Bertie perched grumpily on an ice cream tub. ‘It’s not fair’, he muttered. ‘Sally’s only ten weeks older, but she’s allowed to go’. He watched sceptically as his family scuttled along the gutter and cautiously darted towards the candy-floss stall. He scoffed as his brothers gobbled greedily at some stray strands of pink fluff. And I bet they won’t bring me back any. He nibbled unenthusiastically at the cold chip that had been left, wincing at the vinegar.
The fair came twice a year to the town. It was a time of giddy excitement for the humans involved but for the rodent kingdom it meant war. From all over the surrounding areas the various tribes would gather on the final night to establish which was the most dominant. Beneath the dodgems, the helter skelters and the duck bobbing stalls various feats of strength and derring-do were conducted. The victors, as well as basking in glory, got the pick of the takeaways and rubbish tip delights for the next six months.
Bertie had begun his campaign to go three whole days ago but his mother had refused to pay heed.
‘You’re too young, dear.’
‘Muuuumm, I’m nearly as strong as Bobby. If I practise non-stop I will be.’
‘Remember what happened to Billy.’
He knew it. The indefatigable argument. Billy’s boasts that he could balance an entire 1.5 litre bottle of coke on his head had sadly been the last words he had ever uttered.
‘I’d only do little challenges…’ he wheedled.
So here he was, stuck on the sidelines in the burrow, watching his brothers Barry, Bobby and Bernard hoist themselves into a barrel to demonstrate their climbing skills. Bobby was definitely the best, thought Bertie enviously. They were so engrossed that they didn’t notice the lid slamming down on the barrel. It was picked up by a big burly man and hefted onto the back of an open truck which reluctantly spluttered into life before trundling slowly to the exit.
Bertie’s eyes bulged out of his head. Without thinking twice he hurtled off in pursuit. Fortunately the truck was dawdling behind the crowds of weaving revellers so he managed to just reach it and scamper up the back, throwing himself panting against a sack. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom he made out a barrel and another barrel and another twenty barrels. All identical. Which was the right one?
He went to the nearest and tapped out the special Mouse Code for, ‘Are you in distress?’ Nothing. Perhaps they couldn’t hear him over the roar of the truck. Or maybe he’d got it wrong. He’d only been learning Mouse for a week or so. Mouse was highly confidential and one had to prove oneself ready and worthy of learning. All rodents lived in fear of a leak happening like the one nearly 200 years ago when some humans claimed it as their own. Even then they’d got it wrong and called it Morse, poor fools.
He darted from barrel to barrel, tapping the sides of them quickly and efficiently. Finally an answer came. He then heard a ‘pssst’ sound. He noticed a little hole at one end. Through it he could see Barry’s eye looking at him.
‘What’s going on?!’ exclaimed Barry. ‘One minute we were climbing, the next we were banging about in space, seeing stars and rockets and meteorites!’
Bertie clicked his tongue in irritation. His brother was prone to exaggeration, especially with a bellyful of candyfloss making him over-excitable.
‘You’re in a truck full of barrels’, he said. ‘What’s it like in there? Can you see anything?’
‘We’re in a small compartment. There doesn’t seem to be any way out. Underneath the floor we can hear a swishing noise. Perhaps we’re under the sea with sharks and dolphins and mermaids!’
‘You’re in a truck full of barrels’, said Bertie firmly. ‘But I’m going to save you, don’t worry. Now keep quiet and get ready to run. We’re slowing down.’
The truck shuddered to a halt outside a brightly lit building. Bertie could see raucous sunburned men shouting and holding aloft their glasses of brown liquid. He twitched his whiskers disapprovingly. What an undignified display. He heard loud voices approaching the back of the truck. The driver was regaling the pub landlord with excerpts from a comedian he’d seen earlier that night.
‘This fat bird in the audience sez to him, ‘You’re fattist’. And he sez, ‘No madam, you’re fattest…’ The two of them laughed uproariously at this, which made Bertie sniff. Perhaps the madam in question had a glandular problem..? It seemed a singularly inappropriate and unfunny remark in his opinion.
The two men were now hefting the cargo out to a gaping cavern underneath the ground. He could hear Barry saying excitedly to his brothers. ‘We’re going under the Earth’s crust to boiling larvae, volcanic cracks and molten metal!’
‘You’re in a bloody truck full of barrels!’ shouted Bertie, exasperated out of his composure. ‘Now concentrate!’
He hid himself just under the rim. Moments later it was lifted and carried to the ground. Bertie judged his moment then leapt with all his might, landing on the man’s forehead. The man shouted in horror, putting his hands up instinctively, dropping the barrel which crashed on the hatch lid, splitting the wood instantly. Bertie leaped down into an enormous waterfall of beer, calling to his brothers to hurry as they ran towards the hedge.
From the shadows the four of them watched the commotion, the man shouting: ‘I was attacked by a fucking great rat! I’ll need a tetanus shot, I’ll get rabies….’ while the revellers tried to scoop up the cascade of beer into their glasses.
A stream of it had reached the hedge. They stuck their tongues in cautiously and finding it surprisingly pleasant drank a bit more. And a bit more after that.
It took them a long, long time to get back to the burrow that night. Each mouse they passed had to be regaled with the tale of Bertie’s heroic rescue. For once, Bertie didn’t feel it was necessary to reign in Barry’s exuberant over-exaggeration. There was a time and a place, after all. By the time they reeled their way home an enormous crowd awaited them, word having travelled quicker than they had. Their mother, who had spent most of the night fretting over their absence, was preparing a feast for the neighbourhood. It was heartily agreed that The Four Mouseketeers, as they had become known, had led the family in the burrow to victory and King Bertie was Ultimate Champion. The party lasted till dawn and the Mouseketeers had one hell of a hangover the next day.