Christmas lunch at my grandparents’ house. Well, Boxing Day to be precise. Leftover turkey, salad, potatoes litter the table. I’ve locked myself in the bathroom and I’m doing lines off my grandfather’s shaving mirror. The only uncluttered surface I could find. Even in the bathroom there are ornaments and knick-knacks.
The lace tissue box cover.
A frightening skeletal doll, her crocheted dress concealing a toilet roll.
I cut the coke with a new razor blade from a foil packet and honk it up through a fresh twenty. I’m running the tap to mask my snorting.
I’ve locked myself in the bathroom to escape the crimes being committed in the kitchen.
The spilt gravy staining the tablecloth.
The pus and blood layers of trifle leaking into each other. Fallen crumbs from the base of a cheesecake embedded in the carpet. My grandmother’s habit of hanging the dish towel on the oven door and her good wine glasses with that faint puke smell of dusty cupboards.
The kitchen here is always filthy, not just at Christmas.
My kitchen is my favourite room in the house. Nowhere else are there so many surfaces to polish.
The granite benchtop. Dark and expansive as a galaxy. If galaxies had a thin film of disinfectant.
The grand stainless canyon of the sink. The shining faces of the appliances.
The fridge. A double door Westinghouse. Big as an antique wardrobe with an ice maker and on-demand chilled water.
The dishwasher with nineteen programmable cycles. Three for delicate glassware.
The dual compartment, steam-assisted induction oven.
The La Marzocco coffee machine in Monza red. Fifteen bar pump and full three-sixty swivel head for frothing milk.
Nowhere else are there so many delicious decisions to be made. How to arrange the cutlery. Left to right:
teaspoons at the bottom.
Sundries in the big compartment on the far left. The Ready-Sharp vegetable peeler. The Finger-Saver can opener.
Bottle opener corkscrew gadget. Knives for spreading pâté and cutting soft cheeses.
Utensils go in the second drawer down.
A ladle that never sees use.
The garlic crusher. Cast aluminium. Hand wash only.
Glasses go on the top shelf of the corner cabinet with the transparent door. Then, working down:
breakfast bowls, bread plates
dinner plates, round and white, middle shelf
porcelain and glass serving bowls.
Wine and beer glasses in the pull-up cupboard over the fridge.
Sometimes I’d imagine being employed to go into other people’s houses and arrange their shit. Standing there in the temple of my kitchen, I’d think:
I’d enjoy that. Being paid to put things into order. Alphabetising record collections and shelves of books.
Organising people’s wardrobes. Left to right:
shoes on a powder coated wire rack at the bottom. T-shirts folded into one foot by one foot squares and stacked in the drawer. Colour coded. Prints facing up for easy identification.
I dreamed of this at night. Between waves of Egyptian cotton and pillows the size of whole continents. I dreamed of being paid to deliver perfection. To make people’s homes emptier so their lives seemed more full.
So I did it.
I took out a business loan. I shook the bank manager’s hand and complimented him on the sharpness of his suit. In return he slammed APPROVED on my loan application form. Towering inky red block letters that gave birth to:
Simply Neat: Solutions for Life
Make it neat. Make it perfect
I printed four thousand business cards with that slogan. Four thousand palm-sized billboards. Minimalist as a Mondrian painting. I specified thick, quality card stock. 600 grams per square metre. Twice the density of your average estate agent’s card. Matte finish. White. Black seam.
A simple serif typeface. Also black.
—What is it you do exactly?
An uncle asks me this, staring blankly at the business card I handed him. Focussing more on dusting a strawberry with icing sugar. White powder falls onto his grey shirt. I sniff and rub my nose and vaguely recall how I got here. I remember a young cousin being furious I was taking so long in the bathroom.
—I help people de-clutter their lives, I say. The uncle looks from the card to me, his expression unchanging.
—So interior designer then? He makes a limp-wristed gesture.
—And there’s a market for this? He sounds insulted.
—Yeah. I shrug.
—I mean, I can understand people needing what I do, he says. They’re building a house, they need earth moved. Drainage. But this?
I smile weakly and take the card from him before he soils it further. Just one of the many cards that started everything.
I left them in swanky wine bars and the better restaurants in town. Stuffed them into plastic holsters in paint shops and home improvement stores. Stores that sold shelves and curtains and clever ergonomic pressed plywood trays for balancing espresso on while reading in bed.
I had thirty clients within the first week. All kinds of clients.
There were the self-described ‘young professionals.’ Couples a few years out of university. They’d have advertising internships for developing Korean car companies under their belts and now work in middle management. They’d just bought their first house. Their boss was coming for a schmoozy dinner. Golf ball-sized portions on planet-sized plates and exchanging witticisms that contained barely trace elements of humour.
They wanted a raise. A corner office. They found my card while out shopping for the right bathroom hand towels and called me.
There were divorced middle-aged women too. Women who in the 1980s slathered themselves in baby oil and ignored the growing ozone hole so that later in life their husbands traded them in for younger, less leathery-skinned models.
Reformed drug addicts who had become addicted to organisation as a distraction from the latent desire for a hit.
I think I identified with them the most.
Instead of jamming needles into their veins they jammed their old clothes into black rubbish sacks and took them to charity shops or left them on the kerbside for collection.
I did the same.
With my company credit card I bought:
Two dozen linen Armani shirts in Eggshell and baby blue.
Six cashmere Burberry scarves in various tartans.
Six pairs dark selvedge denim jeans. Also Armani.
Six pairs brown patent leather brogues from a London boutique.
The latest Breitling watch. Brown leather strap.
I arrive in this get up to Christmas at my grandparents’. I park my new silver Alfa Romeo next to some American car. Some sixties throwback. All false vents and lurid colours.
—What sort of engine?
Someone’s brother in law asks me this as I slide out of the hand-stitched leather seat.
—V6, I reply, removing my tortoiseshell Clubmasters.
—You’re a couple of cylinders short. He gestures towards the American car.
—Yours, I gather. I gesture back.
—Supercharged, he says. 709 horsepower.
—Well, this is very quiet and comfortable, I say, and head inside to find the bathroom.
For a one man start up business, so many clients should have been a problem. I didn’t let them know this. Instead I used it to my advantage.
When they called me and begged for a consultation—their word, not mine—I ummed and ahhed and rustled papers and said I could probably, maybe, fit them in in two weeks. At the earliest.
When I did meet with them and they asked me how much I flipped open my leather agenda and pretended to consult a printed spreadsheet. Really there was nothing on the page. Really I pulled the prices from nowhere, letting my imagination take me.
At first my consultation was free and the work I carried out $150 an hour plus travel expenses.
—Payment is eighty percent up front, I told them.
Fitting out a double wardrobe would be twelve hundred dollars for all the racks and cube storage shelves for storing ties and socks and underwear. I know because I’d done this in my own house with a laser cut modular system from a local manufacturer.
After the first four months I added a zero to my hourly fee and doubled the price of the wardrobe surgery.
Business continued to boom.
After the first year I refinanced and bought the factory that made all the shelves—storage solutions—including the laser cutter, the staff. I hired fourteen more guys to go around fitting out wardrobes and other jobs that required power tools. I put them in practical but name brand clothing:
Dark-coloured Wrangler work shirts with detailed Western yokes. Selvedge jeans.
Clarks desert boots.
I put them in white Mercedes vans with my business card blown up and signwritten on the side and spent my time on less arduous jobs.
People paid me to wander around their house reassuring them that their Reservoir Dogs movie poster or their Jesus and Mary Chain 1994 tour bill in no way suggested a lack of taste. Teenage nostalgia was so in, I told them. A simple black frame would make them look as refined as any self-conscious piece of art.
And then they’d pay me to go and buy the frames. To slip the posters in behind the glass and secure the back with brown paper tape.
After that I realised it wasn’t enough to organise. People wanted my opinion on style too. I started telling them if they chipped away the plaster on their kitchen wall to expose the brickwork and installed a stainless range they’d achieve the New York loft look. Some bullshit I read in a magazine in a doctor’s waiting room.
These people were masochists. They’d always got what they wanted. They’d never been denied anything. So when I got all faux enraged and told them that their lives weren’t perfect, that their sofa looked like something the 1970s had thrown up on, this was a kind of thrill for them.
This shit turned them on and when I left I knew they’d get right to fucking. To breaking in the new king slat bed with beech headboard and nautical striped duvet cover.
Sometimes their lusty advances were directed at me.
This job gets you a lot of attention. Usually from gay men who assume that because I can order weatherproof cushions that perfectly compliment their outdoor furniture online in like four seconds flat I must bat for their team too.
When they ask I always wink and say:
—I can neither confirm nor deny.
I know it’s cruel of me to lead them on. Especially as I’ve cornered—fuck it, pioneered—this market. Sex or the implication of it is not necessary for a repeat gig. But if their checking out my ass in skinny jeans while I’m aligning a wall hanging with the coffee table keeps me in Armani shirts, I’m not going to complain.
I’ve only ever gone there once. And never in lieu of actual payment.
She asked me to stay for dinner. I’d just helped her choose a new kitchen table, plates, napery. Most of my clients have Italian-made tiles on every bathroom surface and seven shelf laser cut glass hi-fi racks in the living room. She didn’t seem to care about any of this. Her place was a mess but in the newly minted perfection of the dining room she came into focus.
Her hair looked like being afraid of the dark. Piano black and endless like a universe.
—I’m glad you talked me into new cutlery as well, she said, holding a knife and looking at me down its hand-sharpened edge.
After dinner she brought out dessert. A kind of miniature Death by Chocolate in a coupe glass. She sat opposite me again.
A few minutes later her foot was in my lap. The white half-moons of her French pedicure smiling at me from under the table.
Five perfect little seductive smiles.
A few minutes after that we were on the new table. We broke almost the entire set of new plates. She cut her ass on one of the clear white shards.
—That’ll be tough to explain to the boyfriend, she said.
In the end she couldn’t, so the boyfriend left.
I suggested a new floor rug. A gesture conciliatory for her and celebratory for me. You can guess how that got christened.
But it wasn’t all fucking. Nothing as convenient as that.
She suggested we live together. Right there and then. Before either of us had put on the clean underwear necessary for thinking these sorts of things through.
—Whose house? I asked.
We debated this naked in the kitchen. I poured the post-coital Shiraz and we stood on opposite sides of the kitchen island. After an hour she leaned over, pressing her breasts onto the cold granite benchtop. And then she played her joker:
—I’ll let you do whatever you want. To this place I mean. Think of how much fun you’ll have.
That weekend I was dragging suitcases up the stairs to her apartment.
Her apartment with its harbour views from the bedroom and deep divots in the floor rug in the shape of her knees. With its perfect dining room and mess everything else.
I’ll admit I wanted a project. With my business practically running itself I never got to make anything neat anymore.
More than that, I wanted to make it neat for her.
So she’d come home to find new things in place of old and old things in new places.
Retro bedside lamps with braided cloth cords and big vintage bulbs. Filaments inside thick as fencing wire. The Swiss-made, galvanised wall clock above the coffee machine in the kitchen.
—Tonight. Anything you want, she whispered after she saw our toothbrushes in the same turquoise holder on the side of the bathroom vanity. Apparently toothbrushes are cosmically significant.
As if spreading saliva on intimate parts of each other is less of a big deal.
Three perfect weeks this went on before it happened. Like I always knew it would.
I was in the kitchen in a silk kimono, swinging my legs off a new native timber barstool. Reading the newspaper and pondering which part of the house to rearrange next. She came into the kitchen looking for breakfast.
—Where’s the toaster? she asked.
—In the cupboard, I said without looking up.
—I mean why can’t we just leave it on the bench?
—Oh, I said. It upsets the clean lines. Looks neater without it.
—But I use it every day. Her volume going up a couple of notches.
—It’s so hard to get it out of the cupboard? I said. There was a pause.
—Why can’t you just be happy with the way things are?
The new wall clock ticked by five seconds. The last thing she said to me before I left was:
—This could still work if you’d just lower your standards.
I returned to my apartment with its perfect rooms and my mess everything else.
—Do you have a girlfriend or a… partner?
An elderly aunt asks me this. She’s clamped her hand round my arm and her fingers are red and craggy like boiled yams.
—No one steady, I say.
I don’t tell her that there was someone and that to forget her I’ve buried myself in work. What this really means is that I’ve started giving in to my clients’ flirtations.
I don’t tell her that I’ve been tugged off into expensive face cloths and ridden in white leather tub chairs.
The aunt squeezes my arm tighter.
—You’ve no muscle, she says. Women like a man with muscle. You work indoors too much.
I don’t tell her that the women I know like to be tied to headboards and doused in Dom Perignon. I don’t tell her that instead of working out I take cocaine.
I don’t tell any of them anything.
Not that a major national style magazine asked to interview me. Called my office one morning and said could they do a profile on me for a section about successful young business people.
So I agreed. And that’s when I started doing coke.
They sent over an attractive junior reporter. I was pouring wine and imagining her in various positions on my sofa when a hairy-knuckled photographer arrived.
I sighed and diligently answered her questions. Then the orang-utan snapped some pictures of me in the kitchen. My favourite room in the house. There’s me leaning on a chequered butchers block. Holding a cup of coffee and looking pensively out the window.
The interview was a complete success. There I was on glossy paper. Eleven inches high, action figure me. Not quite Bowie or Lou Reed cool but give me a guitar and I’m there. Choice quotes in sans-serif type scattered carefully on the page. At the bottom they printed my business card.
A week later I was getting calls from across the country. Rich arseholes demanding to see me.
Sometimes I was catching three flights a day. Flying five hours for a ninety minute consultation. Flying back again.
A client offered me some coke and I said yes.
After that I was honking the stuff in airplane bathrooms just before the seatbelt sign came on and the stewardess asked everyone to please return to their seats in preparation for landing. We will be taxiing past the main terminal and disembarking down the stairs. Please remain seated until the aircraft has come to a complete stop. The local time is…
—I don’t know how you do it, my clients would say. All that travelling.
I fly back again. It’s 2am and I’m wired. I spend the next three hours cleaning my apartment. Go to bed. Sleep till eight. Black coffee. And now Christmas lunch.
—Does your job take you anywhere interesting? A cousin’s wife’s sister asks me this.
—Oh, all over the place, I say vaguely.
I don’t remember the names. They’re printed right there on my boarding pass in a dot matrix of block letters. They’re announced over the speaker system. A major chord as if to herald good news and a bored airport attendant’s voice. The flight has been delayed by two hours.
Or worse. The flight is right on time.
I look at the gate number and the airport clock in screaming red letters. Where I’m going makes no difference. I only ever see the inside of people’s houses. Their bedrooms.
I take some naughty salt and fly back again.
Back to my empty apartment. I sink into a replica Eames chair clad in calfskin. It’s the blue hour. Not quite night and not quite day. When everything struggles for colour. When everything is a sort of pale blue.
I finish off the remnants of a gram but I don’t get high. I just feel floaty.
I feel myself rising. Up towards the ceiling. I thank God for recessed light fittings.
I look down and vaguely recognise what I see. Some part of my brain feels warm with memory but the other parts fail to translate.
I know those polished concrete floors. That wall hanging. I know that kitchen.
The double door fridge. The dark granite benchtop. The coffee machine. I know them but I cannot place them.
There’s a man I know too. His outline is familiar but I can see none of his details. Nothing to tell me who he is. He sits before an orange glow. The only source of colour in the pale blue room. He’s dropping things into the orange ball. The same thing over and over. Little white rectangles of glossy card.
There’s writing on them but I can’t quite make it out.