The Rat-catcher, by Lorrie Hartshorn
artwork by Louise Dean

He can hear them through the wall. They're talking about the rats again, how nothing keeps them out. Not tape, not dry foam. He doesn't know what dry foam is, but he's tired of listening. Rustling an arm out from under the tight sheet, he reaches up and tugs the corner of the curtain, wincing as bright amber falls across him. Closing his eyes again, he listens to the hum and rumble of the traffic as he falls asleep.

Over breakfast, his parents take cereal and toast into the lounge and circle the TV, still arguing quietly as the presenters question a man in a maroon suit. They already pay taxes, his father says. Shouldn't this kind of thing be included? His mother sighs and looks down at her milky tea until his father gives her a hard kiss on the temple and leaves for work. Although it's still early, his mother ushers him from the house, wafting her hands at him like he's one of her headaches. Out of the house and away from the now roaring motorway, he heads for school.

The scene when he arrives is chaos. Crowds of coloured jackets stand out in the cold damp as teachers sail between them, tight-lipped swans with hands clasped. The rats are in the school and a few people look guiltily at the brick walls. No one says anything.

By lunch, he's home. His father, rumpled and surprised, has been pulled from a meeting and has rushed back to let him in. If he can promise to behave, and keep the phone near him during the afternoon, he can stay home alone. But his father doesn't leave; a hushed call from his mother keeps him home until she arrives back. They spend the afternoon, like the morning, tethered to the television, chins on fists and mouths hanging open.

Again and again, they watch as the carpet of rats slides into the river; a man from the water board appeals for calm. Talk of delayed payment and unreasonable expenditure follows and the news shows clips of protesters chanting about privatisation. Finally untethered, his mother fills bottles and pans and jugs from the tap, and, as the afternoon wears on, the camera shakes and tips as thousands of rats slide again and again into the river.

After a couple of days, his parents return to work and school is reopened. The wind creeps in through small holes but thank heavens for small mercies: the wind doesn't bite ankles and chew through shoelaces and electrical wires to leave classrooms in murky darkness. The cold is bearable and, for a few days, distracts attention.

Once thicker socks are hauled from the back of cupboards, though, and winter jumpers are brought back out of suitcases in attics, the tension becomes noticeable, like a low whistle beneath the chatter. He can't be sure that the others don't notice it, this uneasy tinnitus; he catches glances from fellow students but no one says anything.

He wakes up while the streetlights are still pink the next day. His mum comes in after a while and tells him he's staying home for a couple of days, just until things settle. The television is off when he gets downstairs, so he switches it on. The breakfast couple are interviewing the man in the maroon suit again, by video this time, and they're arguing; he can't tell why. He chews on his toast, listening to them get more and more wound up until his mum comes down in jeans instead of black trousers and switches the TV off with shaky hands.

The day passes slowly and his mum mooches round the house, spraying bleach and stacking the dishwasher but not really talking. She watches him with careful dark eyes, making him wonder whether he's in trouble; he doesn't think he's done anything, but it's sometimes hard to tell right away.

That night, still no trouble, he watches as the sun disappears behind the flats, its scarlet flare draining slowly downwards. Like spreading ink, the night pulls in to embrace the city's hum and glow, and his parents move their quiet conversation from the lounge to their room. By the time someone cracks the door, he's huddled down in the bed, nervous and slightly resentful. The door closes.

Later, he wakes to a sound; not the hiss of rain on tarmac or the rumble of deliveries, but something different, less defined. It's easy to get out of the sheet this time; he can never tuck it as tight as his mum can, so he wriggles up and presses his nose hard on the window, breathing out damp clouds on the glass.

Down in the street, an uneven trail of children is heading under and away from the motorway and across towards school. Some of the smaller ones are looking at the bigger ones, wide-eyed, as if for guidance, but they don't seem to be talking. For a few sleep-fuddled minutes, maybe, he fogs the glass and watches them pass. The trail thickens and he sees the metal gate at the bottom of the flats next door swing open as more children slip out. No sound comes from his parents' room next door and the motorway stands silent. Early morning.

The carpet under his feet feels strange and alien, as though the heavy dark has altered its texture. He feels brave and reckless, the rough wool scratching between his toes as he wobbles, struggles into a sweater and reaches for the cold brass door handle.

The back door key is where it always is, in the drawer next to the sink. It fits, as it always has, and he steps out into the quiet. His shoelaces, nibbled and knotted, wouldn't untie, so his trainers are wedged awkwardly on his feet, making him stumble as he moves forward. None of the children spares him more than a curious glance; the sense of excitement is palpable and the stream moves forward more quickly now, little legs cantering to keep up. He aches to find out what's happening but a worried voice tells him that this is the trouble he was in. He knows it can't be, really, but still he pauses. The scuff of his feet against the tarmac rings hollow in the grey and he looks back up at his house, checking the windows and seeing nothing. Still, the vacant spaces draw him as though the house itself could scold, and he stands, stupid and open-mouthed for a moment until a fading sound draws him back. He turns to see the last of the children, rucksacks over their shoulders, rounding the corner towards school.

Loping after them, gripping his trainers with his toes as he runs, he feels giddy in the empty amber space. Gravel flicks under his feet and he stumbles, righting himself quickly, though, and staggering forward. His mouth is already open as he reaches the corner of the building, runs through funny things to say in his head. He can hear the curious murmur of those who beat him there, chattering now. He grins, arms spread wide in a show of confidence. He feels strangely at home.

As he rounds the corner, a cheery sound leaves his throat and bounces against the bricks. It echoes loud and hard, and nothing absorbs it. The playground is empty.

For a second, he waits for someone to jump from somewhere and shout surprise, but no one shouts anything. Leaning back against the wall, breathing hard, his hands are clammy stars against bricks that are sharp and cold. An empty bottle lies at his feet, next to a dark blue padded jacket, half-covering a tiny puddle. He touches the jacket with his toe, briefly, jumping as it flops to one side. As he stands and waits, the darkness fades and the motorway begins to rumble. He doesn't know how long he's been there, standing in the vibrations of the children who weren't there, but, when he hears the first scream, he turns and runs home.

The back door is open and he swings in, pulling it hard against his chest and winding himself. Pushing it to, he jiggles the key into the lock and throws it back in the drawer as though it burns. He kicks his trainers away, barely feeling the burn of carpet under his feet as he tears upstairs. Fully dressed beneath the loose sheets, he filters out the traffic on the motorway, and the noises of panic and his parents stirring next door. He can hear their voices through the wall.


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