The day Ger­ald turned up with a 6ft python and a sack of mon­keys who bit the lodger I had a crush on

In real life Margo, the daffy daugh­ter in the sun-drenched TV se­ries The Dur­rells, ended up run­ning a board­ing house in Bournemouth, where she re­calls...

Daily Mail - - Confidential - by Margo Dur­rell

MARGO DUR­RELL — with brothers Larry, Leslie and Gerry — spent much of her child­hood on Corfu with their wid­owed mother. In 1947, she moved back to Bournemouth and ran a board­ing house be­fore writ­ing a mem­oir, What­ever Hap­pened To Margo? Although she died in 2007, aged 87, the book has just been re­pub­lished af­ter the suc­cess of the TV se­ries based on her fam­ily’s re­mark­able life. . .

THE UP­ROAR out­side the guest house which I had only re­cently opened in Bournemouth alerted me to the ar­rival of my brother Ger­ald who had re­turned from one of his an­i­mal- col­lect­ing ex­pe­di­tions over­seas.

Tall, de­bonair and typ­i­cally English, he stepped from a taxi with a sack held care­fully in one hand. It was as if he was car­ry­ing a rare gift, but I knew bet­ter than that.

My young sons, Ni­cholas and Gerry, raced to greet him and be­came in­volved in a dis­cus­sion in­volv­ing much ges­tic­u­la­tion to­wards a large wooden cage rest­ing on the boot of the taxi. Within a few min­utes, it was be­ing borne into my garage.

I glanced at my mother, louisa, who was stay­ing with me pend­ing the sale of our fam­ily home. A look of dis­may had crossed her face and she was no doubt re­mem­ber­ing other times when the pres­ence of a sack or box had meant even­tual trou­ble.

‘If he puts one foot over my thresh­old,’ I said in a voice of doom, ‘I’m done for.’

‘Too late, dear,’ said Mother in a queer voice and we went to face the in­evitable.

‘Just a few mon­keys,’ Ger­ald called out air­ily, see­ing Mother and me for the first time and throw­ing a saucy eye heav­en­wards to­wards an up­stairs win­dow, where two half-clad nurses — my ten­ants Blanche and Judy — had been dis­turbed from their slum­bers and were now watch­ing him.

‘I hope there is noth­ing dan­ger­ous in that sack, dear?’ Mother in­quired, kiss­ing her youngest ten­derly. ‘It’s a 6ft python, but it’s harm­less,’ Ger­ald replied care­lessly.

‘My God! We can’t have it in this house, Ger­ald!’ Mother said, in the vain at­tempt at a firm voice which, as all her off­spring knew, meant that he could. And with that I lost all hope of life as a re­spectable land­lady in a se­date sea­side town.

It was the sum­mer of 1947, al­most 20 years since the death of my fa­ther Sa­muel, an en­gi­neer who, like my mother, was of English de­scent but born and brought up in In­dia in the days of the Raj.

Al­lFOUR of us chil­dren were also born there and, when Fa­ther died in 1928, Mother brought us to Bournemouth where, she had been told, it was sun­nier than any­where else in Eng­land.

We al­ways seemed to be chas­ing the sun. In 1935, the need to eke out mother’s dwin­dling pen­sion saw us move to the mag­i­cal and in­ex­pen­sive Greek is­land of Corfu, de­scribed so ap­peal­ingly in Ger­ald’s book My Fam­ily And Other An­i­mals.

Our life of idle bliss there had come to an end with the out­break of the war. In the years since then I had met, mar­ried and been di­vorced from the boys’ fa­ther Jack Breeze, an RAF pi­lot.

Now aged 27, I was back in Bournemouth with the rest of the fam­ily who re­ferred to my plans to open a guest house, us­ing an in­her­i­tance from Fa­ther, as ‘Margo’s new mad­ness’.

Mother’s main wor­ries hith­erto had been an im­pend­ing over­draft and a ter­ror of the white slave trade. She still warned me, her only daugh­ter, against hy­po­der­mic sy­ringes ad­min­is­tered swiftly in cin­e­mas by sin­is­ter strangers, and her fears about my new ca­reer were not al­layed by my older brothers lawrence and leslie who hor­ri­fied her with graphic ac­counts of lewd male lodgers and land­ladies throt­tled in their beds.

Un­daunted, I em­barked on a search for the right prop­erty and fi­nally found the one I wanted in a quiet, wide road of large Edwardian houses — our own road, in fact.

Al­most di­rectly op­po­site our fam­ily house at 52 — which was on the mar­ket, my mother hav­ing put it up for sale af­ter Ger­ald left — num­ber 51 was big, com­fort­able and square and stood solid on three floors.

As the boys and I moved in and ren­o­va­tions went ahead, the fam­ily called al­most daily, un­able to re­sist giv­ing their ad­vice.

While Mother stood in the kitchen, gen­teelly brew­ing cups of tea for the var­i­ous work­men in res­i­dence and mak­ing sure that her much-loved grand­sons were not starv­ing to death in my hands, lawrence came up with nu­mer­ous un­eco­nom­i­cal ideas.

These in­cluded a lava­tory with a con­cealed ra­dio­gram and walls lined with book­shelves, lawrence ex­plain­ing that this was the only place in any fam­ily res­i­dence where one could be com­pletely pri­vate.

The sug­ges­tions made by leslie — a squat, bawdy fig­ure sunk deep in the in­tri­ca­cies of guns, beer and women — were equally im­prac­ti­cal, in­clud­ing a swim­ming pool, a spe­cially- de­signed bar and a ri­fle range.

As for Ger­ald, who was five years younger than me, he was tem­po­rar­ily away, look­ing for the an­i­mals with which he would pop­u­late his dream zoo.

He had writ­ten to say how pleased he was that I was about to re­plen­ish the fam­ily’s for­tunes, but I had read this brief com­mu­ni­ca­tion with great mis­trust. A lively can­di­date for his zoo al­ready ruled the house my mother was sell­ing. It was a mar­moset, a small furry ap­pari­tion with the face of an old sage.

Perch­ing in strate­gic spots to re­lieve the pangs of na­ture, deeply of­fended if dis­turbed, Pavlo would sulk for hours in some in­ac­ces­si­ble place while Si­mon, an over- fed Ti­betan sheep­dog, tus­sled against him for first place in the fam­ily’s af­fec­tions.

WITHGer­ald away, Mother had brought both Pavlo and Si­mon to stay with me and, just to add to the menagerie, leslie — who was liv­ing nearby, with a jolly off-li­cence man­ager­ess named Doris — had turned up one day with a house­warm­ing present, a large blackand-white mon­grel called Johnny.

leslie had res­cued him on learn­ing he was due to be put down at the lo­cal vet’s and it soon be­came ap­par­ent why he was a near vic­tim of ex­tinc­tion: he pos­sessed a ner­vous twitch when ex­cited which sent him cock­ing his leg in all direc­tions.

All this had co­in­cided with the ar­rival of my first lodgers, among them a trom­bon­ist named Andy. A shy North­erner with soft eyes and a hu­mor­ous mouth, he played his in­stru­ment with firm, square hands that sent an un­easy long­ing through me and, it seemed, all my fe­male ten­ants.

Along­side the glam­orous Blanche and Judy, they in­cluded a far less glam­orous nurse named Jane, a skinny be­spec­ta­cled spin­ster much taken to hang­ing around the hall in dé­col­leté night­ies in the hope that the men of the house might no­tice her.

Com­pe­ti­tion for Andy’s at­ten­tion was in­tense and, had I fore­seen the strange cir­cum­stances in which the mon­keys would bring us closer to­gether, I might have been more wel­com­ing of Ger­ald’s ar­rival. As it was, I couldn’t hide a scowl as, pre­oc­cu­pied with ne­go­ti­at­ing the mon­key cage into the garage, he handed me the sack con­tain­ing the snake.

‘You’ll have to keep it hid­den from your lodgers,’ Mother whis­pered and I won­dered out loud why Ger­ald couldn’t go and stay in our house across the road.

‘Oh no, dear,’ Mother replied. ‘The poor boy would be lonely. Be­sides, leslie has prac­ti­cally sold the house to some so­lic­i­tor or other, and we couldn’t have Ger­ald

mak­ing a mess in there if that’s the case, could we?’ Ger­ald, though he ap­peared ab­sorbed in the safe hous­ing of his an­i­mals, had in no way missed ei­ther the faces of the nurses at the win­dow or the ar­rival home of two other at­trac­tive women — Paula, who worked on the make-up counter in a lo­cal depart­ment store, and Ol­wen, an as­sis­tant in a shoe shop and part-time artist’s model.

They were soon fol­lowed by Mr Bud­den, a brick­layer, and Barry, who hired out pedal-boats on the lo­cal beach. I greeted each of them in turn, cam­ou­flag­ing the rough sack, my hand un­com­fort­able against what felt like a thick coil of rope, con­scious that it was ac­tu­ally a python.

The coast fi­nally clear, I laid the sack to rest be­hind the garage door, and there, I thought, it was go­ing to stay if I had any­thing to do with it. Back in the house I heard Mother on the tele­phone, spreading the good news of Ger­ald’s ar­rival to Doris and Leslie, who were soon speed­ing up to join us, laden with drink and good hu­mour.

The draw­ing room, fully alive for the first time, vi­brated with laugh­ter, rem­i­nis­cences and, be­cause no Dur­rell fam­ily re­union, how­ever small, was com­plete with­out one, a heated dis­cus­sion.

‘Now Ger­ald, I do hope you are not go­ing to cause Margo a lot of trou­ble with your an­i­mals,’ Mother said, tak­ing Dutch courage from a dou­ble gin. ‘We’ve had one or two nasty lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ences you know and we don’t re­ally feel up to cop­ing with any more.’

With that she be­gan de­scrib­ing the time she was in the midst of host­ing a ladies’ tea party when Ger­ald, with the deft­ness of a con­jurer, pro­duced from out of a small bag a 3ft snake, omit­ting to ex­plain that it wasn’t ven­omous.

Screams had brought the tea party to a close and the snake, tak­ing fright, had slith­ered in a fluid move­ment to the door and made a cun­ning es­cape to the next-door neigh­bour’s shrub­bery while a party of well- bred Bournemouth ladies, gath­er­ing up their be­long­ings, had swept down the drive.

As Mother re­counted this tale, Ger­ald looked thought­ful, a small smile hov­er­ing at the cor­ners of his mouth as he deftly di­rected the crit­i­cism to­wards me.

‘Ah, but what about your boyfriends, Margo?’ he said. ‘In your time you’ve had some swoon­ing around you, God knows why. ‘And I hear that some fool with a trom­bone seems to be jostling for first place in your af­fec­tions.’ I looked around in­dig­nantly. How dare the fam­ily dis­cuss my pri­vate life? How dare my lodgers gos­sip? I thought fu­ri­ously. But all this was noth­ing com­pared to the worry of Ger­ald’s pres­ence.

That night, he sank into a peace­ful sleep, un­con­cerned by the pre­oc­cu­pa­tions of sub­ur­bia. In the kitchen, where it had been moved de­spite my protes­ta­tions, the python was equally con­tented, full on a meal of white mice.

Only I lay awake, rest­less with thoughts of what my neigh­bours would make of Ger­ald’s crea­tures. A die-hard group of re­tired gen­try who strove to main­tain the road’s gen­teel at­mos­phere even as dwin­dling for­tunes saw big houses be­ing con­verted into flats and nurs­ing homes, they were typ­i­fied by the aloof fig­ures of Lord and Lady Booth, the lat­ter a gra­ciously be­furred woman who passed daily, drag­ging a per­ma­nently yap­ping ter­rier with her.

I had never spo­ken to Lord Booth, but within a few days I had an irate phone call from him.

By then Ger­ald had de­parted, end­ing a short stay into which he had packed much flir­ta­tion with my lady lodgers.

Although he had taken the python with him, he had left me in protest­ing charge of his mon­keys and this tele­phone call soon alerted me to my short­com­ings as their keeper.

‘ There is an an­i­mal in my bed­room that has knocked over the light, and is eat­ing my to­bacco!’ His Lord­ship an­nounced. ‘ The thing has now es­caped by the win­dow. I am go­ing to make my com­plaint to the right au­thor­i­ties.’

A click, then si­lence, told me I had been de­lib­er­ately cut off. Thor­oughly alarmed, I then heard a long drawn-out ‘eeeeeee’ and a fran­tic squawk­ing of chick­ens from next door.

I rushed to an up­stairs win­dow to see what was caus­ing the dis­tur­bance. Some­how the mon­keys had es­caped and one of them was now sit­ting in the open door of the chicken house, suck­ing eggs with a bliss­ful lack of con­cern.

Be­low him, hens fled in ag­i­ta­tion and a de­feated cock­erel sat, stunned to si­lence, as my neigh­bour Mr Briggs ap­proached with a gun.

‘Don’t shoot!’ I yelled in­dig­nantly. At the sound of my scream, doors opened on all sides of the land­ing and soon Andy was by my side.

‘One of the mon­keys is over at Mr Briggs’s and about to get shot — can you res­cue it for me?’ I begged.

He fol­lowed me into the gar­den with­out a mur­mur of protest and cleared the fence eas­ily, fall­ing at Mr Briggs’s feet as the gun went off.

‘ You missed!’ came the disparaging com­ment of Mrs Briggs, ac­com­pa­nied by the re­newed noise of chick­ens in fran­tic ter­ror, the deaf­en­ing squeals of a now very fright­ened mon­key and Andy boom­ing out un­re­peat­able curses.

‘Has some­one been shot?’ I asked aghast, fear­ful I might be mourn­ing the loss of Andy.

But then his head and shoul­ders ap­peared above the fence and af­ter a slight strug­gle he dropped back down be­side us, pain and fury mak­ing his face hag­gard. His hand was bleed­ing pro­fusely.

‘Are you bit­ten?’ I said, my spir­its chill­ing at the sight of his ashen face. ‘Ay.’ He turned to me bit­terly. ‘Where do you want this mon­key?’ ‘Back in the garage,’ I an­swered with a shamed face.

Then plain Jane emerged from the house and en­veloped Andy in sym­pa­thetic arms. She led him away, with­out a glance in my di­rec­tion, to her first-aid chest.

I had lost him, I told my­self in an­guish; the ob­ject of my dreams was even now lan­guish­ing with ra­bies in the clutches of skinny Jane, she who had proved so much more ef­fi­cient than I in a cri­sis.

I was des­tined to be an old maid, a sour- faced land­lady, age­ing quickly, not at all grace­fully and, if the mon­keys had any­thing to do with it, lack­ing any money with which to pacify my­self.

LIke­vis­it­ing hol­i­day­mak­ers, they had be­gun ex­plor­ing the de­lights of the town and the lo­cal pa­per started a daily col­umn fol­low­ing their routes and es­capades. They could af­ford to find it amus­ing — af­ter all it wasn’t they who would have to pay the dam­ages of pos­si­ble disaster.

I sent a brief tele­gram to Ger­ald telling him to re­turn and col­lect his spec­i­mens, end­ing it with the word ‘vi­tal’. He ar­rived al­most im­me­di­ately and, curs­ing my in­com­pe­tence, set off to bring home which­ever of­fend­ers had been caught.

As the prodi­gals re­turned, one by one, they greeted their foster fa­ther with recog­nis­able cries of wel­come and touch­ing shows of af­fec­tion.

Touch­ing, that was, to those of us who had not suf­fered ei­ther the galling in­dig­ni­ties of chas­ing a mon­key, which is al­ways just out of reach, or its bites.

Now his charges were once more safe, Ger­ald treated their es­cape lightly. ‘The bonds of true love,’ he told me, ‘ are strength­ened, not sev­ered, by a few dis­as­ters.’

‘Not mon­key bites,’ I in­sisted, prov­ing my facts with a dis­mal tale of a lost love, an un­com­fort­able

re­minder of which came when­ever Andy passed me in the hall with an im­pas­sive face and a ban­daged hand car­ried with painful care.

I prayed that things might be put right at a party I had planned in hon­our of my lodger Gor­don, a mourn­ful bach­e­lor who was about to leave us af­ter com­ing into an in­her­i­tance.

But amid all the gai­ety I couldn’t bring my­self to ap­proach the de­jected fig­ure of Andy, whose throb­bing hand even­tu­ally took him early to bed.

Only when he crept up­stairs did I rise from my seat, telling my­self that a land­lady had a per­fect right to see how an ail­ing lodger was, even at that hour.

So I found my­self knock­ing gen­tly at the door of his room and en­ter­ing.

‘I was hop­ing you would come,’ he said and I kissed the ill-fated hand, the sleeve neatly folded back by the trim fin­gers of Jane. We were to­gether at last. And, though it pained me to ad­mit it, we had Ger­ald — and his mon­keys — to thank.

ADAPTED from What­ever Hap­pened To Margo? by Mar­garet Dur­rell (Pen­guin, £9.99). © Mar­garet Dur­rell 1995. To or­der a copy, vis­it­mail­shop.co.uk/books or call 0844 571 0640.

Pic­tures: BNPS/REX FEA­TURES/HARPER COLLINS

Un­con­ven­tional: The Dur­rells in the ITV drama based on Ger­ald’s child­hood mem­oir. In­set, be­low: Margo at home in Bournemouth in 1995 and, right, Ger­ald as a youth­ful zo­ol­o­gist

Pic­ture: 2016 REX FEA­TURES

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