Mister Rat lived on Rose Avenue, in a town situated alongside a large green-coloured river. All the fish were dead in that river and children who braved the green swamp later festered with boils and nightmares.
Mister Rat was not concerned about the world outside his window. His world was a middle-sized apartment, in a large house two streets away from the river.
Mister Rat withstood baths every four days. His owner, Juliet, told various friends that she had got rid of her previous rat because he left his shit all over the place.
The previous rat often came to the door to beg forgiveness. He squealed when he saw Mister Rat.
‘Jesus, that’s bloody vermin, that is!’
‘Better vermin than you,’ Juliet told him and she handed him some old razors of his that she had dug out from behind the toilet. She had put them in a plastic bag. His hair was still there all gummed up with dried soapsuds.
He leaned down to stare at Mister Rat in his cage.
‘I bet you take it to bed with you.’
She did and Mister Rat liked sleeping close to her ear and under her hair.
There was a large television on the main wall of Juliet’s living area. Mister Rat often sat on the sofa there while Juliet stroked his head and his back. She adored his tiny little paws.
‘Don’t they remind you of your own hands?’ she asked her friends.
They told her that perhaps a rat wasn’t such a good pet.
‘Pet’ was a word that Mister Rat did not like.‘Pet’ was a dog word and a cat word. One of Juliet’s friends brought around his pet cat for a visit. Mister Rat made his cage in record time and the cat jumped from its owner’s arms, claws raised, teeth poised and paws pouncing. The cat slammed into the bars of Mister Rat’s cage. Its tongue zoomed out and its breath was horrible. Full of fish and grain. Mister Rat was not partial to fish. Nor did he appreciate bread. He preferred food of a gooey nature.
Once Juliet had fed him humus and Mister Rat was soon converted to its stubbly, gluey consistency. He also adored chocolate icing, strawberry jam, paté, spaghetti bolognaise and countless stews, goulashes, and creamed puddings.
It was obvious that he was a fat rat.
‘Christ, Ju-Ju, what kind of monster are you breeding?’
This was the first rat that called around one Sunday morning because he thought he and Juliet needed to be adults about the whole useless drama.
‘Drama?’ Juliet said. ‘I found another woman’s knickers in your pocket!’
The old rat did not appreciate all the changes in the apartment, including Mister Rat.
‘I hate its rat eyes.’
‘His name is Mister Rat.’
Juliet put the croissants to warm in the oven and the old rat opened his newspaper. Mister Rat watched with marvellous concentration. The newspapers and croissants was something Juliet and the old rat used to do on Sunday mornings. It was their ritual. The old rat had bad table manners. He swallowed his food without chewing. Mister Rat could chew. The old rat slurped his coffee then said it was sour.
‘It’s Brazilian,’ Juliet told him.
The old rat put down his cup. ‘The Colombian has more flavour.’
Juliet looked at him. ‘Really?’ she said.
He flicked his newspaper. ‘Just because we’re finished doesn’t mean you can’t serve me the coffee I love.’
‘There’s still some in the cupboard,’ Juliet said.
Her old rat smiled and did not move so Juliet had to move and make her old rat some new coffee.
Mister Rat pressed his snout in between two bars of his cage. He did not like the smell of the old coffee. When Mister Rat first arrived in Juliet’s home, Juliet was determined to destroy any smell belonging to the old rat. She burned incense sticks that made Mister Rat sneeze. She had a basil bush freeing ceremony. Some woman who said that she had Natural American blood in her veins stood in each of the apartment’s rooms and spun about with her smoke and chanted while a bell rang from her belt.
She drank only purified water mixed with special herbs. She never ate chicken, fish or meat. Mister Rat disturbed her, although she did mention that throughout cultural history, some societies had considered rats as sacred beings.
Mister Rat preened.
‘Oh look,’ Juliet whispered, her lips were close enough to kiss him, ‘look at how lovely he is when he stands up on his two legs.’
It was Juliet’s idea that the Natural American woman should also bless Mister Rat with the basil bush ceremony.
The woman chanted over Mister Rat and blew basil smoke into his cage.
‘There,’ she said. ‘That should re-charge things in your life.’
But as Mister Rat could now see, things had only re-charged back to Juliet making the old rat his breakfast.
Even her friends were disappointed.
‘But seriously Juliet, he doesn’t have any ambition.’
‘He likes the simple life,’ Juliet said.
‘He’ll be back in your bed before you know it.’
That had already happened.
The old rat had arrived with Juliet’s favourite wine. He poured it into two glasses then stood in front of Mister Rat who was sitting in his usual place on the sofa.
‘Get off,’ the old rat told him.
Mister Rat did not move. The old rat took out his car keys and jabbed one of them into his hand until blood came.
‘Your rat bit me.’
When she saw the blood. ‘Mister Rat…oh Mister Rat…how…why?’
‘He’s vermin. They love blood. Why do think Dracula becomes one of them?’
Juliet returned Mister Rat to his cage and faced it out on the windowsill. It was a summer night and a bluebottle flew upwards, upset at the intrusion. Mister Rat was unfazed by bluebottles and he watched it meander in the air then finally fly off in the direction of the slick of dark jade-green river.
Juliet moaned behind him. After a while the old rat kicked open the bedroom door and carried Juliet inside. It was a long time before either Juliet or the old rat came out, and when they did, Juliet moved like she was made of honey and she sang to herself then cracked eggs into a bowl.
The old rat came out and made for the windowsill.
‘Be careful,’ Juliet warned him. ‘I don’t want Mister Rat to fall.’
‘No worries,’ said the old rat but he put his face against the cage and whispered, ‘Time is almost up, you flea monster.’
Mister Rat was intelligent, and for a while he depended on Juliet’s friends to talk sense into her.
‘He’s bloody abusive.’
‘Sometimes I get ditsy. It pisses him off. He calls it my Marilyn Moments.’
‘He puts you down.’
‘He’s just a bit tactless, that’s all.’
‘He’s a shit.’
Mister Rat was deposited on the windowsill more often and as summer passed into autumn, he began to worry. His baths were slowly forgotten and from nowhere fleas sprouted underneath his fur and lunched on his blood. Mister Rat’s food degenerated into plain coloured nuggets.
‘It’s good enough for you,’ the old rat said.
The old rat smoked cigarettes and had his friends around for card games and football matches. Sometimes another girl appeared and danced naked for the old rat and his friends.
The old rat shoved his drunken mouth onto the bars of Mister Rat’s cage.
‘Don’t tell on me now, do you hear me?’
His friends talked about nothing much but one night they talked about the river.
‘Fucking disgusting shit lives in that river.’
‘Mark my words, it’s like chemicals are changing the grass, even the worms.’
‘My nephew and his mates went fishing there once, they caught a nest of baby rats and swear to God, the teeth on those little bastards…took them the full morning to squash the little shits dead.’
Mister Rat gave no indication that he was listening but the old rat looked towards the cage.
One of his friends said, ‘Asking for disease with that thing in the house.’
Juliet came home and waved her hand through the cigarette smoke.
‘I don’t like your friends,’ she said but after a while they kissed and disappeared into Juliet’s bedroom, but she was crying when she came out later. She took Mister Rat out of his cage and nuzzled her face into his body. Mister Rat licked her ear and smelled her hair. That was where he always felt safe. He thought of the old rat on her pillow and slowly bit-by-bit, he felt his fleas jump onto Juliet’s hair and nestle deep inside.
Juliet put Mister Rat back into his cage.
In the morning the old rat ran the shower full blast and as hot as he could make it. He was jumping with fleas. Juliet sat at the table and drank coffee. The old rat came out wet, angry and red bitten.
‘You have them as well.’
She held up her creamy arms. ‘No. I don’t.’
Mister Rat heard the sound before he saw it. A crack of a sound then Juliet cried out and half-fell to the floor but she stood up fast, ran and grabbed the door handle. Her hair hid her face and she screamed,
‘I’m coming back with the cops.’
Mister Rat sat in his cage content that life would get back to normal but the old rat stood in front of Mister Rat’s cage for a few minutes then said.
‘I’m taking you for a walk.’
It was beginning to snow. Rose Avenue was cold and white. The old rat walked fast through the next two streets and reached the river. He swung Mister Rat’s cage into the freezing breeze.
‘You’re going to drown,’ the old rat sang.
He giggled and set Mister Rat’s cage on the grass before he lit a cigarette.
The river stayed still. It looked normal because of the cold and Mister Rat held his whiskers hard. Rats could swim. They could navigate. He considered the long and filthy terrors of the river. He thought of Juliet.
The sun bleared through the snow clouds.
The old rat blew smoke into the air.
Mister Rat gazed at the river. He would survive the river.
He had no idea of death but he had killed things. Flies, butterflies, the odd insect on the windowsill and Juliet had fed him liver, so fresh it was as if she had merely slit open the animal on her kitchen counter.
‘This is it,’ the old rat said. He reached for the cage, swung it up in the air and Mister Rat bowled hard against the cage lock. The river’s edge seesawed into the sky.
The old rat laughed and set his phone against the cage and its camera zoomed onto Mister Rat’s eyes and whiskers.
The phone camera dislodged the cage lock. Snip and the door eased open.
Mister Rat wriggled his snout through, sniffed fast at the old rat’s knuckle, clawed then bit until he bit bone.
The old rat yelled and shook his hand into the air but Mister Rat hung on. He concentrated all his strength into his jaw and bit further until there was a crack and the old rat gibbered and danced when he saw one half of his index finger flop down.
He screamed and shook. He screamed for help but it was late afternoon by now and the sky was darker, and no one liked to walk along the river at this time for fear of pollution or attack.
The old rat waved his arm as if to magic Mister Rat gone but Mister Rat knew that he had the absolute advantage and he bit the old rat again. He bit and bit and bit, up and up and up towards the old rat’s wrist, while the old rat danced and danced until he and Mister Rat fell right into the river.
An instant flush of thick water in Mister Rat’s ears, and black then his eyes circled on either side of his snout and he sniffed, and drove his claws upwards until they broke apart the green sludge of the water. The sky was dark now and the distant streetlights hazed gold.
Mister Rat stirred his whiskers. His claws tread water. He could not smell the old rat. The old rat was gone. The river was level and quiet except for the call of a bird. Mister Rat licked his teeth. He was hungry. He followed the bird’s sound until he found it, feet iced in the river’s edge. He killed and ate it.
Later as he licked the tiny bones, he thought of Juliet but she was far away in the gold streetlights, and as his claws dug into the dank river mud his nose sniffed scent, and his eyes saw further than they ever had into an animal dark and newly carnivorous world.
Featured illustration by Aisling O’ Reilly.