John-Paul Flintoff


Rodent at large in the bedroom

Last night an unwelcome visitor climbed through my bedroom window. I heard a rustling noise, and spotted a long tail disappearing behind a pile of books.

‘There’s a rat in the room,’ I said, but my wife would not believe me. And who could blame her? Our flat may be in a basement, but it’s clean. And our leafy street lies in one of the more expensive parts of North London – not some grim alleyway. This is not the Middle Ages, and our neighbours, as a general rule, do not empty slops into the street from second-floor windows.

But I was right. I proved it by hunting down the rat in a corner of the room. It shuffled about in shadow among the cables of my computer.The contrast between this creature from fairy tales and my late-20th century techno hardware was startling, but this was no time for metaphysics. It was already past 1.00am – I needed sleep – and the rat had taken refuge in the most inconvenient place imaginable. The window through which it had entered, some four feet from the floor, could hardly provide an exit.

I’m no Pied Piper – I possess no musical instruments – so the chances of encouraging this rat from beneath the table – and across the room to the hallway, through to the living room, then the hall, and out of the front door, then up the stairs and into the street – seemed minuscule.

I would have to kill it.

I had no idea, at that time, what dangers I faced. Subsequently I have learned that rats carry as many as 14 dangerous diseases. Two out of three rats carry cryptosporydium (a cause of gastroenteritis); only slightly less common are salmonella, listeria (which causes septicaemia), toxoplasmosis (blindness), yersina (a relative of the bubonic plague), Q fever, Hantaan fever, and the lethal Weil’s disease.

And though most of us don’t see them often, there really are lots of rats. A female is capable of producing ten-strong litters, ten times a year. Recent estimates put the national rat-count at 60 million. And nor are they confined to sewers. In my area, both Hampstead Heath and Waterlow Park have become badly infested thanks to the warm winter and the great availability of tasty rubbish.Pest control officers – such as the one who visited this morning to reassure us that our rat was most probably a lone scout – go into action wearing heavy protection. They have at their disposal air-guns, portable gas-chambers, poisons and even “glue boards” (to which incautious rats can become terminally affixed).

My own kit was less impressive. I wore a T-shirt and boxer shorts. My weapons were a broomstick and a beach-towel.

Poking about beneath the computer table, I managed a direct hit. The rat squealed, then darted behind the central processing unit. Holding up my towel like a gladiator’s net, I stole forward to peek over the top. My foe, I discovered, was about the size of a small pigeon. Its fur was brown, and mangy. It stared back at me with black, unblinking eyes – squealed hoarsely – then dashed under the printer.

For half an hour, I kept jabbing. At one point, the rat became extremely angry, and sank its teeth into the broom. But it showed no sign of coming out. Harriet, by now rather bored, suggested calling in experts and started flicking through Yellow Pages in search of 24-hour hotlines. But each call proved unsatisfactory. Most were unanswered, and a woman representing Rentokil could not say for certain when her man would be available. It might be a couple of hours – maybe more. And the price she quoted was of such magnitude that I wondered if we’d be able to afford a holiday this year.

So I kept jabbing, more forcefully than ever. The rat, in an access of desperation, rushed towards the window and scrabbled ineffectually at the smooth wall. And then it charged directly towards me.

This was my big chance. I lifted the towel, but at the sight of this danger the rat emitted a powerful squeak, baring its incisors and leaping a good foot off the floor. I flinched – producing a shameful squeak of my own – and realised immediately that I was incapable of killing anything.

But I wasn’t altogether downcast. I had not failed to notice the rat’s attempt to reach the window. Perhaps, I wondered, we could work together?

And so it was that, with encouragement from my broom, the rat scaled the cables to the top of the computer table. Sniffing and blinking frantically, it paused to consider leaping across to the window sill. I didn’t fancy its chances. So, using the angle-poise lamp, I created a bridge for it to cross.

But as the rat reached the metal elbow, its weight caused the lamp to droop – and it dropped heavily to the floor.We couldn’t give up. With Harriet’s help, I piled up a chair, a bin and an old handbag beneath the window. Then I trailed the towel over this ad hoc climbing frame.

According to convention – established by cartoonists and sit-coms – confrontations between humans and rodents always involve a human climbing on top of a chair. This time the roles were reversed.Having reached the top of the chair, then the bin, and the handbag, the rat was obliged to grapple with the beach towel. I gave it a couple of seconds, to be sure it was holding tight, then – hop! – I yanked both towel and rat together into the garden outside. Briefly stunned, it sat blinking and sniffing among the folds of cloth – then ran off into the night.

At 4.00am, we were ready for bed. We did not leave the windows open.