Please forget about my name. It’s Constance Bytheway. I always felt like I stole it from an old lady when I was born. Perhaps, in time, I will learn to grow into it. I used to spend my days in my room mostly, trying to write beautiful stories about ugly people. Not always getting it right. Until Finn came to help us.
Dad knew when they signed the papers they had a fixer-upper on their hands. The house had been abandoned for years and had now reached the stage where everything he touched turned to crumbles and flakes in his hands. Every handle broke at the slightest brush and each fix created three new problems. Some guys possess that inherent ability to turn their hand to any manual task or challenge. I am sorry to say that my dear father was never one of those fellows. God knows he tried though. I attribute my formative training in the use of profanity to his continued disasters on the do it yourself frontier. I would regularly overhear his outbursts of cursing through the unnaturally jagged gaps between my bedroom door and the frame, another of his disastrous attempts. I would write the phrases down at the back of my diary. Two columns, one for the words I understood and those which as yet had no meaning for me. I knew they were curses, just not how bad they were. After a while, I added a third column with a brief description of the injury sustained by my father. Thus I was able to draw a correlation between levels of pain inflicted and the likely scale of the obscenity he uttered to go along with it. I have yet to determine whether he knows I can hear these things but expect, having now learned them all by heart they will slip out in conversation some ways down the line. This was just one of the ways I chose to entertain myself from my little hidey-hole at the end of the upstairs corridor. It was this ongoing and exhausting cascade of failures that eventually led him down the path to Finn.
It was all down to Finn. The master craftsman as mum and dad called him. This guy could turn his hand to anything. There really wasn’t anything he couldn’t fix. He wasn’t local to us, maybe Polish, Ukrainian. Dad said it wasn't really polite to ask where someone is originally from, especially these days. Not long after they had moved into the property and the previously mentioned disasters they received the folded blue flyer neatly posted through the letterbox. ‘Finn, I fix for you’ it said simply with a telephone number on the bottom. I picked it up from the mat and stuck it to the empty fridge with one of the souvenir sombrero magnets. His rates were reasonable, not the cheapest, which was the sensible approach when accepting a quote apparently. The quality of his work was by all accounts outstanding, it seemed he could make things like new again.
They had first employed him just to fix the front door. It was sticking in the frame and the constant rain had ingressed to rot the wood at the bottom and around the letterbox. It was the kind of neighbourhood where you needed a solid front door at the very least. That was the first time I saw him, lumbering up the path, eyes skyward, assessing the whole house.
“Wood is bad,” he said. “Frame is too. I fix for you, no problem.” Ever since then, I noticed that each time he came to the house he would check the swing of the door, run his bony fingers around the frame, checking for imperfections. It didn’t even squeak. He was reliable, always exactly on time, his work was great, the house even started to feel passably safe to live in. He never smiled like a person who enjoyed his work would. When we thanked him he would just give a very deliberate nod in our direction, pack his things, take the money and go. It was as if he didn’t enjoy or not enjoy his work, he was just indifferent to it. As if it was just like breathing in and out - something you just had to do.
Always in his blue overalls, white t-shirt underneath. I suspected he was a smoker as there was always a smell of it around him, a non specific tobacco type smell maybe. Every time he took out a new tool to use he would examine it closely, turning it over in his hands and shaking his head, as if the quality of the tools wasn’t up to his standard. And yet he was able to produce these amazing results with even this disadvantage.
He became like part of the furniture. It was not unusual to see him wandering in the yard in the morning, staring up at the roof brackets, or pulling gently at a downspout to see how secure it was. The care and attention he took in getting this property into shape was not something I had ever seen in another craftsman. Usually, you would need to hire at least twenty different guys who were all experts in plumbing, electrics or stonemasonry. Finn didn’t even look like those guys never mind work like they did.
The house felt like it was slowly coming back to life. In the Summer months when Dad's job began paying better, he could put more money over to Finn to continue the renovations and that made the place start to feel like somewhere I wanted to belong. Jenny thought he was wonderful. He would tease her and say things if she got under his feet. “I fix you too.” She would run away giggling to herself. At least I think he was teasing. It was hard to tell. He was always very respectful around me and my personal space, knocking on the door and so on. Things were moving forward but I wondered about him often. Sure he was just a builder in the house doing the work that my dad should have been doing but couldn't. There were just some aspects of domesticity that he did not seem to have mastered. He looked at Nanny the way he used to look at the door frame every morning.
Nanny Chackles was Mum’s mum, she moved in when old Pops died. Mum didn’t want her to be lonely, except she only ever seemed to want her own company. Mum said that was because she was slightly deaf and couldn’t join in the conversation without embarrassing herself by mishearing. Dad said she could hear very well when she wanted but that she didn’t care for his opinions much and that was just fine with him. They co-existed along these parallel lines in a forced tolerable silence.
She had moved in after a bad fall in July. She was well into her nineties, and spent most of her day occupying the same chair she had brought with her from her own house. Mum and Dad had decided it was best if she moved in with us because she was so infirm now. We had Finn convert the front parlour into a small bedroom with an ensuite so she didn’t have to climb the stairs every day. The only thing that wasn’t new in this part of the house was the old chair she had brought with her.
“I fix for you.” he had said, nodding towards the chair that Nanny was sitting in. “I don’t know, it’s very old,” Dad had said, “you mean fix the chair?”
“Yes, he said again, nodding towards where Nanny was sitting. Fix the.. Chair.”
Often I found that as good a worker as he was this personal interest he took in the house and his sullen face could be a distraction from keeping the day positive. So I would leave him to it. Everything he had produced so far had been perfect. Except for the incident with the rabbit.
Jenny had brought Pebbles with her from the old house, a black and tan coloured dwarf lop with a sweet face and affectionate demeanour. I was never sure about the idea of bringing a pet home as ultimately these things never live that long. Pebbles had done well I thought, seven years was a good innings as they say, but then the inevitable happened. Jenny came back from feeding Pebbles one morning just as Finn was coming through the front door, as usual checking the frame for movement or whatever it was he was doing.
“Pebbles won’t wake up,” said Jenny, she won't wake up.”
Mum and Dad grimaced at each other.”It’s OK, she’s probably just tired.” Dad said. I knew she wasn’t tired, I don’t know why he said that. It was obvious without even going out there what had happened but I just couldn’t bring myself to say it straight to her face, Dad was the same. He obviously just needed time to think.
Suddenly I heard Finn’s voice right behind me. “What is?” he said. Often he would start a sentence without really finishing it and conclude with a gesture. He said “What is?” And pointed with a flat palm to Jenny. “Oh it's Pebbles” I said. “She is tired today.” I tried to hold his gaze as if to insinuate what the truth was. He simply looked back at me with a quizzical stare. I knew his English wasn’t great. “She is quite old.” I added as if to get the point across a little further.
Finn simply nodded, and said, “I fix for you, fix Pebbles.”
“See, Finn will sort it - now to school, come on.” Mum said as she rushed Jenny out of the front door. I saw him saunter down the back steps into the garden. He never seemed to rush anywhere, even in a life or death situation. It was as if time didn’t really hold the same regard to him as it did to the rest of us, and yet he was never late.
When I returned home the Pebbles situation was on my mind, I wanted to know what he had done with her, how he had fixed the situation. At first I presumed that he must have been able to get to a pet shop and exchange the rabbit for a similar one. “How much do we owe you for the rabbit?” I asked.
Finn looked confused, “I tell you I fix the Pebbles,” he repeated, “not new Pebbles, I fix Pebbles.”
“But how did you do this?” I asked. I was sure there was no way to fix a dead rabbit.
Finn pushed the air out of his nostrils and fixed me in his sullen gaze. He looked as if he was trying to find the language to explain, maybe for him those words just did not exist. “It is good now, I fix for you.” he said finally. He began packing his tools and I concluded that this meant the end of the conversation.
In the garden I could see Jenny playing with the little black and tan like she had so many other days. The afternoon sun dappled between the leaves and her laughter. The rabbit looked exactly as it had before. He had cleaned and repaired the hutch as well. Jenny saw me watching her. “I can’t believe Pebbles is all better,” she said. “All better again.”
When I saw Mum and Dad I tried to talk to them about Finn and the rabbit. Sometimes when I had these conversations it started to feel like I was the adult.The way they were so dismissive of me and accepting of the situation. As if it was normal when it really wasn’t. I started to see their flaws. It irritated and upset me in equal measure. There was nothing in Mum’s head but making things nice and running away from anything that might upset anyone.She had always been proud of her appearance but some days it felt like she existed only for the large vanity mirror in her bedroom. As if it detached her from the world and its dark side. I could not get her to see that what was happening was unexplainable.
“It’s just a rabbit, Constance,”she said. “Why are you making such a fuss?”
Dad was even worse. He was constantly distracted and never seemed to be around, present but absent. He worked away a lot and the time on the road had started to take its toll. He was heavy set now, wheezed and sweated as he walked and had no energy for my questions. As I left the house that morning I remember seeing two phones in his open briefcase.The regular one and a new cheap one. I wondered what he needed it for. I wished he wouldn’t leave us so often.
As time progressed it was like the house improved but the family fell into disrepair. Dad was even more absent and Mum spent hours each day preening herself in the mirror, as if the stuff she painted on her face would hide her sadness, but I saw it. I had to take Jenny to school most days. She was oblivious to the absence of her parents. She was often in trouble at school. I had to pick her up one day because she had stabbed a compass into the hand of the boy next to her. She told me he had been very mean. She would sometimes get angry and throw her toys at the wall in a temper. She could be really frightening when she got into these rages. I wished I could have helped her more than I did. It was too easy to just shut myself in my room and leave them to their own devices. They all did the same, as if we were just lodgers in the same building. I was the only one who really noticed what was happening with Nanny Shackles.
Finn had promised to fix the rocking chair she had brought with her. I remember the slight confusion in the conversation between him and my Dad. Over the past few weeks he had been busy in the parlour, and you could hear the normal sounds of a workman using his tools, sawing, hammering, that kind of thing. I thought at times I could hear some murmur of conversation, but it may have been the radio, or Finn perhaps talking to himself. I could not remember the last time I had heard Nanny speak. Honestly, it was easy to forget she was there sometimes. She was just part of the furniture, rocking back and forth. Sometimes Jenny would sit on her knee and give her a little cuddle, she was warm and cosy, you could feel the love emanating from her, even though she would not talk anymore. She was soft cushions and velour florals. It really was just like her. One day it was no longer Nanny rocking in her chair, they were one thing, the same thing. She was the rocking chair and the rocking chair was Nanny. Maybe the others didn’t see it but Finn had crafted this piece so beautifully, so exactly, it didn’t seem to stand out at all. It fitted perfectly with the room. I wanted to speak to them about it but every time I did it seemed that Finn was there.
I plucked up the courage to talk to him about Nanny, it didn’t seem right to say nothing. Finn frightened me more and more each day. It wasn’t just a language barrier. It was as if there was something else, something unearthly about the way he saw us, experienced us.
“Finn, what did you do to Nanny?” I started as bluntly and as straightforward as I could. I did not want any confusion in what I meant. We were in the parlour room, the rocking chair was between us, I could feel that Nanny was there somehow, somewhere in the ether.
Finn looked at me and then looked at the chair. He laid his bony fingers across the velour and stroked it gently. He looked slightly confused and let out one of those heavy breaths.
“Is better now, no hurt now, useful. I fix for you.”
“It’s not fixed, Finn,”I said. “She is not a person now, she is just, well just a chair.”
He fixed me with his stare again, trying to understand my words. “It hurt all the time,” he said. “Does not hurt now, fixed.” He stroked the chair again. It was the first time I had seen a hint of what you might class as affection, perhaps even love.
“You want I fix you too?” he said suddenly.
“What do you mean?” I said. I was becoming a little fearful of what he had planned. He pointed his digit right up to my left eyeball. Almost close enough to touch it.
“This, need fix.”
“No, no it’s okay I have these.” I said. I fished into my jacket pocket and pulled out my spectacles to show him. He took them off me between finger and thumb, turning them over in his hand the same way he did with his tools. He held them up to the light but didn’t squint. He shook his head and then shrugged as if disappointed at how inferior they were and handed them back to me. “I must work now.” He said and sloped from the room. I looked round the parlour, the sunlight flitting through the blinds and dancing over the rocking chair. There was no sadness in this room anymore, the way I had felt it every time I came to talk to Nanny before. Finn was right. It was fixed. When I thought about the last years of her life, threadbare, overstuffed, a worn fabric of skin, a little wobbly on the legs. Things were better for her now.
Over the next few weeks and months the changes to the house continued. It felt that Finn was in control of the pace and decisions around what got done, what changed, who changed. Everyone was so wrapped up in themselves it would not be something they would notice. I spent a lot of time in my hidey hole bedroom and Finn let me be. There would be times when I would come downstairs to find a new door had been added, or a piece of furniture repaired and restored. It was as if a beautiful nest was being built around me. I would go and sit with Nanny sometimes and found her to be a good listener. When Dad arrived home for the last time I was sitting in the parlour. I could hear the conversation over money.
“You must pay now.” I heard Finn say. It was not in anger, more matter of fact. I could hear my Dad, flustered and sweaty trying to find words to explain why he didn’t have the money. Finn said something that didn’t make sense then. He said “Not money, you pay.” I had concluded some weeks ago that the other phone was to contact someone he didn’t want us to know about. I presumed it must be another woman. Perhaps he had been spending all the money on her. I heard more murmurs, I heard Finn say he would fix, then the door to the kitchen was closed. Shortly afterwards I heard the familiar sounds of work. Sawing, hammering, drilling. They must have sorted out the issues as Finn was back to the task again. I went back to my room. The one room Finn had not touched since he had been there. I tried to write but it just wouldn’t work out like it used to. I tried to invent different ugly characters for my beautiful worlds, but they all began to look and sound like Finn.
A few days later I was in the kitchen eating breakfast. It was then that I noticed the new sideboard. It was strange how such a large piece of furniture could go unnoticed in a room. Hidden in plain sight you might say. It was a useful type of arrangement. A place for everything, heavy set and solid, built into the recess of the wall so that it could never leave without being ripped apart. There was a lock on the second drawer, a place for secrets perhaps. It was dark wood and the salty grey paintwork still looked wet, a glistening sheen that as time went on I realised would always look that way. It took me a few minutes to see it for what it was. My Dad would always be there for me now, even though I would never see him again in the same way, a real way. He would never leave. I didn’t ask Finn about this, I felt we now had a mutual understanding. If I am being honest, I felt sorry that I was not more sad about it. But I just didn’t. I was stuck in a family that wouldn’t or couldn’t care for me. Finn had found a use for them. For the next two days the phone in my Dad’s old briefcase rang intermittently. Then it stopped. I slid the briefcase into the gap underneath the sideboard. It fitted exactly.
It was kind of the same with Mum. She had already been spending most of her days preening and preparing, I was not sure what for. One day I went to ask her if she wanted me to take Jenny to school again. I knocked on her door but there was no answer. I could not bring myself to look at that vanity mirror for long after that. It was some of Finn’s best work, it was beautiful but I could see the sadness inside. Sometimes fixing someone's flaws was more than the construction over the surface. Mum’s self obsession ran through her like the grains of wood in the frame, deep as the reflection in the polished glass. I wish we could have been closer. It was as if she didn’t really see me at all.
I had been the only person looking after Jenny for a good while. The routine of school, homework and preparing meals was just something I had slipped into. Not that she had appreciated it. She had become sullen, angry and cruel with her friends. I don’t think she noticed this missing family in the sense that they had always been missing for her. That is what happens when you are the centre of your own universe. I had a feeling she had started to see me as the Mum figure even though I really wasn’t. It was too much responsibility for me. I remembered the days when she used to play in the garden with the rabbit, she was happier then. I wished we could go back.
Finn came to see me about a week later. His expression seemed brighter than usual, almost as if he felt relieved. He said “All is fixed now, I can go.” Just the way he said it, as if he had been released from a prison sentence was truly awful. He had been there so long, he felt like he belonged with us, with me. As he turned to leave I felt this was my last chance to try and make myself understood.
“I don’t know what to do now,” I said. “How will I survive, how can I look after Jenny? How can I be?” I had wanted to say something more, but actually the way I ended the sentence was what I meant, unintentional as it was.
Finn continued to pack up his tools and said “I was wrong. You fixed. This your house now. Fixed house, fixed you.”
It was the first time it had been expressed to me that way. All those changes that had been going on in the house, what happened to my parents and Nanny, I had not thought about how I had changed. I had been running the house single handed for months. I was taking myself to college and I had a job lined up at the library. I could occupy the whole place and I didn’t need to hide away. There was no one left to hide from now. Finn had done this without me realising. He fixed the things around me to show me I wasn’t really broken at all.
“But what about Jenny, I can’t look after her?”
Finn let out one of those long nostril breaths again. “I have fixed for you.” he said.
“But why?” I said. “She is just a child. Why did you do that?”
Finn took hold of my hand in his bony fingers. They felt cold, as if there was no blood in them at all.
“She is dark inside. She kill Pebbles. I fix. She hurt things, maybe she hurt you. So I fix for you.”
He put both our hands up in the air. They blocked the path of light from the small window above the door frame casting long dark shadows across my face. “She is this to you.” he said. I nodded. I saw what he meant, how she could be. I don’t think anyone has explained something to me so well in so few words since.
“I go now.” He said, finally, resting his hand on the doorframe for one last time as he disappeared down the gravel path. As he closed the new gate at the end of the path, I saw the intricate and beautiful carvings he had inlaid in its design. A little girl, playing in the grass with her rabbit.
I stood in the doorway for a long time. As this strange phase of my life came to an end and I contemplated the next one. I wondered how people would feel about visiting my house and being surrounded by my family, but never meeting them. I didn’t think I would ever tell anyone. I wondered where Finn would go next.
I was full of stories again. Beautiful stories about ugly people. The ones I used to love. The more I thought about how wrapped up in ourselves we are, the more it made sense for him to be there. We were not special, or important. I guess as Finn saw it, the concept of people was slightly alien to him. We were just objects to fix or leave as they are. Not just on a physical level. It was as if he could see the flaws in the chemical arrangements, the tainted bonds between atoms. He would reshape them and mould them into something of use, of purpose. Somehow, he managed to do this even with our primitive and inferior tools. He had fixed the rabbit in this way. It didn’t seem odd to him. Finn was just trying to make his way in a world that he found very unsatisfactory with its fixed views about what was living and dead. Things could be improved that he saw and we could not.
I would never have asked him about his strange accent or simplistic language. It was not polite to ask someone where they were from. He had been shown a glimpse of a perspective on the world that I didn’t fully understand.I hoped that one day he would be able to leave this place, so that he could find a purpose. That perhaps there was a way to fix himself. I am happier now, lonely sometimes, but I feel the family around me and despite their faults, this gives me comfort. I hope to be a writer one day. I am no longer lost and I definitely don’t need fixing anymore. But I don’t think I am capable of seeing the world any differently now. I don’t think I would want to. If I was able to see the world as Finn did, to change it in the way that he could, then I expect there could be no trace of a human being about me at all.