Published 2017 by MDDL Publishing, Exeter.
Copyright © Martin Dinham, 2017
The moral rights of the author, Martin Dinham BA (First-class Hons), are asserted and no part may be reproduced without the author’s permission.
This short story is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
More information about the author and access to his tips-for-writers blog, Poetry-Verses-Prose, are available on his website:
With thanks to Jane and Henry for their support, help and patience.
Front cover design: cropped and manipulated images from for which the author gives thanks.
Saul and Jez descend from East Prawle village in the morning haze. The Atlantic stretches without horizon. Sky, ocean, as one.
‘It means watching place.’
‘What does?’ Jez asks.
‘Prawle. Anglo Saxon. I looked it up.’
She raises her eyebrows, but says nothing.
He looks about him. Banks and rocky outcrops are bright with bluebells
and sea pinks. They dance in the soft breeze with the whites of cow parsley and daisies around dark islands of thick yellow tipped gorse. Young ferns are beginning to unfurl.
With the bitter wind of the last few weeks replaced by a gentle southerly,
Jez suggested the walk. Prawle to Lannacombe, the final section of the South Devon Coast Path for both. ‘The last bit,’ she had said. ‘What then?’
Magenta flowers on thin stems border the path as they come alongside a
shallow cliff, the ocean beneath washing over a fresh rock fall. Saul is struggling to recall the flower’s name when Jez shouts.
He turns and follows the line of her finger to a cluster of quivering
‘It’s still there,’ she hisses.
Reaching down, he hesitates. The exasperation in her voice bites first.
‘Oh, you’re such a wimp these days.’
Two drops of blood, a centimetre apart, inflate on the fleshy web of skin between his right thumb and index finger. To the rustle and swish of something moving away in the undergrowth, he stares at the expanding bubbles of red.
‘Christ!’ The bubbles burst and fall to a lengthening eleven. He thinks of
of the photograph. ‘Christ,’ he repeats.
‘Oh Saul, don’t be a baby. It was only a grass snake.’
Her eyebrows arch and her painted lips pucker. ‘Diddum’s want to turn
Shaking his head, he wipes the blood away with a tissue and tries to
ignore the liver spots that pattern his flesh.
She skips away, elegant and sure-footed. Just ten years between them
but, at forty-eight, her blonde hair is still rich and thick and those long legs still drag men’s eyes down like an anchor. Women too warm to her vitality, her flirtatiousness, her sense of life to be lived. He spent near sleepless nights when they first met, five years before, anticipating the brush and linger of her; gloried in the envy of friends and the renewed interest of other women. They all asked the same question and, as he and Jez lay tangled and breathless on one of those first nights, he asked her: ‘Why me?’ ‘I feel safe with you,’ she said. ‘And you make me laugh.’
It felt tenuous. He was no hero, no Jack Dee; his gloom no affectation. A
mismatch of perception and reality to add to the all too obvious physical differences.
He used the name from the very beginning. At first as a defence when he
thought she was mocking him. Another admirer to be teased and discarded, he had imagined her thinking. Later, because he saw in the faces of her friends how they refocused and re-evaluated him when he used it, regardless of Jez’s protests. It was habit now.
Taking off his cap, he feels thin damp strands of hair cool against his
scalp. Looking up, he sees her grinning.
‘You should shave it off!’ she shouts.
He pushes the strands back. ‘You sure it was a grass snake?’
Two young men approaching from the other direction take her attention.
He imagines her easy smile, hears her laugh, puts on his cap and catches up.
The taller one smirks, ‘Watch out for adders, mate.’
The second sniggers and Jez reddens. Saul walks away.
‘Only a joke,’ the man calls after him.
Catching up, Jez puts her arm in Saul’s. ‘They’re just lads.’
‘So, why flirt?’
‘Then why make me a joke?’
Pulling his arm away, he walks on.
She follows. ‘They told me the path was closed further along. I just said
that’ll probably suit you because of the bite.’
Stepping in front, she turns to face him. He reads amusement in her eyes,
feels foolish and attempts a smile. She retakes his arm.
Climbing a steep section of path, he pauses for breath and looks down at gulls circling below the cliff. Two squabble on a ledge, one trying to land, the other fighting it away with flapping wings and jabbing beak.
A ‘call me’ text she deleted so quickly the previous weekend haunts his
thoughts. He thinks back to the photograph from last summer: Jez stretched out at Boveysand in a black bikini, eyes closed, the beach crowded, the wide-angled lens taking in the turned heads of old and young. He and Jez had laughed about it. But yesterday, while editing and cropping, he could not resist using Photoshop to remove those closed eyes, that elegant nose, her straight shoulder-length wheat-blonde hair, to leave only those full lips on that oval face. It was those lips, bright-painted against her pale-as-paper skin, they advertised the glossy promise of infidelity for the asking.
He shakes his head at the thought, at his actions. Looking down at his
hand, he spits, rubs away the bloodstain and determines to delete the image before she finds it.
He remembers. ‘Bloody Cranesbill.’
Approaching a fork in the path, they see their way blocked by a padlocked
wooden gate, a crude note nailed to it: No Access Beyond This Point Due To Landslip. Saul removes his jacket and sits on a rock while Jez checks the map to see where the second path leads.
A man, about Saul’s age, wearing a wide brimmed hat and shorts too
brief and too wide, appears at the other side of the gate. He lifts a large rucksack off his back and passes it over before hoisting himself up and over. Gathering his belongings, he acknowledges Jez before looking down at Saul, nursing his hand.
‘I got bitten by a grass snake a few miles back.’
‘That’s odd, they don’t usually bite. Are you sure it was a grass snake?’
Saul gestures toward Jez. ‘I didn’t see it, she did.’
Jez frowns, but confirms it was a grass snake.
‘Well,’ he says, hauling the rucksack back onto his shoulder, ‘it certainly looks sore.’
The man disappears around a bend in the path and Jez kneels beside
Saul, taking hold of his bitten hand. Wincing, he pulls away and stands up.
Jez stands too. ‘Why didn’t you tell me it hurt sweetheart? Do you want to head back?' It’s a long detour if we go around. I’m sorry if—‘
‘I’ll be fine,’ he snaps before checking himself, softening his tone and
adding, ‘Maybe the path is passable after all. He came from there. Go on ahead. See what you find.’
Urinating into the shrinking shade of the hedge before following, he finds
Jez fiddling with her phone―watches her quickly turn it off.
‘Mr “Call Me” again, is it?’
‘Oh stop it. I was just texting Sophie about tonight. How are you feeling?’
‘Let’s have a look.’
She is gentler this time.
‘Does your tongue feel swollen?’
‘Don’t feel faint or anything?’
‘I think we should turn back.’
‘Be a shame not to complete the walk if the path is open.’
They climb the gate and press on until the gable-end of a large, red-
bricked Victorian country house appears, the curtains drawn. A police-ribbon of blue and white chevrons flaps around the rough granite wall surrounding it.
‘Looks all wrapped up like a birthday present,’ Jez says.
Following the chevrons around, he find the front gate leaning over the
‘More like a suicide ready to jump, if you ask me.’
Orange plastic fencing sags across the last of the path. Thirty feet below,
waves batter a large mound of loose earth littered with small trees poking out at unnatural angles.
Jez takes a picture of the redundant gate and turns, smiling. Saul’s
stomach churns, his throat thickening and filling with the taste of iron.
‘I don’t feel right.’
‘Let’s get back to the car.’
Climbing back over the padlocked gate he turns and asks, ‘Be honest,
Jez, are you certain it was a grass snake?’ His hand hurts and the thick feeling in his throat has spread to his tongue. He imagines the snake there, fat on his discomfort.
‘I think so, it didn’t hang around.’
‘You think so?’
‘No! Yes, I mean, I'm sure it—Oh stop it, you’re confusing me.’
‘Fucking hell, Jez!’
Turning away, he begins walking faster but then remembers something
on TV about someone bitten by the ‘deadliest snake in Africa.’ He remembers the man walked slowly back to his Land Rover to slow the flow of poison to his heart. Saul slows down.
‘I’m going to take it easy. You go ahead.’
‘Look at your arm!’
Raised white dots cover his right arm. With the pain in his hand, he had
not noticed the tingling until now. He runs his fingers over the albino spots before turning to Jez.
‘Go ahead―please. I’ll catch you up.’
She protests but he insists.
‘Are you sure?’
He nods, desperate to rid himself of his poisoner―for that is how he
thinks of her now―so he can be what he is: scared.
She is out of sight when his stomach knots, the metallic taste in his
mouth washed away by the acrid vomit of half-digested egg exploding onto the path. Bent double, he retches again before he can take a breath. Gasping, he uses the bloody tissue from his hand to wipe his mouth.
From a back pocket, he takes out his phone: no signal. His hand trembles.
He is shaking. Walking faster, he takes one of the many tracks that break away to avoid Jez and find a different face, and help.
Head down and lost in dark thoughts, he almost steps into thin air. A
wave below strikes and retreats before he regains his balance. Breathless, he backs away from the cliff edge and turns right, up another track, hoping for a short cut back to Prawle.
The way narrows and dense gorse either side closes in, thorns grabbing
at his jeans until he can push through no more. Buried thigh-high in a sharp, yellow-tipped sea of it, he looks around for a way out.
He flushes as his words echo, turns and forces his way back until a path
‘Are you alright?’ Jez calls out, heading back toward him.
‘I was looking for a shortcut. I got confused.’
‘Stay on the main path. I’ll get help.’
‘No! Just go back and wait in the car.’ He forces himself to sit. ‘Look, I just
need some space―please.’
How long, he has no idea but, lying in the long grass, the nausea has eased. So too the tingling in his arm and the pain in his hand. He watches a lark flit and stay, each movement as sharp and separate as the notes of its staccato song. Swifts swoop and arch and he imagines angels. Only the gulls seem to notice him, screeching like school-kids picking on a new boy.
Heavy eyed, his thoughts turn on Jez’s constant slights, the oblique looks,
the evasive answers, the time she takes painting her lips, the dresses bright and low-cut, the perfume and the ‘stay-overs’ with Sophie. Worse, the late night returns, tiptoeing on the stairs before the slow creak of the bedroom door followed by the soft fall of her dress and the click of a bra strap—the cool night air on his back as she raises and slithers under the sheets.
Waking to a low throbbing roar, his eyes close instinctively against the
sting of flying debris. Using his hand as a shield, he reopens them. Grass and blossoms are rioting and, for a moment, he sees Jez’s lips descending from the sky. White letters G-DAAT come into focus on the blood-red helicopter.
His head clears. ‘Bitch,’ he mutters as the paramedics approach.
In the silence, a young nurse fiddles with a chart at the end of the bed where Saul lies. A curtain, separating him from a man crying out for a bedpan, parts and a young doctor enters. He winks at the nurse before turning to Saul.
‘Good news. Tests all clear.’
‘I’m really sorry doctor, I told—’
‘But the nausea?’ Jez, by Saul’s shoulder, interrupts. ‘And he was acting so
‘Anxiety attack, I expect. And the swelling on his hand is already easing.
‘What about the rash?’
‘Most likely nettles.’ Addressing Saul, he tells him, ‘You can get dressed
and go when you’re ready.’
The doctor and nurse leave.
Saul whispers between clenched teeth, ‘I said I was fine. Why couldn’t you
just wait in the car like I told you?’
‘You didn’t look fine, sweetheart. And then you went all strange. I thought
it must’ve been an adder after all; what with the rash as well.’
‘And what do you know about adder bites?’
‘I looked it up. That’s what I was doing when you caught up with me on
‘You never said.’
Swollen eyed, she tells him, ‘I knew you’d be angry. And anyway, you
didn’t have the symptoms then.’
‘It’s just another of your games to make me look small, isn’t it?’
The man in the next bed has stopped shouting for the bedpan—but Saul
can’t stop. He lays out the evidence: the ‘call me’ text, the hours in front of the mirror, the nights away, the skimpy dresses—the creeping home in the early hours stinking of sex.
She crumbles at that last remark.
‘Oh Saul, please.’
‘Yes, stinking of it!’
She climbs on the bed and curls around him, squeezing hard, crushing
his face against her breasts. She says she loves him but he hears nothing but his blood pumping; feels nothing but her pity. Pity, a word without respect, the guilty’s word for contempt, the toss of a coin to a beggar. Was he to be beggared? he asks himself.
Climbing over a style set into a stone wall, Saul makes no effort to help the girl following. They look down from a wheat field onto the Erme estuary. He stares at the wide and empty beach. It was easy. Sophie was sure Kevin, her thin, eager to please husband, was having an affair, too. Maybe with Jez? Saul suggested. No, Sophie insisted, but, with the seed sown, she needed comfort.
‘It’s always quiet here,’ he tells her. ‘Let’s cut off the path by that hedge.’
She reaches up and kisses him on the cheek. ‘We’ll be seen.’
‘Not at the end of the field we won’t. Hey, look at that.’
On a stalk, black as patent leather with bright yellow stripes, a giant
dragonfly as thick and longer than his middle finger, is busy at something. He kneels close.
‘It’s a Tiger Dragonfly. You can see its jaws working. Christ, it’s eating a
She crouches by him, whispering, ‘Why don’t the bee sting it?’
He looks at her. Short hair reveals a soft face with no obvious bone
structure. She is small and attractive, but no more than many girls in their late twenties. It is the brief prettiness of youth and Saul has seen it fade many times. She, he thinks, is not going to turn heads in her forties like Jez, her best friend.
‘You wouldn’t say that if it stung you,’ he tells her.
The ground is muddy between the hedge and field but, at the far end, Saul finds a clearing of grass. He sits down and beckons Sophie. ‘This will
She kicks him in the leg. ‘The grass I mean, silly.’
They lie quietly for a moment and Saul pulls at an ear of wheat. It comes
away and he examines the marshalled grains. Pulling one off, he nips the husk away and bites into it. He takes another grain and sits up.
‘Open your mouth.’
‘What is it?’
‘Wheat. Open your mouth.’
He places it on her tongue.
‘Can you really eat it?’
‘Don’t suck, bite.’
She squeezes her eyes together and he hears the crack.
‘It’s hard and it don’t taste of nothing.’
‘Easy mistake to make. Now, where’s the honey, little bee?’
She giggles and lets his hands wander. Nearby, a bird takes flight.
On top, the breeze on his bare backside, Saul feels exposed and absurd.
He pulls Sophie over so they are side on and he can see about him. Light and flexible, she’s almost not there, he thinks as they perform beneath drooping heads of wheat.
‘Am I squashing your leg?’ he asks.
He kisses her ear and tells her: ‘Fuck them both.’
Jez lounges on the sofa with a glass of Pinot. Saul is shaking his head. Without her lipstick, she looks curiously fragile to him.
‘It’s not even noon. Why not call Sophie and get yourself out?’
‘She won’t answer the phone.’
‘I’ve told you, I don’t know why!’
Rising, she comes toward him but he backs away. ‘I have to go.’
She bursts into tears. ‘What’s wrong with me?’
‘Don’t be silly. Why not get your roots done and cheer yourself up. I’ve
never seen you so grey.’
Unlocking the Saab with Jez’s sobs still audible from the house, he
recalls the morning in bed, after rejecting her advances, gazing at the track of her spine perfectly set above the stretch of her long thighs, and his surprise at the tired ripple of skin where they pressed together.
Sitting up in the backseat, he buttons his fly before wiping condensation from the rear window. Out beyond Sophie’s old Corsa, a black bank of cloud sits like a hillside over the Exe valley below. Shades of green divided by the steel-grey serpent curve of the river Exe fade and disappear into the murk. Sophie is struggling to get into her tights beside him.
‘Leave them off,’ he suggests.
‘And what? Wave them in the air and say “Look Kev, just been shagging
Saul opens the car door and steps out. ‘That’d be interesting.’
‘I don’t like it when you talk like that.’
A helicopter passes overhead and he looks up. The wind fidgets about
him, anticipating the approaching storm. Leaves on swaying branches sibilate a dissonant uncertainty in the changing currents. What a mess, he thinks.
The words slip out: ‘I’m sorry,’
‘Nothing. Did I tell you I was bitten by a snake once?’
‘Lots around here. I was taken to hospital in an air ambulance.’
‘Yes, Jez called them—saved me, I suppose.’
Sophie leans forward to the open car door and looks down at the grass.
'You’re scaring me.’
‘There was one there the day you and I were in that wheat field.’
‘No! Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘I should have.’
Stepping from the car, Sophie takes the collar of his jacket and tries to
pull him toward her, but he resists, allowing only the faintest of kisses.
‘Better get home,’ he tells her.
‘In a hurry to get back to Betsy, are we?’
‘Jez’s not herself.’
‘I’ve told her not to let you call her that but she don’t listen. Makes her
sound like a—you know.’
She drives away and he reaches for his phone. It is not there. Finding it in
the rear footwell of the Saab, he texts, I Can’t do it any more, Sophie. Sorry. The message jumps to join a chain of others, each ending with a line of xs. He presses menu and ‘delete all’. It asks if he is sure. He is.
Driving home down a narrow country lane with high stone hedges thick
with moss and roots, his phone buzzes and he looks down to the screen, expecting Sophie’s name. He sees Jez’s. He opens the dialogue box: I’m home. We need to talk.
There are no kisses. No little crosses.
The Saab clips the hedge and jumps. He grabs the wheel.
Approaching the drive, he can see her at the door holding her phone, hair washed, lips painted and eyes large and blue shadowed.
‘You look great!’ he tells her, stepping out of the car and ignoring the
muddied and scuffed front tyre.
She presses answerphone and loudspeaker, and he hears himself
talking to Sophie; hears her inane giggle and the rhythmic slop of it. It goes on and on, like a slow handclap.
‘My, Saul, you’re blushing. Didn’t you mean to press speed-dial?’
‘Where are you going?’ he asks as she walks past him to her Fiat.’ He
grabs her arm. ‘Not Kevin’s?’
Pulling away, she climbs into the car, but he stops her from closing the
‘Why? Scared what he might do?’
‘It’s not Sophie’s fault. I told her Kevin was having an affair with you.’
‘He’s a baby!’
Her eyes focus on something behind him and Saul turns to see Angie,
their neighbour, arranging dry flowers on her windowsill. Looking back to Jez, he asks her not to shout.
‘But the “call me” text?’
‘The only ones having an affair, as far as I know, are you and Sophie.’
‘I told you—it was nothing.’
‘Then why so evasive?’
It begins to rain. She pushes his hand from the door and closes it, starts
the engine but makes no move to put it in gear. The window winds down.
‘Why?’ he repeats.
‘I’m the guilty one, am I?’
She shrugs. ‘I kissed someone. It was stupid. I had too much wine.’
‘But he knew your number.’
‘He got it from Sophie. I was just flirting. She’s an idiot.’
He looks around to tell Angie to fuck off but she is not there. He turns
back to Jez. ‘But why flirt? Why kiss him?’
She pauses. ‘Look at me Saul, I’m nearly forty-nine. I don’t want to be
forty-nine. I’m scared of awful-shitty-forty-nine!’ Looking at her face in the rear view mirror, she sighs, ‘Guess I’m as stupid as Sophie.’
He tries a smile. ‘Rubbish guess. And it would be a shame to ruin things
for her because of me. After all, who else but Kevin would have her?’
‘My God, is that compassion?’
‘I wanted us to work, you know.’
‘It was working! Now it’s just wasted years. Wasted!’
‘I thought you were going to leave me.’
She puts the car in gear. ‘Well, diddums, you got your wish.’
And with that she pulls away.
On the kitchen blackboard, a chalked note asks him to forward post to her mother’s. It has been there since she left. Seeing it as he waits for the kettle to boil at the start of another bleak weekend, Saul imagines Jez helping her mother with a jigsaw—a weekly routine of theirs. The pieces brought them together when the words ran out, she once told him. Blue-tacked below the note is the photoshopped picture of Jez in her bikini with her facial features removed, but for those lips. He printed it off and put it there last night after she ignored yet another text.
Following the message trail back to better days and old exchanges about
a broken dishwasher, shopping lists, birthday reminders, holiday and dinner plans—and words of love, he had been drawn to his laptop, trawling through photos of her; of them. When he came to the manipulated picture, he got angry; with himself, with her, he was not sure which, but she was crushing him, tormenting him with her absence. Grabbing a bottle of Merlot, he had acted on impulse.
He feels his belly tighten at the memory.
‘What do you want,’ Angie had said.
Lifting the bottle, he told her, ‘I thought you might want some company.’
‘Come on, you were flirty enough before.’
‘And so? You think you can use me like you used B?’
‘Jez and I—‘
‘I know why you call her that.’
‘It’s better than Betsy or—Beeeee.’
‘For who? You know, you used to be funny. Now, you’re just creepy.’
‘Been talking has she?’
Taking the photo off the board, he places it face down on the worktop
and tries to push the memory aside of the door closing in his face. On the internet, he finds and orders the jigsaw he wants.
A few dead leaves and a single apple still hang on the tree at the bottom of the garden where Kevin stands. Saul apologises for not being in touch and thanks him for coming.
‘Why’d she go?’ Kevin asks.
Before Saul answers, he lays a large towel on the lawn. ‘I stopped making her laugh. Everything all right with you and Sophie?’
‘Not great.’ He looks down at the camera in his hand. ‘Why this?’
‘I want her back.’
Clearing leaves from her decking, Angie stares over the fence at Saul, now
He nods. ‘Hi.’
‘Creepy,’ she calls out.
Kevin begins to explain, but she turns away.
‘What’s wrong with her?’
‘Just take the picture, Kevin.’
‘Just take the picture.’
Taking the jigsaw that arrived that morning and scanning the original photograph on the cover into Photoshop, Saul makes the alterations and sends the edited image to Myphotopuzzle. They call him about copyright. He pleads, talks to the manager, begs the manager’s manager, embellishes the truth and adds a few lies about the heartbreak of his non-existent daughters. Two days later the deliverywoman finds him in the back garden, feeding a small fire with a photograph. She points up at the apple tree, now bare but for the single fruit.
‘Won’t let go, will it.’
‘I’ll get it down for you, if you want,’ he tells her.
She passes over the parcel. ‘It looks past its best to me. Sign here.’
A week passes. In bed, his thoughts turn in on themselves as he tries to sleep. And then, he’s there, watching Jez’s mother call Jez over.
‘I’m fed up with this jigsaw, there’s some pieces that don’t fit the picture
on the box.’
‘I’m sure they do, Mum. Where’s it from?’
‘Came this morning; your Auntie Helen, probably.’
Jez lifts up the box: ‘Snakes of the British Isles. Yuk!’
Slowly, as her mother prepares tea, Jez extends the islands of images her
mother put together. The grass snake in the left top corner with note below: The commonest … The adder bottom right: The only poisonous… In the other corners, the smooth snake and the slow worm. In the centre, piece by piece, a soft-bellied man stretched out on a lawn in white speedos emerges. There a pair of eyes; here a nose, blue with cold; a mouth with the hint of a smile—and below, the words: The largest snake in the British Isles. Like adders, the male is normally monogamous, and this one promises to be if given another chance.
‘Sherry, dear?’ her mother calls.
Jerking awake to the sound of his mobile, Saul finds a dental appointment
reminder and slumps in disappointment. Dressing, he looks out at the frosted garden and sees the apple, crow pecked but still clinging on.
By the front door lie promotions for Morrisons and Domino Pizzas, and
between them a blue envelope with familiar writing. He opens it. Inside, on the front of the card, a cartoon dinosaur with a toothy grin and the words: Have a monster birthday, Son. Not until tomorrow, he mutters. A twenty-pound note falls out and he picks it up before placing the card, unopened and unread, by the TV. Late for the dentist he is in a rush and knows, well enough, his mother loves him; knows there will be a line of shaky kisses from her. But, if he were to read it he would find a Ps: I bumped into Betsy yesterday at Clinton Cards. She looks well. Laughed when she saw this and said you were a monster for sure (you are). Said she was card hunting too!
Angie is outside, putting a green recycling bin by the kerb. Walking back
to her door, she ignores him.
‘Come on, Angie, I was just…’
‘Treat her better this time,’ she tells him.
Too stunned to answer, he gets in his car and drives off—but he is
smiling, beaming, the misery that had engulfed him since the day she left, gone. At the top of the road, he can’t help himself. He stops, takes out his phone and texts. Jez I… He deletes and starts again. Betsy I… But he can’t do it. The poison, his insecurity, dormant without her, is already bubbling up within him. He cares too much and believes too little in himself. Pride and fear, love and doubt, the hunger to master, he begins again, armour intact: Jez, my gorgeous Bee, I’m so happy I could eat you.
Martin’s first novel, CONJURING THE BLOOD, a terrorist thriller and redemption tale, is available on amazon.