Certainly I had been in the lumber room, the spare room, as we had always called it, many times before, but its contents had never been of urgent interest to me until I was forcibly confined there, by my grandmother, as a punishment for a misdemeanour I do not propose to discuss here. She had caught me at a moment of weakness and we all have those. I was more than unhappy. I was furious. I kicked the skirting board then was relieved to see the scuff came off with spit and a rub of the thumb. I decided to make the best of it and have a look around. Besides the broken and the incomplete, there were lampshades, old curtains, an ironing board and a clothes horse; things calculated to produce only nauseated boredom in a small boy. I began to open the largely empty drawers of the second-best furniture. At the back of one of these in a most unpromising dressing table I found soft grey cloth, neatly folded, wrapped in tissue. I felt over its brass buttons with curiosity. By the date of this incident I had known my grandmother for a long time and I had thought the days when she could surprise me were over. I did away with the tissue paper and found myself with the uniform of a Generalfeldmarschall of the Wehrmacht in my hands. The eagle, the braid, the oak leaves. The uniform was in excellent condition, but it smelled of age and authenticity, of Normandy and Tobruk. In light of her recent behaviour and her possession of this vainglorious uniform I was confident of my grandmother’s true identity. It was a simple matter to go through the pockets, skim the relevant documents and to confirm my suspicion. I turned on my phone to check the facts; author of the classic book on military tactics, Infantry Attacks, distinguished commander of the 7th Panzer Division in the 1940 invasion of France, the third of five children, two younger brothers, one of whom became an opera singer and the other a successful dentist. Yes. It all fell into place. My grandmother was none other than Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox. She was still a charismatic woman, glamorous even and she would have looked splendid in this battledress. According to my calculations she was now 138 years old. She looked it, but had retained her dignity. So, she had not committed suicide in 1944 when implicated in the plot to assassinate the Führer. These old Nazis were devious. She would have some explaining to do. I began to put on the uniform. Not a perfect fit, a little long in the arm, but I felt sure it would make an impression when she finally relented and opened that door.
I am reading Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Centre of the Earth, a book I first read, devoured you might say, as a child. But I am having trouble finishing it now. So many distractions; the news, email, Twitter, the news. Plus the ending is preposterous. Verne has a problem. His three heroes walk thousands of miles below the Earth’s surface. We know at least one of them survives. What is Verne going to do? Describe them walking back? He shoots them out of an erupting Mount Etna, riding on a wooden raft. The voyagers have caused the eruption, implausibly, by setting fire to several barrels of gunpowder, which, even more implausibly, they have carried down there with them. The only casualty is the novel itself. I have the feeling Verne got fed up with writing it. I decide to take it out to the back garden and sit on the bench in the sunshine until I have finished it. Boundary-breaking imagination, or silliness. I had been hoping things would get a little more chthonic than this, but I have come to the wrong place.
I sit where I can look up the garden, put my elbows on the table and stare at the page. To my right and facing me, like unsold seats in a theatre, are the two wooden chairs in which my son used to sit, smoking cigarettes, sometimes in the middle of the night. The odour of his cheap, toxic tobacco has not lingered. I read.
Under these two seats is where I keep the plastic boxes with the rat poison in them; one now empty, one with several of those greasy hexagonal blocks still more or less intact. Nibbled around the edges. We haven’t seen a rat for a little while, but I let those boxes lie and I keep my eyes and ears open.
So I’m aware when the rustling begins to happen. I hope I know what that is. I give it a sidelong glance, not turning my head. It is not easy to see what’s what through the slats of the chairs and the little table that joins them. The woodpile, made up mostly from the sawn-up butterfly bush and off-cuts of the apple tree, sits next to the furthest chair and has slid under it like slow-moving lava from Verne’s volcano. I hope it is a bird, that noise, tossing leaf litter in the air as though it were a playful dog. On a beetle hunt. Not the scurrying of claws.
I calmly put my glasses back on. I take them off to read because I’m too feckless to change the prescription. I can see its rear end, its tail. Feathers, thankfully. A blackbird? I get a brief look at its head. There’s a hint of iridescence there, a cruel beak. Maybe a starling, but odd on its own if so. We get dunnocks under there I know but this is too big.
I can see it’s a blackbird now. A young or female one, or young and female. Brown then but with a speckled breast, just discernible. For crypsis, not display.
The rustling is sporadic. The litter thrown and then the wait, to see what has been disturbed. She cocks her head to one side, to look with one eye, as birds must. I get back to the volcano.
Then a flurry, a scattering, but no alarm call. Has a rat shown up? But no call and as I glance again I see that where my son’s stockinged foot once stood flat as he smoked with left ankle on right knee, statuesque as the spinario, is a snake. A grass snake, of course. I am not frightened. I am delighted. The blackbird had spooked it.
I know about grass snakes. They are not venomous, they live from between fifteen to twenty-five years, can lay up to forty eggs and eat small mammals, amphibians, birds. That is what they say, but it is hard to believe of this long slim phantom. No thicker than a certain kind of necklace, a choker, a torque. It cannot swallow a bird and everything it eats it must swallow whole. Maybe this is a juvenile snake.
It is lovely. Olive-green but with a collar of vivid lemon-yellow. Such a clean animal to come from that dirty place, no speck adhering to it as it writhes away from me, conspicuously silent, into the woodpile. Disappeared before you know it. If I had been engrossed I would not have looked up in time to observe that one sinuous flux of its adventures. It is free. Free to go anywhere, its collar for ornament only, almost in mockery of the very idea of harness, restraint, bit and bridle, service, use. I wish my son were here to see it.
I go inside to look up some pictures of grass snakes, but I cannot reconcile these hard jewel-like static serpents their subtle eyes made of stone with that lissom spectre, that fluid dream creature I had almost missed seeing, that swirled away in a coil of smoke.
I come back later, having finished my book, when things have cooled down a little. Cooled down in the garden anyway; out there civilisation is still in ruins and flames. There is no important harm here. I’m not really waiting for the snake, but it could be present, within a few feet of me, silent and invisible.
robert stone was born in Wolverhampton. He works in a press-cuttings agency in London. He has been a teacher and the foreman of a London Underground station. He has had stories in Stand, Panurge, The Write Launch, Confingo, The Wisconsin Review, Eclectica, Punt Volat, HCE, Heirlock, The Decadent Review and Wraparound South. Micro stories have been published by 5x5, Palm-Sized Press, The Ocotillo Review, Star 82 and Clover & White. He has had a story published in the Nightjar chapbook series. A story is to be included in Salt’s Best British Stories 2020 volume.
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