I slumped in late from the call centre, forced down a microwave cottage pie and opened the kitchen door of our Tyneside flat. In the backyard, I lit up. I’d been looking forward to this cigarette all day.
The night was blustery, the sole tree in the neighbourhood fighting to keep its leaves. From up the street came the sounds of a football being kicked against a garage door and a mother screaming for her kids to get inside and eat their fish fingers. When I finished smoking, the experience not nearly as satisfying as I’d built it up to be, I dropped the butt in the wine bottle we keep on the windowsill. That’s when I noticed, stitched in neat cursive across the concrete yard and shimmering in the moonlight, a word:
‘Claire?’ I hurried through to the lounge. ‘See anything strange in the backyard?’
Curled up in pyjamas on the sofa, with a phone pressed to her ear, my flatmate shook her head.
‘I think those kids broke in.’ I glanced at the window to make sure I wasn’t imagining things. ‘They’ve written something.’
She pointed to her phone in a do-you-mind kind of way and mouthed, ‘Boyfriend.’
‘Oh, well,’ I said, more to myself, ‘at least they haven’t written a swear word.’
I went to bed with a Wilbur Smith but couldn’t concentrate on the story, something about a Cuban spy in Angola or an Angolan spy in Cuba. I could only think of the mysterious writing in the yard.
The next night I refused overtime and caught the early bus. Claire was on the sofa, already in her pyjamas, purring an embarrassment of miss yous and love yous into the phone. I waved hello – she didn’t wave back – and rushed to open the kitchen door. The original message was faded, almost invisible, and a new sentence had taken its place:
What’s your name?
I looked around for a hidden camera, listened for sniggering kids, checked that Claire wasn’t watching through the window and said, ‘Simon.’
Nothing happened. The evening was still, the tree motionless.
‘Who are you?’ I asked.
While waiting for an answer, I had my daily allowance of one cigarette. No answer came. The writing, I found when I stepped closer to investigate, was shoelace-thin and iridescent: a snail’s trail.
At work the next day I answered complaints on autopilot while the real me wondered about the writing in the yard. Was it man, woman or snail? Maybe it was an alien. Most likely it was frost arranged into shapes that I wanted to believe were words.
Claire was on the phone when I came in, her voice a whisper. I passed her without bothering to say hello and flung open the kitchen door. Outside, a new message shone:
What’s wrong, Simon?
‘I’m fine,’ I said. But that was a lie.
From along the street came faint, childish laughter and the rolling of a skateboard. The tree sighed, taken by a gust.
What’s wrong, Simon? No money, dead-end job, homesick – I didn’t know where to begin. I lit my cigarette and thought deep. Then I walked out onto the yard, drew up to the silver thread of letters and whispered, distilling my all problems into a single word, ‘Lonely.’
I don’t know what I expected, maybe the sky to open up and a spaceship to buzz down and whisk me away, but I waited there half the night, staring at the writing at my feet, willing it to change. Boredom and hunger drew me inside, where I blitzed a lasagne in the microwave.
Claire had finished her conversation, a phone call that for all I knew had gone on for three days, and was flicking through channels. I ate on the sofa beside her, the two of us watching Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, a comedy with Michael Caine. All through the film I wanted to speak to my flatmate, to tell her more about the writing in the yard, but her eyes were unblinking, focussing into the distance as if the TV was ten miles away. And she didn’t laugh once. Then again, neither did I.
This was the message that greeted me in the yard after a day that went by like a glacier, slow and heavy, an unstoppable slurry of complaints coming through my headphones.
Smile. All at once, I understood. I should stop feeling so damn sorry for myself.
‘Claire?’ I called when I went inside. ‘I’m going out.’
She wasn’t on the sofa. I looked in her room and she was gone, probably meeting her long-distance lover at the train station.
After a shower and change into my best shirt, I hit the town. I started in a pub, moved on to a bar and ended up in a nightclub. Sure, I danced on my own. And certainly, I spent most of the night plucking up the courage to talk to a girl who left, with another guy, before I had so much as established eye contact. But I had fun.
Coming home, I staggered merrily into the yard. The message was still there, twinkling under the stars, and I wanted to thank the mysterious writer.
‘Why are you doing this?’ I asked. ‘Why me?’
There was no answer, of course. So I lurched back inside to eat my takeaway, a kebab, with chilli and garlic sauce.
The day after was a rough one, my calls answered with a dry mouth that no amount of water would quench. I kept smiling though. I kept smiling all the way home. Claire was on the sofa, back from work and changed into her pyjama uniform, cradling the silent phone in her lap as if it was a baby. She didn’t look up as I shot past.
Ready for anything, I opened the kitchen door. This is what I found, shining across the yard:
Walking up to the word, crouching down to make sure I was reading it properly, I tried to remember what I had asked the night before. But I had been drunk. I could have said anything.
The tree was shivering, the first of its leaves falling. The kids down the road were silent.
‘Who are you?’ I scanned the concrete floor for a snail, a pot of silver paint or anything that would explain what was going on. I peered into the dark of the drain beside the brick wall. ‘Are you a snail? Please tell me what you are.’
Nothing. No reply.
Desperate for someone to share this with, I ran inside. ‘Claire?’
With watery eyes, she regarded me from the couch.
I sat next to her. ‘You okay?’
She shook her head.
‘Is it your boyfriend?’
She nodded and shifted closer.
Soon I was holding her, stroking her soft hair while she cried down my back. When our bodies parted, she getting up with a brave smile, I felt suddenly cold, as if a layer of skin had been torn from my body.
I watched from the sofa as she went to her room. Usually she shut her door but that night she left it open and I could see her sitting on her bed, back stoic-straight and hands folded neatly in her lap.
I wanted to follow her, to speak to her and hold her again but the message – Love – flashed through my head. What did it mean? I had to take another look.
Outside, I stared at the silver word until it was burnt into my retinas and appeared when I blinked. Love. Love. Love. Love.
Claire’s door was closed when I came in. I went to my room and dreamed, without sleeping, of Love and what it meant.
The following day, I did some research. I read that birds can be trained to speak. Monkeys can be taught to communicate in sign language. And whales are naturally gifted singers. But there was nothing about snails being able to write. What I discovered, though, was that every snail is born both male and female, making it a self-contained couple in its own little home. The only reason snails meet up with other snails is to reproduce. They don’t sit on the sofa together and watch TV. They don’t talk about books they’ve read. They never go to the pub. Their lives, I thought, must be very lonely. I wondered if they ever fell in love and what love must be like for a snail.
When I got home, after an afternoon handling complaints in a daze, I found the kitchen door open. I crept out onto the yard, the soles of my shoes crunching on a thick layer of salt.
The tree was bent to the side from the wind, leaves flying off like migrating birds.
Below, the message was the same – Love – only faded. Lying at the base of the word, as if it had wanted to start another message, was a tiny creature. Mucus-textured, shrivelled and without a shell, it wasn’t a snail. It was a slug. And it was unmoving.
I took the box from my pocket and tipped out the remaining cigarettes. Carefully, I scooped the slug inside then I opened the backdoor and crossed the street to the tree.
The wind settled to a breeze while I dug, using my hands, into the damp earth between two exposed roots. I laid the cigarette box in the bottom of the hole and covered it. As the wind picked up and the tree began to shiver, I felt a gentle hand take hold of my arm, pulling me back to the flat.