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

rore1

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