An Apprenticeship by Paul Kimm

Teenager Paul starts an apprenticeship as a painter-decorator at his dad's firm, but will his workmates' boyish pranks go too far? By Paul Kimm.

Image generated with OpenAI
Jeff and Joan owned the last guesthouse on Princess Avenue. Joan ran the guesthouse, which was busy from June to the end of August every year, with guests from across West Yorkshire, Tyneside, and sometimes Scotland. They also owned a decorating firm, JWD Decorators. They'd had the house for seventeen years, the decorating firm for fifteen. It was the only home their son, Paul, had lived in. The painting firm employed five full-time decorators and a new apprentice, Paul.

'First lesson is how to hold the brush. You're right handed, right?'


'Here, take this one-inch.'

Paul took it from Derek and held it as he would an ice cream cone. The brand-new brush with a burgundy handle, gold letters, its brand name embossed into the wood. A thousand pristine, uniform horsehairs stuck out from it, clasped in a perfect rectangle by the silver band, with the size, 1", stamped on it. It was the newest looking object Paul had ever seen.

'Now, look how I hold mine.'

Paul looked down at Derek's contorted hand. The thin end of the handle nestled on the soft fat of skin between the base of his thumb and index finger. The top of his thumb pressed one side, his middle finger the other, the index finger resting between them, laid in a long curve up the length of the brush. Derek turned his wrist a few times in front of Paul's face.


'I think so.'

'Alright, have a go then.'

Paul tried to mould the brush into the same position, but couldn't twist his digits in the same way, and anything close felt awkward in his grasp, cramping his fingers. Derek reached over and took Paul's hand.

'Here. Not as easy as it looks, is it?'

Derek arranged Paul's thumb, manoeuvred his fingers around the handle, and rested the finger between to lay on top.

'That's not bad. Don't resist it. You're holding it too tight. It needs to sit there like you've grown a sixth finger, like you've always had it. It's going to be sitting there for forty hours a week, so you better get used to it. In time you'll miss it when it's not there.'

Paul rotated it in his hand as Derek had. It wasn't comfortable and it was hard to imagine it ever would be.

'Look at my finger, lad. See how it's bent. That's twenty-five years of use for you. Thousands of hours in that.'

Derek fanned his fingers out, inches from Paul's face. Above the top knuckle his middle finger tilted twenty degrees where the brush had gradually, permanently, set it.

'You might think that looks grim, Paul, but it's a decorator's honour that bent finger is. Aye, and the lasses love it.'

Derek grinned and winked. Paul's face heated up. Derek smirked, tapped Paul's elbow, and left the paint hut.

'Come on. We'll get you on priming. All the apprentices start off on priming.'

As they crossed the site Paul thought again of the kiss with Caroline. The memory sent his cheeks more crimson. Down the side alley of her house she'd asked him to kiss her. He was starting his first job she'd said, becoming a man, it was time for them to kiss properly, have a snog. She'd pulled him to, her forearms resting on his shoulders, opened her mouth and instructed him to do the same. Her lips moved and pressed against his and he worked at copying her. Her tongue went between his teeth and tickled the end of his. He felt himself thicken in his underpants and rubbed against her. She pushed him off. With a cry of disgust Caroline darted to the back door. She didn't look back at him. That was over a week ago and they hadn't seen each other since.

At the long thin, rickety structure that was the priming shed, Derek opened the door, picked up two trestles, and brought them out, putting them down two yards apart.

'Right, give us hand getting the skirtings out then.'

Paul went after Derek into the shed. Together they dragged out a dozen three metre lengths of skirting board, balanced them across the trestles, and then distributed them at even distances with an inch of space between each one. Paul followed Derek's lead. Not a word between them as they worked. Derek brought a small metal bucket caked in dried paint and a large plastic tub out of the shed. As he peeled the lid off it made a ripping sound and a belch of air escaped from it. He tilted it into the smaller metal container and poured to three-quarters full.

'Give us your one-inch so I can wipe the rim.'

Paul handed over his immaculate, first brush, and Derek combed it round the ridge where the thick white lip threatened to drip, and sealed back the lid.

'Right, you're good to go lad. Here's your paint kettle and brush. Give these skirtings a lick. Start down the left side, give them a right thin coat. It's only primer after all. By the time you're on the last, the first'll be dry. Once they're dry stack them back on the bottom rack and get another dozen going. That's you sorted until dinner I reckon. Got all that?'

Paul nodded.

'Nice one lad. I'll come back at twelve, so we can go have our grub.'

Paul took the brush, dipped the bristles into it, scraped off the excess at the edge of the paint kettle and stroked the first skirting board with it. The paint covered no more than a couple of inches. He repeated this same movement until the first three-metre skirting was done. It took him over thirty minutes to do one. The work became automatic in his hands and his thoughts turned to Caroline.

They'd held hands since they were twelve. She'd insisted on a swift kiss on the cheek as a goodbye since thirteen. They'd declared themselves officially boyfriend and girlfriend a year later, but never got past hand holding, long walks down the seafront, departing pecks, Saturday cinema matinees every two weeks, occasional arms around shoulders for the last hundred metres of their walks, shared bites of same piece of handheld food every now and then, seafront ice creams on a summer's day, but nothing more than this until the other week.

From across the site, up an aluminium ladder painting a window, Derek hollered. Paul looked down at his work and saw he'd completed three and half skirting boards.

'Finish off what you're doing lad. Time for dinner.'

Back in the paint hut Derek told him to choose a tin to sit on. They had half an hour, so they needed to get their lunch down them, keep the pace going.

'What you got in yours? My missus made ham and cheese for me. Swimming in mustard.'

'I don't know yet. My mum made them. Tuna mayo maybe.'

Paul sat on an unopened, five-litre bucket of white gloss and retrieved the Tupperware box from his knapsack. He peeled back the lid. The stench was instant. There were no sandwiches, no chocolate bar, and no apple. In their place a diagonal shit, taking up the length of the box, sat there. Paul shivered. Salty water welled up in each eye.

'Hahaha! Welcome to your apprenticeship lad!'

Paul looked across at Derek, while still holding the tub containing what must be Derek's own shit. No one else was on the site. Despite the stink, hunger pulled on Paul's stomach. The drops keeping their place in his tear ducts grew, ready to descend his cheeks.

'Come on lad. It's alright. Fling that out, give it a rinse, and I'll give you one of my sarnies. That'll see you alright for the rest of the day.'

At five o'clock Paul's dad came to pick them up. The front passenger seats were taken by two other decorators. They climbed into the back and sat on paint tins.

'How'd Paul get on then, Derek?'

'Aye, not bad. Needs to pick up pace on his priming, but the lad'll be alright.'

'Nice one. Shown him how to hold his brush?'

'I have Jeff. Will speed him up tomorrow. By end of the week he'll be priming good.'

'Good stuff, Derek.'

'No bother, Jeff. Hope your Joan's got a big tea on. I reckon the lad's hungry.'

The next morning, before any work, Paul took some yellow masking tape, wrapped it around the plastic cover of his sandwich box four times, pressed down to seal all four sides, and placed it back in his bag.

'Come on lad. I'll show you how to get more mileage with your brush today.'

They drew out twelve lengths again. Derek told Paul to fill his paint kettle three-quarters, get his brush from the water it was resting in, dip it, wipe it, then paint whatever length of the wood the he could cover.

'I see where you're going wrong. It's in your dipping and slapping. You're like a home decorator. Don't scrape all your paint out like an amateur. You need to dip it and give it two slaps on the inside edge. Come here, I'll show you.'

Derek took Paul's kettle, delved the bristles in almost up to the silver band, drew it out, gave it a firm pat on the inside wall of the kettle on one side and then the other. Then he floated the brush in long strides along the wood covering four times what Paul had managed and in less time. Derek handed the pot back to Paul and told him to do the same. When he repeated Derek's moves, the physical difference in the weight, with more paint, felt like the white primer would dribble out, but it didn't, and as he placed the brush on the wood, to continue where Derek had left off, the paint glided and slid in a smooth, solid film which spread itself under the brush's motion.

'That's super, lad. You've picked that one up like a pro. Dip, slap, slide, and you can't go wrong. I reckon you'll get loads done today.'

Derek went off to get his ladder. Paul smiled.

At midday, Paul found his lunch box unmolested. Whilst Paul unwrapped the tape from around the box Derek didn't speak, or even look up. They remained in silence until the end of the break.

'That thirty minutes flies, doesn't it? Let's get back to it.'

Within the space of the afternoon Paul managed to prime up another twenty-four lengths. He'd more than doubled the number of his first day. As he was packing away the freshly dried last batch he heard the murmur of Derek's radio approach.

'How's your dipping, slapping, and stroking gone then?'

'Okay, I think. Got a lot more done.'

'Good lad. So, are you into a bit of the dip, slap, and stroke?'

Paul didn't know how to answer. Derek's grin stretched beneath his nose, his paint kettle in his left hand and portable radio in his right. He swayed from side to side and repeated.

'Do you like a bit of dipping and slapping?'

Paul looked down at Derek's swaying hips and saw his penis hanging outside his overalls swinging from side to side. Derek let out a guffaw, put his radio and paint kettle on the ground, took his balls and cock into his right hand and waggled them towards Paul.

'You're old man says you've got a lass. Have you dipped and slapped her with this? Got your end away yet?'

Paul didn't speak. He hadn't seen another man's private parts before.

'I'm asking you if you've dipped your dick in your girlfriend yet. Or you still a virgin?'

'I haven't done that. No.'

'Aye, that's what I thought.'

Derek inserted himself back into his overalls, fastened the three undone buttons, bent down for his radio and kettle, straightened up, and let out a sigh.

'Come on lad. Your old man'll be picking us up shortly. Let's get cleaned up.'

In the van Jeff asked Derek how Paul had got on. Paul slunk at the rear, his elbows on his thighs, cheeks cupped in his hands. He thought about Caroline, his grown penis pushing at his trousers, her storming off. He saw Derek's face beaming at him, his flaccid penis swaying side to side. Caroline hadn't even seen his penis, only felt it through their clothes. The warmth in his face heated his palms and water began to swell in his eyes. The time it took to drop the others off, and get to the guesthouse, was enough to keep him from full crying.


'What, Paul?'

'Will it be just me and Derek on that site or more of you?'

'Didn't Derek mention? Need to speed that job up. Me and the other lads'll be on site next week as well.'

On Monday all five of them were there, Jeff, Derek, two other long termers Robbo and Smithy, and Paul.

'I've told Derek to get you on different jobs this week. We'll have you on a three-inch doing some basic cutting in on the walls. On Friday we might give you a go on your first door.'

Derek and Paul gripped twenty-five litre buckets of magnolia emulsion each in both hands, and waggled towards a house, as the heavy containers rocked between their legs. Inside the streaky brown walls, smelling of wet sand, waited for their first coat. They placed the heavy tubs on the floor. Derek took a scraper from his overalls pouch, crouched down, slid the metal edge to the right side of the rim, and prised open the top with a loud, suction-releasing crack. A thick, creamy slather of custard-coloured paint stuck to the underside of the lid. Derek took a brush, swept it in a semi-circle, filling the black bristles, and then wiped it into a kettle.

'Right, your turn. Do like I just did. Here's your new brush.'

Derek handed over the brush, exactly the same brand and design as last week's one-inch, but with the symbol 3" embossed on the silver clasp. Paul took the second brush of his apprenticeship, then repeated what he'd seen Derek do.

'Good stuff, lad. Got your first three-inch now. Going up in the world, eh?'

For the rest of the day, Derek explained how to maximise the amount of paint the brush could hold, get the most coverage, showed some cutting in techniques around corners and ceiling edges, how to clean water-based paint from his brush, and store it so it stayed in good condition. Paul only saw his dad at dinner time, they had identical sandwiches made by his mum. At the day's end, with everyone in the van, Jeff asked Derek how Paul was doing.

Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday were the same. The work, moving from room to room, first-coating the walls, eating sandwiches at dinner, the noise of the mouth-filled conversations of five of them, each day someone holding up page three of The Sun with the day's topless picture accompanied by a 'what I wouldn't do with her' or 'I'd have a whale of a time with those' and a wink in Paul's direction, the control of his reddening cheeks improving with each day.

On Thursday's trip home Jeff said the first words he'd said to his son that week in front of the other decorators.

'Derek says you've had a good week. We'll give you a go on your first door tomorrow.'

'Thanks, dad.'

'Don't bloody thank me. Thank Derek if anyone, and just do a decent job on the door.'

The next afternoon was the first time Paul entered one of the fully finished houses. All second fitting was done, spotless walls, aligned, symmetrical light fittings and electrics everywhere, all signs of plumbing hidden, swept floorboards, windows clear to the point of invisibility. The glossing of doors was the only job that remained.

'You'll have to watch me do a couple first. I'll do two interiors and then we'll give you the front door, so if you drip any, it'll be outside at least. The main thing with a door is good pace, laying paint on properly, layering it right, and no runs. Absolutely no runs. If your dad sees a single galloper on the door, he'll go berserk.'

For the next two hours Paul observed Derek as he completed four door sides. Derek constantly commentated on what he was doing, asking Paul if he understood. He began the door in the top left corner, lapped paint vertically, brushed the same wet area horizontally, then up and down again giving the strokes their consistent grain, moved to the right, repeated, then the right once more, and the top third of the door was glossed. Derek repeated the same across the middle third of the door, feathering joins between the completed oblong patches, until his ninth, bottom-right, section of paint finished the door and whole was a singular uninterrupted sheen, a firm block of precise and proud colour.

'I think you're ready lad. Let's get you on the front door. The specs say it's red, so we'll have to fetch it.'

In the hut, Robbo and Smithy were there too.

'Alright fellas, Paul's about to do his first door. Pass us that red gloss, will you? If you like, as it's Friday arvo, you can come and watch how he gets on.'

Paul didn't speak as the three of them prepared Paul's paint. Smithy passed the tin to Derek. Robbo held a fresh kettle while Derek poured it in. Smithy lent one of his brushes to Paul for the job. The four of them walked, without exchanging a word, back to waiting front door.

'Come on then. You've seen me do four sides. Off you go. Don't get nervous. Just no runs remember. That's the main thing. Your old man would kill a fella for runs on a door I reckon.'

Smithy and Robbo, sitting on a spot of grass next to Derek, sniggered. Paul knelt down, dipped into the paint, slapped the brush on the inside of the tin, rose up, and moved the red, wet bristles to the door. About half-an-inch from the brush making its first contact with the grey undercoat, Paul felt an arm reach around him and fling him backwards. The paint pot fell from his grip. His face crunched against the grass as the compression of elbows and knees drove into his back. A hand wormed under him to undo his overall straps. Other hands, somewhere at his feet, pulled them clean off him. From his left eye he saw them thrown across the garden. The voices of Derek, Smithy, and Robbo, laid over one another so he couldn't make out who was saying what. Someone's stiffened fingers slotted into the elastic on his underpants. 'Turn him over!' His body was shoved onto his back. 'Get his paint!' Two pairs of hands held his upper arms down. Someone was sitting on his shins locking his legs to the ground. 'Keep hold of him!' The hooked fingers pulled his underwear down to his knees exposing him.

'Don't! Please don't!'

He lifted up his head. Through the blur he saw Smithy and Robbo pinning his arms down. Derek was on his legs, exerting his weight on to him, grinning tightly. To his side, with Paul's dropped kettle in his hands, his dad tipped its contents where his underpants had been pulled down, coating and drenching his cock and balls in the oily, chemical-smelling, red gloss paint.

'You didn't really think we'd have you on doors by end of your second week did you, son?'

With three toilet rolls, his own clothes as rags, and a carton of white spirit, Paul spent an hour cleaning up the best he could. He couldn't get it all off. His privates and top of his inner thighs burned with a rash. He couldn't tell if it was the colour of his skin or ingrained paint. Derek knocked and asked if it was alright to come in. He handed Paul some fresh overalls.

'You can bin those and put these on. Your dad says he'll ask your mum to get some new undies for you. Don't take it hard, lad. We all do it. We'll get you on doors eventually.'

The drive after work was in silence. Jeff stopped the van outside the nearest shop to home.

'Paul, you get out here and get yourself some good soap. I'll give you the money back. I'll get your mum to run the bath ready for you. It's fish and chips night tonight. I'll get an extra-large haddock for yours.'

Paul bought a bar of brown, industrial looking soap. On the walk to the guesthouse the chafing became an irresistible itch. He reached into the front of his overalls, rubbed and scratched, his lips pursing as he sunk his fingernails into his crotch. He stopped still, crunched his eyes closed, the scrubbing of his testicles reduced the throbbing, and he grunted a snort of relief.

'What the hell are you doing?'

Caroline and her friend, Katrina, stood in front of Paul.

'Leave him, Katrina. There's something not right with him.'

'Seriously though Paul, what are you doing? You can't stand in the street like that!'

'Katrina! Let's go. He's a weirdo. A pervert is what he is.'

He didn't move until they'd scuffled past him, and then walked the rest of the way back, head down.

Over the next year Paul learned to roll walls, the order in which to paint a window, undercoat woodwork, mix filler, sand. He was made to drink a thimble of grey undercoat, had his shoes filled with Polyfilla, one of his ears doused with a full smack of white Artex. He started cutting in around switches, grew his collection of brushes to seven, got through four pairs of new overalls, took on more gloss work. He began to go to the pub with the others on a Friday, and then Saturdays as well, wake up on Sundays on top of his bed fully clothed, often with an unfinished, cold takeaway next to his head. He was sent to ask fora left-handed hammer, tartan paint, and a long stand from the store, and laughed at for it. He did some varnishing, worked on door frames, and took on some glossing of doors.

A new apprentice joined exactly fifty-two weeks after he'd started his. Paul had just finished the first white coat of a bedroom ceiling.

'Come on Paul, follow us.'

Paul went behind Robbo, Smithy, and Derek to the paint hut. Derek went straight to the apprentice's bag and fished out the plastic box, peeled off the lid, and held the opened contents out to the rest of them.

'Grab something. Get it down you quick. Robbo, take that sarnie. Paul, you have that apple.'

Between them the contents were gone in under two minutes. Derek put the lid back on, sealed its edges, and gave it to Paul.

'Did that new lass of yours cook for you again last night?'

'Aye, cooked me a nice curry.'

'Perfect! Here you go.'

Derek handed the empty box to Paul. He took it and tucked it under his left arm. They left the paint hut and went back to their jobs. Dinner was another hour away. Plenty of time.


  1. Really good read. It drew me up in.

  2. Good story. I enjoyed the character development and the descriptions and selection of details that made the story engaging and believable. Guess the torch as been passed to Paul. Good luck to those who follow!
    —D. Henson

  3. A lot of bad behavior is learned. Good illustration thereof. Glad I didn't take up painting as a career. Doug Hawley

  4. Pathetic. The story condones ugly useless trash violating an innocent kid they should have been looking out for. This is how kids get killed joining fraternities, how girls and little children get sexually assaulted.

  5. I agree with every previous comment: the story was well told, it was believable and the dialogue was presented well. I also agree that it normalizes sadism as a right of passage into the adult world. I had hoped that the protagonist Paul would transcend and overcome and disown that behavior. It would have made for a more satisfying and uplifting story.

    It brought to mind jobs I held in my youth; of physical education classes; of team sports. Some regretful memories. But the writer Paul is a good story teller and doubtless will create other and more positive stories.


  6. Thank you all for the comments. The story is based on real experiences I personally had working as a decorator in the 1980s and all the bullying incidents in the story are ones I witnessed. I certainly don’t condone any behaviour of this type, but I wanted to reflect the brutal reality. I struggled with whether to have the protagonist overcome or become the same, but in the end the idea of An Apprenticeship as a story that has someone not only learn the job, but also become one of them was what I decided.

  7. A really enjoyable read the ending was sad but probably true to life.

  8. Well told, great pacing and super detail. The story moved along without getting bogged down. I liked the fact that there's no backstory, and the media res start.

  9. An apt title .. the reality told without judgement, an effective way to make the issues here unambiguous, to very much impact the reader. Even Paul's Dad was in on the hazing.. any sanctimony about how this was written is misplaced. Kind of a horror story, well told.

    1. Thank you Harrison - I really appreciate you reading it and the feedback.