the amazing maurice and his educated rodents Page 9
'Right,' said Darktan. 'We're going to get Hamnpork out of there. Sardines, you will show me the way. We'll try to pick up others as we go. The rest of you should try to find the kid.'
'Why are you giving orders?' said Peaches. 'Because someone has to,' said Darktan. 'Hamnpork might be a bit scabby and set in his ways but he's the leader and everyone smells that and we need him. Any questions? Right-'
'Can I come, sir?' said Nourishing. 'She's helping me carry my string, boss,' Sardines explained. Both he and the younger rat were carrying bundles of it. 'You need all of that?' said Darktan. 'You should never say no to a piece of string, boss,' said Sardines earnestly. 'It's amazing, some of the stuff I've been finding-'
'All right, so long as she's useful for something,' said Darktan. 'She'd better be able to keep up. Let's go!' And then there was just Dangerous Beans, Peaches, and Maurice.
Dangerous Beans sighed. 'One rat can be brave, but a bunch of rats is just a mob?' he said. 'Are you right, Maurice?'
'No, I was… look, there was something back there,' said Maurice. 'It's in a cellar. I don't know what it is. It's the voice that gets into people's heads!'
'Not everyone,' said Peaches. 'It didn't frighten you, did it? Or us. Or Darktan. It made Hamnpork very angry. Why?' Maurice blinked. He could hear the voice in his head again. It was very faint, and it certainly wasn't his own thoughts, and it said I will find a way in, CAT! 'Did you hear that?' he said. 'I didn't hear anything,' said Peaches. Perhaps you have to be close, Maurice thought. Perhaps, if you've been close, it knows where your head lives. He'd never seen a rat so miserable as Dangerous Beans. The little rat was huddled by the candle, staring unseeing at Mr Bunnsy Has An Adventure. 'I hoped it would be better than this,' said Dangerous Beans. 'But it turns out we're just… rats. As soon as there's trouble, we're just… rats.' It was very unusual for Maurice to feel sympathetic to anyone who wasn't Maurice. In a cat, that is a major character flaw. I must be ill, he thought. 'If it's any help, I'm just a cat,' he said. 'Oh, but you are not. You are kind and, deep down, I sense that you have a generous nature,' said Dangerous Beans. Maurice tried not to look at Peaches. Oh boy, he thought. 'At least you ask people before you eat them,' said Peaches. You'd better tell them, said Maurice's thoughts. Go on, tell them. You'd feel better. Maurice tried to tell his thoughts to shut up. What a time to get a conscience! What good was a cat with a conscience? A cat with a conscience was a… a hamster, or something… 'Um, I've been meaning to talk to you about that,' he muttered. Go on, tell them, said his shiny new conscience. Get it out in the open. 'Yes?' said Peaches. Maurice squirmed. 'Well, you know I do always check my food these days…'
'Yes, and it does you great credit,' said Dangerous Beans. Now Maurice felt even worse. 'Well, you know how we've always wondered how come I got Changed even though I never ate any of that magical stuff on the dump…'
'Yes,' said Peaches. 'That has always puzzled me.' Maurice shifted uneasily. 'Well, you know… er… did you ever know a rat, quite big, one ear missing, bit of white fur on one side, couldn't run too fast 'cos of a bad leg?'
'That sounds like Additives,' said Peaches. 'Oh, yes,' said Dangerous Beans. 'He disappeared before we met you, Maurice. A good rat. Had a bit of a speech… difficulty.'
'Speech difficulty,' said Maurice, gloomily. 'He stammered,' said Peaches, giving Maurice a long, cool stare. 'Couldn't get his words out very easily.'
'Not very easily,' said Maurice, his voice now quite hollow. 'But I'm sure you never met him, Maurice,' said Dangerous Beans. 'I miss him. He was a wonderful rat once you got him talking.'
'Ahem. Did you meet him, Maurice?' said Peaches, her stare nailing him to the wall. Maurice's face moved. It tried various expressions one after another. Then he said, 'All right! I ate him, OK? All of him! Except for the tail and the green wobbly bit and that nasty purple lump, no-one knows what it is! I was just a cat! I hadn't learned to think yet! I didn't know! I was hungry! Cats eat rats, that's how it goes! It wasn't my fault! And he'd been eating the magic stuff and I ate him so then I got Changed too! Know how that feels, seeing the green wobbly bit like that? It doesn't feel good! Sometimes on dark nights I think I can hear him talking down there! All right? Satisfied? I didn't know he was anyone! I didn't know I was anyone! I ate him! He'd been eating the stuff on the dump and I ate him so that's how I got Changed! I admit it! I ate him! It wasn't my faauulltt!' And then there was silence. After a while Peaches said, 'Yes, but that was a long time ago, wasn't it?'
'What? You mean have I eaten anyone lately? No!'
'Are you sorry for what you did?' said Dangerous Beans. 'Sorry? What do you think? Sometimes I have nightmares where I burp and he-'
'Then that's probably all right,' said the little rat. 'All right?' said Maurice. 'How can it be all right? And you know the worst part? I'm a cat! Cats don't go round feeling sorry! Or guilty! We never regret anything! Do you know what it feels like, saying “Hello food, can you talk?” That's not how a cat is supposed to behave!'
'We don't act how rats are supposed to behave,' said Dangerous Beans. And then his face fell again. 'Up until now,' he sighed. 'Everyone was frightened,' said Peaches. 'Fear spreads.'
'I hoped we could be more than rats,' said Dangerous Beans. 'I thought we could be more than things that squeak and widdle, whatever Hamnpork says. And now… where is everyone?'
'Shall I read to you from Mr Bunnsy?' said Peaches, her voice full of concern. 'You know that always cheers you up when you're in one of your… dark times.' There was a nod from Dangerous Beans. Peaches pulled the huge book towards her and began to read. 'One day Mr Bunnsy and his friend Ratty Rupert the Rat went to see Old Man Donkey, who lived by the river-'
'Read the bit where they talk to the humans,' said Dangerous Beans. Peaches obediently turned a page. '“Hello, Ratty Rupert,” said Farmer Fred. “What a lovely day it is, to be sure-”' This is mad, thought Maurice, as he listened to a story about wild woods and fresh bubbling streams, being read to one rat by another rat while they sat beside a drain along which ran something that certainly wasn't fresh. Anything but fresh. To be fair, though, it was bubbling a bit, or at least glooping. Everything's going down the drain and they have this little picture in their heads about how nice things could be… Look at those little pink sad eyes, said Maurice's own thoughts in Maurice's own head. Look at those little wobbly wrinkly noses. If you ran out on them and left them here, how could you look those little wobbly noses in the face again? 'I wouldn't have to,' said Maurice, out loud. 'That's the point!'
'What?' said Peaches, looking up from the book. 'Oh, nothing…' Maurice paused. There was nothing for it. It went against everything a cat stood for. This is what thinking does for you, he thought. It gets you into trouble. Even when you know other people can think for themselves, you start thinking for them too. He groaned. 'We'd better see what's happened to the kid,' he said. It was completely black in the cellar. All there was, apart from the occasional drip of water, were voices. 'So,' said the voice of Malicia, 'let's go over it again, shall we? You don't have a knife of any kind?'
'That's right,' said Keith. 'Or some handy matches that could burn through the rope?'
'And no sharp edge near you that you could rub the rope on?'
'And you can't sort of pull your legs through your arms so that you can get your hands in front of you?'
'And you don't have any secret powers?'
'Are you sure? The moment I saw you, I thought: he's got some amazing power that will probably manifest itself when he's in dire trouble. I thought: no-one could really be as useless as that unless it was a disguise.'
'No. I'm sure. Look, I'm just a normal person. Yes, all right, I was abandoned as a baby. I don't know why. It was something that happened. They say it happens quite a lot. It doesn't make you special. And I don't have any secret markings as if I was some kind of sheep, and I don't think I'm a hero in disguise and I don't have some kind of amazing talent that I'm aware of. OK, I'm good at playing quite a few musical instruments. I practise a lot. But I'm the kind of person heroes aren't. I get by and I get along. I do my best. Understand?'
'You should have found someone else.'
'In fact, you can't be any help at all?'
'No.' There was silence for a while and then Malicia said, 'You know, in many ways I don't think this adventure has been properly organized.'
'Oh, really?' said Keith. 'This is not how people should be tied up.'
'Malicia, do you understand? This isn't a story,' said Keith, as patiently as he could. 'That's what I'm trying to tell you. Real life isn't a story. There isn't some kind of… of magic that keeps you safe and makes crooks look the other way and not hit you too hard and tie you up next to a handy knife and not kill you. Do you understand?' There was some more dark silence. 'My granny and my great-aunt were very famous story-tellers, you know,' said Malicia eventually, in a strained
little voice. 'Agoniza and Eviscera Grim.'
'You said,' said Keith. 'My mother would have been a good story-teller, too, but my father doesn't like stories. That's why I've changed my name to Grim for professional purposes.'
'I used to get beaten when I was small for telling stories,' Malicia went on. 'Beaten?' said Keith. 'All right, then, smacked,' said Malicia. 'On the leg. But it did hurt. My father says you can't run a city on stories. He says you have to be practical.'
'Aren't you interested in anything except music? He broke your pipe!'
'I expect I'll buy another one.' The calm voice infuriated Malicia. 'Well, I'll tell you something,' she said. 'If you don't turn your life into a story, you just become a part of someone else's story.'
'And what if your story doesn't work?'
'You keep changing it until you find one that does.'
'Huh, look at you. You're just a face in someone else's background. You let a cat make all the decisions.'
'That's because Maurice is-' A voice said, 'Would you like us to go away until you've stopped being human?'
'Maurice?' said Keith. 'Where are you?'
'I'm in a drain and believe me, this has not been a good night. Do you know how many old cellars there are here?' said the voice of Maurice, in the blackness. 'Peaches is bringing a candle in. It's too dark even for me to see you.'
'Who's Peaches?' whispered Malicia. 'She's another Changeling. A thinking rat,' said Keith. 'Like Pilchards?'
'Like Sardines, yes.'
'Aha,' hissed Malicia. 'See? A story. I am smug, I gloat. The plucky rats rescue our heroes, probably by gnawing through the ropes.'
'Oh, we're back in your story, are we?' said Keith. 'And what am I in your story?'
'I know it's not going to be romantic interest,' said Malicia. 'And you're not funny enough for comic relief. I don't know. Probably just… someone. You know, like “man in street”, something like that.' There were faint sounds in the darkness. 'What are they doing now?' she whispered. 'Trying to light their candle, I think.'
'Rats play with fire?' Malicia hissed. 'They don't play. Dangerous Beans thinks lights and shadows are very important. They always have a candle alight somewhere in their tunnels, wherever they-'
'Dangerous Beans? What sort of name is that?'