• WFPL: Rats

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    This week’s Writings From a Past Life comes from Wendy Polavi, a 17-year-old college junior (!) who has this to say about the piece: 

    “It’s a chapter from a book of fiction about sewer rats. It isn’t really a common subject, is it? I unearthed this excerpt from the still-unfinished piece today and thought I might share it. I find it charming.”

    We do, too.


    Chapter One

    October 13, 1963. The beginning.

    Of course, for most of the sewer rats in London it didn’t begin until October 24, 1963, which was when the newspaper pages of October 13 found their way down to the pipes. And for the majority of most of the rats it didn’t begin until October 26, which was when the elite rats, those with the ability to read, got a hold of said pages and announced the 13th’s events to the modestly educated bulk. For the part of the bulk living in the more rugged neighborhoods of the London sewers, it didn’t start until October 29, which was when the news of the elite rats reached the rough areas…this could go on awhile. Until mid-November, to be exact.

    But in the human world, and for a few lucky rodents that didn’t get thrown out or trapped by the frazzled guards on the way in, the beginning was on October 13, 1963.

    Davy McTailor had been there. He hadn’t meant to be. He’d had a nasty run-in with a human plumber somewhere along a Westminster tributary. Human contact was a rare thing in sewer society. But Davy quickly learned that it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. The startled plumber had nearly smashed him with a wrench, and the young brown rat had escaped just in time. He’d hopped along the pipes and out a manhole moments before the plumber could start choking things.

    On and on Davy ran, in a panic that lasted long after the plumber’s near-attack. He spent much of the time dodging, dashing through a street loaded with feet. Large feet, small feet, heeled feet, booted feet, flat feet, feet of all different shapes and sizes. Of course, the diversity was useless to notice when you were a rat and you were running through a road of feet with the goal in mind to not get killed. And, of course, he was faced with the expected shrieks coming from quite a bit above the feet.

    Davy finally couldn’t take any more and ran for the nearest shelter. He found a small open hole and tunneled into a gigantic, carved, Roman-like white building resembling an opera house. After spending some time climbing about and shoving through various barriers, he finally got a look at the inside of the ornate place. And found that he might have gotten himself into more trouble than he was previously in.

    There were hundreds upon hundreds of soft red chairs, all filled with loud, excited-looking people, young and old, male and female. A long stage was set up before them all, draped by a purple curtain. Everything was in a bustle. The air was full of it.

    Despite his suspicions that if curiosity killed the cat, it would tie a rat up in string and hang it over a giant pit of fire for several minutes before finally cutting the thread, Davy couldn’t resist following his own wonder. Making sure he was well-hidden, he snuggled into a part of the audience, having silently slipped up into the higher rows to get a full view of the stage.

    A well-dressed man emerged from behind the curtain, making the noise grow higher. He approached the microphone and spoke for a while, leading the audience to chuckle and cheer at certain points. Davy didn’t pay much attention to most of it, but to his small and less than fastidious ear, this was the last thing the man said:

    “Ladies and gentlemen, beetles.”

    The crowd went crazy. The shrieks Davy had caused earlier were mute in comparison. Wow, really, Davy thought, these humans are a bunch of scared rodents. Even we won’t scream and run off at small insects.

    But the realization came to him: They weren’t upset. In fact, they seemed overjoyed. A group of insects were making these humans absolutely thrilled. What kind of entertainment do they have here? Davy wondered.

    But here the real surprise came. Instead of a group of creepy-crawlies, four men with instruments took the stage. They were all dressed in identical gray suits, with identical black shiny shoes, and with identical hairdos, the last of these resembling furry bowls stuck to their heads somewhat artificially. In many ways, they resembled very large, wingless, relatively sophisticated beetles.

    Despite the fact that he could barely hear himself think over the joyfully screaming girls in the audience, Davy cocked his head at the quartet and allowed a variety of possibilities to run through his mind. Perhaps these men were especially well-dressed janitors that had mistakenly crushed the preparing beetles in the middle of cleaning. But then why was everyone applauding them so? No…perhaps they were the beetles, and had metamorphosed into humans in a freak accident! They did look like some. Or perhaps—

    And then it started.

    Davy leaned in to hear over the excited audience. A jangling sound came from the stringed instruments—Davy couldn’t place what they were, he’d have to ask the elite—a rhythm came from the large, pail-shaped instrument in the back, and the young men began to sing. There was quite a bit of da-da-da-ing at first, but soon they began to harmonize on friendly, romantic lyrics.

    Coming together was one of the most wonderful sounds Davy had ever heard, if not the most wonderful sound. There was a name for this he’d heard from the elite…He couldn’t remember it. All he knew was that whatever it was called, the others had to hear it. Whatever creatures the seemingly human things creating it were.

    He only got to hear a bit of it before the couple he was sitting at the feet of shrieked and shoved him off. Not that anyone else noticed, since it was so loud, but it was enough for Davy to know to get out and get back to Poptail Pipery. But the news had to be spread.

    “Music,” answered a learned rat named Harold, one that had lived in an Oxford college before a janitor had chased him to Poptail. He was listening to Davy’s story and scanning the 11-day-old newspaper at the same time.

    “Yes. That’s it. They had these…things,” Davy recalled intelligently to the energized rats hovering over the papers. “With strings, most of them. And they sounded beautiful.”

    “Guitars?” Harold tried.

    Davy gratefully motioned a paw at him. “Yes,” he replied. “Thank you. And there were a series of large, connected, bucket things in the back keeping the rhythm…”


    “Yes again. I can’t describe it, honestly. Everyone needs to hear it. I don’t know how to get it down here…but it’s one of the most important things any of us can be exposed to.” Davy lied down on his side, tail curled in thought.

    Rachel, another elite rat formerly of Cambridge (she and her family had moved to the London sewers when she was six weeks old), scanned the paper with Harold. She took a look at the beetle-like humans. “Yes, Harold’s right on all those instruments. These humans are rather cute, aren’t they?” she added with a smile.

    “Are they humans?” Davy asked. “The announcer said they were beetles.”

    “Beatles,” Harold corrected.

    “Yes, beetles. Did they go through some sort of transformation or something?”

    “No!” Rachel laughed. “They aren’t actually beetles. That’s the name of their group. The Beatles.”

    “But if they’re humans, why are they calling themselves beetles?” Davy cut in. “It’s not a very flattering title. They’ve named themselves after bugs. See, like that,” he added, pointing out a large beetle by a nearby pipe. “Would you want to be known as that?”

    “Oh, whatever the case,” Rachel went on, “I’d love to hear this group. But human contact’s a dangerous thing here, Davy. I’m not sure what we can do.”

    “I am,” a voice said behind them.

    The three spun around. Despite the large voice they heard, it was revealed to belong to a small black rat with rather large eyes. He walked forward—or at least it was the closest to walking a rat could do, and certainly the closest to it Davy, Harold, and Rachel had seen. His tail slid on the ground behind him. He looked as though he was going to pounce upon the rats at any second, but he never did.

    “Um,” Harold began.

    “Roger Blandford,” the big-eyed rat cut in. “I can tell you that ‘uman contact just in’nt that dangerous.”

    “Nearly getting smashed with a wrench by a plumber isn’t dangerous?” Davy snapped.

    Rachel motioned to Davy to calm down. “Is that so, Mr. Blandford?” she inquired. “Well, I’m Rachel Doggard, this is Harold Alleyoat, and this is Davy McTailor. Now what are you implying?”

    “ I’m implying that these ‘umans, they’re easy to ‘andle,” Roger replied. “I know the ‘uman parts. And there’s music all over the place. And when things are done properly, you’ll break right in. On one condition.”

    “What’s that?” Davy asked.

    “Not you!” Roger barked, pushing by him to Harold and Rachel. He looked at them a moment…and his face softened. “I’m from the Raggedear Pipes. I didn’t ‘ave what you ‘ad. Look, would you…could you…” He sighed. “…teach me to read? If I take you there and teach you to dig?”

    “Um,” Harold began a second time. “Um…all right. Seems fair enough.”

    Roger’s face broke out into a big, unexpected smile. “You won’t regret it.”

    And so, in the next few days, Roger was able to carve out a tunnel to a local record store that all the Poptail rats could climb to. There was constantly music playing during business hours, and after the first visits of the group of eager rats, they swore to go back daily, sometimes twice daily.

    “It’s wonderful!” Harold exclaimed when he heard his first Beatles song, “She Loves You.” “I mean, I’ve heard music, but it was always so…down. And so heavy. This is so light and jingly that I can just dance about without knowing it—oh, here we go,” he said when he noticed his feet starting to move on their own.

    In return, the rats snuck back at night for the fulfillment of Harold and Rachel’s end of the bargain. No one was there, so they read off the album covers.

    “All right, Roger, try reading this one,” Harold said at one lesson, motioning to the colorful album cover in front of him.

    Roger squinted at it. “The Bee-ah-tills,” he attempted. “Plee-ahs Plee-ahs Me.”

    “Not quite,” Rachel said, raising an eyebrow. “We’ve got to work on those diphthongs. See, it’s ‘The Beatles—Please Please Me.’ I know it’s a bit difficult.”

    Roger sighed. “I’ll get it…eventually…” He was a very impatient student.

    Davy went along as well, not so much to learn to read but to learn in general. Through the translation of Harold and Rachel (and sometimes Roger), he learned all about his first Beatles sight. He’d run into the London Palladium and had been in the audience of a television show. The song he’d heard was “From Me to You,” a song the four would hear very often in the record shop.

    Word quickly spread about the musical tunnel. It soon became a tourist attraction for rats of all England sewer neighborhoods. It was christened the Tunnel of Song, for everyone was struck by the glory of the new music. Over the next year, the Beatles became a portal for more groups and singers—the Rolling Stones, Elvis, the Animals, the Kinks, the Who, and more. The rats heard about everything going on above them and followed everything. Rats made their own rock ‘n’ roll instruments to play their favorite songs. Rats became Mods and Rockers. Rats made fashionable clothing, though it never lasted long due to the inclement surroundings of the sewer. Everyone was inspired. And it had all started with October 13, 1963.


    Wendy Polavi is new to blogging, but not new to writing. She is a teenage girl with Asperger’s syndrome, synesthesia, and hyperlexia, and her rather quirky life has inspired her to blog at Confessions of a Teenage Aspie-Synnie-Lexi.

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