Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Man and Beast

Tucked into a small hill behind the tall fence between my English childhood home's backyard and side lane lay a coal bin. These bins were big deep wooden boxes into which the coal-man would tip bags of the sour-smelling black lumps we young kids were tasked with carrying inside to fuel the fireplaces. 

Brown rats were the bane of any who kept their coal outdoors in this way. For some reason, mother rats found these gloomy and dusty cavities just perfect for bringing lots of pestiferous baby rats into our world. 

An adult Norway rat is not a friendly beast. The male was usually more than a match for our neighbourhood tomcats, and rats had no other local predators beyond the occasional barn owl. This made for a frequent chore of that time being a phone call to the rat catcher to come up from the town, climb into the bin and put in his poison, after which the number of rats to be seen would decline rapidly.  

But rats breed often, so it was never long before dusky shapes could once again be sighted out of the corner of an eye as they skittered along the sides of our yard just as the sun began to set, or in the early morning. 

At one point a neighbour kept chickens. With chicken feed available right next door, our area rat population exploded. A nightmare. Eventually the neighbours had had enough and the chickens were got rid of. Rats went back to being once again just another occasionally annoying partner in our family's daily life. 

That is until one day someone spotted a large one half way up a big old lilac that hung over the coal shed. It was odd to have one so brazenly out there in full sunshine. The tallest kid and the most curious, I set off up the tree to confront the monster. Although he was the largest rat I had ever seen, I had little thought of harm. But as I got close, to my amazement instead of heading higher, he leaped onto me and fastened sharp teeth hard onto my arm. It hurt a lot. Frantically trying to shake him off, I began to lose my grip on the tree. Then all of a sudden he let go, to hiss and spit furiously at my face. Now badly frightened, I lost my balance completely and fell hard, as the big rat jumped away to disappear quick as a flash into the bin before anyone could react.

Happily he and his sneaky relatives got their comeuppance not long after when the shed was demolished as burning lumps of coal gave way to coal gas for heating. I wonder now if that animal had some sense of what was coming, and so took his anger out on me?

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