At the age of eleven, Adrian, Phil and I discovered that there were lizards on Hayes Common, the South London heath a few miles out from where we lived. We already kept newts in fish tanks, and frogs and toads in old metal baths in our gardens. Now these lizards entered our imaginations. They were difficult to catch. You had to spot them at a distance. They basked in little clearings beside the paths, their brown bodies flattened to warm in the sun. When you saw one, you crept towards it until your hand was near enough to grab. Usually your hand closed on nothing, but sometimes you felt a scrabbling warm body. We got better at it, and by the end of the summer had thirty-three, in a large zinc bath planted with tussocks.

In the next two years, our zoo got larger. We had grass snakes, slow worms, two kinds of frog, two kinds of newt, a huge female toad, a nest of voles and an eel in a water butt. As well as the little brown common lizards, we had big gold-flecked green lizards from the pet shop. Our evenings were spent catching spiders and grasshoppers. At school we were known for this hobby; we took pride in it, felt admired. Other kids asked us for tours of the zoo, and we showed them around condescendingly, feeding a toad or lizard from our fingers, dropping worms into the depths for the eel. We did this with an air of remoteness, as if gazing into the wild distance with an understanding that the others couldn’t share. Our zoo needed something more thrilling, more dangerous, we had decided. We wanted an adder.

But how would we catch one? We had considered this question. An adder picked up by the tip of the tail wouldn’t be able to bring its head up to bite, Phil announced. You could safely dangle it into a collecting bag. This he had discovered in an old book, written, it said, for boys who loved adventure. But don’t pick up baby adders, the book warned, for these were capable of curling up to bite you, and were full of poison. For adult vipers, the method was safe, and better than grabbing behind the head, because a snake held at the neck might edge its head sideways and put a fang into your finger. We nodded wisely.

When we next met, Adrian produced an old biker’s glove, a thick leather gauntlet that surely the fangs wouldn’t pierce. But we only had the one.

In our largest zinc bath, we planted tussocks and arranged logs, working at creating the look of a wild place where adders would bask in the hot stillness; a place where we would creep up through bracken and see them, and catch our breath. For the lid, we stretched net-curtain and wire netting in a wooden frame, with foam rubber glued to the underside. This would be our zoo’s tiger. It mustn’t escape.

Then, on a hot May morning we set out, cycling through the suburbs and freewheeling headlong down the great chalk drop into the weald valley, aiming for the heaths of Ashdown Forest. It was 1968. We were thirteen.

And then, just yards from the road, everything went still. I was poised above an adder, which looked up at me, its tail-tip wriggling like a worm. The furious little face was oily black. White scales like tiny pearls lined the top of the mouth. Adders have faces intense with hatred; hot with it. The eyes were like blood-blisters.

What had caught my eye in the heather was the zigzag, a pattern too clear to look natural. The shadows cast by bracken leaves have similar shapes. In these shadows, the zigzag evolved, presumably, but somehow the scatter of light and shade on the forest floor became on the snake a regular wavy line. It breaks up the animal’s outline. Hawks and crows see the snake from above. People do too. When the snake moves, winding through stalks and shadows, the zigzag goes in different directions, confusing the eye. On a motionless snake, it is insolently clear. In the heath’s debris, the zigzag looks stylized, like a printed or ceramic pattern, a logo or uniform, a badge of power and purpose. When we thought of adders, the other creatures in our zoo seemed weak and flustered – little biscuit-coloured lizards and soft, gaping frogs. They were low status. An adder was deadly cool.

The zigzag is common to all Europe’s vipers. It is one of nature’s design classics. On some, such as the Nose-Horned Viper of southeast Europe, the colours seem freshly painted. Chocolate on pale grey, scarlet on pink – a touch might make them smear. The Nose-Horn comes from a land of white light and black shadows. In comparison, our adder, the Adder or Northern Viper, has muted colours. Females are the assorted browns of dry grass, old bracken, leafmould and sand. Males are light grey marked in black. Rarely, the males are white with black markings; the females ghostly pink. This viper of northern Europe lives under changing skies. Shadows cross the heath like changes of mood. Browns and purples intensify, then lighten. The adder’s colours sink into the background. Then, at the sun’s touch, they gleam.

‘Here’s one.’ I kept my voice low. Adrian threw the glove, which fell short in deep heather. I didn’t dare move.

‘Grab the tail.’

‘I’ll try.’

I dropped onto a knee, and forward on to my hands. The moss was spongy. A sour smell came up. My thumb felt a thorn. Inching until my head was almost over the adder, I raised my right hand.

Something touched my left.

I looked down and gasped at the huge ginger adder uncoiling beside my hand. Her pale yellow face was an imp’s face with copper eyes. The touch I had felt was her nose on my hand. She approached again, black tongue flickering.

Her eyes burned. The pupils were black and vertical. In a male adder’s dark red eye, the flame is a flare in deep space, far off. His fury has distant origins. The female’s lighter eye burns closer, with intimate malice.

She paused. The tongue was now fully extended, trembling, its tips thin as hairs. At the root it was pink.

A slow hiss started, as her body filled and emptied.

Her bite would be like a dentist’s needle.

But her head turned away. She was gliding into the heather. My fingers grasped the disappearing tail. It felt warm. I pulled her into the open, and stood up shakily, as she twisted and bucked, hissing loudly. She was heavy. Her tail tip coiled round my finger. She threw her head at me, mouth open; I staggered and swung her away. Her underside was reddish grey. She whipcracked, wrenching her body, then the head came towards me again. I stepped back, nearly falling over. ‘God!’ gasped Adrian, coming up behind.

I didn’t know what to do.

The face of a snake is unmoving. No affection, doubt, surprise, curiosity or fear comes into that countenance. It knows everything it will ever know. The eye, behind a hard, transparent scale, does not move or blink.

Adders look wickedly intent. Big flat eyebrow-scales frown towards the nose. The mouth has a long sad line, or an evil grin, or a glum smile as if adders hate being adders and want revenge on everything. They would cry if they could, but their eyes are too hard, in their medieval demon faces. Devils are unhappy, shut out of paradise, but do not know how to be other than devils. This yellow face knew something everyone knows.

Most snakes are ambush predators. They lurk, motionless, choosing the moment to strike. Or, rather, the strike is triggered, by eyes, ground vibrations felt in the jaw, heat-sensors and receptors of chemical traces. But it looks like choice, and the human behaviour it seems to resemble is calculating, spying, manipulative. Snakes give a glimpse of a world with no pity. Stone faces will ignore our pleas. Our vulnerabilities will be exploited, not forgiven. Snakes arouse our fear that the world is like that.

Yet these features are no more than survival adaptations or quirks. We have scales too: our nails. Close up, an adder’s scales look like beautifully filed pointed fingernails, emerging from cuticles of skin.

There are two main ideas about the ancestry of snakes. Aquatic reptiles that later became terrestrial may have had the hard scale to seal their eyes underwater. Or maybe the ancestors were lizards that took to living underground, lost their legs and later returned to the surface. The scale may have shielded their eyes from grit. Vertical pupils cast a sharper image on to the retina, aiding hunting at night. The wide mouth evolved for the swallowing of prey, since the teeth are too weak to tear flesh.

We should see the adder as a sensitive creature, exquisitely alive to its environment; a vulnerable creature, frequently broken; a creature no more callous than other predators. We should. But this is like objecting to vampire films because the vampire is an unfair representation of a human being. It is a serious moral objection – and it fails to consider the appeal of such demons; the needs that they meet.

The evolutionary psychologist Roger Ulrich describes experiments in which people were repeatedly shown images of snakes, and also modern dangers such as handguns and frayed wires. Fears prompted by the modern items faded quickly. Soon they produced no reaction. But the snakes caused panic every time. There is little danger from snakes in modern Europe. Bees kill many more people; cars huge numbers. But the sight of a snake inspires terror. Another evolutionary scientist, Lynne Isbell, argues that in deep prehistory our relationship with snakes played a major part in the formation of our eyesight, posture, brain-structure and behaviour, since for millions of years snakes were the main predators upon our early primate ancestors. Snakes are deep in our nerves.

They appear in human dreams more often than any other animal, says the biologist and evolutionary theorist Edward O. Wilson. In many cultures they are worshipped. Snakes are symbols for primal forces: death, life, creation, rejuvenation, fertility, eternity, infinity, temptation, treachery, sexual arousal, the phallus, the female libertine, wisdom, knowledge, order and healing. In the Christian story, a snake precipitates the defining crisis between God and the first human beings. The serpent is the ender of our simple bliss, the evil genius, the worm in the bud, the single flaw and the fatal temptation.

We are full of the memory of snakes; primed to watch for them.

And here I was with a big one in my fingers, thrashing wildly.

Adrian held out the coffee jar. I swung the snake towards him. He leaped back, dropping the jar.

‘Go on. It can’t bite while it’s dangling.’

‘You reckon?’ He put on the glove, and again raised the jar. I tried to manoeuvre the snake. Her snout touched the rim. Feeling support, she began to wind her body round the jar. Adey dropped it again. She corkscrewed. I felt her body stretch. Would the muscles tear?

Her head leaped at me again. I swung her away.

And her tail went through my fingertips. She flew, in an arc, towards Adrian, who jumped back. I saw her draped on the heather. Her head moved to point down, and she was gone.

But we did get an adder that day. Phil caught it; freckly Phil, with steady eyes, bushy brown hair and large hands. I can see his face. Girls were always asking about him. But he stayed shy. In his eighteenth year he died, his motorbike ploughing into a pile of roadworks left unlit one night. A sports-car driver, the only witness, denied that he and Phil had been racing. ‘Of course they were,’ said Adrian.

Wild creatures are out in the open. Few live more than a few seasons. Predators swoop, ending life in an instant. An accidental wound can be a death sentence. Will we see that one again? Safe at home, we think of the animal, still out there. A snake is gripped by a hawk, or gets away. An animal goes under the wheels or escapes them. Moments ago a consciousness was there. It isn’t now. The fish in another fish’s mouth looks out as if from a hiding place, the fins on the cheeks gently beating. Then the big fish gulps. The toad half-swallowed in the snake’s jaws has a calmly attentive expression. Its golden eye shuts and opens, re-engaging with the world.

Phil caught the adder easily. We were walking beside a high bank. He turned his head, made a quick movement, and a snake was hanging from his fingers, as if taken from a shelf. ‘Got one,’ he said, matter-of-fact. Then his smile got bigger and bigger.

We gathered to look at a small female, russet-brown, squashed against the side of the jar. On her sides the scales were diamond-shaped, emerging from brown skin.

The bath was in Adrian’s garden. Phil had already said he couldn’t keep an adder. His little brother might fiddle with the enclosure, and there were dogs that ran tumbling down the garden. Adrian’s sisters were older than Phil’s brother, and always kept away from his reptiles. He had no dogs. But we began to worry. Next door there was a little girl, a toddler. We imagined the adder getting through the fence.

Our unease grew. After a week, Adrian told us he had begun checking on the snake all the time. One day he phoned, panicking; he couldn’t find it. We took the terrarium to pieces. Out came every log, every tussock. The adder wasn’t there. Three lizards we had put in for food ran frantically about as we searched. They had seemed unworried by their room-mate, and the adder had not eaten since its capture. Feeling scared, we searched Adrian’s garden, finding nothing. ‘What are you looking for?’ called his Mum.

‘Oh, nothing.’

I went back to the bath. It had to be there. Lifting the lid, I noticed a narrow space between the planks. Wedged there was the adder, tight and drab.

‘We’ll have to take it back,’ said Adrian. ‘Unless one of you can keep it. I can’t stop thinking of it getting out and biting someone.’

The snake had grown in power. It had forced us to release it. We were quiet as we cycled to the heath. Shaken from the jar, the adder rolled out in a ball. For perhaps a minute, there was no movement. The ball rolled forward. Our adder’s snout appeared, and her head. Her tongue flickered. We stared silently. Unknotting herself in one long fluid movement, she veered to the left, turned back to the right and continued on into the heather.


Photograph by Danny Chapman

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