His heart fluttered; his breathing came fast. He needed to go and find her – find out where she lived, what she did at home – what she cooked, what she chose from her wardrobe. (Had she twirled in front of the mirror before settling, gently, as on a stem, on the bright blue blouse she wore yesterday? He’d watched her breasts rise and fall beneath the silky material and imagined the threads of her heart as they opened and shut like wings.) He wondered if she had – say, a cat. He could picture her bending down to feed it. He’d liked the look of her arse, that time he saw her wearing a black skirt. Some kind of fake velvet – he could tell it was fake. But it shimmered about her, a dark swirl promising brightness.
He told himself it was a cat – or nothing. Black, maybe, to match her skirt. But, apart from that, she lived alone: of that he felt certain. To think he didn’t even know her name! And yet I know where you work; I know you leave at 6pm sharp. So I’ll follow you home. Tomorrow.
That’s what he said.
‘See you later, Joe! Have a nice evening.’
And so, with the farewell he uttered every day as they left the offices of Solar Solutions (‘Make Yours a Temperate Home, and Save the Planet from Intemperate Carbons’), his colleague Mark Pelling turned on his heel, planted himself at the bus stop and pulled his phone from his pocket. Had he taken his eyes off the screen, he wouldn’t have been surprised to see Joe make for Earls Court tube. But, if he’d chosen to track Joe’s movements via a phone app, he might have wondered why, instead of heading west towards Hammersmith and home, his fellow drone from credit control slipped onto a train that bore him, excitingly and mysteriously, towards the city centre.
Joe stepped out of South Ken station into sunlight and affluence. The flower stall by the entrance pulsed like a paint-box on amphetamines, heady with the intensity of its colour and the height of its prices. One day, he promised himself, I’ll arrive at Deborah Lincoln Designs with a bunch of flowers luminous as the garments of a goddess, to present to my beloved. But we’re not ready for that quite yet. Let me find out her name first. Once I know her address I might have a bouquet delivered. ‘From an admirer.’
His eyes locked for an instant into those of the flower stall attendant. She stood surrounded by a cut garden of roses, lilies… Were those tall blue ones delphiniums? he wondered. He recognised the freesia – white, yellow, mauve. They’d been his mother’s favourite: she loved them for their fragrance. He breathed in sharply, as if to take in the scent of the sitting room of the semi-detached in Brentwood where he grew up. He heard the voice of his father reading aloud; he saw a picture on the page. His eyes were still on the flower girl. Thetis, nymph lover of Zeus. She’d held fast to the ankle that became the death spot of Achilles, their son. The flower girl looked away quickly and started counting her change.
If he didn’t get a move on he wouldn’t make it by 6. And he didn’t want to miss his evening class, either. This week they’d be progressing from The Iliad to The Odyssey. That’s what Dr Miller had promised . Joe longed to get to know Ulysses better – almost as much as he longed to meet the shop assistant at Deborah Lincoln Designs. As he walked past the bronze statue of temporary Kensington resident Bela Bartok, feet planted in a metal pool of dropped leaves, Joe felt his heart begin to flutter its wings once more. I am on an odyssey, he told himself. And, as he skimmed the pavement and his heart-wings beat on fast, fast, he asked himself where his journey’s end lay – with a Circe or a Penelope.
He turned left onto the Fulham Road, a foreign voyager who, to his left, saw gleaming white homes rise to his left like billionaire icebergs. On both sides the models in shop windows fell away as he got closer to Knightsbridge: the fewer mannequins, the more expensive the clothes they displayed. About five more minutes, and he would be there. He remembered the first time he saw her, after taking a wrong turn out of South Kensington station on his way to the V & A’s Greek sculpture gallery during late-night opening. Ah, happy error! Picking the longer route to the museum meant he’d caught that first glimpse of her as she shot the bolts across Deborah Lincoln Designs. As she stretched up to the top bolt, her blouse had untucked a little, its lower edge escaping, trailing like a broken wing at her waist. Then she’d knelt down to tackle the lower bolt. That’s when he’d noticed the tricks played by her faux-velvet black skirt.
So caught was he in the folds of memory, it took him a few moments to notice the stranger travelling just ahead of him. And when he saw it, he had to look again, to make sure that he wasn’t still sewn fast by daydreams. In the warm summer air, just a few feet away from him, fluttered a butterfly. As if London was a rain-forest where the butterfly flitted between nectar-heavy blooms.
Joe didn’t have many butterfly facts at his fingertips. He could recognise a cabbage white, of course. If it was brown, it might be a tortoiseshell – or a moth. He didn’t know the difference between a painted lady and a red admiral. But this was unlike any butterfly he’d ever seen – outside the pages of a book. He quickened his pace to catch up with it – but softly, so as not to frighten it away. The most striking thing about it was its colour – an iridescent blue, like cut-out sky above the Aegean, but harder, more metallic. Its wing span, he reckoned, must be about fifteen centimetres. Such a showy dazzle – it’s got to be a male, he thought. Quickly, he glanced about him. Against the railings as he stole past, a couple clung in a greedy embrace. He remembered reading somewhere that butterflies taste with their feet, and wondered whether the shimmering blue miracle that now guided him through Kensington enjoyed its food in this way. The lovers were behind him now. Now he was alone on his tropical pavement isle.
Yes, the butterfly really seemed to be beckoning him now. Or pulling him along by some invisible string. Its wings, like plated precious blue metal, Bartok’s fallen leaves risen again and dipped in that splash of Greek sky, seemed to be encouraging him forward. He was close to it now: he could just make out a concave dent at the outer edge of each forewing, and tiny white eyes at the tops of the wings. Were these part of a peacock-style sexual display or a warning to predators?
Perhaps this messenger from the gods was some metamorphosed victim of Zeus – a nymph, like Thetis, violated and then transformed forever into some shape by which she would never be recognised, or shamed. Dr Miller had mentioned something about the name given to the butterfly by Aristotle - psyche, the Greek word for ‘soul’. And Joe was pretty certain that it wasn’t only the Greeks who saw the butterfly as a dual symbol – of transformation and the soul. The transformation of the body from larva to pupa to flying insect; the transformation of the body into pure soul…
Now he was right next to it. It wasn’t moving forward any longer but hovered, its wing tips shimmering, poised like a skylark as it prepared to plummet.
He felt nothing, so weightless was this creature, but he knew its touch before he saw it. The butterfly had landed on his shirt. Just for an instant it sat quite still, wings outstretched – long enough for him to take in its luminous beauty but too brief to overcome his fear of breaking the spell. He was wearing the mauve shirt his mother had given him for his birthday. Perhaps he’d been mistaken for a freesia. Then the butterfly lifted off, fluttering higher now. This time he didn’t try to follow it. Yes, it was indeed a messenger from the gods. It had given him a gift – he wasn’t sure what exactly, but he knew this was a good omen. An augur of the bright, fragile beauty of love. He watched it disappear into late afternoon, feeling himself smile as a small girl, crowned with the boater of some smart Chelsea prep school, tugged at her mother’s hand, then pointed at the bright blue wings.
He’d do a butterfly google on the way home. It had been impossible to take a photo, of course: the moment he reached for his phone the creature would have taken fright and left him. But he’d managed to get a good look. How could the memory of that colour ever fade?
Joe slowed down as he approached Deborah Lincoln Designs. Checking his watch, he saw that he’d need to loiter for only a few minutes before the beloved came out to lock up and go home. He’d cut it pretty fine, he had to admit. And he thanked the gods for sending him that butterfly, for it had made him walk faster, hadn’t it? You could almost say he’d been flitting several inches above the pavement as he followed it. As he waited under the awning of the delicatessen next door, he registered the chilly blade that was starting to slice the air. Summer would soon be over. And he asked himself how much longer that butterfly could hope to live.
A clock struck six. Where was she? They must have had a sudden rush at the end of the day. Joe stepped away from the deli and inspected Deborah Lincoln’s door. Someone had flipped the sign to ‘Closed’. But his panic lasted no more than a second or two: peering through the glass he could see there were still people in the shop. One of them, surely, must be her. To catch a wider view, he moved over to the display window. Two blank white mannequins with impossibly long legs flaunted footwear, dress and jacket. One wore thigh-length leather boots and crotch-length leather mini skirt, with an armour-plated jacket and – so it seemed – nothing underneath it. The other was all softness: loose gauzy trousers and a silky white top, a fur boa around the neck and slanting across one breast. Around here, he suspected, the fur was real.
He started to shudder – remembering the family cocker spaniel, Harpo, and wondering once more if his goddess owned a cat. He hated to contemplate ocelot traps and mink farms. But it was in that instant that he caught sight of her. So his distaste immediately melted into a different kind of shudder. For she had materialised as part of the window display. Suddenly, there she was adjusting the real fur boa, pulling it a little tighter. He tried to shrink out of sight, but all he knew was that three pairs of eyes, two of them blind, were set in his direction. As he retreated, he bumped into something behind him.
‘Watch where you’re going!’ snapped the passer by, gaze steadfast on his screen.
Joe glanced up to check her reaction. Arms folded now, she’d broken into a smile. She was laughing at him. Her whole body, real and alive and fluent under an emerald green dress and short-sleeved pink bolero, was shuddering, just as he was. In her case, it was with mirth: simple, playful mirth.
She turned aside for a minute, undid the top button on the armour-plated jacket, swiftly reviewed her handiwork and then, stepping down from her display podium, made for the door. When Joe realised that she was preparing to open it, his instinct was to put his foot inside and assert his claim. But there was no need. Holding the door open so he could enter, she treated him to another smile. This one, however, was kinder. He took in the pink lipstick (yes, it really did match her cardie) and the endearingly uneven teeth. Why had he imagined her to have blue eyes? Must be that butterfly, haunting him still. Her eyes, softly lit, were what people called hazel. Or call it tortoiseshell butterfly.
He was surprised by her voice when she spoke to him. It was soft, like her eyes – no, he’d expected that. But not the Estuary accent that bounced back at him with the echoes of Chestnut Close, Brentwood, bearing with it the scent of freesia in a Delft vase. How touching, he hurriedly told himself. Like me, she’s made good. She’s worked her way up to a job in a posh frock shop. And for an instant he pictured her travelling in every day from the eastern reaches of the Central Line.
‘Can I help you? I’m afraid we’re closed now.’
‘No. Sorry. I was…’
‘Just looking?’ The tortoiseshell eyes narrowed and she popped her tongue onto her lower lip like a lizard, pressing it in for just a split second.
And then, as they shared a smile, his half of it embarrassment, hers the flavour of haughty amusement, she seemed to reach a decision. Shutting the door and beckoning him into the shop, she murmured, ‘Can’t keep that open for too long. Mustn’t let him escape.’
He followed her past a perfumed forest of garments and through into a small back room.
Her voice dropped to a whisper. ‘Look what we found.’
An earnest young man whose dark spiky hair sprouted like antennae and whose oversized thick-rimmed glasses gave his eyes the compound look of a house-fly’s, was holding a magnifying glass to a see-through plastic box.
He raised his head, and his compound eyes glittered with triumph. ‘It’s a Morpho Menelaus.’
Joe followed the tilt of the magnifying glass. There, strangely still inside its plastic prison, sat the butterfly. It had accompanied him on his journey; it had then beaten him to it.
A sharp intake of breath.
‘Don’t worry. Nick says he’s perfectly safe.’ The accent was doing its best to sound formal and plummy – practising for one of her more exclusive designer customers. ‘This is Nick… sorry, please remind me…’
Nick Duff.’ He was replacing the glass – a sort of translucent lollipop, thought Joe – into its case.
‘Nick’s from the RSPCA. My colleague telephoned them as soon as we spotted the butterfly.’
‘So where’s it from?’
Nick Duff, cradling the butterfly box in his gentle palm, reached down and slipped it into what looked to Joe like some kind of specimen box. Specimens not of the dead, but of the living. ‘Most likely escaped from the butterfly exhibition at the Natural History Museum. We’ve been called out to rescue a couple of others that managed to slip out of the tent.’
The tortoiseshell eyes watched the last flash of blue as it disappeared inside Nick’s bag. ‘So beautiful,’ she crooned. ‘Not just the colour…’ And she turned now to address Joe, as though continuing a conversation they’d been having for some time. ‘The wings… Such a neat shape, as though…’ She paused, her fingers doing an exploratory mime. ‘As though someone’s edged them very carefully with scissors.’
‘That’s it.’ Her excitement was touched with reverence. ‘Come on, let me show you where we found it.’
She walked over to a rack near the door, he once again a follower. As they reached it, Nick shuffled past them.
‘Well, I’ll be off, then.’
She held the door open for him. ‘Thank you so much.’
Just as the man from the RSPCA was about to make his escape, she half-closed the door, turning to him as though struck by a sudden thought, the tune-in to a posh drawl quite forgotten. ‘He will be OK, won’t he?’
‘Of course. We’ll check him over, and then…’ Nick Duff clutched the rescue bag to his chest.
‘Then he’ll be put back with his friends at the Natural History Museum.’
‘You got it.’ He gave a quick smile; his captor opened the door just a fraction wider; he flew out into the summer evening.
Joe sighed. ‘Of course, butterflies have a very short life span.’
‘Ah, but what a lot that fellow has packed into his so far.’
He wanted to tell her about his journey with the butterfly; he wanted to tell her it had led him to her, fluttering above him like some talisman as he walked. But he was afraid she’d think he was crazy, or too forward. So he stayed silent, following her coral finger nail as she pointed to the clothes rail.
‘It must have got inside when a customer opened the door. Nobody saw it come in. But it seems to have gone straight for this.’
Her talons pincered a dress, which she pulled from the rail on its hanger, holding it against herself as though asking him whether she should try it on.
‘You see.’ She was half-whispering again, but her voice shimmered with delight. ‘He landed here.’
It was a butterfly-print dress. Against a cream-coloured background an exhibition tent’s worth of butterflies flitted and fluttered, all caught in a moment of perfect, stilled animation. He doubted that the butterflies on this garment corresponded to any particular species. Presumably the designer had simply entertained herself (it had to be a female designer, surely) with a flight of imagination, where colours and patterns and varying sizes danced across an improbably pale background. Where was the forest canopy where they doubtless loved to hide? The flowers and fruits whose nectar they loved to sip?
The butterfly had perched on his shirt. This dress had most probably been its very next landing point. He didn’t dare tell her about that, either. He watched her as, with a gentle stroke of its fabric and a soft shake of her head, she replaced the dress – oh fortunate dress! – on the rail. As she shuffled the hanger into position she pulled the dress out again slightly and touched it, just below the left shoulder.
‘That’s where it was sitting.’ She broke into a dreamy little smile, her eyes narrowing again. ‘On the heart, you could say.’
At least he found the courage at this point, her hands now freed, to seize her palm and, pressing it ever so slightly, announce, ‘I’m Joe, by the way. Joe Cribb.’
Again, the softly-lit tortoiseshell smile. ‘Nice to meet you. I’m Sara Skipworth. Sara without an H.’
She pronounced it ‘Haitch.’
‘Such an amazing story.’
‘Yes. Well.’ She started walking away from him, the length of the shop, into the little back room. ‘I’ve cashed up. I just need to get my coat. Then time to lock up.’
He watched the emerald green fabric wink at him as it clung to her disappearing backside.
A minute later she re-appeared, an olive green raincoat over her arm and a small patent leather bag over her shoulder. ‘I thought I’d better bring this with me today. It looked like rain this morning.' Opening the door and standing on the pavement for a minute, she seemed to be sniffing the air. ‘Butterfly wouldn’t have survived the night.’
Discreetly he looked away as she performed her evening ritual with bolts high and low. Then he turned back to see her zipping her keys inside the patent leather bag.
‘Yes. Well… I’m meeting up with some friends for a drink.’ She glanced at her watch. ‘Shit! (Pardon my French.) I hadn’t realised it was that late.’
What could he say? What could he do? Follow her home? It had been a laughable idea. Sara Skipworth had, as they say, a life.
So, after a cursory farewell, they parted. She went to join her friends – assuming they really existed, and the drinks date hadn’t been invented on the spur of the moment as a get-out clause. And Joe Cribb went home to Hammersmith, to his life. For he had a life too.
It didn’t take him long to find Morphus Menelaus. There sat the brilliant blue beauty, like some lepidopterist’s sample pinned to an invisible board at the back of his phone. Further investigations on Wikipedia revealed that the creature’s other side – its ‘ventral view’ – was a dull brown (though with some of those circular white markings, which he discovered were called Ocelli). It was native to Central and South America; Carl Linnaeus had named it in 1758; it got drunk on the juice of fermenting fruit and the bodily fluids of dead animals. What interested Joe most was its name. Morpho Menelaus. Named after the King of Sparta, whose wife Helen – the world’s most beautiful woman – was stolen from him by Paris, the Trojan prince. Menelaus, the byword for cuckoldry, wasn’t even leader of the Greek army that sailed to attack Troy. That honour went to his brother Agamemnon – warrior, daughter-slayer, killed in the bath by his wife. But at least he captured Troy.
So why was this striking butterfly named after a man who couldn’t keep his woman? If Menelaus had been as fabulous-looking as his namesake, Helen would never have left him. And to give him his due, Joe reminded himself as he walked to the bus stop to go forth to his evening class and accompany Ulysses on his ten-year journey back to Ithaca from Troy… at least he had Helen for a time. Whereas I – I never had my Helen, my Sara without an Haitch. She slipped from between my fingers as I reached out to grasp her; she fluttered out of my net. And now she’s probably leaning against the lion print of Paris’s 100% cotton shirt from Jermyn Street.
The number 211 had arrived. Stepping onto it and swiping his Oyster card, he moved on to his other worry. The ‘Morph’ part of the name. To morph; to change. Yes, the butterfly had seemed to him like some metamorphosed being. But you could say that Sara Skipworth had changed – from the woman who led him into the secret little room at the back, who had flaunted the butterfly-print fabric across her breasts, who had known he was watching her emerald green dress stretch taut as she walked away…. And had then abruptly abandoned him. Flown away to sip on nectar with her ‘friends’. Maybe she also tasted things with her feet. He tried to remember whether he’d glimpsed her toe nails; whether they were painted pink like her fingers.
Settling himself in his favourite seat at the back of the bus, letting the cool glass of the window soothe his cheek, Joe Cribb decided that the one who had changed must be him. He knew her name now – both her names, for was she not both Sara and Circe? He’d heard her voice; he’d sipped on her smile and her eyes. And now he felt as if he’d been feeding on the bodily fluids of dead animals. He didn’t want to find out where she lived.
He would turn his back on Sparta, and on Troy. He would travel alongside Ulysses on his momentous voyage home. But something told him that he would always be, in his heart, alone. On a sudden fillip of pleasure, he closed his eyes. In the darkness, a flash of metallic blue. When he opened his eyes again, he noticed the window was streaked with the first rain for over a week.