Snakes and Ladders

On her upper arm, curling around her bicep, is a silver snake.

‘Is anyone sitting here?’ I ask.

‘No,’ she replies.

I eat my sandwich and stare at the snake, its scales glimmering beneath the light.

‘That’s a beautiful bangle,’ I say.

‘Sorry?’

‘The snake. It’s beautiful.’

‘Oh…’ she looks down at her arm. ‘Thank you.’

I take another bite of my sandwich and chew on the stringy salmon. Her skin is so smooth I want to touch it. ‘Do you work around here?’ I ask.

‘Sometimes.’

‘I’ve never seen you before.’

She looks up from her book. I place the half-eaten sandwich back in the crumpled packet and wipe my mouth. ‘What are you reading?’

‘A novel.’

I clear my throat. ‘Any good?’

She examines the cover. ‘Not really.’ I notice another snake dangling from her neck. ‘You like snakes?’ I ask.

‘How can you tell?

‘Well…’ I point at her necklace and realise she’s not wearing a bra.

‘Yes, I suppose I do.’ Her hand reaches for the necklace and she twists the tiny snake, slowly rubbing the pendant between her fingertips. I try not to look at her breasts. ‘Do you?’ She asks.

‘I’ve never really thought about it.’ I reply. ‘Do you have any more?’

‘I do.’ She closes her book and places it on the table. I want to ask her where they are, but I don’t. A loud clatter disturbs the relative stillness of the cafe, and we look across the room towards the commotion. A man and woman stand by the bin, brushing their clothes and apologising to one another. I watch him reach for his wallet and offer to buy her another drink, but she shakes her head and steps aside as a waitress sweeps up the mess. He apologises once more and the woman nods her head, gestures that it’s okay, and leaves him standing there. When I turn back to the table I notice I’m being watched.
‘What?’ I ask.

‘Nothing.’

‘No, go on. What is it? Have I got something on my face?’

‘No.’

‘So what is it?’

‘I was just thinking.’

‘About what?’

‘You.’

‘Go on.’

‘Why did you sit here?’

I think about the question, and consider my answer. ‘The seat was free.’

‘So was that one over there.’

‘Was it?’

‘Yes.’

I spot an eyelash next to my mug, so I make a wish, and blow.

‘I didn’t realise.’ I notice that she’s finished her coffee, but before I can ask if she wants another one, her telephone rings. She answers and whispers into the mouthpiece, occasionally looking at me. I watch her lips move and imagine how they might feel pressed against mine, her mouth open, tongue moist. She has a small ring in her left nostril, which sparkles as she speaks, and a splatter of freckles that cover her cheeks. She looks like something out of a magazine, only better because she’s real. I reach under the table and pretend to search for something in my bag, examining her legs as I rummage around. When I sit up the telephone call is over and she’s watching me, waiting. ‘Finished?’ She asks.

‘Yes,’ I reply, and straighten up in my seat.

‘So…what do you do?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘For money. Work.’

‘I’d rather not talk about work.’ I say.

‘What would you like to talk about?’

‘Surprise me.’

‘What do you do for pleasure?’

‘Avoid work.’ She smiles. ‘How about you?’ I ask.

‘Me?’

‘Yes. What do you like to do – apart from reading?’

‘I like to travel.’

‘I thought so.’

‘Why?’

‘Your tan. Looks like you travel.’ I remove my glasses and clean the lenses with a microfiber cloth I keep in my wallet. ‘Have you just got back from somewhere?’

‘I was in Valencia for a couple of days.’

‘For work?’

‘No, pleasure.’

‘I’ – a waitress appears at our table and picks up our empty coffee mugs, placing them on a tray and wiping down the surface with a chequered cloth. We watch her in silence, her earrings flapping in the air as she leans over and works the cloth from one corner of the table to the other. She nods and walks away, and I notice the woman opposite me staring at her as she rounds the corner of the counter and disappears behind a door.

‘How old do you think she is?’ She asks.

‘Who?’

‘The waitress.’

‘Twenty, I guess. Maybe twenty-one, or twenty-two.’

‘Do you think she’s a student?’

‘Maybe.’

‘No maybes. What do you think?’

‘Probably.’

‘What is she studying?’

‘English Literature.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes. Why, what do you think?’

‘I don’t think she’s a student at all.’

‘So what is she?’

‘An actress.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes.’

‘Why do you think that?’

‘Her eyes. They look sad.’

I wait for her to say something else, but she doesn’t.

‘What about him?’ I ask.

‘Who?’

‘The guy in the pink and white striped shirt. Pink tie. Over by the corner table.’ She turns around and examines the man, tilting her head slightly as she considers the possibilities.

‘A travel agent. Middle management. Married. No kids. Gay.’

‘What makes you think he’s gay? The pink tie?’

‘No, the way he holds his spoon, and the fact he can’t stop staring at that other guy outside.’

I watch Mr Pink for a few seconds and realise she’s right. Every so often he looks up from his paper and gazes at the man outside. Our man is wearing a wedding ring, his fingers pressing down on the keypad of his mobile phone. ‘Okay, one more.’ I look around the cafe. ‘What about her. The woman in the yellow jacket.’

‘A lecturer. Loves her work. Divorced. Two kids. Happy.’

‘What does she teach?’

‘Art History.’

‘What are her kids called?’

‘Harry and Lloyd. She won’t admit it, but they’re named after the characters from her favourite film; Dumb and Dumber.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes.’ I look at the woman in the yellow jacket and imagine her sitting on a sofa once her kids are asleep, a bowl of popcorn on her lap, watching Dumb and Dumber and laughing out loud even though she’s seen it countless times before. ‘And what about me?’ I ask

She rests her elbows on the table and leans forward. ‘You’re in a relationship, but you’re scared.’

‘Why?’

‘Because it’s not going well. Your job is demanding, and you spend a lot of time away from home – away from your wife.’

‘And?’

‘And you’re drifting apart. You’re trying to introduce some excitement back into your relationship, but you’re not sure it’s working.’

‘Is it?’ I ask.

‘I’m not sure. Do you love her?’

‘Yes. More than anything.’

‘So tell her.’

She’s right. I remove my phone from my pocket, compose the text using capital letters; I LOVE YOU. X, and hit send. I watch the progress bar bulge until the message is delivered, and I sit back and unbutton my collar. ‘And what about you?’ I ask.

‘You tell me.’

‘Hmmm.’

‘Go on.’

‘You’re lonely.’

I wait for a reaction, but there is none. We sit silently for a while, each of us considering my assessment. She runs her finger around the rim of her water bottle and stares into the clear liquid, and I am about to apologise when her phone vibrates. She picks it up, reads from it, and smiles. I look around the cafe. ‘Check it out.’ I say and nod towards Mr Pink. She turns around and spots the guy from outside sitting with our friend. They are laughing, holding hands under the table, the wedding ring no longer in sight.

‘You were right.’ I say.

‘I’m always right.’

I want to keep the conversation going, but something tells me it’s over.

She tightens the cap on the bottle of water and dumps it in her bag. Opening her book she flicks to the back page, writes something down, and closes it. ‘Well, I have to be going.’ She stands and threads her arm through the strap of her bag. ‘It was nice to meet you.’

‘You too,’ I reply.

‘Perhaps we’ll see each other again some time.’

‘I hope so.’

I get up and hold out my hand. She takes it and we shake, eyes fixed, her skin as soft as I suspected. I watch her leave and sit back down. As I reach for the bill, I realise she’s left her book, so I pull it towards me and open it. There, on the last page, is the address of a hotel and a reservation number, underlined by a sketch of a snake, scales shaped like hearts, and the words I’ve waited for: ‘I love you too.’

*

Illustration by Henry Davis

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Blindness

You wake up, exhausted and sore. It’s five thirty in the morning. A Monday morning, the one you hate the most. You sit up, rub your eyes, and sigh. Finally, you get up and navigate your way through the darkness of the room. In the bathroom you shower, shit, and stare at your face in the mirror. Half naked, you descend the stairs and enter the kitchen. You turn on the kettle, prepare your lunch, and watch the neighbour’s cat piss on your plants. Carrying your coffee you scale the stairs and return to the bathroom. You comb your hair, brush your teeth, and spit blood into the sink. Back in the bedroom your partner is still asleep. You try to to smile, but your expression is flat and rigid. You check the time. You’re late. Again.

As you march along the pavement, eyes focused on the slabs ahead, you realise you forgot your sandwich. Idiot, you think, and keep walking. At the bus stop you stand to the side, away from the others. The timetable indicates a mixture of minutes, none of which make you feel better. You decide to take a different bus, hoping the express nature of its route will be worth the extended wait, but when the bus arrives you realise your mistake. No one gets off, and no one gets on, and you watch it pull away without you. You check your watch, review the timetable, and stare at the empty road ahead. Eventually, another bus arrives and you force your way on, reach for a handrail, and fail. The driver stamps on the brake and you bump into the man beside you. You apologise, but he doesn’t believe you, and tuts. The bus lingers at a stop to regulate the service and you bite your lip, engulfed by conversations you can’t understand. You try to reach for your headphones to drown out the voices, but it’s impossible, your hand wedged between the bodies. The bus lurches forward and you lock eyes with another passenger, both of you recognising the look; it’s too early, too tiresome, too familiar.

At the train station the same man in the same high-viz jacket thrusts a newspaper into your chest, just like he does every morning, even though you never, ever, take one. You wish, for once, that he would recognise you. You wish he would see you approach and think, aha, it’s him, the guy who doesn’t want one. You wish he would leave you alone, but he doesn’t, and you find yourself apologising, though you’re not sure why. You wonder if you all look so alike that you’re impossible to distinguish, an erratic blur of duty and obligation, forever on the move. Then you wonder how many people acknowledge him and accept a paper, and how, if at all, this makes him feel. You decide that tomorrow, you will take one. You will take one and say, thank you, have a nice day. Perhaps he will have a nice day, if you wish it. Or perhaps it won’t make a difference. Perhaps it’s just a job, and you’re just another person, on what is, as the newspaper suggests, just another day.

In the ticket hall you buy the wrong ticket and forget the receipt, the acquired possibilities devoid of destinations you might ever wish to visit. The train is delayed and you look at the screen, your fingers fiddling with the shrapnel in your pocket. A woman barges past you, smacks you in the leg with her bag, and positions herself directly in front of you. You feel the urge to push her over the yellow line and onto the tracks, but you resist, as always. The train approaches and you try to judge where the doors might stop, but you’re wrong, and join the back of the queue. Eventually you board the train, book in hand, distractions at the ready.

A man appears on the platform and you stare at him, wondering why he doesn’t get on. His face is covered in sweat, his chest heaving, and you find him unsettling, until finally you realise; he’s blind. You shake your head, appalled by your pitiful awareness. How did you not realise? How did you not see? You feel sick. Disgusted and ashamed. What a terrible person you must be. He’s still standing there, and you want to help, but you don’t know how. You examine the other passengers, hoping for guidance, but nobody acknowledges him, or you, or the specifics of the situation. This isn’t right, you think. Not right at all. By the time you decide to act he’s already on board, standing opposite you, smiling. You smile back, open your book, and read.

After a few pages you give up on the book and return it to your bag, avoiding eye contact with the man in front of you, knowing, shamefully, that it doesn’t matter anyway. You wonder where he’s going. Who is waiting. Why. You come up with countless possibilities but none of them make sense. You cough and the man jerks, startled by your presence, and you want to say something – anything at all, but the words won’t come. You look outside the window and watch without feeling; the same tracks, the same buildings, all of it the same as yesterday. Every miniscule, exceptional detail, lost on you. You think about the man, unable to see what you can see, yet smiling, still. You feel an irrational sense of guilt, disgust at your appalling lack of appreciation, as if, somehow, your life is better than his. It’s a stupid thought, ignorant and foolish – horrifying, in fact, and you know this, but you think it anyway.

The train arrives at the station and people gather in the gangway. Someone is listening to music and you recognise the song, a popular tune from your teenage years. You remember your first job in Safeway when you fought on pallets of toilet paper and smoked joints behind containers in the backyard. You remember your colleagues, your friends, all the people you no longer see, and increasingly forget. You wonder what they’d think of you now, a shirt and tie above your faded leather shoes. This is what you are now. You. The person who advocated independence and despised commitment. All you ever wanted was freedom. Then you met your partner, and, well, everything changed. You don’t know how it happened, but it did. The career you once envisioned drifted out of focus. Auditions became less frequent, agents less forthcoming, and acting less and less enlightening, until at some point, somehow, the dream was dead. Now here you are. An adult. Married and mortgaged. Settled down. Responsible. Your best performance yet.

Someone nudges you from behind and you realise the doors are open. You stand back and let them pass. Between the blur of bodies you see the man, steadfast and unsure, sweating once again. This time you will do something. You will help. Just as you’re about to ask if he’s okay a woman appears and gently guides him down from the train and on to the platform. He’s okay, you think. He’s okay. As soon as you step off you’re swallowed in the stampede towards the turnstiles. The clock reads ten to nine. There is no way you will get to the office on time. Your boss will be angry. She will use that tone of voice you hate, and you will apologise and promise never to be late again, even though you know you will. At the gates you remove the Oyster card from your wallet and step forward. As you press the card down on to the scanner you notice the lady who was helping the man stood beside you. What? Wait a minute. How? You look back towards the man, nervous and anxious, hoping, despite the odds of observation, that someone else is helping him. Your fears are confirmed. He is on his own; abandoned on the platform. His stick is down beside his leg. He is heading straight for a large steel pillar. He can’t see it. You can. No. Please. Stop. You shout, but it’s too late, and you can’t bear to look, you can’t bear to see it, so you look away, his nose disintegrating against the metal, his walking stick crashing to the ground as you pass through the turnstiles, fall in line, and disappear into the crowd.

*

Illustration by Henry Davis

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