It has been a strange, warm, wet winter, the wettest winter on record here on this island. We have had floods, homes lost, over a hundred bridges washed away, and here, in the centre of the city where there was once a department store, then a fire, then a building site we now have a lake. Diggers lie semi-submerged, their cabins beneath its surface, their articulated arms and shovels above like so many Loch Ness Monsters. At home in my burrow I watch Niagara cascading from the leaf-clogged gutter, and am reminded of what Uncle Ratty and I later referred to as the Save Our Souls Storm.
It was a September and I don’t know why I wasn’t at school, but I can remember the train journey and the beating of my little heart as we began to enter molekin country. I always badgered my way into the same compartment. Any other creature already there, or joining us later, was an interloper as far as I was concerned. And so I took not the blindest piece of notice of the old biddy who took exception when I wrenched the window open and stuck my snout out. My Mama, had she been there, would have called it smut-gathering, but for me sniffing the air, feeling the rush of wind on my pelt, even the grit in my eyes, were part of an almost sacred ritual.
I didn’t wrench the window open at any old time but during the few moments between pulling out of the last tunnel and rounding the bend. My snout had to be out of that window so that, through my streaming eyes, I would be able to witness our entrance into the station and, most especially, to see the familiar figures of Great Uncle Mole and Uncle Ratty. They were always there, side by side, on the same section of the platform between the potted geraniums and the Left Luggage. Always. I may have been the subject of my parent’s peripatetic life, but Great Uncle Mole and Uncle Ratty were constants.
This time, though, I could only make out one figure. The leaner shape of Uncle Ratty. Great Uncle Mole wasn’t there. I felt a lurch in my moletum, a sudden presentiment that their burrow, which was such a sanctuary to me, might not always be there.
But as we drew in, and the train screeched to a halt positioning my carriage opposite the Left Luggage exactly as I had calculated, I could see that Uncle Ratty’s good cheer was undiminished.
Great Uncle Mole, he explained, had been called out of retirement for some emergency consultations in London, and would be away for the best part of the week. Now that my mind was eased and I could begin to breathe normally again, I began to relish the prospect of a week with Uncle Ratty. We could sing raucous sea shanties in the passageways, adventure out as the fancy took us and be beastly careless about the time we got home. There would be no-one to tut-tut Uncle Ratty when his stories veered wildly from the truth or to press books like Investigations into Rigid Frame Bridges, volume III, into my paws when what I was yearning for were the Famous Five. I loved Great Uncle Mole dearly, but he did rather have his own way of doing things.
But the experiment was never to take place. When we got back to the burrow there was a telegramme on the doormat. Please rescue stop larder episode all over again stop cannot bear it stop. Thirteen words precisely. Before I had even put down my case, we were heading off to to catch another train. I was fermenting with questions but Uncle Ratty was so taken up with consulting his Bradshaws, hustling us to the station, buying sandwiches, procuring tickets and locating seats, that I had to put up with them growling about in my stomach. But once we were on the 2.32 London bound train I knew I had him trapped for at least three quarters of an hour.
And so, while heavy drops began to hit the carriage window, he began telling me about his cousin, The Chelsea Rat, so named by the Evening Star in 1928, and stuck with it ever since, poor blighter. ‘Why was he in the paper?’ I piped in, unable to contain myself even though I knew Uncle Ratty would tell me in his own time. ‘And what about the larder?’
A crack of thunder all but drowned out my last question and the lights in the carriage flickered.
‘Poor old Chelsea’, said Uncle Ratty peering out, not that there was much to be seen; the window was awash. The carriage had suddenly turned chilly.
The Chelsea Rat lived on the Thames not very far from Albert Bridge, Uncle Ratty said as he fished a disreputable jumper out of his bag and tossed it over to me.
It had been a veritable water-rat metropolis before that wretched embankment was built.
I was glad Great Uncle Mole wasn’t there to hear the word ’embankment’. We would never have heard the end of it. As it was, I thought Uncle Ratty was straying from the story, or at least from the questions that still hung in the air.
There’d been protests, he went on, but to no avail. The dredgers came in, a fascination to the nippers but a bane to their parents; burrows cracked and caved in. The great exodus began. Then the foundations were sunk and stone walls laid, blocking all the burrow entrances. Only a few stalwart families stayed on. Chelsea Rat’s family was one of them, his grandfather to be precise.
‘His Grandfather‘, I squeaked. ‘I want to know about Chelsea Rat!’
His Grandfather, Uncle Ratty continued, was a river-rat. He made quite a bit out of removals during the exodus, but after that trade went into a terrible slump and the family became penniless.
‘Chelsea Rat’, I said, pouting and crossing my front paws. If we didn’t get on with it we’d arrive at Paddington and I’d be none the wiser.
The long and the short of it, Uncle Ratty conceded, is that Chelsea Rat’s Papa had to take work on the canals in the north, and his Mama, who was the a poet at heart, worked as a char at at the Tate Gallery just up river; – which meant that on the night of the Big Thaw, the 7th of January in that cruel winter of 1928, Chelsea Rat, who was the eldest, was at home in charge of his seven siblings. And it was that night that the embankment collapsed. Chelsea Rat felt the ground give way, the walls collapse, the ceilings fall in. He herded his siblings into the highest, most inland chamber in the burrow, the larder, and waited for his Mama to come home. Normally, she would have been home well before midnight, but that night she had been corralled into rescuing the Turner drawings in the Tate basement. Chelsea Rat thought she must have drowned. The eight little nippers were discovered by rescuers the following morning. They were squashed together like sardines, no room even to sit down. The burrow, apart from the larder, had all but disappeared.
My moletum lurched as it had that morning when Great Uncle Mole was not standing on the platform, a horrible presentiment of impermanency.
The storm was positively biblical by the time we reached London and I can’t tell you the state we were in after we had trekked south to the Thames and were approaching the Apothecaries’ Garden where the original bolt hole of Chelsea Rat’s burrow was to be found. No water entrance existed now. Chelsea Rat was spooked by the merest drop of rain. We found the poor ancient rat quaking in the larder where he had taken refuge all those decades before.
The burrow I had imagined after Uncle Ratty’s tale, was a larder plus a few decrepit chambers propped up with stays, wallpaper water-stained and peeling; but it was a grand and quite extensive place, and even had its own library. Uncle Ratty managed to coax Chelsea Rat into the kitchen, brew him some oxo with a heavy dose of something from a flask; and we went to investigate. I have to say I was not feeling that brave. Uncle Ratty told me how far inland we were, how unlikely another flood was. He spoke with little conviction. We spent several hours moving books and paintings and even some furniture to the highest chambers. I moaned that my paws were tired and he reminded me that Chelsea Rat’s Mama had moved paintings all night during the floods of 1928. Still he sent me to the kitchen to sit with Chelsea Rat.
It felt like hours before either of us said anything. We sat, two fearful creatures, staring at the table. Then Chelsea Rat whispered hoarsely, ‘The press. Tell him to get the press.’ Did he mean the Evening Star, was he somehow confusing this flood with the last? I went to get Uncle Ratty.
I found him staggering up the stairs with a large oilskin-wrapped bundle; he looked exhausted. I felt horribly guilty about having deserted him. I gave him Chelsea Rat’s message.
‘Got it’, he wheezed.
Back in the kitchen the flask had done its stuff, emboldened Chelsea Rat to speech ‘The press. It must be made safe.’ Uncle Ratty said we could take it to Mole’s; that Mole’s burrow was the equivalent of a Mount Ararat as far as being above the flood level went. That, in fact, Chelsea Rat should come with us, just in case.
It was late that night that we got home. I was never, ever so pleased to be there as I was then. But try as I might I could not help imagining water filling the tunnels. I yearned for the return of Great Uncle Mole who, for all his fussing about, made the burrow a home, one that you could believe in forever.