Rats! I've gotto call out the local hitman

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The Independent Online

Alone in an isolated house, one can become preternaturally alert to sounds in the middle of the night. This is East Anglia. There have been warnings on local radio of a well-known family firm of burglars currently working the area. So, when there is sharp clatter from the kitchen downstairs, the eyes snap open. After a few seconds, there is more noise, a sustained din of saucepans and cutlery, like someone doing the washing-up after a domestic row.

Alone in an isolated house, one can become preternaturally alert to sounds in the middle of the night. This is East Anglia. There have been warnings on local radio of a well-known family firm of burglars currently working the area. So, when there is sharp clatter from the kitchen downstairs, the eyes snap open. After a few seconds, there is more noise, a sustained din of saucepans and cutlery, like someone doing the washing-up after a domestic row.

At this point, fear gives way to a sense of weary resignation. No self-respecting human thief would crash around like this. The rat is back.

I have a rat in my kitchen. It has been there for a few weeks now, making its presence known in a manner so confident and proprietorial that sometimes I feel like the intruder. It's big, the size of a healthy Labrador puppy, and, although I have heaved boots and carving knives in its direction, it has no particular respect for me. When disturbed, it makes its way towards the inglenook fireplace at a huffy, ill-tempered amble. My visitor, the rat, has begun to seem like one of nature's clever little acts of revenge.

Rats have been a part of my life and my work. Some years ago, my son returned from the pet shop with a rodent called Jabboa, and I discovered that a pet rat is a joy, incomparably more friendly, intelligent and loyal than the character-free hamster, the dreary guinea pig. When Jabboa finally passed away, lying in my hand at the local vet's surgery, it was desperately upsetting. No rat has died with more grace and dignity.

I have used him in my work. In a series of children's books, he appeared as Herbert, a magical talking rat with a posh accent and hooligan tendencies. An increasingly complex and addictive personality, he has recently fallen in love with a lowly, sewer-born street rat called Arabella - the love that dare not squeak its name - and next month will be revealed to have something of a drink problem.

As a result of all this, rats have become part of my authorial persona. I have posed for photographs with a rat called Arthur on my shoulder. When I visit schools, children ask me if I have brought Arthur with me.

Now, it seems, I have been made to pay for this wilful exploitation of the animal kingdom. This spring, a brown rat, more Arabella than Arthur, took to hanging out on the front lawn. Like Tristram Shandy's Uncle Toby, who believed a fly had as much right to life as he had, I adopt a laissez-faire attitude to the animal kingdom. Every mole in the area - at risk from the poison, traps and close-range shotguns of my neighbours - seems to have taken sanctuary around my house for one great earth-moving party. When Arabella joined them, waddling plumply along a branch of the fig-tree to tuck into peanuts on a bird-feeder, it was a surprisingly heart-warming sight.

But give a rat an inch, and it will soon be in your kitchen, stealing entire loaves of bread, waking you up. Sorrowfully I was forced to leave out poison. Arabella ignored it. I set a rat-trap. Arabella either managed to remove the food without springing the trap or, when I cleverly taped the bait to the trap, shrugged her way free with a mere twitch of her mighty shoulders.

What started as a matter of hygiene developed into a battle of wills. My life is now a Tom and Jerry sketch. Every night before I go to bed, I set up booby traps. Every morning, I find she has eluded them with contemptuous ease.

On the day you read this, a hitman from Mid-Suffolk Council is visiting. These guys don't mess around. Arabella's days are numbered. Soon I will be able to sleep soundly in my bed again - so long as the guilt leaves me alone.

terblacker@aol.com

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