Chapter no 4 – ‌‌‌‌The Green Mamba‌

Going Solo

Oh, those snakes! How I hated them! They were the only fearful thing about Tanganyika, and a newcomer very quickly learnt to identify most of them and to know which were deadly and which were simply poisonous. The killers, apart from the black mambas, were the green mambas, the cobras and the tiny little puff adders that looked very much like small sticks lying motionless in the middle of a dusty path, and so easy to step on.

One Sunday evening I was invited to go and have a sundowner at the house of an Englishman called Fuller who worked in the Customs office in Dar es Salaam. He lived with his wife and two small children in a plain white wooden house that stood alone some way back from the road in a rough grassy piece of ground with coconut trees scattered about. I was walking across the grass towards the house and was about twenty yards away when I saw a large green snake go gliding straight up the veranda steps of Fuller’s house and in through the open front door. The brilliant yellowy-green skin and its great size made me certain it was a green mamba, a creature almost as deadly as the black mamba, and for a few seconds I was so startled and dumbfounded and horrified that I froze to the spot. Then I pulled myself together and ran round to the back of the house shouting, ‘Mr Fuller! Mr Fuller!’

Mrs Fuller popped her head out of an upstairs window. ‘What on earth’s the

matter?’ she said.

‘You’ve got a large green mamba in your front room!’ I shouted. ‘I saw it go up the veranda steps and right in through the door!’

‘Fred!’ Mrs Fuller shouted, turning round. ‘Fred! Come here!’

Freddy Fuller’s round red face appeared at the window beside his wife. ‘What’s up?’ he asked.

‘There’s a green mamba in your living-room!’ I shouted.

Without hesitation and without wasting time with more questions, he said to me, ‘Stay there. I’m going to lower the children down to you one at a time.’ He was completely cool and unruffled. He didn’t even raise his voice.

A small girl was lowered down to me by her wrists and I was able to catch her easily by the legs. Then came a small boy. Then Freddy Fuller lowered his wife and I caught her by the waist and put her on the ground. Then came Fuller himself. He hung by his hands from the window-sill and when he let go he landed neatly on his two feet.

We stood in a little group on the grass at the back of the house and I told Fuller exactly what I had seen.

The mother was holding the two children by the hand, one on each side of her. They didn’t seem to be particularly alarmed.

‘What happens now?’ I asked.

‘Go down to the road, all of you,’ Fuller said. ‘I’m off to fetch the snake- man.’ He trotted away and got into his small ancient black car and drove off. Mrs Fuller and the two small children and I went down to the road and sat in the shade of a large mango tree.

‘Who is this snake-man?’ I asked Mrs Fuller.

‘He is an old Englishman who has been out here for years,’ Mrs Fuller said. ‘He actually likes snakes. He understands them and never kills them. He catches them and sells them to zoos and laboratories all over the world. Every native for miles around knows about him and whenever one of them sees a snake, he marks its hiding place and runs, often for great distances, to tell the snake-man. Then the snake-man comes along and captures it. The snake- man’s strict rule is that he will never buy a captured snake from the natives.’

‘Why not?’ I asked.

‘To discourage them from trying to catch snakes themselves,’ Mrs Fuller said. ‘In his early days he used to buy caught snakes, but so many natives got bitten trying to catch them, and so many died, that he decided to put a stop to it. Now any native who brings in a caught snake, no matter how rare, gets turned away.’

‘That’s good,’ I said.

‘What is the snake-man’s name?’ I asked.

‘Donald Macfarlane,’ she said. ‘I believe he’s Scottish.’ ‘Is the snake in the house, Mummy?’ the small girl asked. ‘Yes, darling. But the snake-man is going to get it out.’ ‘He’ll bite Jack,’ the girl said.

‘Oh, my God!’ Mrs Fuller cried, jumping to her feet. ‘I forgot about Jack!’ She began calling out, ‘Jack! Come here, Jack! Jack! … Jack! … Jack!’

The children jumped up as well and all of them started calling to the dog.

But no dog came out of the open front door.

‘He’s bitten Jack!’ the small girl cried out. ‘He must have bitten him!’ She began to cry and so did her brother who was a year or so younger than she

was. Mrs Fuller looked grim.

‘Jack’s probably hiding upstairs,’ she said. ‘You know how clever he is.’

Mrs Fuller and I seated ourselves again on the grass, but the children remained standing. In between their tears they went on calling to the dog.

‘Would you like me to take you down to the Maddens’ house?’ their mother asked.

‘No!’ they cried. ‘No, no, no! We want Jack!’

‘Here’s Daddy!’ Mrs Fuller cried, pointing at the tiny black car coming up the road in a swirl of dust. I noticed a long wooden pole sticking out through one of the car windows.

The children ran to meet the car. ‘Jack’s inside the house and he’s been bitten by the snake!’ they wailed. ‘We know he’s been bitten! He doesn’t come when we call him!’

Mr Fuller and the snake-man got out of the car. The snake-man was small and very old, probably over seventy. He wore leather boots made of thick cowhide and he had long gauntlet-type gloves on his hands made of the same stuff. The gloves reached above his elbows. In his right hand he carried an extraordinary implement, an eight-foot-long wooden pole with a forked end. The two prongs of the fork were made, so it seemed, of black rubber, about an inch thick and quite flexible, and it was clear that if the fork was pressed against the ground the two prongs would bend outwards, allowing the neck of the fork to go down as close to the ground as necessary. In his left hand he carried an ordinary brown sack.

Donald Macfarlane, the snake-man, may have been old and small but he was an impressive-looking character. His eyes were pale blue, deep-set in a face round and dark and wrinkled as a walnut. Above the blue eyes, the eyebrows were thick and startlingly white but the hair on his head was almost black. In spite of the thick leather boots, he moved like a leopard, with soft slow cat-like strides, and he came straight up to me and said, ‘Who are you?’

‘He’s with Shell,’ Fuller said. ‘He hasn’t been here long.’ ‘You want to watch?’ the snake-man said to me.

‘Watch?’ I said, wavering. ‘Watch? How do you mean watch? I mean where from? Not in the house?’

‘You can stand out on the veranda and look through the window,’ the snake-man said.

‘Come on,’ Fuller said. ‘We’ll both watch.’ ‘Now don’t do anything silly,’ Mrs Fuller said.

The two children stood there forlorn and miserable, with tears all over their cheeks.

The snake-man and Fuller and I walked over the grass towards the house,

and as we approached the veranda steps the snake-man whispered, ‘Tread softly on the wooden boards or he’ll pick up the vibration. Wait until I’ve gone in, then walk up quietly and stand by the window.’

The snake-man went up the steps first and he made absolutely no sound at all with his feet. He moved soft and cat-like on to the veranda and straight through the front door and then he quickly but very quietly closed the door behind him.

I felt better with the door closed. What I mean is I felt better for myself. I certainly didn’t feel better for the snake-man. I figured he was committing suicide. I followed Fuller on to the veranda and we both crept over to the window. The window was open, but it had a fine mesh mosquito-netting all over it. That made me feel better still. We peered through the netting.

The living-room was simple and ordinary, coconut matting on the floor, a red sofa, a coffee-table and a couple of armchairs. The dog was sprawled on the matting under the coffee-table, a large Airedale with curly brown and black hair. He was stone dead.

The snake-man was standing absolutely still just inside the door of the living-room. The brown sack was now slung over his left shoulder and he was grasping the long pole with both hands, holding it out in front of him, parallel to the ground. I couldn’t see the snake. I didn’t think the snake-man had seen it yet either.

A minute went by … two minutes … three … four … five. Nobody moved.

There was death in that room. The air was heavy with death and the snake- man stood as motionless as a pillar of stone, with the long rod held out in front of him.

And still he waited. Another minute … and another … and another.

And now I saw the snake-man beginning to bend his knees. Very slowly he bent his knees until he was almost squatting on the floor, and from that position he tried to peer under the sofa and the armchairs.

And still it didn’t look as though he was seeing anything.

Slowly he straightened his legs again, and then his head began to swivel around the room. Over to the right, in the far corner, a staircase led up to the floor above. The snake-man looked at the stairs, and I knew very well what was going through his head. Quite abruptly, he took one step forward and stopped.

Nothing happened.

A moment later I caught sight of the snake. It was lying full-length along the skirting of the right-hand wall, but hidden from the snake-man’s view by the back of the sofa. It lay there like a long, beautiful, deadly shaft of green glass, quite motionless, perhaps asleep. It was facing away from us who were

at the window, with its small triangular head resting on the matting near the foot of the stairs.

I nudged Fuller and whispered, ‘It’s over there against the wall.’ I pointed and Fuller saw the snake. At once, he started waving both hands, palms outward, back and forth across the window hoping to get the snake-man’s attention. The snake-man didn’t see him. Very softly, Fuller said, ‘Pssst!’, and the snake-man looked up sharply. Fuller pointed. The snake-man understood and gave a nod.

Now the snake-man began working his way very very slowly to the back wall of the room so as to get a view of the snake behind the sofa. He never walked on his toes as you or I would have done. His feet remained flat on the ground all the time. The cowhide boots were like moccasins, with neither soles nor heels. Gradually, he worked his way over to the back wall, and from there he was able to see at least the head and two or three feet of the snake itself.

But the snake also saw him. With a movement so fast it was invisible, the snake’s head came up about two feet off the floor and the front of the body arched backwards, ready to strike. Almost simultaneously, it bunched its whole body into a series of curves, ready to flash forward.

The snake-man was just a bit too far away from the snake to reach it with the end of his pole. He waited, staring at the snake and the snake stared back at him with two small malevolent black eyes.

Then the snake-man started speaking to the snake. ‘Come along, my pretty,’ he whispered in a soft wheedling voice. ‘There’s a good boy. Nobody’s going to hurt you. Nobody’s going to harm you, my pretty little thing. Just lie still and relax …’ He took a step forward towards the snake, holding the pole out in front of him.

What the snake did next was so fast that the whole movement couldn’t have taken more than a hundredth of a second, like the flick of a camera shutter. There was a green flash as the snake darted forward at least ten feet and struck at the snake-man’s leg. Nobody could have got out of the way of that one. I heard the snake’s head strike against the thick cowhide boot with a sharp little crack, and then at once the head was back in that same deadly backward-curving position, ready to strike again.

‘There’s a good boy,’ the snake-man said softly. ‘There’s a clever boy.

There’s a lovely fellow. You mustn’t get excited. Keep calm and everything’s going to be all right.’ As he was speaking, he was slowly lowering the end of the pole until the forked prongs were about twelve inches above the middle of the snake’s body. ‘There’s a lovely fellow,’ he whispered. ‘There’s a good kind little chap. Keep still now, my beauty. Keep still, my pretty. Keep quite

still. Daddy’s not going to hurt you.’

I could see a thin dark trickle of venom running down the snake-man’s right boot where the snake had struck.

The snake, head raised and arcing backwards, was as tense as a tight- wound spring and ready to strike again. ‘Keep still, my lovely,’ the snake-man whispered. ‘Don’t move now. Keep still. No one’s going to hurt you.’

Then wham, the rubber prongs came down right across the snake’s body, about midway along its length, and pinned it to the floor. All I could see was a green blur as the snake thrashed around furiously in an effort to free itself.

But the snake-man kept up the pressure on the prongs and the snake was trapped.

What happens next? I wondered. There was no way he could catch hold of that madly twisting flailing length of green muscle with his hands, and even if he could have done so, the head would surely have flashed around and bitten him in the face.

Holding the very end of the eight-foot pole, the snakeman began to work his way round the room until he was at the tail end of the snake. Then, in spite of the flailing and the thrashing, he started pushing the prongs forward along the snake’s body towards the head. Very very slowly he did it, pushing the rubber prongs forward over the snake’s flailing body, keeping the snake pinned down all the time and pushing, pushing, pushing the long wooden rod forward millimetre by millimetre. It was a fascinating and frightening thing to watch, the little man with white eyebrows and black hair carefully manipulating his long implement and sliding the fork ever so slowly along the length of the twisting snake towards the head. The snake’s body was thumping against the coconut matting with such a noise that if you had been upstairs you might have thought two big men were wrestling on the floor.

Then at last the prongs were right behind the head itself, pinning it down, and at that point the snake-man reached forward with one gloved hand and grasped the snake very firmly by the neck. He threw away the pole. He took the sack off his shoulder with his free hand. He lifted the great, still-twisting length of the deadly green snake and pushed the head into the sack. Then he let go the head and bundled the rest of the creature in and closed the sack. The sack started jumping about as though there were fifty angry rats inside it, but the snake-man was now totally relaxed and he held the sack casually in one hand as if it contained no more than a few pounds of potatoes. He stooped and picked up his pole from the floor, then he turned and looked towards the window where we were peering in.

‘Pity about the dog,’ he said. ‘You’d better get it out of the way before the children see it.’


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