Each time the bandages came off, Vincent saw them. The doctors would hold mirrors so that he could see their stitches, their careful grafts – the patchwork of skin – and each time Vincent would nod and thank them for their wonderful work. But the snakes were always there. Perhaps they moved or hid a little deeper but they burned with as fiery an ache as he had ever felt. And he never forgot them. Not for a moment.
When he arrived home he would report faithfully to Annamora that things were going well. That the doctors were happy so he was happy. He would nod that he was lucky, and that soon he’d feel just the same as ever he did.
“And you don’t hurt, pet, do you? Not so much anymore?”
Annamora was pouring a mug of tea for Vincent before she refilled her own cup. She’d been waiting for more than an hour for him to come home – this appointment had seemed to be unusually long.
“It’s fine. Don’t worry.” He longed to rub his back, to soothe the ache that festered there, but he couldn’t now. For a moment, he wondered if he ever could.
Vincent gulped his tea. He was thirsty after the long walk. He knew he was later than he should have been but he hadn’t been able to face the questions and the caring and the fussing so soon after the appointment. He’d needed some time. Some room. To move from one person to the next. From the prodding to the probing.
“Now, Vincent …”
Here it was – the investigation. About the surgery. About the injuries. Maybe even about the accident.
Annamora picked up the folded newspaper from beside her chair.
“Now, Vincent, what’s an eight letter word for ‘procrastinate’?”
“Oh, uh … um …”
“I think it’s ‘swither’ – I’m putting ‘swither’.”
“Like ‘swithering and dithering’ – that’s procrastinating.”
“Oh, uh, I’m not sure that lots of people say that and um ….” He paused and counted “I think ‘swither’’s only seven letters anyway.”
“Not if you spell it with two ‘t’s. … There, that fits!” Annamora looked up, triumphant. “Crosswords are really my thing, you know. I’ve always been able to finish them. Well, I suppose we’ve all got to be good at something, don’t we?”
Vincent couldn’t help grinning. “I think you’re good at things beyond crosswords.”
“Oh, what a lovely thing to say. You’re such a dear. Maybe I should add herb omelettes to my list – what do think?”
“Sure,” Vincent nodded.
“Oh, and I’ve got my zephyr of course.”
“My zephyr.” She stood up and went to the window. She pushed it open and leant out. It was almost dark outside now and Vincent watched the internal light fade to a fog around her face. Annamora breathed – deeply, searchingly. When she turned back inside, her eyes were just opening.
“No, not there. Not yet. … But it will be. My zephyr always comes around again. That’s what it does … that’s what it is.” She turned and looked at Vincent. She met his vaguely quizzical expression with a smile. “It’s a breeze. It blows through for a day or two and then it leaves. And then I wait for it come again.”
Annamora moved towards Vincent but she was looking off into the distance. “It smells of all sorts of things. It’s dusty and old, and there’s a mixture of bitter spices and sweet lavender and … maybe something metallic. I can’t place it. … You see, that little zephyr blows through everything. Through cities and countries. Through times. And every time I feel that little gust and smell that strange concoction, something happens. Something …” Her voice faded away.
Vincent stared at her and waited but she was in her mind, in her memories.
“What do you mean?”
Annamora looked up, jarred from her thoughts. “Oh, well … I suppose it always makes me think that … well, things change. Nothing stays the same forever. Just when you think that you’ve found a place that will let the days slide by with things you know, things you expect, something comes along and blows all that away. My zephyr. My little breeze always reminds me of that. … It blew through just before my Malcolm died. And before your dear Mum …. And once I felt it before Joan McTruscott had to get her toe off.” Annamora leaned towards Vincent. “Bunions, you know. Terrible things.”
She sat down in a chair in line with Vincent’s and shook her head. Vincent wasn’t sure if she was musing over bunions or her late husband. Or his mother – her older sister. Annamora had always been harmlessly eccentric and Vincent was relieved that he had no ability or inclination to read her thoughts. He watched her eyes, her mouth. She was sitting so close to him that he could see the little flashes and tweaks. The slight rocking of the head and the almost negligible twitches around her lips. She was remembering something. He began to wonder what his face looked like when he was thinking. Thinking back to …
“Now, where was I? … My zephyr, I think.” She looked up, her eyes engaging again, back in the present away from whatever memory had taken her attention. “You see, pet, most things change over time – some suddenly, some things are slow and gradual. But they change. People come and go, places grow and fade, new things become treasures and old things are rubbish. And it all really happens in the blink of an eye. … But the clouds still float and the wind still blows.” Annamora looked off, into a distance that wasn’t even there. “It wafts through everything. It washes over fields and cities and wars and emptiness. And each time it comes back, everything is different. Because it all changes.” She put her head on one side and looked at Vincent. Her eyes softened. “It all changes, love. No matter what. … “ Then her eyes moved away from Vincent and off to somewhere else, somewhere in her mind. “And when I feel that breeze and smell the meadows of far away places and sandy paths and the old ways, I know. I can feel that change is coming.”
The room was silent. For a moment it seemed as if time hung in the air, waiting to click on, to roll over into a new era. Vincent held his breath. He couldn’t even hear the purring of the fridge. Everything was waiting.
Then abruptly, Annamora let out a cleansing sigh and slapped her hands onto her knees. “But not today. Not today, love. All that today’ll bring is some soup and toast for supper. How does that suit you?”
“Fine …thanks.” Vincent wasn’t sure why his voice quavered or why he felt some respite as he watched the old lady striding off towards the kitchen.
The familiar clatter of plates and cupboard doors seeped into him like honeyed medicine and soothed the tightness that he hadn’t even noticed until now. And Vincent smelt the air – cautiously, hesitantly – and as he did, the snakes began to coil themselves into buzzing tangled knots.