Chapter 5


Julie Valentine



The Shop

It had been raining hard all day, Merc had told me that he had decided to visit his family in the yard of the shop after breakfast and that he was going via the baker’s yard to see whether there was anything nice he could take them to eat.  What he really meant was that he was going to see whether there were any unsold chocolate cakes that had been thrown out behind the shop as they could not be sold the following day.   I felt sure that Merc would find something to take for his younger brothers and sisters, he had told me that his mum now had another large family, but not quite as large as the family he had grown up in.  Also, now there was a yellow line to lead through the underground tunnels, some of the children from the family living in the railway embankment often came to play, although Merc found it very difficult sometimes to tell who belonged to which family as they all played together so well.  He took what he could find and shared it out amongst all the children, but he was always sure to hold back the largest chocolate cake for himself.

The family living in the railway embankment had moved back now as their house had been remodelled and some additional supports had been erected to stop the ceilings falling in and also to hold open the tunnels that had collapsed so easily when the embankment had been trampled by the people trying to extinguish the fire.

The old rat and the older children had been out foraging in the market place and in the back yards of the shops around the square and had found so many useful things that the old damaged house was soon considered to be one of the better homes in the area.

In addition to the three access tunnels that lead to and from the embankment, the deeper tunnels had also been cleared and marked with the yellow paint to ensure that if there were ever to be another fire on the embankment, the children would be able to escape.  Some of the older children had also devised special caches of loose soil and sand that would fill a tunnel very quickly and easily by pulling a length of string to dislodge a brick or stone and the loose soil behind would spill out to stop any unwanted intruder or any smoke or fire from progressing along the tunnel.  Merc was very impressed with some of the improvements and vowed that he would use some in his own home, when he got round to it, which was really quite unlikely because when he was not searching for chocolate cake or carrots, that he enjoyed most because he said they helped him see in the dark, he was either asleep or with me, so there was very little time for him to make any improvements at all.  His was a definite bachelor apartment.

The new house had a basement for the storage of repair materials and reinforcements just in case the soil started to collapse as it did sometimes when it started to rain heavily, but also for the storage of food and bedding materials which are most important through the cold periods.  The family were also always careful to make sure there was plenty of everything, even for visitors who sometimes popped in to see them.

The floor above the basement storage area was strengthened by the root of a tree with lengths of wood laid across it which had been interwoven with the materials securing the package cases in the market that had been discarded. This part of the floor was very springy and the children used it like a trampoline, sometimes they fell over in a huddle laughing and squeaking with delight, but nobody seemed to get hurt.  The other part of the living room floor was formed from a large flat piece of stone that jutted out enough for a table to be erected so everyone could sit round it to eat or talk or play games like ‘I Spy’ this was very popular during the long cold dark evenings when nobody wanted to go out foraging.  From the basement to the living room another section of root formed a very good ladder, but there was also a small stairway, which had a rail up one side, cut into the hard compacted soil.

Up above the living room were the sleeping quarters; the nursery, the main bedrooms, one for mum and dad and the others for guests.

The nursery had four poles standing upright, one halfway along each wall.  Attached to these poles were hammocks.  As the poles were wedged into the ceiling and angled outwards to the bottom corners of the wall and floor, this meant that the hammock that stretched across at the very top was the shortest, the next layer of hammocks went the opposite way and were slightly longer until you got down to the bottom layer where the last hammock was the longest.  Although there were ladders to reach the top hammocks, it was more fun for the children to swing from hammock to hammock, and it sometimes took a long time for them to settle down.  Getting up in the morning was more fun, but not for those in the bottom hammock.  If the ones on top woke up first they would come tumbling down from hammock to hammock until they all ended up in the biggest hammock, which usually tipped over sideways and they all spilt out on the floor.

In the main bedroom there was one king size hammock.  This had been made from a piece of red velvet material which had been caught on a bush along the embankment.  It looked as though it had been torn from a lady’s dress.  It had been fashioned and secured and made a very handsome hammock.  The small pieces of material left over had been made into cushions and filled with sweet smelling lavender heads to help sleep to come quickly and it seemed to work well.

There were two ways down from the sleeping area to the living room inside the house.  The first was to go down the small stairway which was also the way up, but this sometimes became very congested so the children tended to take the other way down.  This was a very thick knitting needle which had a broken point but which could still be pushed into the ground with everybody helping.  A hole had been made in the upper floor and the knitting needle had been pushed up the hole so that it was above the level of the floor and then it had been pushed into the floor of the living room.  It was fixed so well that the children could run at it on the upper level, jump, hold on tight and then slide down.  This was another good game when it was not possible to play outside.  However, when the weather was not too bad, there was also an outside route to get down into the living area this was down the embankment, but it could be quite muddy if it had rained in the night.  This made it more fun as it meant that there was a mud slide from the exit, which was under a piece of stone that stuck out over the hole, down the embankment, over the many bumps and down onto a small shelf where a large straggly weed hid the entrance into the living room.  The children were not very popular when they took this route after it had been raining because it brought all the mud onto the woven floor and it was hard to clean until the mud had dried, when it could be beaten with a carpet beater, that made everything dusty and then the children had to dust everywhere, but even that could be made into a game.

Merc told me all about this later that night.

While Merc was visiting with his family, I went to the shop as I hadn’t been there for some time.  I was hoping that there might be something new to play with.  They had been very busy and I was asked to help clean out the shop window and to freshen up the display.

I had been some time removing everything, starting from the back of the window and I had never actually looked at the front of the window from the street. I had certainly not noticed a very strange item in the very front corner of the window.

I took it carefully in both hands and put it safely on the ledge while I climbed out onto a large box my mum had put there for me to reach.  I looked at this strange thing and in the end I went and asked what it was for.

I was told that it was a Rat Trap and that they sold quite a lot of them as the square had many rats living at the back of shops and in the back yards of houses.  I was shown how it worked and told what it did to the rat.  As I did not know what a rat was, I asked.  I was shown a drawing of a rat on the box that the very strange item was packed in.  The trap was set up, the lever was pulled back and the very strong spring seemed to be straining against it wanting to let go.  A stick was put in where the rat would step to eat the food that was put on the very strange object, and when the spring let go, it made a terrible noise and the whole thing jumped up in the air and turned over before it fell back to the ground.  Part of the stick was trapped under the lever and the other part of it had snapped where it had been hit so hard when the lever snapped back.  ‘That is what it does to the rats’ said my mum.

I looked again at the drawing on the box.  I went quite cold, the drawing looked exactly like Merc and his family.  I could not believe that anyone would want to do anything like that to Merc or his family, they were such nice creatures but then I remembered the very first time I had sat under the tree in the yard of the shop and had fallen asleep there and been woken by squeaky voice.  She had told me that her family were not comfortable meeting people, and that she hoped I would treat them kindly.  This must have been what she was talking about, a Rat Trap!

At least I had found out what kind of creature Merc was and his family, and I asked mum if she could tell me more about rats.  She said that she would, when she had closed the shop.

I had finished cleaning out the shop window and dusted the thick glass blocks and was feeling like a game so I made a pirate ship and a galleon from the boxes that were scattered around the storeroom.  I jumped from one to the other, first being a pirate and then being the captain of the galleon with all the treasure to protect, using a broom handle to fight off the pirates.  After a while this became boring as there was nobody to fight back so I piled the boxes up and made a den.  I crawled inside to sit quiet and fell asleep because I had worked so hard.

Mum must have thought that I had gone home, because nobody called me and certainly I was still asleep when they closed the shop and went home.  It was quite some hours before I awoke to find myself all alone.

What I did not know was that mum had got home and was surprised that I was not there, she had asked all the neighbours whether they had seen me and had walked round the market to ask the traders that were closing their stalls whether I had been seen around the market.  Nobody had seen me and mum was getting very worried.  She decided to speak with the policeman who lived along a few doors from our house.  He was also concerned when he heard that I was missing because it was most unusual for me not to be at home when I was supposed to be.

The policeman organised a search party and said that if I could not be found then he would report me missing at the police station.  Most of the neighbours pulled on their winter coats, shoes, gloves and scarves and went out to look in the sheds in their yards and in the back of the shops.  I was nowhere to be found, still asleep in the den I had built from the boxes at the back of the shop, blissfully dreaming of being a top footballer and scoring two goals every time I played.  I was top scorer that year.  In my dreams I had just kicked for another goal, but unfortunately, I actually kicked a very heavy box which had moved, toppling one of the other boxes on top which fell onto me, waking me up with a start.  I could not remember whether my kick had scored, but I soon became worried as everything was dark and I seemed to be alone in the shop.  I called for my mum, but nobody answered.  I was alone, except, that is, for Merc’s family that I knew would be somewhere down the tunnels that were hidden behind the sworn timber that was stacked in the corner behind the back door.  If I could get their attention I should be able to get a message to Merc and he would think of something.

I crawled over to where the pile of sawn timber was stacked in the corner behind the back door and although I did not know exactly where the entrance was, I called quite loudly, hoping that someone would hear.  After a little while, I heard a little squeak, it was not squeaky voice, but one of the younger children who just happened to be passing.  She was too frightened to show herself, but said that she would ask one of her older brothers, to see whether Merc was at home and to bring him back here.

It was not long before Merc was clambering over the sawn timber, scampering in a hurry to see what the problem was.  He told me about the search that was underway to find me all round the square, that was why he had been found as he was still at home as there were too many people around.  He said that he too was concerned, but relieved when his brother came to fetch him and told him I was safe inside the shop.

We sat trying to decide what would be the best thing to do.  Then it came to me in a flash, of course, the key to the back door was still under the box outside so if Merc could get the key out it could be taken through the house under the root of the tree in the yard, brought through and up over the sawn timber that was stacked in the corner behind the back door and I could open the door from the inside and get out.  I could put the key back under the box and say that I had fallen asleep outside then nobody would know how the key had been passed to me from under the box.  Merc agreed with this and immediately disappeared over the end of the sawn timber, all I saw of him was his tail lingering on the end of the timber until he jumped down onto the floor and disappeared completely.

Merc had been unable to lift the large box on his own but all the family had helped and they managed to lift it long enough for him to get in and find the key and then again for him to come out with the key clasped sideways across his mouth.  He had been unable to travel through the house in this way but had solved this when one of the younger children had threaded the key onto the end of his tail and by keeping the tip of his tail pointing upwards he had dragged the key through the passageways until he had returned to the shop and climbed up onto the sawn timber, when he again carried the key sideways across his mouth.  He looked very proud to have done this and I was so pleased to see him that I picked him up and gave him a squeeze.  This made him drop the key and it nearly became lost down a crack, the key fortunately bounced on the wooden floor and skidded, stopping against the side of the pile of sawn timber.

I put Merc on the floor carefully, picked up the key and opened the back door.  Merc joined me outside and watched that I returned the key to the right place.  I then said a big thank you to the family and walked home with Merc.  As there were so many people out looking for me, it was not long before I was found.  Everyone made such a fuss, and I managed to whisper to Merc that he should be alright now to go foraging for food and that I would see him later.

My mum was so pleased to see me that I really did not have much explaining to do and nobody asked exactly where I was asleep, but as it had been outside, I would have been very cold.  I was taken inside, wrapped up in a blanket, sat in front of the log fire that was burning in the grate and given some egg custard with nutmeg on top, that was my favourite.  I was very lucky to get that before my dinner, normally I had to wait until afterwards.

I went up to bed, after having a lovely warm wash all over, because I was really quite dirty from all the work I had done that day in the shop window.  It was then that I remembered the very strange object that turned out to be a rat trap.  I would have to ask my mum about that some time as it seemed that it might be something both Merc and me needed to make sure we avoided.

I went upstairs to bed, but unfortunately fell asleep straight away, I did not see Merc that night but I think he would have been quite pleased as he had also been quite busy playing with the children from the family in the newly renovated house in the embankment by the railway.

We managed to catch up with each other the following evening, when I decided I needed to go to bed early and mum let me take a book about rats that she had borrowed from the library, to read in bed.  The only thing was that the book was about rats that lived in metal cages with people in their houses, not rats like Merc, who lived in houses down holes in the ground behind roof supports, or under roots of a tree in the yard of a shop, or down holes in the railway embankment.  I knew about those creatures.

RATS was a very funny word and I still could not understand why people could look after one sort of rat in a metal cage in their house and try to catch and kill the other sort of rats.  Perhaps mum would explain that to me one day.

To Chapter Six

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