By Greg Clark, May 13, 1939
Greg and Jim discover it’s often more than the house that gets painted when amateurs try the job
“Do you realize,” demanded Jimmie Frise, “that you can’t get a painter for love or money in this city.”
“You’ve left it too late,” I stated.
“Well,” protested Jim, “there was so much uncertainty. Some of the best guessers of my acquaintance were willing to bet a hundred to one their majesties wouldn’t be coming to Canada.”
“There was your chance,” I pointed out, “to get your house painted for nothing.”
“The main thing is,” said Jim, “How am I going to get it painted now?”
“The royal procession doesn’t come anywhere near your street,” I suggested.
“What has that to do with it?” demanded Jim indignantly.
“Well, after all,” I said, “if you were on the royal route, I could understand your anxiety. But away down a back street …”
“All my neighbors,” said Jim, “have redecorated their places, they’ve painted up and they’ve got their flower beds abloom and I saw one fellow across the street nailing those flag-staff holders on every window sill. I bet he hangs out 20 flags.”
“So it’s to keep up with the Joneses that you want to fix up your house?” I taunted.
“I’m just as loyal as anybody in this country,” declared Jim hotly.
“But you’re just a little procrastinating,” I submitted.
“I bet there are tens of thousands of Canadians in the same pickle I’m in,” complained Jim. “How about you? What have you done with your house?”
“I put it up to the landlord,” I explained sweetly. “I suggested that it was hardly patriotic of him to allow a loyal and true blue Britisher like me, a major on the reserve, all battle-scarred and full of army phrases, to live in a house not all dolled up for the royal visit. So he turned loose a gang of painters and it was all I could do to prevent them painting the house red, white and blue.”
“You people who rent have all the luck,” muttered Jim.
“But we have nothing to leave our widows,” I offered.
“The rest of us,” growled Jim, “leave mortgages to ours.”
“You could solve the problem,” I suggested a little uneasily, for I could already sense a purpose in Jim’s conversation, “with bunting.”
“A little rain,” countered Jim, “and where’s your bunting?”
“Put it up at the last minutes,” I offered. “Drapes over your porch and festoons above the windows.”
“It isn’t good enough,” declared Jim. “It would look tawdry in my street. One of my neighbors showed me a great big silk Union Jack he has bought. Bigger than a table cloth. It cost $40.”
Dizzy on Ladders
“Why don’t you go down to one of the government employment offices,” I asked, “and get a couple of men and turn them loose? Painting isn’t so mysterious a business.”
“Oh, isn’t it?” lured Jimmie.
“Pshaw, no,” I said, foolishly, “I’ve done painting as good as any professional. I painted our kitchen less than two months ago. And you saw the job I did on the annex up at our cottage?”
“Amateur jobs are all very well,” said Jim, cautiously, “in kitchens and on summer cottages, but you can’t do the front of a house. That takes professionals.”
“Get away with you,” I cried. “All it takes is patience and care. The difference between a professional house painter and you or me is simply that we are in a hurry, whereas the professional house painter does it for a living and therefore takes his time.”
“You mean,” inquired Jim, “that if you and I undertook to paint the front of my house, all we’d have to do is take our time and be careful and we could do it as well as a pro?”
Too late, I realized where I stood.
“Personally,” I said firmly. “I think you would be better advised to buy bunting. The bunting would cost you less than the paint. Why, for the cost of the paint, you could cover your house with bunting and get a big silk Union Jack besides.”
“My house needs a coat of paint anyway,” mused Jim.
“The great trouble with amateur painters,” I pointed out, “is, the average man gets dizzy on ladders. Now you take me, for instance. I daren’t climb a ladder. If I go up a ladder, I get so dizzy I have to hang on with both hands.”
“You could do the lower bits,” said Jim. “The window sills, doorways and things like that. I never get dizzy.”
“When I say the average man can do a job of painting as good as a professional,” I explained, “I should add that there are exceptions. Some people just have no knack for painting. You, no doubt, could do a perfect job. After all, you are an artist. And what’s the difference between painting a picture and painting a house? But I lack the delicate touch.”
“I’ve seen your kitchen,” said Jim. “I think it is a very creditable job.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “but I always say, one job, one man. You’ve got to get the paint on even. It wouldn’t look right, with part of the house done with your delicacy, your artistic touch; and the rest of it daubed on by me.”
“You mean,” said Jim, bitterly, “that you are trying to get out of lending me a hand with a little painting job. You mean, you begrudge me a couple of afternoons and evenings of your time and help.”
“What Have You Contributed?”
“That’s a fine accusation to make,” I cried, “after all the things I’ve helped you with, from sooty chimneys to making rockeries in your garden.”
“You were a big help there,” said Jim.
“Jim,” I said, “I hate painting.”
“All I really need you for,” said Jim, “is to hold the ladder and now and again stand back and tell me if I’m getting it on even.”
“Painting isn’t like that,” I insisted. “You can’t stand around when anybody is painting. Before you know it, you’ve got a brush in your hand.”
“You won’t even hold the ladder?” demanded Jim darkly.
“This is the worst season of the year for me, Jim,” I pleaded. “The trout season and the royal visit and my work is behind and one thing and another.”
“Well, I never would have believed it,” said Jim sadly. “It just goes to show the depth of your loyalty. What have you personally contributed to the royal visit? You call upon your landlord to decorate your house. You telephone for a little bunting and your wife puts it up. I should think you would welcome a chance to do something personal, to put some personal effort, however small, into expressing your loyalty. It’s easy enough to get somebody else to do the work. You’re like those patriots during the war who bought Victory bonds as their contributions to the great fight.”
“I didn’t buy any Victory bonds,” I assured him hotly. “I would like to remind you I was in the infantry and not the artillery.”
“Do you mean to insinuate that the artillery …” began Jim, and then thought better of it.
“You can’t measure loyalty,” I stated, “with bunting, flags and fresh paint.”
“No,” said Jim, “but you can measure loyalty by the willingness of a man to put himself out a little to celebrate momentous occasions.”
“It’s your house that needs painting,” I remarked.
“Okay, okay,” said Jim. “Okay. I hate to think what will happen to this country in the next war. The old spirit is gone.”
“What spirit is gone?” I demanded.
“Back in the old days,” said Jim, “when you saw one of your comrades in a jam, did you stop to figure it was his own fault and leave him to his fate, off on some exposed flank? No, sir. Without even pausing to think, you went like a wildcat to his aid.”
“He wasn’t painting any houses,” I snorted.
“Okay, okay, okay,” said Jim, conclusively.
“When were you figuring on doing the job?” I inquired.
“I’ve got the paint,” said Jim. “In fact, I’ve had it two weeks, trying to get a painter.”
“This is our night out, at home,” I submitted. “If I can get my wife to go to a movie with the kids I’ll drop around.”
“It’s more for company than anything,” said Jim kindly. “And you could hold the ladder and that sort of thing. I simply can’t tackle the job single-handed. You never saw painters working solo.”
“Okay, okay,” I said kindly, too.
So I put on some old clothes and after supper walked around to Jim’s. He was already on the job. He had a ladder up against the front and pails of paint set on the ground, one of which he was busily stirring when I arrived.
“Aha, gaudy, eh?” I remarked. For the pots of paint were red, blue and yellow.
“Well, I figure it this way,” said Jim, straightening up. “Paint is the salvation of a good house. I’m going to doll it up in royal colors and make a real celebration of it. Even if I don’t do a very slick job, the paint will be thoroughly plastered on. Then, in a few weeks, I can get some painter to put a second coat on, in conventional colors. All neat and tidy.”
“That’s an idea,” I concurred. “And you’ll certainly knock the hat off everybody else on the street.”
“I don’t think loyalty should be cautious,” declared Jim.
“Or finicky,” I agreed, stirring the red pot.
“The window sills,” said Jim, “light red with a blue line for trim. The door pillars yellow.”
“I’ve always maintained,” I agreed, “that we in Ontario are far too timid in the painting of our homes. You take some of those little towns and villages in Quebec.”
“I have them in mind,” said Jim. “Now if you’ll hold the ladder, I’ll start on that first window.”
“It’s a bit creaky,” I said, gripping the ladder, which looked as if it had been in the cellar for the past 10 years.
“Don’t worry,” said Jim, starting up it with a courage that I envied.
“Careful,” I called up, “not to spill any paint on the bricks. If you get a speck of paint on the bricks you’ll never get it off.”
“Just hold the ladder,” suggested Jim.
So I held the ladder and watched Jim brace himself with all the insouciance of a sailor.
“One little splash of paint on bricks,” I offered, so as to put his mind at ease, “and the more you try to get it off, the wider it smears. It makes an awful mess.”
“Just hold the ladder,” explained Jim.
“It’s the porousness of the bricks” I concluded. “The oil in the paint and the porousness of the bricks.”
“Hold it steady,” admonished Jim.
There really isn’t much to holding a ladder. In fact, all there is to it is just leaning against it and holding it. If you look up. you can’t see anything except the feet of the man above. And there is the feeling you are going to get a squirt of paint in the eye.
“The best painters,” I commented, don’t fill their brush very full. They just half dip it and then press it out against the inside of the pail…”
“When you talk,” said Jim, “it makes the ladder vibrate.”
“Sorry,” I said.
So Small a Thing
In fact, holding a ladder is about the least loyal thing I can imagine. It is so small a thing it is almost disloyal. I began casting my eye around the lower woodwork, the window sills and the door pillars. There was an extra brush lying by the paint pails, but it was old and stiff with gray paint.
“How about me,” I asked, “getting some turpentine and working up this extra brush? It wouldn’t take long to soften it.”
“We can do that after dark,” said Jim. “If you’ll just hold the ladder steady. It feels kind of creaky. It’s been dried out, all those years in the cellar. Just hold it firm.”
Rusty, Jim’s aged and slightly feeble-minded water spaniel, was snuffing about. His nose was buried in the new grass, and he was snuffing in deep, brief snorts.
“Gittim, Rusty.” I said, it being kind of dull just holding ladders.
“Oomph,” said Rusty, wagging his rear half.
“Atta boy, gittim,” I commended.
Rusty continued to follow his mysterious trail, stopping and snorting at the ground and then hurrying a couple of steps.
“Sickim,” I said, with no ill-intent.
“Owfff,” barked Rusty, and he dashed into the side drive.
“Hold steady,” said Jim above. “This rung I’m on just gave a kind of a crack.”
“Step down to the next rung,” I warned.
Down the side drive came a sudden loud baying and out on to the lawn came the cat that lives next door. After her came Rusty, in full cry.
“Pssst,” I warned, as the cat wheeled and dashed along the front of the house straight for me.
The cat went back of my legs. Rusty was too fat and tried to go in front. He bunted my knees and I made a grab for a firmer hold of the ladder. From aloft came a splintering sound.
“Whauppp,” roared Jim.
And down came he and his paint and the cans at my feet rolled various ways and a huge splash gulped and rolled down the bricks and there we sat in a royal puddle.
“God save the King!” I said.
“Now see what you’ve done,” said Jim grimly.
“It was that fool Rusty,” I protested.
“It was that damn cat next door,” declared Jim.
And we rose cautiously to our feet and stood legs ajar, regarding the horrible big smear on the brick wall.
“I warned you,” I said, “about getting any paint on the …”
“I think,” said Jim, “I’ll adopt bunting after all.”
Editor’s Notes: King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited Canada in 1939, the first time reigning monarchs came. It was a very big deal, since it was also on the eve of World War Two.
Greg mentions in the story that he was a renter. In fact, he never owned a house in his life, and always remained a renter.