Last Friday I had a brief meeting with a business contact over coffee and afterwards we returned to our cars. His vehicle was parked alongside my own in a small car park at the back of a Tandoori restaurant as it prepared for its lunchtime trade, the spicy cooking smells teasing the nostrils.
“It’s a good neighbourhood, lovely restaurants,” I said. “Hey, maybe we have a bite to eat next time?”
“You can count on it!”
We exchanged a friendly fist-bump farewell. The knuckle-knock has become a common gesture in my business world, sitting on a scale between Boris Johnson’s over-exuberant elbow bump and the traditional handshake of pre-Covid times. We both turned as we heard someone shouting expletives in Hindi. A door at the back of the kitchen burst open to the parking lot. A kitchen porter in a grubby apron flew out, holding the tassel end of a floor mop and wielding the pole above his head, his face contorted with rage. Out of the corner of my eye, a large grey-brown rodent bolted out. With trained precision, the weapon landed with a crack on the rat and killed it, stone dead.
Shocked, I looked back at the body, maybe a foot long with the tail, and then at the grinning kitchen porter who was prodding the recently deceased with a sandaled foot. And then at the man I had invited for a meal out. He was still gaping at what had just happened. He shook his head, smiled at me and his parting words were, “Well, it had to be done!” As he turned his steering wheel to full lock and drove away with a cursory wave, I watched, dazed as a tyre ran over the body, squishing it with an audible crunch.
Rats. The things of nightmares. Carrying plague and nibbling our toes as we sleep. In our British cities, they say that we are never more than six feet from a rat as they seethe and swarm through the sewers, commuting up and down the gratings.
“Rat-infested.” “You dirty rat.” Folklore has given these clever, ubiquitous creatures a bad press. Is that fair? Perhaps not.
Three good things about rats come to my mind.
Firstly, Manuel the put-upon Spanish waiter in BBC’s Seventies comedy Fawlty Towers innocently kept a “Siberian Hamster” in his room in Fawlty Towers, only for it to be outed as a rat by Mr Fawlty.
Secondly, in the movie Wanted with James McAvoy, Morgan Freeman and Angelina Jolie, one of my favourites as it happens, a garbage truck crashes through the gates into the fortress of the weaving mill, releasing from its cargo hundreds of rats, each with explosive and a cheap timer watch strapped to its back. They swarm into the impregnable factory, exploding throughout the building as the timers runs out.
And last but not least, we had a rat infestation one cold winter when a steaming manure heap was dismantled at a nearby farmyard. Some of the evicted occupants found their way into the house attic via a tiny hole where the mains water supply enters below the ground. After sleepless nights listening to the party noises of heavy-footed rodents, the Rat Man was called. He lay down traps using a mild poison. But still they ran through the house undeterred.
The Rat Man returned with the strong stuff. The type that blows up the poor creatures from the inside. One of them expired beneath the floorboards in the spare bedroom, its inaccessible carcass stinking out the room throughout spring and early summer as the weather warmed up. An odour you never forget. So why is that a positive attribute of rats? My mother-in-law has a keen sense of smell. She refused to visit for months until the air had cleared!