Rats have a dubious reputation in Western culture: they are filthy vermin, indelibly associated with plague, shipwreck and disaster. In 1984, Room 101 contains ‘the worst thing in the world’ – rats! Yet, my family always kept rats, including one who spent his youth as a boy and was revealed to be a girl in her tempestuous mid-life, like a rodent Orlando. With this family tradition firmly in mind, I once wrote a very bad doctorate with a rat up my sleeve. Her name was Kat (Bjelland, it was the late 90s) and she had silky white-and-brown fur, long whiskers, a timorous, edgy demeanour and poignant black eyes. When I first brought her home, she hid for days in a little wooden box, trembling violently. It took many weeks of solicitous and respectful offerings – grapes, mainly – before she came to trust me. Her sister, Courtney (Love, see previous caveat), was identical in appearance but utterly distinct in personality. My theories of rat psychology are anthropomorphic and insufficient, but it seemed that Courtney was an alpha rat, assertive and quick-witted; Kat was existentially baroque and her driving purpose was to avoid being eaten.
The consciousness of animals is mysterious to us, partly because it is non-verbal. Yet, we strive urgently to communicate with our pets, even to ‘understand’ them. My rats took food from me, perched on my shoulder, responded to their names when I called them. It seemed they were even pleased to see me, though this may have been loving optimism on my part. The life of a pet is fundamentally bizarre because we present them with an invented reality: a house, food and water. My rats lived in a large converted aquarium filled with boxes, ropes, tubes, bottles, climbing frames and ladders. They slept curled together in a hammock, little scraps of fur, hearts beating madly. I analysed their behaviour for signs of ‘happiness’. Courtney spent hours exploring my room, nibbling books and scaling the curtains, while Kat sat in my sleeve, chewing delicate asymmetrical patterns in my sweaters. Once, Courtney vanished under the floorboards of my room. I called her name, left trails of food and finally demolished the floor – to no avail. As I sat in the wreckage, surrounded by planks, dust, nails and hammers, Courtney appeared before me and gave me a knowing wink – I’m fairly certain about this, though perhaps the strain had caused me to lose my grip on reality.
After Kat died, Courtney refused to emerge from her house for three days. Having observed this ancient rat-rite of mourning, she began to sit quietly in my sleeve, occupying the former place of her sister.
These beautiful, elusive, fascinating animals were the last I kept; after that my days became too unsettled, too conditioned by the routines of work. I associate their brief lifespans with the final years of my nervous, questing and foolish youth.