They were everywhere. Office workers tore their hair out as they found chewed documents and CDs so scoured with tooth marks that they were unreadable. Frantic housewives chased them out of kitchens, only to find more had invaded while they were driving out the last lot. Poison accounted for more cats and dogs than rats and nobody knew where they all came from. It was not much help that Lineham was an old walled town, walled against the aggressive French over the Channel who used to sail up the river on a regular basis in the Middle Ages. With the French more likely to invade with selfie sticks and guidebooks than with pistols and halberds, the walls just served to keep the rats in, to concentrate them in its medieval streets. Word had got around and the tourists, on whom Lineham depended during the summer, were conspicuous by their absence.
The Mayor threw a book at the pair of rats that were copulating on his desk and sat down, after inspecting his chair for droppings.
“Daddy,” said his daughter. “What were those two rats doing?”
“Making more rats,” he said gloomily. “I think you will have to stay with your Auntie this summer,” he went on. “You don’t want to be around with all this lot messing the place up.”
“I don’t mind them,” she said. “They can be quite funny.”
“You’re the only person who thinks so.”
There was a discreet knock on the door and the Town Clerk came in.
“There’s another delegation, downstairs, from the Spare Wheel,” he said. “They want to know what you’re doing about it.”
The Mayor sighed. “I’ll come down,” he said. He had never anticipated this sort of crisis when he accepted the mayoralty. “You had better run off home,” he said to his daughter. “Come and give me a kiss and don’t talk to any rats on the way.”
She flung her arms around his neck and gave him a big smacking kiss. Then she trotted down the stairs, passed the assembled dignitaries in the hall and out into the street.
“Isn’t she bothered by them?” asked the Clerk.
“No, and they ignore her.”
“There’s one thing to be thankful for,” said the Clerk. “At least they haven’t bitten anyone yet. Or no-one significant.”
“And there’s no sign of the Black Death,” muttered the Mayor. “Gentlemen,” he said as he reached the bottom of the stairs. “I dare say I can guess what this visit is about.”
“Well, what are you doing, then?” asked Mr Atkins, the Mayor’s least favourite local businessman. He was short and aggressive with a bristly red moustache.
“We have had discussions with a firm called Pi-Tech,” said the Mayor. “They use ultrasound pulses to disorientate the rats and drive them out of the range of the sound transmitters.”
There was a general approving muttering in the group but Mr Atkins was not satisfied.
“So when are these ultrasound jonnies going to do the business?” he said. “We can’t take any more of this. Some of us are losing our livelihoods.”
“They will be doing tests over the next few days, to check that it works properly and that the winding streets don’t interfere with the acoustics. Hopefully we’ll be able to roll it out next week.”
“Drive the little buggers into the river, eh?” said a jovial butcher called Simmons. “Can’t be soon enough for me.” His business really was suffering, the Mayor knew. Mr Atkins ran a hardware shop that the rats were not much interested in.
“We’ll be notifying people in the test areas before anything happens,” the Mayor assured them. “We want to get this sorted out as soon as possible.”
The delegation dispersed amid more muttering and the Mayor picked up the post and went back to his office, shooing half a dozen rats away from the door. He was getting used to working with a skeleton staff as they had told most of the council workers to work from home.
“Dear God, I really hope this acoustic thing works,” he said to the Town Clerk.
“I’ve had someone else on the line, while you were talking to them,” said the Clerk. “Company called Mycelial Solutions. They sound interesting. I’ve got their number here.”
“I don’t want anything to do with mice,” said the Mayor. “I’ve got enough trouble with rats.”
But the director of Mycelial Solutions was quick to reassure him when he called. “No, no, no,” he laughed. “Mycelia aren’t about mice. They’re about fungi. Mycelia are like the roots of fungi.”
“Okay. What does it do to rats?”
“It’s a little complicated but it is guaranteed to sort out your rat problem in no time at all,” said the director. “Could you come and see a demonstration? It would be easier than explaining it.”
At that moment the phone went dead because a rat had chewed through the wire. The Mayor called Mycelial Solutions on his mobile and, in a mood of quiet desperation, agreed to see a demonstration the very next day. Just then he would have done anything to sort out the rats.
The director of Mycelial Solutions was tall and nervy. He seemed to be colour blind because he wore an appalling orange suit and a green tie. He waved his arms around when he talked and the combination made him look like a hyperactive traffic light.
“Amazing things, fungi,” he told the Mayor, his voice brim full of enthusiasm. “You think of a problem and fungi can find a solution. Do you know they’re practically intelligent?”
The Mayor’s long career in local politics had given him a lot of experience in dealing with enthusiasts. He kept a diplomatic silence.
“What we have done in this case it to take the lethal lollypop and make it bigger,” said the director.
“What is a lethal lollypop?” asked the Mayor.
“Monacrosporium ellipsosporum,” said the director, wrapping his tongue around the words as if he were telling the Mayor the name of his lover. “A superb piece of evolutionary engineering. In its natural state the mycelium spreads through the soil and puts up these tiny knobs on stalks, like lollypops. It eats nematode worms, you see? If a nematode brushes against a lollypop it sticks and the fungus grows through the worm and digests it. It all happens very fast. Wonderful. And there are billions and billions of nematodes in the soil. Quite a lot in you and me as well. Did you know there is a species of nematode that grows only in German beer mats?
“Anyway,” he went on without waiting for an answer, “Monacrosporium ellipsosporum has got their measure, but it is very small. What we have done is modify the genome slightly so it grows a bit bigger.”
“Big enough to eat rats?” asked the Mayor.
“You are well ahead of me,” beamed the director. “Have a look at this.”
He ushered the mayor into a small laboratory where two Perspex boxes lay o a table connected by a Perspex tube. One box contained a rat. The other was filled to an inch deep with soil on which several small grey beads were sprinkled in a rough line across the middle.
“Those beads are the lollypops,” said the director. He dropped a piece of chocolate through a hole in the box containing the soil and lifted a gate that closed off the Perspex tube from the rat.
The rat’s nose quested the air from the other box and it approached the tube with caution. It pushed its way in and sniffed the soil at the other end. Then it caught the scent of the chocolate and set of to find its source. It could not avoid the lollypops and the Mayor saw its foot brush one of them as it passed. The lollypop clung to the skin and the rat tried to dislodge it, but it was stuck fast. Its efforts brought it into contact with other lollypops. The Mayor watched with horrified fascination as patches of fine grey hairs sprouted around the lollypops on the pink skin of the rat’s feet. The rat stopped struggling and lay still, its eyes blinking. It was soon cocooned in a wraithlike cloud of grey filaments and in minutes was completely hidden. The pathetic bundle of grey collapsed on itself and the filaments dissolved into a fine grey powder. In minutes there was nothing left but a little pile of dust where the rat had been caught and more grey beads were scattered over the surface of the soil.
The director clapped his hands in delight. “Excellent!” he said. “That’s just what happens when it gets a nematode.”
The Mayor felt slightly sick. “Even the bones?” he said.
“Yes,” said the director. “We were quite surprised about that but we analysed the dust and it’s very calcium rich. So,” he went on, smiling archly at the Mayor. “What do you think?”
“It’s…very effective,” said the Mayor, groping for words. “Is it safe? I mean, what about cats and dogs and all that?”
“Perfectly safe,” said the director. “It’s genetically imprinted only to respond to rat proteins. And it only survives a couple of days. The spores are robust but the mycelium is fragile.”
“Well, that’s okay then.”
“So when do you want us to start?”
“I have agreed with another company that they can trial their system,” said the Mayor. “They’re installing their equipment next week.”
“Pi-tech?” said the director. “I know them. They’re useless. The rats ignore it and the sound waves make people bleed at the ears.”
“Never-the-less, I’ve got to give them a chance.”
“I’ll expect your call next week, then,” said the director.
Not a chance, thought the Mayor as he made his way back to his car. Appalling as the rats might be, he felt sickened by the obscene speed at which the fungus destroyed it.
Tuesday morning. No rats. The mayor drove slowly through the twisting streets to the Town Hall’s tiny car park and there were no rats to be seen. He could hardly believe it. Had the Pi-Tech tests been so successful? He parked in his space and made his way up to his office, making a mental note to ask the Clerk to have the place swept. There seemed to be dust everywhere. But there were no rats.
A large grey box obscured his view down The Fishmarket. It was the widest street in Lineham, the only straight street in the town. Pi-Tech had installed their control transmitter on his window as it looked the length of The Fishmarket.
He went next door to the Town Clerk’s office to see if he could spot any rats.
“It seems to have worked,” said the Clerk, mopping blood from his ears. “The Pi-Tech people are coming at nine-thirty to close the deal. Can you see any problems?”
“None at all,” said the Mayor. “How much of the town has been cleared.”
“All of it, from what I can gather.” The Clerk looked at a spreadsheet on his monitor. “I’ve had the boys out checking the neighbourhoods and there are no rats to be seen.”
“Perhaps we don’t have to do the full exercise after all,” said the Clerk slyly. “They haven’t left themselves with any bargaining counters.”
“What? Cheat them out of their payment?” exclaimed the Mayor. “You must be joking. If they’ve cleared the buggers out they’ve earned every penny. If they’ve done it a few days early, so much the better.”
“Just a thought,” said the Clerk.
Not a good one, thought the Mayor. “Are we in a position to pay?”
“It’s all in the emergency holding account,” said the Clerk. “I’ll just arrange then transfer, though you will probably want to give them a symbolic cheque for the photo op.”
“Lay on some photographers,” said the Mayor. “We need to get something good in the papers. I know. I’ll announce a street party for next week, I think. Eating in the street! That’ll be a good symbolic way of celebrating the end of the plague.”
The Pi-Tech team came and were photographed shaking hands with the Mayor and brandishing their cheque. The rats were gone. Not a single one remained. The Mayor shook hands with the top Pi-Tech people again, waved them off and returned to his office just as the telephone was ringing.
“Did it work?” asked the director of Mycelial Solutions excitedly.
“Yes, it did,” said the Mayor uncomfortably. He hated telling bid losers that they had lost. “I’m afraid there isn’t a rat in the town.”
“Excellent,” said the director. “Shall I send our bill to the Town Clerk or direct to you?”
“Your bill?” said the Mayor. “But it was Pi-Tech that did the business. They’ve driven all the rats out with just their test run. There isn’t a rat to be seen.”
“Pi-Tech?” said the director. “Don’t be silly. I told you they were useless. They certainly couldn’t clear the town with a test. I knew they would fail so I sowed ellipsosporum around the town last night. It wasn’t Pi-Tech. It was us. Now, who should I send the invoice to?”
“But I didn’t give you the order,” the Mayor protested. “I already paid Pi-Tech. The test was successful. They’d done the job so I paid them.”
“If it was a test then you hadn’t given them the order either,” said the director. “Don’t worry. Just cancel the transfer and make it out to us.”
“But I can’t cancel the transfer,” said the Mayor. “It’s already gone through, and there is no evidence that it was your stuff that cleared the rats. They were doing the work and they got the result.”
“No evidence?” said the director. He was starting to sound angry. “Was there a lot of dust around this morning? Where do you think that came from? Pi-Tech, indeed. They couldn’t open a paper bag.”
Well, I’m sorry,” said the Mayor. “As far as I know they did the work. I gave them the order and I’ve paid them. I didn’t give you the order and I regret that I do not have the funds to pay you.”
“Then you will regret it,” said the director in a voice suspiciously like a snarl. And rang off.
Oh well, thought the Mayor. There’s no contract so he can sue us as much as he likes. He hasn’t got a leg to stand on.
The Mayor had ceased to be amazed by the speed with which the Town Clerk was able to arrange functions at short notice. Three days later the great Street Party was in full swing, running all the way down The Fishmarket.
The children, including his daughter, were running around like mad things. The centrepiece was a cake in the shape of a rat that would be ceremonially skewered, carved up and eaten as the climax of the party.
The Mayor wandered up and down the tables, shaking hands, chatting and modestly denying all credit for sorting out the rats. It was a wonderful feeling, to be buoyed up by public acclaim after months of taking flak from all sides. Even Mr Atkins shook him by the hand. Miracles would never cease.
The Town Clerk tapped him on the shoulder. “There’s a call for you in your office,” he said. “Wouldn’t call back. He holding on.”
The Mayor sighed but, when he got to the phone, the caller rang off just as he said “Hello”.
“He put the handset back, slightly puzzled, as his daughter whirled into the room shrieking “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!”
“Hello, daughter, daughter, daughter, daughter,” he said. “What have you got there?”
“It’s a lollypop,” she said, standing still for a moment and showing him a bright red blob on a stick. “There are loads of them. Everybody’s got one.”
The word ‘lollypop’ rang an alarm in his brain. He glanced at the phone and a terrible suspicion crept over him. “Don’t…” he said but, before he could say ‘…touch it,” she had taken a huge lick of the blob and her tongue was stuck.
There was a pause and the world seemed to stop. The silence was broken by a whimper.
“It burns,” she said indistinctly.
He tried to pull it off, being careful to touch the stalk and hating himself for being careful. All he did was pull her tongue. Her mouth was starting to sprout fine hairs, like an obscene beard and she started to cry. She was already too weak to scream.
He gathered her in his arms, feeling cold and dead inside, knowing there was nothing he could do. Her face was covered in the fine filaments and clothes puffed up as the fungus spread beneath them. She was silent now. And limp. And weightless. In seconds there was nothing but her empty clothes.
He had no idea how long he knelt there holding the clothes and their load of dust. Slowly, he became aware of the screaming from the street outside. Out on the street, parents were clutching vainly at dusty tee shirts and empty posh party frocks. The ground around the tables was ankle deep in dust. He looked around the office. Every surface was covered in dust. Her dust? The thought drove everything else from his mind and he stood like a hollow statue for what seemed like an eternity.
The yelling from the street brought him back to himself and he reanimated gradually, like a statue coming to life. There was a surge of people out on the street, clamouring to get at the Town Hall, screaming his name, scrambling over the wreckage of the Street Party. The screaming and the hammering on the door echoed around the void inside him. He looked around helplessly. There were more lollypops scattered around the floor. With a feeling that someone else was forcing him to make the movements, he picked one up and licked the sticky surface. It burned.