I can’t free my mind of an article I read recently concerning an exhibition in London. It described a couple who kept snakes in their London flat. Memories stirred: of a vicar visiting a parishioner, a visit to a zoo, to a Palladian villa, or of opening a cupboard under the stairs – all fearful.
It could be funny, in both senses, I suppose, to hear of a vicar welcomed with a cup of tea while sitting on a sofa, that is, until he felt something moving behind his neck. He pretended not to notice it and continued drinking the tea and conversing. The movement continued and something touched his neck, not hot or cold but very strange. He turned, jumped up spilling the tea and shrieked – a snake was slithering along the back of the sofa! Just a pet, harmless as all reptiles and animals are when fed and loved so we’re told. I’m not so sure. Fed maybe, but if even a domestic animal feels threatened, it will attack, teeth bared or fangs darting out. I know. I’ve been there, bitten by a ‘sweet, gentle’ dog.
One of the first stories my father told me about growing up in India was when a servant rushed up to his father as they came in through the front door together. He was shouting that he had seen a cobra. My father looked around fearfully.
‘Where is it? What have you done about it?’ The man opened the door to the cupboard under the stairs and there it was, all coiled, tongue flicking, hissing ready to strike. Thereafter the story became rather confused. One was that the servant attacked it with a walking stick and killed it. The other is that the snake made a dash for safety towards the open front door.
When I was about six years old, my parents promised they would take me to the zoo an hour’s drive away if I could see enough blue sky to make a pair of sailor’s trousers. Much discussion ensued, but one sunny weekend my wish was granted. We drove for what seemed like an eternity to Chessington Zoo. First I we sat around a circular sandy area with two openings, one for us, the other for the animals. Dogs jumped through hoops, monkeys had a tea party and a plump pony cantered round and round with someone dressed like a fairy dancing on its back. Then we left to visit another area to see lizards with bulging eyes and scaly backs. They were in what seemed like large glass cages. In one of them was a round mottled carpet with a bump in it. The keeper who accompanied us – my mother wanted to ask him questions so my sister and I could learn something – explained that the bump would turn into little snakes. I was even more confused as I thought they laid eggs! The next cage was painted all over a pale yellow colour.
‘Why?’ I asked, ‘can’t we look into it?’
‘Because the snake is a mummy snake and is protecting her baby snakes, but we have left a little hole for visitors to see them,’ explained the helpful keeper. ‘Would you like me to lift you up to the hole?’ He did this and I looked and looked but could see nothing much at all.
‘I can’t see anything. It’s just a muddy colour with spots.’
‘Oh, that’s because the snake got there first and was looking at you!’ he said. I vomited.
My mother was embarrassed. My sister declined to look and father decided it was time to leave.
Years passed. I went to India and was fascinated, from a distance, by the snake charmers among the crowds in Allahabad. A few years after that I arranged a study tour to the west of England. The coach drove us through a park with deer to stop outside the gates to a Palladian villa. It looked deserted. I left everyone in the coach and set off through the open gates to the front door. It was ajar but no one answered. Then a tractor came through the open gates and the driver hailed me as he pulled up in front of the handsome door.
‘I’m the owner,’ he said as he opened it. ‘Come in and I’ll get the tickets for your group.’ I stepped into the main hall. There was a huge settee and above it a chandelier with – it couldn’t be true – a snake writhed round it! I fled.