The Tail of Richard

I was recently reminded by a friend, of an email I sent out some years ago, which I re-read (yes, I’m an email-hoarder – thank goodness!) and have decided to now share with you. My generosity, you see, knows no bounds.

18 August 2013

Dear Friends,

I’m having a bit of a problem with some visitors at the moment.  It was OK when it was just Richard, he kept himself to himself most of the time.  Then he brought a friend along to stay, and I wasn’t too happy about the antics they were getting up to at night.  I decided it was time to drop some subtle hints, so I started laying traps.  Literally.  Because Richard is a rat. Only a tree rat (I think) but a rat none the less. 

He lives high up in one of our pine trees in the yard.  As twilight falls he comes down the tree and scurries across our new patio roof, over the Casita roof then disappears to goodness knows where.  At first I only heard him. He made so much noise you would have thought he was the size of a cat.  It was only when next door’s cat tried to catch him one night that I realised a cat on the roof sounded like a herd of buffalo.  Of course, no amount of careful stalking by the cat could ever result in a catch; once it sprinted into action for ‘the kill’  the sounding of charging buffalo had the rat long gone with a clear lead of at least six metres before disappearing into the bushes of our back garden. 

Then I got to meet him personally one night.  I was going to fetch something from my car and there he was, sitting on the roof of a little bird house which is fastened to one of the pine trees.  He just sat there, bold as brass, for what seemed like ages (though was probably only about ten seconds) before running up the tree into the cover of the branches.

If for any reason I park my car in the open yard instead of under the carport, I now take care to close the windows just in case he should fall out of his tree and tumble into the confines of my car. It is not nice to have a rat run across your feet when you’re driving; I know, it happened to me once in Zambia. (See INTO AFRICA with 3 kids, 12 crates and a husband.)

Sometimes he sits in his hi-rise apratment and dismantles pine cones.  I’m not sure which part he eats, but the bits he doesn’t want are tossed away, landing on the opaque plastic roof like intermittent hailstones at the onset of a storm.

Apart from when the neighbour’s cat is in pursuit, our dogs tend to ignore him.  I think they have learned from their abortive attempts to catch birds, that anything above their nose level is a waste of effort.

Richard’s solo lifestyle must have lasted for at least three weeks.  Then he got a mate.  I assume it is a female because it is smaller than him, although it could be a wee gay rat friend.  Anyway, we all know what happens when a rat gets a lady mate.  In no time at all little ratlets start appearing and we don’t want that, do we?  Well I don’t.

It was time for action.

I dug out the old rat trap from behind a mountain of plant pots only to find that it was in a slight state of disrepair.  It only has three moving parts and one of those had dropped off.  Being unsure of how to effect a repair it was easier to buy another.  I bought two.  The owner of the Ferret Shop (our name for a ferreteria [Spanish hardware store]) tried to sell me a multiple one which consists of one piece of wood with two or three traps positioned side by side.  I couldn’t quite see that myself.

Like, what were the chances of two or three rats actually nibbling on the baits at exactly the same time, setting the traps off simultaneously?   Or,

Picture Daddy Rat strolling along and spotting a chunk of greasy pork, temptingly positioned on a nice clean piece of wood.  He walks up to it, sniffs it “Ooo, yummy” , starts to nibble and WHAM, he’s smacked on the back of the neck with 500lbs pressure of coiled galvanised wire.  Then his missus, Ruby Rat, comes along and sees Richard lying there, obviously grabbing forty winks after a tasty meal, so she goes up to the second place-setting to partake of her own delicious delicacy  when WHAM she’s out for the count before she even had her second mouthful.  Not to be outdone Uncle Ernest Rat arrives and sees his two relatives lying there. “Miserable buggers, starting the party without me” he mutters, and starts tucking into a crunchy bit of pork crackling but WHAM down comes the third tightly sprung wire causing instant decapitation.   A likely scenario?  I don’t think so.  Especially if there were a few hot Spanish hours between demises.  Rotting rat would be detected five hundred metres away.

I arrived home with my two new, solo killing devices which I handed to Ziggy, asking him to do the dastardly deed. He put a piece of cheese on one and placed it on an eye-level shelf beside the braai which was near the area traversed by the rats and unlikely to be frequented by birds, cats or dogs. 

Later that evening there was an almighty crash which had the dogs fleeing indoors out of fright – and it gave me a bit of a start – so I went to investigate the cause. The trap took some tracking down to where it had been catapulted by the power of the spring.  Of the rat there was no sign at all.  I suggested to Ziggy that it might be a good idea to fasten the trap onto the shelf, at which point he lost interest in the project.

The next night I went rummaging through my fridge is search of some appropriate comestibles.  It shames me to admit that there is generally something in there of dubious quality and it didn’t take me long to find a suitable tidbit. 

I secured a crusty piece of pork belly to the dual spikes of the trap then prized the sprung U-bar back and very, very carefully secured it with the long holding pin.  Five minutes later I had it safely fixed to the shelf with a G-clamp.  Let the party start!

And it did – and went on for several nights.  A strip of rancid bacon,  two Cumberland pork sausages and eight ounces of pork belly later I have two very fat and happy rats, who are clearly not of the Jewish persuasion.  To confirm the mechanics, I poked a stick into the (empty) trap to make sure that it actually worked, the spring sprung back so ferociously that it dislodged the holding pin completely, never to be seen again.  A change in strategy was called for.

I returned to the Ferret Shop complaining to the Spanish owner that he had sold me duff traps.  He said Spanish rats were very clever and that maybe I should try poison instead. I had already figured that out for myself.

On to Plan ‘B’.  

I presented Ziggy with the box which contained a couple of dozen parcels which resembled solidified used teabags in a pretty shade of pink.  He took two and placed one either side of the useless trap.

As dusk turned to dark we heard much scurrying of feet and after half an hour checked out the shelf.  Both packets were gone, so he put out two more.  They were gone within ten minutes.  We were now supplying our rats with takeaways!

I woke at some point in the early hours of the morning and could hear strange squeaking sounds coming from beyond the bedroom window.  I convinced myself that it was the tortured cries of a rat dying a slow and painful death.  I tossed and turned for the rest of the night, wracked with guilt.

The following day the dogs spent a lot of time racing back and forth into the garden, obviously looking for something.   A couple of times I heard what could only be the plaintiff squeak of my dying rat but, like the dogs, could not actually find it. 

As the afternoon came to a close I went about my watering chores.  The Spanish summer heat was playing havoc with my garden.  As I came to the last batch of pot plants I was absolutely dismayed to find that one of my three baby and two of my three juvenile pot plants had each had one of the lower leaves gnawed off. 

Those overweight rats hadn’t been in their death throes at all.  They had been high on my bloody marijuana plants!

This was war. More pink teabags were put out.  I even fastened one in a trap. I nearly pulled the plan off with that one. 

I was sitting outside on the stoep, as is my wont on a balmy Spanish evening, tapping away at my laptop when the almighty snap of the trap resonated off the tin roof and echoed around the valley.   I raced to the killing zone only to find a sorry sight.  The rat sat on the shelf staring at the quivering teabag in a state of shock.  It appeared the teabag had been so big there wasn’t room for it and the rat under the sprung wire.  I glanced around for something to capture the rat in its stunned state. As I grabbed at an empty plant pot the creature came to its senses and in a flash high-tailed it off the shelf into the darkness.

Damn it.  I had been within a whisker of catching it.  I went back to my laptop to scour the websites for Plan ‘C’.

Plan ‘C’ leapt out at me from several websites.  A simple design.  Bucket; water; pole; empty drinks can; bait.

Fill a large bucket to one third with water, get a cane stick or something similar to lie across the bucket. Make a hole in the bottom of the drinks can then thread the stick through it and out the top pouring hole, ensuring that the can turns easily and lies lopsided on the stick.  Attach some bait to the can and hey presto, one rat trap.

The idea is that the rat climbs onto the edge of the bucket, which you have positioned at a convenient level, then it walks along the stick, climbs onto the can to get the bait, the can swivels on the stick and the rat falls in the bucket of water. One drowned rat.  Or if you want to be humane about it put an upturned plant pot over the floundering rat, trapping it in the bucket as you empty out the water, then take the rat, preferably at least a mile away, and release it into a hedge or someone else’s garden.

I had a builders’ mixing bucket lying around (12”high x 14”dia) which I figured would be about right for the job. I found an old cane which I had used for propping up last year’s weed crop and Ziggy helped by emptying a can of San Miguel.  The bait was my masterpiece.  A small piece of dried up ham stuck onto the can with some of my home-made plum glue.  It was supposed to be plum jam but it didn’t quite work out right (every time I tried to spread it the knife got glued to the bread). 

I placed the bucket close to the shelf where the other rat-catching feeding devices had been laid, switched off the overhead light and went back to my computer to await the action.  It wasn’t long before I heard the scraping of tiny feet on metal.  This is it, I thought.  I went to take a look but everything was still there, excluding any sign of a rat.  This happened a couple of times, then I heard some splashing.

I raced to the scene of the crime and turned on the light.  Nothing.  But I could still hear splashing.  I turned around.  Behind me was our mastiff slurping water out of the swimming pool. 

Ten minutes later I again heard can and water noises and went to check.  I looked down at the still rocking can to see that not only had the ham gone, but the plum glue had been licked off the can as well. 

Putting on the light I saw Richard sitting a couple of yards away beside his escape route just beneath the roof.  After eating his fill he must have taken a refreshing swim and then jumped out of the bucket back to safety. He sat there shaking his head, as if to get the water out of his ears, grinning!

I glowered back at Fat Richard.

“You little bastard!” I said, at which he winked at me and sauntered off.

There is nothing wrong with rats.  I don’t know what all the fuss is about. 

I am beginning to quite like rats actually.  They are happy, friendly, furry little things. I don’t have a problem sharing my stoep with a rat or two.  After all haven’t I been living with one for almost 40 years?

25 August 2013

Richard the Rat – Epitaph

It is with a sad and heavy heart that I have to advise of the recent demise of Richard.   This morning, somewhere around half past ten, Richard passed away. Expired, departed this life, croaked (or was that the toad?), kicked the bucket, or simply died and went to meet his maker (who I hope likes rats).   Yes, Richard is no more; dead though not buried.

After my previous report Richard and his friends had continued to frolic around the laundry and in the bushes with gay abandon, hurtling from branch to branch like trapeze artists in a circus.  I had given up on the traps, and the bucket remained unbaited, though I did put out the odd pink teabag now and again.

Then a few days ago I found two of Richard’s little friends.  The first one appeared to be still alive, but the movement turned out to be the ripple of ants crawling all over it.  The second one lay several feet away and looked like it had enjoyed a swim in the trap-bucket before somehow escaping but then succumbing to the lethal effects of the pink teabags.  It too was the subject of some considerable ant interest.  I fetched the shovel and despatched the little beasties high and westward over the garden fence.    

A third one was discovered by one of the dogs (identity unknown) the following day and was generously delivered to the yard where it was left proudly on display for all and sundry to enjoy.  Whilst I am no expert in the study of rat remains I would hazard a guess that this one croaked at about the same time as the other two as it now only consisted of skin, a little fur and a head and tail, and was somewhat akin to the mummified cat recently shown on BBC World News, but smaller and more rat-shaped.  I dismissed an initial impulse to contact the BBC, and with the help of my trusty shovel propelled this one in a southerly direction into a neighbouring, abandoned orchard.

Thereafter my post dusk relaxations were only minimally peppered with sounds of a very lethargic Richard and my neighbour’s disappointed cat.

The next day I went about my business of watering the potplants; Saturday was the day for fertiliser application.  I tended the three large plants, then the two smaller ones which had been re-potted more recently.  I turned to the third, pathetic little stripling which was still on a workbench as it wasn’t yet worthy of re-potting when I myself was rooted to the spot by the sight before me.  There, all curled up as if in a made-to-measure bed lay Richard, in the pot-plant-pot.

I slowly moved closer to his chosen place of repose when I noticed that his little eyes were open and he was still breathing.  I raced off to fetch Ziggy – and my camera.

He was still there when we returned although Ziggy wouldn’t believe me when I said he was still breathing (he needs more than reading glasses methinks), but offered to splatter him with a spade.  I declined his kind offer and he went back to his tv program whilst I went off to my computer.  As I sat there I began to feel terrible about poor Richard, leaving him there to die in the baking sun.  I went back to Ziggy and asked him if he would just come and tip Richard out of the pot down the slope of our land where he could at least wander off under a bush and die to his heart’s content.

So we went back to the potting area but instead of lifting up the pot, Ziggy simply grasped Richard by the tail and lifted him out of the pot.  Within seconds Richard was wriggling about on the end of his very long tail.   I was amazed – and quite impressed – that Ziggy didn’t instantly drop him when this happened.  If it had happened to me I’d have crapped myself.  Not that there’d ever be a chance of that happening (picking up a rat by the tail, not crapping myself.) 

You’d think I’d never mentioned the ‘live’ aspect to him, because he said, “Hey the little bugger’s still alive”    Stupid sod.

Ziggy then stood in the middle of the back garden to get good clearance of the 2metre high fence and said “Say ‘goodbye’ to Rowland” – he never could get the name right!

With a tear in my eye I called “Goodbye Richard” as Ziggy executed a perfect overarm lob and with a flick of his wrist swung Richard by the end of his tail in a perfect arc, sending him flying off in the direction of our veggie plot. 

I hope he landed unharmed, and rested in peas.


Fried Fish and Sympathy

This little real-life tale emanates from when we lived in Fourways, a northern suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa several years ago.

I blamed the man with the weedkiller.

He had been to our house the day before to treat our lawn for an infestation of weeds and said that after 24 hours I should give the grass a good soaking in order for the muti (African = medicine) to do its work.

For once, the customary-for-the-season afternoon rain was like a policeman – never around when needed, so I’d had to put on the sprinkler.  A while later I went out to join my friends for a sun-downer at the pub.

I’d prepared supper before I went out as there was a program on tv later, a film based on one of my favourite books and I was looking forward to watching it. I returned home in time to finish off supper – except I didn’t fry hubbies fish because he wasn’t ready to eat.  As I sat avidly in front of the tv I could hear my old man bitching and moaning in the kitchen about having to fry off his own fish.  It wasn’t my fault he hadn’t wanted to eat at the same time as me, and it’s not as if he couldn’t cook.

But it clearly wasn’t my day.  Within the first fifteen minutes I realised that the film was totally unrecognisable as the book I had read.  I was dead peed off that they could bastardise my favourite book so.

As I switched off the tv I suddenly remembered the sprinkler.  I had forgotten to switch it off.  The ground must be well and truly soaked by now.

The tap to which the sprinkler hosepipe was attached stood against a wall just by the foot of our patio.  You could walk the long way round via some steps to access it, or climb down the three foot drop to the lower level flower(less) bed.  Months ago a stack of bricks had been put there to make the decent a little easier.  I felt in no mood for a hike around the garden, so decided on the quick route.

I knew something was wrong when I caught sight of my right knee at eye level whilst my left foot was still treading air. At that point gravity took over and the rest of me disappeared off the edge of the patio.  The trouble was it was dark.  And the stack of bricks weren’t exactly where I thought they were.  (Some bastard must have moved them when I wasn’t looking.)

The section of garden I was about to land in was only about three feet wide before it dropped away another few feet.  I decided to try and avoid descending to the next level, so put out my arm to break the fall.  I broke the fall alright.  I also broke my arm.

“Oh dear me, that hurts.” I said, or words to that effect.

I dusted myself down (with the good arm), turned off the sodding hosepipe and climbed back up the previously elusive bricks before making my way to the kitchen and him indoors.

As I walked towards him with tears in my eyes I extended my wobbly arm.

“I think there’s something wrong with this, don’t you?”

“Oh, you poor thing. What happened? Let me help.” OR NOT!  The sympathetic husband I had been hoping for turned his back on me and continued frying his fish.

‘Well.’  I thought.  ‘WELL !!’

“Well **** you too,” I said and stormed out.

I grabbed the newspaper, my cell phone and my handbag and went off in search of help.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to drive myself to the hospital so with the newspaper rolled up to form a splint to support my wrist, I phoned for an ambulance.

I stood outside my front gate for absolutely ages.   I could hear sirens wailing down the main road, several, intermittently in fact, but I thought ‘that won’t be for me’, ‘nor that’, ‘or that’. After half an hour one sounded particularly close and sure enough mine arrived, lights flashing and sirens wah-wahing.

“Which hospital would you like to go to, ma’am?” I was asked.  (We lived roughly half way between two large private hospitals.)

“Whichever one you would go to in similar circumstances.” I responded. With the blue lights and sirens back on, which I thought was a bit of overkill to be honest, they whisked me away to Sunninghill hospital, complimenting me on my makeshift splint before replacing it with an oversized toilet-roll middle.

I was quickly admitted into the amazingly quiet A&E and then after an interminable time was dispatched for Xrays, where they discovered I had fractured two bones in my wrist.

As I sat on a trolley, waiting for someone to come and fix my broken bits, I tried to phone home to let my dear husband know where I was, but there was no answer.  Neither was there a response when I called my son, who lived in the flat attached to our house.  My best friend – also nothing, she must have gone to bed early.

Eventually an orderly strolled up,

“We’re just trying to find a ward with bedspace for you my dear.” She said kindly.

“What do you mean, ‘bed space’?” I asked. “I can’t stay here all night, no-one knows where I am!  Just stick it in a cast and I’ll catch a taxi home.”

“Oh we can’t do that,” called out an intern studying my Xrays “your fractures need setting by an orthopaedic surgeon.”

I told them that I couldn’t stay.  My husband didn’t know where I was.  He’d be beside himself with worry if he woke in the morning and found that I wasn’t there.

But they wouldn’t listen

I tried yet again to phone home to explain my absence to my ever-loving but still got no reply.  Then my phone went dead. The battery was flat.

Supported by my toilet roll I abandoned the trolley and went in search of a cell phone charger.  I eventually tracked one down at the maternity reception desk, where they kindly put my Nokia on charge for me.  I then took a seat in the waiting area and tried to read a magazine. After half an hour (and two requests by nurses to go check into my ward)  I heard my phone ring.  Before I could make it to the desk, a nurse had answered it

“Sunninghill Maternity Unit, how can I help you?”

Realising what she’d done she quickly handed the phone to me.  It was my son.

“Mother, I know you’ve done some weird things in your time, but why are you in a Maternity Unit at this time of the night, excuse me, morning?”

“It’s a long story Leon.” I said

“Nine months long perchance?” he quipped.

“Don’t be cheaky!  You’re not too old you know….”*                                    *(to get a smack)

“No, but you are!” (te he he he)


“Sorry mother.  So tell me, mummy-dear, what are you doing there?

I told him.

“OK,” he said “that explains a lot. I fell asleep listening to music on my headphones.  Only just woke up and saw the missed call, so I went to the house to find out what you wanted but all the lights were off and it was locked up.  Good job I phoned you though.”

After a short discussion we arranged for him to collect me the next morning.

As I was discharged the hospital staff insisted in delivering me to the ‘patient loading area’ in a wheelchair, despite my protests that it was my arm which was broken, not my bloody legs.  I got some really strange looks from people as I then ran out to get into Leon’s car.

When we reached home at 11:30am I walked in to a somewhat surprised husband.  He hadn’t even noticed I was missing – he said he’d assumed I was sleeping in the spare room!!

I explained to the love of my life of some 28 years what had happened to me, and was over­whelmed by his sympathetic response.

“Pissed as usual I suppose,” was his only comment.  I wasn’t sure if he was referring to  himself or me!  So much for being “beside himself with worry”!