Tony O ’Neil sat at home still in his work clothes. He was thirty, had a girlfriend of sorts, owned a painting and decorating business and had recently bought a flat and a fast car, but still there was something missing in his life, but what that was he didn’t know. He played golf at weekends. He had even bought himself an Xbox, but after using it a few times he grew bored. He looked at the clock, saw that it was 10.45 p.m., when suddenly his heart jumped as the telephone rang.
The man at the other end talked in a low voice, telling him that he had inherited a house on the outskirts of the city, and which needed decorating. Tony took his name and address and told him that he would call around the next day.
Tony arrived at Patrick Street the next morning at eight o’clock. A light wind was blowing. Tony got out of his van carrying an attaché case, stuck a cap on his balding crown and fumbled in his pockets. He looked up and down the street, saw a row of terraced houses set back from the road with a half dozen or so stone steps leading up to their entrances. He climbed the steps towards number 17. The curtains were drawn and weeds were growing on the window sills. The front door, which was black as tar, had a large rusted knocker fixed to it, which Tony pulled back and tapped loudly three times.
The door was opened slowly, the hinges creaking, by a man with slicked back white hair, who wore a pair of tinted spectacles and a frayed brown three-piece suit that was soiled at the cuffs. He introduced himself as Jack Duffy and beckoned Tony inside.
The hallway was stacked with boxes, the carpet was tattered, and cobwebs hung from the ceiling. Jack showed him the sitting room, where a large grandfather clock stood ticking in the corner.
“Sit yourself down.” Jack said, and then slowly lowered himself onto an armchair, pulling his trousers up at the knees. “How long have you been in this game?” he asked.
“Most of my adult life,” Tony replied.
Jack sat forward. “And are you kept busy?”
Tony glimpsed around the room at the shabby furniture and dusty bookshelves which held many books with tattered spines. “Well it pays the mortgage.”
“You must be a happy man?” Jack remarked, rolling his thumbs. “One of these people who are content with life?”
Tony raised an eyebrow, then nodded. “Work hard, play hard.”
Jack sighed, then sat back. “It’s been such a long time since I’ve worked. I sold up my business as a tailor years ago.”
He got up off the chair, his body stiff, and pointed to the walls.
“I want the wallpaper stripped from this room, the hallway, the rooms above and I would like new wallpaper hung in its place. The colour, well, I haven’t decided.”
Tony had a quick look around, took a pencil from behind his ear, made some notes and the two men agreed on a rough price.
Tony then looked at the dowdy, lime-green wallpaper which had faded with time.
“I think you have made the right decision to decorate and I hope you don’t mind me saying but this wall paper is heavy on the eye.” He reached into his case, pulled out a wallpaper catalogue and handed it to Jack.
Jack looked at it, raising his eyebrows as he slowly flicked through the pages before handing the catalogue back to Tony.
“It was my dear old mum who chose it. Sadly, she is gone now.” Lips drooping, he took a cigarette from a silver case in his pocket, lit up and began to puff, plumes of smoke filling the air.
“There has been no work done on this house in years. The man who decorated the house last time was such a character. It amazed me the way he hung the wallpaper.”
Tony stood up with a proud look on his face. “I know what you mean. Hanging wallpaper is real art.”
Jack looked at Tony and nodded in agreement, before excusing himself and swiftly leaving the room, his black brogues moving soundlessly across the carpet.
Tony looked at the wall opposite his seat, where a painting of a ship was hanging above the fireplace. The ship was sailing under a grey sky, its sails filled with wind as it dipped in the swell, waves crashing against the bow. On the deck, weather beaten sailors ran to and fro hauling on ropes.
Tony felt himself getting lost in all the different colours of the painting. He was staring absorbedly at it when he suddenly felt the presence of someone behind him. Turning suddenly, with a startled look on his face, he saw Jack standing there.
“Jesus, I didn’t hear you…! You nearly…!” Tony looked up at Jack and pointed at the painting. “It’s beautiful.”
“It sure is.” Jack said, stepping closer to it and wiping dust off the frame. “The man who decorated the house was presented with it when he retired from the navy. Old Hans Shoes was his name.”
“My, my,” Tony said. “They say every picture tells a story. Do you think it’s sailing across the Atlantic?”
Jack cleared his throat and puffed on his cigarette.
“Who knows? Old Hans Shoes told me that he travelled all over the world. I don’t get out much these days, so sometimes when the nights are long and I’m missing Mum I look at it and pretend I’m a sailor going on an adventure.”
“That’s good.” Tony said thoughtfully. Then, checking his watch, he told Jack that he should be going. He took another look at the painting before picking up his cap and telling Jack that he would call the next morning. Jack nodded and without saying a word showed him to the door.
By nine the next morning Tony was in full swing. He’d changed into white overalls, moved the furniture to the centre of the sitting room and covered it with dust sheets. He started at the top of the wall furthest from the window, working his way down the ancient wallpaper with a damp brush, making long sweeping movements with his arm. While he worked he hummed a tune. He was so consumed in his work that it was a while before he noticed that Jack was standing in the doorway, watching him intently. Jack’s silence as he looked on unsettled Tony.
“Are you O.K.?” Tony asked politely, in the hope that Jack would leave him alone to work unsupervised.
Jack narrowed his eyes, then leaned against the doorpost. “Old Hans used to leave doodles on some of the walls. Landmarks of countries he’d travelled to. If you come across one, let me know. I’d love to have a look. That man was so good with his hands.”
Tony nodded. “Will do.” He continued to scrape the paper, which fell on the floor in long shrivelled strips.
Jack kept staring while Tony continued scraping, feeling ever so awkward, until eventually Jack moved away from the door and into the room. “I’ve been thinking. I’ve been watching you for a while and there is nothing that I’d like more than to be able to help you. They say it’s good to keep busy.”
Tony stopped scraping, ran the back of his hand over his brow, and then fumbled in his pockets for a set of keys that he handed to Jack.
“Why not, if you like? We’ll get the job finished sooner. You’ll find a spare pair of overalls in the back of the van. It’s parked right outside, so help yourself. This one’s the key you need. ”
Jack clasped the key Tony had held out to him in his long bony fingers and went outside to fetch the overalls.
The two men worked away. Tony stood halfway up a stepladder while Jack worked lower down on the wall. A transistor radio tuned to the popular music station Gold played in a corner. Tony sang along unselfconsciously to the song that was playing, the sound of his sweet voice filling the room.
“It’s been so long since I’ve heard the sound of music in my home,” Jack said cheerfully as he scraped along the skirting board. “When I was young I was such a music lover.”
Tony grinned and looked down. “I always have a radio with me when I work. It helps me get through the day.”
Jack stopped, wiped his hands on his overalls and looked up. “Old Hans Shoes was also a music lover. He once told me that his ship docked in Liverpool, where he danced all night at a Beatles concert. John Lennon was his hero. There were times when he wouldn’t stop talking about him.”
“That’s amazing,” Tony said, scraping off a piece of paper, then flicking it on the floor. When he looked back at the wall he saw a couple of black spikes. Eyes wide in anticipation, he scraped some more. A pair of eyes and a nose appeared. He let out a gasp. Jack looked up at the image being revealed.
“Scrape some more,” Jack said excitedly.
Tony worked quickly, his fingers clenched around the scraper. Within seconds a doodle of the Statue of Liberty appeared. Tony got down off the ladder and both men stared at the image.
“Old Hans Shoes,” Jack said, shaking his head. “That man was something else.”
The following day, the two men moved an old brass bed, a dresser, and a small oak stool to the centre of the bedroom, then covered them with a sheet. They switched on the radio and began to work, both singing along happily until they had finished the first two walls. They then had a short break.
Tony sat with a cup of tea, talking about football, while Jack restlessly played with his cigarette case. They chatted for a few minutes and then Jack suggested that they return to work.
“Already!” Tony exclaimed. “We’ve only just sat down!”
“I don’t know,” Jack said, standing up. “I’ve got a feeling about what we’re going to find next. Better to keep busy,” he said, dampening his brush.
They scraped and scraped. Tony’s eyes widened as an arc formed on the wall.
Tony scraped off a few more strips. There was another arc. This time larger, then another, larger still. A doodle of the Sydney Opera House appeared.
“My God! This is incredible!”
He turned to Jack who stood holding his finger to his chin.
“Old Hans Shoes made it to Australia,” he said with a chuckle. “That man sure knew how to travel.”
In the adjoining bedroom they found a doodle of the Pyramids. When they came to the landing they found a doodle of the Eiffel Tower, which made both of them dance around in exhilaration.
“My, my,” Jack said, stopping to catch his breath before peering down at the hallway. “A couple of more walls to go, then we’ll be done.”
Tony followed his gaze.” I wonder what we’ll find next. Mount Kilimanjaro?”
The men walked down the stairs, Tony letting his fingers slide along the brown banister until they arrived back in the living room, where the sun was shining through the unwashed window, illuminating the specks of dust floating in the air.
“You know something,” Jack said, lighting up a cigarette and then rubbing his fingers through his hair. “That week when Hans worked on the house, we became very close. I would say that he was like a father to me. Poor Dad passed away when I was young, leaving Mum to bring me up. He talked about what was right and wrong with the world. What needed changing and what was best left alone.”
He fell silent for a moment, clasping his hands together, and then looked back at Tony. “I felt that I could talk to him about anything. I told him how I got so bored at school and couldn’t wait to leave and travel the world like he had. On his final day here he brought me the painting as it was my birthday. He wanted to give it to me to look after.”
Tony pursed his lips and nodded, “That was kind of him.”
Jack moved his head to one side. “Funny,” he said. “The day he left he shook my hand and said, ‘It’s been nice meeting you,’ and before he stepped outside, he said, ‘Take care and remember, never take anything or anyone for granted.’ That was the last that I ever saw of him.”
“Well at least he’s left you some memories.” Tony swept his eyes over the remaining wallpaper in the hallway.” I won’t be able to sleep tonight. I wonder what we’re going to find tomorrow.”
On his journey home, Tony stopped at the wholesalers on the other side of town, where he filled up his trolley with bundles of brightly coloured wallpaper, Jack having decided to go for something decorative. He bought paste, a couple of brushes, then drove home through the busy traffic thinking about Hans Shoes. Who was this man who seemed so happy with life? He wondered what he looked like. What was the cut and colour of his hair? Did he have bright eyes, a nautical beard or moustache? What clothes did he like to wear when he went out dancing? Was he even still alive?
That night Tony couldn’t sleep. He began to think of all the places that Hans Shoes had travelled to. He himself had never even ventured out of Ireland. ‘Why bother,’ he used to think to himself, but now he began to feel a deep yearning when he thought of all the people who had travelled to lands that he could only dream of. Turning over in bed and restlessly pulling the covers over his head, he made the decision to travel to whichever country had its landmark revealed the following day.
Tony arrived at the house the following morning in an upbeat mood and talked to Jack about his plan.
“That’s great,” Jack said enthusiastically, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
Tony stomped his foot. “Tell you what. Why don’t you come with me?”
Jack took off his glasses. His eyes were pale blue, a fire burning behind them. “Well, I’m just an old fellow,” he said, his face beaming. “But over the last few days I feel as if I have been given a new lease of life.” He reached out his hand, which Tony gripped firmly. ”Why not? I’d be delighted.”
They got into their overalls and set to work. They talked about tickets, hotels, what clothes they’d take with them and what they’d do when they got there, wherever there might turn out to be.
“I bet we end up going to see the Great Wall of China,” Tony said, flicking paper off his scraper.
“I think it’s going to be Jamaica,” Jack said, breathing heavily as he scraped.
“Or maybe Peru. Then we can visit the kingdom of the Incas.”
Both men scraped vigorously, paper piling up on the floor. Tony swept the strips into a heap in the corner while Jack bit on his tongue, hardly daring to say where else might be the mystery place – Morocco, Mauritius, Mongolia. Suddenly, as he scraped around a section of paper in the middle of the wall he let out a yell.
“I’ve found it! I’ve found it!” His excited voice filled the hallway.
He threw his scraper on the ground and stood beside Tony. They stared at a doodle of a man with a handsome face, wispy hair, thick eyebrows, a long nose and thin lips which formed into a cheeky smile. His right eye was closed and the name ‘Hans Shoes’ was scribbled below the rough portrait, as well as these.
‘You may say that I’m a dreamer but I’m not the only one.’
Both men looked at the winking eye and the split grin. Shaking their heads in astonishment, they looked at one another. Neither said a word.