Merlin was a big, fat, albino rat with blood-red eyes that made him look like he’d just had his picture taken with a strong flash. He came from a different litter to the other two rats, and was older and twice the size. If I was to sum up Merlin’s personality in one word, that word would be greed. He’d stockpile any morsel of food that entered the cage, leaving his cage-mates with the equivalent of basic rations. He wouldn’t even eat the majority of his hoard: he just didn’t want the other cunts having it. If you pushed your finger between the bars to stroke him, Merlin would invite your digit into his mouth like it was a delicious Richmond sausage. He once stole a giant cube of cheese from our living- room table, and loped off along the skirting boards with it, exhibiting all the bent and lopsided grace of a Shih Tzu with a safe in its mouth.
One day he got sick. Real sick. Lost his appetite, and zest for food theft. We had to hand feed him mushed-up fruit, and coax him into drinking water. The other rats sensed his weakness, and routinely attacked him, perhaps also partly in revenge for all the stolen food. We googled lots of articles about rat behaviour, and discovered a theory that said rats in the wild will often kill a sick or dying rat because their sickness-tinged pheromones act like the olfactory equivalent of a klaxon for nearby predators. True or not, I guess there’s no word for ‘hospice’ in the rat dictionary.
We had to give Merlin his own cage, which we had to transport with us whenever we visited family, so we could provide round-the-clock care. After months of convalescence, he started getting better. Much better. He was eating, and jogging around again. And then, with little warning, he died. But not before a harrowing series of gymnastic fits and strokes, which left him stunned, frightened and inert. We knew he was finished, and – after a few soft kisses on his head and back – were forced to leave him quietly dying as we both went to work. It hurt, I didn’t want to leave him, but somehow a dying rat didn’t seem like justification enough for compassionate leave from work. Besides, the poor love was probably dead the minute we turned our back on him. In any case, is there a sliding scale of acceptable work-based pet grief?
‘I’m terribly sorry, boss, but I can’t come in today. My stick insect has died.’
I suggested taking him to the vet, but apparently all the vet does is jab the dying rat’s heart with a needle, subject it to further agony, and then charge you seventy quid for the privilege. By lunchtime, poor Merlin was dead; by tea-time, he was inside a shoe-box coffin.
We buried him in my mum’s back garden. My step-dad directed me to a burial spot in a wild, untended part of the garden that was resplendent with tree roots. You’d be surprised how long and arduous a task it is to bury a shoe-box deep in the ground when you’ve got to hack and slice through hard earth that’s snaked with the tentacles of fifty-year-old trees. The sweat was pissing from me, and my shoulders ached, but it felt right.
I wanted to bury little Merlin because a) I loved the wee bastard, and b) I wanted to teach my six-year-old niece something about the cycle of life and death. My step-sister is of the opinion that ‘Dogs and cats get cremated, but rodents they go in the bin.’ Whatever your take on that funereal stance, it’s an undeniably catchy mantra. I can see it being turned into a Mary Poppins-esque musical number:
“Dogs and cats get cremated, but rodents they go in the bin,
We’re setting a fire under Rover, and flaming away all his sin.
Aroofawoofwoofity, roofywoofwoof, we’re shoving dead rats in the bin!”
Although there’s a voice in my head that whispers, ‘My step-sister’s right, it’s just a rat,’ there’s a louder, sterner voice that counters: ‘But he was family: one of us.’ Any semi-sentient creature you care enough about to let share your home and your existence – however briefly – deserves the dignity of a burial unshared by half-eaten apples, rotten kebabs and empty crisp wrappers. If granny doesn’t get wheeled out to the kerb on a Friday morning, then neither does ratty.
Not that I’m saying a dead rat is worth cup for cup the same amount of tears you’d weep for a deceased family member. Anthropomorphism is something in which all pet owners indulge – even if it’s just a little thing like putting a hat on a dog, or jamming a lit cigarette in a horse’s mouth – but for the sake of sanity it should have its limits. Or should it? What if the family member was an arsehole? Who’s more deserving of your grief: Adolf Hitler, or some innocent hamster that never did any harm except for a little light gnawing on the free-view box cable?
Innocence might be the key: losing a pet is tough because a pet is perpetually child-like in its dependence and naivety, something that doesn’t really change between its birth and death. There’s a maturation process, sure, but nothing even vaguely approximating the changes that occur in ‘higher’ animals like us. For instance, I’ve never witnessed a dog flicking through old photo albums and saying: ‘Is that really me looking all dorky there with that stick in my mouth? Oh my God, I’m so embarrassed! Take me to the vet and put me down, put me down now! LOL!’
My niece went down to Merlin’s grave and sprinkled some seeds beneath the stick we’d used to mark the site. The seeds were for Merlin, she said, so he’d have something to eat when he came above ground. Her interpretation of events told me two things: 1), my niece has a budding, heartbreaking capacity for compassion; and, 2) that death is too large and final a concept for a six year old fully to comprehend. That’s why I told her, ‘That’s a really nice and thoughtful thing you did for Merlin’, rather than, ‘Don’t be fucking stupid, he’s never coming back. His half-eaten body will be a wasted, rotting husk by now.’
Perhaps, though – and this might be a long shot – my niece knows something that we don’t: that Jesus is coming back as a rat this time. That would be a twist and a half, wouldn’t it? A Catholic CSI team dispatched to my mum’s back garden armed with the Vatican’s equivalent of Egon Spengler’s PKE meter. All the prayers would have to be altered. ‘Give us this day our daily cheese, and forgive us for taking a shit behind the bookcase, as we forgive you for not cleaning out our cage every week.’ In my view, rats will only deserve their own religion once their species has evolved the requisite sentience and intelligence to be able to come up with something as fucking stupid as the Bible for themselves.
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