Chapter 9

RATS

Julie Valentine

2006

CHAPTER NINE

Each Sunday afternoon in the football season, I was either playing football in OrvillePark, or at some other park.  The team also practised every Wednesday evening after we had finished our homework, and my dad came along to help and train us and get us fit.

I was soon to be nine years old and had grown quite a lot in the last year and was now almost as tall as the other boys.  I was certainly a lot stronger and could run as fast as any of the members of the team or the opposition.

Although Merc popped into my room from time to time, I was actually seeing much less of him because of the football.  I did not feel good about this as he had been a very good friend and had shared the good times and the bad times with me and I felt that I was letting him down.  He did tell me about his family and I was very sorry to learn that his mum, squeaky voice, had been caught in a rat trap that had been set by one of the market traders who did not like rats.  I felt really awful about this as the trap had probably been purchased in my parents shop.

Merc was very upset about losing his mum.  He was the only one from his family who was still in the area, quite a few of his brothers and sisters from later families were still around the square tucked away in little hiding places just like his in the coal shed and woodpile, but it was Merc who returned home to his parents house under the tree root in the yard of the shop and helped his dad to bring up the youngest family.  Merc came into my room one night and told me that although they were all very sad, he was enjoying being with the youngsters and getting involved in the rough and tumble that was so much part of growing up in a large family.

After that, I’m afraid that I didn’t see him again.  I occasionally went out and sat in the yard just before going to bed, but although there were always footprints around the yard and leading out into the alleyway, I do not believe that they belonged to Merc.  There were scuffles and squeaks, but I never caught sight of a twitching whisker, a sharp pointed tooth or bright eye, not in the yard to my house nor in the yard to the shop.  Merc trained the youngsters well and whenever anyone was around they remained quiet so they could not be found.

My mind became filled with tactics, practise, athletics and having to eat the right food. Gone was the thought of chocolate cake although sometimes I did have an urge to scavenge around the back of the bakery to see whether any had been thrown out, forgetting that Merc was not around now to give it to.

Orville Park FC became well known and finished top of the league for the second year running.  More photographs were taken, but I never saw Merc in any of them posing proudly as he did for our first win in the park.  I found that the boys from the team called at my house and we used to do our homework together before going out to kick a ball around in the park.  School became a much happier place as I had more friends and we were often called up on to the platform in morning prayers so the Headmaster could congratulate us on our most recent triumph.  Not only that but our names were written up on the honours board in the school entrance hall for all who came after us to see.  The school formed a team as well and those of us who attended that school joined, but as there were others who were not used to playing with us and how we played, it took a while for us to win and keep winning.  After a while the other teams seemed to be defeated before they started to play, but we always played a good game, not letting them score any goals that could be saved,

When I was eleven years old I had to catch a bus every day to go to the big school in the next village and my life changed.  Although four members of the team also went to the big school, they did not have a football team and we could only play for OrvillePark, but we didn’t mind that and joined the athletics squad to improve our stamina and running.  One boy even went to ballet classes with his older sister to improve his balance.  He thought it had helped but we all thought it just made him point his toe instead of using the outside of his boot to pass the ball.

Anyway, you know the rest of my story, I continued to play football for OrvillePark, until that fateful day when I met up with Stanley Jones on the beach and ended up being selected years later to go and train with one of the top London clubs.

I guess I was one of the lucky ones that was born with a ball stuck to my boot and couldn’t do anything wrong.  I have played all over this country, on the continent, and even once I went to Japan to play in a demonstration game at a brand new stadium they had built, with big flood lights that made everything look like daylight but without shadows.  The Japanese will be very good footballers one day and no doubt it will be a regular thing for English teams to go to play in Japan.

So basically that is why I am here today, I became famous simply because I was given that football on my eighth birthday and took it down the park to find someone to play with me.

George sat very still and it was quite a long time before John stood up, breaking into George’s memories about those early beginnings and about his old friend Merc, who kept creeping back into his thoughts.

John shook George’s hand and bade him farewell until tomorrow, when they would meet up again at the school.  As John walked away George decided that he would continue his wander round the square and would go through the alleyway which lead behind the shops and past the back yards of the houses, and in particular the one where he had lived as a child.

As he wandered quietly along George noticed that very little had changed, he even saw a mangy one eared cat that might have been the one that had scared his friend Merc all those years ago, but George knew that it wasn’t that cat, but if Merc had been around today and seen it, he would probably be scampering away or standing as still as a statue so as not to be noticed and barely breathing so as not to give himself away.

The cat jumped up over some crates and George realised that it was the yard of the baker’s shop.  The shop was no longer a bakery, but the same crates still appeared to be stacked in the yard and George was tempted to inspect between the slats to see whether there was a fat rat, with whiskers and bruised snout, quivering in a corner waiting for the cat to go so he could escape.  George was quite disappointed to find nothing hiding there.

He was, however, very excited when he realised that the footprints of what appeared to be a rat could be followed easily from the yard and he was surprised to see that they lead him across the alleyway and into the yard of his old house.

George could not believe his eyes, there in the back yard was the old coal shed, no longer used to store coal or wood, but still standing where it had stood all those years ago.  There was an old washing machine, probably broken as it was very rusty, a bicycle that looked as though the pedals would not turn as the chain was dry of oil and various small wooden boxes, some of which had been piled up near where the entrance to Merc’s home used to be behind the support post.

Looking all around him to see if anyone was watching, George knew he was, after all, a stranger in town now and certainly had no right to be rummaging around someone else’s rear yard.  He just wanted to know if anyone still lived in Merc’s home.  As he approached, George trod very carefully so as not to make too much noise with his leather soled shoes.  He was thrilled to see that the tracks could still be seen as he got closer to the entrance.

George couldn’t say who was more surprised, him or the creature whose head popped out of the hole just as he bent forward to get a closer look.

They both jumped.  George stood upright catching his head on the roof of the old woodpile shed, sending a shower of grit and dust floating in the air and falling to the ground, and the creature, who was so confused that it got caught up in its own tail, not knowing whether to continue going forward or to try to go backward.  George decided that although this was obviously not Merc, it must be a relative as it had inherited the same problem as Merc, not being able to master the reverse shuffle.

George, being used to speaking with creatures like Merc, moved very slowly and kept his voice quiet and low.  He began talking to the creature who had become wedged, neither in nor out of the entrance hole and it was clear to George that it was very distressed and was obviously frightened of him.

He stood still and bent down to be closer to the creature.  He could see the similarity between this creature and Merc and thought he would ask whether they were related.  As soon as George spoke the name ‘Mercury’, the creature stopped its squirming in the entrance hole and turned its head to look properly at George.  George took the opportunity to repeat what he had said and reinforced the words ‘Mercury, my friend’.

Very quietly and slowly, and in a squeaky voice, the creature replied calmly to George and asked him whether he was ‘Sonny’.

George was so surprised to hear the squeaky voice and his childhood name that a tear came to the corner of his eye before he replied.

‘Yes, I am Sonny’ he said, how do you know my name?

‘Well’ said the creature with the squeaky voice, ‘when we children were growing up, our great, great, grandfather used to sit in the corner, mainly because he was so fat that he couldn’t squeeze out of the house, and he would regale us with stories of what he used to get up to with his friend.  He would tell us about the smelly cat with one ear missing and bad breath, about the train ride, about his hat with the red ribbons and mostly about the chocolate cake and carrots that he used to eat and which had made him so fat.’

George was delighted to hear about his old friend and asked the creature with the squeaky voice to tell him all the stories about what Merc got up to after they lost touch when he was 9 years old.

Before they started to settle down, George carefully helped the creature to untangle itself from the knotted tail and twisted feet that could not manage the reverse shuffle and they laughed when George explained that Merc had always had the same problem.

The creature with the squeaky voice introduced herself to George.  Her name was Aphrodite, apparently she had been named after Merc’s mum who had died in the rat trap.  George told her that it was a most appropriate name as she was like a goddess and the name suited her.  Aphrodite squeaked with delight at this and could understand immediately how her great, great grandfather had remained so fond of George, who he always called ‘Sonny’.

George asked whether he could pick up Aphrodite and carry her to the embankment round the square so that they could talk in peace.  Aphrodite agreed and the two went together and found a grassy bank overlooking the path where Merc had been closely followed by the man with the black and white dog.  Aphrodite knew that story almost as well as George.  It seemed to him that his friendship with Merc had gone down in history to be handed down from generation to generation, with bits added to the story as each generation embellished what had actually happened.

George listened to what was told to him about Merc’s life, how he had fallen in love and married a lovely girl who had been chased into the shop yard by the same mangy cat with bad breath who had cornered him, how they had brought up many families in the home under the tree root, and how Merc, in his old age had supervised the building of a tunnel that ran underground round the square and under the alleyway until it joined up with the tunnels leading to the baker’s yard and to Merc’s old home under the woodpile.

George was very pleased to hear that Merc had managed to enjoy chocolate cake and carrot for the rest of his life as his family had brought these delicacies to him every day without fear of their lives as the tunnels went from back yard to back yard with only little time needing to be spent actually locating the food.

Aphrodite was also pleased to have met up with her great, great grandfather’s very best friend and to be able to relate to him the story of Merc’s life until he had died a very, very old and happy rat.

As George was now feeling very hungry he asked Aphrodite whether she would like to be taken back to the yard and the woodpile, but she said that she was too excited and would be perfectly happy to visit with the family who still lived in the embankment and to tell them all the news.

George therefore lifted her up, gave her a gentle kiss on the top of her head which made her whiskers shiver and put her down on the embankment to slither down one of the hidden entrances to the world below.

As he walked back towards the hotel, George was still wondering how he could commemorate his friendship with Merc and decided immediately what he would do.

He hurried down to the hotel reception and asked a very special favour.

Having eaten a very satisfying dinner, which included rich chocolate cake as dessert, George retired to bed, to make sure he would be refreshed for his duties at the school the following day.

George woke early, showered, shaved and dressed in his freshly pressed suit and clean shirt and went downstairs to the dining room.

After breakfast he set off for the school.

True to their word, the hotel staff had achieved a miracle.

On every gatepost, door, seat, tree, lamppost, waste bin, signpost, in fact anything that could have something tied to it was a big, blue balloon floating on a long piece of string.

The square had been transformed.

George walked to the school and saw the surprise and joy on the faces of every child who was going to listen to him talk and present the prizes.

Not one of the children had removed the balloons and the very last thing George said was to announce that the balloons were for them.

George spent some time talking with parents and children about his football career, but his thoughts kept returning to Merc and his great, great grand-daughter Aphrodite.  As he set off for the station, the last thing George did was to find one big, blue balloon which had been missed as it was still floating high up on a signpost which could not be reached by the children.  He carefully untied this balloon and took it along to the back yard of his old house.

With the big, blue balloon tied tightly to the post support of the old woodpile shed in the yard, George walked briskly to the station.

There was only a short wait for the train and George took his seat just as the whistle blew for the train to leave the station.

As the train gathered speed coming round the corner, George looked toward his old house and saw a big blue balloon floating in the sky with a length of rope dangling below.  It was being buffeted in the breeze and was soon out of sight as the train left it behind.

blue baloon with string

The return journey to London was full of happy memories and passed very quickly. George decided that perhaps his childhood had not been as unhappy and lonely as he had always thought it to have been and that Merc had been real and not just in his imagination in his loneliness and sorrow when his gran died.

After all, grown men didn’t dream about fat rats, or rats with squeaky voices, did they?

blue baloons

. oOo .

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