Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Let's sing of rats

'I have always been a solitary man, never well liked. It is not that the company of others does not have its appeal, but becoming involved with your fellow man has its risks, and I have never been lucky in such things. School was the usual succession of bullies and failed friendships, university little better. Social activities simply did not pay off for me. Perhaps I might briefly experience a sense of friendship and bonhomie through a night's drinking, but this pleasure was always outweighed by the backlash of shame I felt in the cold grip of the next day's hangover. I imagine that my alternative might have been to turn to religion. Churches are ready made hives of social activity, creatures clinging to gods and each other for comfort. Sadly I have never been a man of a superstitious or supernatural bent, and I am sufficiently honest to imagine that the small drops of communion wine would charge a heavier price in shame than ever did the briefly warming excesses of my youth.

But everyone needs a place in the world. There is no such thing as a genuine misfit, everybody has to fit somewhere. The question is simply how they reach that position. Do they adjust themselves to their discomfort, or adjust the world to them? I imagine that most people would like to say that they took the latter option, but the sheer weight of this world's numbers makes it seem a little unlikely. There is not much room for self-expression. Perhaps it is only the so-called misfits who are even fighting to make the world suit them.

My customers call me Mr Hamley. It's not the name my parents passed down to me, but as I cared very little for it or for them, I feel no regret about the necessity of shedding it. I selected "Hamley" quite calculatedly. It is a solid, dependable name, as I am solid and dependable in my demeanour and duties. However it is not dour, it suggests playfulness. I do not know who the Hamley responsible for the toy emporium was, but I know that I owe him a debt.

One needs to win confidence in my line of work. Rat-catcher is a necessary profession, never more so than in this increasingly urban world, but it lacks glamour. Indeed, there clings to the job a sense of something unsavoury. Perhaps it is the guilt of all those who wish to slaughter the billions of rats, merely for having the temerity to try to live, and the fortune to be good at it. Maybe it is a mere guilt by association, rat-catchers go in the company of the hated rats. Never mind that we are the necessary solution to the problem.

Whatever the cause, if a man wants to be a successful rat-catcher, he must do all that he can to combat the prejudice against his profession. This is the primary reason I adopted my new name. Likewise I keep myself and my clothes spotlessly clean, my van waxed and brightly painted. I smile gently and politely at the customers, and always remember to conceal my revulsion at their eagerness for the slaughter.

During my early career this hypocrisy rankled with me badly. I never joined in with glee, like the fat handed murderers who make up the bulk of my profession, saloon-bar swaggerers compensating for their disgusting job with jokes and rounds of scotches and handfuls of tails. But I nodded and smiled while vermin complained of rats, and took the money to dispose of the problem for them. I am not ashamed to admit that I did kill many rats in those first years. You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs, and I needed capital if ever I were not to be a misfit. But it has been easier for me to swallow my anger these days, now that I am doubly a hypocrite. The two seem to balance each other out nicely.

I still catch rats, you see, but I do not kill them. Not a one now for the past dozen years. Not that I tell the vermin this. They think that the larger van I have taken to driving is filled with the specialist killing equipment that has made me the best man in my field, but it's not. It's just shelves. A little place for the rats to cling while I take them to safety. Some of them, the most beautiful specimens, I invite to come and live with me. They are my muse, my motivation, and they sing to me each night. They teach me new songs to sing to their brothers, and so my practise grows, and the 'rat problem' gets less and less. All the others are on their uppers now, they scratch around for a living, dealing with mice and insects, and the rounds of scotch at the bar are just a memory drowned in cheap beer. I, on the other hand, have been awarded the key to no less than four different London boroughs. I am a hero among the vermin. "That nice, dependable little man Hamley, a bit odd perhaps, a bit of a misfit, but what can you expect?"

Of course, once all the rats have gone away, they will want me to go away too. I have never been well-liked, and once the problem is removed, I shall just be an embarrassing reminder. If I had committed the crimes that I have laid claim to, I should have no alternative but to go, to accept that my place in the world was defined by others, just another failed misfit. It is fortunate, then, that the rats have not gone very far, and that I have been taking care of them. I believe that they will return the favour.'


The cats had been mewing at the door all night, but there had been no thought of letting them in. Now finally, some hours before the dawn, they were silent.

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