It was the night before Hogswatch. All through the house . . .
. . . one creature stirred. It was a mouse.
And someone, in the face of all appropriateness, had baited a trap. Although, because it was the festive season, they’d used a piece of pork crackling. The smell of it had been driving the mouse mad all day but now, with no one about, it was prepared to risk it.
The mouse didn’t know it was a trap. Mice aren’t good at passing on information. Young mice aren’t taken up to famous trap sites and told, ‘This is where your Uncle Arthur passed away.’ All it knew was that, what the hey, here was something to eat. On a wooden board with some wire round it.
A brief scurry later and its jaw had closed on the rind.
Or, rather, passed through it.
The mouse looked around at what was now lying under the big spring, and thought, ‘Oops . . .’
Then its gaze went up to the black-clad figure that had faded into view by the wainscoting.
‘Squeak?’ it asked.
SQUEAK, said the Death of Rats.
And that was it, more or less.
Afterwards, the Death of Rats looked around with interest. In the nature of things his very important job tended to take him to rickyards and dark cellars and the inside of cats and all the little dank holes where rats and mice finally found out if there was a Promised Cheese. This place was different.
It was brightly decorated, for one thing. Ivy and mistletoe hung in bunches from the bookshelves. Brightly coloured streamers festooned the walls, a feature seldom found in most holes or even quite civilized cats.
The Death of Rats took a leap onto a chair and from there on to the table and in fact right into a glass of amber liquid, which tipped over and broke. A puddle spread around four turnips and began to soak into a note which had been written rather awkwardly on pink writing paper.
The Death of Rats nibbled a bit of the pork pie because when you are the personification of the death of small rodents you have to behave in certain ways. He also piddled on one of the turnips for the same reason, although only metaphorically, because when you are a small skeleton in a black robe there are also some things you technically cannot do.
Then he leapt down from the table and left sherryflavoured footprints all the way to the tree that stood in a pot in the corner. It was really only a bare branch of oak, but so much shiny holly and mistletoe had been wired onto it that it gleamed in the light of the candles.
There was tinsel on it, and glittering ornaments, and small bags of chocolate money.
The Death of Rats peered at his hugely distorted reflection in a glass ball, and then looked up at the mantelpiece.
He reached it in one jump, and ambled curiously through the cards that had been ranged along it. His grey whiskers twitched at messages like ‘Wifhing you
Joye and all Goode Cheer at Hogswatchtime & All Through The Yeare’. A couple of them had pictures of a big jolly fat man carrying a sack. In one of them he was riding in a sledge drawn by four enormous pigs.
The Death of Rats sniffed at a couple of long stockings that had been hung from the mantelpiece, over the fireplace in which a fire had died down to a few sullen ashes.
He was aware of a subtle tension in the air, a feeling that here was a scene that was also a stage, a round hole, as it were, waiting for a round peg—
There was a scraping noise. A few lumps of soot thumped into the ashes.
The Grim Squeaker nodded to himself.
The scraping became louder, and was followed by a moment of silence and then a clang as something landed in the ashes and knocked over a set of ornamental fire irons.
The rat watched carefully as a red-robed figure pulled itself upright and staggered across the hearthrug, rubbing its shin where it had been caught by the toasting fork.
It reached the table and read the note. The Death of Rats thought he heard a groan.
The turnips were pocketed and so, to the Death of Rats’ annoyance, was the pork pie. He was pretty sure it was meant to be eaten here, not taken away.
The figure scanned the dripping note for a moment, and then turned around and approached the mantelpiece. The Death of Rats pulled back slightly behind ‘Seafon’s Greetings!’
A red-gloved hand took down a stocking. There was some creaking and rustling and it was replaced, looking a lot fatter – the larger box sticking out of the top had, just visible, the words ‘Victim Figures Not Included. 3–10 yrs’.
The Death of Rats couldn’t see much of the donor of this munificence. The big red hood hid all the face, apart from a long white beard.
Finally, when the figure finished, it stood back and pulled a list out of its pocket. It held it up to the hood and appeared to be consulting it. It waved its other hand vaguely at the fireplace, the sooty footprints, the empty sherry glass and the stocking. Then it bent forward, as if reading some tiny print.
AH, YES, it said, ER . . . HO. HO. HO.