Moggerhanger, p.34
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       Moggerhanger, p.34

           Alan Sillitoe

  Then I took up one which I could tell had been scribed by Ronald Delphick, and had to read the first chapter twice before getting the drift of his prose, plain in one way, till I sensed a hidden meaning or message and, pulling a sheet of paper from the shelf, and taking out a fancy ballpoint that Frances had given me as a birthday present, I toyed with the first letter of every second word, stringing them out in such a way that they began to make sense. They told me something about Delphick which he must have thought no one would ever be able to fathom but which I, my head thrown back for a big laugh, would one day be able to use against him.

  I was shocked out of my intellectual effort by the phone ringing again, Dismal’s big intimidating eyes asking me to answer it in case whoever called might give notice of a hamper to be delivered tomorrow from Harrod’s, but I threw him a biscuit and told him it was no concern of his.

  When I suggested another fry up he almost knocked my chair over in a hurry to get at the pan. It was nearly midnight, but we glutted ourselves, the room dim with the homely miasma of bacon and toast. I wondered how long I’d be in residence, thought it could even be weeks, in which case I’d be dragging logs in for the fire, and having the gas bottle changed, though in summer the place would still be damp, set as it was between hillsides and a stream outside the door.

  Yet the Robinson Crusoe life felt so congenial at the moment I might never want to leave. The thumping rain made a comforting note against the running of the stream. I killed the first of the summer flies (on the white wall) that was big enough to be the last of the previous summer’s. Everything in order, I thought we’d better bed down, in preparation for what tomorrow might bring. There was no toilet in the place, so I stood on the doorstep with the torch, and pushed Dismal into the murk for the same purpose.

  I put down two mattresses, laid out so that should any marauder burst in I would have the loaded air pistol close by, or the threatening luger at the ready. With the drumming of rain and the rush of water from the stream there was little hope of hearing anyone approaching the house, which I considered a black mark to Moggerhanger. Vulnerability made it sensible to be on guard, even if only against the rats, who always came out at night. I told Dismal to settle down, which he did, by taking the place closest to the fire.

  I was disturbed at two o’clock by him shaking a rat and throwing it disgustedly across the room. When one ran over my chest a shot from the pistol plugged another hole in the wall. At half past seven, after little sleep, I dressed and cooked breakfast. Rain still drummed down, so it was hard to know what day it was, or the date, and I regretted not having an Old Moore’s Almanack for a clue.

  Dismal ate more of everything than I did, indicating there would soon be a need for reforagement. He was well enough to work a treadmill pumping water up from the stream, but I had to make do with him as an interested spectator while I washed the kitchen table, took the flocky mattresses back upstairs, swept the floor, and got sufficient grime off the windows to see outside. Finding a tool box, I mended the door lock, so that only my key could open it. As recompense for all my domestic work the rain stopped, and though the sun came out not much of it penetrated the cottage, the wooded bank across the stream being too steep to let it. When I pulled in a few logs to dry by the fire the place steamed up so much we were driven outside, and I noticed a small khaki coloured van parked at the top of the lane. Through my binoculars I made out a tubby little man walking down the track with a blue plastic bucket which, when he came up to me, I saw was brimming with green crystals. He put it down, and took off his cap: “I should have been here three days ago, but we’ve been so rushed. The little devils really get going in the spring. So many houses are infested.”

  I looped a hand around Dismal’s collar, his deep throated bark signalling that he didn’t want anyone coming into the house to eat our food. “Who are you?”

  “I’m the rodent eliminator, from the council. Somebody phoned from London a week ago and booked me to come and do Peppercorn Cottage.”

  Maybe Kenny Dukes had complained, and Moggerhanger had decided to do something about it, so I didn’t want to put him off. “You’re none too soon. Come inside, and look around.”

  “I smell ’em,” he said in the kitchen. “It fair blocks my nose. Wicked pong. Always gets me going.” His piggy little eyes stared at places I’d never thought of looking at. He went upstairs and downstairs, to every cranny and corner, bent double at times to set little heaps of green crystals that I supposed he didn’t want to carry back up the hill. I warned Dismal away in case he thought to give them a lick. Twenty minutes of hard work brought blobs of sweat from the man’s bald head. I asked if he would like a cup of coffee.

  “If you’ve got sugar to go with it. The last place I went to didn’t have any, so I had to say no. Too posh, I suppose.”

  I came from the stream with a full kettle, and lit the gas. “You’ve done a good job.”

  “Have to, don’t I? I hate rats. Anyway, it’s my life’s work.”

  I offered a cigarette. He’d earned it. “You wouldn’t have a job if there weren’t any, though, would you?”

  “That’s why I hate ’em. I kill all I can, but there’s always more. If I killed every last one I could take early retirement, but the more I kill the more there are. I kill thousands and thousands of the little swine, though some aren’t so little. I once saw one as big as a tomcat, and had to club it to death. It was so fat it couldn’t run. I often wonder if somebody isn’t breeding them and feeding them just to make my life harder. I was told at the office this morning that six more houses had phoned yesterday. It’s a losing battle, but I’ve got to keep on keeping on, haven’t I?”

  I stirred six spoons of sugar into his coffee. “But if you left them alone maybe they would die anyway.”

  “Then I’d be out of employment, wouldn’t I?”

  His entertaining chat could only stop me going mad in such an isolated place, but I wondered whether the green crystals weren’t another form of Dolly Mixtures, and that the rats would breed like multiplication tables on eating them after he had gone. “Are you sure these crystals will kill them?”

  He reached for more sugar. “In agony. In three days they’ll all be dead. Mark my words.”

  “What am I supposed to do with the corpses?”

  He showed his sense of humour. “A lot of people ask that. You could sling them in the dustbin, but if you feel sorry for them you can lay out a cemetery of little white crosses in your garden.” He winked. “Look very fine, it will.”

  “I’ll have to think about that.”

  “You won’t have much time. Once they nibble the crystals they won’t stand a chance. As you see, I’ve put ample portions down.” He gave a wicked laugh. “They’ll die right enough.”

  “But what if those who aren’t dying see the corpses of those who have gone before, and put two and two together, and think it might be a good thing not to touch the crystals with the rat equivalent of a barge pole? For example, what if one of those watching with its beady little eyes is a comely lady rat about to give birth to another ten little prettily whiskered baby rats? I do hear that rats are particularly intelligent creatures, as well as prolific in matters of reproduction.”

  He sighed. “There you have me. That might be the answer. I wonder myself sometimes. But most do die. They must, mustn’t they? Poison mows the bleeder down a bit, don’t it?”

  “I suppose it would be a shame if they weren’t attracted to so many pyramids of delicious looking crystals. But what I’d like to know is, how did you land a job like this? I mean, how does one become a rodent officer? Do you have to sit a City and Guilds exam?” I pushed the pot forward. “Have some more coffee.”

  “I bloody nearly had to. It wasn’t easy to qualify, though it’s funny you ask, because you’re the first one as ever did, so I appreciate your curiosity. Yes, I will have another coffee. The thing is I’ve al
ways hated rats, ever since I got bitten in the pram when I was two. My screams were so loud they stopped it moving, so my father had time to kill it with the hard end of a sweeping brush. I suppose if a kid got bitten by a rat these days a social worker would be told to give the little mite some counselling. But not then they didn’t. Them days was different. Life was hard. Not like now, when everybody has it soft. They sent children out to work at fifteen in those days. When I left school I didn’t know what I wanted to be. Like most kids of fifteen I didn’t want to do anything. Schooldays were finished, so I just expected to put my feet up, didn’t I?”

  I invited him to sit down. “We all did. We still do.”

  “I wanted to go around with my mates, because they didn’t want to work either, not for a few measly quid a week, anyway. I was sitting in front of the telly one evening when the old man came in all sweating from the factory, and things took a nasty turn when I said I didn’t want to go to work. He pulled me to my feet, and punched me right in the face, just like that, a real blinder, no messing. ‘If you haven’t got a job by tomorrow’, he said, ‘you’ll get two of them.’

  “So I got a job, didn’t I? It was stacking boxes in a warehouse. I hated it for months, till I started going out with a girl, then I didn’t care. I changed jobs often, but at least I was bringing in money, which satisfied the old man. You have to learn the hard way, don’t you? I know I did, though in the end it didn’t do me any harm. Now I’ve got two lads of my own, both at university.”

  I was surprised. “University?”

  He smiled. “I don’t know why you say it like that. They’re doing art and sociology. Well, I don’t want them to work like I have to work, do I? I encouraged them to stay at school, which took some doing, let me tell you, because they just wanted to get out and scrounge some money. My father, the worst rat I know, by the way, thought I was daft, letting them go to university, but I didn’t want to force my kids out to work at fifteen, did I? I wanted my sons to get on in the world, so that they’ll have cushy jobs when they qualify.”

  “They’ll be set up forever,” I put in.

  “And so they should be. But you asked me how I got into rats. When I was twenty I met the girl of my life. Well, it would have to start like that, wouldn’t it? We got married, so I had to find a steady job. I got one with the council, and never looked back. It was slow promotion through the sanitation department, mind you, but one day the supervisor asked if I’d like to transfer to pest control. I wanted to know what sort of pests he had in mind, and when he told me it was rats I nearly fainted, right there in front of him, because the time when I’d been bitten by one as a kid came rushing back, the first time it ever had, and from the feeling of hatred I knew that the job was for me, so I had the presence of mind to tell him that rats was right up my street. You might not believe this, but from that moment I never looked back. I even went out and bought a new cap, a peaked one, with braid around the front. The chap who’d already done rats for ten years took me under his wing and told me all I ought to know, though I learned more on my own after he retired, because he hadn’t gone into the psychological aspect at all. Now there’s a can of worms for you—though I shan’t go into it. I’ll keep to the physical, and tell you that if I kill a hundred rats at every house, taking that as a fair average, I calculate in this little notebook”—I shivered as he tapped his coat pocket—“up to this morning the total comes to getting on for four million.”

  Even Dismal turned away from his sinister laugh. I couldn’t but think that his tally must err somewhat on the high side, though as long as his trade kept him from working the same mischief on human beings there wasn’t much harm in it. “That’s not a bad revenge,” I said, “for the brute that nipped you when you were a kid. It couldn’t have known what massacres it was setting off, but fair’s fair, I suppose. Would you like more coffee? I’ve got plenty of sugar.”

  He put his ornate cap on, and picked up the bucket. “I can’t stay here talking all day, much as I might like to. There’s another house I’ve got to look into. The woman sounded desperate when she phoned this morning. I like to keep things in strict rotation but, all the same, it wouldn’t do to keep her waiting.”

  No sooner was he out of the door than the biggest rat I’d ever seen sniffed at a mound of the deadly crystals. Hardly daring to breath, I noted the suspicion in its eyes, which changed to joy before it bounded off to tell the rest of the rat community that the toffee man had been.

  I cooked a stew for lunch, throwing in all the meat and vegetables to make it last at least two days, but Dismal, the starving orphan, proved irresistible to my soft heart, and got one helping after another till every scrap had gone. It was no easy work, therefore, to make him follow me up the hill. When we came back he stood by the stream watching the water flow by, while I went inside to answer the telephone.

  Chapter Nineteen.

  “Peppercorn Cottage here,” I announced.

  “I know it is. I didn’t think I was giving Downing Street a bell.”

  Bill Straw’s hectoring tone was clear enough. “Where the fuck are you?”

  “Michael, if I’ve told you once I’ve told you fifty times, a man who’s sure of himself doesn’t swear.”

  “I only asked where you were.”

  “That’s no excuse. You’re a grown man. It doesn’t become you. But for your information I de-bussed at the top of your lane a short time ago, and will be down at your present residence about soon, providing I step out at a hundred and twenty paces to the minute, like we used to in the old Sherwood Foresters.”

  “Where did you come from? How did you get here?”

  He laughed. “There are trains and buses in this country, though I don’t know how long it will last. Just unroll the red carpet for my arrival.”

  I pushed the phone away, knowing that with him in the house there wouldn’t be a crust of bread left by tomorrow.

  He stood by the sink to unload a rucksack almost as big as himself. “I can’t think how I managed to carry all this. It weighs about seventy pounds, but at least I didn’t have a Bren and ammo as well.” Tin after tin of provisions were stacked on the draining board. “I didn’t expect you to keep me, Michael. I do think of others from time to time. I also think you might put the kettle on though, now I’m here. I got thirsty on that plank wagon they called a bus.”

  I set out cups, eccles cakes, crisps, bread, butter and jam as fast as my arms would move. “Why did you come, then? I won’t say I’m not glad to see you, but it is a surprise.”

  He sat, waiting to be waited on, as was his habit. “I’ll tell you in a bit. Meantime, let me have a fag, duck. I’m right out.”

  “I suppose you’re broke, as well?”

  “Buses don’t come cheap. And put another spoon in the pot. You know I like it strong. It’s starting to rain. I got here just in time.” He looked around. “What a squalid little slit trench. I thought Moggerhanger would have done better than this.”

  “He’s never stayed here. He wouldn’t last ten minutes. Spleen Manor’s his usual bolt hole, which is warm and smart.”

  “I know the place,” he said. “It’s got a better field of fire for one thing.”

  I laid out the tea, and gave Dismal his share before sitting down to mine, by which time Bill had already bolted two of the cakes. “When I left you, Michael, I went to Major Blaskin’s, and he allowed me to stay a few days. Of course, I had to pay my keep by scribbling a couple of chapters of a Sidney Blood, but it was easy work after our time in Greece. Just listen to that rain. We’ll need a kayak to get us out of here.”

  “Then where did you go?”

  “I bummed around Liverpool Street, but there wasn’t enough generosity coming my way, so I lit off as soon as I had enough cash to get a few groceries and pay my way up here.”

  “What about the twenty quid I gave you in Ealing?”

  His face br
oke into the usual berserker laugh. “It’s stitched into my coat as a reserve. I never like to be flat broke, you know that. I say, now that I’m here do show a bit of hospitality and butter me a crisp.”

  I was in no mood to spoil him. “Do it yourself, then you can go on with your pack of lies.”

  “There are times, such as now, when I wish I was spinning a yarn but, alas, the reality is worse than any lies, as you’ll hear in a minute or two.”

  “You’ve got me sweating.” I buttered him a crisp with such alacrity, though care, that it didn’t even break. “You must admit I’ve got a right to be surprised at you turning up here, just when me and Dismal were getting used to some peace and quiet.”

  The serious expression only emphasized his devious and built-in villainy. “Michael, I’ve never had any peace and quiet in the whole of my life, so I don’t think anybody else has any right to it. Peace and quiet is a snare and a delusion, a most dangerous and unprofitable state. For one thing, no wise man who’d stumbled into peace and quiet ought to hope for it to last forever. Another thing is, he hasn’t even got any right to expect it at all. And if he even imagines he’s living in peace and quiet he’s a menace to his fellow men who would rightly want to deprive him of it, and commit mischief they shouldn’t have been tempted by his peace and quiet to indulge in. Not only that, but the man who’s found peace and quiet is a menace, and to his family as well if he’s got one. And not only that, again, whenever I think I deserve a spell of peace and quiet I pull myself together and make for the hills. Is there anymore tea in that pot? Talking makes me dry.”

  “I’ll mash another, after you’ve told me why you’re here.”

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