THE RAT MAN

THE RAT MAN

THE RAT MAN

I remember only too well the very first time I met “him” because it was the first and only time I have been scared of anyone in
my life.    It was on a very frosty morning, and the country was in the grip of an extreme cold spell.   Icicles hung from the
trees and glinted in the weak winter morning sunshine like jewels on a royal crown. A huge icicle hung like a sword from the
broken guttering running around the roof of one of the cattle pens.  Its size would have made any swordsman of a bygone
age proud if it had been in his scabbard.

Still a young boy in short trousers, nevertheless I had work to do.  I was busy breaking the ice on the pond in the farmyard
for the cattle to drink from when I first heard the steady rhythm of a pony’s hoof beats coming along the winding country lane
that linked the farm to the rest of the world.  I left the cattle to fend for themselves and rushed to the road gate to see who
was coming. Visitors were a rarity at our remote farm.

At first I wished that I had not because the appearance of this visitor was enough to scare the pants off of even the toughest
human.  The RAT MAN (for that’s who he was) was tall and thin with a huge flowing beard.   He had a large carbuncle on his
forehead that glowed as fiery red as the fire on which we roasted chestnuts.  He was dressed in undertaker black from head
to toe, and his clothes had definitely seen better days.  His waistcoat was a mess and badly stained with the remnants of far
too many Christmas dinners,   His hat was the tallest black stovepipe hat that I have ever seen to this day, and it made him
look at least eight feet tall.

He was travelling in a rickety old trap and the wheels looked as if they would fall off at any moment.  Secured to the floor of
the trap was a tatty Victorian, buttoned-backed swivel office chair, on which he sat like a throne.    Around the sides and
across the front of the trap were fixed wooden box-like cages, stacked a least two feet higher than the trap. The once black
horse looked as mottled and moth-eaten as its owner did. The man and his peculiar vehicle were an amazing sight to a
country boy.

This strange-looking man uncoiled himself from his once regal seat and stepped down in the lane.   I could not help noticing
that the fingers protruding from his woollen fingerless gloves were all twisted and misshapen.  Later I learned this was
because of many years of rat bites.

“Hello, young ’un”, he growled with a deep gravely voice that belied his skinny chest, “is the Gaffer about?”

“No sir,” I rather timidly replied, “He is at our other farm and will not be back until at least twelve noon”.

“Yow got any rats?” he growled.

I plucked up my courage and replied, “we’ve ’undreds of the buggers, my brother and I catch ‘em with our terriers”.

“Don’t kill ’em”, he said, “yow is throwin’ money away.  I will pay yow one half penny for every live bugger yow catch for me”.

Even as young as I was, my ears pricked up at the thought of receiving payment for something that was one of the few forms
of entertainment my brother and I had.

“Right, I speck yow got ferrets, so go and get couple”, the old man said as he took down several of his box like cages, “I will
show yow how to catch the little sods”.

I duly collected the best two of our six ferrets that we kept for catching rabbits.  They provided my brother and I with our only
source of income.  I took him to a thin, spindly nut hedgerow that ran from the back of the pigpens, and which contained a
huge amount of rats and rat holes.

The old man walked down the hedgerow mumbling to himself and on his return he growled, “Yow got a fortune yere, boy!”
Then he started to remove handfuls of what turned out to be women’s stockings from countless pockets. They had been
darned with string so many times they were more string than stocking.

“Right, young un”, he said, producing the wickedest looking pen knife I had ever seen.  “Yow cut me a load of thin nut sticks
about seven to eight inches long while I look for some good bolt holes”.

My little task completed, the old fellow proceeded to stretch out the stockings in front of various holes and fixed them with
the sticks holding them open.  After blocking some holes up he told me to put the ferrets down two holes, which he then
promptly blocked with a large stone over each one.

The rat man growled out of the side of his mouth. “Keep still, young ‘un.  If they know we’re here, the little sods ‘ull stay down
them holes”.

For the next half an hour I had great difficulty in containing my excitement.  Underneath us, below ground, a battle royal
raged, with loud bumping and squeaking. Then RATS, RATS AND even more RATS ran out into the stockings, and
eventually the stockings looked more lumpy and bumpy than Nora Batty’s stockings.  So many rats filled the stockings that
Nora’s legs would look like Marilyn Monroe’s in comparison.

Suddenly it went quiet and, after several minutes, the Rat Man removed the two stones and out popped the two ferrets,
blood up to their eyes.  To this day I swear those two ferrets had a grin on their faces as if to say, “That was the best scrap
we have ever had!”

Getting the rats out of the stockings was interesting, to say the least.  Invariably, they defied gravity and hung upside down,
and stubbornly refused to slide into the open cages.  The Rat Man, who showed no fear, just shoved his hand into the
stocking and pulled the rats out one at a time, and thrust them into his cages.  I lost count on the number of times one came
out attached to a finger.  He seemed to be immune to the pain, just yanked the rat off his finger and into the cage they went.

“That’s a grand total of thirty-six.  That’s a good catch”, the Rat Man growled, as we stacked the cages back into his rickety
trap.  I had counted forty-one but I was too nervous of him to point out that it was more.

“Now then, young ‘un,” he said as he brought out a hand full of coins, “I make it, at a halfpenny each, one shilling and six
pence” and he proceeded to slowly count out eighteen dirty old pennies into my hand but to me they shone like they had
just been minted . One shilling and sixpence!  I had never held so much money in my hand before.

“I will cum back yere in two wicks and if yow catch rats as I showed yer, and keep ‘em alive for me, I will pay yer the same.
Good Day to yer”, and with no more to do, he shook the reins at  the motley horse and  drove off back down the lane from
wherever he had come. I was a little overwhelmed by it all as I watched him disappear, expecting at any moment for a wheel
to fall off.  I just could not believe I had earned one and six pence for a half an hour’s fun.  It wasn’t long before  I was back
on down on planet earth and started planning my solo rat catching venture, but it was to be some considerable time before I
discovered what he did a with a cart a load of live rats!!!!!

The next six months flew past and I became quite an expert at catching rats and eventually the rats on the farm were
becoming scarce.  I was looking forward to threshing time.  With all the corn stacks (“ricks” as I knew them) threshed and
removed, then the rats that had chosen to live in the bottom of these ricks reverted to living in burrows. This made them
easier to catch with my team of ferrets.

I kept the live rats in a old disused corn bin deep enough that even the biggest rat could not jump out of.  They were fed and
watered daily, there was no way I was going to let them escape by dying.  The Rat Man would call at regular intervals and
collect his squeaking cargo.  He would just plunge his hand into the corn bin and grab a rat by its neck in such a way that
the rat could not turn its head and bite him. He did not always succeed and often would grab a rat that was hanging off his
finger with his other knurled and lumpy hand and shove the rat into one of his cages.

My savings were going up at a nice steady rate and my father was quite pleased at the absence of rats.        One day,
before my source dried up, I asked the Rat Man what he did with all the rats he collected.

“Young ‘un,”  the Rat Man said, looking at me speculatively, “I think I know ‘ee well enough now that I can trust you to keep
your gob shut.  Meet me at the top of the lane that leads to Farmer Giles’ farm (his name really was Giles!) on Tuesday
afternoon at four o’clock”.

Tuesday could not come soon enough for me and I was there waiting at about three thirty.  Finally, I heard the clip clop of
his horse coming along the lane.  I jumped into his cart and sat on the floor surrounded by cages full of squeaking rats.
Intrigued I asked him how many he had.

“Just over three ‘undred”, he replied in his gravelly voice.

He drove his trap for about an hour before we turned down a long and rutted farm lane that had five bar gates across it at
what seemed every hundred yards or so.  I had just begun to think he had only taken me along to avoid him getting out to
open and close all those gates all by himself when we arrived at a tumbled down farmstead that obviously been abandoned.
He drove around the back of an old barn, and I saw at least twenty ponies and traps, of all sorts of shapes and colours lined
up.  The horses all had nose bags on and completely ignored us. A huge man with large flat ears and a nose that matched,
came out of the barn and approached us.  Nodding at me, he asked the Rat Man who I was.

“It’s okay, he’s with me. I will vouch for him.  Right, young ‘un, let’s get all these cages into the barn”.

On entering the barn, I was taken aback by the strange assortment of characters standing around a circular ring made out
of sheet iron.  This ring stood about four feet high, with the floor covered with fresh clean sawdust.  Suddenly a door at the
back of the barn opened and a huge fat man entered, dressed in a bright green check suit and a red waistcoat that sported
a thick gold watch chain.  His nose was stained brown from taking snuff.  He wore a bowler hat with white five pound notes
tucked into the band all the way round.  I had never seen so many “fivers”.   I asked the Rat Man who he was and in a
hoarse whisper he told me that he was the boss man and the bookie.  A large black board stood in the corner;  it had an
odd-looking list of names written on it and by the side of each name, numbers written in a way I had never seen before: 5/4,
3/1, 7/2 were the first three down the board.

“LETS GET STARTED”, bawled the bookmaker. “Nobody leaves without paying his debts, all the names are in the tin box”.
A weaselly little man, stepped up with an old biscuit tin, and the bookmaker put his hand in and pulled out a slip of paper.

“TIN RIBS IS FIRST UP” he bellowed, reading off the slip of paper.  The number “one” was put next to the matching name on
the blackboard.  This continued until all ten names listed had a number beside it.

“RIGHT”, bellowed the bookie, “YOU HAVE ALL GOT TEN MINUTES TO PUT YOUR BETS ON, AND “TINY” IS THE
TIMEKEEPER TODAY.  ANY OBJECTIONS?   NO?  THEN GET ‘TIN RIBS’  IN THE RING THEN”.

“Come on lad, let’s get three of our cages into the ring”, the Rat Man growled at me.   This done, a  man with a florid face
and a bald head came into the ring carrying a much larger cage and I was unable to see what it contained. The bookie
nodded to the rat man.

“Right, young ‘un, lets get started” and the Rat Man began to tip the rats out into the ring.  As soon as the first rat hit the
floor I was clambering over the side to get out.  The rats ran around in all directions.  The bald headed man got out at the
same time as the rat man.  After about thirty seconds, a whistle blew, and Baldy leaned over to his cage, quickly sliding open
a door. Out shot the mangiest, skinniest terrier I had ever seen.   The dog ran into the thick of the rats, grabbing one and
with one shake of his head the rat flew up in the air. The dog had another rat in its mouth almost before the first one had hit
the floor, stone dead.
Excited cheers from all the watchers seemed to spur the mangy killer on until a whistle blew.  Then Baldy jumped into the
ring and grabbed his much-prized dog, patting him and talking to him in an attempt to calm him down.

The timekeeper jumped into the ring with a glove on one hand and a sack in the other and collected all the dead rats,
steering well clear of the remaining six live ones. “Twenty-four” he announced as he scrambled out of the ring with the
sack.   The Rat Man jumped back into the ring and had me pass him three more cages.  He released another twenty-four
rats to join the remaining six.  From this I learnt he stored ten in each cage.

The second contender in place, the whistle blew, and off it went again. The Rat Man took time to explain to me that when the
terriers shook the rat once, they did so with such force it was like cracking a whip, and the neck of the rat was instantly
broken. They had all been trained, he told me, and went on to tell me that each dog was allowed one minute.  The men bet
on whichever dog they fancied to kill the most rats in the time allowed and that dog was the winner.

“Everyone is charged a guinea to enter their dog”, the Rat Man told me.  “I am paid for the rats out of that and the
bookmaker keeps the rest”.

The tenth and final dog, which was a black, shaggy haired mongrel, was released into the ring.  No sooner had he cleared
his cage, the Rat Man grabbed me and, with some urgency, urged me, “Come on, let’s get out of here.  Quick now, young ‘un
“.

I heard the whistle blow as I jumped into the rickety trap.  Loud shouts, thuds, bangs could be heard coming from the barn,
accompanied by groans and cries of pain. By this time, we were off down the lane as fast as the moth-eaten pony could
travel.  When we had travelled about a mile, the Rat Man pulled the pony to a stop for a rest and proceeded to tell me why
we had to leave in a hurry.

“That last dog was a ringer”, he said.  “I recognised him right away”.

“What do you mean?” I asked him.

“Well the owner has come up from Bristol.  He has got another dog that’s identical, but black and the dog is hopeless.  The
dog he put in the ring is one of the best dogs for miles but he is white. He has dyed the white dog black and entered him as
the useless one.  That way he gets very good odds and wins a pot load of money. But I guessed he would get caught out as
it was such a bad dye job!” and the Rat Man gave a wheezy laugh.

“What will happen to the man from Bristol?” I asked.

“He’ll get a good hiding and never be allowed to come back.  I suppose he will go south now and try his luck somewhere
else”.

The Rat Man dropped me off and I walked the rest of the way home a much wiser boy.  I never set eyes on the rat man
again, he just disappeared.  Perhaps he had one too many rat bites and suffered the consequences. I was glad that I had
been given an opportunity to see what was probably one of the last ratting sessions staged in this county, and to get to
know a genuine eccentric like the Rat Man.

What an extraordinary day that was for a young country boy. While I have related this story it was as a clear a memory in my
mind as if it was yesterday. No doubt, the memory will stay with me forever.