A Rat’s Maze

“Flicks, movies… fleapits, multiplexes…”

This is Dad talking.

“You might think there are hundreds of words for it — the silver screen — but there aren’t. You had talkies once but no catchy word when colour arrived. No one said ‘Let’s go to the coloureds.'”

“‘Silver screen’” sounds facetious,” I say. “What’s the word? — Jocular.”

We’re drinking one of his best single malts.

“It refers to the whole industry, son. Or it did.”

He sips his drink. We’re sitting in his flat in Bath Square overlooking the harbour. He grew up in this city, moved away, then eventually returned. He likes this quarter especially: Old Portsmouth. It’s a gentrified area on the southwestern knuckle of the harbour. There are new wharf apartments and a few older buildings, all cramped round the cathedral and the Camber Dock. Dad is fond of the town beyond too, mostly for what it once was. He reads up on its past, the defunct canal, the railway, the dockyard and workhouse, the long-vanished farms. The Portsea part is an island by virtue of a northern creek only fifty yards wide.

Two Rats, 1884
(Oil on panel, 29.5 x 41.5 cm)
BY Vincent Van Gogh
PRIVATE COLLECTION

I get down to see Dad a few times a year. He’s in his sixties, a retired lieutenant-commander. He studied Russian in Manchester before training for the navy in Dartmouth. He’s short, florid and plump. In his cups he still gets dewy-eyed over my mother, who walked out on us when I was fourteen, then got herself killed in an accident two years later. He’s never had a live-in partner since, though he’s been through plenty of casual companions. That’s something I envy, his success with women. He’s not a great looker, but he’s got the talk and the air.

We’re pretty boozed up by now and we’ve done half the usual topics. Now we’ve got on to the cinema. He’s fond of films but seldom goes out to see them now — can’t stand the popcorn and cellphones, he says. His library of discs and tapes is the replacement. Name any halfway decent film, old or new, and he’s recorded it from TV or bought the disc. He makes me drink more than I’m used to, and I’m about two glasses from pie-eyed. He says, “Listen!”

I go mute, though my lips are silently babbling, or do I mean bubbling?

There’s a pause, then I venture, “Wha’?”

“Scratching,” he says. A finger raised, like in a da Vinci painting. I shake my head.

“There, again!”

This time I hear a rustling. He says, “Bloody rats.”

“Really? Are you certain?” I have to speak slowly, with deliberation. I find it hard to believe he has rats in the loft. It’s very pricey in these parts. The rats of Point, as this ancient area is called, deserted the quays when the wharves got their makeover.

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