A Plague on You.

‘Rats!’ exclaimed Sue, the student vet. She was newly arrived in the bayside community and was attending her first function. It was an Arts Council affair at the heritage listed council library. The room had fallen quiet.

‘What sorts of people keep rats?’ she continued, as she looked at her boss. Ken was the local vet and the most eligible man in town. He was tall, heavily moustachioed, wore a designer shirt, gold jewellery and Levi 501s. He preferred buttons to zips.

Everybody knew the answer to her question.

‘People like us,’ responded Angel, looking Sue in the eye. She was matter of fact. Angel was a recognised local artist and her work hung in local restaurants and professional offices. People bought her paintings from those places. It meant a little extra income for her occasionally. Angel had been born in the town and was the mother of two little boys. She had dark rings under her eyes, and she often stifled a yawn. Her brown hair was unkempt. Trevor, her husband, was tall, but slight. He dressed in workmen’s jeans and $6 grandfather shirts. He was standing slightly behind his wife, and shuffled his steel capped boots occasionally. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead. He felt he had never really fitted in with his wife’s circle of arty friends.

‘Oh, I’m sorry?’

‘You’ve nothing to apologise for,’ Angel was soft. ‘Keeping rats isn’t common and our doing so caused an …’

‘Uproar,’ said Trevor, as his wife searched for a word. His look was wry.

‘I’ll tell the story,’ said Ken. ‘Trevor’s family had bred and kept rats for generations. The rats had ancestry reaching back to the boats which landed the first settlers on the bay. I visited the family on occasions, and I’d been their vet.’

‘You’re a rat vet!’ Sue giggled and flashed her eyes at Ken.

‘If you keep sipping that wine the way you are, in no time, you’ll be known as ‘The Rat Vet’s Vat,’ Ken retorted and continued, ‘Trevor and Angel here, had twins. The old timers reckoned they were a punishment for their pre-marital love crimes. They married and over time the rat’s ownership transferred to Trevor and Angel. The locals knew about the rats, there were now hundreds of them, but it was knowledge not shared with outsiders. There were no problems until the twins started school. The school has always had difficulty retaining teachers. They only ever stay a year or two. Down here we regard ourselves as distinct from the city, but we are close enough to be part of it. The teachers tend to live in the city and commute.

‘The twins were doing well at school, until a new teacher arrived. She wore petticoats, petite frilly dresses with odd little aprons, white socks and shiny black shoes with buckles. Her hair had pigtails and ribbons. She seemed detached from reality. Some thought her drug affected; others just shied away from her. The adults had immediately dubbed her Alice in, as in Alice in Wonderland. The kids followed the parents’ lead and initially called her, ‘Miss Alice In’.

‘They were much more respectful,’ said Trevor dryly.
‘Just as their mothers taught them to be!’ said Angel.
‘Yeah, and it spread like wild fire when she became known as just ‘Missin’.’
‘You, Trevor, and your drinking mates at the marina deck were the major instigators of that. Especially that local poet bloke.’
‘It wasn’t all his idea. We all had a bit to do with it. It was bloody funny though. Everybody in town, including the kids, saw the funny side.’

Ken continued, ‘She terrified the children with stories from history. This behaviour was forgiven because it gave parents a weapon in their battles with their kids. At night voices could be heard saying things like, I’ll get Missin’ to babysit! Or, I’ll tell Missin’ about you! One day I even heard a mother telling her kids Missin’ lived in Wendy’s, the ice cream shop.

‘Missin’ wore no rings and no one ever saw her with a partner. One of the local wags from the Manly and Women Poets even reckoned he heard John Donne’s bell tolling whenever Missin’ was around, but he was unsure for which one of them it tolled.

‘She was encouraged by the grandparents, because they knew the torment and mischief her stories would cause their adult children. The grandparents expressed an affinity with her endeavours and they were her advocates and mates. I met her once, and found we shared a love of literature. We both listed Nikolai Leskov among our favourite authors.

‘One day she taught the Year Two class about the plague and how it was spread by rats. She embellished the story with descriptions of gnashing teeth of rats, giant, disease-spreading fleas, horrendous deaths, sore-covered corpses, death carts and the morose chant of, Bring out your dead.

‘The twins became terrified. At little lunch they locked themselves in one of the school toilet blocks.

‘In an endeavour to get them to come out, Missin’ tried to frighten them by saying the toilet was a home for rats.’
‘That didn’t work; it only frightened them more,’ said Angel.
‘Yes, of course. She couldn’t get them out. She hurried to the Principal’s office. In her haste she tripped and fell head first against the metal handle of a classroom door. She had no serious injury, but had grazed her scalp. She bled profusely. She ran her fingers through her hair, but was oblivious to the blood. When she arrived in Administration, she told the Registrar there was an emergency with some children in one of the toilet blocks. Her arms were thrashing about in the air, her face was white and her eyes showed great fear. The Registrar became alarmed at the sight of the blood streaks running down Missin’s face and of her blood covered hands. She advised the Principal, Bert, of the incident in the main toilet block. Bert walked quickly into the main office. At the sight of Missin’, he started to half-run to the toilet block. She followed. When he arrived at the toilet block, he was relieved. It was not as he had anticipated. He told the twins, with much gravitas, that he was the Principal, was in charge of the school, and demanded they open the door for him. He failed to bluff them out. They were silent and wouldn’t budge. The school nurse arrived and tried a gentle approach. She offered sweets. They weren’t fooled and asked for their mum. Bert asked the Nurse to attend to Missin’ wounds. The cleaners arrived next. They tried the door key, but the boys had shot the bolt. Their first year teacher, who had been enlisted by Missin’ to help, tried to reason with them. They did not remember her, and again asked for their mum.

‘The Principal had not wanted to involve the parents just yet. He knew he would have to give explanations and he needed to ascertain why the twins were in the toilet. He needed time to think and prepare, but he now decided to call their mum and he returned to his office.

‘The Registrar had misunderstood the nature of the emergency. She had not only alerted the School Nurse and the cleaners in the interim, but also the police, ambulance, local doctor and the fire and emergency services.

‘When the Acting-Sergeant of the Wynnum Police arrived, he took charge… officially. Jumping the gun, Acting-Sergeant Graham sealed off the streets and locked down the school. He had no idea of his folly. He then sought out the Principal, but encountered Missin’. After learning the details of the situation from her, he rushed to the toilet, identified himself to the boys, and threatened that if they didn’t come out he would arrest them and lock them up.’

‘That really frightened them. They recognised the policeman’s name and they’d been told by Trevor, the local poet bloke and his mates, that Acting-Sergeant Graham was alcohol or drug affected, and to be wary of him. His behaviour reinforced the twin’s suspicions,’ said Angel.

’No it didn’t,’ said Trevor, ‘Graham’s just an uppity goose. His high pitched voice and drug-crazed eyes have always frightened the crap out of everyone. We’ve all been bailed up by him on his days off.’

‘Then the Ambulance, the Fire Brigade and the volunteer State Emergency Services arrived with sirens wailing. Two uniformed Ambulance Officers carrying their defibrillator and first aid bag marched up the school driveway. Three bulky men and one very small woman dressed in their uniforms of protective clothing and helmets, leapt from the slowing fire engine. The woman wore the Captain’s helmet. It sat very low on her head, hiding most of it and it wobbled from side to side. Still donning their high-visibility vests, the crew of four volunteer emergency workers stumbled from their four wheel drive half-cab utility onto the school grounds. They dragged their ‘Jaws of Life’ cutting equipment. All were knock-a-about local yokels.’
‘They’re my mates you’re talking about Ken! There’s nothing yokel about ’em,’ Trevor interjected.
‘The local Doctor, carrying his surgical bag, arrived at the same time. His rumpled grey suit matched his uncombed grey hair.

‘The Principal, on his return to the toilet block, became red faced when he saw the uniformed mass in the front of his school. His breathing became laboured; his jowls swelled, and if he were a caricature, smoke would have puffed from his nostrils and ears. It was his school. He took control. He was then approached by Acting-Sergeant Graham. The Principal asked him whether he had managed to bring the Armed Offenders Squad. The Acting-Sergeant pulled himself up to his full height of five foot nine and told the Principal that sarcasm was the lowest form of wit, asked him to be reasonable, and suggested they sort things out like gentlemen. The Principal, of similar height but much broader, faced up chest to chest and said he thought the policeman devoid of reason and no gentleman and that he should just fuck off.
‘The Principal strode toward the milling police, ambulance crew, fire crew and emergency rescuers and bellowed at them to shut up, to turn off the sirens, and to wait in the library for his explanation.

‘I had been passing by at the time and had arrived on the scene at the same time as quite a few parents. There was a huge commotion. I went to speak with Acting-Sergeant Graham. He was in deep conversation with Missin’. The Principal called to me. Bert was one of my customers, and we also knew each other socially. He had a corker pair of cocker spaniels and a much younger wife. We all sail on Bert and Johanna’s yacht at the R Q WAGS.’
‘The what?’
‘Sue, the Royal Queensland Yacht Squadron Wednesday Afternoon Gentlemen’s Sailing.’
‘Are women included?’
‘Yes.’
‘Can I come?’
‘I’ll arrange it.’
‘When?’
‘As soon as I’ve finished the story, Sue. Anyway, Bert stuttered as he told me what had happened. His explanation wasn’t articulate and it took me some time to work out what was happening. He told me he had no idea what to do next. I suggested to him, as I knew the twins and their parents that the boys might respond to me. He shrugged his shoulders and as he turned away, he gestured to the toilet block. He trudged with bowed head and slumped shoulders toward the library to talk with Missin’ and to wait for Angel.
‘I identified myself to the boys and asked if they would let me in. After a few minutes I heard the bolt slide and the door opened a little. They peered out and allowed me into their fortress. Even though they knew and trusted me, they retreated and huddled in a corner. With coaxing, they opened up. Their voices were shrill and their lips quivered as they related Missin’s embellishments of the rats with fleas that would cause them and their parents to die horribly and be taken away in carts. They repeated the chants of Bring out your dead! Their skins were white and had goose bumps. Their eyes were wide with dilated pupils. They had the shakes, so I hugged them and they settled down. I promised I would treat their rats for fleas and would arrange to fumigate their home.

‘I called Angel on my mobile. She was on her way to the school and was relieved when I told her I was with the boys. She then contacted Trevor, and he arranged for his mate, Duck, to carry out the fumigation.’

‘Duck?’ Sue ‘s eyes sparkled and a smile appeared at the corners of her mouth.

‘Duck was Dan the Mower Man, Andy’s Aerials and also Fred the Fumigator. Once when he was fitting an aerial on the poet’s yacht, Sunshine, the poet invited him to join us on the deck for a beer or two. He would answer to Dan, Andy or Fred. It was bloody confusing. The poet once reckoned he’d drum up more business if he advertised himself as DAF for GAF. He did, and the poet immediately called him Duck. It was sensible and easier. He’s awright,’ said Trevor. Angel looked askance at him.

‘I told the boys their mum was on her way,’ continued Ken. ‘They cheered up with the reassurance. Holding their hands, I walked them to the library as their mum arrived at the school. When we met, there were tears, cuddles and giggles. Angel left with her boys.

‘Bert and I, with many of the teachers, other school staff, doctor, police, fire and emergency services volunteers, except for Missin’ and the Acting-Sergeant, had a coffee or a cup of tea and biscuits in the library.

‘Missin’ resigned and was never again seen in the district. It was rumoured she had partnered up with a policeman. It was also rumoured that it had ended badly. Bert, after discussions with the Education Department, suspended classes for the rest of the day. The office staff notified all parents by e-mail, text or telephone. They were allowed to collect their children. Those who were left at school were given supervised homework, library, art workshop or sports activities for the remainder of the school day.

‘Later, the Registrar received retraining and remedial counselling in emergency procedures. Bert was busy for weeks writing reports and responding to internal enquiries. The cleaners spent months removing the internal bolts from all doors in the school and replacing the sharp-edged metal handles with round knobs. That seemed an end to the matter.’

‘But something else happened,’ Sue stated.

Trevor guffawed, ‘Ya can be as sure of that as ya can be sure ya best pair of red undies’ll be skid marked after a fart.’ His remark startled everyone. Sniggers and laughs filled the hall. Many were the sorts of laugh you hear when a mouth full of beer or wine is involved.

Sue raised an eyebrow at Ken.

Angel noticed and said to Sue, ‘No children, except the twins, turned up for school the next day.’

Sue laughed aloud as laughter broke out in pockets around the room.

‘While you can appreciate the humour now, at the time it was no laughing matter. Bert and I sent out e-mails and letters to all the parents assuring them the fears of a plague were baseless,’ continued Ken. ‘It took a week before all the kids were back at school. The State Health Department, to scotch a spreading panic, embarked on a city-wide TV, radio and newspaper campaign.’

‘I remember that and couldn’t work out what had happened.’ Then Sue asked, ‘Do you still keep rats, Angel?’

‘No. We now keep and breed dogs.’ She glared menacingly at her neighbours and friends and raised her voice as she added, ‘Pit bulls.’

The room fell quiet. Looks were shared or darkly cast as is the way within closed communities.