“File:CSIRO ScienceImage 10564 The black rat Rattus rattus.jpg” by division, CSIRO is licensed under CC BY 3.0

In the early ’90’s I lived in Erdington in Birmingham. I had a nice house,  a spacious Victorian terrace with Minton Tiles and other original features, downstairs bath and WC, 3B, GFCH, DG, VGC, NS, GSOH, likes long walks by the sea and cozy evenings on the sofa with a good book.

But the real selling point for me had been the garden. Although long and narrow, it was not overlooked and got the sun for most of the day. Furthermore it had obviously been lovingly tended for years, if not indeed decades; the lawn was lush and rich, the borders were well stocked with a nice variety of healthy plants and shrubs, and all paving and associated external brickwork was in first class order. It just required some regular maintenance, and it was a joy to sit out in on a summer’s eve.

One Saturday in July I was engaged in a little light gardening, a task which I have always found congenial. It was a lovely sunny morning, the birds were chirruping, I was hungover no worse than usual and, on the whole, the day seemed to wear a countenance of bright and beaming affability. All was very much right with my world. I was kneeling by the left hand herbaceous border attending to an over-enthusiastic patch of Kniphofia which was threatening to exceed the bounds of propriety, when I heard a rustle close by amongst the dead leaves and twigs under the privet. I looked up expecting to see Jasper, next door’s black and white cat, a chap with whom I was on very good terms.

The smile of welcome froze on my face for there, less than two feet away from me, was crouched a sewer-rat approximately the size of a rugby ball. He was so close that I could see every whisker on his snout, his bared incisors yellow and stained and his beady red eyes which were fixed on mine. He squealed with rage and sprang at me, and I swear to this day that his jaws snapped shut within an inch of my face.

In the interests of full disclosure, I must state that I have previous form with regard to unsolicited rodent attacks. And, in order for you to fully appreciate the impact which unfolding events were to have on me, I must beg your indulgence whilst I rewind the Betamax cassette of my memory a further two decades into the past: to a late October morning in 1973, to be precise.

I was born and grew up in a little village in the armpit of Nowhere. This was still the age of the 11-Plus exam, and I was the only child in my year at primary school to have passed it, and this was my first term at Big Skool. In point of fact I was the only pupil from my primary school for many years to have passed the 11-Plus, hence I was the only child who waited at the bus stop to be picked up by the private hire coach that bussed in the pupils from all the little villages roundabout.

Although the school was in a town barely twelve miles distant from my home, the route that the coach took was so rambling that it took the best part of two hours to reach its destination, and I was the first to board. Consequently I had to leave my house at 6.30AM and walk about a mile to the spot where the coach drew up.

It was a nippy but not unpleasant Autumn morning, and dawn was just breaking as I walked down the deserted village street. Part of my walk took me by the churchyard where a row of stately elms, indistinct in the misty dawn light, stood sentinel either side of a lych gate which pierced the low grey stone wall that marked the boundary of the consecrated ground. Sat atop the wall was a squirrel, but as I approached it neither moved nor gave any sign of having heard me.

It does not take a great deal of acquaintance with the genus Sciurus to determine that sitting still does not make up a major portion of the little critter’s lifestyle. Even when he believes himself to be unobserved, the squirrel is a mobile and apprehensive animal. Darting about in the undergrowth or scampering up a tree trunk is more the chosen MO of the discerning bushy-tailed gentleman. They may occasionally take a break from a hectic schedule of fossicking and foraging, but even when at rest the tail flicks and the and the head cranes about, alert for predators. But this one was as still as ever stock or stone.

I approached within an easy arm’s reach of the squirrel, and was able to confirm that it was utterly motionless. Not so much as a whisker twitched, nor could I detect that it was even breathing. I pondered for a minute then, with no malice and in fact acting out of concern lest the little chap in his reverie fall prey to one of the local cats, I gave him a poke with my right index finger. As quick as a striking snake he whipped round, sank his teeth into my digit and hung there snarling.

This was certainly a conundrum. I made a mental note that Beatrix Potter was not, perhaps, to be regarded as the last word in animal behaviorism and considered my next move. My situation was this: I had between half and three quarters of a pound of inexplicably hostile squirrel attached by its teeth to the tip of my finger. The top set of his incisors were pressed against, but had not spilt, my fingernail, whilst the lower set was sunk deeply into the flesh underneath. Blood loss was noticeable but not severe, and the pain was just about bearable. I gave my hand an exploratory shake to see if I could dislodge him that way but the pain increased in severity and the squirrel’s snarling increased in volume, so I desisted from that avenue of endeavour.

Obviously the intervention of a responsible adult was desirable at this point in time but there loomed another dilemma: who? Dad was already out at work and Mum, God rest her soul, was not one to eagerly embrace new experiences. And, as I was fairly sure that none of us had yet presented her with the challenge of detaching a full grown squirrel from one of her brood, I decided that it might be best to seek help elsewhere and debrief her later, once all the excitement had died down.

A happy thought struck me. At the far end of the High Street there was a petrol station and garage. The proprietor, a Mr Burgoyne, opened shop early and, in my estimation, seemed like just the practical sort of chap you need in this kind of brouhaha. Therefore, in duffel coat and school cap, burdened by my satchel, my sports bag and an angry squirrel, I walked the length of the street leaving little droplets of blood on the frosty pavement.

Mr Burgoyne exceeded expectations. I presented myself before him with my arm outstretched and the squirrel dangling therefrom, and the chap summed up the circs in an instant. There was no need for a lengthy explanation. He selected a sturdy monkey wrench from the display behind him and, allowing himself a jocular reference to Rag, Tag and Bobtail, he stepped out from behind the counter and whacked the squirrel a smart one on the back of the head, at which it dropped limply to the floor.

I went home, explained things and was rushed to the surgery for a tetanus shot and got to spend the rest of the day on the couch. But it was a vivid experience and one which affected me deeply.

Although I remember the time the squirrel and I spent together with no especial fondness, it would have seemed like a roseate glow of nostalgia compared with the actuality of having a two-foot long rat dangling from my nose, cheek or lip which, to resume the thread of my story, was what I was now facing. Squirrels, by and large, are sanitary animals, and do not carry diseases communicable to man.

A rat, on the other hand, is a little mobile laboratory for breeding bacilli which are more than happy to move up the property ladder by entering a human bloodstream. The rat’s saliva and hair follicles, to say nothing of their urine and faeces which, rats being incontinent for both, the little blighter would have sprayed around indiscriminately, are basically biohazards. Weil’s Disease would have been the least of my problems had the rat, on that sunny Saturday morning, been able to fix his teeth into my face.

I squealed like a six year old girl, flung myself backwards and bolted up the path without looking back. I locked the door behind me, grabbed a four pack of Stella from the fridge, and established an observation post at the back bedroom window overlooking the lawn.

It became clear that the rat was already in extremis: poison, most likely. As I watched, he crawled a few inches towards the middle of the lawn, shuddered and fell on his side. I necked a Stella and kept a watching brief. In a few minutes he repeated the performance, gaining another six inches towards the other side of the garden. After a second can of Stella, it occurred to me that this could go on for hours and that, if I didn’t intervene, he would would make it into cover where he would expire and his body putrefy in the summer warmth. Unpalatable though the prospect was, further action had to be taken. Another Stella, then.

Thus, forty five minutes and two further cans of Stella later, I emerged into the sunlight again. Clad in gumboots, thick socks, two pairs of jeans, my winter coat and my thick gloves ditto, my face protected by plastic goggles and a scarf would tightly round the lower half, I was clutching my cricket bat and a black bin bag. I stepped smartly, if a little woozily, up to the rodent and gave him a right ding over the napper.

The rat convulsed deeply, then went still. I nudged his carcass into the bin bag using the end of the cricket bat and my boot toes. Gingerly carrying the limp bundle, I had just got the lid of the dustbin off when the contents of the bag began to spasm wildly. I let out a full throated scream of horror, slammed the lid on the bin and, clad as I was, went over the pub and got monumentally hammered. It was Saturday lunchtime at The Swan. Nobody even queried the cricket bat.

Looking back, the incident still chills me. One reads of the trenches in WW1, and how rats would drop from the ceilings of dugouts onto the faces of sleepers below. The rat, my rat, has been consigned to the dustbin of history but on the pad of my right index finger you can still make out the scar left by the squirrel. It is faint and looks like a small callous now, but if you look closely you can see that it is the remnant of two separate puncture wounds.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: To have a rodent dangling from a bodily appendage once in a lifetime may be considered misfortune. To have it happen twice looks like carelessness.

First published Dec 2017. 

Blimey. Doesn’t time fly?

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