Why would anyone eat a rat? I mean, seriously, why would any sane, rational person kill, cook and eat rats?
As a ten-year-old, I was attending the funeral of an elderly great aunt when I noticed a strange old man in an ill-fitting suit staring at me. He was tall, his frame was big and sturdy, thick wrists protruded from his jacket sleeves. His face looked careworn and tanned to the colour of my brown Sunday shoes. It was his rheumy blue eyes that struck me most, they looked so kindly and yet so sad. It was like he’d witnessed every sin and wickedness this world had to offer.
‘Who’s that?’ I asked my father, nudging and pointing rudely.
My Father glanced in his direction his face bleak ‘Oh, him, he’s…er… a relative….of sorts.’ ‘What sort of relative is he daddy?’ I asked, my curiosity was aroused. I wondered why I had not seen or even heard of him before now and what the term “a relative of sorts” meant. Either he was a relative or he wasn’t.
‘Be quiet, you’re in church, show some respect’ I was admonished. Later, outside the church, I saw my father talking to the old man. Dad was fidgeting, shifting his weight from one foot to the other His hands were making vague gestures, his voice a mumble. My mother was engaged talking to the vicar in a group with her sisters my aunts Florence and Doris. She kept stealing furtive glances in my father’s direction. I sneaked closer to hear what dad was saying. I was puzzled to hear dad mumble ‘sorry dad, you know how they are, best if you didn’t come back.’
The old man nodded looking even sadder than before ‘Aye, son, no matter, I’ll be away then.’ He turned and strode away down the church path. He didn’t look like a man rejected his walk was march-like, his head high and his shoulders square. Under the lychgate, he stopped and looked back briefly. At the distance, I couldn’t be sure, but I thought there was a tear in his eye. Then he turned and quickly walked away.
‘Who is he, daddy?’ I asked, why did you call him dad? Why did he call you son?’
My father’s face reddened ‘how long have you been listening, Tony?’
I felt like embarrassed, as though I’d been caught in some crime ‘just now daddy’ I said hurriedly ’I came to see how much longer we’d be here.’ It was a white lie, but it was better than saying I was curious and was eavesdropping.
My father’s face sagged, and his shoulders slumped. ‘I suppose I should have told you before now.’ He squirmed and looked towards my mother who was still in conversation with the vicar. ‘Oh hell’ he said, the air left his lips in a long sigh, ‘the old man is my father, your granddad but he’s not a very nice person to know, no one likes him.’
‘He looked alright to me’ I said, ‘he looked very sad, too.’
‘What have you told him?’ my mother had come up suddenly behind us, her lips were tightly pursed, eyebrows arched, her eyes were as small and hard as two dried peas. It was a look I knew well. Mother was seriously displeased. I trembled inside, there was always a heavy price to pay for incurring her displeasure.
When we got home from the wake, I was sent for and the black sheep of the family was explained to me. He was a sewer man for the council and smelled abdominally most of the time my mother said, ‘and his eating habits are utterly disgusting.’ the corners of her mouth turned down in sharp points. ‘He eats vermin.’
‘What’s vermin, mum?’
‘It’s rats and pigeons and…..’my father joined in.
‘That’s enough’ mum snapped ‘he doesn’t need to hear the details.’
Dad looked crestfallen.
‘We only tolerated him at the funeral because your great aunt was his sister’ mother rasped ‘so just forget about him and never, and I mean never mention him at school, or to anyone, understand?’
I didn’t understand, but I nodded anyway. When my parents were this serious, I knew better than to argue.
And so the incident passed into history, I was an active boy, I did sports after school and joined a boys club my dad had been a member of. There I was taught boxing and how to keep fit. I never forgot about my granddad although I never dared mention him again.
Time passed and I grew more confident, more self-assured. Shortly after my thirteenth birthday, I saw the old man again He was replacing a sewer lid outside our school. I followed him to his home, a rundown terrace in an area my mother said was full of undesirables, whatever they were. I waited until he had gone inside then I screwed up my courage and knocked on his door.
He looked down at me, frowning. I could tell he knew who I was ‘what do you want, lad?’ His voice was gruff. He forced a cough to clear his throat ‘do your parents know you’re here?
‘No, they don’t.’
‘You’ll be in trouble if they find out’ he said his face set hard and blank. ‘What do you want anyway?’
‘I don’t care about trouble’ I said, puffing out my chest ‘you’re my granddad, aren’t you?’ He nodded. I was desperate to know more about him. ‘Why are you dirty, why do you smell and why do you eat rats?’ I blurted.
I thought I saw the hint of a smile ‘you’d best come in for a minute’ he said and stepped aside allowing me into the small hall. The house was surprisingly neat and clean, not a trace of dirt anywhere and only the smell of lavender. What was I expecting of this man who ate rats? Filth everywhere? A terrible stench? I suppose I did.
‘A cup of tea’ he asked, or elderflower cordial?’
I made a fool of myself. ‘what’s it made of? I asked nervously before I even stopped to think.
He laughed, exposing healthy white teeth while his kindly blue eyes danced in his wrinkled face, ‘Well, I usually make tea with a teabag and the cordial with elderflowers. The clue’s in the name.’ he said with a big grin.
Seated on an old but clean and comfortable sofa sipping his very tasty cordial I was full of questions, but I didn’t know where or how to start, or even if I should start, after all, I wasn’t invited. He sensed my dilemma.
‘What have you been told about me, Tony?’ he asked.
Being a totally tactless little brat, I ploughed straight in ‘I’ve been told that you’re not a very nice person, that nobody likes you because you smell and eat vermin.’
‘Yes, lad, all of that is true’ he said nodding slowly My work clothes smell because I work down sewers, but I keep them outside in the outhouse where I breed my rats.’
‘Why do you eat rats?’ I asked, pulling a face, ‘there’s plenty of meat in the shops.’
‘I have my reasons, reasons which are none of anyone’s business but mine.’
I had been rebuffed but not in a nasty way. His tone was even, his voice gentle. The sad look was back in his eye. ‘I brought your dad up on food like that and look what a big, fine and strong man he grew into.’
I pressed him on the matter, but he closed down on me saying he’d said too much already.
I went to see him once a week after that without telling my parents but, inevitably, they found out. Mother went ape. They tried to forbid me to go but I showed defiance ‘I’ll tell every bugger and his dog that he’s my granddad if you don’t let me go’ I told them angrily. ‘He’s a nice old man and I like him.’
Mother had a face like a bashed crab for ages after that, but they didn’t try to stop me for fear I’d carry out my threat and tell people. I had, however, strict instructions never ever to eat any food he may offer me.
Growing up, I ’d become a rebellious little shit, so, to celebrate my fourteenth birthday, I tasted my first rat, bacon and shallot pie. It was delicious. I’d got to know my grandfather better with every visit, each time learning a bit more about this shy, gentle old man. However, he was very reluctant to talk about his past so getting information was very difficult, but, little by little, I drew him out.
As a young man Granddad had been engaged to my grandmother. When the war came, he was among the first to volunteer. The leaving celebrations got a bit heavy and as a result my grandma got pregnant with my father. Like so many wartime stories, theirs was to end in tragedy. Shortly after she gave birth to my dad, grandma was run over and killed by a car the blackout, she was just twenty-one. The only picture in granddad’s house was an old faded photo of my grandmother. She had been beautiful. He had never looked at another woman again.
On his eightieth birthday, I took a bottle of granddad’s favourite whiskey to celebrate. I must admit I used every trick I knew to get him a little drunk and he let his defences drop at last.
What I found was heart-breaking. Granddad had been captured in Singapore by the Japanese and sent to work on the Burma railway. There, he saw many of his comrades die of dysentery, malnutrition or just plain beaten or bayoneted to death by the guards. ‘If we got too weak to work’ he said ‘they just got rid of us’ I could tell he didn’t want to remember as tears formed in his eyes when he spoke of those times. I thought it was important that I should know, that everyone should know about the suffering of those unfortunate men.
‘Did they feed you on rats, granddad?’ I asked incredulously.
‘No lad, just a small bowl of thin rice gruel a day. We started eating rats, snakes and any damned thing we could get our hands on’ he told me ‘at first the Japs stopped us doing it until they realised that the ones of us that ate ‘jungle meat’ as we called it, were stronger and could work harder, so they turned a blind eye.’
When he came home from the war it took a long while for him to become rehabilitated. He was eventually demobilised into a country in dire straits. Food was strictly rationed, and jobs were scarce for unskilled men like him. He took any work he could find, no matter how poorly paid. Eventually, he got a job with the local council as a sewer man. The pay was abysmal, and he had my father to bring up on his own.
‘All the kids in the street were puny and undernourished’ he told me ‘including your dad. I didn’t want that for my boy. My workplace was teeming with rats and so I thought why not? I had survived when so many perished, all due to eating whatever we could catch.’ He smiled and his old eyes twinkled he said ‘I was awful at cooking until I found a recipe book on cooking game in a second-hand bookshop. I thought rats were no different to game, just smaller, so I spent a whole tuppence on that book. I never told your dad what the meat it was, I just called it wild meat pie or country stew. He didn’t ask and I didn’t tell. He laughed, genuinely amused, ‘you see, Tony, these things are purely a matter of perception. In this country we eat lamb, beef, pork, game and poultry. You mention eating horse meat and everyone freaks out. Why? A horse is just a quadruped same as a cow. The French eat horse meat, and nobody bats an eye.’
He went on to tell me that his neighbours grew suspicious when delicious cooking smells wafted from his kitchen and he was accused of buying black market meat, a criminal offence in those days. ‘How can a shit shoveller like you afford fresh meat every day?’ they asked. Someone sneaked around and discovered his secret and thereafter he was shunned.
‘I thought bugger ‘em, they don’t know what it is to starve, to be truly hungry. After a while it didn’t bother me or your dad. I developed a taste for it and started breeding my own rats. They were bigger, cleaner and had more flavour. When Paul, yer dad, got bullied at school, I made him join a boys’ club and learn to box. The bullying soon stopped after he knocked a few heads together.’
On my next visit I got him talking about dad. ‘He was a grand lad’ he said ‘until he went to do his National Service. He saw another, better side to life. He met your mother who was what they call these days upwardly mobile. She disliked me from the off. A sewer man was not a person she wanted in her close family. She’d already married your dad by then. Up north in secret it was. Well, secret from me anyhow.’ He showed no bitterness, just acceptance of that’s how things were.
I grew to love that old man dearly, he taught me so much about life. His philosophy was a simple one. Don’t rale against things you can’t change. Learn to accept without judgement that people are the way they are because of their life’s circumstances. He even learned to forgive his captors eventually. He told me hatred was like picking hot coals out of a fire with your bare hands to throw at those you hated. He also taught me to always question things. ‘Ask why something has to be so and why can’t it be different.’ he told me ‘always listen to others but draw your own conclusions.’ It was advice that has stood me well.
It was granddad who sparked my interest in cooking. His hedgehog Wellington stuffed with wild sweet chestnuts was scrumptious He did a roadkill rabbit roulade that you could have served in a top-class restaurant.
And so, as I grew older, I went to catering college where I met my wife Jean. We worked in hotel kitchens for years while saving for our dream of striking out on our own.
We opened our restaurant on my fortieth birthday. We called it Fat Rat Pie, which everyone thought was hilarious. It was an instant success. We specialised in game and poultry, developing a great reputation and gaining a Michelin star.
In the last year of his life, granddad took to watching arty-farty cooking programmes on TV. He noticed that modern chefs left their meat quite pink and he started doing the same. I warned him not to eat rare rat, but he wouldn’t listen. He caught dysentery and died after a short illness, mind you he was ninety-two.
The family moaned about expense until I assured them Jean and I would cover the funeral costs. They cheered up even more when I told them I’d be serving champagne and a lavish meal at my home after the funeral.
Ceremony over, the mourners gathered at my house where we toasted granddad in fine vintage champagne. I’d never seen so many of my relatives gathered in one place before all quaffing my drink and helping themselves to heaps of canapes.
We sat down to a splendid meal, the wine flowed, and granddad would have been embarrassed to hear so many relatives all speaking well of him for a change. Afterwards, I tapped my wineglass with a fork to command silence.
I thanked them for coming. ‘You know,’ I said ‘It was granddad who encouraged me to go into catering, hence my present prosperity. It was he who taught me that everything is just a matter of perception.’ Heads nodded sagely as they sipped my aged cognac. ‘Take this meal instance. The starter, Pate Au Savauge, I made that with the hearts, livers and gizzards of feral pigeons. The Game pie was a mixture of rat, rabbit and roadkill hedgehog in a hedgerow sauce.’ I never got as far as describing the sweet. Each one looked like they’d just pulled a squelchy turd from a lucky dip
It cost me a hundred and fifty pounds to have our carpets steam cleaned and they still carry a slight pong of puke but, God, it was worth it.