Thursday 21 March 2019

The great writers' guide to DIY

In his book Kafka’s Soup, Mark Crick parodied literary giants by imagining how their best-known characters would cook. Now, in Sartre’s Sink, he’s got them tackling home improvements. Here are two. . .

The Great Red Porcupine Trapped in the Snake Pit Narco Guerrilla Gardening . . . OR Putting Up a Garden Fence with Hunter S Thompson

Tools: Spade or post auger, spirit level, hammer, saw

Materials: Fence posts, arris rails, featheredge boards, post mix or sand cement and hardcore, nails, brackets

To my mind, the Corvette convertible is the only vehicle that can carry a ten-foot length of timber in style, but when it comes to making a handbrake turn or high-speed manoeuvres in excess of a hundred miles per hour, it begins to show its limitations as a serious hauler of lumber. By the time we arrived back at the house the car looked like it had been involved in a high-speed collision with Uncle Tom's Cabin. As I lowered the volume on Dylan's Subterranean Homesick Blues and extricated myself from the woodpile, I could hear the voice of my attorney somewhere in the thicket of timbers that had sprouted in the seat next to me: "Man, this is no way to travel." What remained of the ten ten-foot arris rails, five ten-foot gravel boards, eighty four-foot featheredge boards and six eight-foot four-inch by four-inch sawn posts we'd stacked so neatly in the bucket seat was now piled against the windshield.


In the trunk six bags of post mix (a lethal concoction of ready-mixed hardcore, sand and cement), twenty brackets and six pounds of nails made the car's nose point skyward so that it looked like a giant red porcupine was trying to climb up onto the sidewalk. It was important to keep my attorney's spirits up while I assessed his chances of survival. "Sweet Jesus, don't you just love the smell of fresh-cut timber in the morning?" I asked. "Can you move your legs?"

"F*** no. I'm paralysed, call a doctor, a real doctor. Those bastards from the Pentagon have been testing some kind of napalm down at Bob's Premier Sheds and Fencing. My leg won't bend." Sure enough the Samoan's leg was rigid as I pulled it out across the passenger seat. Something was protruding from just above the knee and I feared that, in the emergency stop, he had suffered an open fracture. In his current state I doubted he was capable, but as a doctor I had to ask, "Are you in pain?" "I can't feel a f***ing thing." "That's good."

He needed to be reassured. "The bone has probably cut straight through the nerve."

His screaming was cut short when he saw the neighbour peering from the window. "What's that old bitch looking at?" Now that he'd stopped screaming I felt emboldened to investigate the wound. "Hold still," I said, sliding the blade of an eight-inch hunting knife up his trouser leg and opening the fabric to the knee. "How does it look?" he asked, still looking up at the house.

"You'll walk again." I put on my best $800 a day (TV not inclusive) bedside manner and removed the four-foot featheredge board that had somehow inserted itself in the great Samoan's trouser leg. "The pants, however, might not make it."

"This is my best f***ing suit. Who's going to employ me like this? ARE YOU HAPPY NOW?" This last comment was screamed at the window of the clapboard villa where my neighbours were no doubt already calling the police.

When he'd recovered the feeling in his legs we unloaded the materials onto the lawn. I drove a wooden peg into the ground at each end of the fence run and stretched a line between. I then marked the position of the fence posts, avoiding tree roots and landmines. I instructed my attorney to start digging and waited for the mescaline to kick in. As the Samoan slammed his spade into the ground he stopped to look back over his shoulder. "There's someone watching us," he said. "It'll be the neighbour," I said. "It's a small town."

"As your attorney, I advise you to kill her. Once she's seen where we bury this stuff, what's to stop her coming over to dig it up after dark?"

The guy at the timber yard had told us if we buried one quarter of the post the rest should stand up well in a hurricane. "Don't worry," I said. "With six feet of post sticking out of the ground to mark where we buried the other two, I don't think this is a secret we can keep for long. Just keep digging, we don't want to look suspicious."

He lifted a size-eleven foot onto the spade, his leg peeking coquettishly through the slit trouser leg, and the blade sank into the ground. There was a lot to do. As project leader my immediate task was to recover the quart of Wild Turkey we had left on the back seat of the car.

At some point after removing the top from the bottle, I must have passed out. When I came round I could hear the dry thud of spade on earth and the rattle of pebbles against steel. My attorney was still digging. I looked out into the garden but he was nowhere to be seen. Holy shit, I thought, the sound of digging has burnt itself onto the retina of my ear. I'm cursed to hear it for ever, like the rhythm section of... then I saw a flurry of dust fly up and the sound stopped.


"Help. Somebody f***ing get me out of here!"

Either the mescaline had worn off or my attorney had reached a tricky point of law. I staggered out into the garden; as I reached the site of the first post, the empty bottle fell from my hand. The hole was now about seven feet deep and the eminent Samoan, still in his business suit, was thrashing at the ground and dancing, like his feet were on fire. "Snakes, they're coming up through the ground. As soon as I cut the head off one, another one appears. Get me out of here!"

Somehow I pulled him from the hole and the two of us lay panting for breath on the ground. "Don't worry," I said, "if it's long enough, we can beat them to death with the fence post."

To reassure the great excavator that the snakes would not be climbing out of the hole, and to add some much needed drainage, I threw the contents of a bucket of hardcore, mostly broken bricks and small stones, down into the depths, shouting, "Eat hardcore, you scaly motherf**kers."

By the time I looked up the Samoan was standing over me, stripped to the waist holding a shotgun. I had a perfect view of the inside of both barrels. "You filthy bastard," he said. "How long have you known about those snakes? I oughta blow your f***ing head off." I was on my knees over a vertical grave deep enough to bury a man upright, two men even, if packed carefully, with a drug-crazed attorney in slit pants aiming a shotgun at my head. There were signs that I might be losing control of the situation.

"You're fired," I said.

"What do you mean, I'm fired?"

"As a qualified doctor I can see that you've not been taking your medication. I can't afford to carry sick men on this job."

"Oh, Jesus," he groaned, relaxing the gun into the crook of his arm, "I forgot." From his pocket the Samoan produced a salt cellar of cocaine and poured a line onto the back of his hand. When he'd finished walking his nose along the line he licked off the residue, sucked his teeth and said, "As your attorney, I advise you to mark the position of the next hole and stand aside."

Tools: Screwdriver, brush

Materials: Primer, undercoat, gloss paint

She watched as he prised the lid from the paint, revealing the moonlike circle of white, into which he thrust the stiff animal bristle of his brush. His work was so sensual that women were attracted to him immediately. She had begun to court him, making little advances -- talking about a lover in the past, or about the admiring glances she had received from the shopkeepers in the town. She lay back on the couch to watch him paint, her breasts thrust forward, her arms raised over her head. But the painter remained impassive; his passion found expression only in his work. Deep down she dreamed of a man who would rule her, take the lead sexually, yet the impassivity of the artist stirred her. Her admiration turned to love and she longed for him to make demands of her. When she looked at his strong hands and saw the paint beneath the nails, she yearned to feel their strength, to smell the perfume of turpentine and linseed rubbed onto her body, as he held her.


By night, as if in a dream, she walked the long corridors of the old hacienda, her body throbbing, as she sought the scent of fresh paint, eager to touch her fingers on its tacky surface. She was forced to become adventurous and bold. Each time she passed him at his work she brushed more closely by him, rejoicing to see the little flecks of paint smeared onto the smooth silk of her kimono. Finally she lost all reserve. Passing the painter in a doorway, she allowed her hand to brush against his brush. He pushed her away, as if her gesture had insulted him "What have I done?" she said. "All this week you have watched me paint." His frown became a smile. "Now I will watch you." He handed her a brush, and pointed to the door that he had already stripped of its handle and brutally rubbed down earlier that day. "Paint."

Dressed in only her kimono, she now stood before the door, thrilling to feel the dark rectangle of stiff hair beneath her fingers. "I said paint." Observing her, he saw that she did not know how. Gently but firmly he directed her. Allowing her hand to be guided in his, she saw how the sticky white paint clung to the dark hair as she dipped the little brush into the open pot and ran the bristles along the edges of each panel. "First you must paint the mouldings in all the panels." As she followed his instructions the wet bristles began licking paint into every crevice, flicking against each curve until the paint grew thin and viscous.

Behind her she could hear the breathing of the painter. He observed the contractions of her muscles as she reached high, squeezing the brush tightly. "More paint," he commanded, watching now how her hips pushed towards him, her head held low, as she recharged her brush from the pot of paint.

"Don't stop," he said. At the sound of his voice she pressed her brush to the door and a spurt of white paint trickled onto the floor. "You are pressing too hard. Be gentle, the gentlest of pressure and the brush will respond. Too much and the brush will spill its load. Clean it up now, with the cloth and the white spirit."

Feeling her body vibrate with unsatisfied desire, she obeyed his every command. The odours of turpentine, paint, of pinewood filled her senses and through their smell, so strong and penetrating, she felt his presence.

"Now paint the panels. Do not dip your brush too deeply into the paint."


She began to understand the rhythm he required of her, her body swaying with the movement of her arm. She could no longer see the painter but she sensed his eyes on her back, tracing the contours of her body beneath the silk of the kimono. She felt every stroke of the brush as though its pure bristle were moving on the surface of her skin. Each movement in the paint created tiny currents and eddies, that she felt in her blood, watching as they disappeared in the paint, so wet, so inviting that she longed to touch it.

"When you have painted each panel stroke your brush along the grain." His breath came more heavily now and his voice fell lower in pitch. "Now to tackle the muntins." She imagined it to be a pet word of his, used for her breasts or thighs, and anticipated his strong hands taking her, but his long fingers pointed instead to the vertical pieces of wood at the centre of the door.

Now their breath kept time, little beads of sweat formed on her forehead and the painter's instructions grew more forceful; he seemed driven into a frenzy. "Next, the cross rails." He directed her hand to the three horizontal pieces of wood that helped to form the frame. "Here, here and HERE." His hair flew as he swung his arms like the conductor of an orchestra. He seemed tireless and her arm ached with effort. What stamina he possessed, but she urged herself on, desiring only to give pleasure to her teacher, to give a good finish.

"Lay your brush against the stiles, the outer verticals that form the frame. You must work quickly, while it is still wet. Once it dries the bristles stick; it will leave the marks of the brush. Faster, faster." With the last stroke she fell back, spent, her kimono open as her exhausted arm fell aslant her body, leaving a trickle of white paint across her flank. The brush, she knew, would never tire, not until it had soaked up the last drop of paint. She lay trembling as the painter stood over her and uttered what she thought could not be possible. "Now is not the time to rest. You must clean your brush. For the second coat you will do it all again only with a better finish."

Sartre's Sink, written and illustrated by Mark Crick, is published by Granta

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