the end of the week I got a message telling me the line had been disconnected.
Judy refused to believe Cliff Winnig had abandoned us. Every day I left for work she gave me a brave smile and told me she’d phone me when he arrived. Not even an if, always a when. And of a night she’d say to me, “What did we do wrong?” She’d think back through our conversations with him, she analysed them all in great detail, she uncovered such a whole host of minor misdemeanours on our part that it was no longer a question of whether we had offended him, but only which way had been the most grievous. She got angry with me sometimes. She cried. But often she was just too tired to cry. She stopped eating. She’d go to the bathroom, she’d say she was going to throw up, but she hadn’t eaten enough to throw up – at night I’d wake to her dry heaving, and sometimes the flush would stick.
Judy’s holiday leave ran out. Her boss kept calling her, asking when she was coming back to work. The messages on the answering machine got increasingly angry, and until one day, they just stopped.
The neighbours asked for their stepladder back. The death room looked so much emptier without it.
Judy’s parents came round to visit. They normally give a week’s notice so we can prepare, this time they dropped in unannounced. Judy burst into tears when she saw them and rushed into her mother’s arms. “It’s all going to be all right,” said Mother. Father inspected the death room sourly. “You’ve made a pig’s ear of this,” he said to me. Mother said, “Don’t you worry, you can always use our death room. You, and that husband of yours.” Judy’s parents had a gorgeous death room; there were no paint splodges on their walls, and the windows were air tight, and the ambient hum was the sort of noise that could be the background music to Heaven itself – and three of Judy’s grandparents had died there, from both sides of the family, and the fourth was already booked in; it was a gorgeous death room, they’d shown it off to me that very first time I’d picked up Judy for a date. Father said, “That Mr Winnig of yours has a lot to answer for, a proper little crook.” And at that Judy got angry, and told her parents they had no fucking idea what they were talking about, they never had a single fucking clue, and she stormed out. You still couldn’t criticise Cliff Winnig in front of Judy, she just wouldn’t have it, even though some nights in bed she’d swear at him and she’d dig her fingernails deep into the pillow as if it were his face. Mother and Father looked shocked at Judy’s outburst. “I think you’d better leave,” I said.
Some nights we were almost close. “I’m such a bitch,” she’d whisper, in the dark, “I’m sorry,” – and I’d say she wasn’t a bitch, no, no, no, and even if she were a bitch, just a little bit, I loved her anyway, and we were going to be all right. I’d reach for her hand, and squeeze it, and sometimes she’d squeeze back.
One day Judy phoned me at work again. It was just like old times. “I’ve tracked down his address,” she said. I asked her how. “It doesn’t matter how,” she said. “Now we’ve got it, what are we going to do with it?”
It took me a full day to prepare. He’d left some tools in the death room – a screwdriver, a hammer, a pot of glue. I’d take them back to him. I could say it was an act of charity, to show what good friends we still were in spite of all. Judy wanted to come, but the idea of confronting him set her dry heaving again. In the end she agreed to wait at home on the strict instructions that I would call her for back-up if needed. I couldn’t see what back-up could be required, or what good Judy might be if it were, but I didn’t argue.
Outside the front door I took out the hammer and weighed it in my hand. I thought it might be a good idea to keep it visible, just in case. But then I remembered, this was Cliff Winnig, and although the love between us had gone cold, surely he was no threat. Not my second father, no, more, my better self. I felt ashamed. I put the hammer away. I put my finger to the doorbell. It took me ten minutes before I found the nerve to press it down hard enough to make it ring.
A man came to the door who wasn’t Cliff Winnig. “My father,” he explained, when I asked for him. “He’s dead.” Cliff Winnig had never mentioned a son, not in any of his stories about Ceylon or ski-ing. And this man didn’t look much like Cliff Winnig, but I suppose there was some resemblance – I squinted my eyes, and tried to picture this young man thirty years older, as someone more mature, and more wise, and less tattooed. I fancied at last I could see Cliff Winnig staring back at me. The son waited patiently whilst I did all this. I told the son I was sorry for his loss. He thanked me. I asked if his father had died in his death room. The son said yes. “I bet he built himself a nice death room,” I said.
I explained the situation. The son said Cliff Winnig hadn’t been strong enough for death rooms, death rooms were a young man’s game. “What he’d always loved,” he said, “was the simple beauty of a nice fitted bathroom.” I said I was sorry that I’d made him work in ours, and the son shrugged and said it wasn’t our fault, but he looked at me so coldly and I knew he blamed me. “I’ll come round, finish off your death room myself,” he said. “Have you got your own stepladder?” I said that I had.
He came the very next morning, bright and early. Judy asked him if he’d like a cup of tea, but he said no, he’d sooner get on with the job. He stood in the death room, took it all in, breathed in deeply just the once, then got to work. The whole operation took him just under three days. He replaced the window pane, painted the walls the right funereal green, corrected the hum so that it was wistfully morbid. He didn’t give us the waterfall effect we’d been promised, but you can’t have everything.
And all the insects that had been building up their vast empires on the ceiling fell to the ground and died. And we brought in worms and slugs from the garden, just to make sure; we set them down in the middle of the room, we watched them curl up and turn to dust, and, do you know, I think every single one of them died peacefully.
Cliff Winnig’s son said because of the inconvenience we had suffered he would only charge us half the estimate, plus materials. But he’d done a good job, and at great speed, and we had contributed to his father’s death, so we insisted on paying for the whole thing.
Judy and I stood together in our brand spanking new death room.
“It’s done,” she said.
“I feel safe.”
“I want a child.”
I love Judy, and I’ll give her anything she wants, but I’ve found it better to see whether she remembers she still wants it by morning. And besides, I was no longer sure I could give her a child. I don’t know what it was, that maybe I’d spent too long around death, but when she chattered to me about babies my heart didn’t swell, it just hung heavy in my chest like a stone, I thought that maybe the death room had leaked and the part of me that could produce a child had withered to a useless stump, I thought that my love for Judy had had its best and fleshiest parts eaten away by cancer. But she took me to the loving room. She led me out of the death room, closed the door of the death room hard behind, and took me to the loving room, and she lay me down. And, for once, the loving room did its work: its perfumed smell excited me, the background hum seemed exotic and erotic, even the lights fizzed and stuttered and winked on and off suggestively. Our loving room had been on the blink, but it kicked into life just at the time we needed it most. I felt myself becoming warm and happy and fertile.
Halfway through, though, I stopped. I said to Judy, “But we don’t have a nursery.”
She stopped too. She gave it some thought. She balanced on top of me precariously and frowned. “Well,” she said, at last, and resumed what she was doing, and I didn’t much care about the problem any longer. “Well. We’ll just strip out one of the rooms we don’t use.”
I thought we might argue about which room we should strip, but we didn’t, it was obvious to both of us. And it didn’t take very long, it was in perfect condition. After she’d rolled off me, and I’d got my breath back, we set to work on it straight away.
The other day I was shopping in town for baby stuff, and I saw a man who looked just like Cliff Winnig. I almost waved hello, but then I remembered Cliff Winnig was dead. I thought about telling Judy, but decided it’d be best not to bother.