“And the strange thing was,” continues Constable Davis, as he drinks at the bar in the White Horse the next evening, “as far as I can tell there was nothing taken.” He puts a handful of dry roasted into his mouth and sips beer. Few people are listening. The Captain sleeps by the fire with a roll-up hanging from his lower lip and a blanket over his knees. Hamish drinks rum and plays darts alone.
It is autumn and outside fallen leaves eddy through the dusk.
“And even stranger,” says the Constable, despite his lack of audience, “there was this huge glass tank in the living room. Empty. Except for some grass and a rock.” He rescues a peanut from a pool of beer and pops it into his mouth.
Hamish misses the dartboard and puts a hole in a picture of the village cricket team, 1996.
“Empty?” he says. He shaved hurriedly that morning and there is a line of grey hairs above his Adam’s apple and another along his left cheek. He wears a tartan jumper and a black beret. The Captain is smiling in his sleep.
“Then what happened to the snake?”
By next morning the escaped snake, believed to be a python of some twenty feet in length, is common knowledge throughout the village. The Constable sits at his desk with a sore head and writes down his hypothesis.
‘Some time after eleven an intruder broke into Mr Hind’s flat and was prevented from completing his/her robbery by the surprise discovery of an anaconda/python/cobra loose on the premises. They subsequently left in a hurry/were eaten. The present location of the snake is unknown.’
At lunchtime the Captain tells his enraptured listeners about his time in India and the cobra which spits poison into its victim’s eyes.
“Sunglasses,” he says, “are your only defence,” and he draws on a cigarette, enjoying the disquiet he has caused.
In the afternoon storm clouds are rolling in and fine rain preludes a fierce downpour. Many of the villagers stumble through the gloom in dark glasses. The gravedigger beats a fallen branch with his shovel, convinced it was waiting to bite him. He wears his son’s John Lennon shades, which sit awkwardly due to the boil on his nose.
A man from the RSPCA arrives in his white van. He wears his blue uniform. The trousers are too small and stop four inches before his shoes begin. He spends an hour cautiously prodding the hedgerows and bushes with a metal pole. He carries a cloth sack and wears plastic goggles.
The villagers watch him, net curtains pulled aside and their faces pressed to the window panes.
“Brave man,” says Mrs Bernard, as she eats buttered scone.
“A foolish man,” replies Mrs Lawes. “You wait. He’ll be eaten any minute now.”
They pause from talking as the anticipation builds.
To the disappointment of many, when his hour is up the RSPCA man drives away, wet from the rain, but otherwise unharmed.
Friday, 10.17am. Mrs Bernard’s greyhound is missing.
“My Bobbie,” she screams as she runs out the front door. “He’s been eaten.”
She faints on the driveway and is revived by the postman only to remember and relive the horror of her loss.
“That’s victim number one,” says Hamish that lunchtime when the dog cannot be found. He wears the same tartan jumper and drinks scotch. “Who’ll be next?”
This question is met with little enthusiasm among the occupants of the White Horse. The landlord clears his throat and pours himself wine. The Captain frowns in his sleep. The villagers are worried. They wear knee-length boots and avoid walking in the grass or through piled leaves. They check beneath their beds at night, keep their pets locked in and hurry their bowel movements in case the serpent has found its way into the sewage system.
“My money is on Mrs Malloy,” says the landlord.
They watch as the woman in question moves past the front windows of the public house. She is bent low at the waist by age and her hair is wild and long and whips behind her in the wind. She uses a stick for support and takes short, stumbling steps in her slippers. Her destination, the post office, is still half hour and a thousand small footsteps away. They drink and watch her, craning forward as she totters briefly, then resting back as she regains her footing and continues her journey.
“Ten pounds,” says the landlord. “Ten pounds on Mrs Malloy. Any takers?”