Lady Mary Anne Hulett considered the name to be appropriately vague; its loose designation allowed a lot of leeway:
‘Our Ethereal Ladies of the Valley.’
Of course, it was inspired by the Valley of a Thousand Hills, which she could see sliding down before her, like the trough between gigantic waves rippling away until they crashed into the landscape in the hazy distance.
As she sat in the big scuffed leather chair in the little turret attic of the old Rob Roy Hotel, she looked down on these wide undulations of the valley, as it cradled the Umgeni river in the bosom of its embrace. With that river loosely coiled below its thousand hills, the valley stretched a long way inland to the northwest. Lady H knew that the fingertips of some of its tributaries, like those of some other namesake Magdalene, even reached out to stroke the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains.
Turning her gaze back she looked around to see if there was enough seating for six. This was to be a special ‘weekly meeting’ of the Kearsney chapter of Our Ethereal Ladies, because they were expecting a guest all the way from Hilton College, a school much further up the Umgeni and looking down on a different part of its watershed.
It was to be Elizabeth, headmaster Raymond S’s wife, who would be flitting down to join them.
These cross-chapter meetings were mostly gossip, sometimes spiced with a bit of scandal, but they served also to maintain social contact between the more refined members of the spirit world.
However, to give the gatherings a semblance of studiousness, much like a book club could be so considered, these inter-chapter visits were pegged around a topic, chosen in advance by the guest.
Lady Mary Ann Hulett frowned and shook her head. Yes, surely it was an unusual topic chosen by Liz:
What on earth had prompted Liz to pick such a subject? Medicinal maybe? After all, a serpent was wrapped around the rod of Asclepius, the symbol of the medical corps.
Or was it religion that she had in mind? Come to think of it, as part of their chapters conservation mandate, Our Ethereal Ladies spent a lot of time countering the notion that snakes were part of evil in the minds of the living.
Poor snakes, her ladyship pondered, more than any other creature, if they were spotted they were always getting it in the neck, so as to speak, with a rock.
Lady H didn’t have much time to consider the issue further, because the others of the group began to drift into the attic.
Pixy M appeared through the door and quickly began to fuss around arranging the chairs so that they would be seated in a semi-circle before Liz as she led the topic.
Next, Thea R floated in through the side wall, followed by Stella F. Last was Val H, whose lateness Lady H could have predicted, knowing the slight rivalry between the two headmaster wives, which still echoed the rivalry of the respective schools.
After a jocular round of greetings and pleasantries, Lady H called the meeting into session, and handed over the chair to Liz.
Liz took a deep breath, because although ghosts don’t need to breathe, the taking of a deep breath before making a speech is a behavioral pattern which most ghosts retain from their previous lives.
“Ladies,”she said. “Today I would like to discuss a slightly touchy subject. It has to do with my husband and the father of one of the boys at the school: a boy who was there many decades ago, in the Sixties. Recently the boy’s father has travelled down all the way from Zambia to suntan on our lovely north coast beaches.”
Lady Marianne looked at Liz curiously as she said. “Certainly, but what is the problem with sun-tanning on the beach? These days as ghosts we don’t really need to worry about getting sunburned.”
“Well,”Liz continued, “the problem is that his father, Norman C, has been flitting up to the college quite a bit while he is vacationing here, and none of the bad blood that was generated back then between them, my husband and the father-son duo, has dissipated.
“It is putting Raymond into a nasty mood, which could affect his speech at an upcoming saging committee. As you all know, how we ghosts react to saging has always been a contentious issue. Our reaction policy towards the mortals performing the saging could be affected by his speech. Not only that, if it is well received he may even be offered the chairmanship of the committee, which comes with great perks.”
Liz hesitated as she digressed, “I would love to spend a weekend relaxing on top of Thaba Nchu, a privilege usually reserved for our Zulu dignitary peers.”
“What was the incident that caused the bad blood?”asked Stella F. “Maybe we should start there to see if we can give any advice.”
“It was like this.”Liz paused dramatically and opened her eyes wide. “If you remember the boys who came from higher up in Africa mostly travelled by train. In the case of this particular boy, Adrian C, he hailed all the way from Zambia.
In those days the boys had big tin trunks into which all their school clothing and goods were packed for the journey down to South Africa.”
Liz paused to nibble on one of the mist-wafers which the group provided as part of their hosting.
“Go on,”Pixy admonished, and Liz continued.
“It was in this lad’s last term before graduating that for some reason the matron checked his trunk, and got the shock of her life.”
Everyone looked at Liz in anticipation.
“What was so shocking?”Asked Val H.
“What the matron found,”Liz said slowly, “tucked between odds and ends of clothing, books and sports stuff at the bottom of the trunk, was a huge big fat snake . . . a very poisonous puff adder.”
Thea R gasped. “Gracious. How did it get there?”
“It did not get there,”said Liz. “it was put there.”
“By whom?”They chorused in unison.
Liz raised her hands heavenwards.
“Of course there was a big commotion,”she said, “and the biology master was summoned, supposing him to have the most knowledge about snakes.
“They were about to dispatch the fat sluggish viper, when the biology master, being slightly more observant than the others, noticed two small white letters painted on the snakes back: A.C. they spelled out.”
“Adrian C was summoned, and thus it was discovered that the snake was put in the trunk. In fact the trunk was the snake’s home.”[
Liz once again took a deep breath. “It was Adrian C’s pet puff adder, brought all the way from Zambia.”
“Adrian was sent back to the classrooms as the heads of the school decided what to do.
“Finally the consensus was to confiscate the snake, and ship it to the FitSimmon Institute. Up there it would be used for anti-venom serum production.
“However, when Adrian C heard this plan he made a big fuss. There had been no laws, nor guidelines at the school as to what kind of creatures could be kept as pets, he claimed.
“If a boy could keep a hawk in a falconry hobby, why can’t a boy keep a snake?”
“Anyway, the upshot was that the snake was confiscated, which was when the trouble started.”
Once again it was Pixy who interrupted. “What kind of trouble?”
Liz made a gesture towards Pixy to be patient. “You ladies may not know that Raymond loved his dog Patches. Patches was a complete mongrel, but a very friendly one. My husband adored his dog. However, the next day after the snake was confiscated, Patches went missing.
“On the desk in my husband’s office was a sheet of paper torn from a school book. On it was written..
‘If you give me back my snake, I will give you back your dog.’
“Of course, this caused an even bigger consternation than that caused by the discovery of the snake. But the lad would not budge. He had hidden the dog somewhere in the Karkloof forests. He was adamant that unless he got his snake back that Raymond would not get his dog back.”
“The boy’s father was then summoned and rushed down from where he was stationed way up north on the Luangwa River, in Zambia.”
“The entire board of the college got involved. But the boy would not budge, and to the intense annoyance of the staff involved in the discussions, the father took the side of the sun. This was so even after the snake had been returned and swapped for the dog.
“The thing that really annoyed my husband was that the boy was not summarily expelled.
“However, Adrian’s father was a pioneer in the hunting and conservation efforts in Central Africa. He had even written a book about returning two orphan lions to the wild. Unbeknownst to Raymond, a handful of the members of the board were avid hunters. These men had been guided by Norman Adrian’s father] and were complete devotees of his.
“Thus, a compromise was reached for Adrian to live off campus and attend classes until his final matric exams.”
Liz shrugged her shoulders.”There you have it”she said. “But my problem is that my husband’s pride seems still to be pricked. I don’t know what I should do to calm the situation.”
Liz gave a worried frown. “He is starting to develop a haggard look on his face, which won’t look good when giving a speech. With a wide smile lighting up her visage, Lady H listened to the end of Liz’s narrative. She was aware that as the spirit matriarch everybody was looking at her. 
“Liz,”she said, “I think I have just the right fix. Sir Leige, my husband, was also an avid hunter. In his day the forests around our old north coast home were full of bushbuck, which he would often hunt]. As a hunter he has also developed a friendship with Norman see, both as a mortal, and especially since both of them are now kindred spirits.
“I will get Leige to invite him up to the old Kearsney establishment on the Zululand border.”
Lady H looked around as the others nodded. “That should keep Norman out of your Raymond’s hair until he has finished his speech.”
Liz sat back in her chair and her face was transformed with a bright wide smile, but Lady H didn’t give her time to express her thanks.
“Well, Liz. Here at the school we also have a story of pricked pride and serpents,”said Lady Mary Anne.
“A story which, although involving a less auspicious snake, is far more spectacular from the perspective of punctured pride.
“As you know, here at Kearsney College we pride ourselves on our lovely big hall, which like most school halls serves many purposes.
“One of these functions is to host the boys when writing exams. Simple austere exam tables with accompanying chair, are spread out evenly at distances sufficient to prevent any cheating glances at the neighbors work.”
Lady H glanced at Liz. “I am sure it is done much the same at Hilton.”
Without waiting for a response, Lady H continued.] “It was during just such an exam that sets the stage for my story. It was 1970. Most people would have agreed that one of the lads, namely Hugh M would not develop into a tall man, but he had a good sturdy physique, with a way of tilting his head down and slightly tucking in his chin as he talked. His thick head of hair had the faintest touch of ginger, maybe a nod to a Scottish or Irish heritage.
“This lad is at the center of our episode. He was sitting, writing an exam in the middle of the hall, surrounded by his peers and being monitored by a teacher.
“But, at some stage during the exam the monitoring teacher, Laurie L, became] suspicious. A lad was surreptitiously opening the lid of his pencil box and peeping at something inside.”
Lady H pursed her lips as she sorted] her memories to accurately describe the events.
“As I sat in the] balcony seats looking down on the proceedings, I detected an ‘Aha’ moment on Laurie L’s face.
Laurrie a faintly chubby man, who spoke in a nasaley voice whose timber occasionally rose in pitch to give it a unique sound. I saw how he slowly approached the desk where the lad with the suspicious pencil box was sitting.
“For a minute or two I saw how Laurie stood nonchalantly looking around at the other desks. It was now getting towards the end of the three-hour examination. A certain number of the boys had finished. They sat idly watching the proceedings. [
“I am sure,” said lady H. “That Laurie was aware of being watched, and why waste the theater of catching a cheating lad in the act.” Slowly, quietly, Laurie stepped closer until he stood alongside Hugh M’s desk. At the same time he reached down to pick up the pencil box.”
“It was only at this late stage that Hugh M realized the teacher stood next to him, and was reaching for his box.
“Triumphant, the teacher-monitor smiled before scrutinizing the objec. Then with exaggerated slowness Laurie raised the tin container, until it was no more than a few inches from his eye.
“The other boys looking on at the unfolding theater watched as] Laurie was mimicking the way the cheating lad Pete into his pencil box.”
For a split second, it was as if times stood still, as its void was filled with utter silence, before it burst with] the crash of the pencil box hitting the floor. . .
Laurie had dropped the little box as soon as a little snake poked its head out of the crack in the lid , into his eye.
“You see,” said lady H, “like your Adrian C, Hugh also kept pets. His was a harmless Red-lipped Herald snake.”