CHAPTER 1

THE SERPENT

‘t is the eye of childhood that fears a painted devil. 

 Shakespeare

I’m not sure why my mother died when she did. She was found in bed one morning with an open book on her face and the bedside light still burning. The professional verdict was cardiac arrest but others who knew her said she died of despair and I think I understood this. For most of her exotic life in India, Iraq and ultimately, Zanzibar, her Nirvana, she’d preached dissent in the stale corridors of conformity. Even during the early years when her zeal was hobbled by my birth, she immediately applied her pithy wisdom to mould me into a blend of Nijinsky and Byron.

 “Confront life with poise and good taste…a little steel in the veins and poetry in the heart… and whatever you do, promise me you’ll never own a Mercedes-Benz.” 

 Despite this advice and her tireless coaching, my rather ordinary progress as her only child must have contributed to the final melancholy. 

My elusive father was artistic and charming and we all lived together above the beach, between soggy shrubbery and the dark red soil of the coastal sub-tropics where the sun left the sea each morning and settled behind the bluff at our backs by mid afternoon. Then the wind would drift onshore and sticky-salt the big windowpanes and our wooden outdoor furniture. The house was long and flat and the floors were cold slasto splashed with kilims and the thick garden plants grew so high we couldn’t see our neighbours. But I remember the man from the house on our right who threw a pair of his wife’s new shoes onto our driveway in a rage after she’d paid too much for them. My father said he was too mean to throw them anywhere else because he knew we were the only ones who would return them.

I was three when I found a green mamba coiled in the morning sun on the hood of my pedal car. On that very normal African day, the snake and I were at ease with each other and just a little curious and when I stroked it, the head with the eternal smile reared from an ivory-lemon throat and blank eyes watched me. It could strike rapidly and repeatedly and neurotoxins in the venom would shut down my heart or my lungs and I would probably die. But the fangs were sheathed, the narrow hood flat against its neck and because I didn’t know about snakes I invited my new friend to join me as I pedaled through the papaya trees. I climbed onto the seat and looked directly into its eye. 

The mamba saw my mother first as she ran towards us, and it turned to face the dervish. The sleek head reared higher and the green-gold neck flattened into a narrow hood as the jaws opened in hesitant defiance. With the reflexes of a mongoose she ripped me from my seat and scolded me. “Don’t ever play with snakes! Do you understand me!”

I didn’t understand, and that night I asked God to explain. He was less than receptive and I think it was then I found myself in the shallows of life’s murky pond. 

 When I was five, my father convinced my mother to sever the umbilical and release me into the care of a suitable boarding establishment.

It was January of 1952 and the beginning of my journey.

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