‘You city folk are all too soft,’ he said. ‘Seems some time ‘round wildlife would do you good.’ Daphne shivered involuntary.
‘How do you know I haven’t got a snake right now?’
‘How could you sneak one on?’
‘Ways and means, Missy, ways and means.’ Was he telling the truth or having her on? She wasn’t sure, but her heart was pounded and her fingers were white as the gripped the armrests of her seat. Everyone around, even the stewards seemed totally oblivious to her plight. Daphne recounted the events of the last two hours. How was she to know her dream holiday to Hong Kong would expose her to the greatest fear of her life?
Looks like it’s going to be a long flight, Daphne thought to herself. She pushed herself over as far as possible and forced a polite smile at the newly seated passenger. He smiled back through faded blue eyes and offered a painfully thin, withered hand. Daphne reluctantly took it in a lame, cold gesture. She immediately thought of soap, and scrubbing her hands until they were raw but decided that might seem rude. Instead, she returned to her book and pretended him away. This was impossible, however, he wanted to chat and her obvious rudeness was not going to deter him in any way.
‘Daphne Willcox, that’s not a name you hear everyday,’ he said. His eyes searched her face intently. She tried hard not to show her dislike, but he was in her personal space and very few people had ever dared go there. Couldn’t the old fool see how he was bothering her? Oh, why didn’t I fly business class, Daphne thought. Alright, it might have cost considerably more but at least I’d have peace and quiet.
‘I know Willcox people. You wouldn’t happen to be related to Robert Willcox from Coorabie, would you? He and Mary have got eight kids, big family that. Seems his folks have owned land around that way for a long time,’ he said. Daphne made a point of closing her book before answering him.
‘No, Mr. Jenkins. I do not know the Willcox family from Coorabie. I have always lived in Port Piper. The tone of her voice was obviously clipped and angry but the old man didn’t seem to notice.
‘Port Piper, eh? So you’re a city lass.’
‘Yes, that’s right. I’m a Sydney girl. Born and bred.’ The elderly gentlemen absorbed the information for a time.
‘So, you’ve never lived in the bush?’ he asked
‘I’ve never even been there for a holiday. Not even a day trip,’ Daphne said.
‘What? I don’t believe that. A lady of your age, what must you be….Forty five, fifty?
‘Forty two,’ she snapped. ‘If it’s any of your business.’
‘Sorry, love’ he said. ‘I know you shouldn’t ask a lass her age. Very rude of me indeed. But to never go to the country….I can’t imagine it. Why haven’t you?’
‘One very simple reason, Mr. Jenkins. Snakes. I absolutely hate them.’ Mr. Jenkins roared with laughter.
‘Snakes? You’re frightened of snakies? Goodness, Lassie. If that’s all that bothers you in life, you haven’t got much to worry about.’ Daphne felt her face flush red. Why had she bothered talking to him at all. He’s a very rude man and should be ignored, she decided. She sat up straight and turned her back to him as best she could. Just my luck to get stuck with the village idiot, and all the way to Hong Kong.
When she woke up some time later, she looked across at her fellow passenger. He was asleep and softly snoring, his mouth wide open, revealing a row of yellow pickets. Daphne decided now was the best time to have that wash, and slowly picked herself out of her seat and shuffled to the washroom. Everything is so cramped, she thought, I just want to stretch out and unwind. She scrubbed her hands until they were deemed to be sufficiently cleans. Then she splashed some water on her face and applied some Maybelline Just Roses. Feeling better, the middle-aged woman combed her rapidly greying blonde hair and sprayed some Green Tea eau de perfume. With her pencil skirt neatly straightened and the bow in her blouse retied, Daphne left the washroom and headed back to her seat.
Mr. Jenkins was awake when Daphne took her place beside him.
‘Feelin’ livelier? I always do after a good wash,’ he said. She smiled in reply.
‘Looks like dinner is about ready.’ He motioned to the stewards busying themselves in the kitchen area at the back of the plane. Daphne’s stomach lurched, she always compared airline food to the stodge she was forced to eat in the school canteen.
‘Any good?’ She looked up at him with arched eyebrows.
‘What?’ she asked.
‘The food here. Is it any good? I mean you’ve been on a plane before, haven’t you,’ Mr. Jenkins asked.
‘The answer to your first question is,the food is bland and unpalatable. The second is many times, Mr. Jenkins.’
‘What?’ Daphne asked.
‘The name’s Alfred. Alfred Jenkins. But you can call me Fred if you want, most people do, at least the ones who know me well.’
‘Alfred’s fine. That’ll do,’ she said.
‘And I’ll call you…?’ he asked.
‘Ms. Willcox. I don’t like people to address me by my first name.’ She noticed the hint of a smile from the old man.
‘Geez, you’re a funny one. Alright, Mizz Willcox it is.’ Look, here comes our food. Daphne pulled out her tray and some unidentifiable cuisine was placed in it. Something chicken, she guessed. She had more luck with the carrot and corn, arranged neatly in their own little sections of the plate. Daphne picked at everything then handed the plate to a passing steward. The old man was clearing the remains of his meal of the side of his mouth with an oversized serviette.
‘Wasn’t too bad, Lassie. Not too bad at all.’ She gave him another smile and opened up her book. He levered the reclining back of his chair down as far as it would go.’
‘Time for another nap,’ Alfred said. Daphne sighed inwardly with gratitude. An hour later, he spoke. His co-passenger looked up from her book. His eyes were still closed, but he was talking coherently.
‘It’s a funny thing, being scared of snakes.’
‘Pardon?’ she asked. Not this again.
‘I mean, I can understand being scared of heights, or being in a plane, but of nature? Daphne closed her book again, this time placing a plastic bookmark in the pages.
‘I can assure you, Mr. Jenkins, sorry, Alfred, a fear of snakes is a very real thing. It’s not something to be laughed at or conquered easily. It means I can never put myself in a situation where I might see a reptile. I have a problem even looking at one on the television or in a magazine,’ she said. The old man regarded her with serious eyes.
‘Maybe you’ve had a bad experience when you were a kiddie. That would do it,’ he said. Daphne could only shake her head. She had never encountered a viper in her childhood, yet she had heard all the stories: snakes climbing up into your bed, wrigglers on the sink as you wash the dishes and pets bringing them in the back door. Heavens, weren’t the stories bad enough without actually seeing snakes?
‘I’ve been around animals all my life,’ he continued, ‘snakes are as natural to me as trees or the river. See, you’ve gotta treat them with respect, that’s the key. Not all of them are dangerous. Green ones are grass snakes, they’ll bite but they won’t kill you. And the pythons, they’ll crush a pig to death, yet they don’t bite. It’s the blacks and browns you have to watch out for. Even then, they’ll get out of your way. They’re really shy. The yellow and blacks are a different matter.’
‘Why?’ Daphne asked. By now, her breath was coming out in short gasps. It was not something she found easy even to talk about.
‘Well, Missie, tiger snakes will always put up a fight. They’ll bite you more than once, too. Apparently, hospitals treat the wound but sometimes don’t see others. People go home and die from that.’
‘Oh, God,’ she said.
‘Not to worry, you wouldn’t see too many vipers at Piper’s Point,’ Alfred said. He’s mocking me, Daphne thought. The smug old fool.
Daphne sat for the longest time, her fingers still clenched into the seat. She knew he was just waiting for her to dismiss his revelation, but she refused to play his game. Refusing to show her panic would enable her to have control and she was allowing this silly old fool to have the upper hand. She just couldn’t give in to her nerves. No matter what happened from now on, she was not giving into panic.
‘You want to know, don’t you?’ Alfred finally said, his faded blue eyes twinkling with rejuvenated energy.
‘Not particularly,’ she said, trying her best to sound disinterested. Just stay calm, give him nothing. The plane will soon land and he’ll be out of your life forever.
‘I’ll show you anyway, c’mon Lassie, come and have a look.’ He fumbled in his jacket pocket. Daphne swore she could see something wriggling. Oh, my God. He really does have snakes. Her throat went dry and the room spun before her.
‘That’s it, Mizz Willcox, here they are. Have a look-see.’
Daphne was out of her seat and down the aisle before the man could produce a bag of Allan’s Jelly snakes and offer her one.