Stefano came back to paint the front of the house. I have never been so pleased to see his red and white van.
He emerged with a startling new crew cut instead of his wavy black hair. He was wearing a red and white T-shirt with his company logo on it. But otherwise, he was the same. He grinned a wide grin and held out his enormous hand to shake mine.
‘Hello boss,’ he said. ‘I’m not the boss,’ I said, ‘You’re the boss.’ He laughed. He has not been here for six months since he helped me finish the major works inside the house after the builder boyfriend walked out, or was sent packing, or walked out as I sent him packing. I’m not sure which it was. The BB made a brief appearance a few weeks ago when he came back to offer to finish the front of the house, but as we ended up rowing within a day we both decided it was wise to keep our distance.
Various odd job men have been mooted by friends as suitable house painters but none of them have turned up.
So I rang Stefano and asked him if he could bear it. He said of course he could. He would fit me in and try to do the whole job in a day or two, on his own, without scaffolding, to keep the price down.
He and I have not really talked much for years. The last time he was here he came with an army of boys to throw as much manpower at the ravaged house as possible. Often he would leave his men here to battle through the grunt work while he took off to see to his other clients. He had just built a swimming pool.
But this time we were all alone together in the sun as he unloaded his pointing and painting materials.
I got him a Coke and we sat on the grass talking. His phone kept beeping. It was his wife. I’m fairly sure he wasn’t married when we first met over ten years ago when I came out of my London flat to find him balancing on a ladder filling and painting the next door windowsills. Tall and swarthy, he looked every inch the Bond villain. But when he smiled, I could see exactly who he was. I asked him to do my sills too when he had finished.
After that, he and I became inseparable as he went through my house doing all the jobs I needed doing. He needed the work then. Now he has a thriving business, a house, a wife, and children. As we sat in the sun, I did not want to ask how many, for some reason. I think this has to do with everyone’s life moving on in ordinary ways while mine only seems to grow more extraordinary.
Finally, as he fiddled with his phone, I said: ‘How many kids do you have now?’
He held up four fingers, grinning.
‘Four! No!’ He nodded.
‘Are they all school age?’ He said that they were. They went to school locally. Then he shook his head.
‘Is it a nice school?’ I asked.
‘Is ok,’ he said. ‘But…’
‘What?’ I prompted. I have always felt a little responsible for any bad experiences Stefano might have in this country. I think because I was one of the first people he met after settling here, I took it upon myself to explain things and apologise for them.
When I first took him to Ikea in Croydon I explained and apologised all the way round the one-way system. Then I explained and apologised as we sat in traffic on the way back. I explained and apologised when he got a parking ticket outside my house while he was assembling whatever it was we had bought from Ikea. And I explained and apologised for the bits missing from the flat pack, and the inexplicably unconcerned attitude of the staff at the customer service/missing bits counter when we returned to complain.
I hoped to goodness that now he had kids the local school wasn’t disgracing me.
‘Is just…’ he stared into the middle distance in that philosophical way he has when something is awry, ‘is just that they call us the other day, the teachers. And they tell us our youngest son, he is too quiet.’
‘Oh God, I’m sorry,’ I said, ‘was there something wrong?’
‘There’s nothing wrong!’ he said, indignant. ‘I told this teacher: hey man, he doesn’t have a volume button. I can’t turn him up.’
‘Oh, I do love you,’ I said. I couldn’t help myself. He’s a tonic. In his wacky Albanian way he makes more sense than the whole of this so-called great nation put together.