This short story is set on the Isle of Man, where it
is considered unlucky to use the word 'rat'.
Such vermin are known as longtails. As kids, it was made
clear to us that all longtails should be hunted down and
'Organized' hunting expeditions for fish,
bird or mammal rarely bore fruit, and even fruit usually
managed to escape our efforts. Closest encounters with prey
usually happened unexpectedly, the element of surprise intact
(something that was obviously lacking in our 'organized',
but quite headless hunting trips).
On a day out at Scarlett, a longtail foraging on the shore
line caught our attention. As a number one no-guilt target,
the hunt began with the accepted cry of 'a longtail,
kill! Argh...' Moving almost instantaneously as
one and slowing only slightly to scoop up fist-sized, well-shaped
stones, we set into motion. Eight of us - more than three
hundred and fifty kilograms of pubescent male - against
one very small, brown, furry mammal. Weighing in at around
a quarter of a kilogram maximum, what chance of survival
could it have? Based on previous hunts, it had every chance.
Despite their size, these animals have scientifically proven
intelligence, and as far as we were concerned, this was
undoubted. We had discovered their grassy escape routes.
Cleverly planned, crisscrossing runs, marked out with their
piss and black liquorice torpedo turds. How many times had
we hunted these little buggers? Efforts met with the one
finger of a tail disappearing down a hole?
On this occasion, we chased the scurrying but amazingly
quick creature along the storm beach, forcing it down the
loose cobble slope towards the sea. Well thrown stones blocked
its attempts to move inland to the security of its stinking
runs. Anyone looking on would have seen a beach filled with
skipping and jumping teenagers performing bone-jarring falls
and occasional forward rolls. We must have resembled an
overdue escape from an eighties disco for the insane 'Whaaaa...the
DJ's playing Duran Duran again!'
The longtail was coping better than us with the uneven
ground, but it didn't appear too complacent, stopping
rarely and only momentarily to glance around and look at
its pursuers. Fleeing onto the flat rocks provided it with
few places to hide and a better surface for us to chase
on. Entry into the rocky ravine was a further very serious
mistake on its part.
Taking up positions at either end of the ravine and along
its steep stone walls, we had the animal surrounded and
trapped. The rocky ravine offered it no chance of escape,
just narrowing rock passages as boulders gave way to cobbles
and then to stones - ammunition for the firing squad.
Excitement gathered - we might even kill this one!
'Where is it?'
'The bugger's under there!'
A volley of ricocheting stones.
The longtail, however, still had the better of us, lying
hidden under boulders too large for us to move without placing
hands vulnerable to a bite and certain Black Death. Just
being close to the filthy creature made us shake and feel
sick (which we decided later was a definite effect of plague
'David, you're the strongest, how about moving
that boulder? We'll get ready to fire, you just get
out of the way once you're done.'
'No chance, I'll get bitten and die, no chance!'
'Jeff? Fancy moving the boulder?' Jeff was
usually up for anything.
'Sorry, hands full of rocks.' The possible
glory of making the kill was too valuable to miss out on.
I imagined the creature scared and trembling, the smell
of circling predators all around and growing stronger. Its
mind desperately trying to deal with the predicament, would
escape be an option from this unfamiliar maze?
This longtail's best chance lay in the fact that
our options were also running out. Minds started to work,
but before anyone had a chance to declare a 'smoke-out' 1
, Andy appeared like Sir Lancelot. 'Here I found this,
we can use it as a lever.'
Standing like a dismounted knight, breathing hard but ready
for more, was Andy with a rusty but pointed metal fence
post. Faces momentarily conveyed some thought as to where
the post had come from, but attention soon returned to our
quarry. With one hand clutching a now warm and slightly
sweaty stone, Andy began wedging the metal post under the
suspect boulder. Surprise at seeing it turn over was quickly
followed by yet another volley of stones, cries of pain,
and expressions of disappointment as no longtail emerged.
Our impenetrable human wall was proving just that, as various
bruises and bloody indentations appeared on shins and anklebones.
This process continued for a while; we'd kill this
longtail even if we had to endure friendly fire!
On forcing the metal post under yet another boulder (one
which had already been turned!) came the breakthrough, a
terrible and agonizing squeal.
'You've stabbed it!'
'Turn the bloody rock!'
With face-reddening effort, the boulder turned and the
longtail was revealed, part skewered on the point of the
post. Screaming distress, its body contorting, clawed feet
scrabbling at the air. The fearful noise was silenced by
a final heavy rain of stones that sparked off the rusty
metal and made sickening thuds as they found their mark.
Quiet fell, we had just killed a longtail. At last we'd
actually managed to get one of the little buggers! Claims
as to who had made the killing shot soon replaced the stone
throwing. What was certain was that we were all suffering
a few killer blows, but they didn't matter.
A few more stabs from the fence post made sure that the
longtail was dead. The post had been decisive in our success
and was still proving useful in keeping us at a safe distance
from the infectious body, which was paraded along the coastal
path. Our trophy was proudly displayed to unsuspecting ramblers
who mostly turned green, walked faster, and tried desperately
to prevent their dogs from taking a bonus meal.
A final act was to place the stiffening longtail on the
road to be squashed by passing vehicles; an activity that
kept us amused for at least an hour before the hunger based
homing instinct kicked in.
1. 'Smoke-out' - a fiasco involving fire
that had been tried previously on many hunting trips. Our
efforts had provided great smoke cover for escaping longtails
and had usually left us temporarily blind.