Snake Charm

Winner of the 2015 Manchester Fiction Prize

 

After he said what he’d got to say they sat in silence. They sat that way at the kitchen table for a long time until he stood, the skin on his face tight as a child’s telling a lie. She wanted to say ‘I hate you.’ But she didn’t hate him, and the silence felt like something, something she didn’t want to break.

 

When he left he took his coat, a bright orange jacket – the type workmen wear in the road. He wouldn’t be back for his other things, she knew. He didn’t have much – a pair of trainers that needed throwing out, a couple of T-shirts, three pairs of shorts and a rucksack, a kid’s one, with a cartoon character on it she didn’t recognise. In it she found a screwed-up shopping list, a broken mobile phone – not that she’d been looking. His things were his. They had his smell about them – slightly musty, not good, but not bad either. After he’d gone she walked around the house trying to see it as he must have seen it when he’d first come, as he’d see it if he ever came back. She saw that he’d left his wash bag on the floor by the sink. She knew he wouldn’t change his mind for a toothbrush.

 

Back in the kitchen she made a cup of tea, took it to the table and sat there, staring at the vivarium. She did not like having the snake in the kitchen. That had been Ryan’s idea. It needed the warmth, he’d said. She wondered how she could get rid of it, now that he’d gone. Her throat felt dry, her skin hot. She went to the cupboard, took out a coffee mug and held it for a moment before dropping it. It made a dull noise as it hit the floor and broke. She broke some plates, too, but nothing made the noise she wanted to hear. She felt she was underwater. The snake stared at her, blankly.

 

‘You depress me’. Those had been Ryan’s last words to her.

 

No one at work knew about Ryan, about the snake. No one at work knew anything about her at all. If you keep yourself to yourself for long enough people start to leave you alone. To begin with they used to ask her to go with them on their nights out – bowling, to a nightclub, for a meal. She said ‘no’ because the money she made she needed. She never offered an explanation. She didn’t want their kind of sympathy. She always tried to give the impression that she was older than the others, even though she was only thirty-five and there were plenty older. They stopped asking her out after she didn’t go to the Christmas party the second year. That was the year they said they’d treat her and it wouldn’t be a proper celebration without her – Debbie and the others saying ‘she must come’, that it would be a ‘laugh’. But there was nothing in the world that Lisa felt she must do, least of all drink warm white wine in the basement of a Mexican restaurant where she’d be sat in the corner, her view obscured by a plastic cactus plant, and where the Polish waiters would be obliged to wear sombreros, where the smell of chilli would not quite obscure the smell of armpit sweat and where she would try and fail to follow the fractured conversations of people who would not, in any case, be talking to her.

 

The next day she slept until midday. When she woke she remembered what had happened, what had happened with Ryan. She left a message at the office to say she was sick and then went back to sleep. It was only after dark that she remembered it was a Saturday and that no-one would be there anyway.

 

Before she went to work on the Monday she hunched her shoulders, dulled her eyes. She found a way of applying make up so that her face looked closed, beyond inquisition. She wore a pair of flat, black leather shoes, a short woollen skirt and thick, purple tights that rode above her knees a little. She combed her hair so that it looked uncombed. She smelled slightly of antiseptic. She tended to alternate between one of two cardigans – one mustard, the other an uncertain blue-green the colour of municipal paint. She chose the blue-green. The cat slept on the one she wasn’t wearing.

 

Lisa had once told the girls at the office that she looked after her elderly mother. She did not know why she had said this. At the time it had seemed a convenient lie, but soon she was asked questions she could not answer easily. She was asked whether her mother needed a lot of care, whether she got out at all, whether she was forgetful. The girls began to talk to each other about her caring responsibilities and about the status of carers. They informed her that, as a ‘carer’ she was entitled to help. Her new status absolved her from all remaining expectation that she would join their coffee club, or that she would laugh at the e-mails they sent around the office headedthis will make you laugh. She nodded at their questions, at news of their engagements and pregnancies and separations and in this way was freed from the obligation to show interest. She was careful not to lie, or not outright.

 

“How’s mum?” she was asked one Monday morning.

 

“Not too good,” she said with a little shake of her head and a solemn smile.

 

“Can she manage the stairs?” asked Debbie.

 

“Not at all,” said Lisa, which was true. Her mother had been dead for ten years, and they hadn’t spoken for ten years before that. Stairs were certainly beyond her.

 

Back home that evening she found no message from Ryan, no message from anyone; only the snake awaited her, perfectly patient, as if it was waiting for something important. Ryan had named the snake ‘Frank’, but she called the snake ‘Snake’. “Hello, Snake,” she said, leaving a pause, as if expecting an answer. It stared back at her, unblinking, its eye alien and cold.

 

After a fortnight she thought the snake looked hungry. “I can’t let you starve to death, can I?” she said. The snake seemed too weak to reply. She went to the freezer and took one of Ryan’s white rats from it, hammering its ice-hard head on the kitchen work surface before dropping it into a glass dish and putting it in the microwave. She pressed ‘defrost’ and let it turn there for fifteen minutes, performing its cruel pirouettes before it exploded with a small thud, globules of liver-brown flesh spattering against the glass. Lisa opened the door, turning her nose away from the smell of warm and gutty death. She felt guilty, as if she had waved a child into the path of a speeding car. She remembered that Ryan had always thawed his rats in a bowl of hot water, weighing them down with a heavy plate. She took another rat from the freezer and did what Ryan had once done. After twenty minutes the rat sat warm and limp in her hands, as if the water had brought it back to life. Its fur was matted from all that frozen time. She let it drop from one hand to the other, half expecting it to spring from her hand and scuttle off into a corner. She remembered that Ryan used to borrow her hairdryer to ‘fluff it up’. He used to take particular care to heat the dead rat’s brain, because it was the brain, he said, that snakes were keenest to devour. She passed the dryer backwards and forwards over the white fur. She thought of the word lovingly. She thought it a strange word to apply to drying a rat, dead or alive. She thought it a strange word to apply to anything.

 

She opened the lid of the vivarium and moved the rat about in semblance of life, of terror, of futile escape, but the snake did not move. In the morning the rat was gone and Snake seemed more content. “Happy now?” she said as she left to catch the bus. As she checked her keys and closed the door she thought she heard it mutter something unintelligible in reply.

 

Lisa worked hard at the office. She dealt with all her calls and e-mails each day and wrote business summaries that were superior to those that Kay, her manager, could produce. In this way Lisa protected herself from the threat of being dismissed. Kay was a vindictive woman, but she was also too lazy to rid herself of someone who was useful to her, however eccentric that person might be. Lisa’s neat and accurate figures allowed Kay to remain in her office most of the day eating Jaffa Cakes, trading in Manx cats on the internet and growing morbidly obese.

 

Frank did put on a few centimetres, and then a few more. Lisa began to feel that it was cruel to confine him to the vivarium, which had been bought for him when he was so much smaller. She let him free. She would come home to find him lying under the radiator in the living room, or coiled half-heartedly around the immersion heater. One night she found him lying across the floor just inside the front door. Inadvertently, she kicked him. “Ouch,” he said, coiling himself around her leg. “Sorry,” she said. He loosened his grip. Quite often he’d be in the bath. One time he was swimming there, in two feet of water that Lisa was certain she had not left in it. Another night she could not find him at all. She looked in all his usual places: beneath the radiators, in the bathroom, in the kitchen cupboards, under her bed. Just as she was getting worried, wondering who to ask for help, her head brushed against something and, looking up, she saw Snake hanging from the light fitting in the hall. “You had me worried!” she laughed in relief.

 

He smiled.

 

“You’re a tease,” she said, warmly.

 

“I try to keep you amused,” she heard him say.

 

On the Thursday she came home to find both the cat and Snake gone. She called them both, looked in every possible place, but there was no sign of them. She wondered if they might have run away together. They’d not grow hungry – but it was November and a python wouldn’t last long on the streets of Salford. She walked the empty sodium-lit city calling for them. The cat was called ‘Jarvis’.  Her calls of ‘Frank!…Jarvis!’ sounded oddly formal in the dark, drizzly night.

 

On Saturday morning she found Snake under the kitchen sink. He was sleepy. “I expect you’ve had quite an adventure,” she said, feeling elated, wanting to pick him up and embrace him, “you and Jarvis.” He shifted contentedly, signalling his agreement. But Jarvis never did return.

 

Snake did not eat for two months.

 

One Sunday night there was a pounding on the door. For a long time Lisa ignored it, but eventually she went and saw that it was Ryan who stood there. Rainwater streamed from his blue-black hair into his eyes, down his nose. It poured from the cleft in his chin like a tap.

 

“You’re wet,” she said.

 

“Yeah, it’s wet” he said, looking up, extending his arms, as if to suggest that he had conjured the weather himself, like a god. He gave her a smile. He had beautiful teeth.

 

“What do you want?”

 

“To see how you are.” He blinked slowly, trying to squeeze the rain out of his eyes.

 

“Where’s your coat?”

 

He shrugged, then laughed.

 

She didn’t believe that he’d come to see how she was. “Why didn’t you send me a text, at least?”

 

“I did. When was the last time you charged your phone?” He was smiling, his voice warm in the rain.

 

“If you’ve come for Frank, I sold him.”

 

“You what?” Ryan tilted his head to one side. His smile changed, revealing the bottom row of his beautiful teeth, which is what happened when he was angry.

 

“Yeah,” she said, and she gave herself a little nod of agreement, “Yeah. Got a hundred quid for him as a matter of fact. But I’ve spent it now.”

 

She saw that he’d begun to shiver. She thought for a moment about letting him in, about lighting the oven and standing him in front it and getting him to take off his clothes in front of her. She’d see his pale, pale skin and his black, black hairs, the ones that made a circle around his nipples and trailed down from his belly button. She wanted to dry his clothes for him, to warm him up, but then he might see Snake, take him from her. She shut the door.

 

In her sleep she didn’t hear the sound of his quiet coming. She didn’t hear him slip into her bedroom, didn’t know how long he watched her before reaching his decision. But when he moved into her bed she felt the bulk of him beside her, his skin cool and dry against hers. He rested there, warming slowly. She put one arm over him and noticed how much thinner he was than before. With her fingers she felt his bones beneath his skin, running them up and down, up and down, as if playing a strange, soundless instrument. She pushed herself up against his long body and he pressed himself against her and she felt almost complete. He smelled neither good nor bad. He smelled of nothing at all.

 

Sometime in the night they must have shifted positions, they must have wrapped themselves around each other and entwined themselves as if they would grow from two into one, she tightening her grip on him and he tightening his on her, tighter and tighter until it seemed that her flesh would become his.

 

Until, when daylight came, there could be no letting go.