The Day I Fried a Snake

“I saved my pocket money for three weeks. I didn’t buy anything. No comics, no crisps, no sweets. I went to a pet shop and bought this tiny green snake instead. A grass snake they called it. When I got home I played with the snake. It felt warm and soft. I was scared but I still had to hold it. I liked the way it wrapped itself round my fingers like an electric shoelace. And then…. then I realised. I could never keep it. Not as a pet. Where would it sleep? What would it eat? Where would it go when I went to school? It was a stupid thing to to buy. So I had to get rid of it. But how? All sorts of things occurred to me: flush it down the toilet, bury it, throw it from a tower block. But all the while another thought was taking shape. A thought so wonderful it seemed the only thing to do. So I got a frying pan and put it on the gas stove. I put a bit of butter in the pan and turned the gas up full. The fat started to crackle and smoke. I dropped the snake into the frying pan. It span round and round and its skin burst open like the skin of a sausage. It took ages to die. Its tiny mouth opened and closed and its black eyes exploded. But it was wonderful to watch.” – Presley’s monologue, from The Pitchfork Disney by Philip Ridley, 1991.

The piece you see above was both the best and worst thing I ever had to perform during my A-Level Drama course. I loved it because it was surreal and it gave everyone who ever heard it the shivers, but on the other hand it was also the closest I have ever come to suffering for my art. I never read Philip Ridley’s full play, so I can’t tell you about the context behind it, but I found this in a book of monologues for students and just knew immediately that it could be a winner. A large part of our grades for the course was due to come from our monologues – but unlike our previous end-of-year performances, to which we could invite anyone we liked, these would be given only to the rest of the class, our teacher and the visiting examiner. By this point, my class only actually consisted of a handful of other people, but I was glad of this when it came to choosing my piece as I knew I would have a smaller and more intimate group to try and unsettle. But how would I do this? I needed to gross them out in some way, and after a week or two of thought I knew exactly what to do. I needed to fry the snake in front of their eyes, leaving them open-mouthed and speechless in response…

OK, so frying an actual snake wouldn’t have gone down well with the examiner or the RSPCA, so instead I had to find what I’ll call a “stunt snake”. This came in the somewhat predictable form of a raw sausage, which would slide around in a real frying pan and be squashed and manipulated mercilessly in my fingers as though it were alive. Having taken a trip to Tesco so that I would have some bangers to hand, I made sure I had one on my person for rehearsals the next day – as well as a pan borrowed from the kitchen. Sure enough, my plan for the piece worked like a dream, even though I realised I was going to have a problem with raw sausage meat getting stuck underneath my fingernails. Even when I washed my hands vigorously after every run through, it wouldn’t always budge immediately – this is what I meant by suffering for my art. As time went by, however, this soon became a very small price to pay, because the end result was something I became immensely proud of. In just two minutes or so, I had the chance to perform something that would completely captivate its tiny audience – not because of me, but because it was sheer surrealism in the truest sense. For once, I couldn’t wait for exam day.

Now, let’s bypass all of the build-up to the big moment and cut directly to the chase. Imagine me there, with my lamp, frying pan and stunt snake ready on the table, being given the signal by the examiner to begin the monologue. What residual noise there was has now completely died away and I am now alone in my performance space, with only my meticulously-rehearsed lines in my head for company. They’ll never desert me, surely?

Wrong. For the first and only time in any Drama lesson, I drew a complete and total blank. I searched frantically for my opening lines, but there was only rolling tumbleweed for what seemed like a lifetime. It got to a point where I was sure I was only seconds away from being failed and ushered back into the audience – and it was then that the piece spluttered into life as I remembered what I was supposed to say. I sailed through the remaining dialogue with ease, but the silence at the beginning was still in my thoughts, overshadowing everything else. I was convinced that I had totally sabotaged my own A-Level grade, and that for my classmates, the teacher and the examiner, it was also the elephant in the room. The biggest surprise would be saved for last, however, when it transpired that nobody in the audience actually noticed I’d forgotten my lines, and that the examiner thought the resulting pause was for dramatic effect. I believe it actually ended up improving my mark slightly – but unfortunately it wasn’t enough to prevent my D overall…




Chinese Whispers

We’ve probably all participated in at least one game of Chinese Whispers at some point, when a group sits in a circle to listen to a buzzword or phrase become increasingly warped as it passes from ear to ear. In a carefree, social context like that it can be good fun, but Chinese Whispers are of course present in real life too, mainly in the form of upsetting and potentially damaging rumours. Some are today’s news and tomorrow’s chip paper, whilst others linger like bad smells for prolonged periods of time – with each assumed form being even worse than the last. They are constantly evolving monsters, and there can be no guessing what might happen next or when they might end. With that in mind, I asked some of my friends what the best and worst rumours they had ever heard about themselves were, and in one particular case I was pleasantly surprised to find a more positive way of looking at them.

The idea for this post originated with Emily, when one of our recent conversations drifted towards the aforementioned rumours. I promised not to mention any of them here, but I feel like I must say how uplifting it was to see the way in which she reacted to them. She would have had every right to spout pure bile and vitriol towards those responsible for spinning all of this, but instead chooses to look back on it almost as though it forms a fond teenage memory. “If you’re not laughing,” she told me, “it’s just sad. And no-one wants that.” I suppose that in refusing to be put down by what others are saying about her, Emily is depriving any given rumour of the oxygen it needs to thrive, and is therefore killing a parasite before it can breed and snowball into something more devastating. What’s more, she’s doing so with equal doses of humour and a thick and resilient (but never cold) skin.

Maybe the fact that Emily has had to deal with a certain number of these rumours means that her character has developed to some extent. I don’t know how she felt the very first time she heard something about herself, but perhaps she’s now better equipped to deal with the harsher aspects of life than she was, say, seven years ago, when we first met. She seemed to prove me right in her end summary, quite bluntly closing the matter with: “I’ve just learned to get on with shit.” Right. Can’t get much clearer than that. I then asked her if I could quote that to close this post – and, like the pussycat she really is, she said it was fine, followed by a smiley face. See? Hardened resilience, and then the more typical soft warmth that you can find under almost any set of circumstances. Good old Em!


Arriving Unannounced

I was sat at the kitchen table when I saw it, just the other week. Behind me, a window above the sink displayed the garden, which was still but not quite tranquil. Whilst there was no wind to disturb a single leaf or branch, there was no warmth or sunshine either, and so the lawn and its many accompanying plants were a somewhat unremarkable sight on this particular day. It tended not to interest me anyway, and my attention was indeed commanded by my laptop, at which I was typing away eagerly with only a mug of tea for company. The brightness of the screen had been turned down to preserve battery power, so the light from the great outdoors shone heavily on the screen. In this was reflected myself and everything behind me – cupboards, the kettle and the aforementioned window. 

Very little is capable of breaking my concentration when I am engrossed in typing, but I would soon be stopped instantly in my tracks when the bottom-left hand corner showed me a most unexpected but intriguing visitor. Framed perfectly by the right-angle of the laptop corner, I was sure that a face had appeared for a split second in the window, as though someone was standing on the garden path that ran in front of it. I initially thought that maybe it was Dad, but if that had been the case, I would have recognised him immediately. Instead, I struggled to make out any features at all. No eyes, ears, nose, mouth or hair. No clothing of any kind. It was almost like whoever I had seen was merely a silhouette.

My reaction to this seemingly shapeless figure was what surprised me the most. I did not wheel round to see if anyone or anything was actually there. I was not scared, and I did not fear for my safety. The possibility of the visitor being an intruder or even a ghost – if you believe in that sort of thing – never crossed my mind. I was as cool as a cucumber and, interestingly, I found myself thinking back to somebody I used to know, but unfortunately am no longer in contact with. I had always longed for a reconciliation since we last spoke, and this desire had intensified more than ever in the weeks leading up to this visitation. I imagined the visitor taking the form of this person and granting me my dearest wish, but sadly it was not to be. As I have already said, the appearance was fleeting, but the impact it made has lasted. Some unexpected visitors are cold callers, frowned upon by those on the receiving end and swiftly forgotten once the encounter is over. Mine, however, had the effect of causing me to reminisce about better times, and hope once again that they may be rekindled one day. Perhaps it was less of a ghost, and more of an angel.