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16 October 2014
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Mark Cooper
Mark Cooper

Born in Manchester, raised on the Isle of Man. Have lived in Belfast for last 11 years and love the place, the people, the craic. Writing poetry is release, of experiences, ideas and feelings: It is also escapism. Initial writing was precipitated by the birth of my first niece, and as a result a significant proportion of my poetry could be classified as childrens. Most recently, three poems appear in Speech Therapy (Issue 2), including 'Ladybirds Jewels' which earned me a place in the final of the Belfast Poetry Cup 2006 . A poem recounting the fortunes of a vagrant called ‘Fivedogs’ appears in Citizen32, and is my first magazine publication.

Longtail's End by Mark R. Cooper

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 killed.

'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!

'Get it!'

'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 germs).

'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.

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