Rats Wid Wings
If you have a thing about rats, be of good cheer, this story is not about actual rats on l’ill budgie wings. But if you have a thing about l’ill scratchy, demony things, you might not be so lucky…
There may be some swearing.
here are hundreds of cages in this small Edinburgh flat, and the landlord – Goresky – is at the door waving the lease, saying “No cat! No kot! Not even kotec!” Despite the incorrect species, it’s hard to believe this is coincidence.
Mikey feels a stab of worry, but continues to observe the bullish man through a slot seventy-eight inches high and one inch wide, which is as far as he’s going to open the tenement door. He has to ask himself who or what has tipped off this old gangster?
How about the pungent smell and the waft of papery scales that tend to gather under every door? Or the assorted scritters, yowels and squeaks? Or the nervous downstairs neighbours on the end of long-handled brushes prodding ceilings, saying, real quiet: please, please, no more?
Goresky has a fat lip and black stubble that could be his own crotch clippings stuck on with paste. His face is literally bristling. “I telling you, West Boy. I telling you.” He takes a cloudy breath. “And telling you!”
Waves a big fat finger.
A white slip of paper is forced around the edge of the door, come from that dumpster fist. It’s covered in close-written ballpoint – blue and underlined in places – crumpled and now folded over.
Without thinking, Mikey rips it through. This is greeted by a leering grin, gold teeth flashing. “See you on street. Dupek!” says the Polska in soft, fierce words. Then, be-slotted and nothing left to serve, he stalks off without looking back. His hand is waved in the air in a writhing spiral as he descends the stairs, like fat smoke in a sweaty shirt – the tenement Djinn without the wishes.
Mikey can only imagine what brutish enforcement squad he’s off to assemble. “Aye, well,” he shrieks, “fix the fucking lift, you loser” and whacks shut the door; cracking hard brass into place; jangling chain.
“Hisssss,” goes the chorus.
It’s been a bad day.
That morning began with a retching gasp into morning light and hallucinogenic wakefulness. It was followed by fist-punch eyes staring back in confusion from the flecked mercury of the wardrobe mirror.
Cages had slipped in the night. Little voices had been sing-songing from pointed tongues and sharp teeth till sun rise. Something was flitterbying the breakfast table – so small and dark and filled with hunger that Mikey couldn’t see it. A part of him would’ve welcomed never seeing it or its numerous brothers and sisters again, even though it was hard to imagine life without his leathery flock. Unfortunately, the escapee was entirely unfazed by the flyswatter in Mikey’s hand. He might as well have brought it breakfast at the end of the green plastic handle – what with the wounds it left on his arms. Still didn’t stop him swatting the air, though, as the thing flittered by, giggling nastily, the rest of them egging it on – their brave new explorer of sunlight.
Squalling, it eventually exploded into charred mystery meat.
The rats like to sit on the TV; roost on the bed frame. Congealed excrement slides down these surfaces, or is baked into cake by the central heating: black like insect casings; smells of black pudding.
Best not to think about that.
Mikey opens the windows for an airing. Something stirs. Cracks an eye.
He looks out over the sprawling tenements, a rusting play park, and the dead streets, beyond. He sees this shimmer through mucusy lickings and four-fingered paw splots on the glass, where a ‘rat’ has excitedly gobbled a moth and spat out the antenna.
Mikey found a lot of things hard to accept. Sure he was happy enough, he supposed, if he kept the door shut on the room with the cages and turned Jeremy Kyle up to fifteen, and there was footy and chips from Ginelli’s and Cobra beer on promo at the Co-op, but his other life had started to intrude. That other life was mean. It had teeth. Lots of little teeth. And it was hard to get away when it could fly on shitty little wings. And while the big thing he couldn’t accept was the death of his sister, Margret Lee Maine – God bless her broken little body – he wasn’t about to kid himself that his new life on her behalf wouldn’t turn on him and eat him at the first chance it could get. In fact, as the ring leader of Von Micken Mousen’s Festering Flying Circus – as he’d labelled his crazy enterprise – he would grudgingly admit that might be entirely appropriate. Revenge was hungry. It liked to be fed. And if you considered that pile of empty cat food tins, revenge was particularly fond of ‘real meaty chunks of chicken in gravy’ when it couldn’t get what it really wanted; if you took too long and it had to eat in. It also tended to grow arms and legs… on fishhook claws.
There’s a strip of Margret’s camisole is in the living room, complete with pink, reconstructive makeup stains. The edges are fleshy and curled, ragged with hurried cutting and tearing with an Exacto Knife. Mikey guesses you might call that an act of desecration, concealed by a mid-funeral breakdown over the open coffin. Perhaps to lessen the deed, he uses it as a bookmark which makes all his paperbacks bulge by the end of the reading – you can tell a Mikey book (that and the tarnished brown of the pages and the sign of small but excited gnawing, claw scratching, and the tiny corrosion of urine stains).
Geegaw says it ain’t the best, that camisole – synchronicity, alignment… something, whatever. Says she wasn’t wearing it when she went and the attacker never touched it, but she’s has been wearing it dead. That’s gotta count for something. “‘Course”, said the diminutive Glaswegian scratching out a brief flurry of chin scurf, “you may end up doin’ for all them lasses wearin’ the same perfume in a five mile radius. Heh.”
No laughs there, then.
The flat hasn’t been cleaned in months. Pizza flat-pack is the new Mondrian architecture. Styrene plazas. Dark rustlings in the crumpled fishhhhh and chip wrappers on the kitchen floor, where scavengers wander under the fatty, autumn leaves. Mould cascades from one plate to the next in the kitchen-sink-Vesuvius of plates – egg stains reborn as culture. Occasionally, the tiny Reavers come to this Babylon on shredded wings, scaled to its populace, and sup on the green velvet layered on the orange putrid flows.
Geegaw had warned all about this.
“This isn’t bloody Gremlins, he said,” smacking Mikey up around the face. “These things don’t turn into toothy beasties if you feed ‘em after midnight.”
“No, son. They start out annoyed. These things like meat. Meat, meat, meat. And if you don’t feed ‘em meat, they like you. And if you point ‘em out the window, they like anything on two legs or four. But if you do that, son, make sure you’ve got somethin’ under their nose to go after, or they’ll go through the neighbourhood like a dose of salts.”
“Yeah, ‘oh man.’ So, cages. Eye drops. Litter. Pooper-scooper…”
Armloads of stuff from a back of a van, a van so full of rust the neighbourhood showed through the holes. Up twelve flights as the lift was out and presumably never coming back.
“You can stack ‘em in, but they fight. Li’ll scrappers,” Geegaw said. Not quite affectionately, as he tweaked at something fleshy under his eye patch.
“That about it?” says Mikey, keeking in a cage. He could feel something pitter-pattering inside, but it looked empty. A strange mewling came from another.
“No receipts.” The dealer gave him a narrow look and laughed nasty. “An’ if you don’t pay, you know what’s coming after you.” And then he left so quiet Mikey had to check all the rooms to make sure he’d actually gone.
There is no manual, only trial and error. What follows are rashes, and cat scratches from chin to forehead (so he says to the Housing Benefit) and bad, little necrotic gasps of breath at his ear as something shadowy hisses at the moonlight and settles a tail around his neck, prickling, as it rides him like a horse.
“What are these? Pony nuts?” he’d asked Geegaw, holding up a handful of freeze-dried, desiccated pellets.
“Pig nuts,” he’d said. “Pig nuts.”
“What they really?”
Thing loves them – head wedged between Mikey’s fingertips, rooting them out. When it misses – malicious or no – its teeth nip like nail clippers. The neck-stretching gobbling is followed by enthused lip-smacking from mid-air.
That night, Mikey takes out the strip of camisole. Slides it under a quivering darkness poised with nostrils, and whispers lines from Shakespeare or Church, or Ibiza – for all he understands them – amazed at how the little thing perks up and shoots out the bathroom window to a jangle of wind chimes; the plastic dolphin clapper detecting something hungry in the breeze.
Then he’s suddenly convinced he’s lost it. “Oh fuck.” Runs to the living room and rumbles aside the glass. On the balcony. Can’t of course see a thing. Gone now.
Hours later – watching Weakest Link, and a few Cobras to the wind – a bottle of shampoo goes over in the bathroom like a bomb. Jumps the height of himself. Ear to the door. Mewling and skittering. Plinks on the light with a tentative tug on the cord.
Opens the door and finds a network of threaded blood all over everything, like red paint seeping into folds of watery paper. Floor to ceiling. Little doosh at an epicentre, near a corner shelf in the tiles. A splatter ball. Whether it’s the blood sticking all over it or it’s temporarily sated, it’s quite visible – and it’s a horror.
Mikey briefly contemplates picking it up with tongs or a fish slice, but instead brings its box with fresh newspaper, and slides open the trap. Yellow eyes glitter, hips sway and it fracks out its wings, a hiccup-like burp, the snout scrawls up into a leering nightmare of bat and Piranha.
Mikey holds out the box. “Mmmm… pig nuts,” he mumbles.
The rat hops inside, weight dropping the box a little. Within, a tiny delightful purr like a diamond drill as it tucks into pig entrée. Mikey feels sick. Clack goes the little door. Greedy claws fish out trying to snag his fingers.
Hours of painstaking cleaning.
“Bloody things are leaving more mess than if I just went out there with bare hands and a fire axe,” he whines to Geegaw a day or two later.
Gets a finger pricked in his chest. “What did I say. You gotta be a linguist, son. Say the exact word and they go. ‘Fact, say the word and I’m gone. But, be that as it may, pacts are pacts. You got ‘em for 99 years.”
Given his likely lifespan, that term seems rather optimistic. “What then?”
“Haaa, ha. What then indeed. Listen son, this ain’t a Playstation.”
Mikey wishes he wouldn’t do that. Takes out the camisole. Folds it.
How many murdering scumbags are there in the world? he wonders. Excepting him, Goresky and Geegaw, that is.
One less each night – Mikey and the circus wronging the wrongs.