The snake decided on a swift tack towards George. I was surprised how quickly the flushed reptile covered the ground – the word was glide. It was oddly beautiful and quite mesmerising, yet at the same time terrible; some ancient wiring in the brain interpreting this motion as unambiguous bad news.
George remained rooted to the spot, as if the shock had tripped a cerebral switch. Rather than beat a hasty retreat, his heavy body opted instead for a comedy jig. I was immediately put in mind of a West Country Homer Simpson, the balding hayseed sprinkling his routine with a series of staccato shrieks. l started to laugh but George was in no place to see the funny side, his face whey-pale and eyes, little full moons fixed on the reptile.
With a whoop and a squawk, the old farmer raised his stick. At that moment I barked at him not to kill the snake. The ferocity of my order threw him, the terror in his face contorted in pantomime incredulity, as if hit across the chops with a large, wet fish. Before he could compute what was happening, the adder shot between his legs and out under the barn door.
George twitched and jumped a couple of times in the air. I was suddenly watching bad ballet, Nureyev gone to seed. The farmer then ran about a bit, and threw his stick at the barn door, cursing. I tried to calm him down and congratulate him on his courage under fire, as well as his grace in sparing the creature. But he was still distressed, the surging relief of seeing the reptile gone in a head on collision with the adrenalin coursing through him. I suggested we go back to the wagon and have a cup of tea.
Slowly, very slowly, George calmed and started to warm to the idea that he had displayed a certain heroism.‘Some men would have crumbled’, I observed. George, mouth full of fruit cake, nodded, his barren dome beaded with sweat. Swallowing the moist cud, he raised his chin and gave it to me Devon-straight: ‘Thing is neighbour, fear’s not a country in my vocabulary.’