Within These Walls

They had built his bathroom without a window. For ventilation there was a small extractor fan set in the wall above the toilet; it came on roaring with the pull-cord light, whether he wanted it to or not, and during windy days it could be heard clattering from every part of the flat. The walls of the bathroom were yellow and had been that colour since he moved in. Always busy with his work, he paid them little heed, until after many years a section of the paintwork between the toilet and the corner of the bath began to swell and blister. The cause, he established, was water getting under the surface, as after his daily showers the small fan toiled in vain to extract the mass of damp air and the walls dripped with condensation for hours. To prevent further deterioration he took to dabbing the area dry with a cloth. He was gentle and thorough but the damage had already been done and one day the largest blister disintegrated under his fingers, leaving a patch of bare plaster.

He remembered some old cans of paint at the back of the airing cupboard, probably left over from when the flat was last decorated. He dug them out, hopeful, and prised off each lid with a knife. But none contained the yellow he needed. Over the next few weeks he tried to ignore the patch on the wall - it was scarcely the size of his palm. Yet it created such an island of contrast within the surrounding yellow that his gaze was drawn to it whenever he used the bathroom. To fight this temptation he kept the light turned off and left the bathroom door open just wide enough to admit a thin band of reflected sunlight from the hall. But for shaving and thorough cleaning a half-dark room proved impractical.

He was left with no alternative: he would have to find a shop that sold paint. Early the next morning he put on his jacket and walked down the hill into town. He was unfamiliar with the streets but after turning enough corners he stumbled upon a newly built shopping mall. With raised sprits he went in through the sliding doors, and eventually, along a deserted stretch, where many premises were still unlet and boarded over, he discovered a homeware store. It was a revelation. The shelves displayed a greater variety of paint than he had ever imagined existed, from miniature tester pots, to 20-litre buckets of roof paint. Yellow appeared in multiple shades and under myriad names, and as he searched for a yellow the same as the walls of his bathroom his memory of it became less certain.

None of the tester pots he brought back with him and tried on the wall yielded the required yellow. From each pot he applied only a thin brushstroke of paint, yet the resulting clash of yellows was even more distracting than the patch of exposed plaster. For the rest of the day he could do no work at all and the very next morning he went back down the hill. In his palm he carried a carefully folded tissue and wrapped within it was a flake of yellow paint peeled from the wall. This time when he examined the many yellow tester pots he would have a secure and objective reference for comparison.

Under the fluorescent lights of the store the paint flake revealed a yellow he had never seen before, and had he not taken the sample himself he would have doubted this yellow stemmed from his own bathroom. He reminded himself that light could transform a colour beyond recognition, into other colours even, and that colour was only a phantom property of things, a sensation in the mind of the observer. It didn't matter, therefore, how this yellow appeared to him in the whiteness of the store; it was the matching that mattered. If two yellows matched here they would match everywhere and under all conditions. After painstaking back-and-forth comparisons between his sample and the yellows displayed on the labels of the tester pots, he made his choice.

But as soon as he left the store he began to doubt he had found a true match. All the way home his doubt increased and he entered the bathroom breathing raggedly and shaking with the need to discover the truth. It was unnecessary even to test the paint on the wall. As soon as he opened the pot he saw the dissonant quality of the yellow inside.

Once more he tried to ignore the unyellow patch on the wall. But in such a small bathroom how could anybody succeed? Whenever he shaved he could see the thing reflected in the wall mirror. If he stood in the shower with his back to the showerhead he could glimpse it beyond the edge of the shower curtain. Even when he was not in the bathroom his mind dwelt on the problem and he lost all ability to concentrate on his work. He started to go into the bathroom just to pick at the flaking paintwork around the edges of the patch, with the result it grew even bigger. In his desperation he sometimes considered contacting the landlord. But he always rejected the idea. He'd not communicated with the man since signing the tenancy agreement and rent standing order. To get in touch after all these years would be like prodding a sleeping beast - one who might decide it was time to raise the rent or even put the property on the market. Above all else he needed to guard against any disruption to his living arrangements until his work was finished.

But now his work had come to a standstill. Once again he put on his jacket and went down to the homeware store, taking with him a much larger flake of yellow. This time he approached an assistant and asked her for help. But even the agreement of a second pair of eyes proved insufficient to convince him - he had learnt to be wary of apparent matches and would not let himself be seduced again. The assistant handed him onto the manager, a middle-aged man, knowledgeable about the properties of paint and the many names for yellow. Paint, he explained, when it dried often lightened in colour, and time and sunlight could effect changes too. So when had the bathroom last been painted? . . . Really? That long ago! Then in all likelihood the yellow on those walls had ceased to be manufactured. The manager's advice was to repaint the entire bathroom using one of the variety of yellows on display or even a completely different colour.

He left the store without buying any paint and drifted through the mall overwhelmed by the idea that the yellow on his bathroom walls had become extinct. He had never liked the yellow - he had simply learnt to live with it over the years - yet now, confronted with its imminent disappearance from the world, he felt attached to it as to something that was tragically his own.

His legs grew tired as he started up the hill. He knew that he would not be able to work when he got home. Another day would be wasted, and then another, until in the end he would have to go back to the homeware store and choose a different colour paint. For a while, he persuaded himself he could grow used to the new colour and that his life and his work would eventually return to normal. But it was a desperate kind of optimism.

Up ahead of him, at the corner where a side road joined the hill, something yellow appeared. It danced on the pavement close to the kerb, alive and brilliant in the sunlight which just at the moment poured down through a gap in the clouds. He squinted at it and kept walking. With each step he grew more certain and his heart beat faster. There it was; he had found it; he had found his yellow in a young girl's summer dress. The girl had not noticed him yet and continued to hop in a tight circle, playing a balancing game with herself. The dress swirled around her hips and legs and seemed ready to spin free of her small body. He stared hard. The yellow was only resting lightly on the twirling dress and with a little mental effort he could lift it off like a ghostly patina and place it on other objects nearby. He walked more quickly toward the girl, fearing she might suddenly skip across the road and disappear.

She remained at the corner, as if waiting there for someone, a parent perhaps. He coughed nervously as he drew nearer and she moved aside in a show of good manners allowing him space to stand at the kerb. He wanted to ask her: Where in the world did you buy such a dress? But he kept his mouth closed and his eyes pointing forward, in a torment of indecision. It would be wrong and dangerous to say even a word to her.

A car rumbled up the hill, preparing to turn the corner in front of him. He had the chance to cross to the other side and reach his flat, but instead he waited for the driver to go past. He tried not to look down at the dress beside him but it pressed in at the corner of his vision. He reasoned with himself. A small piece of this yellow was all he needed, a tearing from it hardly bigger than his palm. He pushed both hands inside his pockets and shook the idea from his head. As soon as the road was clear, he stepped off the kerb and strode quickly to the other side. He thought he had escaped her but after a moment he felt his back turn cold. She was following him - he was sure. He slowed down and listened. There was not the slightest sound of footsteps but he could sense a thickening of the air against his neck.

Near the gate of the house where he lived, he stopped, determined to go no further until she had walked past him and disappeared around the bend in the road at the top of the hill. He put a hand on the front garden wall and waited, scarcely breathing, for the yellow to be carried beyond his reach. She drew level and halted on the pavement next to him.

After a while she asked, 'Do you live here?'

He nodded stiffly, without looking across. A few steps ahead the wrought iron gate hung wide open, as it always did - a sign of neglect rather than welcome.

'I'm very thirsty,' she said. 'I've been walking for a long time.'

He told himself it was only the yellow he wanted, nothing more, yet he felt like a criminal as he asked in a quiet voice, still without looking across at her, 'Would you like a drink?'

'Yes please.'

He did not need to invite her to follow him. He went in through the open gate and along the path, deeply conscious of her walking beside him. Just before the front door he turned to glance across the street. The dark windows of the houses gave nothing away, but behind one of them, in a bedroom or a living room, there was surely somebody who had spied the yellow dress and grown curious. He searched through his pockets for his keys, his intention obscure even to himself; he knew only that he must keep pushing forward, and quickly, as this chance would never come again. He fumbled out his key, opened the heavy front door and watched the yellow dress advance boldly into the gloom of the communal hallway. The girl walked almost to the stairway and then stopped and rubbed her bare arms.

'It's cold in here,' she said.

The hallway was always cold, even in summer, but he had long ceased to notice. He let the automatic door-closer squeeze the door shut behind him. A letter rack was revealed mounted on the wall; he checked it from habit, but his section was empty.

The girl had placed a foot on the bottom stair. 'Do you live up there?'

'No,' he said, in a low voice, worried somebody would hear her. His flat was the first door on the left, flat one, though it had never had a number on it. He suspected it had been a gentleman's study or lady's morning room, when long ago the house was home for a Victorian family and their servants.

'Who lives right at the top?'

'I don't know,' he said, even more quietly. He unlocked his door and beckoned her into the tight, square space of his hallway. The bedroom and bathroom doors were closed and she turned instinctively toward the open doorway of the living room like a flower toward the sun. 'Yes,' he said, 'that way.' He locked the flat door and followed her in. He had never had a visitor before, with the exception of a man who once came to spray poison on the woodlice.