Authors: James McClure
ALSO BY JAMES McCLURE
The Steam Pig
The Caterpillar Cop
The Gooseberry Fool
Copyright © 1976 by Sabensa Gakula Ltd.
First published in the United States in 1976 by Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.
This edition published in 2011 by
Soho Press, Inc.
New York, NY 10003
Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
McClure, James, 1939-2006.
Snake / James McClure.
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
VE DEFIED DEATH
twice nightly, except on Sundays.
Sunday had just begun when there was a soft rap of knuckles on the dressing room door.
“Go away,” she lisped, resentful.
Monday through Friday, she did a show at eleven and a show at one. The first timed to catch and hold the after-the-movies crowd, the second to prime them for their beds, titillated and eager to return for more. Come Saturday, however, both shows had to be over before the laws regarding public drinking and entertainment on the South African sabbath came into effect. Making a total of twelve hours in all, but it was tiring, stressful work.
So when her week ended on the stroke of midnight, she gladly turned into a pumpkin. Her taut orange skin and round face were just right for one, for a do-nothing, think-nothing, vegetating pumpkin which—once she had removed her small top plate—smiled gap-toothed into the mirror like a Halloween lantern. Nobody paid her to be pretty in private.
The knuckles rapped again.
Her smile quite disappeared. She replaced the plate and twisted round on her stool.
you!” she called out with cold clarity. “Leave a girl in peace.”
A shuffle of feet moving closer to the door.
“That you, baby?”
“Can I see you for a minute, please?”
She had heard that one before, yet reached round for her gown and hitched it over her shoulders.
“You can see me from there,” she said, opening the door a crack.
He really was a baby, a great big baby who just wanted mothering—and, like a baby, was liable to kick up a terrible rumpus unless he got it.
“I wanted—do you think it’s a hell of a cheek?”
She was also trying to work out what he was up to this time.
“Well,” he said diffidently, bringing out a hand from behind him and showing her the champagne bottle grasped in it by the neck.
He offered her the bottle.
“It’s all right,” he said. “I don’t have to come in.”
She was obviously meant just to take it. But, what with clutching her gown across her bosom, she hadn’t a hand to spare. And besides, that would have seemed mean.
“Who gave you this idea? An old film?”
“I—I just thought of it.”
“It’s been a wonderful week.”
“So you acted on impulse, hey?”
He smiled broadly, somehow flattered.
“That’s me, Eve. I just wanted to—well—thank you and that. All right?”
Her instincts had cried wolf so often it had become impossible to make a fair assessment—one fair to him as well as to herself.
“You’re on your own?”
“It’s a big bottle.”
“We don’t have to—”
“Look,” she said. “Just you wait a minute and I’ll see.”
She glanced down at his patent leather shoes. Neither tried to wedge the door. So she closed it gently and looked across into the big mirror. Her reflection was never much real company, and on this, her last night in Trekkersburg, the truth was she did feel a bit flat and lonely. On top of which, the spontaneity of the gesture had touched her. Nobody’d ever brought her champagne before, and she was close to a mood that hinted nobody else ever would.
“Okay, then?” she mouthed silently.
Her reflection raised an eyebrow that quivered, querying her judgment on the basis of the known facts—such as that big babies were always easy to kick out once she had had enough of them. Then it slowly regained its penciled symmetry. She shrugged. It shrugged.
, that’s it,” she said, fastening the belt of her gown properly.
Then she lifted a large wicker basket onto the divan and undid the leather straps. From inside it she took a python, roughly five feet long and almost two inches thick in the middle, beautifully patterned with light-brown shapes like round leaves, and draped him over her shoulders. The weight was that of a protective pair of arms.
He did a double take. It was usually the last she saw of the ones who weren’t sincere.
“You don’t mind?” she said. “Clint gets so restless after a show if I put him straight back in his basket. He’ll be good.”
His eyes gleamed. She took this for amusement, then was not sure, but by then he had politely sidled round her to take up a position beside where her street clothes hung from a hook.
Pressing the door closed behind her, she made certain it would stay shut against any other callers, and then pointed to the stool.
“Like a seat?”
“No, I’m fine, thanks—thank you very much.”
“Well, I’ve been on my feet long enough for one day,” she said, sitting down. “Glamorous, isn’t it?”
She was getting in another dig about the way she had to live. The dressing room had three walls showing their brickwork through a thin coat of whitewash, a fourth wall made of bulging chipboard, an uneven cement floor, and a ceiling all stained and saggy like old underwear. As for furnishings, there was the blotchy mirror stuck crookedly to the wall opposite the door, a row of wire coat hangers on hooks for a wardrobe, a junkshop dressing table, a grass mat, a divan, and a wash basin with bad breath—plus, of course, the stool she was perched on, which gave you splinters if you weren’t careful. No window at all.
“You are a bit untidy, Eve.”
That was true, but one of those annoying surface remarks all the same.
“I bet where you live is worth keeping nice!” she said.
“That’s a bit nasty! You don’t really expect what film stars are given, do you? Although, mind, I’m not saying
not worth it!”
“You trying to butter me up?”
“How?” he asked, in that abruptly innocent way of his.
, forget it There’s a glass and a mug by the basin.”
“I should have thought to bring some!”
“You’ll have to wash them. I use tissues for drying. Here—catch.”
He fumbled his catch and dropped the box. Then made a dreadful clatter with the things in the basin. It gave her a certain amount of unkindly pleasure to see him doing such work. God, but he had a soft life.
The cork came out of the bottle with a sharp report. Snakes have no means of picking up airborne sound, but her sudden flinch caused the python to contract his coils, and she had to coax him out a little in order to stay comfortable. Very soon, once she was sure everything was as before, Clint could go back in his basket.
She was handed the more ladylike glass, filled to within a splash of the brim.
“To you, Eve!”
“Ta. And to you.”
“Is that your proper name? Eve?”
“Can you think of a better?”
He dimpled and shook his head.
“Put it this way,” she added, finding she had almost downed the lot. “It’s not what they’ll put on my tombstone.”
Why that sent a shudder through her as she said it was the booze for you. She was young, fit and healthy, and never really did anything dangerous.
“Goose walk over?” he asked, grinning.
“Too late! Not bad stuff—didn’t know we had decent bubbly here. You and I should have started earlier on it.”
He was beginning to assert himself. Beginning to feel more at home, perhaps, than he ever did in his own place, from what she had heard of it. The woman sounded a right bitch. Poor little chap.
“The whitewash will come off on your jacket.”
“Oh, don’t worry, I’ve got more—this isn’t my only one.”
She had noticed; a different suit practically every night—as if less-regular customers would ever notice.
“But let’s talk about you for a change,” he said. “Why not do more with yourself? Take this act to Lesotho and go the whole hog?”
“In front of
? That’ll be the day! Besides, what’s this ‘nude’ rubbish? I thought you were the one who appreciated the psychological way I use—”
“Please, please. I was only wanting things better for you, the sort of—er—contracts you really deserve. You’re a real artist and it’s high time you realized it! What’s Trekkersburg? There’s a limit here on what it could ever do for you. And, I agree, the same applies really to Maseru. But have you ever thought of London? Hamburg? Vegas?”
“I see—and you could be my manager?”
“Why’s this making you angry?”
, because every five minutes some bugger tries that lot of smoothie talk on me. I’m sick and tired of it!”
“Is that how it sounded?”
“Then I’m sorry, really sorry to have said the wrong thing, although I promise you that I meant it. Come on, have another drop.”
Typical. Do what you like, say sorry, and everything was fine again. All men stayed babies, when you came to think of it. Bit your finger and then went goo-goo. She was saddened but not surprised to find it all turning sour. Such was life.
But at least the champagne had not lost its sweetness. It must have cost a bomb retail. Sweet and tickly and gone in an instant down into a tummy kept empty for the more difficult positions. And from there, moving on to make her sore limbs feel better than a warm bath would have done, which the boardinghouse didn’t seem to own anyway, and her head so pleasantly muzzy that the bare light no longer hurt her eyes.
She let him refill her glass.
“There—watch it doesn’t spill! Can’t let any go to waste. You know what I’ve decided to do? Take a little holiday on my own.”
Plan B was being put into operation.
“Do you ever take a holiday?”
“Sometimes. When Clint has eaten a big meal.”
His eyes became fixed on the python.
“Clint doesn’t like being stared at,” she said, then finished the line from her family show: “He thinks you’re trying to hypnotize him.”
He laughed loudly. “What does he feel like, Eve?”
“Smooth and nice—not slimy.”
“How strong is he, really?”
“One his size can kill a duiker—even a buck much bigger. Touch him.”
His free hand went into his pocket, and he raised the other to show it held the mug. Baby didn’t want to.
“What’s the matter—do you want your mummy?”
“That isn’t like you, Eve,” he said, very hurt.
Then the fingers, with their bitten-down nails, reached out and just dabbed at the scales. Clint tried to escape from her shoulders. She pulled him back
“Not so cold,” he said. “Super.”
“I see. And you feed him on…?”
“Dead or alive?”
“I just chuck them in his basket. Sometimes nothing happens for hours, then you hear the squeaking. Only I don’t give him them often or he’d get even lazier. Wouldn’t you, you old bastard?”
And she held the python’s head with deceptive firmness as she nuzzled noses with him.
“Can I see him eat one?”
“Not feeding time.”
That was another of his magic words, like