From my experience in Johore, I seemed to remember that the victim would first of all get a high temperature, followed by palpitations and haemorrhaging. James listened to this description with horrified fascination.

In addition to his achievements in his previous career in music and the culinary arts, James had also claimed some past measure of success on stage and screen. In the course of the next 30 minutes, he produced what surely must have been the greatest thespian performance of his life. One by one, he discovered each of the symptoms I had described to him, and one by one he milked them to the limits of their dramatic possibilities.

His temperature was, he claimed, rising rapidly. “No,” I said reassuringly, “It seems quite normal to me.” “Look Boss, I am beginning to sweat.” He hung on to the side of the kitchen door, hand to brow, like Hamlet in the death scene. He half-fell across the dining-table. His eyes rolled horribly in his skull.

In a choking voice, he gave me explicit instructions regarding the funeral service. (Kong Miew was under no circumstances to be permitted to attend.) They say that for a man who is dying, time slows down so that a minute is an hour. James developed an obsessive interest in the time. He kept reappearing from the kitchen at intervals of little more than a minute to ask how long he had to go.

This was getting out of hand, I thought. However the Ship Captain’s Guide had said ‘Reassurance is most important’. I got the big old-fashioned alarm clock from my bedroom and set it to ring at exactly 7.40pm, i.e. 40 minutes after the snake had bitten him. We then placed the clock on the kitchen table.

“If you live long enough to hear this alarm ring,” I explained soothingly, “then we can take it that it was definitely not a hamadryad. Now there is no need to keep asking the time.”

Minutes later it seemed, James staggered back into the lounge. The palpitations were starting he said, just as I had described. His heart was pounding heavily. It might be better, I thought, if he had something to occupy his mind.

“Look James, what have you been making for my dinner tonight?”

“Minnesota Fried Chicken, Boss. It is in the oven.”

“Don’t you think you should lay the table then, James? I don’t know where you keep everything out there. If you die in 10 minutes or so, I will still have to eat, won’t I?”

James agreed that this seemed logical. He lurched to and from the kitchen with a great crashing of dishes. Every reappearance brought a new drama. His breathing was laboured and he had started to make a horrid rattling sound in his throat.

When he staggered in with my chicken, there were still a few minutes to go. This was obviously his deathbed scene, where loyal servant serves chicken with last rattling breath and expires! I could see him glancing round to see where he should die. Should it be on the sofa in the lounge or on the steps leading down to the kitchen? I headed him off from the sofa and sat down at the dining-table. “You have forgotten the HP sauce again, James.”

He cut off in full flight and went back to the kitchen. As he staggered back with it, still breathing heavily, the alarm went off. For a minute James was in two minds, whether to be happy or sad. His deathbed scene was obviously ruined. But he was going to live. He shrugged resignedly and went back to the kitchen.

“I hope you have remembered to make a dessert,” I bellowed after him! Actually, it had, after all, looked remarkably like a python bite to me. I had a similar scar on my left thumb, where a python had sunk his teeth into me years ago when I handled it carelessly.

Nor, to be truthful, had I ever heard of a hamadryad wrapping itself around an intended victim. Still, to have speculated along these lines earlier would have ruined James’ performance completely, and he would not have forgiven me.

Datuk Leslie Davidson

Author, East of Kinabalu
Former Chairman, Unilever Plantations International

The second part will be published in the next issue. This is an edited chapter from the book published in 2007. It can be purchased from the Incorporated Society of Planters; email:


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