Painting By Numbers

Photo by Alexandru-Bogdan Ghita. CC0/Public domain.

When Robert announced at his retirement party that the first thing he was going to be doing now he had finished work was a bit of painting, Janice thought she’d be getting a bright new kitchen instead of the old dark green walls that had been there since 1985 when they had moved in. She also had visions of a pink-walled bathroom – possibly with some new matching tiles – and some fresh wallpaper in the front and back living rooms. These thoughts pleased her so much, she let Robert make love to her that night – something she hadn’t let him do since their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary, over six years ago.

As she lay awake that night, staring at the stains on the bedroom ceiling and listening to Robert’s gentle snoring, she pictured all of the tasks that Robert could do now that he was no longer at work: the house needed redecorating from top to bottom; the exterior woodwork needed cleaning up and repainting and the bricks needed repointing; the garden needed to be dug – with all the weeds removed; and that old shed of his would have to go. These were all jobs that he should have done over the years, but which he hadn’t done. This was because of the long hours he had worked, which had made him so tired in the evenings and at the week-end. Now that he had time on his hands he could use it to fix things round the house. It was only fair, she thought: she still had to work at the newsagent’s three hours a day; four days a week.

On the following Monday morning, Janice left to go to the newsagent’s. At breakfast Robert had seemed quite keen to get started on the decorating, she thought, which was strange because he had never shown that sort of interest before. He was going to pop into town to pick up some paints, he had told her, and would “get cracking” as soon as he got back. She had told him not to make too much of a mess, and he had told her, with a nod and a smile, not to worry on that account.

At mid-day she left the newsagent’s and walked to the local mini-supermarket to buy some groceries. As she carried these down the garden path of her house, she anticipated opening the front door to the sight of dust covers and the smell of fresh paint. But when she opened the door the hallway was dark.

“Robert,” she shouted.

She switched on the hall light and took the groceries into the kitchen. The same dark green walls looked back at her. In the back room there was a distinct lack of dust sheets or anything remotely associated with decorating. The front room was the same.

“Robert?” she shouted.

Janice climbed the stairs to see if Robert was working in the bathroom. All was quiet. In the bedroom she found nothing, but as she looked out of the bedroom window she could see a light on in the old shed in the back garden. Janice frowned.

When she opened the shed door, she saw Robert. He was dressed in a baggy smock and had a strange floppy hat on his head. Robert turned at the noise of the door opening. “Hi, Janice, I’ve made a start. What do you think?”

Robert moved to one side, and Janice saw an easel. On it was a small, partially-completed painting of a small white dog.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“It’s a West Highland terrier.”

“No, I mean: what are you doing?”

“I’m painting. I picked up one of those painting by numbers kits. I’ve always fancied doing it. This is a starter kit. Something simple. It pays to start simple. You have to fill out the little shapes on the card with the colour that’s designated by the number in the middle of the shape and it builds up a picture.”

“But most of it is white. You’re putting white paint on a white piece of card.”

“Yes, but if I didn’t paint the white, you’d see the number 0 in each of those small segments – and the card’s light grey, actually.”

“But I thought you were going to be painting the house – the kitchen needs doing.”

“Oh, there’s plenty of time to do that; I wanted to make a start on my new hobby. I can paint the kitchen next week.”

Janice returned to the kitchen. She was disappointed, but she supposed that once Robert had got his new hobby out of his system he would make a start on the decorating. He had plenty of time on his hands to do it. She started to wash and peel the vegetables for dinner.

Over the next couple of days, Robert showed Janice his painting each time she got back from work. She didn’t like to tell him that she thought the dog looked odd. One of its eyes was noticeably bigger than the other, and its tongue was a funny shade of purple.

“It’s a start,” he said, when he announced that he had finished it. “My next one is going to be an ocean-going yacht.”

Janice turned back to the dark green kitchen walls and carried on dicing the onions.

The yacht turned out to be lopsided. Part of the hull seemed to be missing, and it was difficult to tell where the sea ended and the sky began. A herring gull or albatross flying just above the mast looked more like a flying ant than a sea bird.

“Next one is a vase of flowers,” said Robert.

On her day off, Janice tidied round the front bedroom of the house; putting all her ornaments in boxes, stripping the bed and moving the furniture, in readiness for when Robert was going to paint the walls. Robert was in his old shed putting light green on number 5 and yellow on number 2.

“What sort of flowers are they?” asked Janice a couple of days later.

“They’re daffodils.”

“I’ve never seen green daffodils.”

“Well, I might have got some of the numbers mixed up,” said Robert. “It’s early days, yet.”

The early days crept on. Robert had completed a painting of an elephant (a large grey blob), a meadow (a large green mass) and another West Highland terrier (less boss-eyed than his first attempt). These he started to put up around the walls of the house. The two Highland terriers stared at each other across the living room wall and the elephant flapped its ears at Janice at the top of the stairs.

The walls of the front bedroom remained painting-free at Janice’s insistence, but also remained free of new paint.

Robert had returned from the craft shop with a beginner/intermediate kit, and a fresh set of paints with a larger range of colours. His Bakewell Bridge did show some promise but his Pair of Scarlet Macaws didn’t look like any bird Janice had ever seen before; their legs were too thick, they didn’t look like they would be able to fly – their wings didn’t seem big enough to lift them – and their beaks looked more like an anteater’s snout than the curved beak of a parrot. The only thing Janice could say for them was that they were certainly colourful – in a childlike way.

“I’m struggling to distinguish between the 6s and 8s. And I think I might have mixed the wrong colours for 14/2,” opined Robert. But he remained as cheerful as ever.

Janice remained glum about the state of the front bedroom walls.

On one of her days off Janice visited the local DIY store and returned in a taxi with several tins of magnolia matte emulsion. She left these strategically by the front bedroom door. Robert, meanwhile, had returned from the craft shop with a full-blown intermediate painting kit. He had joked to his neighbour that he was painting a nude in his shed, and the neighbour had ended up in hospital after breaking his leg falling off the fence between the two gardens. The neighbour had been in too much pain to explain to Janice why he had been climbing on the fence.

Robert’s Nude With West Highland Terrier didn’t quite capture the lady’s flesh tones correctly – unless she was in the final stages of a liver disease – and her pubic hair was more substantial than the small dog on the lead looking up at her. In fact, the dog looked terrified: its eyes were huge white orbs within a thin coating of green fur. Robert may have been getting his 5s and 0s mixed up.

Robert moved onto ‘advanced’. A painting of the Titanic took him three weeks to complete. This painting had pride of place on the wall of the bathroom, just above the toilet cistern where Janice wanted the pink tiles. Janice, however, had refused to allow Robert to put the nude up in the house – it had to remain in the shed. She also refused to let him hang his Mona Lisa in the back bedroom because it gave her a migraine – this time a real one, not a faked one.

About ten weeks after Janice had bought the emulsion, Robert brought home a Paintings by Numbers – Picasso. Here, his shaky hands and his fine eye for getting the wrong colours on the wrong segments of the card gave him a huge advantage: his results looked better than the originals. A London art dealer friend had visited Robert’s shed and had offered him a thousand pounds for Robert’s Girl Before A Mirror.

Robert’s success with Picasso caused him to seek out painting by numbers kits for Cubism. Then his hunger for modern art led him through Surrealism, Fauvism and Expressionism. One day he opened a box containing a painting card which just had one number on it: the number 9 in the centre of the card. Robert had discovered Abstract Art. This first painting, Orange Castle Number 9, inspired him to break out from the strict constraints of painting by numbers.

Janice came home one afternoon from work to find Robert idly stirring a tin of emulsion in the front bedroom.

“I think it’s time I used this,” Robert informed her. Janice was pleased.

The following afternoon, Robert greeted Janice at the front door.

“I’ve got a surprise for you,” he said. “Close your eyes, and no peeking until I say when.”

He led her down the the hallway and into the back living room. Janice could smell fresh paint. Her heart fluttered excitedly within her.

“Open your eyes,” said Robert. “Surprise!”

The paintings of the two West Highland terriers had gone, but in their place were two squares of canvas painted in magnolia matte emulsion.

“This is my Magnolia Castle Number One and that is my Magnolia Castle Number Two,” said Robert, pointing to the two paintings. “I had to buy some canvas, which is quite expensive, but it’s better than card and it’s all my own work, and it’s not something that somebody else has put on there for me to paint. See, here’s my next one,” he said, pointing at another canvas that was resting against the sideboard – a blank canvas with the number 13 painted on it in magnolia matte emulsion. “I’ll start that one tomorrow: Magnolia Castle Number Three.”

Janice burst into tears and ran off to the bedroom. Nothing, not even a cup of tea, could entice her from the bedroom that evening. Her migraine was enormous. In the night, as she lay awake, staring at the stains on the bedroom ceiling and listening to Robert’s gentle snoring, she had an idea. She quietly slipped out of bed and made her way downstairs.

When Robert woke in the morning, he found the bed empty: Janice wasn’t there. He made his way down the stairs and into the back living room. On the living room wall, above the fireplace, was painted a number 13 in magnolia. He turned and saw a number 13 on the next wall. He looked round the room – all four walls had a 13 painted on them.

“Janice?” he shouted.

He went into the kitchen; Janice wasn’t there. But on each wall was painted a number 2 in yellow.

“Janice,” he shouted.

As he went from room to room looking for Janice, he found a different number painted in a different colour on every wall of each room. In the back bedroom, which had a number 5 in light green, he looked out of the window and noticed smoke in the back garden: his shed was on fire.

Categories Fiction

Peter Coomber was once stared at, on a bus, by Windy Miller - one of the stars of the 1960's t.v. programme Camberwick Green. He also loves making strange howling noises on his electric guitar, but hasn't quite mastered the 'putting fingers on the right bit of the fretboard and plucking the right string at the correct time' part of it yet. Pick up his latest book of short stories Painting by Numbers at

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