Randal shifted his great bulk from one haunch to the other and took another suck on his beer can. The little campstool was digging uncomfortably into his bulky thighs, adding to the irritation of the whining mosquitoes and the oppressive heat of the bushveld.
“Hot, isn’t it?” Martin took a sip of his iced gin and tonic.
Randal glared across the campfire at his son, immaculate in well-cut khaki shorts and designer tee shirt. Only a poofter like Martin would dress well for the bush.
He gritted his teeth. Two nights in the company of this miserable excuse for a son was about all he could take and Randal felt his blood pressure rising just thinking about the money he’d wasted on this weekend.
By day, Martin had avoided conversation with his father by walking around with headphones clamped to his ears. Listening to classical music, if you please, amongst the thorn trees.
At night, instead of enjoying a few beers and talking about the animals his father had so nearly managed to shoot, Martin had chosen to read his ridiculous esoteric books about the soul and the power of the mind.
Father and son bonding- what a laugh! For the last twenty years they’d had nothing to say to each other and two days spent tramping silently through the bush in search of a non-existent lion wasn’t going to change a thing. Frankly, he’d been surprised when Martin had suggested this weekend of togetherness and had only agreed when his wife begged him to give it a try.
“He’s our only child, dear,” she said, looking at him with those pathetic spaniel eyes of hers. “If anything should happen to you, it would terrible if you were still at odds with each other.”
“By happen, you mean if my heart should happen to give out and I should happen to die,” said Randal curtly. “Leaving you a very rich widow. Don’t worry, I have no intention of giving you or that long drink of water you call your son that satisfaction. Dr Abrahams says I’m good for another twenty years if I remember those pills.”
“Martin’s got so many wonderful qualities,” said his wife quietly. “If only you’d give him a chance. He’s the kindest and most perceptive person I know and everyone thinks he’s clever, and amusing. He’s well read, he goes to concerts and plays, and he has lots of friends. Why can’t you try and like him? He’s your son, even if you don’t agree with everything he does.”
Randal looked at Martin, fiddling with a piece of rope, teasing the ends and plaiting them in a complicated pattern. Bloody hairdresser. He should have sent him to the army to knock some sense into him. Now it was too late – he had a son who earned his living arranging mannequins in a department store and spent his spare time dressing up and prancing about on the stage with some damn fool amateur dramatics. Probably just went along for the make-up and fancy dress.
Randal crushed his beer can in frustration and hurled it into the shadows beyond the fire.
Martin rose gracefully and retrieved it, smiling apologetically at his father.
“Got to keep the camp clean,” he murmured, and put it in the bin.
“I’m turning in,” growled Randal abruptly. “We’re making an early start.”
He washed perfunctorily in the little enamel basin and swallowed his heart tablets, taking care that Martin didn’t see. The fact that this traitorous organ threatened to let him down while he was still in the prime of life was no concern of his son.
But heart or no heart, he was always on top of things, king of the heap. Amalgamating with Thompson’s was a brilliant move and he couldn’t wait to get back to town to conclude the deal.
He settled himself on the canvas stretcher and, ignoring the spectacular panoply of stars in the African night sky, he fell asleep before Martin had finished his drink.
“Dad. Dad.” Martin’s voice in his ear was low and insistent. “Wake up but don’t move. Keep absolutely still.”
“Huh?” Randal tried to sit up but Martin held him down with surprising strength.
“A snake’s just disappeared under your blanket. It must be lying next to you somewhere.”
Randal’s mouth went dry. A snake. He hated snakes.
“What kind of snake?” A treacherous tremor in his voice. Probably a mole snake, nothing to be worried about.
“It’s kind of bright yellow. About three feet long.
A Cape Cobra. Just about the most poisonous snake in Africa.
He turned his head very slowly and looked at Martin, shocked. “Do something.”
“What do you suggest? I can’t just whip off the blanket and hit it with my shoe. It might bite me. Or you. Just lie perfectly still and wait for it to go away.”
Martin sounded unnaturally calm. Stupid fool probably didn’t realise the seriousness of the situation.
Both men stared at the grey blanket covering Randal. .
“Can you feel it?” whispered Martin. “I can’t see the tail any longer. It must have settled against your body.”
Randal flexed his leg muscles and felt something move slightly. Something rough and dry.
“Yes,” he mouthed. “It’s up near my groin. Dear God, one bite and I’m a dead man.”
“Don’t be silly Dad, the thing isn’t a man eater. It will go away in its own good time.”
“You know absolutely nothing, about snakes or anything else. You’re useless. Why didn’t you stop the snake when you saw it?”
Martin stared at him wordlessly, then gently lifting the corner of the blanket at the end of the stretcher, he peered underneath.
“STOP THAT!” hissed Randal, lying rigid. “Do you want the damn thing to bite me?”
The snake seemed to move upwards in protest and stopped with its head resting on Randal’s stomach.
His breath was coming in short gasps and he felt his chest tighten ominously, as it had before his first attack.
Take it easy, he told himself. Deep breaths. Relax. The snake slid ever so slightly forward under his vest.
“I could wake old Moses,” suggested Martin. “He’s got a gun.” The tracker was sleeping under a tree some distance from their camp.
“And have him shoot me in the stomach? Don’t be more of an idiot than you can help.”
Never had a sensible idea in his life, that boy.
Prickly sweat was pouring down Randal’s face and blurring his vision. He desperately wanted to wipe his eyes but dared not move and his tongue had swollen to a lump of dry wadding in his mouth. He whispered with difficulty, “Water.”
Martin rose quickly and filled a cup from the bucket. He supported his father’s head and Randal gulped noisily, the water spilling out the sides of his mouth. As he did so he felt the reptile move again. Must be longer than three feet, he thought, trying to remember what sort of venom a cobra produced.
If only he’d packed a snakebite outfit. Would it be a slow death as his muscles gradually stiffened or would he die within minutes, writhing in agony and foaming at the mouth?
He had a sudden, clear picture of Martin at six years, wetting himself as he cowered in terror waiting for his father’s thick leather belt to descend. He felt a momentary shame at his past behaviour then realised with horror that hot liquid was running down his own leg. I’ve pissed myself, he thought, humiliated.
Randal could hear his heart pounding and his throat started to close, every breath an almighty effort. He wanted to sit up and throw back his chest to let in some air, but he knew if he did that the cobra would sink its fangs into his chest .
Hot, agonising flashes lasered up his neck into his jaw.
“My pills,” he tried to say, but a strangulated groan was all he could manage.
“Keep still, Dad.” Martin took his father’s hand in his own. “Just wait it out. Don’t panic.”
The snake moved again and Randal felt an almighty, paralysing pain explode in his chest, blotting out the pale face above him and sending him spiralling into darkness.
Martin released the lifeless hand and stared at the body of his father. That’s done, he exulted silently, unable to keep from smiling. He felt inordinately light and free, and the frivolous thought struck him that the past hour or so would make a pretty good one – act play for the Spotlight Drama Group. His three years of weekly acting classes had really paid off and perhaps it was time to try his hand at writing a short play. He’d call it The Power of Thought. Or maybe Mind Games.
Before he switched on his mobile to phone his mother with the news of mission accomplished, Martin remembered to pull out the long piece of rope from under the blanket. Useful stuff, rope.