By the time I went away, in 1971, holidays at Palm Court though no less enjoyable, had become increasingly Spartan. Hugh and Marie had no staff in residence at all, except for Marie’s old ayah, and she was spending more and more time away as the demands on her grew greater. Lilian however, surprisingly, still managed to have two women staying in, though one of them was mad, she claimed in a hushed whisper, and frighteningly so when the moon was full. This was in addition to Olga Kelly, who mellowing with the years had continued to survive the rigours of Palm Court, including the mad woman chasing her out of the kitchen with a broom.
A few months after I had left for Oxford, Hugh died. Lilian followed less than six months later, almost as though, blind but tenacious, she had especially hung on to outlive her much younger brother. Her section of the house was closed up, to be opened for cleaning at increasingly rare intervals. Roots began to thrust themselves through the walls, and the time came when one had to gather up courage to go in there, in case snakes were slithering around.
Marie however continued fearless, and stayed on at Palm Court for fifteen years more. Fearless was putting it mildly. At least once a year there were stories of snakes, some of them poisonous ones, like those she discovered procreating in the cistern while she sat on the toilet. And those that were not poisonous also provided drama. Once I remember, in the mid-eighties, after I had returned from England, getting back with her after Christmas to a deserted household. She had someone, the son of the barber who had also died just a month after Hugh, to stay overnight; but this was in the extension built for my grandmother which had a separate entrance. The main house, with its massive wooden doors, was kept locked and she carried the heavy iron key up and down to Colombo with her in the bus.
As she opened the main door, which led straight from the verandah into the pillared drawing room, and put on the light, she noticed that one of the beautiful cut glass lamps that stood on brackets on the opposite wall lay shattered on the ground.
‘It’s that rat snake.’ she said at once, furiously. ‘And it must be still here. I’m not going to let it get away with this.’
Standing outside nervously in the gathering dusk, I realised that she meant to hunt the creature down. She locked the door behind her and went down the long drive to the little house opposite where a cousin lived, and summoned him forth. When they came back, Basil was carrying a heavy pole. She took it from him as she reopened the door, and was inside in a trice, poking about with it under the chairs.
Basil and I and the half-witted woman who was now Marie’s companion hovered about outside. But Marie would have none of that.
‘Come in and help,’ she said firmly. ‘There’s no need to be frightened. It’s only a rat snake. I know the fellow. He’s been on the ceiling for weeks now. I could hear him, but I let him be so he could take care of the rats. But I’m not going to forgive him now. That was the most beautiful lamp in the house.’
It was now dark outside, and I began to think that the drawing room, dimly lit as it was, was preferable to the verandah. I went in and, taking courage from Marie’s determination, went over to the piano in the furthest corner of the room. Suddenly, with a stupendous hiss, from the ledge at the top of the column next to the piano a snake reared its dark green head. I jumped back. Marie rushed forward with the pole.
‘Get it out,’ she shouted. ‘I can’t hit it here. I might break something else.’
The snake, understanding that it had met its match, heaved itself up from the ledge where it had been lying. It must have been at least six inches thick and ten feet long. With an agility that seemed miraculous it slithered down to the ground, forked tongue flickering madly, and slid under chairs and sofas, seeking an exit route to the door. Marie hastened after it, careful of her furniture, trying to goad it into the open.
‘Let it go,’ Basil said gently. He had come inside and moved quietly along the front wall, to the corner opposite the piano, well away from the snake’s route to the door. The half-witted woman stood beside him. I noticed that she was standing under the large black and white print of ‘The Laughing Cavalier’ which my great-grandfather had imported when he did up the house, a hundred years before. Basil, against the other wall, stood under the wedding picture of my great-grandmother, his great-aunt. Basil’s lineage, I remembered, was purer than ours, for no southerner sullied the Kandyan strain there.
‘Certainly not.’ Marie snapped. She continued to poke under the old cane sofa where Aunt Muriel, I had been told, used to knit on evenings when there were no visitors. ‘It destroyed my lamp. You should help, instead of just standing there. Go outside and wait for it.’
‘I haven’t got a stick.’ Basil said reasonably.
After a pause the snake decided to make a run for it. Before it was half-way across the empty space between the last sheltering sofa and the door, Marie was upon it. She thwacked it forcefully and repeatedly, keeping up a running commentary throughout. I wasn’t sure whether this was bravery or callousness, but later it struck me that that too was a way of expending nervous energy.
‘You have to hit it on the spine,’ she muttered. ‘Just behind the head. Otherwise it’s useless. The body is so tough and slippery that it just slides off. You must be precise. Like this.’
Struggling wildly, its body curving in and out in its desperation, the snake got through the door. But Marie was behind it in a flash.
‘It’s not going to get away from me,’ she declared, and on the open verandah she delivered the final decisive blows. At last the snake was still.
After that it had to be buried; and deep in the earth, otherwise monitor lizards sniffed around and dug it up and ate it, she said, as a great delicacy. Not that she cared what happened to it, but the lizards left unsightly bits of it uneaten in the garden. In addition it was advisable to burn the carcass first, because otherwise other snakes collected at the spot. This did not matter too much, with rat-snakes, because they weren’t poisonous, but she had had enough of them for the time being.
So Basil, who was able to help with these proceedings, dug a deep pit while the woman went into the house to bring out kerosene oil and rags to get ready a pyre. Marie, like a triumphant Valkyrie, leaned on her stick, surveying her handiwork and poking occasionally at the snake to make sure that it was quite dead. She reserved for herself the task of setting a match to the fire, and watched the blaze with satisfaction after dismissing Basil. I was permitted to fill up the pit at the end.
It must have been past eight o’clock by the time the operation was over and we went in to think of dinner. First though the shattered lamp had to be collected up. It was over a century old, Marie said ruefully, dating from before even her grandfather’s entry into the household. I felt she deserved it when later my grandmother (who owned most of Palm Court, for her sisters’ shares too had come to her) let Marie keep both the lamps that remained for the house she finally finished building in Colombo.