The Neal James Website


Monthly Short Story

Highly Decorated

"It's only a sweatshirt, for God's sake!" My wife said, arms crossed in frustration at my intransigence.

If only she could understand the bond forged between it and me over a number of years and countless DIY campaigns.


We have a rule at our house that under no circumstances should anyone wear anything resembling decent clothing when indulging in any activities which are even remotely related to DIY. Alright, alright we have a rule then that I should not wear decent clothes when doing …you know… any of the above. It’s a rule that I have ridiculed and flagrantly disregarded on many occasions to my eternal detriment, and have now been forced to reluctantly admit that I should always do what I am told, especially by those who, unlike me, know what they are talking about…to be more specific, my wife.

I have ruined more t-shirts and shorts than I care to shake a stick at, and it has taken me the better part of forty years to realise the wisdom of her words. So, I started to use an old sweatshirt brought back from The States in 1999 for all activities connected with doing jobs around the house/garden/car involving fixing/decorating/cleaning, using tools/chemicals/adhesives…get the picture?

The sweatshirt and I thus have a clearly defined working relationship. This allows it to spend most of its time asleep in my wardrobe building up its strength in readiness for the sudden summons to duty. It knows its name, rank, and serial number, and raises its arms in the air at the first command, to enable me to combine with it in a symbiotic relationship which ensures that no other clothes will suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (I do like a bit of Shakespeare occasionally).

We have been through the wars have New Hampton and I. It’s called New Hampton because it bears the Head of an American Chief of the Chickasaws. This Indian tribe occupied the area of Iowa now known as Chickasaw County, but enough geography for now (or ever). It’s a proud garment and requires me to take it seriously at all times; we have a clear agenda for each job and any splashes or other inadvertent markings resulting from my labours are worn as badges of honour. It does not require constant washing, for this could be construed as a sign of weakness, but when this process is inevitable it is important that all ‘decorations’ acquired remain within the fibres of its weave.

It has been a participant in a number of domestic campaigns both at home and abroad (realistically this involves our house and my mother-in-law’s bungalow) and has carried out its responsibilities with courage and pride. It has been decorated in the line of duty on many occasions, and carries the shades of all of the emulsion we have used in our current house. Combine these with the eternal shade of brilliant white gloss, and you start to get the impression that this jumper would go through all the fires of hell for you (or me).

You know those times when you are carrying something heavy/delicate/dangerous and your nose starts to itch? Well, me and the jumper have seen action here more times than I have had hot dinners (and I do like hot dinners). You can be cutting in around the top edges of a wall prior to emulsioning the rest of it, with brush in one hand and the other hand on the wall to steady yourself. From out of nowhere the brush sends a scouting party of vinyl silk white down its handle, across your hand and heading for the gap between arm and sleeve. You have only one option – stop the flow by pressing sleeve against the wall. The carnage is dreadful as the paint flow meets certain death at the hand (sorry, sleeve) of my trusty friend. Lower the brush and watch teeming hordes of the rest of the flow retreat to the protection of friendly bristles. This does not stop you as these cowardly dribbles are unceremoniously wiped out on the rim of the paint pot.

On the odd occasion where the rampant liquid escapes your attempts at control, hands can be wiped upon said garment as a last resort prior to dealing with the main rebellion in the above manner. The garment takes all this in its stride, and as long as you ensure that all surplus commodities are removed PDQ, no lasting damage is done.

In some ways, looking at the sweatshirt now can be a matter of nostalgia, a real trip down memory lane. If you take a close enough look, you will even find traces of the various preservatives used on all of our fences, and the odd smear of Ronseal wood varnish used on all of our internal doors. It can bring a lump to the throat and a tear to the eye to think of all that we have been through together; but not so fast. This isn’t a eulogy or some other form of remembrance service. This is a living, breathing piece of equipment, and we still have a long road to travel together.

Although experienced in the various forms of domestic renovation warfare, it is by no means over the hill. Only last weekend we tiled and grouted together, and tile adhesive and grout are amongst the most uncooperative substances ever invented by man. The adhesive is virtually impossible to extract from its container without the correct tool (conveniently supplied by the manufacturer) but once this has become covered with the stuff, it sets like concrete the moment you put it to one side for more than a few seconds. Inevitably some of it will end up wiped across the most convenient part of your clothing (the sweatshirt), where it will be told to shape up or ship out.

Grout is its partner in crime, and is either too runny or too stiff – there is no centre ground. In either case the sweatshirt gets it share of wipings, and we have to deal with these with a nice soaking bath at the end of the day (after extricating me of course). My better half won’t allow me to put it in the wash without doing this first, and steadfastly refuses to let it fraternise with any other member of the daily or weekly wash on the basis that it might encourage other items of clothing to behave in the same way.

Unfortunately, the sweatshirt was not around at our previous home at Spring Lane when I had the unfortunate accident with the emulsion in the squashy pot. Briefly this involved me falling off a plank of wood straddling two stools whilst I was trying to paint the ceiling. I wobbled, the pot went up in the air and fell on my head. I am sure that if the garment had been around at that time it would have thrown itself into the firing line like some bodyguard, and taken the full brunt of the attack. It wasn’t, I did, and my wife found the whole incident hysterically funny. So funny in fact, that she could not look at me for the rest of the day without dissolving into laughter. Strange, but I get the same reaction from both our children now, and I am as sure as I can be that they were not around at the time.

So, from its humble beginnings in the American Midwest, it could not possibly have imagined that it would travel across the Atlantic to become a legend in its own lifetime, and I have much to thank it for. If clothing could be mentioned in despatches, this one would. If monuments for bravery existed, it would deserve the highest one available, and if it stood for parliament it would win a landslide majority. Maybe that’s a little over the top, I mean it couldn’t stand for parliament as it is not British, but we’ll let that one go.

There may, one day, come a time when the ravages of time take their toll upon it and it goes the way of my dear departed sawn-off denims, but that day is still far off in the future. There isn’t even any fraying on the edges of its sleeves yet, and even if there were, I would roll them up to conceal the scars of war and protect it from inspection by putting it away myself in the depths of my wardrobe, concealed within its trusty carrier bag and safe from prying eyes. You have to look after your friends these days, and this one deserves care of the highest order to match its highly decorated stature.