the amazing maurice and his educated rodents Page 1


four years and barely had any ears left and scars all over his nose, and he was smart. He swaggered so much when he walked that if he didn't slow down he flipped himself over. When he fluffed out his tail people had to step around it. He reckoned you had to be smart to live for four years on these streets, especially with all the dog gangs and freelance furriers. One wrong move and you were lunch and a pair of gloves. Yes, you had to be smart. You also had to be rich. This took some explaining to the rats, but Maurice had roamed the city and learned how things worked and money, he said, was the key to everything. And then one day he'd seen the stupid-looking kid playing the flute with his cap in front of him for pennies, he'd had an idea. An amazing idea. It just turned up, bang, all at once. Rats, flute, stupid-looking kid… And he'd said, 'Hey, stupid-looking kid! How would you like to make your fortu-nah, kid, I'm down here…' Dawn was breaking when the highwayman's horse came out of the forests, over a pass, and was reined to a halt in a convenient wood. The river valley stretched out below, with a town hunched up against the cliffs. Maurice clambered out of the saddle-bag, and stretched. The stupid-looking kid helped the rats out of the other bag. They'd spent the journey hunched up on the money, although they were too polite to say that this was because no-one wanted to sleep in the same bag as a cat. 'What's the name of the town, kid?' Maurice said, sitting on a rock and looking down at the town. Behind them, the rats were counting the money again, stacking it in piles beside its leather bag. They did this every day. Even though he had no pockets, there was something about Maurice that made everyone want to check their change as often as possible. '

's called Bad Blintz,' said the kid, referring to the guide-book. 'Ahem… should we be going there, if it's bad?' said Peaches, looking up from the counting. 'Hah, it's not called Bad because it's bad,' said Maurice. 'That's foreign language for bath, see?'

'So it's really called Bath Blintz?' said Donut Enter. 'Nah, nah, they call it Bath because…' The Amazing Maurice hesitated, but only for a moment, 'because they got a bath, see? Very backward place, this. Not many baths around. But they've got one, and they're very proud of it, so they want everyone to know. You prob'ly have to buy tickets even to have a look at it.'

'Is that true, Maurice?' said Dangerous Beans. He asked the question quite politely, but it was clear that what he was really saying was 'I don't think that is true, Maurice.' Ah, yes… Dangerous Beans. Dangerous Beans was difficult to deal with. Really, he shouldn't be. Back in the old days, Maurice thought, he wouldn't even have eaten a rat so small and pale and generally ill-looking. He stared down at the little albino rat, with his snow-white fur and pinky eyes. Dangerous Beans did not stare back, because he was too short-sighted. Of course, being nearly blind was not too much of a drawback to a species that spent most of its time in the darkness and had a sense of smell that was, as far as Maurice could understand it, almost as good as sight and sound and speech all put together. For example, the rat always turned to face Maurice and looked directly at him when he spoke. It was uncanny. Maurice had known a blind cat that walked into doors a lot, but Dangerous Beans never did that. Dangerous Beans wasn't the head rat. That was Hamnpork's job. Hamnpork was big and fierce and a bit scabby, and he didn't much like having a new-fangled brain and he certainly didn't like talking to a cat. He'd been quite old when the rats had Changed, as they called it, and he said he was too old to change. He left talking-to-Maurice to Dangerous Beans, who'd been born just after the Change. And that little rat was clever. Incredibly clever. Too clever. Maurice needed all his tricks when he was dealing with Dangerous Beans. 'It's amazing, the stuff I know,' said Maurice, blinking slowly at him. 'Anyway, it's a nice-looking town. Looks rich to me. Now, what we'll do is-'

'Ahem…' Maurice hated that sound. If there was a sound worse than Dangerous Beans asking one of his odd little questions, it was Peaches clearing her throat. It meant she was going to say something, very quietly, which was going to upset him. 'Yes?' he said sharply. 'Do we really need to keep on doing this?' she said. 'Well, of course, no,' said Maurice. 'I don't have to be here at all. I'm a cat, right? A cat with my talents? Hah! I could've got myself a really cushy job with a conjurer. Or a ventrilosqwist, maybe. There's no end to the things I could be doing, right, 'cos people like cats. But, owing to being incredibly, you know, stupid and kind-hearted, I decided to help a bunch of rodents who are, and let's be frank here, not exactly number one favourites with humans. Now some of you,' and here he cast a yellow eye towards Dangerous Beans, 'have some idea of going to some island somewhere and starting up a kind of rat civilization of your very own, which I think is very, you know, admirable, but for that you need… what did I tell you that you need?'

'Money, Maurice,' said Dangerous Beans, 'but-'

'Money. That's right, 'cos what can you get with money?' He looked around at the rats. 'Begins with a B,' he prompted. 'Boats, Maurice, but-'

'And then there's all the tools you'll need, and food, of course-'

'There's coconuts,' said the stupid-looking kid, who was polishing his flute. 'Oh, did someone speak?' said Maurice. 'What do you know about it, kid?'

'You get coconuts,' said the kid. 'On desert islands. A man selling them told me.'

'How?' said Maurice. He wasn't too sure about coconuts. 'I don't know. You just get them.'

'Oh, I suppose they just grow on trees, do they?' said Maurice sarcastically. 'Sheesh, I just don't know what you lot would do without… anyone?' He glared at the group. 'Begins with an M.'

'You, Maurice,' said Dangerous Beans. 'But, you see, what we think is, really-'

'Yes?' said Maurice, 'Ahem,' said Peaches. Maurice groaned. 'What Dangerous Beans means,' said the female rat, 'is that all this stealing grains and cheese and gnawing holes in walls is, well…' She looked up into Maurice's yellow eyes. 'Is not morally right.'

'But it's what rats do!' said Maurice. 'But we feel we shouldn't,' said Dangerous Beans. 'We should be making our own way in the world!'

'Oh dear oh dear oh dear,' said Maurice, shaking his head. 'Ho for the island, eh? The Kingdom of the Rats! Not that I'm laughing at your dream,' he added hastily. 'Everyone needs their little dreams.' Maurice truly that, too. If you knew what it was that people really, really wanted, you very nearly controlled them. Sometimes he wondered what the stupid-looking kid wanted. Nothing, as far as Maurice could tell, but to be allowed to play his flute and be left alone. But… well, it was like that thing with the coconuts. Every so often the kid would come out with something that suggested he'd been listening all along. People like that are hard to steer. But cats are good at steering people. A miaow here, a purr there, a little gentle pressure with a claw… and Maurice had never had to think about it before. Cats didn't have to think. They just had to know what they wanted. Humans had to do the thinking. That's what they were for. Maurice thought about the good old days before his brain had started whizzing like a firework. He'd turn up at the door of the University kitchens and look sweet, and then the cooks would try to work out what he wanted. It was amazing! They'd say things like 'Does oo want a bowl of milk, den? Does oo want a biscuit? Does oo want dese nice scraps, den?' And all Maurice would have to do was wait patiently until they got to a sound he recognized, like 'turkey legs' or 'minced lamb'. But he was sure he'd never eaten anything magical. There was no such thing as enchanted chicken giblets, was there? It was the rats who'd eaten the magical stuff. The dump they called 'home' and also called 'lunch' was round the back of the University, and it was a university for wizards, after all. The old Maurice hadn't paid much attention to people who weren't holding bowls, but he was aware that the big men in pointy hats made strange things happen. And now he knew what happened to the stuff they used, too. It got tossed over the wall when they'd finished with it. All the old worn-out spell-books and the stubs of the dribbly candles and the remains of the green bubbly stuff in the cauldrons all ended up on the big dump, along with the tin cans and old boxes and the kitchen waste. Oh, the wizards had put up signs saying 'Dangerous' and 'Toxic', but the rats hadn't been able to read in those days and they liked dribbly candle ends. Maurice had never eaten anything off the dump. A good motto in life, he'd reckoned, was: don't eat anything that glows. But he'd become intelligent, too, at about the same time as the rats. It was a mystery. Since then he'd done what cats always did. He steered people. Now some of the rats counted as people too, of course. But people were people, even if they had four legs and had called themselves names like Dangerous Beans, which is the kind of name you give yourself if you learn to read before you understand what all the words actually mean, and read the notices and the labels off the old rusty cans and give yourself names you like the sound of. The trouble with thinking was that, once you started, you went on doing it. And as far as Maurice was concerned, the rats were thinking a good deal too much. Dangerous Beans was bad enough, but he was so busy thinking stupid thoughts about how rats could actually build their own country somewhere that Maurice could deal with him. It was Peaches who was the worst. Maurice's usual trick of just talking fast until people got confused didn't work on her at all. 'Ahem,' she began again, 'we think that this should be the last time.' Maurice stared. The other rats backed away slightly, but Peaches just stared back.

'This must be the very last time we do the silly “plague of rats” trick,' said Peaches. 'And that's final.'

'And what does Hamnpork think about this?' said Maurice. He turned to the head rat, who had been watching them. It was always a good idea appealing to Hamnpork when Peaches was giving trouble, because he didn't like her very much. 'What d'you mean, think?' said Hamnpork. 'I… sir, I think we should stop doing this trick,' said Peaches, dipping her head nervously. 'Oh, you think too, do you?' said Hamnpork. 'Everyone's thinking these days. I think there's a good deal too much of this thinking, that's what I think. We never thought about thinking when I was a lad. We'd never get anything done if we thought first.' He gave Maurice a glare, too. Hamnpork didn't like Maurice. He didn't like most things that had happened since the Change. In fact Maurice wondered how long Hamnpork was going to last as leader. He didn't like thinking. He belonged to the days when a rat leader just had to be big and stroppy. The world was moving far too fast for him now, which made him angry. He wasn't so much leading now as being pushed. 'I… Dangerous Beans, sir, believes that we should be thinking of settling down, sir,' said Peaches. Maurice scowled. Hamnpork wouldn't listen to Peaches, and she knew it, but Dangerous Beans was the nearest thing the rats had to a wizard and even big rats listened to him. 'I thought we were going to get on a boat and find an island somewhere,' said Hamnpork. 'Very ratty places, boats,' he added, approvingly. Then he went on, with a slightly nervous and slightly annoyed look at Dangerous Beans, 'And people tell me that we need this money stuff because now we can do all this thinking we've got to be eff… efit…'

'Ethical, sir,' said Dangerous Beans. 'Which sounds unratty to me. Not that my opinion counts for anything, it seems,' said Hamnpork. 'We've got enough money, sir,' said Peaches. 'We've already got a lot of money. We have got a lot of money, haven't we, Maurice.' It wasn't a question; it was a kind of accusation. 'Well, when you say a lot-' Maurice began. 'And in fact we've got more money than we thought,' said Peaches, still in the same tone of voice. It was very polite, but it just kept going and it asked all the wrong questions. A wrong question for Maurice was one that he didn't want anyone to ask. Peaches gave her little cough again. 'The reason I say we've got more money, Maurice, is that you said what were called “gold coins” were shiny like the moon and “silver coins” were shiny like the sun, and you'd keep all the silver coins. In fact, Maurice, that's the wrong way around. It's the silver coins that are shiny like the moon.' Maurice thought a rude word in cat language, which has a great many of them. What was the point of education, he thought, if people went out afterwards and used it? 'So we think, sir,' said Dangerous Beans to Hamnpork, 'that after this one last time we should share out the money and go our separate ways. Besides, it's getting dangerous to keep repeating the same trick. We should stop before it's too late. There's a river here. We should be able to get to the sea.'