(Iris, having been persuaded to join an anti-biofuels protest, found herself witnessing her own cake being thrown at the company’s CEO. In the ensuing melee, a backpack was left in her electric car, which turned out to contain a live snake. She hid it, for warmth and safety, in the family airing cupboard, until she could return it to its owner…)
Unfortunately, although Iris had remembered to get rid of the evidence smeared all over her tee shirt, she had forgotten that Malcolm, unlike most people, regarded his car as an extension of his pristine and well-ordered domestic environment, and not as the core of a mysterious time warp where you’re still fifteen – that is, a pigsty.
At six-forty-five the next morning, apparently one minute after Iris had finally fallen asleep, she was vaguely conscious of somebody getting up. She responded in the only rational way, by pulling all of the liberated duvet over her head. At seven o’clock Malcolm, washed, dressed and humming happily, removed the vacuum cleaner from the airing cupboard and took it down to the car. It was a bit heavy, but as nobody else ever emptied it, he assumed this was just several weeks of Ted and Molly’s lives compacted into a sticky grey mass.
At seven-ten he connected the extension cord from the socket by the front door, plugged it in, switched it on, and watched it spring into surreal, furious life, and hurl itself out of his hands onto the pavement. Being a calm and rational soul, he switched it off at the mains and waited until it had writhed and hissed itself into calm, before he disconnected the hose and peered warily inside.
‘MUM can you make my toast stripey and not all the butter melted in?’ Ted yelled the same breakfast order down the stairs every morning.
‘Ted, you know, I bet if we wired you up to the mains you could cook your own toast just by shouting at it.’
Iris was aware, as she smothered the offensively melted butter in raw sugar marmalade, that somebody seemed to have come in through the front door behind her, and was standing there, looming. She felt him looming, way before she heard him say:
‘Were you intending at some point to inform the rest of the household that there was a dangerous reptile in the vacuum cleaner?’
Iris managed to drop the toast onto Ted’s plate, rather than the floor, before turning round, nerving herself to stay calm. ‘Dangerous? In the vacuum cleaner? Oh, the snake. How did she get in there? How smart of her, I suppose it is a bit like a cave, with, you know, a tunnel leading into it.’
Malcolm stood there, the vacuum in one hand and the other holding, warily and at arm’s length, an undulating and rather dusty snake.
Iris glanced at them and turned her attention to the coffee and hot chocolate. ‘You didn’t switch it on, did you? She wouldn’t have liked that, not after she’d crept in to feel safe.’
‘Of course I bloody switched it on, it doesn’t work by auto-suggestion. The snake is fine. I just want to know what it’s doing in my house?’
‘Ted, your toast is ready, and there’s a lovely surprise for you here.’
Iris had had a few moments to come up with something plausible. I’m just, you know, snake-sitting it. It’s a LETS thing. Like the cakes. I look after the snake for a few days, and in exchange…’
‘…in exchange, your husband dies a natural death at a conveniently early age so you can collect on the life insurance.’
‘You don’t have life insurance.’
‘I’m beginning to think I should.’
‘Mum, I don’t like soy milk, I told you last night…. DAD! DON’T MOVE! It’s all right but there’s a…’
‘Don’t worry, Ted, your mother’s finally found a use for the vacuum cleaner.’
‘Hey! Cool! Can I feed it Mum? If it’s a Boa Boa it’ll need fish and birds, but I think that’s a Boa Amaralis from Bolivia, we might have to get some guinea fowl chicks…’
‘The snake’s only here for a day or two, and so far she seems very happy with Porkinson’s. Come here, Pepita, Malcolm can’t drink his coffee and wear you at the same time. Ted, you just try this soy milk, it’s utterly different I promise and anyhow I’ve made it into hot chocolate, just for a treat.’
Iris uncoiled the snake from Malcolm and made for the stairs. He picked up his coffee, looked at it warily, and took a sip. Apparently it was acceptable.
‘Before we get too comfortable, is the rest of your family allowed to know what other predatory life-forms are sharing the local eco-system? Any piranhas in the toilet cistern? Tarantulas in the bathtub?’
‘Don’t be silly. MOLLY, triple chemistry this morning, another chance to blow up the school!’
‘That wasn’t soy milk in their drinks, was it?’
Iris was still wearing the snake round her neck, and at first she thought the hissing was Pepita making conversation.
‘Well – strictly speaking, no. But you saw how they reacted to the semolina pudding. At least, I have to assume you saw. Being ubiquitous and all.’
‘So you’re still proposing to save your entire species from self-destruction, but you can’t muster the nerve to wean your own family off milk?’
‘Look, I don’t like to make a point of this, but it’s not as though you’ve ever had much experience of eating and drinking, is it? I mean, anybody who can think wine and wafer biscuits are the same as blood and raw human flesh…’
‘If you know enough to know that, you’ll also no doubt remember that I took carnal form for a number of years. I seem to remember the meze were rather good in Old Jerusalem… and there was that delicious bread and fish beside the Red Sea…’
‘Yes, well, if I could work miracles, I’d make soy taste like something actually intended for human consumption. But unfortunately, not having been given miraculous powers to go with my rather heavy calling, I have to rely on a bit of ethical gymnastics. If I tell them this Extra Creamy Organic Guernsey milk is soy, and they like it, then they’ll go round telling everybody else how delicious soy milk is, and the vegan cause will have a whole lot of new converts, won’t it?’
‘I see. That’s a new one. Tell me, I’ve forgotten – were you raised by Jesuits?