We’re just saying our farewells to the Post Office Hotel in Chillagoe, in the outback of Far North Queensland, and I’m telling Dorothy Lawler, the hotel’s 70-year-old part-time cook, that the coleslaw she made with the steaks we had the other night was the crunchiest and most delicious I’d ever eaten. (It’s a great place, Chillagoe. Go there!)
Dorothy says she’s off tomorrow to visit her 103-year-old mother for Mother’s Day. ‘Wow, that’s amazing. How many great-grandchildren does she have?’ I ask. Dorothy tries working it out by counting the number of brothers and sisters she has and what became of them: ‘…and there was Alan. He died of snakebite. Then there’s….’ ‘Wait. Alan died of snakebite? How old was he?’ ‘Fifteen,’ says Dorothy.
It happened in 1951. Dorothy’s father was a woodsman and had so much work to do that weekend that he didn’t have time to run into town to collect some groceries in his truck. Alan went to fetch them on his bicycle.
On the way back, in the half darkness, he saw what he thought was a newspaper blowing across the road. Except it wasn’t a paper, he discovered, as he ran into it. It was a hawk in battle with a snake. The snake got caught in the spokes of his bicycle and Alan — who seems not to have known much about global snake species distribution — said he thought it was a rattlesnake. Perhaps, people surmised afterwards, it was because of the mental association he’d made with the flapping noise of the bird’s wings.
Anyway, the snake bit him and Alan thought he knew what to do. He went immediately to the barbed-wire fence by the road and used the barbs to open the flesh where the snake had bit him. Then he somehow managed to twist and contort himself into a position where he could suck out some of the poison.
Thinking he’d got the worst of it out, he climbed back on the bicycle and rode up the hill towards home. Scarcely had he gone 150 yards, though, when the effort of pedalling uphill helped send the poison deeper into his system. He collapsed and was found by a family friend lying in the road.
Alan was taken to hospital, where he spent the next three days in and out of consciousness. He was young and strong and the fact that he’d lasted so long gave hope that he’d recover. But the snake which had got him wasn’t a rattler (of which there aren’t any in Australia) but a taipan, third most deadly land snake in the world.
Taipans are dangerous not only because of the extreme toxicity of their venom but also because of their ferocity: often they’ll strike their victim not once but two or three times, each bite containing enough poison to kill a man. Until the mid-1950s, a taipan bite was an automatic death sentence. But then along came a man known as Ram Chandra (Australian-born of Indian extraction, his original name was Edward Royce Ramsamy) who became something of a taipan obsessive. By milking taipans, he was among the first (along with a naturalist called David Fleay) to develop the taipan antivenenes which would subsequently save dozens of lives, including that of a ten-year-old boy called Bruce Stringer in November 1955.
Poor Alan, though, was bitten in 1951. And though Ram Chandra came to visit him in hospital and pleaded with staff to let him try out his taipan serum, the hospital wasn’t prepared to risk an untested treatment. They preferred to use the more traditional snake-bite cure of arsenic. And Alan paid the price.
Dorothy is matter-of-fact as she tells me this awful story. You can hear the tenderness in her voice but there’s no mawkishness or self-pity. Personally, I can think of few things more horrible than to lose a brother so cruelly, so young. But, no doubt, when you’ve seen so much and lived so long as Dorothy has — especially somewhere as tough as the Australian outback — you tend to become a little phlegmatic.
But there’s another reason, too, as I discover when I ask how Alan’s last days were. ‘Was he anxious? Scared?’ I ask, thinking he surely must have been, with the pain and the headaches and the venom coursing round his system and playing weird tricks on his brain. Dorothy looks me serenely and very directly in the eye. ‘No, he wasn’t scared,’ she says. ‘He said: “Don’t worry about me. I’m going towards the light.” Those were his words. “I’m going towards the light.” ’
Chillagoe is a small place where everybody knows everybody else’s business. But in the six months she has been working there, Dorothy has never once mentioned this extraordinary tale to anyone, and I feel hugely privileged that — thanks to that chance, nosey question — she chose to vouchsafe it to me.
And now I’m telling you. Since I heard it a couple of months ago, I’ve been dwelling on it quite a bit. I’ve been thinking about how much stranger life is than fiction (the flapping of a hawk’s wings being mistaken for a rattlesnake: what novelist would think of that?); and about the heartless randomness of fate that sent a strapping 15-year-old boy with a full life ahead of him careering straight into the fangs of that killer snake; and about Alan’s uplifting final words.
I hope he was right. I’m pretty sure he was right. But wherever you are, Alan, mate, I just want you to know: we’re thinking of you.