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The Rat from the River


Jack Windsor

The locals could not remember a winter as hard as this one. Even old Henry Toomey was reluctant to make comparisons with the past, and Henry could always be relied upon to bring forth a tale about how much worse things were when he was a lad.

It was a winter without respite that sorted the weak from the strong amongst humans, animals and plants. It started with a fall of snow in mid-December and now at the end of January that same snow still lay on the ground, frozen into icy permanence by week after week of unrelenting frost. With each day the winter's bitter lance thrust deeper into the soil, destroying in its path all but the hardiest of plants. Animals and birds were forced to exist on the most meagre of food supplies and survival of the fittest was a grim realism for all of them. Though it would only be
when Spring eventually arrived that nature could fully count its costs.

For the first time since way back in 1939 the river totally froze over, much to the delight of children and ice-skaters. The water dwelling animals and birds, however, did not find the phenomenon so beneficial and soon death took its inevitable tithe. For some other animals the hard surface of the river was an advantage, for it expanded their territories at a time when food supplies diminished to barely subsistence level.

So it was with the rat; a young female who inhabited an abandoned otter's hole in the river bank. A few weeks before, a lean and hungry vixen had killed her mate, and now she was on her own fending for herself. As the winter grew longer and food became scarcer, so the rat ventured out across the river, extending her territory day by day until at last, she came to the outlying houses of the town.

The humans in their inefficiently heated homes turned up the heating controls another notch or two and tried in vain to stop the draughts around doors and windows. Each day they were exhorted to "put on more clothes and keep warm." Radio and television presenters seemed to delight in telling them of new records: the first white Christmas for 18 years; the coldest day of the decade; the coldest December for a century. And for the people, just as among the animals and plants, it was the weakest that suffered most.

Few ventured into the Siberian temperatures without the warmest clothing, and time spent out of doors was kept to a minimum. Theatres, cinemas and restaurants suffered, for only the hardiest of people were willing to brave the icy conditions in order to obtain their entertainment.

The Taj Mahal Restaurant was no exception. For many weeks there were hardly more than half a dozen customers during any single evening, and Mr. Virani was not a happy man. He had opened his new venture only six months before and now he was in danger of seeing the business fold. The time had come for desperate measures.

First he visited a local printing firm and explained his ideas for attracting more people into his establishment. The printers too, were suffering from the general lack of trade, and they enthusiastically gave Mr. Virani their help and advice. Before long there took shape an advertising leaflet, which carried an offer that few people would be able to resist. Mr. Virani placed an order for 5,000 leaflets. Almost as soon as they came off the press, he, all his family and many of his friends cocooned themselves against the polar conditions in as many clothes as they could find, then set off for all the residential areas in easy reach of the restaurant.

Up and down the garden paths they trod, trying to balance the caution needed on the icy surface with the speed of movement required to keep warm. It was a losing battle, for the piercing cold insinuated its way into the very marrow of their bones; but on the doormat of each home they walked away from, lay an invitation to escape to the tropics.

In every house in every street the leaflet's bold headline shouted its message to the frozen inhabitants of the town:


Their interest aroused, they gazed at a picture of the famous sandstone and marble Indian memorial. It glistened in the sunlight and drew their eyes down to the message of the advertisement. Each person having a meal in the Taj Mahal restaurant before the end of March would be given a free entry in The Grand Indian Holiday Draw. The leaflet went on to describe the prize; two weeks in the sunshine and warmth of India, seeing the famous sights, absorbing the local customs, swimming in the hotel pool, and all of this far, far away from the cold British winter.

After reading this, most people were able to close their eyes, and make themselves feel warm by just imagining the exotic holiday. But many were tempted by the prize offer and picked up the telephone to reserve a table. After all there was nothing to lose, was there? And they might just find themselves on an aeroplane heading away from all the ice and snow. At the end of the week, Mr. Virani was smiling. There were enough table bookings to ensure that the Taj Mahal restaurant would survive until the cold weather was over.

The many who thought that winter would begin to loosen its grip with the coming of March, were to be disappointed as temperatures fell even lower and yet more cold weather records were established. Travel agents around the country were overwhelmed as thousands of people sought relief from the arctic conditions by taking early holidays in warmer lands. Radio, television and the newspapers speculated on the reasons for such a severe winter. Some said it was freak happening; others claimed that such winters occurred regularly every 300 years; many blamed the scientists; and the political extremists laid responsibility firmly with the Government.

Indeed, belatedly it was thought by some, the Prime Minister created a "Minister for Winter," who very quickly was dubbed
"The Jack Frost Minister" by the Press.  None of this, however, had any effect on the freezing temperatures and both humans and wildlife struggled against the elements as best they could.

Mr. Virani rarely felt the cold, for his restaurant was so busy there was little opportunity to leave it. Customers flocked in every day, eager to claim their draw tickets, and looked forward to the announcement of the winner at the end of March. Many were surprised at the palatability of the food and some took to coming for a meal every week.

The days and weeks sped by and almost every night the Taj Mahal Restaurant was fully booked. Indeed they were so busy, Mr. Virani and his staff looked forward to a quieter time in April. But first, there was the Grand Indian Holiday Draw, and suddenly the last day of March was upon them; it was time to make the draw.

It was warm in the restaurant ---- but outside, winter's savage grip was unrelenting. April was only one day away and yet there was not the slightest indication that Spring was on its way.

Not a single bulb or corm was able to pierce the icy soil; the birds expended their energy in finding warmth, quite forgetting it was the time of year to burst into song; and the frost encrusted trees showed no sign of breaking into bud. Wildlife overcame its distrust of humans and ventured further into the town than before. The rat in an agony of hunger sniffed its way from door to door and through the back gardens of suburbia. Twice as it passed over open ground it narrowly avoided the over-eager attentions of a silent and starving barn owl.

The frustrated bird alighted upon a fence post and noiselessly watched for the telltale movement that would locate its prey; but now the rat was well aware that danger threatened. Slowly the owl rotated its head as it scanned the terrain around it, like an air field radar searching out the enemy. The rodent crouched in the shadows unable to see the predator, but sensing its presence. Time ceased and death waited for just an instant before passing on. Then hunger decided the course of destiny.

Giving up the chase, the hunter spread his vast wings and, without a sound, vanished in the direction of the river. Its intended prey, urged by the desperate need to eat, moved inexorably toward the sound of human life.

Mr. Virani was beaming as he welcomed the diners for this, the big draw evening. After their meal there would be a celebration and the Mayor and Mayoress had agreed to draw the winning ticket.

The chef had surpassed himself, for he had taken even more care than usual in mixing the subtle blends of spices that made his meals so memorable. He told himself that Mr. Virani may have persuaded the customers to come to the restaurant in the first place, but he, the chef, would ensure that they kept returning. Yes, he was proud of his skill. He was also proud of his kitchen, and as soon as the last meal was served, he commenced the clean-up operation.

Meanwhile in the restaurant, the Mayor and Mayoress made their arrival and were chatting with some of the diners. Nearby on a table in the centre of the room, stood the drum containing the draw tickets. Upon each ticket was written the name of a customer hoping to escape from the frozen streets of his home town to the heat and hospitality of India.

Everyone in the restaurant felt the excitement building as they waited for the winning name to be revealed. Mr. Virani opened several bottles of champagne and poured a glass for everyone present. The Mayor plunged his hand deep into the paper filled drum, and closed his fingers around a single ticket.

Back in the kitchen, the chef had been told that the Mayor and Mayoress would like to visit his domain and he looked around to check that all was as it should be. His critical eye fell on a discarded spice container, which marred an otherwise perfect scene. He hurried to dispose of it before the visitors arrived. Rushing out into the yard, he left the door ajar as he opened the bin and dropped the offending rubbish in.

The heated air from the kitchen cascaded into the arctic night creating thermal eddies that swirled invisibly through the darkness. Carried along in the warm air were the aromas of exotic spices and the mouth-watering smell of food. It was all too much temptation for the rat, which crouched nearby, and it darted through the open door into the kitchen. The chef returned, slamming the door against the cold. The rat, still apprehensive about humans, ran on unseen through the curtained archway into the restaurant.

All eyes were upon the Mayor as he held up the ticket and announced the winner of the prize. There was a flash of light as the local news photographer recorded the scene for the weekly paper.

Meanwhile, the rat, disorientated by its sudden arrival in the midst of so much light and noise, scampered hither and thither until at last it ran right over the Mayoress' foot. Feeling the movement she looked down and emitted a scream so piercing that it froze the expression on every face in the restaurant.

Pandemonium erupted. Several women joined in the screaming and some climbed upon chairs and even tables to escape the rodent. Two or three men tried to chase the animal but in the milling crowd this was impossible, and they merely added to the confusion. The photographer quickly summed up the situation and began taking pictures as fast as he could, for he knew this would be a front page story. In the midst of all this panic, the Mayor ran to the aid of his wife to protect her; the ticket, now forgotten, slipped from his fingers and drifted to the floor. It came to rest at the feet of Mr. Virani, who stood with his head in his hands lost in the anguish of the dream exploding around him.

The Mayor's chauffeur opened the front door of the restaurant and shepherded his charges through, then the rat, smelling fresh air and seeing a chance to escape from that frightening place, darted after them. On the way out she saw the discarded winning draw ticket, and thinking it might be food, grabbed hold of it in her jaws, and took it with her until she reached a snow filled ditch where she felt safe.

A week later the cold weather finally broke and Spring at last showed its face. With the warmer weather the rat returned to the river, never knowing the devastation it had caused amongst the townsfolk that cold March night. Certain people, however, remembered the rat for as long as they lived.

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