Tim Dowling: I’m awake, worrying about death – and skirting boards


It is that two-hour window of the night – roughly between 3.30am and 5.30am – that I reserve to lie awake in the grip of nameless dread, heart thudding against my rib cage. During these dark times I’m keenly aware of both the fragility of existence and the sheer amount of admin involved.

I know it’s 5.30am when I hear the long, yawning note of an iron school gate being swung open, and I sit upright. My wife rolls over.

“What are you doing?” she says.

“Just worrying,” I say.

“About what?” she says.

“Everything,” I say. “Mostly death, and skirting boards.”

“Just order the bloody skirting boards,” she says.

“It’s not that simple,” I say.

The man who installed our extractor fan, having necessarily gouged up a stretch of wall, supplied a very reasonable quote for repainting the kitchen, at which point I foolishly decided to mention the skirting boards. They’re made of MDF, and in the sections where they have come into contact with water – from catastrophic spillages or a spontaneously defrosting fridge – they’ve become spongy and swollen. I had been prepared to pretend I liked them this way.

“But if we’re repainting,” I said, “those bits should really be replaced.”

I thus find myself subcontracted to source and supply five-odd metres of matching skirting board. For a week, I spend all my free time visiting websites called Skirting Emporium and AllSkirting, scrolling through hundreds of options, and finding nothing remotely close. In the evenings, I try to involve my wife, to no avail.

“Look here,” I say, sitting down next to her on the kitchen sofa with a laptop. “This one has the double scroll at the top, but the rebate, as I believe it’s called, is too deep.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she says, not looking.

“You have to imagine the board in profile,” I say.

“This is your job,” she says. “Not mine.”

“But I can’t find a match,” I say. “There is no such skirting board on the planet.”

“There must be,” she says.

“This website is actually called Skirting Universe, and they don’t have it.”

She lowers her book, looks at the puffy stretch of skirting board by her foot, and then looks at me.

“Why does it have to match?” she says.

“What?” I say, glancing at the skirting board on the opposite wall.

“Who cares?” she says.

“I suppose, in the time it takes to turn round, I’ve already forgotten what the first skirting board looks like.”

“Nobody looks at skirting board,” she says.

I measure round her once more before taking my laptop into the other room. An hour later, I reappear.

“OK,” I say. “It only comes in four-metre sections, so I got two. It might be enough to do the whole room.”

“Good,” my wife says. “What’s for supper?”

For eight nights, I go to bed with an utterly alien sense of satisfaction. On the ninth day, the doorbell rings. When I open the door, I see a man in a hi-vis vest standing on the pavement. Between us is a cardboard box, 20cm wide and four metres long.

“Do you need help?” he says.

“No,” I say. “I’ll be fine.” Four metres turns out to be longer than I imagined. And heavier.

There are, it transpires, very few places in our house that are four metres long. The package ends up on the floor, running from the hall to the back of the kitchen at an angle. I rip off the cardboard to examine the two skirting boards beneath.

“When is he coming to paint?” I say.

“November,” my wife says.

“November?” I say. “Where are we gonna put them?”

“Put them outside,” she says.

“They’ll get ruined outside!” I say.

Chances are, I think, they’ll also get ruined where they lie, by spilt drinks and chair legs, by mop water and careless feet. I am still thinking about the certainty of someone tripping over them in the dark and suffering life-changing injuries when I finally hear the school gates swing open.