Jason Goodwin: ‘My friend was puzzled to discover me up a stepladder, cradling my airgun and scanning vegetable beds’

Jason Goodwin takes on the rats, and loses.

I knew it was a mistake to boast about shooting rats last year, in this column. There’s no jinx as powerful as hubris. They linger around the hen house like Templeton. They dart about the compost bins. They weave their sinister tunnels beneath the vegetable beds, so that now and again I come out in the morning to find a heap of soil disfiguring a line of radishes or swelling like a boil on the side of the pea sticks.

I tread the tunnels back into the ground. They don’t mind. Within a couple of days they’re back, making the beds spongy underfoot. A line of beans, the roots of which are dangling in thin air, begins to wilt.

The other day, as I was in the garden, I had a nasty thought. A hole had opened up under my spade in the corner of a bed and I had the sprinkler going. I poked the end of the hose into the hole, expecting it to overflow, but nothing happened. I checked the hose. It was still running. Water was gushing into the hole and it hadn’t backed up.

“The garden could have been mined like a sort of rodentine Gibraltar, riddled with secret chambers and reticulated burrows”

Leaving the hose running, I went inside to fetch the airgun and slip a supply of Bisley pest-control pellets into my shirt pocket. Sooner or later, I reasoned, a rat would break cover.

Minutes passed. Another, nastier thought surfaced, that the tunnels might run longer and deeper than I had ever yet cared to imagine. Over the years, the garden could have been mined like a sort of rodentine Gibraltar, riddled with secret chambers and reticulated burrows, where whole rattish clans, loosely related, might feed, fight and fornicate.

The tunnels might be no more than the outer breastwork of a massive system plunging deep into the subsoil, gradually filling with water from the hose. Which explains why our friend Anne, hallooing from a socially responsible distance on the drive, was puzzled to discover me up a stepladder, cradling my airgun and scanning vegetable beds for the monstrous apparition I expected to erupt at any moment from the ground: an army of rats, red-eyed and furious, scrambling towards me across the lettuces.

Anne’s an actress, with a voice like Bisley pest-control pellets rattling in a tin and a no-nonsense attitude sharpened by weeks of lockdown in a shepherd’s hut. I explained that I had pumped hundreds of gallons of water into the ground all afternoon and moved onto the stepladder in preparation for the rat attack. It would be like the Pied Piper leaving Hamelin, I said, as I tried to quote snatches of the poem:

And the grumbling grew to a mighty rumbling;
And out of the houses the rats came tumbling.
Great rats, small rats, lean rats, brawny rats,
Brown rats, black rats, grey rats, tawny rats,
Grave old plodders, gay young friskers,
Fathers, mothers, uncles, cousins,
Cocking tails and pricking whiskers,
Families by tens and dozens,
Brothers, sisters, husbands, wives…

Anne listened. She gave me the two-yard raised eyebrow. ‘A sinkhole!’ she crowed. ‘Wake up tomorrow and your vegetable garden will have caved in like a pavement in China! A huge black sinkhole swarming with rats!’

I turned off the tap. Goodwin 0; Rattus rattus 1.