Tuesday, 31 January 2012

The Rat Lady

‘Hello there can you move your bag please so I can sit down you’ll never guess what happened to me last night I was out dancing down the Limit and this man quite young actually probably in his thirties I’d say came up to me and said was I was a Sagittarius and I said no I’m not a Sagittarius I’m a Virgo not a Sagittarius and he said he found that hard to believe and I said that’s rude because it is rude isn’t it just coming up to somebody you don’t know and saying that but anyway I danced with him a little bit and then he asked if he could buy me a drink and I said I suppose so although I already had a drink in my hand but he was nice you know and I wanted to keep him talking didn’t I but anyway he bought me a drink and then he said he had to go to the toilet which I thought was a bit naff seeing as he trying to chat me up well it is isn’t it but anyway I’m sitting there like a lemon waiting for him to come back from the toilet when this woman comes up to me and she’s I don’t know mid-thirties too I guess didn’t look too good she was wearing stuff from last year and I just looked at her and thought that’s last year’s fashion why are you still wearing that for but anyway she says “’scuse me” she says yeah she says “’scuse me I don’t mean to interfere but I think you should know that that man that you’ve just been dancing with is married!” yeah married that’s what she said imagine so anyway she says “I hope you don’t think I’m sticking my nose in but I just thought you should know” sort of thing and I said “no of course I don’t you were right to tell me” because she was wasn’t she you should tell people things like that so anyway he comes back from the toilet and I’d finished both my drinks by then and he says how was I getting home and if I liked I could share a taxi with him and I said “naaaaah I don’t think so” and he said “why not we both live the same way” because I’d been silly enough to tell him where I lived or thereabouts but I said “no I won’t be going home with you because I happen to know you’re married” and he says “I’m not!” and I says “you are and I know you are” and he says “I am not honestly I am not” and I just went “YEANEEUGHH! not married” because he looked married because you can tell when someone’s married can’t you yeah you just can when you think about it and he’s trying it on and saying he’s not married NEEAAAGGHH! so anyway…’

It was the Rat Lady. That’s what I called her anyway. I saw her every morning on the bus. She got on several stops after me when the bus drove through the estate, just before it crossed over the river and into the city centre, which was where everybody on that bus got off to go to wherever they worked. I had been in my job six months, which I got not too long after graduating from university. I was lucky - most of the other people I knew from uni hadn’t been able to walk into anything this good, or this permanent. Event management. A lot of organisation, working with people, dealing with professionals, and I’d already being entrusted with some big budgets to play around with. It was everything I’d wanted while I was slumming it on that stupid degree. They weren’t exactly impressed by my qualifications: a disappointing 2:2 in an irrelevant subject, but I really shone at the interview. I showed that I’d done my homework; I knew exactly what the job would involve, that I was professional and that I really wanted it, but not desperate or needy. Also, I made sure I looked just right. My hair pinned back, just the right amount of makeup, and I wore a very good outfit, with the skirt short enough to look just that bit sexy. Not tarty, but sexy. And it was the sort of company who would want to be represented by sexy people. It was unsaid, of course, but it was obvious.

That morning though, I was feeling rough. You could probably say it was unprofessional of me to come into work in that state, hung over with barely an hour’s sleep the night before. I’d been out clubbing, but I went back with a bloke to his place and didn’t leave until after four, which left me just over three hours to get back home, some sleep, a shower, up and about and on the bus to be into work for half-eight. I was shattered, and I wished I could phone in sick, but today was important. This was a big contract we were working on, and we had to pull out all the stops if we were going to impress. Me taking a sicky that day was not an option.

OK, going back to that bloke’s place just for a drunken shag that I really didn’t enjoy and barely even remembered a couple of hours later was definitely stupid. Not just because of my job, but because of what was going on in the city back then. I wish I had been as frightened as everybody else. I should have been, looking back on it. I can’t remember if I’d even read the details back then. I’ve gone over them enough since.

There had already been two murders. Two girls, both not much younger than me, had been killed in alleyways in the club district. They’d both been stabbed in the neck by a two-pronged instrument, possibly a gardening tool, although the police hadn’t been able to work out exactly what. The girls hadn’t been robbed, or raped, just killed for no apparent reason. There were marks on their arms which suggested there’d been a struggle, but other than that, there was no evidence that would throw light on what had happened, much less lead to the killer. No DNA or forensics. No witnesses. Nobody had even heard any screams, which perhaps isn’t surprising considering how noisy it is round there.

But I was still young enough to think I was indestructible. Confident, certainly. Arrogant, probably. Still, I’d kept myself safe in the past, and up until then, things had gone my way pretty much all of the time. I didn’t realise that was far more down to luck than any skill on my part. And I suppose I was drunk on my success. I mean, looking back it was obviously only a little job with a fairly reasonable wage, but after three years of starving as a student I thought I was a real high flyer. Actually being able to spend money and it not matter was really exciting. So I partied. Quite a damn lot. My body could stand it, and so could my bank balance. And it wasn’t just me: all the girls at work were like that. It was just part of the culture at that place.

That morning on the bus though, my body seemed to be telling me I’d pushed it to its limit. And right then, one thing I didn’t need was the Rat Lady. I called her that because of the way she scurried about, her long nose pushed forward like she was sniffing for cheese. What she was really looking for was a spare seat next to someone by themselves, who she could then perch next to and engage in conversation, whether they looked like they wanted it or not. Not even a bag placed on the seat next to you could save you. She’d just ask you to move it. I say conversation, but it was all one-way: a monologue really. The other person might say ‘right’, or ‘oh really,’ but she never stopped long enough for them to get a sentence out or, if they tried, she’d just talk over them. After a minute or so they usually zoned out, but she never seemed to notice. At first I presumed the people she talked to were people she knew from her estate, but gradually I realised, frighteningly, that they weren’t. They were just random people who were unlucky enough to have a spare space by them. This meant that, one day, she was probably going to pick me.

She was a very strange, disturbing and, no doubt, disturbed woman. Firstly, she was very odd to look at. I couldn’t tell her age precisely but I suspected mid-forties. Spindly, with shoulders hunched as if they were pulled forward by her seat-hunting nose. On her face were big black-framed glasses with lenses I could tell were about as thick as they got. She must have been nearly blind. Like a mole. Or a sewer rat. She carried her hands in front of her chest, her horrible thin fingers wiggling as she stalked between the seats. Her skin was dark, but I could tell it was cheap fake tan. And besides the goggle-mole eyes and pointed nose, there were her teeth. Crooked things, which stuck out over her bottom lip at an angle. No, even with all the will in the world, I could not say that she was a pretty picture.

Beside the way she looked, there were more strange things about her. For instance, there was her habit of dropping in weird noises into her conversation. She’d be talking about someone off the telly and she’d say something like, ‘and she says she hasn’t had a boob job NEEEURRRGH! Hasn’t had a boob job indeed NAAGGH!’ Usually the noises were used to express disbelief or disgust, but occasionally they didn’t seem to mean anything at all, as if her urge to communicate was such she had to make a sound of some kind even though she had nothing to say: at least, nothing that could be expressed with words.

Not that she ever seemed to want to talk about anything important, or if she did there would never be any rational thought involved. She just had no quality control, so she’d come out with things like:‘I don’t like to shop in Tesco because all the food I’ve bought there has been grey I bought some salmon there once and it was grey so I don’t like to shop there no…’ Or: ‘there are some countries I wouldn’t mind if we went to war with like the Chinese because I don’t really like Chinese people so if we went to war with them it wouldn’t bother me so much about them getting killed but if we went to war with Spain I wouldn’t like that because I’ve met some Spanish people and they were very nice so I’d be thinking no don’t bomb them they’re nice…’

The most hideous thing about the Rat Lady, though, was her obsession with sex. Not only was she addicted to following the sex lives of celebrities in the gossip mags but, pretty much every day, she had a new story about some adventure she’d had where someone had tried to pick her up. Apparently she went clubbing several times a week; like me I guess, and like me, had to fend off quite a few men each night. But I have to admit, unlike me, she never ended up in bed with any of them; she just collected their phone numbers. She always waited for them to ring first though, she said. It was scarcely believable: that this quite bizarre-looking woman would attract that much interest, at least of the good kind, especially considering the coolness of some of the clubs she said she hung out in. But, several times a week, there she was on the bus, with a new story of all the attention she’d been getting, overexcited just by talking about it.

Not only was she a big hit in the clubs, her day-to-day activities were oozing with sex. Prostitutes were everywhere she looked, while perverts and potential rapists stood on every corner. ‘I was walking in the park yesterday I was and this man came up to me and he was crouching on the ground “what are you doing?” I said and I looked down and he was taking photos up my skirt with his phone “GERROFFAYUGH!’ I said and I said “I catch you doing that again I’ll report you it’s rude” I did that’s what I said anyway and he looked embarrassed and ran off…’ Even though she’d been violated in that way she seemed to be enjoying telling people about it.

The bus arrived at the city centre and we all got off. ‘Ok well anyway I’ll talk to you again some time next time I see on the bus probably ok bye yeah ok bye!’ The Rat Lady scampered away to whatever job, she had: cleaning or something, most likely. I dragged myself into the office and managed to survive the day without letting on how bad I was feeling. One of my superiors saw how pale I was and said something like ‘Good night last night, then?’ and winked, but I wasn’t letting it affect my performance so he didn’t make an issue of it. There was no Rat Lady on the bus back home; there never was, and thank Christ, because by the end of the day I was so tired, if I’d had to listen to her I would probably have ended up throttling the woman.

The next morning my nightmare came true. I was still tired, and I wasn’t even thinking about the Rat Lady. I was looking out the window, with my handbag on the seat, when I felt a long bony finger poking me in the arm. ‘Excuse me would you mind moving your bag so I can sit down please thank you I’ve seen you on the bus before quite a lot of times actually that’s a nice coat it’s this year’s fashion sometimes you see people out in clothes that were from last year and you think why are you wearing that for it’s from last year NUERGHAH! but that coat is nice very nice yes…’ I was petrified. Of course she was scarily strange, but there was also something about her that made me feel invaded. Not only was she intruding on my personal space, with her thin fingers wiggling nearly right underneath me, but I could tell she wanted something from me as well. It was just impossible to tell what.

The monologue continued: ‘…sometimes you go out to a club dancing and you see girls there dressed in nearly nothing at all and they look disgusting NUUURGH! like they’re prostitutes no wonder men get carried away with girls like that walking about flashing their bits and stuff well you’re going to aren’t you it’s just not fair making men excited like that and then they start hitting on decent women like me and they’ll be all forward expecting me to go back to their places with them and they don’t even like to put it in a lot of the time a lot of the time they just do it on your face well they do don’t they it’s disgusting EEOORGH! but like I said It’s no surprise with girls walking around with their bits all hanging out but I’m sure you’re not like that are you walking about with your bits hanging out and wearing last year’s fashions NOAGHAH! BLAGH! BLAGH! BLAGH!’

And then she was silent. I had been trying not to look at her but I could not help but see that she was looking intently at me with her near-blind eyes glowering through her big thick glasses. ‘But you’re not like that are you?’ she said quietly, ‘You’re up to date aren’t you? You’re wearing this year’s fashions. And your bits. They’re not… hanging out.’ Her wiggling fingers were now still and, to my horror, I now saw that the bony hand was reaching up towards my face, which it began to caress. I wanted to scream.

‘Oh the other night I had some fun I went to the Limit and it was student night and the student boys were dancing with me and they wouldn’t let me go home “one more dance! one more dance!” they kept on saying but I said “I have to go to work tomorrow! you have to let me go!” but they kept on saying “one more dance! one more dance!” oh it was funny…’ The monologue had started again and the hand had dropped. The bus drove into the city centre shelter a few moments later and I was free, with the Rat Lady giving her usual parting words, ‘…ok well anyway I’ll talk to you again some time next time I see on the bus probably ok bye yeah ok bye!’

It was Friday. I really should have stayed in that night. But Friday nights was the best night to go to the Academy. They had proper club DJs there that night: no student shit or seventies nostalgia. Besides, all the girls from work were going. I didn’t want to let them know that I’d rather spend that Friday night in. Worse still, I’d made the mistake of moving in with one of them, so I couldn’t even pretend to be somewhere else. So I got myself ready. Plenty of slap. Slingbacks. A pink vest top and matching miniskirt. Wonderbra and thong underneath. I suppose you could say in the Rat Lady’s terms, my bits were hanging out. But it was the Academy. It’s what it was all about. Problem it was January. And it was literally freezing. The pavements were glazed in a layer of ice. That year the coat to have when going out was a fake fur gilet, but I could tell it wouldn’t keep me warm enough even in the taxi. I would have to wear something else, even if the Rat Lady would disapprove. Not that she’d be there. They’d never let her in the Academy.

I looked in my wardrobe. The only thing I could find that would keep me warm other than my coat for work (and I certainly wasn’t going to wear that), was a long, puffy, full-length coat with a hood from the year before. Nobody wore them anymore. Definitely last year’s fashion. BLAGH! BLAGH! BLAGH!

Sasha, my flatmate, had called a taxi. ‘You ready?’ she shouted from the hall, as the taxi beeped its horn in the street. My hand still hovered over the coat. I really didn’t want to wear it. But I could feel the cold in the flat, even with the central heating on full blast. I knew that outside it would be utterly biting. I grabbed the coat and put it on. So I’m wearing an unfashionable coat, I thought, what’s the worst that could happen? I’m good-looking: great hair, good teeth and nice boobs. Nobody’s going to be turned off by my coat. Not that I was out to pick anybody up that night. I just wanted to have fun with the girls. But getting the boys all worked up was part of that fun. Yet in my mind I kept on hearing the words of the Rat Lady. She was in there now on a loop and I couldn’t get her out. ‘Last year’s fashion! BLAGH! BLAGH! BLAGH!’

We got in the taxi.

‘Haven’t seen that coat before,’ said Sasha, ‘It’s not new is it?’


‘No, it’s not. Had it a while.’

‘Yeah, I thought you couldn’t get those anymore.’

I had to spend the rest of the taxi ride pretending I didn’t want to stab her.

We met up with the rest of the girls at a bar before going on to the club. Nobody mentioned the coat but I could tell they were thinking about it.

It was a relief to finally get to the Academy and lose that stupid coat in the cloakroom. The attendant didn’t say anything, but when she took it, she looked at it like it was caked in shit or something. Again, I heard the words of the Rat Lady: ‘That’s last year’s fashion! BLAGH! BLAGH! BLAGHAH!’

I forgot about it all, of course, as soon as I got inside and had a drink. The Academy was the best club in the city by a mile. The best DJs, the best décor, and everybody looked amazing. It wasn’t dark and dingy like a lot of clubs, but creamy white. It was a very sexy place to be. And after the second drink and the first dance, the night began to speed up in that way they do, once fun and alcohol are involved. Some of the girls took a pill and so did I. Nothing major.

More drinks, more dancing. By half-eleven I was smoking cigarettes, even though I don’t normally smoke. Some guy offered me one. He was cute: very cute. We talked a bit, although neither of us could really hear what the other was saying over the music, and I found myself taking his hand on the dance floor. We danced for about twenty minutes, then we went to sit in a booth and we kissed. Some more drinks. I went to talk to my mates for a bit and he went to talk to his, although we didn’t really want to, it was just so we could both look cool and not too desperate. All I talked about was him, anyway.

A little dance with the girls, a whole pack of boys around us. And then I went to the loo, making a note of where he was so I could bump into him again on the way back. I did, and we kissed again. Somehow, although it wasn’t really discussed as such, we reached an understanding that we were going to go back to my place. I know, it’s dreadful, second one in a week and everything, but it just felt right. Anyway, I’d hardly got any in my last year of uni because I was studying so hard, so I figured I’d earned myself a bit of fun. I went to find the girls and told Sasha that we were thinking of heading off, and she was welcome to share the taxi with us. She said no, it was fine; she’d probably stay over with one of the other girls anyway.

We went to leave the club, holding hands, kissing lightly, quickly, often. As we headed for the cloakroom I had a dreadful, drunken thought. What about the coat? Would he think it was funny that I was wearing one from last year that absolutely no one wears anymore? I was even going to apologise as the attendant handed it back, even more disgusted than when she took it, but he didn’t care. He was looking at my tits as we walked out and only stopped when I had to button the coat up. Even after all the alcohol and the dancing, the cold was unbearable.

‘Ah shit,’ he said, suddenly, stopping us in our tracks.

‘What’s wrong?’ I said. It’s not the coat is it, I thought?

‘Listen, I lent my phone to one of my mates so he could send a text. I forgot to get it back off him. Can you wait here a second while I try and get back in and get it? Shouldn’t be a problem. I’ve got my hand stamped. I’ll only be a minute.’

‘No, not at all. Go for it.’

‘Sweet.’ He kissed me hard then ran back in.

I waited. Five minutes. No sign of him. Shit! I thought. He’s just dumped me here in the frigging cold. I was going to go in after him and have words, but I thought, no, that would look pathetic. I decided to call my friends inside and ask them if they could see him. I just hoped that one of them would be able to feel their phone vibrate through their handbags.

I couldn’t get a signal. Great. I walked further up the street a bit hoping to pick one up. I passed the alleyway next to the club. I got one for a second, then lost it. I walked back a few steps and found it again, but it was intermittent. It seemed the closer I got to the alleyway, the stronger it got. I don’t know, I guess I wasn’t thinking, I was very drunk, and I was very pissed off, but even so, there is no way to explain how I could be so stupid as to do what I did next. I stepped into that alleyway.

I got a constant signal. Great. Then, just as I was scrolling down my address book, I heard something behind me. A rustling noise, as if something was going through a bin. And on top of that, a scraping. I didn’t want to turn around. There was something truly, truly horrible about those sounds. I wasn’t that far down the alleyway, but whatever it was must have been between me and the street. It was stupid, so very stupid, but I was so scared. And that’s why I put one foot in front of the other and began to run as fast as I could down the alley.

I could see now that it didn’t lead anywhere, just the back wall of some property. I was trapped. The rustling was still behind me, closer now. And the scraping was louder, more intense. I carried on, knowing that I could go nowhere. I ran until there was nowhere further to run. I knew I would have to turn round. After all, I reasoned, it could be nothing to be scared of - an urban fox perhaps, or a cat. Or a rat.

I couldn’t turn round. I just couldn’t. But I couldn’t move forward either. And then, I felt them. Those bony fingers were on my shoulder, picking at my coat, feeling the fabric, while her long nose sniffed my hood, right by my ear. Her other hand was under my coat, its wiggling fingers feeling my skirt, my legs, my thong, then crawling up to my chest, examining my cleavage, my bra.

‘I thought you were nice,’ she said quietly, ‘I thought you were a nice girl who covered herself up and wore this year’s fashions. But you’re not. You’re a dirty girl who lets all her bits hang out and gets men all excited so they bother women like me and do it on our faces and you do it wearing…’ She paused. The scraping began again. ‘…last year’s fashion! NEUGGHHAH! BLAAGH! BLAGGH! BLAGHH!’

The grip loosened. I turned around. There stood the Rat Lady. She was wearing some tatty clubbing outfit with sequins and straps. It looked terrible on her. Her mouth was open wide: so wide, in fact, it pushed the top of her head back further than heads are meant to go, as what looked like two long poles slid out of the top of her mouth. I realised then that they were her two top front teeth. It was these that made the scraping sound as they grew and grew. Meanwhile her fingers wiggled away frantically beneath them.

I stepped out of my shoes and ran. Behind me I heard an ear-splitting shriek and the clackety-clack of her feet on the concrete. She still had her party shoes on. I was halfway back up the alleyway when she caught up with me and forced me against the wall. Her teeth were by now about two foot long. I knew as she held my throat and opened her mouth I was going to die.

Someone called my name. The guy I’d been snogging ran down the alley towards us, shouting: ‘Get off her!’ In an instant, the Rat Lady let go and shot past him and into the night, moving faster than anything I’d seen before. So fast, in fact, that to this day I cannot tell if I truly glimpsed a tail, or whether I imagined it.

‘Are you all right?’ he said.

‘No,’ I replied, and cried, as he held me and mumbled something about his friend leaving the phone in a toilet cubicle and having to go to the manager’s office to collect it.

I told the police as much as I thought they’d believe: that I was attacked by a woman I had seen before; gave details of where she got on and off, and told them that any passenger on that bus would be able to tell them about her. Apparently the police were on that bus the next morning, although I was not there, and neither was the Rat Lady.

I never saw the Rat Lady again, and neither did anybody else on that morning bus route. I quit my job soon after, and have been living a much quieter life since. In fact, I work from home now, and don’t tend to go out unless I have to. I live on my own. I guess I’m a bit of a hermit. Something like the Rat Lady doesn’t ever really leave you. I still hear her voice, and feel her touch, every time I get dressed to go out: ‘Last year’s fashion! BLAGGH! BLAGGH! BLAGGAH!’

Two months after that night, several years ago now, the heaviest rainfall in many years caused the river to burst its banks and the sewers to briefly overflow. Corpses of rats were seen floating down the road by clubbers as they stepped out into the street, looking in vain for a taxi amidst the water. When it subsided, under a sewer grate, they found the body of a middle-aged woman. She was wearing a sequined dress, and a high-heeled shoe was still on one foot. Nobody could say how she had got there, or who she was. Her face had been almost entirely eaten by rats. It was about that time that, finally, the killings stopped.

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