the amazing maurice and his educated rodents Page 21


thought Darktan. 'Now I want to ask you a question,' he said. 'You've been the leader for… how long?'

'Ten years,' said the mayor. 'Isn't it hard?'

'Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Everyone argues with me all the time,' said the mayor. 'Although I must say I'm expecting a little less arguing if all this works. But it's not an easy job.'

'It's ridiculous to have to shout all the time just to get things done,' said Darktan. 'That's right,' said the mayor. 'And everyone expects you to decide things,' said Darktan. 'True.'

'The last leader gave me some advice just before he died, and do you know what it was? “Don't eat the green wobbly bit”!'

'Good advice?' said the mayor. 'Yes,' said Darktan. 'But all he had to do was be big and tough and fight all the other rats that wanted to be leader.'

'It's a bit like that with the council,' said the mayor. 'What?' said Darktan. 'You bite them in the neck?'

'Not yet,' said the mayor. 'But it's a thought, I must say.'

'It's just all a lot more complicated than I ever thought it would be!' said Darktan, bewildered. 'Because after you've learned to shout you have to learn not to!'

'Right again,' said the mayor. 'That's how it works.' He put his hand down on the desk, palm up. 'May I?' he said. Darktan stepped aboard, and kept his balance as the mayor carried him over to the window and set him down on the sill. 'See the river?' said the mayor. 'See the houses? See the people in the streets? I have to make it all work. Well, not the river, obviously, that works by itself. And every year it turns out that I haven't upset enough people for them to choose anyone else as mayor. So I have to do it again. It's a lot more complicated than I ever thought it would be.'

'What, for you, too? But you're a human!' said Darktan in astonishment. 'Hah! You think that makes it easier? I thought rats were wild and free!'

'Hah!' said Darktan. They both stared out of the window. Down in the square below they could see Keith and Malicia walking along, deep in conversation. 'If you like,' said the mayor, after a while, 'you could have a little desk here in my office-'

'I'll live underground, thank you all the same,' said Darktan, pulling himself together. 'Little desks are a bit too Mr Bunnsy.' The mayor sighed. 'I suppose so. Er…' He looked as if he was about to share some guilty secret and, in a way, he was. 'I did like those books when I was a boy, though. Of course I knew it was all nonsense but, all the same, it was nice to think that-'

'Yeah, yeah,' said Darktan. 'But the rabbit was stupid. Whoever heard of a rabbit talking?'

'Oh, yes. I never liked the rabbit. It was the minor characters everyone liked. Ratty Rupert and Phil the Pheasant and Olly the Snake-'

'Oh, come on,' said Darktan. 'He had a collar and tie!'

'Well?'

'Well, how did it stay on? A snake is tube-shaped!'

'Do you know, I never thought of it like that,' said the mayor. 'Silly, really. He'd wriggle out of it, wouldn't he?'

'And waistcoats on rats don't work.'

'No?'

'No,' said Darktan. 'I tried it. Tool belts are fine, but waistcoats. Dangerous Beans got quite upset about that. But I told him, you've got to be practical.'

'It's just like I always tell my daughter,' said the man. 'Stories are just stories. Life is complicated enough as it is. We have to plan for the real world. There's no room for the fantastic.'

'Exactly,' said the rat. And man and rat talked, as the long light faded into the evening. A man was painting, very carefully, a little picture underneath the street sign that said 'River Street'. It was a long way underneath, only just higher than the pavement, and he had to kneel down. He kept referring to a small piece of paper in his hand. The picture looked like:

Keith laughed. 'What's funny?' said Malicia. 'It's in the Rat alphabet,' said Keith. 'It says Water+Fast+Stones. The streets have got cobbles on, right? So rats see them as stones. It means River Street.'

'Both languages on the street signs. Clause 193,' said Malicia. 'That's fast. They only agreed that two hours ago. I suppose that means there will be tiny signs in human language in the rat tunnels?'

'I hope not,' said Keith. 'Why not?'

'Because rats mostly mark their tunnels by widdling on them.' He was impressed at the way Malicia's expression didn't change a bit. 'I can see we're all going to have to make some important mental adjustments,' she said, thoughtfully. 'It was odd about Maurice, though, after my father told him there were plenty of kind old ladies in the town that'd be happy to give him a home.'

'You mean when he said that wouldn't be any fun, getting it that way?' said Keith. 'Yes. Do you know what he meant?'

'Sort of. He meant he's Maurice,' said Keith. 'I think he had the time of his life, strutting up and down the table ordering everyone around. He even said the rats could keep the money! He said a little voice in his head told him it was really theirs!' Malicia appeared to think about things for a while, and then said, as if it wasn't very important really, 'And, er… you're staying, yes?'

'Clause 9, Resident Rat Piper,' said Keith. 'I get an official suit that I don't have to share with anyone, a hat with a feather and a pipe allowance.'

'That will be… quite satisfactory,' said Malicia. 'Er…'

'Yes?'

'When I told you that I had two sisters, er, that wasn't entirely true,' she said. 'Er… it wasn't a lie, of course, but it was just… enhanced a bit.'

'Yes.'

'I mean it would be more literally true to say that I have, in fact, no sisters at all.'

'Ah,' said Keith. 'But I have millions of friends, of course,' Malicia went on. She looked, Keith thought, absolutely miserable. 'That's amazing,' he said. 'Most people just have a few dozen.'

'Millions,' said Malicia. 'Obviously, there's always room for another one.'

'Good,' said Keith. 'And, er, there's Clause 5,' said Malicia, still looking a bit nervous. 'Oh, yes,' said Keith. 'That one puzzled everyone. “A slap-up tea with cream buns and a medal”, right?'

'Yes,' said Malicia. 'It wouldn't be properly over, otherwise. Would you, er, join me?' Keith nodded. He stared around at the town. It seemed a nice place. Just the right size. A man could find a future here… 'Just one question…' he said. 'Yes?' said Malicia, meekly. 'How long does it take to become mayor?' There's a town in Uberwald where, every time the clock shows a quarter of an hour, the rats come out and strike the bells. And people watch, and cheer, and buy the souvenir gnawed mugs and plates and spoons and clocks and other things which have no use whatsoever other than to be bought and taken home. And they go to the Rat Museum, and they eat RatBurgers (Guaranteed No Rat) and buy Rat Ears that you can wear and buy the books of Rat poetry in Rat language and say 'how odd' when they see the streets signs in Rat and marvel at how the whole place seems so clean… And once a day the town's Rat Piper, who is rather young, plays his pipes and the rats dance to the music, usually in a conga line. It's very popular (on special days a little tap-dancing rat organizes vast dancing spectaculars, with hundreds of rats in sequins, and water ballet in the fountains, and elaborate sets).

And there are lectures about the Rat Tax and how the whole system works, and how the rats have a town of their own under the human town, and get free use of the library, and even sometimes send their young rats to the school. And everyone says: How perfect, how well organized, how amazing! And then most of them go back to their own towns and set their traps and put down their poisons, because some minds you couldn't change with a hatchet. But a few see the world as a different place. It's not perfect, but it works. The thing about stories is that you have to pick the ones that last. And far downstream a handsome cat, with only a few bare patches still in its fur, jumped off a barge, sauntered along the dock, and entered a large and prosperous town. It spent a few days beating up the local cats and getting the feel of the place and, most of all, in sitting and watching.

Finally, it saw what it wanted. It followed a young lad out of the city. He was carrying a stick over his back, on the end of which was a knotted handkerchief of the kind used by people in story circumstances to carry all their worldly goods. The cat grinned to himself. If you knew their dreams, you could handle people. The cat followed the boy all the way to the first milestone along the road, where the boy stopped for a rest. And heard: 'Hey, stupid-looking kid? Wanna be Lord Mayor? Nah, down here, kid…' Because some stories end, but old stories go on, and you gotta dance to the music if you want to stay ahead.

THE END