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...
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.
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