So I’ve had to bring the snake to the vet’s. Dr. Belcher doesn’t usually do exotics, he told me this morning – quite rudely – when I telephoned to ask his opinion about why Sid might have regurgitated his mouse. “Mrs. Dimmock,” he said, all high and mighty, “if you want my professional opinion, you’ll have to bring the animal in so I can examine him.” He wasn’t so stand-offish when Wally used to hold his place in the queue or save him a seat every Wednesday morning at the Senior Screening. Then it was all ‘hail fellow, well-met’ and chatting and laughing. I shall remind him this used to be Wally’s pet, when the right moment presents itself.
The waiting room is dark and smelly and wood-paneled and the linoleum’s none too clean. You’d think he’d renovate or at least keep the place clean enough to smell fresh. With the money he charges, he must be rolling in cash. That antiseptic he uses is horrible. Like hospitals.
And then, oh blast it, in walks Miss Ironsides from the pet shop in the village. Now it’ll be gossip gossip and I’ll have a headache in five minutes flat. Her old Labrador collapses on the floor and pants like it’s high summer.
“Mrs. D!” she booms. “How nice to see you! I’m just stopping in for Blackie’s meds.” She plops herself down next to me. “Oof! Wouldn’t say no to a breather myself.”
It’s true that people look like their dogs. Smiley face, short black hair, grey hairs sprouting above the muzzle. I told her last week when she button-holed me in the post office that dog’s too fat. He needs more exercise. It grieves me when people don’t take proper care of their pets. She got all offended, as if I said she was too fat, and she is on the plump side, but that’s not what I meant. Put my foot in it again, Wally.
“Did you hear about the brouhaha at the cinema this morning?” she says.
Blackie groans and rolls out flat on his side. His elbows are scabby, they need oil rubbed on them.
“They gave us all a letter to read before next Wednesday’s Screening.”
We went to the Senior Screening religiously, Wally and me, every Wednesday morning. It was the highlight of our week. Wally loved everything; classics, documentaries, even those modern art films that make no sense to me. It was a David Attenborough film that got him back into snakes; Attenborough in a face mask, making a cobra spit at him, daft apath. Took Wally right back to his childhood, snake-hunting in the Scottish Highlands, he said. He never caught one; they’re all too quick, wild snakes, unless they’re sick, in which case you don’t want them anyway.
Since Wally passed, I can’t muster the enthusiasm for the cinema. The thought of it’s all too much, especially with waiting for the bus and that long journey.
Miss Ironsides’ eyes are round. “They accused us all of ‘juvenile behavior’. Elsie Farthing’s really on the warpath. Says it’s unacceptable and she’s going to have it out with them.”
I snort. “Elsie Farthing! That windbag.” While Wally chatted with anyone and everyone, I’d hunt down the best seats. That was no walk in the park. We liked to be exactly in the middle and so did Elsie Farthing so I had to look lively. I always took my umbrella. Sometimes things got ugly.
Now Miss Ironsides peers into my crate. “Who’s this, then?” She jumps back, then giggles. “Oh, I forgot you had a snake! Is it venomous?”
“No,” I say, “he’s a milk snake and keep your voice down, if you don’t mind, or you’ll scare him. He’s not used to noise. He’s not well.”
She sits back and I wonder if I’ve offended her again. I always do that. “You speak without thinking, Agnes,” Wally always used to say. “You mean well but your shoe’s a size fifteen.”
“Mrs. Dimmock?” The vet’s assistant comes out. “The doctor will see you now.”
“Be seeing you soon then, Mrs. D.,” says Miss Ironsides. “Perhaps we’ll have a nice glass of wine in the pub one night.”
I don’t answer. Not to be rude, especially as she’s a spinster and fairly new to the village, but I’m not much of a pub-goer. The noise is too much. Two years of living alone since Wally passed makes you appreciate silence. I can’t be bothered with people who jabber on. Wally and I talked, of course we did – when we had something to say, not just to fill the silence.
Here’s Dr. Belcher. He takes the cage from me. “Good afternoon, Mrs Dimmock. And how’s this little fella doing? Still not eating?”
“Don’t bump him,” I say, following him into his office. “Could it be early hibernation? The cage clips onto his tank and I keep the temperature cool in case he wants to hibernate but isn’t it too early for him to hibernate? He won’t wake up.”
He opens the cage and peers in. “Did you try warming him up?”
“Yes, but he still didn’t move, even when I put the heating pad on ‘high’ and sprinkled leaves on him.”
He lifts Sid in the air, all five feet of him. Sid’s slim red body with its white, circular stripes hangs limp in his hands. He peers at Sid’s closed eyes, pushes back each lid in turn, then presses slowly with a thumb around his neck. “Hm.”
Fear sends my stomach for a loop. “What?”
“I’m afraid he’s dead.” Dr. Belcher’s white eyebrows look like bristles on a broom. He lays Sid on the stainless steel counter. Sid lies flat and still.
“But hibernation looks that way, doesn’t it? The heart rate slows down and- ”
“Mrs. Dimmock.” He comes to take my arm. “Irene. Come and sit. You’ve gone quite pale -”
I pull away. “They live for 15, 20 years! And Sid’s only eight…” My hands are shaking. My face is hot and my throat is full of cotton wool. “Wally adapted this cage specially. It clips onto a glass tank with thermostats and a heat mat, the tank always 84 degrees and the cage is 70. It’s temperature changes they don’t like. Wally knew everything about snakes…”
“If you like,” Dr. Belcher says, touching Sid’s tail with his thick fingers. “I can dispose -”
“You remember Wally. He used to save you a seat sometimes at the cinema.”
Dr. Belcher lays Sid back into his cage, winding him carefully into circles. “That he did. We had some laughs, I remember.”
“He loved Sid,” I see Wally’s coffin being lowered into the near-frozen ground as if it was last week instead of almost two years and I can smell the leather of my good black gloves and see my breath making clouds in the November air.
Black spots flash before my eyes, my mouth waters and heat rolls up my chest to my face. I’m going to throw up. I squeak, “Send me the bill,” and run out of the office, through the waiting room, into the brilliant daylight.
Outside I lean against the brick building, my heart banging and pounding double time. I take deep breaths. The knocking starts to slow and the heat in my face stops prickling. Oh, the fresh air! It’s priceless.
Miss Ironsides appears beside me, brandishing a piece of paper. “I found the letter! Listen to this: ‘Pensioners have been harassing and intimidating staff, saving seats for friends and queue jumping. And concerns have been raised about customers abusing the complimentary tea and biscuits. Guests have been known to line multiple pockets of clothing and Tupperware boxes on the basis they are free. This embarrasses staff and is not fair on those guests who are left with nothing.’ How about that then?”
I lean forward, hands on knees, to concentrate on breathing. She bends down to look at me. “You all right, dear?” Her face turns sorrowful. “Oh, my lovey, is it your snake? I’m so sorry.”
The ground gets blurry and she rubs my arm kindly. “Fascinating creatures, they are,” she says gently. “Not an easy pet.”
I straighten up, seeing Wally, the way he’d held the six inch baby Sid that very first time, wearing Kevlar gloves, just in case. Sid kept twisting and Wally never held him again. “It can’t feel nice. I just like watching him,” he said. “It’s magic, the way he moves.”
Miss Ironsides gives a sigh. “Wally asked me once if I would ever stock frozen mice and such and I said I’d never encourage people to own snakes. It takes time and trouble to be a good herpetologist. People think it’s easy but it takes a lot of specialized care. You can’t give a snake away when you get fed up; people don’t want them. Not like kittens. I bet you gave him a wonderful life.” She gives Blackie a pat. “More care than Blackie, even, with his dodgy thyroid and his scabby elbows.” She scratches his ear. “We’ve tried everything, haven’t we, Blackie? Even baby oil doesn’t help.”
Pushing away from the wall, I think, well, perhaps she’s not so bad, Miss Ironsides, even if she does talk too much. “That’s what I always say! If you’re going to have pets, look after them! Lord knows, I didn’t know what to do with Hissing Sid when Wally passed, but I found out. Check the temperature, humidity, clean the bedding, change the water, it’s quite a list, every day. But I enjoyed it. He was Wally’s snake, you know.”
She puts a hand under my elbow and we begin to walk. “Why don’t you come with me to the Senior Screening next Wednesday?” she says.
The wind blows and leaves twist off the trees, golden brown and crisp. It won’t be long before they’re all gone, and we’ll have bare branches and it’ll be freezing cold at the bus stop. Even down here in Devon where it’s supposed to be mild, we get bitter winters.
“I’ll pick you up, if you like,” she says. “They’re showing ‘Ghost Town, whatever that is.”
I don’t like ghost stories much, but a ride in the car might be nice. See the leaves before they’re all off the trees. And she’s probably a bit lonely. That’s why she always stops to chat when she sees me. “All right,” I say. “Let’s see if we can beat Elsie Farthing to the biscuits.”