I was buying peaches at the market when I received the phone call telling me Tom had died. It was his secretary who rang me.
‘A heart attack,’ Ismail said. ‘Instantaneous. Painless.’ His voice was snotty with the tears he must have shed.
‘Right,’ I said.
‘Mrs Worton has said it will be a private ceremony.’
There was a pause. ‘Right,’ I said.
I hung up and realised then I’d accidentally squeezed the peach I was holding, and nectar was dripping from my fingers onto the display of fruit.
‘Hey,’ said the stall holder. ‘You’ll need to pay for that.’
I fumbled in my purse for a coin, pressed it into her hand and lurched towards an exit. The city was bristling with Saturday morning shoppers, whizzing up and down on wheelchairs or pushchairs, bouncing off friends’ or parents’ arms, workers from the market and cafes, smoking cigarettes in the sun and calling loved ones during their break. I felt giddy, the noises suddenly too much. By the town hall I found a bench with a space. I sat down, took a deep breath, and looked out over the colourful awnings of the market stalls to the city castle opposite, its white stone burning in the August sun. The air smelled of frying oil, pizza and gasoline. I hunted around in my shopping bag, found an old tissue and wiped the peach juice from my hand. It had already dried. I suddenly wished I smoked, even though I hadn’t touched a cigarette in fifteen years.
‘Now don’t be afraid,’ said a voice close to my left ear. ‘But I think my little friend likes you.’
I turned to find myself face to face with two beady eyes, scales and a black, forked tongue.
I screamed and leapt from the bench.
‘There’s no need to be afraid,’ the man said again, though he was pulling the snake back towards him. ‘She just wants to say hello.’ He squinted up at me. His hair was long and curled. There was a tattoo on his neck. ‘You don’t look well,’ he said. ‘You’ve gone rather white.’
He was right: the cobblestones were moving, iron-grey, like the swells of a wintery sea. I sank back onto the bench; afraid I might faint. ‘I have a phobia of snakes.’
‘Many people do.’
‘Any other day I’d be running for the hills.’
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. There was genuine concern in his voice as if he could see right inside me to the hard knot of pain blocking my windpipe. I looked at him properly. Premature lines danced around his eyes, probably from smoking and drinking and generally not taking care of himself. His clothes seemed relatively clean though, and normal, despite wearing a raincoat in summer. His mouth looked soft, his eyes kind.
‘I’ve just found out my partner’s died.’
He nodded and stroked the snake hanging around his neck. ‘And how does that make you feel?’
I felt the question should have made me react, should have me bristling with self-righteous anger, but it didn’t. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I don’t know.’
We looked at each other and suddenly we were both laughing. He stopped but I kept on, rocking back and forth, tears streaming down my cheeks. Eventually, I started to hiccup. He seemed unfazed by my madness.
‘I never cry in front of strangers,’ I said, using the peach juice tissue to mop my face.
‘Isn’t it liberating though?’ He turned and looked me in the eye. ‘Letting go.’ His irises were the colour of freshly turned earth.
‘I suppose,’ I said. ‘Yes.’ I actually felt embarrassed by my outburst. People were staring. ‘I think it’s time for me to head home.’ I stood and put on my sunglasses.
‘What’s your name?’ he asked.
‘I’m Juan.’ He stretched out a hand. I shook it. ‘And this is Sandy. Because she’s blonde.’ He gestured at the snake. ‘And this is Rex. And this is Victor.’ He lifted a snake from one pocket of his raincoat and then the other.
Oh my God. I stepped back. There was three of them. What a nutter. ‘Goodbye Juan.’
‘Until next time Helen.’
I hurried away.
Once home, I hung the keys in their place on the third hook from the left behind the door. I put water to boil, and, after hesitating a moment, I took from the rack the cup I always use in the afternoon – the red one with the grid pattern. A present from Tom. Taking it outside, I sat on the bench under the kitchen window. The air smelled of rosemary. A pair of ring-necked doves flew into the garden and disappeared behind the apple tree. I stared at its dead branches. It’d been barren for years, but Tom had forbidden me from cutting it down.The air smelled of rosemary. A pair of ring-necked doves flew into the garden and disappeared behind the apple tree. I stared at its dead branches. It’d been barren for years, but Tom had forbidden me from cutting it down. It reminded him, he said, of me. Stubborn. Different. And, I suppose, barren. It hid the pond from the house, which meant I couldn’t watch the wildlife that came there to drink. But I did as he wished.
My last text from Tom had been sent the night before. It read: Could do Tuesday lunchtime?
I thought of the house, silent as a grave. I thought of the knives, neatly arranged in the wooden holder. I thought of how killing myself would be the most exciting thing I’d ever done. I thought of the office the next day, the gasps of excitement, the drama that would ensue. Helen? Nooooo. I wondered what they’d make of me and Tom if they ever found out. I hoped they did find out. I wondered what they’d do with my little cubicle: who would take down the picture of Mum and my nephew, Rupert; and who would remove the baby bonsai everyone called Justin (how’s Justin this morning? Well-watered? Not looking peaky?); and my office mug that says Another Day in Paradise; and the half-finished pack of Maltesers in the second drawer down; and the chair they’d given me ten years ago with a dried bit of chewing gum on the seat that despite endless scratching never came off. What would they do with these things I’d called mine? I liked to think they’d keep Justin. I hoped someone would take it home and water it and watch it flourish and think of me. Probably Ismail. I hoped they’d throw out the office chair. I wondered if Paradise really existed, and if it did, what it might look like. I came up with a blank. All I could imagine were corridors and corridors of filing cabinets. I imagined there being lots of paperwork in the afterlife.
The phone rang. Mum always called at 6pm on Saturdays. I listened to it ring and then cut off before realising that actually I did want to talk to someone, anyone, even if it wasn’t Tom. Anything but this silence that made the air hum. I threw the tea into the grass and watched it soak into the warm earth and I remembered the kind man’s eyes. Juan.
I saw him again the next day outside the church. I had just spent thirty minutes standing before a funeral parlour looking at the different wreaths. They were expensive. I stared at the wreaths, but really I was wondering what Tom’s last thoughts would have been. Were they of me? Or her? Or both of us? If he thought of both of us, did he think of me longer? The wreaths became a blur and in their place I imagined crowns of thorns like the ones that plucked at Jesus’ head.
The parlour was open despite it being Sunday and supposedly the day of God, but I didn’t go inside. I knew I would get emotionally manipulated into buying a wreath by the well-dressed caretaker because I found it difficult to say no to sales people, and then I’d find myself lumped with a wreath that I couldn’t put on his coffin or send as a gift, and it would just sit in my garden as a reminder of the depressing turn my life had taken.
The caretaker eventually saw me through the glass and waved at me to come in in a way I’m sure he thought was inviting. Taking out my phone, I pretended to be deep in conversation as I walked away.
Juan was standing outside the church gate, leaning against the cemetery wall. He was wearing the raincoat again, and I wondered how he wasn’t sweating in it.
‘Hello Helen.’ The grey snake curled up his arm.
‘Still accompanied I see.’ I stopped a good metre away.
‘This is Victor,’ he said. ‘Would you mind holding him while I roll a cigarette?’
‘No way,’ I said. ‘I have a phobia, remember?’
‘So did I,’ he said.
‘I don’t believe you.’
‘I did, a bigger phobia than you. But I overcame it.’ As he spoke, he plonked the snake down into my hands. I nearly dropped it.
‘Oh my God,’ I said. ‘Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God…’
‘Just relax. He’s very sleepy so he won’t move much. Give him a stroke with your finger.’ He took out his tobacco. Everything in me was telling me to drop this horrific thing I was holding in my hands and to run in the opposite direction. I shut my eyes, counted to ten, then ten again, then again, and opened them. The snake lay there patiently, its tail gently coiling and uncoiling. It didn’t feel like I’d imagined. Instead of being slimy and slippery, it felt soft and warm. Looking closer, I saw that there were sore-looking patches on its scales.
‘Victor has skin problems,’ Juan said, as if he could read my mind. ‘I’ve just bought him some cream.’ He’d finished rolling his cigarette and was smoking it. My arms were trembling with keeping the snake as far away from my body as possible.
‘Can you take it back?’ I said.
‘Just another minute.’
When he took this thing from me at last, I’d leave and never come back. If I’d dropped the snake and hurt it, it would have served him right. As if I needed any more nasty shocks. What a mean thing to do to a grieving woman. Mean, horrible, nasty–
‘Do you want to go and light a candle with me?’
‘I said: do you want to go and light a candle with me?’
‘I don’t really…’
‘Please. It’s a ritual I have. Every Sunday.’
I hesitated. ‘Well… I suppose so.’
In the end, we both lit candles.
‘Who are you lighting a candle for?’ I asked. ‘If you don’t mind me asking.’
‘For all the learning that has yet to be learned. I see it as the candle of knowledge burning in the dark sea of ignorance.’ He sounded serious. ‘What about you?’
‘Tom, I suppose. I don’t really believe in all this. Seems like a waste of wax.’
‘You must believe in something.’
‘I don’t know.’ I thought about it. ‘Tom, I suppose. I believed in Tom.’
Outside, Juan said: ‘Do you want to walk with me?’
I thought of my empty garden waiting for me, the dead apple tree. ‘Alright.’
We walked along the river path. Light shimmered on the water and the dipped heads of willows created welcome shade. A plastic bag floated past a swan and its cygnets. The mother swam after it for a few yards as if confused as to whether it was one of its children.
‘What do you think we might find in the river? Sunken treasure?’
‘Bodies tied in chains,’ I answered.
‘A special, regional type of oyster that creates the world’s most beautiful pearls.’
‘A Nazi revolver, accidentally dropped from a plane that thought it was above London.’
‘The secret to our continuous happiness.’ Juan showed me his empty hand. He made a fist and when he opened it, a golden coin sat on his palm. ‘Chocolate,’ he said.
I took it from him. ‘How did you do that?’
A passing dog smelled the snakes and sniffed at Juan’s feet. Victor hid underneath Juan’s coat.
‘Why do you walk around with your snakes?’ I asked, watching the tip of Victor’s tail disappear under Juan’s collar.
‘Because I want everyone to know what wonderful animals they really are.’ The skin around his eyes crinkled when he smiled.
‘But why is that important to you?’
‘Because getting over my own phobia of snakes, I learned an important lesson.’
‘That if you overcome your prejudice, where once you saw ugliness you find beauty.’
We walked in silence after that, following the towpath out of the city until the rows of houses became large, industrial warehouses that then flattened into meadows. Stopping on a little wooden bridge, we looked down at our reflections.
‘What do you see?’ he asked.
I looked at the face and the face looked back. ‘Someone who’s wasted the better years of their life.’
He took my chin in his hand, like a parent scolding their child. ‘There are no better years,’ he said. ‘Unless it’s what you make of them.’
He guided me over a field and up onto a little lane where a van was parked.
‘My home,’ he said.
The door was unlocked, and I couldn’t help asking if he wasn’t afraid of being robbed. He shrugged. ‘I would rather be robbed than carry the fear of it,’ he said.
The van was clean and airy. There was a row of plants in pots by a windowsill: basil, parsley and sage. On one side there were several glass cages. Juan put each snake back into a cage, handing them towards me for me to stroke them first. I touched their scales with my fingertips and marvelled at my own adaptability. While I looked around the van, Juan boiled water and prepared a plate with honey biscuits. ‘Green tea with sage and rosemary,’ he said.
I put down the book on plants I’d been flicking through. ‘My favourite,’ I said. ‘How did you know?’
‘I read minds.’
I blushed and hoped he didn’t read minds because I’d just been thinking about how suspicious I’d always been of travelling folk.
‘Let’s have this outside,’ he added.
We sat on a jetty and blew on our tea. A light breeze tousled the long grass and rushes.
‘If you were to die tomorrow,’ he said. ‘What would you regret most not having done?’
I thought about it. ‘Everything, really. I regret everything.’ Suddenly, I was hit with one of those rare flashes of my own mortality; the realisation that my miserable, little life would be over in a flash, and that on my lonely deathbed, I would look back and all I would see would be… nothing. Nothing at all. The thought was so horrifically sad, I felt the beginning of a panic attack. Juan said something, but there was a whistling in my ears. I asked him to repeat himself. He said it louder: ‘It’s not too late.’
A fish jumped. I watched the flash of silver spin on the water’s surface, and gradually, I calmed myself. It’s not too late. Was that true? ‘At my age?’ I replied. ‘Change my life?’ I tried to imagine myself on a moped in busy Hong Kong traffic and the thought was so ridiculous I almost laughed out loud. Was it my imagination that was limited, or I?
‘Forty is the new thirty.’
‘Hah!’ That made me smile. But it soon faded. I hugged the cup of tea to my body. ‘The truth is I’m scared.’
‘It’s normal to be scared,’ he replied, his face serious. ‘We’re all scared of what we do not know.’
I thought of the knives in my kitchen. I shrugged. ‘I guess so.’ I suddenly felt exhausted. ‘I think it’s time for me to go.’
‘Why don’t you have a nap first? It’s a long walk.’
‘I wouldn’t want to trouble you,’ I said, unconvinced. I could barely keep my eyes open.
‘No trouble,’ he said, a blanket materialising in his hands. ‘Rest your head.’ The river hissed and the rustling grass sounded like wind chimes.
When I woke, it was growing dark and I was still on the jetty. The blankets were heavy in my arms as I walked back to the van. On a foldable chair, he sat by the road and sung to the snakes. A tuneless hum – or so it sounded to me.
‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘I shouldn’t have slept so long. It’s late.’
Without a word, he stood and shut the van door. ‘Shall we?’ He gestured to the path. While we walked, he continued to hum and after a while I realised I knew the song and I hummed with him. When we arrived at the cemetery wall, I thanked him.
‘Fancy an adventure?’ he said.
‘What?’ He started climbing the wall. ‘Oh no. I’m far too old for things like that.’
‘Come on,’ he coaxed. ‘I’ll help you.’
Complaining throughout, he managed to get me over to the other side. ‘I can’t believe I agreed to this,’ I said, though I wasn’t sure if choice had come into it. We walked between the gravestones, scaring the deer whose white bottoms flashed in the moonlight.
‘Let’s look at the stars,’ he said.
We lay down in a clearing and looked up at the sky. The snakes slithered from his pockets and disappeared off into the night, but Juan didn’t seem concerned.
A shooting star drew a line that stood etched, for a moment, before vanishing. We both exclaimed out loud. A children’s story came to mind.
‘Does that mean someone’s about to die?’ I murmured.
I thought of all the new things I’d done since I’d met Juan: crying in public; holding a snake; visiting a van; lying in a cemetery at night looking at the stars. And then I thought of the knives. ‘Maybe it’s me.’
‘Maybe a part of you,’ he said. ‘A part of you is to die and then be reborn.’ He raised his hand and drew it across the sky, and as he moved, a shower of shooting stars burst forth, so many and so powerful that they lit the sky white.
‘Oh my God,’ I sat up and looked around, unable to believe what I was seeing. ‘Are you doing this? How are you doing this?’
He also sat up and watched me. I stared him, this stranger with long, brown hair and a raincoat with deep pockets. He leant towards me and said: ‘Magic.’
I kissed him then. The shadow of our bodies flickered upon the tombstones like dancing snakes, and I thought we looked beautiful.
The next day I called in sick at work. Fourth time in ten years. It felt exhilarating. I drove to the lane where he’d parked his van. I knocked on the blue door and when it opened, I smiled and said: ‘Fancy an adventure?’
In the car, he let the snakes loose and they curled around the headrests. The wind blew though the open windows, messing up my hair, and he turned the music up full volume, and for the first time in a long time I felt wide, wide awake.
We drove to a beach, took off our shoes and jumped over the waves. Juan found a pink seashell and he gave it to me. ‘That special kind of regional oyster,’ he said.
We walked along the sand to a seaside town and ate chips on a bench on the pier. We licked our lips and didn’t know whether the salt came from the greasy food in our laps or the breeze blowing in from the sea. The snakes tasted the air and not liking the coolness they found there, buried deep into the pockets of Juan’s coat.
‘How do you feel?’ he asked.
I looked at him. His hair had blown out of his ponytail and was sticking up in the air. The tattoo was close enough for me to see. It was of an apple, red, with leaves attached to the stem. It was beautiful. He was beautiful.
‘I’ve been thinking about what you said,’ I said. ‘You’re right.’
‘About everything. Everything.’
‘You know,’ Juan whispered in my ear. His breathe was warm. ‘I knew the moment I saw you, walking up the steps from the market.’
‘Knew what?’ I whispered back.
‘You looked as though a weight had been lifted from you so suddenly you didn’t know whether you might not float into space.’
That night I couldn’t sleep. I sat by the window and looked at the moon. I thought of the kitchen knives, glinting in the white light. I thought of the van, of driving to the south of France to pick grapes, and then on through Spain, through Morocco, Algeria, Niger, all the way to South Africa to watch the penguins frolic on the rocks along the Western Cape. I imagined waking in a forgotten motel at the edge of a flashy megalopolis, or in a tree house posed sentinel above a forest, or next to a mountain lake to the crunch of snow underfoot.
Just before dawn, I tiptoed out onto the dewy lawn, the grass wet beneath my bare feet. I took an axe from the garden shed. The axe sliced through the dead wood like a knife to flesh and as it fell, the tree groaned; as human a sound I ever heard.
As the sun rose, pink rays and summer mist, I watched a heron tiptoe through the pond.
It was beauty as I’d never seen.