I was watching a stand-up comedian on Sunday and he asked an innocuous question: “Does anyone have a pet with a human name?”
The answer from a seemingly normal girl in front of me was frankly depraved: “Two rats called Barry and Norman”
Why would anyone be so sordid as to keep a rat? It’s like choosing a pen pal and deciding you want one who’s on Death Row for mass murder and rape. They revolt me. I once went on a date with a man who told me that he had a pet rat. At this point I quickly scanned for the exit to the bar. I didn’t meet him again. Filthy habit and I would never have been able to enter his house.
It all started as a child. I had a friend who had divorced parents which was a rarity amongst my contemporaries in the 1970s. We went to his flaky father’s house once and walked into the lounge. There was this horrible smell and looking over into the corner I saw a tank full of a writhing mass of rats. I blanched at the sight of them and made my excuses as to why I needed to go home.
Fast forward a few years and I was aged twelve. There’d been a dead rat on the kerbside outside our school for days. Each day it got a little flatter and glassier eyed. Children would walk by and shout “Rat on the road!” (which was the catchphrase of Roland Rat, a puppet on breakfast tv at the time). I was unperturbed by it until after about five days of putrefying decay it landed on my chest. I was walking out of school and two older boys were playing catch with the rodent corpse. I still don’t know why. More importantly...WHY! I just happened to walk the wrong way at the wrong time and ended up with a flat, rotting critter slamming into my chin and sliding down my chest. My phobia was now well and truly launched and my jumper was ruined too.
As a rodent phobic I seemed to see them everywhere. Maybe I was just looking out for them more. I’d see them by the river when I walked the dog. I once bent down to give a beggar some money and there were two of them nestled on his lap. I’d see them on building sites as I passed by. I learnt to avoid river banks, long grass, derelict areas, ever using the horrible word to name them and ever seeing pictures of them. One glimpse of one on TV and my feet would be up off the floor and I’d flood with adrenaline.
I almost fainted during the film “1984”. I ran out of gay pub when a novelty act appeared on stage with rats and snakes. The snakes were sweet. I ran in blind panic from a case of black rats in London Zoo. I listened in terror as people told me of rats climbing into toilets and nipping unsuspecting defecators on the rump.
I also reclassified my view of what was a rodent. To me, rodents include guinea pigs, hamsters, mice, voles, rabbits, hares and worst of all the giant Coypu which inhabits Norfolk. I avoid Norfolk since I learnt they exist. All of these species were, in my view, worthy of a big mallet on the head or a dose of Warfarin. If I went to someone’s house and they had a hamster I had to leave. I couldn’t relax or stop looking round nervously. Problems ensued when in 1993 we “rabbit sat”. The creature in question was in a pen and had her own hutch. It took me about six weeks before I could do anything more than throw food gingerly over the chicken wire. Eventually (six months later) I was able to pick her up. I’ve downgraded rabbits now as low risk rodents.
Five years ago, I moved into this house and feeling fragile and anxious I set about rebuilding my life after a particularly harrowing break up. I’d been here a week and was cleaning the kitchen when I looked out of the window to see a big fat grey rat staring at me from the decking. I hate decking. According to my mother, rats love decking. She clipped an article from the newspaper to torture me with. It’s an instant nest and they love the food which drops through the gaps. The rat sat and winked at me, leering at me, up on his haunches. I became frenzied. I locked the doors (in case it knew how to use handles). I locked the windows (in case it decided to scale the walls). I locked the upstairs windows (in case it decided to scale the walls very high). I avoided the kitchen and made the garden a forbidden zone. I was truly terrified by a little ball of grey fur. I rang my father who agreed it was a deadly menace. He suggested throwing something out of the window at it. This took all my nerve but finally I did it. I lobbed a pan of water out of the window and staring back at me was an irritated damp rat. I swear it gave me a look of pure hatred. I retreated to the shop for Vodka. I was drinking a lot at the time and any excuse was a good one. It helped.
The pest control people came and told me that they’d had reports of rats from a woman at the top of the street too. They laid traps and I decided to speak to the woman up the street to share my pain and show solidarity. I knocked on her door and was greeted by a woman with huge teeth, just like a human rodent. We didn’t talk for long. I was too close to giggling. The rat went, as quickly as it came. The poison was well nibbled and presumably he crawled off and died somewhere. I managed to regain ground and eventually re-entered my own garden.
About six months later I experienced a minor miracle. I was on my way home from a club, drunk. The kind of drunk where your teeth and nose are numb and things are somewhat doubled. I was staggering along to the taxi rank when out of nowhere a rat ran across my foot, brushing against my ankle. I recall thinking “Wow! A rat!”
My phobia diminished. I was no longer terrified, just quite worried by them. I walked along river banks without bicycle clips on. I crossed waste grounds without a sweaty brow and darting eyes. I even passed a stuffed one in a museum display and didn’t pass out.
Horribly though, they’re back in my life. Paul and I saw one in the street last week. There’s been a profusion of vermin in the bushes outside of work and Paul saw one in his garden too. More terrifying, I saw one in my garden again. He wasn’t as cocky as the last one. The doors and windows are locked and bolted once more, in spite of the heat outside. Maybe I’m not quite as over it as I once thought. I’ll certainly be stamping my feet very loudly and making loud noises before I go out next.
I’m thankful though that my phobia is something less common than say spiders or birds. Pity the poor arachnophobic who risks having them descend from the bedroom ceiling or climb up the plughole. At least the rats haven’t learnt that yet. I wouldn’t put it past them though.