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The Dry-Rot Man by Zusana Storrier

Right Tom-boy, off with the coat.”

“It’s freezing Anna.”

“Of course,” says Ellie-May exiting the toilet. “Heard you arrive over the flush.”

“She wants me to take the coat off.”

Ellie-May comes and thumbs Tom’s cheek, “So very, very tender.”

“You keep that jacket on then if you have to Tommy, but you must listen to this.”

“Must I?”

“Wheest now,” Anna flicks the kettle, “we had a visit from the Dry-Rot Man.”

“That’s interesting.”

“It’s more fascinating than you think.” Ellie-May passes Anna bread for the toaster. It’s a six-slicer and one of the reasons why Tom Eale’s climbed three flights of milk-stained steps to The Coldest Flat in Dundee.

“You know that orange stuff growing at the end of the hall?”

“Your mould that huddles together for warmth?”

“Turns out it was dry rot, not mould. It’s gone now.”

“Wow.”

“But wait till we tell you about the Dry-Rot Man.” Ellie-May puts a tub of spread in a clearing on the table and Tom reaches for it. She taps his hand. “Dry-Rot Man story first.”

Anna warms her fingers over the toaster. “What a guy. I mean what a total guy, the Dry-Rot Man.”

“Let me offer a more structured account.” Ellie-May moves the spread to a spot further from Tom. “Mrs R finally did something about the mould – the rot – and this guy turns up on Sunday. Old bloke, about fifty, greyish hair and thin-built, like a fell-runner but with that pasty workie colour. ‘You girls students?’ he says and when we tell him he doesn’t grunt or ask what we’re doing he just says, ‘very good then.’ Anyway, he nips up into the roof void without a ladder and is down again in a few moments and begins telling us about dry rot.”

The toaster pings and Anna fishes out the slices with a fork. “You should have heard him Tom, it was an ode to fungal infection. Ouch. Hot.”

“Seems dry rot’s everywhere and spreading, It’s a species on the make, but most of the time, most places, it still lives quietly enough, lots of dry-rot families going about their business and making sensible plans. Sometimes though they connect up and see a New Jerusalem or the Horsehead Nebula or something and start fruiting like buggery. Go all Dubai-ish and build big towers of flappy stuff. Shoot their cover. But only when the environment’s just right.”

“She means cold and wet.”

“Which means The Coldest Flat in Dundee?”

“Well done Tom.”

“So, your man,” Anna holds out the steaming plate of toast, “tells us how hard it is to kill dry rot, which wasn’t a comfort.”

Ellie-May puts the plate where the spread was, “How clever it is, how ingenious, how the old chemical sprays made his fingernails drop off – he said that was great – and what a hell of a beast dry rot is.”

“He did kill the dry rot though.”

“He did Anna, we now have no dry rot. But he seemed sad when he’d finished. Like Duncan Ban MacIntyre.”

“The Kilmarnock player?”

“No Thomas, the Gaelic poet who wrote about the beauty of the deer on Beinn Dorain before shooting them.”

“They wouldn’t be as pretty afterwards.”

“You’re impeding the flow now. Why don’t you eat toast while we tell the rest?”

So, Tom stretches and opens the spread with two slices in his palm.

“The Dry-Rot Man was packing up his stuff when we mentioned that Mrs R still hadn’t fixed the leak and perhaps that’s why it had been such bliss for the rot. ‘Oh,’ he says, ‘have you got a hammer?’”

“I was thinking goodness, how are we going to pay for this? Mrs R won’t. So I said he needn’t worry.”

“And I,” says Ellie-May, “being more astute said on you go pal. We’re two young women remember. Next thing he’s down at his van with the sprayer and back up with a hammer (why would we have a hammer?). Must have taken the steps three at a time.”

“He was in good shape right enough.”

“Then he’s out my roof light, nicotined fingers grasping the sides and now he’s striding up the slates towards the ridge. Forget health and safety, forget scaffolding.”

“I held onto Ellie-May. One slip and he’d have been crumbs among the wheelies.”

“Next thing we hear hammering, there’s maybe a five-second silence and then the Dry-Rot Man’s head’s poking through my velux. ‘That’s it sorted,’ he says. I smile…”

“She minced Tom. She was flirting like billy-o.”

“…and ask how much and he says It’s nothing, nothing at all and I wait for him to come back in through the roof light. But do you know what happened?”

“He wanted toast?”

“You’re being flippant now. He said ‘ta-ta’. And disappeared up the roof.”

“He’d vanished. I thought we should call someone.”

“We were about to call someone when I suggested we look out Anna’s window to see if he’d fallen down this side.”

“It was a job getting the sash up.”

“We both looked down into the Nethergate and while we trying to decide if those were legs lying on the pavement or somebody’s blanket we heard a whistle and who was it but Dry-Rot Man sitting over on the roof of the Cathedral rolling a fag.”

“He waved to us from one of the spirelets.”

“He’d got down somehow, trotted across the road and climbed up again in three, five minutes at most.”

Anna shakes her head. “Dear Lord, you wouldn’t think that was possible. No ropes or anything.”

“It was an existential afternoon,” says Ellie-May, “It would be better if you didn’t laugh Tom.”

“An old bloke climbing about some roofs was existential?”

“That too I suppose. But It’s the dry rot I’m thinking of. Putting us in our place.”

“I quite fancied him.”

Tom and Ellie-May lower their slices together.

“Well, I did. You’re losing heat gaping like that you know.”

By Zusana Storrier

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