He had been a birthday present for Aimée. A corn snake. Shiny eyed, tiny headed, markings in orange diamonds and tight yellow belly.
I picked him out because of all the snakes in the pet shop in their separate plastic tubs, he was the one that looked at me. I would have had to set myself alight to get a second glance from any of the others.
He was clearly the one.
Aimée’s birthday falls on Valentine’s Day, so she’s always been guaranteed a card. I would have thought this a treat for the self-esteem. Certainly, it must be better than a birthday at Christmas, when undoubtedly someone will wrap birthday present in Christmas paper. Or a birthday in the Summer, when everyone’s away, catching the sun and very exciting itchy diseases.
Our first birthday together, she booked a table at Gidleigh Park.
Somehow, even with a fistful of directions and a map in the glove compartment, we still got lost. A friendly horse rider got us back from the boggy dirt-track and onto the marginally neater unmade road to the most majestic country house I’d ever seen. We were given champagne at the door. Thank God, I’d ditched my trainers on the back seat and changed into my thickly-polished, toe-strangling formal shoes.
I could have cried at the beauty of the starter. In the first bite, I swore I would never cook again. We would starve, certainly, but I couldn’t compete with the heaven that was in my mouth. The main course was breathtaking. By pudding, a pistachio soufflé, I was close to a nervous breakdown.
We drained the glasses, sat back replete and asked for the bill. It was then we discovered Aimée hadn’t brought enough cash.
My plastic took a thrashing.
The following year, I bought her the snake. Much more cost effective. Would last longer than a lunch. Wouldn’t leave me feeling like a failure.
He spent an inordinate amount of time behind the foam faux rocks at the back of the tank. Having hardly seen him, we didn’t have much of a chance to determine much about his personality, so he went nameless for the first few weeks.
Then, he went missing and became known as ‘Little Bastard’.
Aimée had been cleaning out his tank, and decided to take out his water bowl for a bit of a scrub, disinfect and refill. He was happily hiding behind the faux rocks, so she felt confident to leave the doors to the vivarium open and a-swinging.
She has had to hear about this rather a lot.
It could only have taken her a couple of minutes to clean out the water bowl and bring it back to sparkling cleanliness, and with the tank only a dozen feet behind her, the snake shouldn’t have had a chance to break out.
With his propensity for hiding, we didn’t realise he was gone until later that evening. Several dozen aspersions were cast at Doobie, the Jack Russell – had he eaten Little Bastard?
Would it do him any harm if he had eaten the snake? LB was not poisonous or venomous or really anything except an occasionally-mobile length of rope, but if Doobie had eaten him, I can’t think Aimée would have forgiven him.
I have come to the conclusion that LB is now a dried-up belt under a floorboard.
Aimée was very upset. So upset, in fact, that I wound up getting her another snake. Same breed, slightly larger, and made her swear to lock the vivarium at all times.
For her birthday this year, I took her back to Gidleigh Park. Again, we got lost. We don’t improve. No friendly horse rider this year, but rather the joys of being stuck behind a Mini Cooper in a ditch, trying to go around a tractor and trailer on a single-track road. Ten minutes and countless manoeuvres later, the tractor driver came to the same conclusion as me: they were going to have to reverse back to Somerset to let the car through.
The sommelier was fabulous. I don’t think it began to occur to her that anybody drives. We got through a mid-range champagne over the seven, yes seven, course taster menu.
Aimée had clearly developed a thirst because she had a large glass of Liberian rosé to go with the squab.
We had torched eel with caviar, veal sweetbreads, very thin chicken, ricotta with nasturtium leaves and a mushroom thing, squab with asparagus, and two puddings which elude recollection due to my trousers cutting off the circulation to my legs by the second plate, distracting my gourmand’s ardour and slowing my brain.
A friend of mine takes his wife out to lunch every day. Pie and a pint, Hunter’s Chicken and pinot, roast beef and dark ale, every day. I think he would take his wife to Gidleigh but he’s too practical.
Getting lost and spending mad money is not for him.
After we went to Gidleigh this year, he commented that my backside was looking smaller.
(We’re quite close)
I tend to keep my wallet in my back pocket, I told him, that’ll be why.
We had a great lunch, sat in the window, looking down over the loose-lipped lawns, on an admittedly drizzly day, and the dogs enjoyed spending an afternoon sleeping on my wonderful Legion kids.