Recently we have had them in the roof - rats, that is. A tell-tale hole by the front door points to the fact that, once they are under a new-build house, they can climb up through the cavity walls and occupy the attics. I have been woken in the night by scratching, scuttling and gnawing sounds. Hoped it was only mice for quite a long time but now we have got the pest control man in and he confirms our housemates are indeed rats. Poison has been put in strategic places and we await a second visit from the ‘rat-man’.
Andrew and I have been feeling a mixture of guilt and relief at the surefire application of poison. Rats are intelligent and resourceful animals, and do we have the right to inflict an agonizing death on our fellow creatures? It got me thinking too about the rat in literature. Beatrix Potter liked rabbits, pigs, mice, ducks, hedgehogs, dogs, kittens and taught us to be intelligently wary of foxes and badgers - but she didn’t like rats. At an age where most small animals still seemed charming and cuddly to my infant imagination, Samuel Whiskers and Anna Maria were sinister, energetic….and terrifyingly capable.
A few children’s writers have tried to give the rat a better image: Melchizedec in The Little Princess, for example, and the excellent lab rats in The Rats of NIMH. Rattie, in the Wind in the Willows, doesn’t count, of course, because he is a water rat - a sort of large, water-loving vole. But it is the grown-up rats of 1984 and anecdotally from the First World War which still dominate one’s imagination and my sentimentality about ‘our’ rats would, I confess, quickly dissipate if they found their way into a bedroom or there was an explosion in their population.
My father remembered a Mr Holloway, who helped out on the farm in the 1930s. He had been at Passchendaele and my father said that because of his experiences in the mud-filled, infested trenches, he was quite unbalanced about rats. When a hayrick or strawrick was opened up, the rats would go everywhere and men with terriers stood all around. It was all too much for poor Mr Holloway and he became a fighting, thrusting, gleeful killing machine as he relived the horrors of the battlefield. It is 100 years since Passchendaele and Mr Holloway is lodged in my mind as an example of a young man who came home from that dreadful war but never found true peace.
By comparison, our trivial, one-sided battle with domestic rats will be swift, efficient and will have only one conclusion. We will be the victors but I think of the innocent rats and then of poor Mr Holloway and feel the pity of it