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Open Features: Rats And A Sinking Ship

Jean Cowgill tells the tale of a party of creatures who were delighted to be shipwrecked.

The survivors gathered near the prow of the stricken vessel beached on a narrow shore-line which, in turn, gave way to massive cliffs of smooth blocks of basalt. Hope receded. Some of the older members prayed for salvation. The younger ones scanned the shore. Movement in the distance caused an excited murmuring.

‘He’s nearly here.’ ‘I see him.’ ‘What a mover. How I envy his agility.’

‘Look at the way he hurdles the pebbles with his twisting and turning.’

‘Calm down, Maria, we know you’ve always had a crush on Ronaldo.’

‘Be quiet everyone. Let Xavier speak.’

The elderly patriarch called out ‘Welcome back Ronaldo.’

Willing feet helped him aboard. Cheeks were kissed in the continental manner.

‘Sit down here on the crossbeam,’ said Xavier, ‘someone bring the fellow a drink.’

Not wishing to lose face Ronaldo walked carefully towards the designated place just below the leader. He was exhausted but not by a whisker did he let his condition be known. He gulped at the brackish water held within the folds of tarpaulin.

‘So, how was it? What did you see?’ asked Xavier.

Ronaldino smiled. To the uninitiated his face gave the appearance of a sneer. His companions knew better. Here was their scout, their talisman, back safe and sound. Now they could hope. The last few hours had been frightening. Their boat had been at the mercy of the storm. All were experienced sailors yet none had previously witnessed such seas.

‘Xavier, friends, we have sailed for many weeks as foretold in our ‘Great Book’’ a collective sigh of reverence broke out. ‘When we were shipwrecked I must admit that my belief was sorely tested.’

‘Get on with it’ someone at the back of the group shouted.

‘Here on the very edge of the world, where daylight appears frightened to stay more than a couple of hours at a time, black clouds loom and blizzards…’

‘But what did you find?’ asked Xavier aware that Ronaldo fancied himself as a raconteur. He was even more aware that the ship was listing badly and he had an aversion to the idea of a cold bath in icy waters. ‘Get on with your tale.’

Ronaldo had not attended any creative writing classes. He did not know of the theory ‘less is more’. He had wished to give them a detailed picture and he resented the interruption. His sneer became pronounced. He shook his greasy locks, made worse by the polluted water, and continued:

‘Verily, we have come to a land flowing with milk and honey.’ Puzzled murmurs indicated that this may not be quite the correct expression. ‘Well,’ he amended, ‘not exactly milk and honey. More eggs and chicks! OK so I know chicks don’t ‘flow’ but eggs can. Especially when there are so many you can have egg fights and still fill your bellies.’ He paused to wipe the yolk from his whiskers. ‘Once we get to the shore, and I admit some of our elderly and those in the baby unit will need help, we can climb a zig-zag path. At every zig and at every zag ledges will take us to where the ones who go by air have left their homes. In most there are eggs. Where there are no eggs the ones who go by air have left their young. It is paradise; paradise indeed!’

Maria started to sing a song she had heard whilst sharing a house in Lisbon ‘if paradise is half as nice…’ Her neighbours promptly sat on her.

‘What of the enemy…the bipeds?’ asked Xavier playing the part of the cautious leader.

‘Not a sight of them although I did find evidence of their old nests – abandoned long, long ago. There are no stoats with their royal fur, no prickly hedgehogs not even the one who goes ‘pop’. I truly believe we have reached the Promised Land.’ Ronaldo smiled and stretched his front legs in a victory salute. Maria swooned and was resuscitated with reluctance.

Xavier spoke to the assembly. ‘We, who are usually never more than a few feet away from the two legged, will learn to adapt to an existence free from humans. It is decreed in the ‘Great Book’ that we must indeed leave our sinking ship.’

So began the rats’occupation of St Kilda.

***


On 2nd February 2008 a report on Radio Four told of a Portugese ship that had run aground on St Kilda (fifty miles beyond the Outer Hebrides). The island is owned by the National Trust who said they were worried about any rats who may escape from the ship onto the island. The main character resembles a member of the current Manchester United football team.

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