Short Story: “Culling Cobras”

Member of Parliament Lawrence Sitwell is frustrated by the failure of his political career. A conversation with an old friend causes him to rethink everything.

Young woman practicing yoga, doing Cobra exercise, Bhujangasana pose © fizkes /

January 14, 2024 03:31 EDT

Something to consider when reading/listening: When politicians try to make something better, are they more likely to make it worse?

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from a decade as a member of parliament, and I’ll grant you it is a big “if”, it’s that you should never trust your instincts. No, that’s not right. You should trust them, without fail, to let you down.

If, as a politician, you set out with full force and vigor to right a societal wrong, as I have done on many occasions, well a couple anyway, you can almost guarantee you will make things worse.

Case in point: When we used to run India, the British government tried to tackle the problem of wild snakes by paying the citizens of Delhi for every cobra they managed to kill. To begin with, this worked reasonably well, but it wasn’t long before people started breeding cobras in farms to up their kill count. The government duly scrapped the policy, at which point the snake farmers set their slippery livestock free, and the city had far more cobras than they had to begin with.

I can tell you now, every policy I’ve ever supported has gone the same way. It’s led me to believe that what we desperately need is a government committed openly and wholeheartedly to the immiseration of the human race. That way, they might accidentally make things better.

There’s a technical term for it, you know: bollocks.

No. Forgive me. Iatrogenic. That’s the word. I-at-ro-genic. Where a disease is caused, or made worse, by a cure.

I learnt that from my ex-wife’s father. He was a heart surgeon until he reached the age where he could only do it sober. Now he advises the opposition on their health policy. We still meet every other week at The White Horse in Parsons Green and it was during our conversation last night that I finally decided I was done with politics. But what really kicked things off was this one-woman play I saw last week.

The play itself was forgettable but as I was walking out, I saw an old university friend I hadn’t seen for years. Maggie Allen. She’s an odd fish, is Mags. A dentist with perfect teeth and terrible hair. Voice like a scotch whiskey. Arse like a van’s bumper.

I called out to her, waved, smiled. She nodded, grimaced and turned away. And I couldn’t believe it. We’d been close, really close. Not like that, but exactly. The sort of closeness a man and a woman can only have if they don’t sleep with each other.

I couldn’t fathom why she was ignoring me. Was it my policies? I don’t have any bloody policies. If I were to run for prime minister, I’d promise two terms where we’d do absolutely bugger all and let everyone get on with their lives. My slogan on the podiums and the battle bus, repeated ad nauseam in every interview, would be “You Won’t Know I’m Here.”

Anyway, sod that for a game of soldiers I thought, and I raced after her. 

“Maggie, Maggie come on old friend let’s catch up.”

I managed to bundle her into Mr Fogg’s on St Martin’s Lane. You could tell she was looking around to make sure no one was watching us. I told her not to worry, we’re in central London. There’s not a chance anyone in this pub would recognize a backbench MP.

“I really hope my political career hasn’t affected your opinion of me, Mags.”

She said it hadn’t. She claimed she was hurrying away because she knew I’d invite her for a drink. Apparently, she’s become a bit of a slippery goose in that department. One drink will lead to several, and several drinks will leave her waking up the next morning with no memory of the night before. Sounds wonderful to me but she insisted this was undesirable.

I suggested we stick to softs but she plumped for a bottle of red. With one glass. I got myself a half pint of mild. And in less than ten minutes, duly lubricated by two-thirds of the Malbec, she was tearing chunks off my political career.

“Haven’t you spent most of your time campaigning for higher pay for MPs?” she said.

“But for god’s sake,” I replied, “I don’t want the current lot being paid any more. The house is full of people in their fifties who genuinely think 75k is a good salary. Let’s pay more and up the standard. If they kick me out so be it.”

“Don’t you think MPs should be representative of the public at large?”

“In every area except intelligence.”

She laughed.

“Not that it matters,” I said. “All I’ve done is made a pay rise less likely. I cannot overemphasize how powerless MPs truly are.”

“We’re all powerless, Lawrence.”

“Yes but, in my case, power is supposed to be the stock in trade. It’s like being a dentist who never gets to see any teeth.”

I told her about the cobras in Delhi and I quoted Robert Conquest: “The behavior of any bureaucratic organization can best be understood by assuming it is controlled by a secret cabal of its enemies.” “If I’d set out to reduce MP’s salaries,” I added, “we’d probably be earning twice what we are now. Do you know what MP stands for, Mags?”

She rolled her eyes. “I’ve always thought it was Member of Parliament?”

“Meaningless Problems. That’s what we are and that’s what we specialize in.”

She was impressed, as was I. This was sharp stuff. And herein lies the problem. I’m a fiercely intelligent man and I’ve achieved precisely nothing in ten years while earning a sniff above minimum wage.

Then I told her about the death threats. Between emails, letters and Twitter, I get about five a day. And only two of those are from my ex-wife. I don’t let them bother me as such, but nor would I be desperately sorry to see them go.

This is the point where everybody expresses some sort of sympathy. But do you know what she said? Do you know what Maggie Allen said, the odd fish? She said, “You should count yourself lucky.” She told me it’s a tradition in Bhutan to contemplate death five times a day. Lifts your spirits. Those death threats are a gift apparently.

So I said, “Well in that case I’ll forward them on to you.” And she said please do. And the rest of the evening was an absolute scream. One of those conversations where you laugh more than you speak. It was wonderful. Well, until the end when I needed the barmaid’s assistance to haul Maggie into her Uber blackout drunk, her hair in even more of a state than normal, but there was no harm done because she wouldn’t remember it anyway.

And for the next few days, whenever I got a new death threat, I’d copy and paste it into WhatsApp and send it on to her. She never replied so eventually I had to clarify. “I am only joking you know.” And then a few hours later I added, in brackets, “At least that’s what I’ll tell the police.”

What I know now but didn’t know then is that her drunkenness hadn’t simply erased her memory of being carried to the taxi, it had taken the whole night from her. So the death threats, when she eventually read them, came as a bit of a shock to the system.

But she was right, you know. Or the Bhutanese or the Bhutanians or…or is it the Bhutes? They…someone…was right. Those death threats used to make me feel pretty rotten. But now they make me feel top-notch. Thinking about death has made me grateful to be alive. So every time someone says “I hope you choke in your sleep”, I think thank you very much.

So I said all of this to Mark, my ex-wife’s dad, last night in the White Horse.

And he listened patiently while drinking two pints of Old Speckled Dishwater, and lining up a third. And when I was finished do you know what he said? He chewed the inside of his cheek and he said, “I think she’s my dentist. The woman you’re talking about. Margaret Allen? Yes, she’s my dentist.”

And that’s when the realization finally dawned. All we are is insignificant extras in other people’s lives. I’ve given up ten years of mine just so I can be “I think he’s my local MP,” “Isn’t he that prick who wants a pay rise?” “The one whose wife was shagging the plumber?”

I’ve spent all this time seeking fame and power but the more I’ve searched for these things, the more they’ve retreated. It’s not just politics. The whole world is iatrogenic. We’re all cutting off the heads of cobras and watching our streets fill with snakes.

I jumped up, kissed Mark on the head and skipped all the way home.

The next morning, I woke up with a sore head but a heart as large as the civil service.

I listened to the birds singing their soulful tunes and I could’ve wept for the fact they must have been singing with equal vigor when my marriage was falling apart.

On my phone I had not one but two death threats which I resolved to cherish like letters from old lovers. I won’t send these ones on to Mags, I thought, I’ll keep them all for myself.

I didn’t want fame, I didn’t want success, I just wanted to be free. Free like the birds in the trees.

This was the day I would write to my constituency office and to the chairman of the party, and depart the scene. I would become that most irrelevant of figures: an ex-MP. I would retreat into anonymity, never to be seen or heard from ever again. It was going to be glorious.

There was a knock at the front door. Police officers. What on earth for?

“Can I help you, officers?”

“Lawrence Sitwell,” said the taller one, “I am Sergeant Rod Garlick and I am arresting you under section sixteen of the Offences Against the Person Act. You do not have to say anything but it may harm your defense if you do not mention when questioned something you later rely on in court.”

“My good man, what the devil are you talking about?”

“We’ll need your phone, Mr Sitwell.’ he said. “We’ve found several incriminating messages where you threaten a poor woman’s life. We’ve got you bang to rights, I’m afraid. Oh, and you might want to put on a nice suit. There are cameras everywhere.” He narrowed his eyes at me. “I’d never heard of you before today, sir. But you’re about to become a very, very famous man.”

[Doe Wilmann first released this piece on his short story podcast, Meaningless Problems.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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