Sentimentality has never been my thing, or it wasn’t until recently. There had been hints of some softening, when I found myself mulling over family photos, but stronger evidence for real change came when I felt sorry for a rat.
The point is that I hate rats. Not being a Beatrix Potter sort of a man, there is nothing positive I can see in them. In my book, rats are simply bad.
I am talking about the browny-grey, town rats, rather than the white, pet variety; but I don’t much like them either. My phobia is not uncommon and, more to the point, justifiable, as rats spread diseases and serious ones at that. The Bubonic Plague is still an emotive and chilling part of our history and only two years ago the former Olympic oarsman Andy Holmes was killed by another rat-borne illness, Weil’s disease. In anthropomorphic terms, rats are definitely personae non gratae.
Be that as it may, like most Londoners I am aware that they are around and that I should be vigilant, and recently I had been on heightened alert. For weeks each night some pigeon-loving fanatic had been leaving bird seed on the pavement around the corner from our house. If this was not likely to attract rats, nothing would.
This, at least, was my explanation for why I had made several rat sightings in our back garden. At first the images were so fleeting that I persuaded myself that they were either scampering thrushes – right colour, right size – or shapes made by leaves blowing in the wind. Then, there it was for real; a large and well-fed specimen walking across the decking in broad daylight. On seeing me he ran off and vanished. Next day, he followed almost the same routine, and soon after we learned that rats had been spotted in the gardens of our neighbours too.
Various friends offered advice. Apparently, rats would not eat poison in cubes, and certainly would not touch pellets left out in the open – ‘rats prefer to eat in private’. But what were we to do? Ultimately we bought a packet containing sachets of wheat grain laced with rat poison, together with three tiny plastic trays; miniature versions of the sort on which meals are served on budget airlines. Three full trays were placed across the yard, two on the decking where he had walked, and a third outside the entrance to what I believed was his nest.
Next morning my wife called me to the kitchen window. Together we stared out and saw our rat come out of his home, lean over the tray and eat the poison. After three visits almost all the grains had gone. Then came the surprise. I began to feel sorry for him. In his innocence he had fallen for our ploy, we had tricked him, or worse still her, perhaps we had fooled a mother with babies to feed, and soon she would die. Without thinking, I found myself muttering aloud – ‘Poor little thing’ – a sentiment which I would generally reserve for children. Uttering it in these circumstances came as a surprise to me and a shock to Rohan. Indeed I found such sentimentality embarrassing and uncomfortable. But there it was.
By next day I was back to my old self and more than happy to re-fill the trays with poison. But I wondered what had gone on the day before. Was it a lapse, or evidence of a sea change? Perhaps one can really change as one gets older. In my case becoming more sentimental, and with it possibly kinder. That would be an interesting, in fact a welcome, development. Time alone will tell.