The Rat’s Tale
I’m different. Took me a while to realise it though. Ventriloquist’s dummies don’t come to life but, I have.
The bump woke me. I heard Tom swear as the rubber skirt on the stage door caught his heels, propelling us into the theatre. Sliding from side to side in the old suitcase, familiar smells of damp and decay wafted through to me, confirming our venue.
“Aft’noon, Tom. See it’s still chucking it down outside.” Max’s asthmatic wheeze evident as ever.
Although I couldn’t see him, I visualised his bald head craning out of his cubby hole. “Saturday though, rain always brings ‘em in.”
“Yeh, let’s hope so.”
“Parcel arrived for you. Put it in your room.” Max had to shout above the hollow sound of Tom’s footsteps as we made our way along the dingy stone corridor to our room. The suitcase swung wildly as Tom gave the door a hefty shove, catapulting us into the cell like space. Laying the case down, he unfastened the clips. I heard the wet slap of his mac as he hung it behind the door, then his footsteps to the dressing table and the hiss of air escaping as he slumped on the only chair in the small space. Living in my head, I imagined him sweep aside his thinning hair, lean into the mirror and confront his 52-year-old self reflected back at him by the bright lights surrounding the frame.
“Oh God, I can’t do this much more.” He’d had enough! What about me?
“Oh, yes, you can.” I whispered, trying to massage his ego - again. Something small, metallic, hit the floor. It sounded like the nail scissors.
“Shut up, Ron. When I want your opinion, I’ll ask for it.”
“As you like, but don’t forget I’ve a vested interest in us, too. Maybe I can give you some advice.”
“You.” He scoffed. “What can a two-foot articulated rat know?”
“I don’t miss much, Tom.” My voice persuasive. I liked that.
Quick, heavy footsteps approached the suitcase. Light blinded me as he lifted the lid, his narrowed eyes staring down at me. “So, what advice would you give me, eh?”
OK. I would try being helpful. “Lay off the booze for a start. Ruined your first marriage …”
He didn’t like the truth. Grabbing my neck with both hands, he dragged me out, shaking me violently. I could feel my body expand, take shape.
“I know what goes on,” winking in my best ol’ buddies way, but he wasn’t looking.
Wrapping my tail around his arm, I yawned, trying to assert myself. The sound and feel of my teeth coming together excited me.
“Smells of bleach in here,” I said, “making my eyes water. Could we have the window open a bit?”
Sighing, and after some effort, he found a book and jacked up the sash window. The smells emanating from the skip outside made me question whether bleach would have been preferable, but I let it drop.
“Talking of eyes, don’t you think it would be a good idea to check my batteries before we go on stage, when I’m in character? Remember last week, when we got to the bit where they switch off the lights and my eyes are supposed to glow in the dark? Only they didn’t, did they? Because the batteries were flat. I was mortified. Whose fault was that, eh?”
“OK. Lesson learned.” His eyebrows raising as if to say, “these things happen.”
“I think the act could be improved.” I was in my stride now, expounding my theory, whiskers twitching, eyes darting around the cluttered space.
“As a London rat, I see myself living in a metal dustbin. Lift me out of that instead of the suitcase. Old cans in the bottom could rattle a bit, few fish heads could fall out - not real of course. More authenticity …”
“Umh, could work …” At least he was listening.
“What about introducing some cockney rhyming slang … apples and pears, whistle and flute, that sort of thing?”
“No need to overdo it. You’re 21st century. We don’t want to hark back to Oliver Twist now, do we?”
“Oh, I’d like that, Tom. Give the act a new slant.” Clasping my paws together, eyes burning with enthusiasm, I said, “Gaw’d blimey, Guv.” I knew it would work. “Victorian London, poor sanitation, lots of scope for me there. Boats hooting through the fog on the Thames, very atmospheric …”
“Oh.” I shrunk with disappointment. “I thought it would be a good idea. Bring new life into the act.
Let’s be honest, it’s stale now, needs something to bring the punters in …”
“Yeh, it does.” His emphasis on the word concerned me.
“What do you mean?”
“There’ll be another member joining us. Shortly.”
I didn’t like his tone. “Y-e-s?” I was worried now, thinking I had need to be.
“Lucifer!” I repeated uncomprehendingly. “What … the Devil?”
“No. A cat.”
“No-ooo!” Pulling away, I shook my head in denial.”
“Yep. Hopefully she’s in that parcel over there.” I clung to his arm as we walked over to a brown package propped against the ancient radiator. “This could be a great move for us.” He actually rubbed his hands together! “Let’s have a look at her.”
Jumping onto the radiator, peering over his shoulder, I watched him rip away the wrapping, remove the cardboard lid and delicately part the tissue paper. And there IT was.
“Ah, she’s gorgeous!” Horrified, I watched him caress the thing, like a lover. “Silky, jet black fur … huge green eyes, a real Jezebel.” His new vocabulary and awed tone turned my stomach.
“A perfect foil to you, Ron, with your moth-eaten fur and bald tail …” That really did it for me. I didn’t need him pinpointing my shortcomings.
“Thanks very much. Shame you didn’t think to discuss it with me first!”
“No. I didn’t.”
“Well, that’s a pity. The name’s naff for a start …”
“Oh, you don’t like it?” I thought it very appropriate, clever play on words.”
“No, but Lucifer seems apt.” Sarcasm wasted, I would try emotional blackmail.
“It’s been me and you, Tom, all this time. We don’t need anyone else, just fresh material.” Seeing the closed look on his face, I couldn’t hold it back any longer. “Certainly not a bloody cat!”
“She’s not any old cat. She’s … a real statement. I’m going to expand her personality …”
Before he waxed lyrical again, I gave him a look that said it all, but he tossed me back into the case, none too gently I might add, speaking over his shoulder so I could barely hear.
“Well, sorry, but it’s a done deal. Just in time before we start our Summer season at Seascape.”
Furious, I struggled to stand, claws ripping the lining of my suitcase, my eyes like organ stops, following his every move.
“Not more bad news! You said we’d never do the holiday camps again. Not after those vile twins tried to rip my head off. Don’t you remember?”
“You’re not likely to let me forget, are you? It’s not easy to get the bookings now. Only got it because I said the act would be new, fresh …”
“Great! So, if we get say, a six-minute slot, how much of my act will be cut to make way for Fur Ball?”
“Haven’t decided yet. I’ve got a few ideas.” As he walked away from me, I knew he hadn’t given me a thought.”
“I see.” It was a blow, but I wasn’t done yet. I would appeal to his better nature. Sinking low, my voice a whisper, my eyes orbs of self-pity.
“Me and cats don’t normally get on, you know,” I said, before innocently asking, “will she have her own suitcase?”
“Don’t know. Suppose so.”
“Good.” Pulling myself up to my full height, it was time to turn the knife. “You don’t have much of an idea when it comes to relationships, do you, Tom?”
Striding back, he shoved me down into the suitcase. “What’s that got to do with anything? What do you mean?”
Scrambling up, my claws gripping the edge, I said, “I’ve told you, I know a lot. Let’s be honest, your options are limited. When you went on that dating site and had to describe your likes and dislikes, you didn’t do too well, did you? I can’t imagine many girls being wowed by a man who spends most of his time with his arm up a large, moth-eaten – your words, Tom – furry grey rat!”
I moved quickly as he went to swipe me. “That’s enough. You evil, little beast. You’ve gone too far this time”
Both of us jumped at a sharp knocking on the door. “Fifteen minutes, Tom.”
“Right. Thanks, Max.” He shouted back. Out of the corner of my eye, I watched him pat down his pockets, knowing his next move would be to grab his mac and head for the Off Licence next door.
I could smell the drink on his breath when he came back.
“We’ve got a few minutes. I’ll just have a quick peek at her before we go on.” Crossing to the bronchial radiator he knelt, lifted the cardboard lid, then gasped, “She’s not here! Where’s she gone?” Trembling fingers examining the tissue paper, he lifted the box high to peer underneath. “She’s gone!” Struggling to stand, his face was ashen, “She was right here. I wrapped her back in the tissue paper …” Panicked, his eyes darted around the room as if hoping for divine intervention …
“Five minutes, Tom.”
I just knew if I went missing, he wouldn’t be that upset over me, so I wasn’t going to own up to pushing her through the open window, nor watching her silky, jet black body fall into the green rubbish skip at the back of the theatre. I did tell him I wouldn’t work with a bloody cat!
Pauline Gostling was born in London, never excelling particularly at school, her love of reading and writing being a constant throughout her life. She is married, and lives with her husband and mad Jack Russell in the Home Counties, having worked for many years as a Doctor’s Secretary. Now retired, she has the time and passion to write, drawing on her experiences and imagination to provide the backbone for her writing. She has had an article published in an American-culture global journal and has also had the honour of having a Murder Mystery play performed in a stately home in England.