QUEENIE

David watched the rivulet of water wend its way down the dirty window pane. What had made him want to do his homework in the boathouse today of all days? It was cold, wet, and almost tea time.
    He was about to pack his knapsack and wander home when there was a splash. He turned back to see a plump rat struggling in the water.
    A rat! David hated them even more than snakes. And rats were supposed to be excellent swimmers. Where was the point in them leaving a sinking ship in the middle of some ocean if they weren't? But he couldn't stand there and watch this one drown.
    David pushed an oar into the water so the rat could scurry to safety. As it landed on the planking of the small dock, he leapt back just in case it wanted to thank him. A brief squeak and disappearing tail would have been quite sufficient. Unfortunately the large, plump rat was tame and better mannered. It sat in its haunches and gazed up enquiringly at its rescuer. The resident rats had probably pushed it in the water for being too cute.
    Having come to some decision, the rodent went to the boathouse entrance where it turned and squeaked urgently at David. He sighed. Which would be more fun, going home to finish his homework on the causes of the French Revolution or chasing a plump rat through the pouring rain? Then he realised that it had stopped raining and the sun was now valiantly trying to break through.
    So David followed the rat outside. He locked the boathouse door and slipped the key through the park gatehouse's letter box as he passed.
Instead of returning to civilisation and its worried owner, the plump rat headed for a narrow path which led into the bramble wood.
   "No way!" David told it. His track suit was too new to run through rampant thorns.
    The rat stopped. It sat on its haunches and cast him a look of contempt.
   "That only leads to the old air raid shelter." The rodent's gaze was unwavering. "Oh, all right, but this had better be good." He just hoped that no one was eavesdropping.
    The rat scampered off.
    His track suit soon drenched and snagged, David doggedly pursued the intermittent flash of white and brown bouncing through the bracken, past the air raid shelter, and down to the river.
    Peering from holes in the bank were dozens of small, inquisitive faces. To some people, like his immature sister, this would have been pure Disney. To David, it was a job for the Pied Piper of Hamlin. What on Earth had he expected to find after following a fancy rat, other than its huge family of multi coloured rodents?
    David sat on a fallen tree trunk to examine the damage to his snagged track suit sodden with mud. It had been a present from his parents and he was going to be in deep trouble somewhere between the back door and the washing machine. He tried to pull some of the snags through to the other side. It only made matters worse, so he turned his attention to the rodents.
Where had so many pet rats come from? Then had to admit that he really wasn't too bothered.
    Wet and irritated, David decided to go home. As soon as he got up the plump rat darted ahead, squeaking urgently to get him to follow it again. At least this route was free of brambles, mud, and wet overhanging branches so David trudged after the rodent.
    He followed it out of the wood and across a road to a track leading to a bland, brick building. David hesitated. This was spooky. His parents trusted him to be careful, and he could outrun anyone. However, what did you do when tempted to enter a bleak building in the middle of nowhere?
    The door was ajar and inside was lit by harsh, fluorescent light. On a long bench were rows of cages, their doors open.
   "Oh no!" David gasped. "Animal research."
    Now shaking, he reluctantly followed the plump rat to a door at the far end of the corridor. It was locked.
    The rat climbed onto the bench and squeaked at a hook hidden behind a cage. On it was a key.
    David took it down and unlocked the door.
    The room was dark so he fumbled about the door frame until he found a light switch. As soon as he pressed it everything was flooded with a lurid glow. Didn't red lights mean vampires and getting run over by cars that jumped them?
    Forcing himself not to dash back out, David went to the Perspex cage in the middle of the room. Inside it was a large bundle of fur.
    There was the wailing of sirens in the distance and the creature lifted its head.
   "Well," a voice squeaked, "either open the cage door, or run away before you're caught."
    The sirens were getting closer and, without thinking, David opened the cage and lifted out - he wasn't sure what.
    Before he could reach the main door, a young woman in a white overall blocked his way. David tried to hide the creature in his track suit top.
   "Do you mind," it complained. "How would you like to be pushed into someone's damp jacket?"
    Then David realised where the squeaky voice was coming from. "Urrk!"
    The young woman raised a hand. "It's all right."
    Through the open door he could see military vehicles pulling up. The men leaping out of them had guns. To David, things looked far from all right.
   "This way!" The young woman guided him down some steps in the floor. The plump rat followed and she bolted the trap door after them.
    They ran along a damp tunnel for what seemed ages and eventually came out through the old air raid shelter in the wood.
    The young woman pulled a whistle from her overall and gave a long blast on it. The other fancy rats immediately swarmed after them as they hurtled towards a car waiting near the gatehouse.
    David was breathless by the time they reached it. "This is too weird," he gasped, and then looked down at the creature he was clutching. It was a large, very intelligent looking rodent the size of a cat.
   "Meet Queenie," said the young woman.
    David's jaw dropped. "Queenie? A talking rat? Who would want a talking rat?"
   "The military. Could you think of a better way to spy on the enemy?"
    No, David couldn't.
    She took Queenie from David. "Sorry, got to go. You'd better make yourself scarce as well." Then she opened the car door. The rats swarmed into it.
    With a brief wave the young woman drove off, Queenie sitting on her lap.
    Army searching the area or not, David was unable to move for some while.
He was still there when Mr and Mrs Holt returned to the park gatehouse after doing the weekly shopping.
   "Hi David," Mrs Holt called as she unloaded bags from the boot of their car. "You look as though you've been jogging through the brambles."
   "Yeah," groaned David. "Me mum's going to kill me."

©Dandi Palmer