143. Cavatina

“You’ve got rats in your garden.”
I believe there is beauty in everyone, but there are some exceptions.
She stood in her Winter-withered garden looking over the fence, wrapped in a threadbare dressing gown, scowling. The Shrew. Her face looked like it had been screwed up then flattened out again, crumpled and misused. Her gingery blonde hair was thin to the point of blowing away, flat to her scalp, scraped over one ear to keep it out of her squinting eyes.
She said it like they were my fault.
I said, “Oh.”
“It’s because you feed the birds,” she continued. “The birds leave a mess, the rats eat the mess. Birds are just flying rats.”
I could see her breath in the cold. I bet it reeked.
I said, “I like the birds.”
The Shrew ignored me. “I was looking out of the bedroom window and I saw them coming out of those conifers you chopped down six week ago. The ones you just stacked up and forgot about. They love that sort of thing, rats. It’s like a rat hotel. They live in your conifers and eat your bird seed. They must think it’s bloody Christmas in your garden.”
I looked at the conifers. I’d been letting them dry out before having a fire in the early Spring. They’d have to go now.
I looked back at her. I could see a white grey bra strap under her dressing gown. I imagined her husband fucking her, I don’t know why. It just came into my mind.
I shuddered.
“I’ll sort the rats out,” I said. I thought about shoving one down her fucking dressing gown.
“Good,” she said.
I went back into the house.

I watched out of the kitchen window for a while, and I saw the rats. I saw two them. One pretty big one and one monster. I really didn’t think rats got that big. The monster rat sat on its haunches under the bird feeder and gorged itself on fallen seed. Its tail looked to be about ten inches long. I didn’t fancy having the kids playing in the garden with that thing kicking about.
I knew they had to go.

Later, I went to B&Q and came back with rat traps. Two of them. Big, ugly plastic things.
I baited them with peanut butter. I’d heard rats go mental for peanut butter.  I walked up the garden to the felled trees and found a gap in the logs and carefully placed a trap there, facing inwards. I tucked another trap around the back of the trees, near the fence. I stood up and a movement caught my eye. The Shrew was stood in the bedroom window, watching me. She still wore the bathrobe, her arms crossed over her tits. We stared at each other.
I went back inside.
Next morning I went out and checked the traps.
There was a dead male blackbird in one of the traps. Its neck was snapped, wings spread, glossy and sleek. It’s eye was open, yellow rimmed, yellow beak open showing a sliver of pink tongue. I felt sadness and anger. It wasn’t right having traps in the garden. Winter was hard enough without shit like that.
I took a stick and triggered the untouched trap. The bar whipped down with a vicious crack, snapping the stick. I looked at the blackbird.
Poor thing.
I bent back the stiff spring of the trap and lifted out the body of the bird, its chest feathers soft, flight feathers stiff and strong. It weighed nothing in my hand. It felt wrong putting it the bin but I did anyway.
The Shrew wasn’t in the bedroom window.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.
It was the first time I’d been in a gun shop. I felt a begrudging excitement. The walls were lined with dark wood racks holding shotguns and rifles, cases containing pistols. There was a smell of oiled metal and polished wood. A man in a khaki hunting vest stood at the counter talking utter bullshit with the proprietor.
I waited until he fucked off before I said anything.
“I’m looking for an air rifle.”
The proprietor smirked. It was a useful smirk, because it informed me that he was a cunt, just like the man in the hunting vest.
He said, “What sort of thing are you after shooting, lad?”
I said to the cunt, “Rats.”
He treated me to another smirk. This one suggested he’d killed many things with guns over the years, things with a much higher social standing than rats.
It goes without saying that I wasn’t impressed.
He said, “You shot anything before?”
I said, “Only my bolt, and that went off too early.”
The gun cunt looked confused.
He said, “So you’re a novice then, yeah?”
I said, “No, it’s just that I’ve never fired a gun before.”
He shook his head.
The gun cunt showed me a basic model but I’d already had me eye on a different rifle. He said it was good for hunting rabbits. It had a scope on the top. He said it was more than adequate, for rats.
I said, “I don’t want to shoot rabbits. Rabbits are cute.”
I watched his reaction. It was brilliant.
I let him rant a bit, then I got bored and bought the rifle. I also bought a big tin of pellets with pointy tips and a padded bag.
The gun cunt became quite cheerful. He treated me like someone who’d just popped his cherry. He threw in some targets and a can of oil.
I paid him, left the shop, slung the rifle in the boot of my car and went home.
I’ve not been in a gun shop since.

That afternoon I set up the scope, pinned a target to a piece of hardboard and put it at the end of the garden.
I fired shot after shot, tweaking the dials at the top of the scope until every shot hit the center.
I felt smug. Being a good shot is one of those thing men feel absurdly smug about. It’s a redundant talent, shooting things. A useless skill. What really need shooting on a day to day basis? Not much.
It’s like claiming to be a really good driver. As long as you don’t crash into anything and can point it in the right direction you’ll generally get by on British roads. You don’t need to be Stirling fucking Moss.
Still, I did feel smug.
The next morning at five, before work, I went into the dark garden and put out bird seed.
I made sure there was plenty on the ground.
At work I felt excited. I didn’t really want to feel excited but I did. Why was I excited?
Because I was going to shoot something dead.
Why did I feel so bad about the dead blackbird but felt so good about killing a rat? Was it about beauty? Were my life and death choices driven by aesthetics, or was it the centuries old prejudice that humans have against rats?
I tried to feel guilty about it but I couldn’t, so I just accepted it.
I hoped I wasn’t turning into a gun cunt.

I got home at two.
A rat was feeding beneath the bird table.
It was cold outside, somewhere near freezing, and I could actually see the rat’s breath as it filled its face with sunflower seeds. Its long tail was curled around its body, snake like.
I opened the kitchen door and the rat disappeared.
It wasn’t going to be that easy.
I found two old blankets in the garage, the ones I used on the concrete floor when I was fixing my bikes. I pulled on extra clothes, thick socks, a scarf across my face and fingerless gloves.
I stepped out of the backdoor and carried my things around to a corner of the garden by the house. I lay one blanket on the concrete path, double folded. I pulled the other blanket over my shoulders. The path was sunken, about a foot lower than the lawn. A low wall ran the length of the path, along the front of the house. Shrubs and plants gave some cover. The garden sloped gently upwards to the bird table, some thirty yards away. From low down it seemed a long way off.
I settled under the blanket and readied the rifle. I loaded it, checked the safety catch, then focused the scope on the area just below the bird table. The scope brought the end of the garden suddenly very close. The cold air seemed to make everything clear, the low sunlight diffused by a freezing mist that hung just above the roof tops. Seed littered the ground under the feeders but there was nowhere near as much as had been there that morning.
Something had been feeding.
A movement on the ground caught my attention. A dunnock, hopping in to feed. It picked at the seed, choosing carefully, cocking it’s head, then hopped across the dirt and under the fence.
The garden was silent.
The temperature falling.
A puddle of water began to freeze right next to me, slim fingers of ice reaching over its black surface. You’d never normally sit by a puddle for a period of time, you wouldn’t see ice creeping over water, but that’s what happened. I watched it freeze. The mist had descended and moisture condensed on evergreen leaves, instantly crystallizing, the waxy green becoming paler with every passing minute.
I was warm. The blankets smelled of WD40 and fustiness, a shed reek. I liked it. Crows cawed in the white mist, invisible in the high branches. I wondered if it was clear up there, if the crows could see over a white pond of frozen air.
I slipped my hands from under the blanket and lifted the rifle. Slow. I got the scope trained on where I thought I’d seen the movement, but I couldn’t see anything. I kept still. I reckoned that whatever I was looking at was probably looking at me, and was definitely more skilled at spotting movement than I was. I froze, like the puddle. I kept one eye on the scope but opened my other eye too so I could see a wider range.
About twenty feet out of the rifle’s range of vision, I saw the rat.
It was by the fence, hugging the ground, left eye tilted in my direction. Its nose twitched. I reckoned it could smell the blankets, the gun, me – everything. Clever little fucker. In a blink it slipped under the fence into next door’s garden, the other side to where The Shrew lived.
I watched, waited for it to come back out, but another movement caught my eye. The rat reappeared further down the fence, right next to the bird feeders.
I slipped off the safety on the rifle.
Its nose tasted the air, whiskers twitching, always moving. His feet were pink. They looked very clean. They say rats are clean animals but I’m still to be convinced. You wouldn’t suck a rat’s foot, would you?
I kept the rifle scope on the rat. I thought about squeezing off a shot but I worried that if I missed it might get spooked and my wait would be wasted. Besides, I wanted a clean kill. I’m no rat lover, but I didn’t want the poor little fucker creeping down some hole to die slowly in agony.
I waited.
It skipped nimbly over to the lose grain and quickly fed, then returned to the safety of the fence. My finger kept a light pressure on the trigger.
It had been too quick.
I wanted it to pause, allow me a clean shot.
It darted out again, and paused.
I slowly exhaled. I’d read somewhere that breathing out stopped you holding your breath which makes a shot go high, same for breathing in. I exhaled, then pulled the trigger.
The rifle bucked. A lump of dirt kicked up millimeters from the rat who simply vanished.
I cracked open the rifle to re-pressure the mechanism, reloaded, pressed the breach quietly closed. I focused the scope on the top area of the fence, at the place where the rat had first appeared.
Nothing. I’d blown it.
I felt angry with myself. I was so sure, but I’d missed. It felt weird to be angry that a creature was still alive, that I’d not killed it. I knew I couldn’t just let the rats have free rein in the garden, they had to go. But did I really need to take pleasure in it?
Slowly, sights back on the feeder area.
It was the same rat. It did look spooked, glancing around and sniffing. It was particularly interested in the area where the dirt was disturbed. I realised that the rat was thinking ‘what the fuck just happened?’ It didn’t have a clue.
It didn’t know I was there.
The rat crept out, body stretching as if it wanted to leave its hind legs in the safety of the fence gap, its front legs more inquisitive, inching forward, nose extended, tasting the air. Its nose was very pink too, and as its head lifted I could see its front teeth, the colour of bamboo. Little wisps of frost breath came from its nose. Its brown fur was quite glossy and it should have been – that bird feed wasn’t cheap.
I realised the rat was every bit as beautiful as the blackbird. Perfectly adapted, a warm blooded creature. If you found that rat happily living on Mars we would be worshiping it, but in a garden it is persecuted.
I watched it inch forward, slowly, grasp a sunflower seed in its paw, then gently nibble it.
I breathed out slowly.
The shot hit the rat beneath its front leg, through the chest. It leapt into the air, eyes squeezed shut, then fell, limp, back leg twitching. I jumped up, reloading the gun as I ran, pressed the barrel to the back of its neck and fired again.
It was definitely dead.
I crouched next to the freshly killed animal in the cold gloom of the garden. Its blood was much darker than I thought it would be, scattered like coins on the concrete path. There was blood on the rat’s lips, too, like make-up.
I picked up the rat by it’s tail, an involuntary shiver running through me as I felt it’s weight, the scaly texture of it’s tail skin.
I looked up.
The Shrew was staring at me, mouth open. She saw the rifle, saw the dead rat. I stared back at her.
The Shrew pulled away, out of sight.
I went round the side of the house and opened the bin, then gently laid the rat next to the dark shadow of the blackbird.
I didn’t feel proud.
The big rat never appeared.
Maybe it saw what happened. Maybe it went out to feed at night and smelled death. Realised the garden was no longer safe.
A few days later I burned the conifers while The Shrew had her washing out.

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