The Curmudgeon


Sunday, July 02, 2006

That Old Rat Magic

A Tale

Delbert, the Verminator, Schwarzenegger of rodenticide, knocked grimly at Mr Ferridge's door and trusted to heaven that the old fool was out. He cast a reproachful glance skywards as the old fool's face loomed up in the filth-befogged window.

The door opened. "Morning, Mr Ferridge," Delbert smarmed. "So sorry you weren't satisfied with last week's work. I've come for another crack."
"Oh, yerse," said Mr Ferridge. "The rat-catcher."
Delbert winced. "Please, Mr Ferridge: the Residential Sanitation Officer." He did not add "fourth class"; he was tired of explaining that this denoted administrative rank rather than quality of service.
"Same thing, innit?" demanded Mr Ferridge. "Still the bloody Pied Piper of Hackney, entcher?"
"I'll make a pie of your windpipe in a minute, spud-features," Delbert was careful not to reply. Mr Ferridge jerked his head in a follow-me gesture and shuffled into the dank recesses of his home. He really did bear a remarkable resemblance to a potato, freshly peeled and slightly rubbery with mould. His ears and nostrils were clustered with white rootlike hairs, and his house smelled like a compost heap.

"What's the problem then, Mr Ferridge?" asked Delbert, circumnavigating a carnivorous-looking stain on the doormat.
"Can't you tell?" Mr Ferridge snapped. "The house smells like a bloody compost heap!"
"I, um, I'm not sure I quite - "
"You told me the rats was bringing dirt into the house," Mr Ferridge said patiently. "You said you'd clear out the rats. But the dirt's still here, innit?" It certainly was, and Mr Ferridge concluded with inexorable logic: "So you can't have cleared out the rats, can you?"
"Um," said Delbert, noncommittally. He had been rather touched, the previous week, by the rats' evident eagerness for the release his poisons offered; renewed acquaintance with Mr Ferridge helped him appreciate their point of view.

He particularly remembered one great grey creature, an obvious godfather, which had twitched its nose at him disdainfully while gulping down pellets. After swallowing enough to kill itself in triplicate and to spare, the rat had bolted and, defying Delbert's best efforts to find it and add it to the sixteen corpses stiffening in his self-sealing polyethylene pouches, completely disappeared. It might, he supposed, have been immune, though its fellows had succumbed easily enough.

"Have you actually seen any rats this week, Mr Ferridge?"
"Naaah," growled Mr Ferridge. "Cagier now, ent they?"
Delbert sighed. "Well, let's have a look."
Delbert looked over the house. Mr Ferridge looked over Delbert's shoulder and wheezed rhythmically into his ear. Delbert wondered how the rats had put up with it as long as they had.

The strange thing was beneath the kitchen sink, secluded in the cobwebby shadow of the U-bend. A circle the width of Delbert's hand had been cleared in the dust on the floor; inside it were five yellowish triangles, arranged equidistantly in a star. "What's that?" asked Delbert, withdrawing his head to make room for Mr Ferridge's.
"Looks like cheese," Mr Ferridge replied.
Delbert looked again. It was true; the triangles were five bits of cheese, each carefully nibbled to precisely the dimensions required. "I meant," said Delbert, "why's it in a pattern that way?"
"It's a whatchamacallit," Mr Ferridge explained.
Delbert was not enlightened.
"A pentickle," elaborated Mr Ferridge.
"Well, what's it doing down there?"
"Up to no good, I'll be bound," said Mr Ferridge. "Nothing to do with rats is ever up to any good. I found a dead one down there the other day, before I called you in."

Delbert didn't care. He reached out to sweep the bits of cheese away, and by the time he heard Mr Ferridge's next words, "Its friends had ripped its heart out; like a sacrifice it was," his fingers were inside the pentacle. The grey godfather rat emerged instantly through the solid kitchen wall, glowing with sinister phosphorescence, and vanished in a single bound down Delbert's astonished throat.

"I should watch out, if I was you," said Mr Ferridge. Delbert came out and sat on the floor, looking inquisitively around. Mr Ferridge sighed his resignation and reached for the telephone.

"Hello, Pest Control? Yerse, I've got a rodent problem. Quite a big one, yerse." He glanced over to where Delbert now sat on his haunches, nibbling the cheese from the pentacle and haughtily twitching his nose.

"Quite a big one, yerse," repeated Mr Ferridge.


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