Shedding Snake Skin
by Tasmin Engelhard
The heavy door scowls down at me, unmoved, unanswered. I feel the snake wake, then uncoil and recoil itself in my stomach. I had promised it that I would finish planning my media project by four o’clock, an hour that is fast approaching. The snake’s scales chafe my insides, ragged nails against flinching skin. I glance back over my shoulder. The motorhome slouches sadly in the driveway, watching me with large, lonesome eyes. I turn back to the door and bang twice more, louder. The snake convulses, angry, anxious to get on with it. I steady myself on the doorframe and attempt to pacify it with some reasoning. It’s not my fault, Mum is making me, she doesn’t value my time, besides this shouldn’t take long. I just have to snap a photo or two of the motorhome, put an ad on gumtree and that’s that. I’ll get some good karma for helping a sad old lady and move briskly on with my life.
“Hello! Katie?” I turn sharply. An old lady waves at me from the steps of the motorhome.
She is shorter than me, with big brown eyes and a pixie cut that reminds me of feathers. “It’s so good to finally meet you Katie, I’m Denise. How are you? Thanks so much for helping me with this.” It suddenly becomes clear to me that I am on the verge of a long and probably mindless conversation. I have to stick to my plan.
“I’m fine, thanks. If you could let me into the motorhome I’ll grab some photos and then be on my way.”
She scoffs, “on my way! Aren’t you just the perfect little business woman!” I feel myself flush, offended. Only the snake understands how busy I am.
Wood panelling and flowery red curtains make the motorhome feel like a cramped cottage. I get to work taking photos, zooming, focusing, and clicking in an almost ferocious manner. Denise follows me around, looking over my shoulder and jabbering into my ear. “You know Katie, I never had kids of my own, Bill and I didn’t want to complicate our perfect happiness. But watching you grow up across the road sometimes made me regret that decision. I can’t believe I had to sell my motorhome to talk to you.” The snake writhes about, tying itself into contorted figure eights.
“Mhmm.” I lean against the kitchen bench and review my pictures. “Just the bedroom is left.” She smiles slowly, watching me with a gentle curiosity.
“Not much of a talker are you?”
I look up from my camera. “Most conversations are a waste of time.” There is an awkward moment of stillness and then suddenly, Denise is laughing, loudly. Her shoulders vibrate up and down, her hands clutch her chest, and hiccupy waves of mirth shake the air. I stare at her. The snake becomes still. Something pulls at the corners of my mouth and I meet Denise’s glittering eyes, feeling myself smile.
It takes her a minute to calm down, but the snake remains still, so I do not worry.
Eventually she asks, “do you think we could sell without photos of the bedroom?”
“No,” Her eyebrows crease together and she suddenly looks very sad. I glance towards the curtain at the back of the motorhome and an edge of apprehension creeps into my voice.
“What’s wrong with the bedroom?” She hesitates, swept up in thought, then stands and pulls aside the pill-balled screen. I freeze, then slowly set the camera down, unsure how to respond.
The walls surrounding the mattress are covered in photos, hundreds of them. Denise and Bill stand on shimmering beaches, swim in inky waterholes, crouch next to pretty flowers and unbothered wildlife. I become aware that what I am seeing is very personal. I avert my eyes.
“I should have taken down the photos, but I couldn’t. This is my favourite place in the world, Bill’s too.” Denise’s eyes are shining. “We used to take a trip every summer, but then he had his stroke.” I begin to study the photos. Denise standing in a field in front of a red sunset.
“We decided we would take one last trip while he could still travel, a full three months around Australia to say goodbye.” Denise and Bill hugging each other on a pier, white flecked waves in the background. “We planned it all, our route, our meals, the music we would listen to.” Bill sitting in this very room, smiling wildly at the camera. “Three days before our departure, he had his second stroke.” The world halts, stilled by that sentence. Even time itself seems to pause, out of respect, or maybe sympathy. And I am here, only here, as I struggle for the right words to say.
She wipes her eyes. “Don’t be, we had our good times while we could. And who knows, maybe sometimes he can still remember them, sitting in that dreary nursing home.”
I take a deep breath, and rally to her poignant cheeriness “Gumtree will do just fine without a bedroom photo.” As the intensity of the present withdraws, the snake returns. I check my watch. It’s four-thirty. I retreat from the bedroom, digging my fingernails into my palms.
“I’m going to head home.” Denise nods from somewhere deep within herself. I pick up my camera. “Goodbye. Denise?” She doesn’t turn.
“I thought about going without him, but I had no one else to go with.” I look at her sloped back, framed by the walls of photos. “Isn’t that sad?”
“Yes.” I immediately wish I had stayed silent. But Denise laughs, the fog clears from her eyes, and she is pulled back to the present.
“I’ll walk you home Katie.”
I sit at my desk, flicking my pencil back and forth. It is five o’clock and I can feel the seconds marching relentlessly by. What does a Slice of Life even mean? My brainstorm remains empty except for: Dog’s Beach Day. The snake rears up. I tense my stomach muscles, trying to make it go away, to tell it it isn’t helping, but that only intensifies its anger. It begins writhing, hissing, reminding me how I took Media in an attempt to make friends, how I spent hours daydreaming about this partner project, only to be left alone, the extra in a class with odd numbers, how I would always be that extra, that leftover. I tear up my brainstorm. Suddenly, through frustrated tears, I see a notification: missed call from Denise. The snake’s frenetic frenzy subsides as I raise the phone to my ear and listen to the message.
“Hello Katie, It’s Denise, I just had a fantastic idea for your movie! It could be a story about the friendship between a special schoolgirl and her old neighbour. People like to watch things that tell us everyone, including ourselves, are capable of finding and deserving human connection. I think we could manage some moments of genuine human connection. Don’t you?”
She laughs. “Also, I’d love the company.” I take the phone slowly from my ear. The snake is quiet as I return to that afternoon in the motorhome. I relive the way Denise had laughed, leaning against the walls of her beloved motorhome, eyes squeezed closed. I have never made anyone laugh like that, ever. I think of her photo room, a kaleidoscope of memories, that she will have to pull apart one day. I stand, raised by an uncontainable excitement, an incredible idea. I will make a film about a motorhome, and its last ride around Australia, about the spirited old lady who sits in the passenger seat, pointing excitedly to the landmarks that dot her happiest days and the teenager in the driver’s seat, whose world she widens. I don’t call Denise back. Instead I run across the road to her house and motorhome, forgetting to look both ways, forgetting to budget my time accordingly, and forgetting about the snake in my stomach. This time the door is answered right away.