The seventeenth and final instalment of our Story | Retold series is inspired by Frank Richards’ story ‘The Black Rat’.
I am a long way from home. He is a rat trained to detect landmines. He has an excellent sense of slapstick.
My eye is right by him. Below him, really—I really should learn to be more precise about these things. Precision and prepositions are important in this business. I am looking up at him as he tests the air with his trip-ready tipmost. Precision. I mean his nose. The things I could tell you about the underside of a rat’s chin if only I had the right words for their importance! There is much to be learned in his rascal angles, his Buster Keaton cameos. I keep my eye fixed on his profile as I slide my shoulder and my own face—all the silly, hot-damp, unwhiskered inches of it—across the ground and through this red dust so carefully, carefully. We’re talking a crumbling, friction-burn tickle kind of carefulness. He, meanwhile, is all pronk and swagger. His movement is rat-levity—he does a funny walk as I eye the landmine to help relieve the tension. I am well-versed in rat humour so forgive him as I slide in the scrubland’s dust and long-gone war-grit, my body oblique and getting the gist.
Timing is very much of the essence etc.
In times of stress my mind always wanders. I pray. Keep it together, I pray. I find out in the desert that my words wander too because here they are things unleashed. Also, if I’m honest, I have spent far too much time talking only to rats. You may not know this but rats enjoy ungainliness of scansion over content when it comes to speech. I am under no illusions on this last point—my charges appreciate the clicks and gurgles that I produce in my silly, hairless throat far more than any sense I might be making. Lying here with my hand loosely on his tether and sliding inch-slow through the dirt towards the landmine, I find that I am saying the word etcetera to my rat in order to break the mood. My breath makes dust particles dance between us. I watch him boggle with joy at the word etcetera and its spokey consonants and rhythms, its bite-downs. This is our office banter. Minefield as office. We’ll come back to that—we’ve come down to that. My timing is all over the shop. For the moment, however, thought-wander a little longer with me as you thank your lucky stars and just look at that, will you take a good long look at those whiskers, dear lord—there’s a faceful of well-deployed em dashes to make you weep in the desert.
I am a long way from home. Specifically its greens and its greys, its slate and its church bells. I resent the fact that snatches of schoolbook scripture always return to me when I’m out in the field, crawling and looking up at my rats’ chins from impossible angles. Maybe it means that I’m praying? But I’m just saying keep it together and etcetera to a rat that I have trained to smell TNT. The bit of the Bible currently lodged in my head runs, jumps, scans something like this: My brother Esau is an hairy man, but I am a smooth man. That won’t save me, I think, not even that pernickety an hairy, and I find that I am wetting my lips. The classroom bibles back home had uniformly blistered, blue, plastic covers.
My rat gives a little twitch on his tether. I murmur the word Esau to him with hopes of calming him. He preferred etcetera, I can tell.
My face is in the singing, singeing dirt and I’m looking up at him at such close quarters that proximity provides a false perspective. From down here, the thin film of dust on the landmine’s surface is a mountain range with its own bouldered desert. From down here, his whiskers are as thick a rainbow. Of course that’s ridiculous. Rainbows aren’t thick, not really, but despite this rainless place I am put in mind of rainbows of all things because just look at the way the sun hits his fur right there, and his filaments, and his learning—there’s something about the skittered light and its dazzle-mad-miracle glare against his rat-texture. It seems taut like a rainbow, doesn’t it? Wonderful as a rainbow. I remember the day when a triple rainbow looped over the schoolyard back in far-off home. It had scared the daylights out of me. From this angle and appearing so close and huge, my trained rat is an ancient god or a planet or a curse. He’s a total dreamboat. He’s vaudeville and a matinee idol, this guy. He’d suit footlights, I think, as my mind scrambles despite itself and my trained rat checks the air and my fingers flatten across our landmine’s surface.
When someone first told me that rats could be trained to sniff out landmines, I think it’s fair to say that I boggled. Do you know about boggling? The movement that a rat performs when its eyes vibrate rapidly in and out of their sockets. Rats do this when they are happy. More on that later. Do you know any good rat jokes? It looks obscene, boggling. It doesn’t seem right that eyes should be able to do that. Sometimes rats boggle while grinding their teeth. This action is known as bruxing. Boggle & Brux, like the names of Dickensian attorneys or a disappointing double-act. The vocabulary that I had to learn while training! You wouldn’t believe! And who is learning now as I inch and pinch dirt away as gently as possible beneath his current rat-look. I tell you, the silt on the mine looks like a tiny desert.
He is a good rat, this one—one of the very best. Light enough to run over the mine but not trigger it with his footfall. The pages of my textbooks and manuals and field guides back at the hut are all at least a little eaten by insects. These books have soft blue plastic covers. My fingertips are pretending to be wise and there is sweat falling in my eyes. My rat is licking his paws and perhaps I am praying again beneath my breath but, no, I am just remembering words with useless precision—Job 39:25: At the blast of the trumpet it snorts, Aha! It catches the scent of battle from afar. Trust me to remember the bit of the Good Book that contains an Aha! at a moment like this. My rat yawns at the end of my tether and I have two fingers, decidedly, on the rim of the mine.
I said that this rat has an excellent sense of slapstick and, God forgive me, I know there is nothing worse than anthropomorphising except, perhaps, having your face so close to a mine that your eyelashes could graze its maker’s mark, so, give over, and!, this rat, hell!, he really knows how to milk a scene. Get a load of this an hairy man. If this rat could laugh in a way that you could hear it would be just like the idiom, just like a drain—thickly, with gurgles and an undeniable filthiness. Aha! Of course, etc. Rats, etc. Their collective noun is a mischief for a reason—I scold the rats back at the training lab with this cleverness of faux grammar while they do pratfalls from my shoulders and stage chwerthin-chuntering, cheeky-peering productions of Pyramus and Thisbe between my trouser-legs. Silly, silky, ridiculous godheads who like it when I say etc sternly and forget how to think humanly.
This rat with a special yen and talent for slapstick watches me and bruxes. I hope he believes in me with something like a fondness as I pull my hand with its clever thumbs across the metalwork of the landmine. Who is the straight man here, in our pair, and who is the fall guy? The term comic foil comes from a passage in the Bible. I made that up. Rat me out. The term foil in this sense comes from the practice of storing gems in metallic sheeting so to better exhibit the gleams and glitters of a precious stone. Did I make that up? She is more precious than rubies, and all the things thou canst desire are not to be compared unto her. I wish I knew how to pray better, I think, as my grip tightens minutely. In my hand the rat-tether slackens, minutely.
Our rats begin their training in their fourth week of life, and I’ve personally raised this little mite, this godhead, this little tiny boy with a heigh ho the wind and the rainbow from when he was but the size of a jelly bean. And now look at him! Now look him looking at me crying with indecisiveness. Now look at him preen at a good job done well as I watch my hands attempt an untrembling as they pluck at a man-made trap in this poor soil so far from home. This rat has Hardy haunches but sighs like a Laurel. As I lie in the dirt, he is standing over me in such a way that I can see the sun through his ears and I am put in mind of stained glass.
A passage from my training in amongst the Bible verses. I didn’t understand its significance at the time and yet there it is, tugging at my brain’s sleeve. Perhaps you have heard of nominative determinism? The idea is that a person’s given name can play a significant part in shaping particular aspects of their profession or character. Someone with the surname Butler might be drawn to the service industry, for example, or a Mr. Love might find that some form of amorousness—sought, exhibited, demonstrably withheld etc—becomes a predominant feature of their life. Dominique Dropsy was a goalkeeper in the 1978 World Cup, and together J W Splatt and D Weedon authored a scientific paper about incontinence for the British Journal of Urology. You get the picture. My rat is yawning again. Stay with me. My hands are on a landmine. Jaak Panksepp. When I saw it written down in my mine-detection rat-training textbook it struck me that this name had all the phonetics of a rodent’s laugh. Jaak Panksepp. In its vowels and cadence I could detect whiskers nudging back in rat-mirth and sleek jaws tugging open with the width of a chirrup. I read about Jaak Panksepp’s discovery—when rats played with one another they emitted ultrasonic chirps. These chirps could be directly associated with a positive emotional state. Rats laugh! Boy oh boy! Jaak Panksepp! And they are ticklish! I am completely disarmed!
I count down from seven—why not seven?—and swallow. I watched my rat breathing in time with me mere inches from my face. I know he cares so deeply about timing and the element of surprise. Dust did what dust does and the sun swelled and swelled, playing its part. I flicked the appropriate mine-things to mine-flick.
‘Question,’ I say, and my rat looked at the sun and pretended to not hear. My throat is dry, the back of my neck is wet and every breath between us is swinging back and forth like a shared limerick. ‘What did the rat say when his friend broke his front teeth?’
My rat blinks as if to say that he is embarrassed for me and the answer which is hard cheese!!!! Since our base started operating in this former warzone, rearing and training and spreading the word, our rats have helped detect more than 100,000 active and inactive landmines. So many nonsense verses muttered under breath to calm each other, so many nonsense words and rat-laughs, wifflechop, mazyflank, so much etcetera and dust. Around 50 countries contain land that is laced with mines and similar abandoned explosives, and we have over 100 mine-detection rats accredited at our base and ready to go into the field. You better believe I print off a certificate each time that one of our guys or gals passes muster. The rats like the sound of the printer in the office when I make these certificates. Etcetera, it says to them through its mouth filled with hot ink. Etcetera, etc, boom boom!
I have so many treats in my pockets. I have so many fingers on the lip of this device. My rat gives me a look that reminds me of Harry Secombe. My rat gives me a look that reminds me of St. David in a school chapel’s stained glass. My rat gives me a look that reminds me of music halls and classroom bibles and I cannot thank him enough as I sprawl and let my fingers find the right flavour of purchase on the device. None of us in the training centre dare to admit that we name our rats because we cannot afford to be sentimental—between me and you and the landmine and the sky, however, this rat is my favourite. He has a notch in his ear. He would not unsuit the name Esau.
‘Esau,’ I say. He boggles at me because I have treats in my pocket.
‘Easy,’ I say to the landmine.
‘I say I say I say,’ I say to my rat. He gives a little patient-exasperated floof of cheek for my trouble, encouraging me. ‘Where do you go to replace a rat’s tail?’ He blinks at the sun once more. A re-tail store!!!! I am not nervous when I am out here because I trust my students.
‘Esau, my hairy man,’ I say to my hand, still stretched full across the landmine’s surface. ‘Why do rats need oiling?’
And my rat looks at me one final time and seems to allow his face to relax. The angle of his chin changes in a way that only I could ever understand and a breeze brings glad tidings across our faces as both of us agree that now is not the time to provide punchlines—there is a click somewhere, and I cannot speak of squeaking and luck when we are both between rocks and hard dusty places, tethered to each other, outstaring our chances in the dirt beneath so open and boggling a sky.
Image by Catherine Williams.