Life, Death and Rats

Nine year old Tommy lay in his bed listening to the scratching noises coming from the partitioning wall that separated his bedroom from his sisters’.

“Mum,” he cried out.  “I hear those noises again.”

Tommy’s mother appeared at his bedroom door and told him to hush.  “There’s nothing there.  Go back to sleep.”

But the noises kept coming.  He knew it was them rats.  He was scared they would chew through the plaster and crawl all over him while he was asleep.  Pulling the covers up around his shoulders, he closed his eyes and tried to shut out the noise.  But the scratching went on and on.

It was like this most nights, the noise gradually fading from his mind as he thought of other things.  Sleep was inevitable — as inevitable as the fear.  Fear and the noise them rats made were part of his life.

Tommy had two sisters.  Mary and Elizabeth.  Elizabeth was eighteen months old.  Mary was five.  They never had no dad.  Men came and went.  But they never had a dad.  They didn’t know who their dad was.  You can’t miss something you never had.  But Tommy wished he had a dad.  He lay in bed listening to the scratching noises in the wall and wishing he had a dad who would take care of things.

The family didn’t have much.  Occasionally his mother borrowed from loan agencies.  Sometimes the family had to hide under the table or behind the settee when the debt man came to collect the money.  “Shush!  Don’t make a sound,” Tommy’s mother would whisper, gathering the kids around her and warning them to be quiet.  They lived on cheap food.  Stuff out of tins.  Spam and luncheon meat.  Bread and jam.  Tommy liked jam.  It seemed like he lived on jam sandwiches or jam on toast.

“Make sure you comb your hair before going to school,” his mother said cradling Lizzie in her arms.  “I don’t want you walking out of this house like you were some kind of urchin,” she told Tommy — Lizzie sucking on a dummy as her mother rocked her.  “And make sure you don’t cross them roads without looking.”

“Is Mary going to school?” Tommy asked.

“I’m taking her to the doctors.” 

“Why?”

“Don’t you worry your head about that.  You just take care of yourself and mind them roads.”

“Okay, mum.  See you later.”  Tommy picked up his school bag, opened the front door and left the house.

He felt at ease as he made his way to school.  Ambling along the dusty pavement, he peered into the shop windows that lined the busy high street, his hand gripping the cord of the school bag slung over his shoulder.  The hum of traffic, the smell of exhaust fumes didn’t faze him at all.  In fact he enjoyed the freedom of being outside.  He had left behind his untidy bedroom, the scratching sounds of the rats as they gnawed their way through the partitioning walls, the cries and wails of his little sister, Lizzie, and the confinement of his flat.

Tommy had been walking for fifteen minutes.  Another ten and he would be at school.  Ten minutes to please himself, ten minutes of freedom and then once again he would be confined by the drudgery of rules and regulations.  He thought of his Great Aunt and looked forward to the weekend when he could visit her.  She lived alone.  He liked it in her house, felt more at home and more loved there than he did in his own house.  Tommy spent the first two years of his life living with his aunt.  His mother had nowhere else to live.  His aunt took her in.  He remembered how one of his mother’s male friends threw a cup at him, which smashed on his head and caused a gaping wound.  His aunt was appalled.  She took him to hospital.  Seemed like she cared more for him than his own mother did.

All these things went through his head as he plodded along, the shops disappearing behind him as he followed the main road which led to the school gates.  Traffic was as busy as ever but Tommy hardly noticed.  Diesel lorries, buses and cars passed by without any conscious realisation of their presence.  His mind was on his thoughts and not on his surroundings.  It was like this most mornings and evenings as he made his way to and from school, the route so familiar that he never gave the journey a single thought. 

Suddenly his attention was drawn to the old church on the other side of the road.  It was unused and had fallen into dilapidation.  The grass around the tombstones was knee-high and filled with weeds.  This morning, though, half a dozen men in hard hats were crawling all over the building.  Some were on the roof dismantling the ornate weathervane, stripping off the copper lightning rod, slates and lead.  Others were working inside, taking out the pews and other wooden artefacts and carefully loading them onto a large open back lorry parked alongside the church’s graveyard.  What would they do with all the dead people in the graves? he wondered.

Beyond the church he could see the level crossing and the iron walkway that rose up and over the railway lines.  Pedestrians used this bridge when the level crossing gates were closed.  He had often stood on top, leaning on the safety rail and staring down at the trains as they sped past.  From there you could see the signalman’s hut and the many iron levers that he pulled.  Seemed like he was always busy pulling levers, his shirt sleeves rolled up and a pipe in his mouth. 

Looking back at the graveyard, Tommy remembered how he felt some three years ago when he first realised he was going to die.  Ambling home from school, he was suddenly struck by the mind-bending fear of his own demise.  Death was inevitable.  It would happen to him one day.  His time would come as it comes for everybody.  Nothing lasts for ever.  Just like the people in the graves, his life would eventually fade away.

He never mentioned his fear of death to anybody.  Somehow it felt wrong to tell his mother.  He doubted that she would have much time to listen, anyway.  She had too many other things on her mind.  Perhaps if he had a dad … 

But he didn’t have a dad and so he kept his fears to himself.  He thought about the rats scratching and gnawing behind the plaster.  Again he imagined them bursting through the wooden cavity wall and then crawling all over his body.  It was a horrifying thought.  But there were far more terrifying things in life than rats.  The inevitability of death for one thing.  You spend your life trying not to think about it but it is always there in the back of your mind

Death needs life to grow in.  He had many years in front of him and didn’t yet fully realise how precious his youth was.  The older you get the greater death’s grip becomes.  It slowly consumes your body until nothing exists.  

Straightening his back, Tommy pressed on.  There has to be something more, he told himself.  Heaven?  God?  His mother believed in God and so did his aunt.  He wasn’t entirely convinced, but at the same time he sensed there was something out there — some kind of incomprehensible intelligence.

His school came into view.  He thought of Mr Holt, the art teacher, and how he enjoyed his classes.  Last week Mr Holt told him that he painted like Van Gogh.  Tommy didn’t know anything about Van Gogh, so he went to the library and borrowed a book filled with pictures of his paintings.  It was a revelation. 

Slowly his fears subsided.  He began to whistle.  For a while, at least, he would be happy.  Finally he arrived at the school gates.  They were open.  Tommy entered.  He had no real friends at school, just classroom mates.  Soon he was laughing and playing, the fear of rats, death and loneliness temporarily banished.