The local people like to joke that some days are hot, some days are even hotter, but most days are hotter than hell. This was one of those days that would have been too much for Satan. It was not a day for sinning. It was not a day to even contemplate any transgression other than absolute idleness.
I was trying to sleep the afternoon away under the soothing hum of a ceiling-fan, but was disturbed by some thumping and screaming from the adjoining flat, which I tried to ignore. You don’t get involved with that sort of thing here. This was a place where everyone kept their doors closed and locked, and took even more care to conceal their personal lives and private fears.
Intense heat can do strange things to a securely closed door and I was aware of someone standing by my bed. She seemed to be in the middle of a panicky explanation.
“Hello! My name’s Marcia, I live next door.”
I mumbled a greeting, told her my name and mentioned that I lived right there.
“There’s a snake in my room. Would you like to see it?”
How does one respond to such a question? Apart from passing the time of day on the stairs this was my first conversation with my neighbour. Unable to think of an appropriate reply I jumped from my bed and followed Marcia.
It was indeed a snake. A bright green snake; no more than a couple of feet in length, looking like a piece of plastic clothes-line, coiled and still, among the piles of books that lay along the far wall beneath the window. It was so green that if one were to have compared it with a rubber snake from a stall at a tourist market, one would have certainly chosen this one as the fake.
The room-mate was sleeping, oblivious to the drama. Marcia rummaged in the chest-of-drawers where she found a camera and began to take a series of photographs from all possible angles.
“It doesn’t seem to want to leave.”
“So what are you going to do about it?”
“I suppose I must tell the people downstairs. What do you think they will do?”
“I’m pretty sure that they’ll kill it.”
“No! I don’t believe you. How can you say such a thing? Just because you’ve been here a few years longer than the rest of us you think you know everything. Why would they want to kill a snake? I won’t have anything like that happen in my room.”
I went back to my room and after half-an-hour or so there was a knock on the door.
“I’ve told them downstairs, but I don’t think they understand. They didn’t seem at all concerned.
And I’ve been practicing my pronunciation. I practice every morning, but they don’t seem to want to do anything.
It’s crawling along on the floor now. Someone is going to have to do something.”
It is easy for the longer-term resident to be disparaging about the efforts that the newcomer makes to understand the local culture. I had heard the daily pronunciation practice and had remarked to myself that it would take a lot more of such practice before she could come away from the market with some eggs for breakfast, instead of a fishing line and smelling salts or something similar.
Of course it was a good thing that no-one had understood her. There are only a few species of deadly snakes native to this country and, being deadly, they are not in the habit of taking afternoon naps in a school-teacher’s flat. But the local people do not check in an observer’s book of reptiles before taking the necessary action. To them all snakes are agents of the devil, and must either be killed or, as is more usual, fled from as fast as is humanly possible.
I would not normally have been at home on a weekday afternoon, but this was not a normal weekday afternoon. This was the traditional New Year holiday, a time when everyone stops work for a several days. The rich drive to the beach or fly to the mountains, while the poor squeeze on to buses or trains and return from the big city to their villages.
This was a time when I would stay indoors and only venture out to buy essentials from the corner shop. It was the hottest time of the year; a time for reading, writing long letters, and watching videos.
My neighbours had decided to take refuge in my room. They were looking through my CD collection and complaining about the preponderance of jazz and blues, when I went out into the court-yard to summon help. I noticed that my landlord’s car was parked in the driveway and was on my way to his house when one of the staff asked me what all the fuss was about. I mentioned the snake, just as one would mention any everyday object such as a cockroach or house-lizard, and knocked on the landlord’s door.
The landlord was excited. This was more like the excitement of a deprived child promised a day out with ice-cream than the excitement of an adult confronted with anything strange or unexpected. By the time we returned the snake had awoken and gone into the bathroom.
Outside the bathroom the room was full. The gardener stood with a hoe, the security guard carried a knife and a baton, the driver held a spanner, and the maintenance man brandished a hammer and a machete.
The bathroom door had been securely closed and the makeshift weapons were clearly to be used for self-defense should the snake launch a surprise attack.
The landlord had already told me that, it being the traditional New Year holiday, it would be very inauspicious to even think about killing the snake. It would be caught and then taken to a snake-friendly environment and released. By doing this we would all gain merit for our next life. I am not sure about re-incarnation; although it was obvious to me that, if we captured the snake and then freed it, the snake was certain to gain merit in this life – and that couldn’t be bad.
My landlord conveyed his plan to the vigilante platoon. It was not accepted with the clicking of heels and an affirmative salute. He could have been asking a school of sharks to become vegetarians; or was he asking a bunch of water-fearers to frolic with the sharks?
The bathroom door was opened slowly. The snake had moved and was now cowering behind the lavatory pedestal. It looked a sorry sight, unable to move and incapable of generating fear.
“Catch it!” commanded the landlord. One of the men slammed the door shut and they backed away - out into the bed-sitting room, onto the balcony, and swiftly down the stairs.
There were more people in the room now: laundry-mistress, ironing-girl, floor-scrubber, assorted cooks and nursemaids. A large plastic rubbish bag was produced and someone called for a stick. I politely took up a vantage place near the front door and away from the action. The bathroom door was swiftly re-opened as widely as possible. I did not see the moment of capture. I saw a semi-circle of bent bodies gathered around the pedestal with their backs to me. I heard shouts and screams and then giggles and laughter. Then the bodies became proud and erect. They turned and marched past me, led by the landlord carrying the black plastic bag, with something inside twitching and thrashing. The people were quite silent. All that could be heard was a faint rustling and swishing from inside the bag: the sound of panic-stricken snakeskin against heavy industrial plastic.
The landlord carried on walking, down the stairs and across the courtyard. When he came out into the tiny dead-end lane he turned right, and when he reached the T-junction he did not turn right towards the main road but headed left along what I had always thought to be another dead-end lane.
The two schoolteachers marched at his side, one to the left and the other to his right. The domestic ladies followed close behind, calling out to each house that we passed. They were followed by a few dozen local children and any interested passers-by.
The men kept their distance, waiting for the procession to round each corner before they scurried in pursuit.
At the end of a small lane there was a plot of vacant land, used as a car park by some of the local multi-car families. Beyond this piece of land there was a thick shrubbery. We pushed through and came to the banks of a canal. He bag was opened and upended. The snake plopped out in a coil, straightened itself and then rolled over a few times to enjoy the feeling of damp earth on its skin. We were all watching every move that it made and I am sure that the snake knew this. It made sure that it was the centre of attention and gave us all one last look before shaking itself and slithering away into the undergrowth.
“I do not understand.”
It seemed to be saying.
“Are you my captors or are you my liberators?”