Country Life: Brian Viner

Rattling tale of the prodiigal snake
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The Independent Online

The other day, while looking for evidence of life in the main border, which in a few months will be ablaze with colour but currently looks as stubbly, bedraggled and generally sorry for itself as George Michael after a big night out, I found life where I had least been expecting it.

A rubber snake caught my eye and I stooped to pick it up. It is no great surprise to find rubber animals in our garden, carefully selected from the toy box by our golden retriever, Fergus, then carried outside and dumped as soon as he finds something more interesting to do, like digging a hole in the lawn. But as I made contact with this rubber snake it rather unexpectedly reared its head. "Flipping heck," I cried, or words to that effect. And then, to the bewilderment of our fortnightly gardener, Alan, who happened to be with us that day and was looking over to see what the fuss was about, I took a closer look and exclaimed, joyfully, "Nigel!"

Sure enough, it was not a rubber exile from the toy box but Nigel, our corn snake, who a whole year ago managed to escape from his tank in our son Joe's bedroom and had long since been given up for dead.

From time to time we cracked jokes about Nigel's living under the floorboards, eating mice and steadily growing into the size of an anaconda, but really we felt certain that he had slithered his last. He disappeared one spring afternoon last year, when the house trembled to the sound of Joe wailing like a banshee. Joe had found the lid of Nigel's tank dislodged; and to his horror, Nigel had ssssscarpered.

We looked everywhere, especially in the airing cupboard, because corn snakes are natives of the southern states of the USA and don't like the cold...

His tank had a heat mat under it, replicating conditions in the corn fields of the Mississippi delta, whereas conditions elsewhere in our house are more reminiscent of the Scandinavian tundra. And if the cold hadn't got him, then one of the cats surely would.

My wife Jane, strangely for one who is not overly fond of reptiles, had experienced a missing snake situation before. When she was a trainee journalist in Tunbridge Wells years ago she rented a room in a house belonging to a man called Ed, who owned a 10ft python called Grover. One day, when Ed had gone out, Grover escaped.

Understandably alarmed, Jane phoned a friend of Ed's, a PE teacher, who gallantly turned up at the door half an hour later, his gallantry only slightly diminished by the fact that he was wearing the entire contents of the PE equipment room: cricket pads, wicketkeeper's gloves and a fencing mask.

Perhaps it was the Grover experience that kept Jane calm about Nigel's disappearance. Nobody wants a 10ft python at large, but a corn snake that's not much bigger than a bootlace can't do much harm.

My mother-in-law, Anne, was slightly more circumspect, and would gingerly pull the duvet back whenever she and my father-in-law, Bob, came to stay for the weekend. But even Anne managed to forget about Nigel after a while, and Joe's broken heart soon mended.

Nigel's reappearance, then, was greeted with astonishment all round. We phoned the reptile expert from Ledbury who had given him to Joe and after whom Nigel had been named, and even he was surprised. He had heard of similar stories before, he said, and knew of one snake, a West African ball python, which had turned up after three years on the run, if "run" is the correct word. But how Nigel (the snake) had got outside and where he had spent the last 12 months was as much of a mystery to Nigel (the man) as it was to us.

A few days ago Nigel came round to examine his adventurous namesake, who's now back in his tank with a heavy book weighing down the lid, and declared him fit and well. There are some marks on him suggesting that he might have fought off the odd predator, that's all, and he's a little wilder than he was, mimicking a rattlesnake by rattling his tail the first few times he was picked up. So we won't be introducing him to Ralph the hamster. But we're delighted that he's come home. It's nice to have a prodigal snake.