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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Extract from 4 – Walking with Ghosts

Extract from Walking with Ghosts

The rat had been scraping and tapping at his door all evening. But when William got to his feet and opened the door it had disappeared. It left no droppings, not a single hair. There was no scrambling on the stairs as it scuttled back to its lair.

Twice William had opened the door to the landing and discovered nothing. He had stood at the threshold, listening, watching. But there was no rat.

Until he sniffed. His features were stolid. A keen observer might have detected apathy around the eyes, the line of his mouth. His body language was that of a young man who had encountered disappointment. He turned and closed the door quietly, leaning back against it.

Rats! They were cunning. They were quick, savage and ferocious. Too fast for the eye, but not for the nose. William had smelt a rat. He tasted bile at the back of his throat. Rats had spread the bubonic plague.

Anything like the sound of a rat Makes my heart go pit-a-pat!

He turned his breathing down, adopted the listening pose. At first all was silent, but after some moments there was a small thud and the shuffling of its feet as it returned to his door. William couldn’t tell from the sounds if the animal was scratching with its front feet or gnawing with its pointed teeth. The door did not move, but it was easy to imagine that it was moving. Easier still to imagine the rat was unstoppable, that it would gnaw its way through the door. Then begin on William himself. Gnawing its way into his brain.

He took his knife from the sheath and lightly ran his thumb along the blade. Then he threw the door open again, smashing it back with force against its hinges. He caught a glimpse of the scaly-tail as it disappeared down the stairs. With the blade of the knife flashing in his hand, he gave a shriek that strained his lungs and plunged down the stairs after the predatory monster. Leaping five or six steps at a time, yelling at the top of his voice, William strove to narrow the gap between himself and his prey.

He followed it through the doorway of the ground floor front room of the house. The rat slipped greasily through a blackened hole in the floorboards. William threw himself full-length on the floor and pushed the knife through the hole, stabbing wildly at the blackness within. When he connected with nothing, he forced his arm deeper into the hole, until he had it in up to his shoulder. The knife sparked against the foundation wall beneath the floorboards and spun away, out of his grip.

William retrieved his arm and pushed his face up close to the hole. He looked and listened. Although he could see nothing, he could hear small cries down there. And his nostrils and lungs were filled with the stench of the rat’s domain. His right hand was cut and bleeding, and he peremptorily wiped it on the leg of his trousers. He could feel adrenalin rushing through his veins. This animal may be crafty and fierce, but it would soon discover that it had met its match.

Rats and men had been pitted against each other through the ages, and would continue the fight until the end of the world. But the battle, for this particular rat, was almost over.

In the kitchen William found an old axe with a rusted head and brought it back to the front room. Working close to the black hole into which the rodent had vanished, William smashed his way through the floorboards. The timbers fractured and split as he pulled them away from the cross-beams. The cut on his hand widened and deepened and beads of blood splashed along the floor. William sucked at the wound and sprayed the blood and dirt in an arc behind him.

He collected the splintered floorboards and threw them to the side of the room. Now he could step down into the foundations, among the mess of paper and household rubbish that had accumulated there. He carefully poked amongst it until he retrieved his knife.

The nest was located in a corner, beneath one of the cross-beams. It was a loose construction of chewed crisp-packet, what appeared to be a shredded newspaper, and some dried vegetable matter – grass? leaves? – perhaps a mixture of the two. The litter consisted of ten blind and naked young, each intent on fulfilling its genetic destiny, crawling over each other in an instinctive panic to escape annihilation.

Go . . . and get long poles, Poke out the nests and block up the holes!

William sensed a movement over to his left, and he gazed in that direction until his eyes adjusted enough to see her. Mother rat. Crouched on a split board, her body, together with the tail, took up a space of almost eighteen inches.

Omnivorous. Fecund. Her long snout twitched. Her red eyes processed information, but she did not move. She waited for William to do that.

He deliberately pushed the tip of his knife through the head of one of the litter. He held out the tiny body to mother rat, made sure she saw what he had done. Then he dropped the carcass to the floor and crushed it under the heel of his boot.

William smiled in the direction of the mother as he skewered another of her offspring, this time through the eye. He took them one at a time, varying the procedure slightly with each kill. The fifth suckling he sliced like a sausage, the sixth he decapitated. The seventh he disembowelled, scraping out the tiny contents with his thumb and throwing them fiercely at the mother. She moved fractionally to one side, so the innards of her nestling flew past, missing her by an inch and a half.

Only when William moved to take the last of the litter did the mother rat attack.

And folks who put me in a passion May find me pipe after another fashion!

It was as if she had grown wings. She rose up from her perch with a shriek that sounded almost human. She hovered briefly on her hind legs and flew forward with a velocity that defied the eye. William realized instinctively that the target of her leap was his throat, and he brought up his hands to ward her away. He was fast, he had anticipated such an attack, and was confident that he would be capable of dealing with it. But mother rat was faster still.

As William brought up his hands, she flew between them and he caught her fetid scent as her jaws closed over the fold of skin below his larynx. He was pushed backwards by the force of her landing, but somehow managed to remain standing. All four of her feet scrabbled for a grip of his shirt and his chest.

In a flash William saw his own death approaching like an express train, but his mind remained calm and collected, his will absolutely focussed. The rat needed a couple of seconds, perhaps only a few fractions of a second to consolidate its position. Once it had established a secure base with its feet and tail, it would commence ripping and tearing at William’s throat. The soft skin would offer no resistance, and in moments the larynx and trachea would be shredded, cutting off the oxygen supply to his lungs. At that point the battle would be over, William vanquished, and mother rat victorious.

Without a hint of fear or emotion, and in one movement, William took hold of the body of the rat with his left hand. He lifted her clear of his chest. Her teeth were still clamped to his throat. Holding her body horizontally, feeling her long scaly tail winding its way around his forearm, he brought up the knife in his right hand and severed the body from the head.

Mother rat’s warm blood spouted like a cloud-burst over his face and chest. He laughed wildly as it flowed between his lips and raced along his tongue, feeling rivulets of plasma running into his eyes and watching while his world turned a scarlet hue.