the amazing maurice and his educated rodents Page 13


'I'm very… grateful,' said Darktan, still wheezing, 'but don't get silly. The spring was stretched and weak and… the teeth were rusted and blunt. That's all.'

'But there's teeth marks all round you! No-one's ever come out of a trap before, except the Mr Squeakies, and they were made of rubber!' Darktan licked his stomach. Nourishing had been right. He looked perforated. 'I was just lucky,' he said. 'No rat has ever come alive out of a trap,' Nourishing repeated. 'Did you see the Big Rat?'

'The what?'

'The Big Rat!'

'Oh, that,' said Darktan. He was going to add 'no, I don't go in for that nonsense', but stopped. He could remember the light, and then the darkness ahead of him. It hadn't seemed bad. He'd almost felt sorry that Nourishing had got him out. In the trap, all the pain had been a long way off. And there had been no more hard decisions. He settled for saying, 'Is Hamnpork all right?'

'Sort of. I mean, we can't see any wounds that won't heal. He's had worse. But, well, he was pretty old. Nearly three years.'

'Was?' said Darktan.

'Is pretty old, I mean, sir. Sardines sent me to find you because we'll need you to help us get him back, but-' Nourishing gave Darktan a doubtful look. 'It's all right, I'm sure it looks worse than it is,' said Darktan, wincing. 'Let's get up there, shall we?' An old building is full of pawholds for a rat. No-one noticed them as they climbed up from manger to saddle, harness to hayrack. Besides, no-one was looking for them. Some of the other rats had taken the Jacko route to freedom, and the dogs were going mad searching for them and fighting with one another. So were the men. Darktan knew a little bit about beer, since he had gone about his business under pubs and breweries, and the rats had often wondered why humans sometimes liked to switch their brains off. To the rats, living in the centre of a web of sound and light and smells, it made no sense at all. To Darktan, now, it didn't sound quite so bad. The idea that, for a while, you could forget things and not have a head buzzing with troublesome thoughts… well, that seemed quite attractive. He couldn't remember a lot about life before he'd been Changed, but he was certain that it hadn't been so complicated. Oh, bad things had happened, because life on the tip had been pretty hard. But when they were over, they were over, and tomorrow was a new day. Rats didn't think about tomorrow. There was just a faint sensation that more things would happen. It wasn't thinking. And there was no 'good' and 'bad' and 'right' and 'wrong'. They were new ideas. Ideas! That was their world now! Big questions and big answers, about life, and how you had to live it, and what you were for. New ideas spilled into Darktan's weary head. And among the ideas, in the middle of his head, he saw the little figure of Dangerous Beans. Darktan had never talked much to the little white rat or the little female who scurried around after him and drew pictures of the things he'd been thinking about. Darktan liked people who were practical. But now he thought: he's a trap-hunter! Just like me! He goes ahead of us and finds the dangerous ideas and thinks about them and traps them in words and makes them safe and shows us the way through. We need him… we need him now. Otherwise, we're all running around like rats in a barrel… Much later on, when Nourishing was old and grey around the muzzle, and smelled a bit strange, she dictated the story of the climb and how she'd heard Darktan muttering to himself. The Darktan that she'd pulled out of the trap, she said, was a different rat. It was as though his thoughts had slowed down but got bigger. The strangest bit, she said, was when they reached the beam. Darktan made sure that Hamnpork was all right, and then picked up the match he'd shown to Nourishing. 'He struck it on an old bit of iron,' said Nourishing, 'and then he walked out along the beam with it flaring, and down below I could see all the crowd, the hay racks and the straw all over the place, and the people milling around, just like, hah, just like rats… and I thought, if you drop that, mister, the place will fill with smoke in a few seconds and they've locked the doors and by the time they realize it they'll be caught like, hah, yeah, like rats in a barrel and we'll be away along the gutters. 'But he just stood there, looking down, until the match went out. Then he put it down and helped us with Hamnpork and never said a word about it. I asked him about it later on, after all the stuff with the piper and everything, and he said, “Yes. Rats in a barrel.” And that's all he said about it.'

'What was it you really put in the sugar?' said Keith, as he led the way back to the secret trapdoor. 'Cascara,' said Malicia. 'That's not a poison, is it?'

'No, it's a laxative.'

'What's that?'

'It makes you… go.'

'Go where?'

'Not where, stupid. You just… go. I don't particularly want to draw you a picture.'

'Oh. You mean… go.'

'That's right.'

'And you just happened to have it on you?'

'Yes. Of course. It was in the big medicine bag.'

'You mean you take something like that out just for something like this?'

'Of course. It could easily be necessary.'

'How?' said Keith, climbing the ladder. 'Well, supposing we were kidnapped? Suppose we ended up at sea? Supposing we were captured by pirates? Pirates have a very monotonous diet, which might be why they're angry all the time. Or supposing we escaped and swam ashore and ended up on an island where there's nothing but coconuts? They have a very binding effect.'

'Yes, but… but… anything can happen! If you think like that, you'd end up taking just about everything in case of

anything!'

'That's why it's such a big bag,' said Malicia calmly, pulling herself through the trapdoor and dusting herself off. Keith sighed. 'How much did you give them?'

'Lots. But they should be all right if they don't take too much of the antidote.'

'What did you give them for the antidote?'

'Cascara.'

'Malicia, you are not a nice person.'

'Really? You wanted to poison them with the real poison, and you were getting very imaginative with all that stuff about their stomachs melting.'

'Yes, but rats are my friends. Some of the poisons really do that. And… sort of… making the antidote more of the poison-'

'It's not a poison. It's a medicine. They'll feel lovely and clean afterwards.'

'All right, all right. But… giving it to them as the antidote as well, that's a bit… a bit…'

'Clever? Narratively satisfying?' said Malicia. 'I suppose so,' Keith admitted reluctantly. Malicia looked around. 'Where's your cat? I thought he was following us.'

'Sometimes he just wanders off. And he's not my cat.'

'Yes, you're his boy. But a young man with a smart cat can go a long way, you know.'

'How?'

'There was Puss in Boots, obviously,' said Malicia, 'and of course everyone knows about Dick Livingstone and his wonderful cat, don't they?'

'I don't,' said Keith. 'It's a very famous story!'

'Sorry. I haven't been able to read for very long.'

'Really? Well, Dick Livingstone was a penniless boy who became Lord Mayor of Ubergurgl because his cat was so good at catching… er… pigeons. The town was overrun with… pigeons, yes, and in fact later on he even married a sultan's daughter because his cat cleared all the… pigeons out of her father's royal palace-'

'It was rats really, wasn't it?' said Keith, glumly. 'I'm sorry, yes.'

'And it was just a story,' said Keith. 'Look, are there really stories about rat kings? Rats have kings? I've never heard of it. How does it work?'

'Not the way you think. They've been known about for years. They really do exist, you know. Just like on the sign outside.'

'What, the rats with their tails all knotted together? How do-?' There was a loud and persistent knocking on the door. Some of it sounded as though it was being done with someone's boot. Malicia went over to it and pulled back the bolts. 'Yes?' she said, coldly, as the night air poured in. There was a group of angry men outside. The leader, who looked as though he was only the leader because he happened to be the one in front, took a step back when he saw Malicia. 'Oh… it's you, miss…'

'Yes. My father's the mayor, you know,' said Malicia. 'Er… yes. We all know.'

'Why're you all holding sticks?' said Malicia. 'Er… we want to talk to the rat-catchers,' said the spokesman. He tried to look past her, and she stood aside. 'There's no-one in here but us,' she said. 'Unless you think there's a trapdoor to a maze of underground cellars where desperate animals are caged up and vast supplies of stolen food are hoarded?' The man gave her another nervous look. 'You and your stories, miss,' he said. 'Has there been some trouble?' said Malicia. 'We think they were a… a bit naughty…' said the man. He blanched under the look she gave him. 'Yes?' she said. 'They cheated us in the rat pit!' said a man behind him, made bold because there was someone else between him and Malicia. 'They must've trained those rats! One of them flew around on a string!'

'And one of them bit my Jacko on the… on the… on the unmentionables!' said someone further back. 'You can't tell me it wasn't trained to do that!'

'I saw one with a hat on this morning,' said Malicia. 'There's been a good deal too many strange rats today,' said another man. 'My mum said she saw one dancing on the

kitchen shelves! And when my granddad got up and reached for his false teeth he said a rat bit him with them. Bit him with his own teeth!'

'What, wearing them?' said Malicia. 'No, it just snapped them around in the air! And a lady down our street opened her pantry door and there were rats swimming in the cream bowl. Not just swimming, either! They'd been trained. They were making kind of patterns, and diving and waving their legs in the air and stuff!'

'You mean synchronized swimming?' said Malicia. 'Who's telling stories now, eh?'

'Are you sure you don't know where those men are?' said the leader suspiciously. 'People said they headed this way.' Malicia rolled her eyes. 'All right, yes,' she said. 'They got here and a talking cat helped us to feed them poison and now they're locked in a cellar.' The men looked at her. 'Yeah, right,' said the leader, turning away. 'Well, if you do see them, tell them we're looking for them, OK?' Malicia shut the door. 'It's terrible, not being believed,' she said. 'Now tell me about rat kings,' said Keith.

CHAPTER 10

And as night fell, Mr Bunnsy remembered: there's something terrible in the Dark Wood. – From Mr Bunnsy Has An Adventure Why am I doing this? Maurice asked himself, as he squirmed along a pipe. Cats are not built for this stuff! Because we are a kind person at heart, said his conscience. No, I'm not, thought Maurice. Actually, that's true, said his conscience. But we don't want to tell that to Dangerous Beans, do we? The little wobbly nose? He thinks we're a hero! Well, I'm not, thought Maurice. Then why are we scrabbling around underground trying to find him? Well, obviously it's because he's the one with the big dream about finding the rat island and without him the rats won't co-operate and I won't get paid, said Maurice. We're a cat! What does a cat need money for? Because I have a Retirement Plan, thought Maurice. I'm four years old already! Once I've made a pile, it's me for a nice home with a big fire and a nice old lady giving me cream every day. I've got it all worked out, every detail. Why should she give us a home? We're smelly, we've got ragged ears, we've got something nasty and itchy on our leg, we look like someone kicked us in the face… why should an old lady take us in instead of a fluffy little kitten? Aha! But black cats are lucky, thought Maurice. Really? Well, we don't want to be first with the bad news, but we're not black! We're a sort of mucky tabby! There's such a thing as dyes, thought Maurice. A couple of packets of black dye, hold my breath for a minute, and it's 'hello, cream and fish' for the rest of my life. Good plan, eh? And what about the luck? said the conscience. Ah! That's the clever bit. A black cat that brings in a gold coin every month or so, wouldn't you say that's a lucky cat to have?