I can’t say if I ever really saw a cobra, down near the ash-heap at the bottom of the garden, or if being told that there were cobras living down there, that I should beware of them, was enough to make me think that I had seen one. Also, no doubt, my reading of The Jungle Books, not just Mowgli and Bagheera and all that, but Nag, the hooded cobra who goes into the house to avenge the slaughter of his partner, Nagaina, surely influenced me. Still, it is quite possible that I did see a cobra – something still slithers across my mind, a shadowy shape, a movement in shadow, after the thing itself is gone – whenever I remember our garden in Rhodesia, and Jack, the houseboy, and Tiboo, the gardener – and, of course, the ash-heap, where I scrambled and played and from which I emerged eventually, covered in ash-flakes and coal dust, pale and clogged like a snow-clad Christmas tree in the picture-books that waited for me in the bedroom.
We did see a snake, once, one that I remember quite clearly. We were driving down the long dirt road that ran for miles outside our house, on the outskirts of town, me and my mother, in her old car – it was old, even then, mud-brown with a high bonnet and front doors that opened backward. The car may or may not have had cracked leather seats, red, or brown, I don’t remember. Anyway, there it was, the snake, in the middle of the road – lying on its back, pale belly facing upward, mouth agape. It wasn’t a cobra. ‘You mustn’t pick them up,’ my mother warned. ‘Sometimes they’re not really dead. Sometimes, they’re just pretending.’ We drove on down the dusty road, and soon it was gone from my view. Yet, more than a half-century later, I can still see it.
The things one remembers!