Rat Tale

A Tribute to Poor Ratty...

It really could be said that it was the fault of the Ivy. This particular specimen, Hedera Helix
Chicago Variegatum, (sensibly named Ivy by the children) grew in a pot hung just inside the
kitchen door but after a while its abundance became a nuisance. It grabbed everybody that
passed, swinging in the face of anybody that followed and at the same time persistently got
itself closed  in the door. The combined howls of frustration from the family, crash of dogs
food bowls on the floor, the subsequent dogfights and psychic screams of the plant grew too
much for me. I resolved to find a place where it could both vegetate and prosper to its heart's
content, disturbing nobody. In the front garden against the wall at the corner of the house
seemed the most likely position, plenty of light and sheltered from the East wind. Others
expressed doubts that it would survive out of doors, I scoffed at this knowing full well what a
determined weed Ivy, however striking, can become. At first it did seem to be surprised by its
change of circumstance and sat very quietly for a while. But survived the first winter with
flying colours, well, green and cream anyway. In the second year out of doors monstrous
changes occurred, first the tiny delicate leaves disappeared to be replaced by large crisp ones as
big as the palm of a man's hand. And then it grew a trunk. Satisfied that it would survive we
ignored it as best we could. This was fairly hard to do as it became a prominent feature of the
neighbourhood. In ten years it engulfed the front and the side of the house. Soon it reached the
eaves, guttering and then the roof. When it began to prise the tiles off with the gay abandon of
a cowboy roofer, I became concerned. I did not immediately attack it because it had become a
fascinating haven for wildlife, birds nested in it, swarming  insects attracted more birds and it
harboured tiny blue butterflies or moths which nobody could identify (something to do with the
ants we were told). And besides anybody who has been forced to remove ivy from their home
will know what a filthy, dust laden prospect it presents, to say nothing of the hideous brown
scar left behind. So I procrastinated. 

That winter scampering and squeaking were heard in the attic. Our house was double glazed,
windows and doors, security-wise "tighter than a duck's behind" a neighbour picturesquely
observed, or something of the sort. So access could only have been gained via the Ivy, our very
own nature reserve. The scampering now not only involved the attic space but the cavity
walling filled as it was with pellets of recycled newspaper, allegedly to provide insulation. The
dogs had taken to snuffling along the margins of the downstairs rooms, their jowls slobbering
revoltingly against the skirting boards, a hazard to furniture and patience. To say nothing of the
danger to the resident black ants who preferred our house to the real world and who earned
their keep by systematically de-ticking the dogs (Yes, its disgusting but cheaper than bug-
spray). Reliably informed that rodents prefer the outside during summer I resolved to allow
them escape before cutting off their access to free, dry, centrally-heated accommodation and
awaited the height of Summer before decimating their pathway to the aforementioned
accommodation. Summer came, I took an axe to the multiple trunks, (Lord knows how Jack
cut through the Beanstalk so quickly) screamed the gathered neighbours "Shame!". I  laid
violent hands upon the monster and only managed to strain my back, the severed Ivy would not
budge. So to give the growing crowd (nothing eventful had occurred since Derek "relit" his
bonfire with petrol)  the impression of careful planning I climbed a ladder to the edge of the
roof and systematically removed all offending vegetation with pruning shears and loppers.

All in the house was still.  The ivy despite being cut through at shoulder height was as green as
ever still firmly stuck to the wall.  It took another nine months before it went brown and two
years to get it off the house.  Leaving awful tendril marks all across the wood facing.  Later I
was to cut it off at ground level.  A year after it was five feet high again.

The first signs were tiny, standing by the kitchen stove talking to my wife, I idly reached for
bacon-rind on the stove - not the cleanest in the kingdom - my wife spoke I glanced up,
returned to the bacon rind and it was gone.  In our house it is best not to mention mental illness
one's own in particular.  I made no comment. A week passed and the stove refused to obey the
ignition button.  I lifted the cover from the top and discovered all the fine thread like wires of
the ignition system had been snipped into short lengths, suspecting a combination of attention
seeking children and nail-scissors, resolving to give no satisfaction I said nothing, closed the
cover and bought matches.  The oven presented difficulties, I found it would only light if a
blow-torch was played on the thermostat for ten minutes then ignition occurred.  As I was the
only household member prepared to and capable of performing this task - this entailed climbing
half way into a greasy oven, shiny surfaces loose heat I am told - the number of roast meals fell
alarmingly.  The dogs began to behaviour strangely, they began to peer round our legs while
we talked to them.  One had to have its head removed from a hole it had created by shoving 
said head through the panel of a kitchen cupboard.  Another had to be rescued from the 
inactive - top-loading washing-machine where it appeared to be absentmindedly making a
foxhole, a distracted expression on its stupid face.  Then in the middle of the night a little
scuffle in the attic.  

Let me digress for a moment.  As a family we acquire things, not always complete, things that
at a later date may prove repairable.  Like the jaybird and the squirrel (Sorry Jim!)  We do not
always find our way back to what we acquire, in the case of the above, forests grow from their
leavings.  From us piles of banana boxes all neatly stacked and filled with things that with a
little work might be saleable or useful if the other ten versions of the same object should
mysteriously fail in its function.  When it became clear that the house might collapse under the
stress in the attic - a cousin had built the house so we recognised its strengths - we floored out
the attic with particle board.  How this was achieved is a story in itself.  By doing this we
created a cavity of around four inches between the ceiling joists, false floor and ceiling.  Above
we stacked our boxes, secure in the knowledge that the house was now in less danger of

 Occasionally we discover a real antique.  One such is a small cannon ball, cast iron about one
and one half inches in diameter.  This indestructible and rusty object goes everywhere with us
and appears and disappears year in year out.  This was one of its less visible periods.  Imagine
our surprise when it was heard in the middle of the night rumbling across the ceiling, as it
passed above one room after another,  the sound would diminish as does distant thunder then
slowly return.  Imagining terrified children cowering under their bedding, we broached the
subject tactfully next day.  We were faced with the blank stare of the carefully practised liar,
the sort that becomes a senior churchman, lawyer or consultant surgeon.  Complete denial! 
Admiring such polished skill we left the matter alone.  The following night nothing was heard. 
Nor on the next.  As is my habit, my wife snores with the same enthusiasm as a grizzly bear, I
wear ear plugs at night.  But occasionally in the interests of novelty I would take them out
and listen to the sounds of the night.  
The slamming of car doors at three in the morning,people throwing beer bottles at the side of the house, half-bricks bouncing of the doubleglazing as the local nine year old children tested our security, the sound of vomiting against our garden wall, gunshots, screaming. All the tiny jungle sounds of community in the British urban society. It was during a pause in the background noise, a police patrol had just passed - twelve mentally challenged men with a desire improve social conditions in Kent, The Garden of England, unchanged since the Vikings thought it was a bit nasty and left - when I heard footsteps, small pink ones in the attic space, one after the other, one, two, three, four, then five. Five? There was a pause after four then a distinct tap. I knew instantly what I was hearing. Years of sleeping in barns had not been wasted on me. There was a large rat in the attic, the tap was it putting its tail down. This meant a heavy tail which meant a Large Rat. I am an easy-going chap, who will share with anybody, even a rat. Providing certain criteria are met. Do not disturb my sleep. Do not eat my food unless invited. Do not damage or steal my processions. Why in all of the house did the rat make a nest in the wall at the head of my bed exactly where my head rested. Did it have to snore, albeit very quietly. My wife was one thing there was never any question about her snoring, either you could hear her or she was not snoring. But the rat snored quietly, one had to strain to listen. Only if you held your breath and listened could you be sure that a few inches away through a thin wall a very large possible health threat was sleeping curled up in the wall insulation, dreaming. How did I know it was dreaming, that was easy, when I was asleep I would have to share its little ratty dreams of squeezing through confined spaces in total darkness, running all night long, avoiding huge dangerous dogs in the half light of the kitchen and the storerooms where they slept. Trust me a rat's life is hell. Fortunately the spot by my head was not always occupied in the night, sometimes Ratty would spend the night provoking the dogs into attacking each other, not hard this. Or hurling themselves at walls and furniture. Something had to be done. A family conference was called and set meal times were arranged for the rat. It was decided that if it was fed late at night in an enclosed - nowhere was inaccessible to it - dog free space it would encourage it not to make such a nuisance of itself and I would not have to leave home with twelve dogs - yes, I know twelve dogs were excessive but it was a rough neighbourhood and they were a lot nicer than our children. Things quietened down. Summer came again and I noticed that the postman kept tripping over in the long grass of the front garden as he walked from house to house across the flower beds. This was my usual indicator that the grass had become unnecessarily long. Time for George. George was a Greek gentleman who with his wife went on Sunshine Cruises during the winter months and returned in the summer to cut my grass and several other people's too. Yes, I know a certain inconsistency presents itself for question. I never asked and George was too much of a gentleman to burden me with anything I might wish I had never heard and might repeat by accident. George's skills were both cheap and thorough, in fact so thorough that had he not been physically restrained on occasions I would have had no grass left. Thankfully because I worked close to the front window I could hear him revving the motor of his super-charged twin carburetted dragster mower. Often the cry rang out "Oh no! Its George, stop him!". This worked most times but he got sneaky and would start his mower around the corner of the house out of sight and sound, cross the pavement, sweep onto the lawn cutting a great swath of bleeding grass, spattering on the walls and windows as he passed. He was a grand man, we loved him dearly and I wish him well wherever he has travelled. ( He was also dead useful in a fight providing he could keep his glasses on.) But given the size of the mower and the fact that George hated using the Strimmer, this task was left to me. All areas of grass that the Monster Mower missed were mine. I mentioned getting the Strimmer down from the attic along with the extension lead (Why was it in the attic? To stop it being stolen, silly!) I noticed sudden unaccustomed activity, people hurrying but and forth, sons-in-law briskly entering the house and leaving with blank expressions. I demanded the Strimmer, blank looks. Where's the Strimmer? Stephen has it! Odd! I wanted it! People go out. I sit around, then thought strikes me, we have two Strimmers. The old one still working and the new more powerful version. So I entered the Loft space turned the lights on and found two Strimmers. Both old and new, large and small. And also I found a pile of extension cable thirty yards long - no more - snipped into two inch lengths and stacked neatly. Each length about the same distance from a rat's mouth to its paw if it held the cable like a flute and fed it through its mouth, bit it off and repeated the action. I left the loft very quietly under complete control and went for a brisk twenty-two mile walk in the countryside. When in a few days the Strimmer was presented to me complete with cable I showed no emotion... One of our females, a smooth-haired Fox terrier, would not eat unless isolated from the other dogs. I cannot blame her, their manners were disgusting. While working in the room where she was being fed I heard the growl that she reserved for puppies when she had enough of their needle-teeth and sharp little claws. I turned in horror expecting to discover unexpected puppies, instead I saw a large brown rat sharing the dog food. I said nothing as I left the room. Some weeks later my wife approached me very quietly and composed, asked me where the spade was kept. I told her and she disappeared to fetch it. The house was very quiet that day. As I lay in bed I recalled the unusual request. After a silence she explained that while she was filling the dog food bowls, she heard a scraping noise behind her and turned to see the rat walking on its back legs, pushing a dog bowl in front of it like a wheelbarrow. The sight of the disappearing bowl was too much for Merlin, one of our younger dogs, and with a quick snap Ratty's fascinating life ended. I feel sadness even to this day, I was rather hoping to teach him to read.