The Rat Story
by Brendan Strong
Written some time ago…
As it happened, I happened across the rat as I was crossing the road. It was massive, for a rat, and much too fast to stamp on. So I ran instead, pretending not to have seen it at all and that I was dodging traffic. I sought refuge in a Coffee shop. Thank god for Coffee Shops. Came here so long ago to free us all from Cafés, with their instant coffee, domestic tea and week-old scones. Right now, it was a double decaf mocha with a froth I needed, being so wound up. Not a Maxwell House double stirred with congealed sugar and a slice of bread and butter. As I waited, I pointed to a Danish as well. The girl took it from the display with tongs, shoved it in a bag, which she placed on the counter. A Danish would go down nicely. Although, one should never discount the power of a roast chicken pesto pannini in times of great terror. Of course, it wasn’t terror I was in. More shock. Over the rat. Nasty thing. I wish I’d killed it. But there was just no way to. It was too fast. Thinking of its jerky movement makes me shudder even now. Just no way to defeat these rats.
The woman beside me, she asks if I’m going to have my coffee. I’ve been staring into space. On account of the shock, no less. But still she asks me, with her cutting words, whether I’ll be moving on. I don’t know what to say. I pull out my wallet, and send a bunch of receipts flying from it onto the counter. No money. Whoever thought you could actually have no money? In this day and age. I suppose that’s what credit is all about. I pull out a card and say “Do you…”?
“Only Laser” she says, in an accent. I could fall in love with her and live in Buck Rogers land. But instead, I must live out the almighty shame of excusing myself from the coffee shop. Without money, there’s no refuge here. Back out with the rats, who coincidentally also have no money. The woman says something as I leave. Am I not humiliated enough? I wonder.
I try to find a bank machine. Wouldn’t you know it the easiest (no queue, does have receipts, quiet location) is in a Bar. Bars, I just don’t know about them. Whatever happened to pubs? I mean, I’m very happy for the convenience of the bank machine here, but Bars in general just seem so clinical, so clean. Makes me feel a little low, walking in there. No one else would realise the state of my house, but I know. And walking into a Bar, with its chrome, its ‘interior’ really makes me long for the long lost pub, which was always at least as shitty as my place, and often worse. In my grandfathers’ time and my father’s time (and, I suppose my mother’s time), pubs were even better, with the spit on the floor and a fog bank of smoke from all over the planet, as well as the fireplace. No one could have lived in such circumstances, and as a result we were all kind of equal, being better than the shit hole that the pub was. I order a pint while I tap in numbers. It’s cool and clean in here. Well lighted. What a smell – polish and beer. Cash in hand, I head out for a smoke.
“Oi! C’mere! Whataboutyerpoint?”
“Just goin for a smoke…” I assure him. I think about legging it. After all, I only ordered out of guilt. Imagine walking into a place and saying nothing to the only other person in there? It can’t be done. And how do you say hello to a barman without ordering a pint or short or something? That’s even more impossible. I smoke away as the pedestrians come barrelling toward me, like meteors in some science fiction film. I think of my Buck Rogers girl again. I think of dropping my smoke in mid air, just to teach these people some manners, and to not be so sure of their walking habits. They go straight for you, you see. They want you to move out of their way. It’s obvious why; what without pubs and Cafes to hand it’s the only simple Irish manner of bolstering a sense of worth. Which is what we need if we’re thinking about having a sense of self. I step back in for my pint. Thinking: That’s a good one now – the whole sense of self/sense of worth thing. Interesting. I could think about that over a pint. But no. No I can’t.
“Up to much today?”
“Ah no, day off”
“Hence the early drinkin’, eh?”
I smile. “Busy?”
“No, not on a Tuesday. Not on a Tuesday til lunchtime. Then about eight o’clock…” I could tell you what he’s saying, but I’m not going to because here he is cleaning. I don’t mind him cleaning, I don’t mind him talking. But which does he want to do right now? He’s only pretending to take an interest in me, I’m sure of it. Why else would he keep going with that damned cloth? I need a paper, I think. That way I can think away to myself, but pretend I’m remaining entirely wrapped up in this world. Skull the pint, head out, get the paper, come back: that’s the plan. No point asking him for a paper, he’d only want to talk about the news. You send a much more definite message if you walk in with a paper. Open it, read it, order pints. Mumble assent. No commitment to conversation. Excellent.
Excellent, except that on the road, there it is again. My first instinct is to run again. I know I can’t kill it. I shudder at the thought. Of it, and of its death. I keep my eye on it this time, see where it goes. Filthy thing. Attracted by the waste of humans. Even more disgusting. But maybe it has something there. Maybe. I cross over the road, lie chest down and stare into the gutter railings. If I stay very very still, they may come and get me – mistaking me for one of their own.