We know a secret. We whisper it to ourselves curled up in the nest, pass it on with a flourish of tails and a snigger of whiskers. You don’t know yet, but you will.
It came ashore, generations ago, down where the silt meets the cocoa tide of the Thames. It’s a tale told by our mothers to nests squirming with pink babies.
‘Once upon a time, when the streets were paved with entrails and the rivers ran with dead dogs, we gorged ourselves in warehouses heaped with grain, and slept in straw-filled stables. The nights were dark and food was plentiful. So King Rat sent word to his cousins overseas, to come and feast on London. And they came, and the King welcomed them to his waterside palace.’
We drank the old tales with our mother’s milk. When our teeth grew to sharp yellow points, we nosed our way into the night. Metal bins overflowed with food. We hardly needed teeth to gulp down the pulpy meat and soft white bread. We licked sugar from plastic wrappings, nibbled caramel-coated nuts. We grew fat; our pelts acquired an expensive gloss.
We became restless. Maybe, someone whispered, it’s time to try again.
Because King Rat’s cousins had not just come to feast. Oh, no, our mothers snickered. They brought weapons. They told the King of whole cities abandoned to Rattus Rattus, of triumphant parades as they swarmed over the heaps of rotting bodies, the air heady with methane.
The King gave the order. The newcomers passed on the secret to the dock side rats, who passed it to their neighbours. For a day or two, nothing happened. Then you began to fall sick, sprouting carbuncles. Lightermen went home scratching to their wives and children. The children went scratching to their play. They came home to fathers shivering on their deathbeds. The children were next.
We peeped from the corners. Pungent herbs were thrown into fireplaces. Sailors fumigated their ships with tobacco. Ladies pierced oranges with cloves. The rats – who’d travelled the sea with the herbs, the oranges, the tobacco and the spices – laughed, unloaded their weapons, and bounded on.
You fled the city, taking death with you, snug in the folds of your clothes. Houses emptied. Grave yards heaped higher, and pits were dug. Soon, we thought. Soon, the heaps of bodies in the streets. The quiet that we longed for. We have delicate ears.
We thought victory was secure. We came so close.
To this day, rats hate a fire. It scoured the city, incinerating nests of babies, taking our breeding grounds, our grain stores. King Rat fled his palace, pelt alight. Those who could took to the water. Rattus Rattus Lundinii, all of us descended from those who fled the Great Fire.
The meaning of this old fable has been much discussed over time. Was it a judgement on King Rat? Had we destroyed our paradise, through greed?
But the balance has shifted again. Our leaders talk of the steady population growth, the rise of the foxes. The noise and the light have become intolerable.
We’ve been making inquiries. It took a while; but it hadn’t vanished altogether. Visitors from North Africa, it was rumoured, could help. It was a long journey, from Algeria to London. Eventually, it arrived.
There were a few experiments. There’s a corpse wedged under Blackfriars Bridge that would alarm you, if you found it, with its ulcerated groin. But it’s been there three days now, and soon the river will wash it clean.
Our preparations have been meticulous. Every last rat is in position, loaded with its deadly cargo. Tonight, we begin the assault. As you sleep, we’ll emerge from the sewers, from the derelict buildings, the basements and the miles upon miles of underground tunnels.
As you make your way to work tomorrow, you’ll barely notice the flea bite, crushed as you are against the other tube travellers. You’ll sit down at your computer, rub absently at a tiny red mark on your ankle as you check your emails and drink your coffee. By the evening, you’ll wonder why you are feeling so very tired. A lot of people will be calling in sick, during the next three days. Soon, there won’t be anyone to take the calls.
Yersinia pestis. The Black Death. It’s back.