Roald Dahl’s “Poison”
It must have been around midnight when I drove home, and as I approached the gates of the bungalow. I switched off the headlamps of the car so the beam wouldn’t swing in through the window of the side bedroom and wake Harry Pope. But I needn’t have bothered. Coming up the drive I noticed his light was still on, so he was awake anyway – unless perhaps he’d dropped off while reading.
I parked the car and went up the five steps to the balcony, counting each step carefully in the dark so I wouldn’t take an extra one which wasn’t there when I got to the top. I crossed the balcony, pushed through the screen doors into the house itself and switched on the light in the hall. I went across to the door of Harry’s room, opened it quietly, and looked in.
He was lying on the bed and I could see he was awake. But he didn’t move. He didn’t even turn his head towards me, but I heard him say, ‘Timber, Timber, come here.’ He spoke slowly, whispering each word carefully, separately, and I pushed the door right open and started to go quickly across the room.
‘Stop. Wait a moment, Timber.’ I could hardly hear what he was saying. He seemed to be straining enormously to get the words out.
‘What’s the matter, Harry?’
‘Sshhh!’ he whispered. ‘Sshhh! For God’s sake don’t make a noise. Take your shoes off before you come nearer, Please do as I say, Timber.’ The way he was speaking reminded me of George Barling after he got shot in the stomach when he stood leaning against a crate containing a spare aeroplane engine, holding both hands on his stomach and saying things about the German pilot in just the same hoarse straining half whisper Harry was using now.
‘Quickly, Timber, but take your shoes off first.’ I couldn’t understand about taking off the shoes but I figured that if he was as ill as he sounded I’d better humour him, so I bent down and removed the shoes and left them in the middle of the floor. Then I went over to his bed.
‘Don’t touch the bed! For God’s sake don’t touch the bed!’ He was still speaking like he’d been shot in the stomach and I could see him lying there on his back with a single sheet covering three-quarters of his body. He was wearing a pair of pajamas with blue, brown, and white stripes, and he was sweating terribly. It was a hot night and I was sweating a little myself, but not like Harry. His whole face was wet and the pillow around his head was sodden with moisture. It looked like a bad go of malaria to me.
‘What is it, Harry?’ ‘A krait,’ he said.
A krait! Oh, my God! Where’d it bite you? How long ago?’ Shut up,’ he whispered. ‘Listen, Harry,’ I said, and I leaned forward and touched his shoulder. ‘We’ve got to be quick. Come on now, quickly, tell me where it bit you.’ He was lying there very still and tense as though he was holding on to himself hard because of sharp pain.
‘I haven’t been bitten,’ he whispered, ‘Not yet. It’s on my stomach. Lying there asleep.’ I took a quick pace backwards. I couldn’t help it, and I stared at his stomach or rather at the sheet that covered it. The sheet was rumpled in several places and it was impossible to tell if there was anything underneath. ‘You don’t really mean there’s a krait lying on your stomach now?’ ‘I swear it.’ ‘How did it get there?’ I shouldn’t have asked the question because it was easy to see he wasn’t fooling. I should have told him to keep quiet.
‘I was reading,’ Harry said, and he spoke very slowly, taking each word in turn and speaking it carefully so as not to move the muscles of his stomach. ‘Lying on my back reading and I felt something on my chest, behind the book. Soft of tickling.
Then out of the corner of my eye saw this little krait sliding over my pyjamas. Small, about ten inches. Knew I mustn’t move. Couldn’t have anyway. Lay there watching it. Thought it would go over top of the sheet.’ Harry paused and was silent for a few moments. His eyes looked down along his body towards the place where the sheet covered his stomach, and I could see he was watching to make sure his whispering wasn’t disturbing the thing that lay there.
‘There was a fold in the sheet,’ he said, speaking more slowly than ever now and so softly I had to lean close to hear him.
‘See it, it’s still there. It went under that. I could feel it through my pyjamas, moving on my stomach. Then it stopped moving and now it’s lying there in the warmth. Probably asleep. I’ve been waiting for you.’ Re raised his eyes and looked at me.
‘How long ago?’
‘Hours,’ he whispered. ‘Hours and bloody hours and hours, I can ‘t keep still much longer. I’ve been wanting to cough.’ There was not much doubt about the truth of Harry’s story.
As a matter of fact it wasn’t a surprising thing for a krait to do. They hang around people’s houses and they go for the warm places. The surprising thing was that Harry hadn’t been bitten. The bite is quite deadly except sometimes when you catch it at once and they kill a fair number of people each year in Bengal, mostly in the villages. ‘All right, Harry’ I said, and now I was whispering too.
‘Don’t move and don’t talk any more unless you have to, you know it won’t bite unless it’s frightened. We’ll fix it in no time.’ I went softly out of the room in my stocking feet and fetched a small sharp knife from the kitchen. I put it in my trouser pocket ready to use instantly in case something went wrong while we were still thinking out a plan. If Harry coughed or moved or did something to frighten the krait and got bitten, I was going to be ready to cut the bitten place and try to suck the venom out. I came back to the bedroom and Harry was still lying there very quiet and sweating all over his face. His eyes followed me as I moved across the room to his bed and I could see he was wondering what I’d been up to. I stood beside him, trying to think of the best thing to do.
‘Harry,’ I said, and now when I spoke I put my mouth almost on his ear so I wouldn’t have to raise my voice above the softest whisper, ‘I think the best thing to do is for me to draw the sheet back very, very gently. Then we could have a look first. I think I could do that without disturbing it.’ ‘Don’t be a damn fool.’ There was no expression in his voice. He spoke each word too slowly, too carefully, and too softly for that. The expression was in the eyes and around the corners of the mouth.
‘The light would frighten him. It’s dark under there now.’ ‘Then how about whipping the sheet back quick and brushing it of! before it has time to strike?’ ‘Why don’t you get a doctor?’ Harry said. The way he looked at me told me I should have thought of that myself in the first place.
‘A doctor. Of course. That’s it. I’ll get Ganderbai.’ I tiptoed out to the hall, looked up Ganderbai’s number in the book, lifted the phone and told the operator to hurry .
‘Dr Ganderbai,’ I said. ‘This is Timber Woods.’ ‘Hello, Mr Woods. You not in bed yet?’ ‘Look, could you come round at once? And bring serum for a krait bite.’ ‘Who’s been bitten?’ The question came so sharply it was like a small explosion in my ear.
‘No one. No one yet. But Harry Pope’s in bed and he’s got one lying on his stomach – asleep under the sheet on his stomach.’ For about three seconds there was silence on the line. Then speaking slowly, not like an explosion now but slowly, precisely, Ganderbai said, ‘Tell him to keep quite still. He is not to move or to talk. Do you understand?’ ‘Of course.’ ‘I’ll come at once!’ He rang off and I went back to the bedroom. Harry’s eyes watched me as I walked across to his bed.
‘Ganderbai’s coming. He said for you to lie still.’ ‘What in God’s name does he think I’m doing!’ ‘Look, Harry , he said no talking. Absolutely no talking. Either of us.’ ‘Why don’t you shut up then?’ When he said this, one side of his mouth started twitching with rapid little downward movements that continued for a while after he finished speaking. I took out my handkerchief and very gently I wiped the sweat off his face and neck, and I could feel the slight twitching of the muscle – the one be used for smiling – as my fingers passed over it with the handkerchief. I slipped out to the kitchen, got some ice from the ice-box, rolled it up in a napkin, and began to crush it small. That business of the mouth, I didn’t like that. or the way he talked either. I carried the ice pack back to the bedroom and laid it across Harry’s forehead.
‘Keep you cool.’ He screwed up his eyes and drew breath sharply through his teeth. ‘Take it away: he whispered, ‘Make me cough,’ His smiling-muscle began to twitch again.
The beam of a headlamp shone through the window as Ganderbai’s car swung around to the front of the bungalow I went out to meet him, holding the ice pack with both hands.
‘How is it?’ Ganderbai asked. but he didn’t stop to talk; he walked on past me across the balcony and through the screen doors into the hall. ‘Where is he? Which room?’ He put his bag down on a chair in the hall and followed me into Harry’s room. He was wearing soft-soled bedroom slippers and be walked across the floor noiselessly, delicately, like a careful cat. Harry watched him out of the sides of his eyes. When Ganderbai reached the bed be looked down at Harry and smiled, confident and reassuring, nodding his head to tell Harry it was a simple matter and he was not to worry but just to leave it to Dr Ganderbai, Then he turned and went back to the hall and I followed him.
‘First thing is to try to get some serum into him’, he said and he opened his bag and started to make preparations.
‘Intravenously. But I must do it neatly. Don ‘t want to make him flinch.’ We went into the kitchen and he sterilised a needle. He had a hypodermic syringe in one hand and a small bottle in the other and he stuck the needle through the rubber top of the bottle and began drawing a pale yellow liquid up into the syringe by pulling out the plunger, Then he handed the syringe to me.
‘Hold that till I ask for it.’ He picked up the bag and together we returned to the room.
Harry’s eyes were bright now and wide open. Ganderbai bent over Harry and very cautiously, like a man handling sixteenth century lace, he rolled up the pyjama sleeve to the elbow without moving the arm. I noticed he stood well away from the bed.
He whispered, ‘I’m going to give you an injection. Serum. Just a prick but try not to move. Don’t tighten your stomach muscles. Let them go limp.’ Harry looked at the syringe. Ganderbai took a piece of red rubber tubing from his bag and slid one end under and up and around Harry’s biceps, then he tied the tubing tight with a knot. He sponged a small area of the bare forearm with alcohol, handed the swab to me and took the syringe from my hand. He held it up to the light, squinting at the calibrations, squirting out some of the yellow fluid. I stood still beside him, watching. Harry was watching too and sweating all over his face so it shone like it was smeared thick with face cream melting on his skin and running down on to the pillow.
I could see the blue vein on the inside of Harry’s forearm, swollen now because of the tourniquet, and then I saw the needle above the vein, Ganderbai holding the syringe almost flat against the arm, sliding the needle in sideways through the skin into the blue vein, sliding it slowly but so firmly it went in smooth as into cheese. Harry looked at the ceiling and closed his eyes and opened them again, but he didn’t move. When it was finished Ganderbai leaned forward putting his mouth close to Harry’s ear. ‘Now you’ll be all right even if you are bitten. But don’t move. Please don’t move. I’ll be back in a moment.’ He picked up his bag and went out to the hall and I followed, ‘Is he safe now?’ I asked.
‘No.’ ‘How safe is he?’ The little Indian doctor stood there in the hall rubbing his lower lip.
‘It must give some protection, mustn’t it?’ I asked.
He turned away and walked to the screen doors that led on to the veranda. I thought he was going through them, but he stopped this side of the doors and stood looking out into the night.
‘Isn’t the serum very good?’ I asked.
‘Unfortunately not,’ he answered without turning round. ‘It might save him. It might not. I am trying to think of something else to do.’ ‘Shall we draw the sheet back quick and brush it off before it has time to strike?. ‘Never! We are not entitled to take a risk.’ He spoke sharply and his voice was pitched a little higher than usual.
‘We can’t very well leave him lying there,’ I said. ‘He’s getting nervous.’ ‘Please! Please!’ he said, turning round, holding both hands up in the air. ‘Not so fast, please. This is not a matter to rush into bald-headed.’ He wiped his forehead with his handkerchief and stood there, frowning, nibbling his lip.
‘You see’, he said at last. ‘There is a way to do this. You know what we must do – we must administer an anaesthetic to the creature where it lies.’ It was a splendid idea.
‘It is not safe; he continued, ‘because a snake is cold-blooded and anaesthetic does not work so well or so quick with such animals, but it is better than any other thing to do. We could use ether… chloroform…’He was speaking slowly and trying to think the thing out while he talked.
‘Which shall we use?’
‘Chloroform,’ he said suddenly ‘Ordinary chloroform. That is best. ‘Now quick!’ He took my arm and pulled me towards the balcony. ‘Drive to my house! By the time you get there I will have waked up my boy on the telephone and he will show you my poisons cupboard. Here is the key of the cupboard. Take a bottle of chloroform. It has an orange label and the name is printed on it. I stay here in case anything happens. Be quick now, hurry! No, no, you don’t need your shoes!’ I drove fast and in about fifteen minutes I was back with the bottle of chloroform. Ganderbai came out of Harry’s room and met me in the hall. ‘You got it?’ he said. ‘Good, good. I just been telling him what we are going to do. But now we must hurry. It is not easy for him in there like that all this time. I am afraid he might move.’ He went back to the bedroom and I followed, carrying the bottle carefully with both hands. Harry was lying on the bed in precisely the same position as before with the sweat pouring down his cheeks. His face was white and wet. He turned his eyes towards me and I smiled at him and nodded confidently.
He continued to look at me. I raised my thumb, giving him the okay signal. He closed his eyes. Ganderbai was squatting down by the bed, and on the floor beside him was the hollow rubber tube that he had previously used as a tourniquet, and he’d got a small paper funnel fitted into one end of the tube.
He began to pull a little piece of the sheet out from under the mattress. He was working directly in line with Harry’s stomach, about eighteen inches from it, and I watched his fingers as they tugged gently at the edge of the sheet. He worked so slowly it was almost impossible to discern any movement either in his fingers or in the sheet that was being pulled. Finally he succeeded in making an opening under the sheet and he took the rubber tube and inserted one end of it in the opening so that it would slide under the sheet along the mattress towards Harry’s body. I do not know how long it took him to slide that tube in a few inches. It may have been twenty minutes, it may have been forty. I never once saw the tube move. I knew it was going in because the visible part of it grew gradually shorter, but I doubted that the krait could have felt even the faintest vibration. Ganderbai himself was sweating now, large pearls of sweat standing out ail over his forehead and along his upper lip. But his hands were steady and I noticed that his eyes were watching, not the tube in his hands, but the area of crumpled sheet above Harry’s stomach.
Without looking up, he held out a hand to me for the chloroform. I twisted out the ground-glass stopper and put the bottle right into his hand, not letting go till I was sure he had a good hold on it. Then he jerked his head for me to come closer and he whispered, ‘Tell him I’m going to soak the mattress and that it will be very cold under his body. He must be ready for that and he must not move. Tell him now.’ I bent over Harry and passed on the message.
‘Why doesn’t he get on with it?’ Harry said.
‘He’s going to now, Harry. But it’ll feel very cold, so be ready for it.’ ‘Oh, God Almighty, get on, get on!’ For the first time he raised his voice, and Ganderbai glanced up sharply, watched him for a few seconds, then went back to his business.
Ganderbai poured a few drops of chloroform into the paper funnel and waited while it ran down the tube. Then he poured some more. Then he waited again, and the heavy sickening smell of chloroform spread out over the room bringing with it faint unpleasant memories of white-coated nurses and white surgeons standing in a white room around a long white table. Ganderbai was pouring steadily now and I could see the heavy vapour of the chloroform swirling slowly like smoke above the paper funnel. He paused, held the bottle up to the light, poured one more funnelful and handed the bottle back to me. Slowly he drew out the rubber tube from under the sheet; then he stood up.
The strain of inserting the tube and pouring the chloroform must have been great, and I recollect that when Ganderbai turned and whispered to me, his voice was small and tired, ‘We’ll give it fifteen minutes just to be safe.’ leaned over to tell Harry. ‘We’re going to give it fifteen minutes, just to be safe. But it’s probably done for already.’
‘Then why for God’s sake don’t you look and see!’ Again he spoke loudly and Ganderbai sprang round, his small brown face suddenly very angry. He had almost pure black eyes and he stared at Harry and Harry’s smiling-muscle started to twitch. I took my handkerchief and wiped his wet face, trying to stroke his forehead a little for comfort as I did so.
Then we stood and waited beside the bed, Ganderbai watching Harry’s face all the time in a curious intense manner. The little Indian was concentrating all his will power on keeping Harry quiet. He never once took his eyes from the patient and although he made no sound, he seemed somehow to be shouting at him all the time, saying: Now listen, you’ve got to listen, you’re not going to go spoiling this now, d’you hear me; and Harry lay there twitching his mouth, sweating, closing his eyes, opening them, looking at me, at the sheet, at the ceiling, at me again, but never at Ganderbai. Yet somehow Ganderbai was holding him. The smell of chloroform was oppressive and it made me feel sick, but I couldn’t leave the room now. I had the feeling someone was blowing up a huge balloon and I could see it was going to burst, but I couldn’t look away.
At length Ganderbai turned and nodded and I knew he was ready to proceed. ‘You go over to the other side of the bed,’ he said. ‘We will each take one side of the sheet and draw it back together, but very slowly, please, and very quietly.’ ‘Keep still now, Harry,’ I said and I went around to the other side of the bed and took hold of the sheet. Ganderbai stood opposite me, and together we began to draw back the sheet, lifting it up clear of Harry’s body, taking it back very slowly, both of us standing well away but at the same time bending forward, trying to peer underneath it. The smell of chloroform was awful. I remember trying to hold my breath and when I couldn’t do that any longer I tried to breathe shallow so the stuff wouldn’t get into my lungs.
The whole of Harry’s chest was visible now, or rather the striped pyjama top which covered it, and then I saw the white cord of his pyjama trousers, neatly tied in a bow. A little farther and I saw a button, a mother-of-pearl button, and that was something I had never had on my pyjamas, a fly button, let alone a mother-of-pearl one. This Harry, I thought, he is very refined. It is odd how one sometimes has frivolous thoughts at exciting moments, and I distinctly remember thinking about Harry being very refined when I saw that button.
Apart from the button there was nothing on his stomach.
We pulled the sheet back faster then, and when we had uncovered his legs and feet we let the sheet drop over the end of the bed on to the floor.
‘Don’t move,’ Ganderbai said, ‘don’t move, Mr Pope’; and he began to peer around along the side of Harry’s body and under his legs.
‘We must be careful,’ he said. ‘It may be anywhere. It could be up the leg of his pyjamas.’ When Ganderbai said this, Harry quickly raised his head from the pillow and looked down at his legs. It was the first time he had moved. Then suddenly he jumped up, stood on his bed and shook his legs one after the other violently in the air. At that moment we both thought he had been bitten and Ganderbai was already reaching down into his bag for a scalpel and a tourniquet when Harry ceased his caperings and stood still and looked at the mattress he was standing on and shouted, ‘It’s not there!’ Ganderbai straightened up and for a moment he too looked at the mattress; then he looked up at Harry. Harry was all right. He hadn’t been bitten and now he wasn’t going to get bitten and he wasn’t going to be killed and everything was fine, but that didn’t seem to make anyone feel any better.
‘Mr Pope, you are of course quite sure you saw it in the first place?’ There was a note of sarcasm in Ganderbai’s voice that he would never have employed in ordinary circumstances, ‘You don’t think you might possibly have been dreaming, do you, Mr Pope?’ The way Ganderbai was looking at Harry, I realised that the sarcasm was not seriously intended. He was only easing up a bit after the strain.
Harry stood on his bed in his striped pyjamas, glaring at Ganderbai, and the colour began to spread out over his cheeks.
‘Are you telling me I’m a liar?’ he shouted.
Ganderbai remained absolutely still, watching Harry. Harry took a pace forward on the bed and there was a shining look in his eyes.
‘Why, you dirty little Hindu sewer rat!, ‘Shut up, Harry!’ I said’. ‘You dirty black-‘ ‘Harry!’ I called. ‘Shut up, Harry!’ It was terrible, the things he was saying.
Ganderbai went out of the room as though neither of us was there and I followed him and put my arm around his shoulder as he walked across the hall and out on to the balcony.
‘Don ‘t you listen to Harry,’ I said. ‘This thing’s made him so he doesn’t know what he’s saying.’ We went down the steps from the balcony to the drive and across the drive in the darkness to where his old Morris car was parked. He opened the door and got in.
‘You did a wonderful job,’ I said. ‘Thank you so very much for coming.’ ‘All he needs is a good holiday,’ he said quietly, without looking at me, then he started the engine and drove off.