by Diana Hockley
This week mystery author Diana Hockley from Australia shares something different with KRL–a fun little romance story where a little rat plays the part of matchmaker!
Troubadour’s parents chose his name because they wanted him to shine amongst the Jaydens and Oscars. His Aunt Maisie clacked her teeth in despair. “Helen,” she’d boomed, “you’ve made life miserable for that child. Just wait until the bullies get hold of him!”
And she was right. Troubadour fought for his life in the school playground, achieving top billing in mobile phone videos. He easily learned to fade into the woodwork, as he was too shy to chase girls, wear a baseball cap back to front or scream raucously in the shopping mall.
He grew up to be a tall, pleasant-faced nerd. His hair was a mess, black-rimmed spectacles hid most of his face and deep blue eyes which might have attracted attention should anyone actually see them. Dark suits, white shirts with discreet ties were his choice of gear; highly-polished black leather shoes scored high in his mother’s approval rating. “Joggers Troubadour, are so low-class.”
However, lurking indoors most of his life had enabled him to become a brilliant graphics technician, but his forays into the world of romance had been a series of unsuccessful encounters which ended in disaster. Kind-hearted Troubadour vowed never to go on another blind date, until the next time someone’s second cousin, four-times-removed came to town. His mother wondered if he had “leanings” for the other side and frequently inquired, “It’s high time you caught a wife and gave me some grandchildren, Troubadour?” She made him feel he should go out and trap a woman under a tiger net.
Skinny, blonde and supremely self confident Madeleine, head of sales at the advertising company for which he worked, was everything Troubadour idolised. His heart overflowed with love, as she worked the company CEO, her colleagues and the clients with all the expertise of a sheepdog in a time-trial. Troubadour lurked, moth-like to Madeleine’s flame, responding eagerly when she smiled, grovelling when she frowned and shivering with excited terror when she screamed at him. But nothing he did elicited any positive response from Madeleine.
Late one chilly afternoon, he arrived home from work prepared to acknowledge a Madeleine-less future. He lit the fire in his lounge room, heated up a piece of steak and kidney pie, opened a bottle of excellent port, stacked his stereo with classical music and settled down to wallow in misery.
It had been a bad day. The CEO, dumped by his current mistress and reprimanded by a major client for an unsuccessful campaign, had gone on the prowl for scapegoats. His colleagues hid, leaving Troubadour bleating in the firing line. To cap it all off, Madeleine had chatted on her mobile phone throughout a presentation which had taken him many hours to perfect.
He dozed as the warmth of the fire soothed his ruffled feathers. Then a slight sound penetrated his reverie. Someone?or something?was in the room… he jerked upright, dragged his glasses on and froze. A large, sleek, male rat sat on the coffee table, grooming fastidiously.
“G’day mate!” The rat wiggled his whiskers and smiled.
Troubadour screamed and scrambled up to the back of the sofa. The rat looked at him scornfully. “Oh, another sook.”
Troubadour’s jaw dropped. “You spoke?”
“You might have noticed there’s only us here.”
“I hate rats,” quavered Troubadour.
“People say that,” replied the rat, as he buffed his claws on Troubadour’s handkerchief, “because they’ve never been introduced to one.”
“But rats are dirty and evil,” whined Troubadour, pinching himself to see if he was dreaming.
“Well,” said the rat, waving an authoritative paw, “that’s a matter of opinion. Humans reckon rats are dirty because they eat garbage. Well I ask you, who leaves the garbage lying around? Do I look dirty?” He drew himself up on his hind legs and tail, lifted his little arms above his head and performed a shaky pirouette. His chestnut-coloured fur shimmered in the glow from the fire revealing an undeniably portly figure.
Troubadour looked at the pristine, soft white belly, then into the friendly, intelligent face, whiskers rampant. “Well, no, you’re not dirty, but you are fat!”
The rat glared. “I’m not fat! I’m comfortable.”
“I’m sorry, that was rude.” Apologizing to a rat?
“Where do you live?” Troubadour asked, as he slid down onto the seat.
The rat settled onto his belly, smiling. “I live with my rat mum and her family in the house behind yours. I can undo the door but my brother Orlando is too scared to come outside. I get porridge with honey and cream every morning before she goes to her day job. Of course, I’m not spoilt or anything,” he announced with patently false modesty, holding a paw up to the light to examine a polished claw.
Troubadour felt as though the top of his head was coming off. “How did you get into my house?”
“That’s my secret. I have an arrangement with the cat next door. I won’t bite her nose off if she doesn’t jump on me.”
Troubadour picked up the bottle of port and filled his glass to the brim.
“Great!” The rodent leaned over and dipped his paw into the liquid. “I don’t often get a go at the booze. This isn’t half bad!”
“Leave it alone!” snapped Troubadour, whipping the glass out of reach.
The rat laughed and settled back comfortably, his fat bum glowing in the warmth of the fire. “Now, listen Troube, I know you’re lonely and miserable, so how about you tell me all about it?”
Stunned, Troubadour understood who was in charge of the situation in which he found himself, but what the heck? No one would ever know – and he just had to confide in someone.
Between generous sips of port he confessed his love for Madeleine. The rat listened, nodding as he continued to scoop his paw into the port and suck it appreciatively. When Troubadour finished talking, the rodent smiled. “Troube, Madeleine’s got you on the run, mate. You’re a doormat. You’ve got to stop being so obliging to everyone, including her. It is okay to say no, mate.” He swayed as he stared intently at Troubadour.
“Are you drunk?” Did letting a rat get drunk constitute animal cruelty?
“Oh no,” said the rat. “I’m short-sighted. When people poke their fingers into cages, rats think the finger is food. Finger food–geddit? ” He giggled at his own joke and followed up with an apologetic cough. “Let’s have a good look at you.”
The rat cocked his head, pursed his lips and looked sympathetically at Troubadour. “You’re never going to pull the birds looking like a clone of yer own grandad, mate. You look nerdy, nerdy, nerdy!” He paused a moment to recover from over-excitement. “Your clothes are pathetic and you need to get a decent haircut. Troube, you’re just not cool.”
Troubadour sniffed, taking umbrage. “My mother cuts it. And what makes you the expert? You don’t even wear clothes!” He poured himself another large port and nudged the glass toward his furry companion. The level in the bottle was dropping rapidly. The rat scooped port into his little hand and lapped with evident enjoyment; Troubadour smiled with tipsy calm.
“Stick with me, Troube, the sky’s the limit. You’ve got to drive the girls into a frenzy so they’ll waggle their ears at you!” Rising up on his haunches, the rodent clicked his teeth, clapped his paws together and waggled his not inconsiderably-sized bum. For a mad moment, Troubadour could have sworn the animal actually winked at him.
“Waggle their what?”
“Their ears. Well, that’s what rat girls do!”
“Girls don’t waggle their ears or anything else at me,” said Troubadour forlornly. “I’m pleasant to everybody, I’m well mannered, I give my seat to ladies on the bus, but I can’t seem to get any girl to fancy me, let alone Madeleine.”
The rat clicked his teeth and considered the matter for a few minutes before commenting. “You might be a little too well-mannered?”
“How can I be too well mannered? Either I’m well mannered or I’m not!”
“Crikey, mate,” said the rat, ruthlessly, “you’re behind the times. It’s all equality now and insulting if you open a door for a female. I’ll bet they don’t thank you for it!”
Troubadour sighed, remembering side-long glances, carefully smothered smiles and snide remarks. “I can’t help myself. Mum would kill me if I was rude to a woman and I don’t know how to be cool.”
“You need a complete change of image. You know, like the politicians do.” The rat waved his paw in the direction of the television and clicked his teeth. “It’s easy, mate. Smarten yourself up. Lawyers and bankers are the only ones who wear suits to work these days and we know all about them!” He winked. “But at least your teeth are not too bad!”
“Everyone wears T-shirts with jeans at my workplace,” Troubadour admitted.
“Well,” said the rat, “why aren’t you wearin’ ’em?”
“I’ve always worn a dark suit with a white shirt and conservative tie!” protested Troubadour. “And I never wear joggers!”
“Boring, boring!” chanted the rat. “How about a pink shirt, with grey stripes or a purple shirt, grey tie and grey pants?”
The rat remained unrepentant. “Maybe that’s not you. What about teaming a bright red t-shirt with black jeans? And get a load of those spectacles! You look like an owl.” He shivered.
Troubadour staggered to his feet and stared at himself in the mirror above the fireplace. His eyes looked back sadly, like a dog in the pound. The rat had a point. The rat?
“Troube, no one can make you feel bad if you don’t allow them to. People take you at your own valuation.”
The rat rose up on his hind legs, balanced on his tail and waved his little hands. “If you look good outside, you’ll get confidence to stand up for yourself inside. People don’t like me, but I’m a good bloke inside.” His eyes glowed with kindness. “Think about it, Troube. I’d better get home now. They’ll be looking for me and it’s time for my yogurt candy treats.”
Troubadour watched the little animal hop down from the coffee table and scuttle toward the door. “Wait! What’s your name?” he asked. The prospect of being on his own again left him feeling bereft.
“Fergal!” came the squeaked reply.
Late morning sun poured through the windows. Troubadour sat up, dazed and hung-over. His mouth tasted very much as he imagined the cement floor of a dairy would, after the cows had been there. The empty port bottle and glass reminded him of his nocturnal visitor. Swearing himself to eternal silence, he swung his feet to the floor and crushed his spectacles underfoot. Was there anything more that could go wrong? He peered at the clock through the one intact eyepiece and panicked. Late for work! He would run afoul of Madeleine! The sky would fall in.
Deep breaths. No, it wouldn’t. He reviewed his schedule. No meetings, but not go to work? He’d covered for colleagues plenty of times in the past. A deep sense of calm swept over him; time to call in a few favors. He unfolded himself from the sofa and tottered to the telephone. ‘Good old nerdy Troubadour who hasn’t had a “sickie” in years.’ Greatly daring, he thought he might even take two days off! The rat was right. First stop, the optometrist, next stop perhaps?he hardly dared to think it?a makeover?
Jenny Margolis had worked reception at Get With It Advertising for only a month and waitressed in a café two nights a week while she saved for an overseas holiday. Boyfriends would have to wait, but she held a soft spot for shy Troubadour Merriwether. Her heart ached for him when she heard his colleagues laughing about the way he worshipped at the stiletto-shod feet of Madeleine. Bets had been laid as to how long it would be before she metaphorically killed him off altogether. Jenny knew Madeleine had placed a secret wager and was waiting for the jackpot to be worth her while before she pulled the plug on poor Troubadour.
Lost in dreams of Paris, she smiled vaguely, then approvingly at the tower of testosterone standing in front of the desk. Brilliant blue eyes glittered behind trendy spectacles. Thick, black, gleaming, style-cut hair framed a face which appeared to be all cheekbones and designer stubble. A bright red t-shirt under a black leather jacket enhanced broad shoulders, jeans encased slim hips and joggers completed his ensemble. ‘One of the models for today’s advertising shoot,’ she thought. They didn’t usually send her pulse rushing, but this one did.
“Good morning, Jenny!” said the hunk.
“Er, good morn–Mr Merriwether!” Jenny’s heart almost abandoned her chest.
Troubadour smiled cautiously, unable to believe he’d actually spoken to the pretty, red-haired receptionist without making mumbling or turning his words inside out. “It’s Troubadour, actually.”
“Troubadour,” she breathed. They gazed at each other, marveling at his transformation. He was so excited he could hardly contain himself. Jenny was the first test; now for the office, and?he could hardly wait?Madeleine!
He reached the main office, stepped inside and braced himself for his colleagues’ reaction to his metamorphosis. A hush slowly crept over the room as one by one they looked up, mouths falling open in amazement. Longing to bolt for the shelter of his office, Troubadour forced himself to remain calm. “Good morning, all,” he said and walked with studied nonchalance to his office. As soon as he closed the door, his legs gave way and perspiration broke out all over him. He slumped into his chair, breathing heavily.
After a few moments, he wiped his face with trembling hands, stood up and took off his leather jacket, hoping the armpits would dry in the air-conditioning before anyone saw them. Then, recognizing Madeleine’s commanding footsteps in the corridor outside, he scuttled back to his chair, heart pounding as he snatched up papers in an effort to look busy. “Just for once,” he muttered, “please, please, keep me from making a fool of myself.”
The door opened and Troubadour’s tentative smile faded as he realized, with a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, that things were about to go downhill. “Well, Troubadour, trying to cut it at last? Don’t imagine fine clothes and a decent haircut is going to impress me.” Her expression was so hard that he could, as they say, have cracked rocks on her face. Her eyes narrowed to slits of contemptuous amusement.
He flushed with embarrassment, wishing he could crawl under his desk.
“MacWhirter’s want changes done now, Troubadour, so you’d better be pretty damn quick about it and get them back to me. Whoever gave you the tick on these is a complete moron.” She waved a paper under his nose.
After all his devotion, the occasions when he had covered for her while she went on shopping sprees and yes, hid her mistakes, she still spoke to him like something which lived under a rock. He noted with detached interest that one of her painted eyebrows had made a generous excursion toward her temple. And she was criticizing him? A surge of white-hot rage flooded through him
“First of all, Madeleine, I might remind you that you’re the moron who signed off on the designs. Secondly, I’m too busy to be bothered fixing up your mistakes right now. Leave those on the desk and I might have time to fix them today. Or I might not.” He flicked a faintly amused glance at her brow, nodded icily and focused on his work.
Deadly silence ensued; Troubadour held his ground for what seemed like the longest minute he had ever experienced. Then Madeleine slapped the paper down, hissed and swept out of the room, slamming the door behind her. He released the breath he’d been holding until he almost passed out. He could not believe how few seconds it took to fall out of love. The rat was so right. People took you at your own evaluation; it was time he stood up for himself and not just against Madeleine. The bullying CEO would be next and it might be time to put the word out to have himself poached by other companies.
The grapevine ran hot with the news that not only had shy, awkward Troubadour Merriwether finally routed Madeleine the Monster. The office Lotharios sucked their teeth; the girls licked their lips.
Pre-occupied with steely resolutions for the future, Troubadour didn’t hear the door open again. “Coffee time!” Jenny Margolis stood in the doorway holding two mugs of coffee.
Troubadour leapt to his feet sending his chair flying, but suddenly it didn’t matter a bit. “Call me Troube,” he invited, ignoring the shower of computer print outs, graphic designs and reports falling on the floor. He made room for the mugs, pulled a chair forward for her and picked up his own. Their eyes met as they smiled shyly at each other. Troubadour reached into a drawer and took out a packet of chocolate biscuits, which he opened and placed on the desk.
“Oh great!” said Jenny, “I love choccie biccies, and so do my rats!”
“Yes, their names are Orlando and Fergal. I hope you like pet rats?”
Orlando? and Fergal?
“Indeed I do!” beamed Troubadour.
You can find other short stories and articles by Diana involving rats/mice in our Rodent Ramblings section.
All of the pieces of rat art in this story were done by Drusilla Kehl of The Illustrated Rat. To see more of her work go to her website.