I am not a herpetologist, though I do accept there is a certain symmetry and even beauty in some reptiles. Most though, apart from common or garden frogs, evoke a collywobbly stomach and vague slithery shiver. Some truly terrify me. Crocodiles and alligators fall into that category. I’ve never got over that scene in Crocodile Dundee where Sue Charlton, played by Linda Kozlowski, is filling her water bottle in a creek and a croc surges up, open jaws ready to snap. Bleah!
Snakes, on the whole, I can handle. Well not actually. But if necessary have been able to despatch to the serpent kingdom in the sky, though I prefer to watch them slide away. But no matter where I’ve lived, they seem to have found me.
The first time I remember seeing a snake was as a little girl aboard the SS Chitral. We were moored in the Gulf of Aden, having just come through the Suez Canal. The gully-gully man clambered aboard from the bum-boat and excited, and repelled, us children as he piped a cobra from his tatty old basket.
I have been thrown from a pony shying from a coiled snake, something I thought rather ungracious of the animal. That was while riding along the edge of a tin mine in Kuala Lumpur. I didn’t hang around to discover what kind of snake that was, but with help caught my pony and returned to the stables. Shaken and stirred.
Next I remember frenetic screams coming from the garden one afternoon, again in KL. This time a King Cobra had come to call, and was not impressed at being harried by the gardner, a swarthy Tamil, wielding a parang tied to the end of a rake. It was all very exciting in a frightening kind of way, and the dogs and I were shooed back to the house.
I seem to have had a gap of a few years, because I can’t remember any encounters in Australia or Papua New Guinea. Then one day on the second floor of our Bangkok townhouse, Bo, our normally imperturbable maid started screaming. She had disturbed a slumbering rainbow snake. Not huge, granted, but big enough to cause concern. I know what it was because after chopping it up, my children were very young at the time and I was not prepared to have it return, I put it in a plastic bag and took it to the snake farm for identification. I was told by the smiling Thai, “Oh madam, it only baby. Mama nearby! It bite only little bit.”
Then heading to the suburbs of Texas many years later, I became acquainted with coral snakes whilst walking my dog. Funny how childhood rhymes come back to one, except in this instance I couldn’t remember the order of colour. Was it red and black that was good, or red and yellow? Discretion was the order of that particular day and I leashed Miss Meg and turned tail. Water moccasins and copperheads enjoyed our garden from time to time, most were hustled away on the end of a rake. Though hysterical neighbors twice demanded I kill snakes in their yards. Why me? I wondered each time.
Equatorial Guinea gave me a chance to experience firsthand the untold terror of almost sitting on a snake, in the dark. In this instance it was a thrashing sound in the lavatory bowl, as I was about to perch that prompted me to turn on the light. Frenzied shouts brought my husband stumbling from his bed in order to flush it from whence it came.
Back in Houston, but this time in the Downtown metropolis, I felt sure I would be safe from their slithering presence. We do not have a garden. But three times now, we have been visited by snakes snuggling up to my pot plants, sunning themselves on the terrace, or as happened last night, playing with my cat!
This third encounter, in frankly what I would consider a snake-free zone, has led me to think this propensity for reptilian visitors has a lot to do with why we have chosen to renovate a house on a island on which there are no snakes? Mongooses having put paid to them when they were introduced when sugar cane was king, and rats of the four-legged variety were proving troublesome.
What happened to the snake last night? Well, we shooed it away with broom.