Chapter 4

RATS

Julie Valentine

2006

Merc’s Maiden Flight

I was really excited to receive an invitation to a birthday party to be held on the Friday of that week.  One of the girls in my class at school was to be 7 years old, two months before me, and her parents had invited every boy and girl from her class to go to her house for tea.

I rushed home from school, and mum washed and dressed me in my best clothes and gave me a wrapped present to take with me.

I hadn’t been to many parties and this one was really good, there was plenty to eat and I got to taste the chocolate cakes that Merc was so keen on.  After some games like musical chairs and pass the parcel, we all had to go home.  We were given a balloon to take with us and mine was a big blue balloon attached to the end of a long length of string.  I tied this to the belt of my coat and the balloon floated behind me as I walked home.

When I got home I had to tell mum and dad all about the party and before I got ready for bed I managed to sneak out into the yard with my balloon and tied it to the roof support post of the woodpile shed.  I could still see it from my bedroom window as I lay in bed.

blue baloon black background

I did not manage to speak with Merc, I was anxious to tell him about the chocolate cake but I suspected that he was rooting around the yard of the bakers to see what crumbs he could pick up for his supper, he was probably eating chocolate cake himself.

The following morning I woke early as I still wanted to see Merc before I got dressed.  I went down the stairs, into the yard and was really upset to see that my blue balloon had disappeared, that was very strange as I could still see a small piece of the string tied to the roof support post, where I had left the balloon.  I went back inside the house very upset but I could not tell my mum the real reason I was crying, I just explained that I had lost my balloon, but I suspected that there was something more to be told.

It was not until Sunday night that I found out what had happened when I heard the story from Merc himself.

In the early hours of the morning Merc, who had been out all night and was just returning to his house, had noticed the blue balloon tied up to the roof support post.  He thought that I had left it there for him so, as he had been unable to untie the knot, he had started to gnaw through the string thinking that he would be able to squeeze the balloon down the hole.  Whilst he was trying to gnaw through the string he had twisted and turned and stepped over the string several times to reach all sides of the knot and had managed to wrap the string round his body.  Once the blue balloon was free Merc had tried to get it down his hole, but of course it would not go.  Not knowing what to do with it he had walked into the middle of the yard just as a huge gust of wind blew.  It was autumn and the back yard was always quite windy, sometimes blowing the clean washing off the line and draping it in funny shapes on the wall or the roof of the woodpile shed.

Merc’s feet were lifted off the floor one by one until he found that he was being carried, quite quickly up the side of the house, past my bedroom window and away.  As he passed my window he told me that he had squeaked really loudly, but the string was wrapped so tightly round his middle it was difficult to breathe and the wind blew his voice away almost before it was out of his mouth.

The wind was from the south-west and was very blustery, it buffeted the blue balloon with Merc still suspended on the end of the length of string, over the market in the square where one of the stallholders looked up and pointed to the balloon.  He jumped up and tried to grab it but the wind took the balloon away too quickly.  The stallholder had to stop as the wind had managed to make the tarpaulin of his stall billow out and that was also likely to be blown away like the balloon unless it was tied down quickly so the blue balloon had to be forgotten and left to drift on.

There were leaves that had been torn from trees before they were ready to fall being blown along with the balloon and lots of paper that had been sucked from the rubbish bins round the square, grit stung Merc’s eyes and made them watery so he couldn’t see very well.  He just hung on hoping the string round his middle would not unravel and leave him to tumble to the ground.  It was a very long way down.

Merc was quite high at one point and everything on the ground looked so very small.  As he flew over the roofs of the houses on the other side of the square behind the shops, the wind suddenly dropped and Merc found the blue balloon was falling quite quickly from the sky.  He could see the railway line that ran behind the row of houses that backed on to the alleyway behind the shop, he had been there before when he was a boy as he used to play on the embankment of the railway line with his brothers and sisters.  There were lots of tunnels in the embankment and some of his family still lived there.

The big, blue balloon was being buffeted quite badly by the wind and began descending rapidly nearer to the railway line and Merc was worried because it was getting quite close to one of the trees.  He had seen a balloon blowing around before and it had made a loud noise and disappeared as it became entangled in the branches of the tree.

Merc was so lucky, the big, blue balloon that he was attached to became wedged between some of the smaller twigs and he was left dangling at the end of the string.  He had to act quickly as a strong gust of wind could dislodge the blue balloon again and he would be carried off to somewhere he did not know.

He wriggled his body to make the string swing him in the air.  Backwards and forwards he swung until he was close enough to catch hold of a small twig.  Unfortunately this snapped off as the string pulled him back the other way and Merc had to hold on tight and keep swinging.  He managed to adjust the angle of his swing so that it took him nearer to a larger twig and when he could, he grabbed hold with both his front paws.  He wrapped his tail round the twig, then gnawed through the string as quickly as he could and before he made the final cut with his sharp teeth, he made sure his back feet were gripping the rough bark so he didn’t slip.

Merc made his way carefully to a bigger branch and loosened the string that had been wound tightly round his middle.  He was out of breath with all the exertion and crouched on the branch with his tummy flattened, his legs wrapped the branch and his tail hanging limply down the side.  His fur was dishevelled and he was gasping for breath.

Once he began to breathe more easily and his heart had stopped pounding in his chest, Merc realised he would have to somehow get down from the tree, and that he was still a long way off the ground.  He pulled his legs, one by one, back onto the top of the branch and making sure he had his balance, raised his nose and twitched his whiskers, he then sat up to look around him.  He wriggled closer to the trunk of the tree and took support from it as he sat up on his back haunches.  Merc could see the railway line and just at that moment a train whistled to announce that it was approaching the station.  He knew exactly where the balloon had come to rest, the village station was just round a bend in the track.

The journey home was about to start.  Merc took one more look then dropped his tail over the side of the branch and edged down the trunk backwards.  He didn’t stop to think about the problems he had with his reverse shuffle, it all came to him without thinking.  As he passed each branch, he stopped to catch his breath and have another look round and this way he managed to reach the ground without any mishap apart from one little slip when he broke one of the toenails on his rear left foot.

It wasn’t until he reached the ground that he realised he was hungry again, it must have been all the excitement.

Merc knew that some of his relatives lived in the opposite direction to the station so he took his bearings when he heard the train leaving the station having picked up the passengers and the morning mail, and he set off to find the embankment homes of his aunt and uncle and their children.

As he progressed further along the embankment Merc found that the area was all blackened and burnt.  It was clear that there had been a serious fire some time earlier.  All the bushes were bare and there were new grass shoots just beginning to poke through the burnt earth.  What worried him most was that the embankment had collapsed and the entrance holes to his relation’ homes were no longer there.

He was not really paying attention to anything other than his surroundings whilst he was looking at all the damage that had been caused and because he was distracted he did not notice a man with a black and white dog walking along the same path he had taken.  The dog had picked up his scent and was now sniffing the ground well ahead of the man and was closing the gap between them too quickly.  Merc had sat up on his haunches, his whiskers twitching, rubbing his front paws together with anxiety, desperate to find somewhere to hide or some means of escape.  In this barren landscape with so many collapsed holes, there appeared to be nowhere to run, but he returned to all four paws, turned to his right and moved away as quickly as he was able.

As Merc climbed up the embankment away from the pathway that people and dogs trod, he nearly fell down a small hole that was well hidden behind a clump of burnt out grass.  Merc dived headfirst into the small hole.  He slithered and squeezed his body down the narrow passage until it got wider and opened up into a large living area.  He knew he was in someone’s house but he didn’t know whose.

Merc stayed very still twitching his nose and his ears in all directions, he was trying to catch a scent or hear the sounds of living activities.  All he sensed was a clean earthy smell of a house with no children, and a gentle intermittent buzz as though someone was asleep.  As he snuffled round the room he got closer to the buzzing.  His eyes focused on a big, very old, balding rat, sleeping curled up comfortably in a corner.  He had been reading as Merc could see parts of a newspaper scattered on the floor at the old rat’s feet.  He gingerly approached, but in so doing, his fat cumbersome body was not quick enough to avoid the big stone hidden by the paper.  Merc squealed at the pain when he stubbed his toe, and the old rat woke with a start.

‘Who are you?   What do you want?’ said the old rat still surprised by Merc’s sudden appearance in his home.

Merc told his story and the old rat listened intently.

‘Well, you have been very lucky.  I expect you are hungry’    he said to Merc.

Merc wondered how he knew that, but, as he had been feeling peckish after his climb down the tree backwards, and never one to refuse food, Merc agreed that he might be a little hungry.

The food tasted very good, not at all like the chocolate cakes and carrots he was used to, this was probably the difference between a village rat and a country rat that lived on the outskirts of the village.

The old rat talked whilst Merc ate.  He told Merc all about the fire and how his relatives had escaped unharmed through the many tunnels and rabbit warrens in the embankment.

They had blocked off the holes as they left so the smoke couldn’t follow them and had arrived at his house down an old back tunnel that had part collapsed.  The old rat explained that he would have been very happy for them to stay but that the children had been rather boisterous and so they had decided to move on to a relative near the square in Orville.

This had all been achieved without fuss as the old rat had lead them through the maze of tunnels with no problem, he only became lost once and had to go up to ground level to look see where they were.

When they arrived at the house behind the shop in the square, the lady with a squeaky voice had heard about the fire and had been looking for them.  She had been very worried but happy to see that they were all safe, they were to stay with her.  The old rat had also been invited to stay the night and had been shown around the house under the tree root in the yard and inside the shop.  It was the first time he had been in a shop with so many interesting things.

Merc couldn’t believe the family were safe with his mum and thanked the old rat for what he had done.  Merc asked whether he would be able to find his way through the maze to get to his mum’s house.

‘Oh yes’ said the old rat ‘When I left, your mum gave me a small tin of paint from the shop and on my way back I used the tip of my tail to leave a line on the ground.  You can follow it very easily.  Look, I still have a yellow tip on the end of my tail, I’m getting quite used to it now’.

Merc stayed with the old rat for several hours until the pain in his middle went away.  He told him about me, ‘Sonny’, the chocolate cakes and ice cream and about the home he had under the woodpile with the covered entrance that I had built to keep out the rain and stop him bruising his nose on the roof support post.  It was nearly 5 o’clock before Merc left, having shared another meal with the old rat.  The old rat told Merc he was always welcome to visit.

Merc followed the yellow line as it weaved from side to side through the maze of passages.  The old rat had also put signs where the passages split to say where they lead.  It was quite an adventure really and Merc could see he was getting closer to his mum’s house.

When he arrived, his old house was full of children from the two families, but it was as tidy as ever it was.  His mum was pleased to see him and made him yet another meal.  Merc didn’t say no as he enjoyed his mum’s cooking, it brought back memories of his childhood.  He listened to the story of the fire all over again and then he told them all about me, his friend, and how he had been carried off on the end of a string tied to a blue balloon.  His mum was pleased to hear that he was happy in his new home but told him off for eating so many chocolate cakes.

Merc stayed the night, although he did not get much sleep and it was not until after lunch the next day that he left his mum’s house to return home.  He went over-ground, round the alleyway that ran behind the shops in the square, following his well-trodden route.  As it was Sunday and it was quite quiet with few people around so Merc could stride out and get home quickly.

As Merc turned into the yard he found me sitting by the woodpile.  I had been crying.  My mum thought I was ill and was going to call the doctor.  I was crying because my blue balloon was gone, Merc was not answering my call, there was no message, nothing, and I couldn’t tell my mum.  I had not eaten all day Saturday or that day and I was tired from crying and very hungry.

I ran towards Merc and lifted him up with both hands.  I held him high in the air and danced and skipped on the spot, twirling round and round.  I was so pleased to see him.  Merc squeaked loudly and it took a few moments for him to make me understand that he still had a pain round his middle from where the string had been tightly tied.  However, when he finally got all four feet on the ground, he too began to hop around to show how pleased he was.  I had not seen him like that before and was quite fascinated.

First he had a happy bounce as he leapt around and bounded off in one direction, only to bounce again as he turned round to return; then he would change into a cheeky little comical tip-toed trot as he went round in circles, turning occasionally so he didn’t become too dizzy, but never actually catching up with his tail.  He would then suddenly change to a frenetic omni-directional twitch as though he had too much energy.  Finally, from the other end of the yard he turned and came proudly straight down the centre as though he was in a parade, his head held high, his back arched with the stance of a creature carrying home a particularly large and impressive prize.  I could tell that he was pleased to be home with a story to tell.

Merc smalling the air

Merc finally stopped his whooping and told me to go and have something to eat and to wash my face.  He said that he needed a little snooze but that he would come to my bedroom when I had gone to bed and tell me the whole story of his adventure with the blue balloon.

My mum was surprised to see me back in the house and hungry and gave me a special supper before I washed and went upstairs to bed.  I found it hard to stay awake as I was quite tired from crying but I was so excited at Merc’s triumphant return and wanted to hear what had happened to him and the blue balloon, that I was still wide awake when he finally arrived.  He had himself a warm shower and smoothed out his hair.  He looked very smart, suave and relaxed after his rest and relaxation.

We both lay on my bed talking for a long time with him gesticulating quite wildly at times, his whiskers sometimes squashed back to his face and other times waving in all directions.  At one point he was very near to falling off the bed altogether when he was demonstrating how he dived down the hole.  I also had to hide him quickly under the covers when mum came in to check that I was still OK.  I pretended to be asleep again so she just tidied the bed, gave me a kiss on my forehead and went out again, but it had been quite a close shave as Merc had been balancing along the bed head backwards, demonstrating to me how he had climbed down the tree.

Merc was a good weaver of tales and he made it sound so exciting, although he did admit that he had been very frightened when the blue balloon was flying through the air and heading towards the tree.  He had expected a big bang and to disappear.  He was also very scared when he realised the black and white dog had picked up his scent and was following his trail and getting closer.

It must have been very early in the morning when he left my room and went back to his own house.  I had fallen asleep and so had he, but he was not there when mum woke me and asked if I was going to school.

Although I was still tired, I went off to school, skipping down the street, telling myself that next time I was given a balloon I must remember not to tie it anywhere where some creature might have to endure the same fate as Merc.  Luckily all turned out well in the end but Merc could have disappeared in a big bang if the balloon had landed in the tree against a sharp twig.

To Chapter Five

https://julievparsons.wordpress.com/childrens-stories/rats/chapter-5/

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