It’s essential to remain as calm as possible in these situations. The more excited you get the sooner it will be over – in a bad way that is – as your organs shut down, one by one. My teeth chatter. I’ve tied a tourniquet around the top of my deathly white thigh. My leg feels cold, and progressively numb. Despite the baking sun I feel as though ice is flowing through my veins. It feels strange, nice; the downside is that it’s probably the sensation of dying.
I knew the risks. It didn’t put me off, though, buying a pet snake – Gatsby, to call him by his name.
I glance at the speedometer. It says I’m doing 33 mph, that’s a little over the limit, but in the circumstances I think it’s acceptable. Why don’t I just floor it? Well, the answer is simple: I’ve never had a speeding ticket and I wouldn’t want to get one now. After all those years of paying extortionate premiums for car insurance I’d be mad to risk picking up three points. I’d be back where I started. Believe it or not, I’ve worked it out, that’s why I’ll stick to 33mph. Nobody gets pulled for 33.
Add to that I get very nervous when I see the boys in blue, even though they don’t wear blue, and they’re not boys either, not round here anyway. It’s not as though I’ve got anything to hide. I’ve never been arrested, or committed a crime, except that time I got caught by a store detective pinching CD cases; fortunately he let me off with a warning and a lifetime ban. I wonder if he would have been so lenient had he known the digital download revolution was approaching. Either way, it put an end to my life of crime.
‘Hi, nurse. You know the best thing about pet snakes? They’ve got poison-ality.’
Oh no! What is this? One lane! Filtered traffic ahead! Temporary traffic lights, cars backed up one hundred metres; I join them and count the cars approaching from opposite, the red light staring at me, provocatively. I breathe in slowly through my nose and out through my mouth, mind over matter. I’m becoming calmer and more relaxed with each moment that passes – screw you, Mckenna! What the hell is going on?
There’s an actual haze coming off the tarmac, in Manchester! Who’d have believed that? No one from Manchester, that’s for sure. I swear this is proof that global warming is real. Maybe there is no haze; maybe it’s a side effect, blurry vision. Looking ahead, the lights are still red but no cars are coming from the other side. Orange cones line the road to the next set of temporary lights, though I can’t see any actual roadworks taking place, not even a shovel, just some guys stood around in high visibility jackets, talking, probably about Vanessa from Northampton who besides baring her knockers is currently studying for her PhD in astrophysics.
I know what I need to do; it’s called finding your happy place, avoid thoughts that can send you into a downwards spiral. Okay, it’s a wonderful day, weather-wise… although come to think of it surely it would make sense for the lights to switch when traffic is only flowing in one direction. I mean, how hard is it to incorporate motion sensors to traffic lights? Behind me, cars are now backing up to the last junction. Please God, let the lights turn green.
They turn green, but there’s no movement, I’m not sure what’s happening. The large black 4×4 at the front isn’t moving. I’m guessing the driver must be otherwise engaged with something terribly important: on a conference call, asking Max how many words he knows in Spanish, or maybe he figured now would be a good a time as any to fiddle around with that baby seat. There’s a honk. Still no movement; more cars honk, there’s a musical quality to it despite there being no harmony, a bit like jazz.
Obviously, they are on their way back to the farm. Who behind this pedestrian mower could have anything to do more important than that? Certainly not a thirty-something blue collar worker, with an egg timer counting down his last moments on earth.
‘Hi, nurse. I’m not sure if you’ve seen a snake bite before, but it’s essential you don’t become hiss-terical.’
Eventually the 4×4 moves off and, hallelujah, one after another they follow. By the time the banger in front of me juts forward, the lights have turned red again. Arghhh! The car in front of me is a Fiesta, an old one – where did the driver find it? Dredged from the bottom of the River Mersey, no doubt; the smoke billowing out of the exhaust is thick and black. I can’t believe he got that through emissions – and they go on about China! As the black smog he’s pumping out of his timepiece billows above the trees lining the road, birds are practically dropping off the branches. I close the vents before I die from carbon monoxide poisoning.
As I inch forward I over-rev on the gas. Why don’t I call the hospital? Dial 999 for an ambulance or something? Well, in the chaos that ensued after Gatsby bit me, tying a rope around my leg and waiting for an ambulance would take too long. I’ve read and heard too many stories of cases where people waited hours for an ambulance to arrive and died in the process.
Living near the hospital, I figured I would take myself there, it would be quicker and I could save the taxpayer money in the process. I left my phone on the kitchen table as I grabbed the keys. With hindsight I appreciate I wasn’t thinking too clearly, but who would? Bear in mind, I wasn’t wearing trousers and so didn’t feel the normal urge to fill my pockets.
It’s always useful to have a plan B. I could scream for help at a passing pedestrian, but who would stop? Answer: no one. To convince them I’d need to lure them nearer, so they could take a peep at the bite. Imagine that? ‘Just come over here, just a little bit closer, don’t be afraid, you’re nearly there, you can see if…’ The best I could hope for is that they would call the police: ‘Is this the police? (Yes). There’s this guy in a car, a pervert I think…Why? Well, he’s not wearing any trousers… (No trousers, you say…) Yeah, none, just boxers…’ The police would love that, at the ready with itchy fingers and tasers fully charged. Bad way to go. I can see the headlines. Cruising pervert lured victims to look at his snake-bite tasered to death. Forget that, I’m better off just sitting here and waiting.
‘Hi, nurse. You can see the bite as I’m not wearing trousers. So you won’t need the scisss-ors.’
Finally, the traffic is moving – yes! I’m through. But thanks to my dead leg over- revving in first gear I’m drawing the attention of the road workers who probably think I’m driving without a licence. As numb as a log it is – the leg – and I hope it won’t have to be amputated. That would be a shame, though I’d probably get six months off work, which would be nice. Swings and roundabouts.
I follow the signs for the hospital. Nearly there. I’m sweating profusely even though I rarely sweat. Actually, I never sweat. I guess perspiration is one of the symptoms of the poisoning; my eyes feel sensitive to the light so I pull down the sun visor.
As I pass through the hospital gate I follow the road to the entrance of the building and stop outside. There are three ambulances parked up and empty; I guess it’s a quiet day. I can’t see anyone around; I thought someone would come running out like on Casualty. Are they open? It’s not bank holiday, is it? What do I have to do? Get out and crawl in?
I see a woman dressed in a blue uniform, talking to a guy dressed in green, who have spotted me. I look back, I’m not sure but I think they’re talking about me, actually I’m certain of it. By the daggers they’re giving me you’d swear I was a potential fly-tipper. I think they’re smoking, it doesn’t seem very professional, welcoming patients to A&E with nurses holding death sticks, especially while I’m trying to quit. They exhale clouds of smoke; yes they’re definitely smoking, outside a hospital!
I check my watch, and it’s 11:53, about half an hour since the bite, and I’ve got to get anti-venom. Fast. I wave the smokers over, and wind the window down as they come. The first thing I notice is her bright blue eyes; she’s attractive, I hope not too attractive. I feel a flutter; maybe I should change focus. This lady’s not for turning. Phew!
‘Hi, Maggie,’ I say.
‘My name’s not Maggie.’
‘I’ve been bitten by a snake, I need treatment. Can you help?’ I ask.
She responds, ‘Do you realise this is antenatal?’ She smells of cigarettes, it’s wonderful, she must have a spare. ‘Don’t move I’ll call for help,’ she says.
The guy in green says, ‘Just stay relaxed, mate.’ He gets me into his ambulance and drives me to A&E in another building nearby.
I explain everything to the doctor; he’s an Indian chap with nicely combed hair, lots of hair wax wafting around, his skin shines with a healthy glow, and he seems overly relaxed as he asks me question after question about Gatsby.
Next I’m lying on a gurney, while he takes out his torch and asks me to look up before shining it into my eyes. He puts his stethoscope to my chest, he doesn’t act concerned, which is unusual in the circumstances but then again he’s probably seen it all. Next, he’s holding a thermometer. Before I have time to lie on my front he pops it into my mouth. I’m shivering; I bet this is what happens as you enter the final stages. I never thought I would end up like Socrates, aware of this gradual decent into the underworld. Maybe I should be writing this down, documenting for the benefit of mankind my journey of no return, how I faced it stoically and with courage. I do feel strangely calm, I’ve accepted it. I suppose I should feel angry, with the doctor for wasting valuable time, with the 4×4 and the roadworks, and with Gary who sold me the snake in the first place. I never had a pet before, well, apart from Sydney the goldfish, who died before his time – who knew you could overfeed a goldfish? I felt guilty, like I was somehow to blame.
I named my pet snake Gatsby because his previous name was Andrew. What kind of nut job would name a snake Andrew? Anyway, he didn’t seem to mind the name change, not that he ever responded to any anything I said or did, not until I came crashing through the ceiling of his vivarium, then he must have thought I was a giant mouse.
Gary had a friend who was moving into a room in a house following a messy split with his girlfriend. He had to move out and needless to say a snake was surplus to requirements. Gary touted it about; with a cut, I’m sure. One poisonous snake with vivarium for sale, only one previous owner. At first I was like, you’ve got to be joking, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought, why not? I mean it’s not as if he’s going to roam around the house, I don’t have to take him for walks, or clean up his hair from the carpet or pick up his crap with a plastic bag in the park. It’s like having a housemate without having to talk to them. Ok, I have to feed him corpses of dead mice on a regular basis, maybe a live one every now and then for a treat, but he doesn’t leave a mess in the bathroom or pinch my cheese and then deny it, leaving me no alternative but to cancel his shorthold tenancy agreement. So there he is, in the box room (Gatsby, not Bryan my former lodger), below bookshelves inside the large Perspex box; the green light was nice. Guests are always impressed–
‘You’re fine,’ the doctor repeats. ‘We’ll keep you in for some more tests but the bite wasn’t poisonous.’
‘What? But it’s a poisonous snake!’
‘You’ve no symptoms of venom poisoning. I’ve checked everything, sir, you’re perfectly fine, sir. Your blood pressure is a little elevated but that would be expected.’
‘Yes, sir, you had a very, very big shock; you thought you were going to die,’ he says smiling, his teeth, like snow, sparkle. Has he had work done? And by whom?
‘But my leg, it feels odd, it’s tingling.’
‘That’s pins and needles, my friend.’
‘Pins and needles?’
‘Your leg was strapped very tightly for 45 minutes; without blood flowing your leg went to sleep. Blood is pumping fine now, and you’ve got pins and needles, but no permanent damage.’
‘So I’m fine?’
‘Yes. You must be very relieved?’
‘Yes, the snake you have is not venomous. Is he in trouble when you get back?’
‘Who knows. I’m sure we’ll hiss and make up.’
‘I wouldn’t recommend that, sir,’ he says, with a slight look of concern, probably for the snake.
The doctor leaves, reminding me to buy step ladders, before closing the blue curtain around me. I sit there on the bed, thinking. I can hear whispers and sniggers all around; the curtain twitches and nurses peep in, one of whom even had the audacity, without shame, to pull the curtain back, gawp at me, my leg, and then hold her mouth with both hands as though she was about to vomit before scurrying away. She’s still laughing and snorting behind the curtain now, like a hog in a trough.
Three hours later I’m on my way home. ‘You must be relieved.’ I repeat those words again and again.
I open the front door, and go into the kitchen; I find my phone, power 23%, unbelievable! It was fully charged this morning. Smart but bloody useless. It should be enough for a phone call; I call Gary. It rings.
‘Hi mate, how’s it going?’
‘“How’s it going?” It’s about Gatsby. I’ve just found out he’s as dangerous as my Gran’s vegetable soup, which is very unpleasant, but that’s not the same thing, now, is it?’
After a pause, Gary says, ‘Who the hell is Gatsby?’
Leon lives and works in Manchester, England. His short story (Silver Balloon) placed third in the Henshaw Press Short Story Competition and is included in the latest anthology. Other published and upcoming stories of his can be found on CommuterLit.com (Mr. Tiddles), Cafelit (Roller Coaster) and The Fiction Pool (Separation).