Rat Stories, Part I
This week, we returned to the mooring next to Regents Park, London. We're currently in the same place where our boat, which - since we've been stuck in South Africa due to border closures for seven months - sank with the last of our belongings. I thought the proper thing would be to tell her story. Get a snack. I'll wait.
A year ago, November 2019, was a challenging month. Indeed, Corona was just a beer back then, but in our little world on the canal boat, there was an Albert Camus-style plague that some would believe is harder to get rid of than Covid.
It all started when I came from Austria. T returned from Israel, and we met at London Stansted airport. Exhausted from the flights, we arrived on the mooring and entered the boat into a world of chaos. On the floor were scattered pieces of what looked like sponge, and as bread crumbs in a mysterious forest, they led us to the bed.
This is where the evidence-gathering game began. While T was in Jerusalem and I was in Vienna, a friend was staying in our boat. We asked her what had happened and she said she had no idea, everything was fine when she left. We explored the origin of the sponge crumbs. They were in all sorts of corners, by the side of the bed, on the mattress and pillows.
After discovering a hole in the wall near the front of the boat, T sighed. "I see," he said, "it's the insulation from the walls."
We lifted the mattress and looked under it, where we found droppings.
"Oh, shit." literally.
"Maybe it's a squirrel,"
"Maybe a rat."
"Maybe a cat came in -"
"But cats don't gnaw on walls."
"Maybe a leak…"
"But everything is on the bed; fluids don't build nests."
Then the detective game began. We turned to Google and compared our lovely droppings to web images. After reading articles and consulting with neighbours, we came to the worst conclusion of all; you must've already guessed, it was a rat.
A rat in a boat is not only repulsive but dangerous. It turns your walls into Swiss cheese and punctures what separates you from the depths. The literal shit just got real.
Several months back, our neighbour had rats a few boats down. T called him to ask for some guidance, and the neighbour said he was on his way. While waiting, T told me that at one point during his rat invasion, the neighbour's eyes were regularly puffy and red from lack of sleep because he'd hear it at night, the pleasant sound of scuttling about and chewing through the walls and pipes. The neighbour arrived with three classic metal mousetraps in hand. He enthusiastically explained how to operate them, and revealed how, amusingly enough, Snickers was the best bait.
Then the real game began: the hunting. Not in vain it's also called a game; these rodents play with your mind to the point of madness. Even though it's not recommended when trying to kill a living creature, we gave it a name: Huldi. The next day, we went to buy Snickers and placed the traps according to the advice of the experienced neighbour. We blocked the hole we found in the wall and made sure we didn't leave anything edible outside the refrigerator. Took about a week and we found Huldi, dead, the trap snapped shut around her neck, outside the bedroom window. It was fast and unexpected. We took the burial service upon ourselves and threw her into the canal. One seagull pulled her out of the water, and despite the endearing sight, we ran back inside and drew the curtains.
It was time to celebrate. We opened a fine bottle of wine, our £6.99 that's saved for special occasions, and cheered. This joy held for about four days until we discovered that Huldi had left a widow behind.
Meet Frank: Bigger, hungrier, vengeful. Stubborn compared to his wife. He was also a talented sculptor and created a huge gorgeous hole under the bed. We could hear him every night, pacing around in his studio under our mattress, scratching, gnawing here and there. It turns out that while we were trying to starve him, Frank was working on his masterpiece: another hole leading out. But he wasn't a classic starving artist; he ate outside at night and came back during the day.
To lie in bed, knowing that there's a living creature under you, listening as it turns your home into a dental sharpening institution, slowly destroying it. Waiting to hear the frightening "clack!" of the closing trap, which is sometimes accompanied by the squeal of a rat. That's what our nights looked like for two weeks until Frank was captured. We threw Frank, God drown his soul, into the depths of the canal (which is about a meter) to reunite with his wife, and full of shocking relief, booked plane tickets to Dublin.
We'd talk about it, and friends would tell us, "You know rats can swim over a mile, right?"
Disturbing thought. We imagined how Frank would somehow miraculously survive, and injured and exhausted find his way back. How he'd arrange a meeting with all of the canal rats, and they'd plan a vengeful pogrom that'd sink our boat all of the meter to the depths.
But we had no time to dwell on it. A couple from America, friends' guests, had to stay at our place for the weekend while we were in Ireland, so we emptied the cupboards for them, disinfected the crate under the bed and stored all our belongings.
We returned four days later, relieved to find that everything had gone well for our guests. As we opened the bed crate to take out our things, we received a pleasant surprise. Thoroughly scattered, faeces and pee were covering our belongings.
I know what you think: the straw broke the camel's back. But abandon the ship, especially when it's your home, is no trivial matter. We had another fight in us to give. The existential war is not yet over; we wanted to win. The sight of all our goods covered in kaka made the struggle personal.
The rats, here we already understood that this is an entire battalion, had gnawed at our clothes, silversmithing equipment, books, people! Books.
Game time was over. It was a war.