Rat bike

From the pen of the late Jim Fogg comes a tale to chill you…

Illustrations: Louise Limb

Shooting rats on a rubbish tip by the light of two Bates headlamps isn’t my idea of fun, but trying to get hold of a replacement pair of WLA springers leads you into some strange places.

The original springers on my ancient Harley – chopped, with a Fonda-style Stars and Stripes paint job, a couple of bell-end silencers and a home-made galvanised sissy-bar, and known as The Greased Pig for the way it went sideways round corners – had disintegrated. Well, it was a 1945 model, and God knows what stressful service it’d seen prior to when it had been released to a civilian owner in Liverpool in 1947, some 20 years or so before I’d picked it up, and not even Milwaukee brazing lasts forever, huh.

Shooting rats by the light of two Bates headlamps

It was a great pity that the only person who’d have a spare pair lying around cheap was likely to be a guy of my acquaintance known as Mould but, as I’ve said, running old and rare bikes means you get to encounter a lot of people you sure as hell wouldn’t socialise with ordinarily.

Mould lived in a deserted barn-cum-farmhouse not all that far from Saddleworth Moor, which was later to achieve even more notoriety from its use as a terrible and lonely graveyard. Mind you, when I say ‘deserted’ I’m referring to human habitation; not including Mould, who just about fitted that description. There were half-wild cats in plenty, mainly ferocious tabbies of all ages and states, with the free run of the place; a shaggy, half-starved looking lurcher; and something that could’ve been a Staffordshire bull terrier/Alsatian cross, which had a head like a tiger and a body like a leprous wolf, plus a temperament to match.

They all suited Mould down to the ground, believe me…

He was a tall and bony individual of indeterminate age – anywhere between 30 and 50, at a guess – and even in the days of hippies, greasy bikers, and army surplus cheap clothing, he was a figure to be remarked at. Someone had called him ‘Mould’ because that’s what he looked like, invariably wearing a combination of cracking leather, army olive-green and camouflage, and dung-coloured, holed sweaters that had obviously been well used, the whole liberally smeared and splattered with dried and drying mud and oil. He looked like something out of a nightmare of the Black Death painted by Hieronymus Bosch or one of the Van Eycks, all of whom had been around to see it first-hand, as I recall. Even in the days of fashionable hirsuteness, his hair and beard were likely to cause adverse comment. He wore his hair in side-locks (or occasionally plaits) like some Dark Age marauder, and half-way down his back to match. His beard was a permanent week’s growth of stubble, which never seemed to get any longer.

He was into Magick (and that’s his spelling for it), occultism and mind games, and his relationships with women never seemed to last long. He also liked killing things, such as rabbits or pheasants, sometimes for the pot, but a lot of the time just for the hell of it… unless he ate crows and rats, which maybe he did, for all I know.

I’ve encountered a good few full-blooded psychos along life’s merry path, people I wouldn’t want to be alone with in a deserted place unless it was really necessary, but I’d say that most of them were humanity’s equivalent of mad dogs; a set of bad genes and a bad life on top had made them what they were, and I guess the rest of humanity had finished the job off for them, too. Mould was different. We’re all bad bastards at times – maybe there’s something in Original Sin, after all – but thank God most of us haven’t got enough single-mindedness to carry it through all the time as a way of life. We simply can’t be bothered, and that’s probably the salvation of homo sapiens. Just lack of purpose…

There was the impression, however, that Mould had, in the words of some old religious treatise or other, ‘espoused the darkness within, and made a burial-ground of his immortal soul, and a charnel-house of his spirit, steadfastly pursuing wrongfulness in like measure’. He was, in plain and simple terms, creepy. I don’t mean like a Dracula movie or a Stephen King paperback, or just weird, or eccentric, or a play-acting piss-artist, I mean creepy as in the short hair rising on the back of your neck, and an uneasiness that made you want to get into the fresh air and away from anywhere where there might be shadows. Having said that, I can’t say he ever did me a bad turn as far as I know, but then I took good care not to get too closely involved with him in any way, because he made me uneasy, to say the least.

Mould broke bikes and cars, for a living, and even the odd truck or tractor, and seeing as how his overheads and expenditure were obviously so minimal, it was likely that he made a fair living out of it, too. His barn, and even rooms in his farmhouse, were piled high with spares that someone one day would pay good money for; car and truck engine blocks, gearboxes and electrics lay on the floor mixed up with Featherbed frames and rigids, and forks ranging from spring-leaf pre-First World War girders to Roadholders and Earles BMW forks.

Petrol tanks with dusty chrome and dull paintwork rested on creaking shelves supported on angle-iron frame, and silencers and ’pipes hung from nails hammered into 300-year-old beams, while Bowden cables lay curled on the flag floors, twisted up together like rusty Medusa’s hair, snakelike and almost sentient in the draught from under the rotting doors.

Tractors and car and truck bodies lay scabby and rusting in his paddock, cannibalised and stripped down, mainly empty shells of flaking steel, surrounded by basking and mating cats and a few strutting hens.

It was like some Armageddon of the Industrial Revolution, or a new Dark Age of failed consumer hopes and last year’s aspirations. More than that, there was stuff there that had been ridden or driven in their youth by men who were dead or cashing in their pensions, when the metal had been shiny and new, and the Kaiser had been a recent memory and Hitler an impossible shadow on the horizon. Or Suez, or the Bomb, or anything else you’d care to name in the last 60 years, which we think of now as being significant somehow.

I wanted a primary pressed-steel chain case for my 1966 Velo 500. Mould produced one for a 1953 MSS, chrome-plated instead of black enamelled, and took an old BTH mag in exchange from a pre-war Coventry Eagle. I wanted a left-hand Burgess silencer for a mate’s twin-port Panther, but I didn’t have anything to trade. Mould charged me a pound. That’s the way it went. Whatever you wanted, Mould had it, either for trade or for a price. On this particular occasion, I needed a set of springers for a 1945 WLA 45ci flathead, which is how I came to be standing by him on a moonless night, watching him kill rats in a rubbish dump with a .22 target rifle with a sniper scope clipped to it, as he caught them in the beams of our two bikes’s headlights. Mine was a friend’s chopped AJS single, if you can imagine that, since (as I’ve already mentioned) my own WLA wasn’t going anywhere without its front springers. Mould’s was a Triumph, more or less, apart from the Bates headlamp and an indeterminate sprung saddle of ancient vintage and a home-made leather pillion pad bolted on the back mudguard. Or a number of Triumphs, to be precise; the motor was basically a pre-unit Bonnie with an earlier iron, single-carb Thunderbird head, and the frame was a sprung-hub with later telescopic forks fitted to it, from around ’65 with a Goldie-type brake. The tank was one with the large grid bolted to it, and the mudguard at the rear was probably from the same bike, while the front was an alloy scrambler item.

As you might guess, the whole deal was painted Hammerite black, although it’d been sprayed professionally, with thinners, and the finish wasn’t at all bad. And neither was the mural – almost hidden under the chromed tank grid – a lifelike grey rat, with the teeth drawn back in a snarl and bristling whiskers, looking into the cross hairs of a sight rather like the one Mould had clipped to his .22.

“I hate the bastards,” Mould told me in between shots, in his East Lancs accent. “Did you know rats don’t have sphincters in their bladders, Foggie? That’s why they’re such mucky buggers. Everywhere they go they just trail their piss along with ’em. And look at the Black Death – it were their fleas that jumped off ’em on to humans, and spread it; one third of everyone in Western Europe got killed by them little vermin, one way or another. And they’re bloody intelligent, too. They reckon as how there’s a rat for every human being, but you never see ’em, do you? But it don’t stop rat mothers eating their young or older rats killing young ’uns, or young, fit ones killing their old and disabled, intelligent as they are.”

He shivered… or it might just have been a trick of the light from the headlamps, or the cold, up there on the rubbish dump. “I’d wipe out all the bastards, if I could,” he said. “Me and my cats, and that dog Gelert.”

I’d never heard him address either dog by name, but I guessed he meant the wolf-like dog with its massive head and scarred nose, and not the lurcher.
“And they know it,” he went on. “A rat’ll go for your face if it’s cornered. They know you’ll kill them, but they’ll still try to maim you.”

“For Christ’s sake, Mould, can’t you get on to some other topic of conversation?” I said to him. “If they’re that bloody brainy how come they’re not coming after us, after all the ones you’ve butchered tonight?”
“The lights blind ’em,” he answered. “They don’t know where the death’s coming from.”
It was my turn to shiver.
“Not yet, anyway,” he added. “But they might some day.”

He walked over to the bikes, and switched the headlights off, and put them both on the pilot lights. There was a rustling, and a pattering of scaly, furry paws from the direction of the rubbish dump as the live rats scurried around their dead and dying comrades. There was an occasional feral squeak. It couldn’t really be called a snarl, not like a dog’s, or a crooning, buzzing sound like that of a cat when the bloodlust’s upon it – as one savage rat (or maybe two or three) closed in on an injured fellow rat and worried it to death, and it occurred to me that just because animals are small and have high-pitched voices and don’t possess the lion’s roar or the wolf’s howl, doesn’t make the sound of the murder they’re dealing out to their prey any less terrible. It’s still the sound of slaughter; still the sound of Death.

“Awreet, let’s get back to t’ farm,” Mould said to me. “They know I’ll be back for some more of ’em soon, any road. Twenty pound,” he added, seemingly out of the blue, but I realised he’d been thinking about it while he’d been shooting the rats. “Twenty pound cash on t’ nail for yon set of springer forks in me living room, Foggie.”

“It’s a bit bloody steep,” I told him, and it was, too, because £20 in 1969 was almost a week’s wages in some places I could name, and I was undergoing one of my periodic rests from employment at the time, after slugging a foreman in a metal spinning factory, so dole was going to be a bit delayed, too.

“It’s cheap if there’s no Harley springers nearer than Fred Warr’s and Chelsea Bridge,” Mould answered, and smiled, knowing he’d got me over a barrel. “Don’t you reckon?”

As a historical note, maybe I ought to mention that Fred Warr was Harley’s only dealer in England at that time, and you could buy an ex-military 750 WLA or WLC (I never found out the difference) with a reconditioned motor, and tastefully sprayed black, for the magnificent sum of £85, or a bit more if it had a sidecar on it, or it was a three-wheeled ServiCar.

I should have bought ten and retired to a Spanish villa on the proceeds.

We rode back to Mould’s farmstead, parked up the bikes, and he brought out the springers, wrapped in dusty brown greaseproof paper. When I got home I found they were unused, and had been nicely chromed at some time. I tied them to the AJS’s seat with bungee cords and baler twine.
“Pay me the money next time you’re round,” Mould said. “I’ll trust you, Foggie. Now then, before you go, how about a brew?”

We sat in his kitchen while the kettle was boiling on the hob of the old-fashioned kitchen range, all black leading and dull, soapy-looking tarnished brass, and Mould lit up a battered old amber-stemmed Meerschaum pipe carved perfectly in the shape of a grinning human skull.

“You’re an educated sort of chap, Foggie,” he said. “University and all that – archaeology, weren’t it?”
I nodded.
“Ever come across the Doctrine of Sovereigns?” he asked.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “Only the Doctrine of Signatures, the thing that the old medieval herbalists believed; plants or herbs that looked like parts of the human body could be used to cure those afflicted parts. Like mandrake looked like a human torso and legs, so it could be used as a sort of cure-all for most internal ailments, or impotence, or infertility, that sort of thing. Is it anything like that?”

“Aye, mandrake,” he said, and smiled. “No, it’s nowt like that, that’s just plant lore. No, the Doctrine of Sovereigns says that there’s one animal of every species – and maybe of everything else, too – that’s the King or Queen sometimes. If you have the Sovereign in your power, all the rest of that breed of beast will do your bidding, and be your slaves.”

“How do you get the Sovereign in your power?” I asked. “Capture it?”
“There are ways,” he said. “There have always been ways, to them as knows how. Read it in your Bible, Foggie, and if the Dark Lord had been clever enough to pull off tempting Jesus in the wilderness, why, that’d have been the best example of the Doctrine of Sovereigns, and no mistake.”
“It’s lucky he didn’t, then, I reckon,” I answered, as the kettle began to sing on the hob. “For the human race, anyway.”

“Aye, maybe,” Mould said, and got up abruptly to make tea.
He poured me a cup, and handed it to me.
“It’s funny about rats,” he said. “I hate the bastards, but they’re a lot like human beings. Mind, I don’t like human beings much either.” I had a suspicion I knew what he was about to say.

“There’s a King Rat somewhere,” he continued. “Now there’d be a prize, eh, Foggie?”
Whatever the hell his problem was, and wherever the hell he was leading, step-by-step in his mind, I thought it wisest to humour him.

“A King Black Rat, Mould?” I commented. “Or a King Brown Rat? Or what about white laboratory rats, they must have a king, too? And maybe rats look after mice as well? After all, they’re related.”
“It could be,” he said slowly, missing the humour altogether. “Aye, I never thought of that. No, it’ll just be one rat, Foggie, whether black, brown, white or piebald, just one King Rat. That’s the one I want.”

I drank my tea, and it was scalding, because I’d had enough of all this talk of rodents and magical mumbo-jumbo, and I’d decided I wanted to get off before Mould started donning his bloody robes and producing grimoires bound in human skin, to start casting spells and throwing rune stones about.

However much you’ve studied anthropology, and I’ve done a lot of it in my time, before and since, and however much you think you are a product of the materialistic and rational and scientific 20th century, and you’ve learned that superstition and so-called magic only tend to work on people that are predisposed to have it work on them, and you know that witch doctors, mystics and wise men are just largely superbly manipulative practical psychologists, well… we’re still all the descendants of cave dwellers whose shamans dressed in the horns of deer or buffaloes, or in bear pelts or tiger skins, and whose brains and bones were imbued with the magic needed to spellbind the prey needed for food, or quicken women’s wombs, or cast out devils, or guarantee some sort of afterlife. And we’re still all suggestible.

Which was why I wanted to get the hell out of it, even though it was cold outside, and the trans-Pennine wind and rain were getting up, and I had 40 miles to ride to a cold house and a fire of almost dead ashes, a leaking roof, and not much money in the bank, and a girlfriend who was occupying someone else’s bed.

Mould didn’t come to see me off, and I only ever saw him alive one more time, after that. I called in one day, about a week later, with his money, and to try to get a float bowl for the carb on a mate’s 1948 Ariel.

Mould was in the yard behind the farmhouse, breaking up an old Leyland coach, bending over the engine with an assortment of spanners and long-nosed pliers, unbolting various electrical components and ripping out what he couldn’t shift from their rusty housings with the pliers, the sad-looking lurcher sitting by his feet, tongue lolling and looking doleful (as they always seem to do), and the other massive dog was loping up and down the yard, chasing the hens and kittens in a desultory fashion.

“I see your forks fit, then,” Mould said to me, “and they look reet good, too. Reckon they were worth the twenty pound, do you, Foggie?”
I nodded, and handed him the bundle of pound notes secured by an elastic band. “I won’t count ’em,” he said. “Not till you’ve gone, anyway. I’ve got summat I’d like you to tek a look at.”
“I was wondering if you’ve got a float bowl for an Amal carb?” I asked. “It’s for an Ariel 350 single, around 1948, a side valve, could be a 7/8-inch 356 series carb, Mould.”
“Aye, most like,” he answered, “but it’ll wait. Come inside and see what I’ve got.”

I followed him into the kitchen and there, sitting in a wire-mesh cage on the table, was an enormous rat, looking at Mould through beady and malevolent eyes, its whiskers twitching, and its tail lashing like that of a predatory cat , the obscene scaliness of it rasping against the wire mesh as it flicked back and forth.

What surprised me was it was a black rat – I thought they’d just about been killed off by the more common brown ones – or rather it was grizzled and scarred and black-ish grey, the colour of a black-haired person who’s going grey. It was the biggest rat I’d ever seen, and probably the oldest, too, and it looked at Mould with an almost human hatred and understanding.

“The King Rat,” Mould said. “The Sovereign of all rat-kind, Foggie. I summoned it here, and now it’s in my power, and so are all the other rats, too.”

The rat stopped pacing its cage, and sat on its haunches, head on one side, and regarded Mould out of bright and hate-filled eyes, as if weighing him up. There was a chalk circle around the cage, drawn on the old drop-leaf table, and the cage was dead centre in the middle of a chalk seal of Solomon within it; at each point of the seal was a small pewter cup, filled with various coloured powders and dried-up herbs, and outside the circle ran words I couldn’t read in a strange alphabet, which somehow looked familiar.

“I’ll call again about the carb, Mould,” I told him. “When you’re less busy, huh? Or less bloody obsessive about your rats – but I’d take care, if I were you, one way or another…”
“Why, Foggie, you sound as if you might be getting to believe all this, what did you call it, mumbo-jumbo?” Mould said, and there was a contemptuous, jeering note in his voice. “Don’t you want to see what happens next, then? You being a seeker after truth an’ all.”

“Not this sort of truth,” I told him. “No, I don’t, Mould, and that’s another sort of truth, too, believe me…”

I rode past the rubbish dump, and it seemed innocuous in daylight. Then I thought of Mould’s statement that there was a rat for every human being on this earth, but you never saw them, and I huddled down into my sheepskin coat against the sharp moorland air, and shivered.

As I’ve said, it was the last time I saw Mould alive. A few days later I was drinking in a pub in Barnoldswick and I ran into a cousin of mine, one of the red-haired Peels, my mum’s family – in fact, when I say ‘cousin’, what I mean is that he’s a second cousin at some remove, since he and my mother had the same grandfather, with a lot of families in between them, scattered from Leigh to Lancaster, with the red-headed Peels farming around Barnoldswick and Giggleswick. Old Billy Peel is gnarled and 60, and he isn’t red-haired any more, either, but I still recognised him, and he still recognised me.

“’Ow do, young Foggie-me-lad,” he said, and handed me a pint of Thwaites. “How are you, then, and how’s your ma? Bloody rum do about owd Mould, eh, that funny looking mate o’ yours? Aye, bloody odd that. Still, you never know with moving rattons, do you, eh?”

“Hang on, Bill,” I said. “What’s up with Mould? And what the hell are moving rattons? Just sit down and tell me what the hell you’re going on about, huh?”

“Mould’s dead,” he told me succinctly. “Got in the way o’ moving rattons – rats that are shifting home, to townies like you.”

It took about half-an-hour, but I finally got the tale of Mould’s death at the hands (or maybe I mean paws, claws and teeth) of marauding rats, and it was a strange tale, but not as strange to me, maybe, as it had been to Billy Peel, the Police, and the coroner, or the local newspapers.

“Sometimes, for no human and earthly reason,” Billy said, “a colony of rats’ll take it into their heads to up ground and move off to another spot to live, and when they do, nowt’ll stop ’em, and woe betide any as gets in their way, human or animal. Like them things as dive off cliffs in Norway, lemmings, is it? Rats are a sight more clever than them poor beasts, and fiercer, and they all seem to work together when they’re moving, as if someone’s giving them their orders.

“Moving rattons allus seem to do it at night, when there’s no moon, and fairly sneaky, like. I’ve lived in t’country all me life, but I’ve only seen it once, walking back from t’ pub late on. It were like a heaving black moving carpet, over drystone walls and fields, and through dykes and ditches, and even across t’ road, dead silent, as if they’d worked it out already.”
“And what did you do?” I asked him.

“I gave ’em a wide road and buggered off home like Owd Scratch himself were after me,” Billy answered. “Which seems to be what your mate Mouldie didn’t do. They reckoned he’d fallen off his bike in t’ road, and the rattons came across him there, and that were it. Bloody nasty way to die.” Sinking half his pint, and wiping his lips reflectively, he added: “Stick a top-up in that, lad, a bottle of Mackeson, because talking’s thirsty work.”

“Anyway,” he went on, when I’d bought him his bottle of stout. “It was a rum time to be out, that late at night or early in the morning, but I’d guess Mould were poaching, because he had a wire cage fastened on his bike. Big enough for a couple of polecats, or a jack and jill ferret, maybe, although there wasn’t any sign of them, and the cage door were open, so it looks as if what he’d had in there had gotten clean away.

“No relatives, they say, so I wonder what’ll become of all that stuff he had in his farm. Must be a regular gold mine in the right hands.

“He were an odd chap, that Mould, a bit strange, like, I’ve heard, but it’s not a nice way to go, however you are…”

He took a swallow of his stout and brown.

“Off to see him, were you, for a few bits for your bikes? he asked. “Aye, well, it’ll have to be town folk and fancy prices now, won’t it, eh?”
I nodded, and finished up my own pint, getting ready to leave.
“They reckon as how rats are ruled by a queen,” Billy Peel said, “just like us. Rum do, eh?”
I sat down again.

“Did you say a queen?” I asked him, and his answer seemed somehow very important to me, in a way I couldn’t work out, and nor have I since either. Because whatever the massive scarred and angry grizzled grey rat had been, in its cage on Mould’s kitchen table, it had certainly not been female. “They mate for life, it’s said,” Billy was continuing. “And they say they’re faithful, too – like if one rat’s caught in a trap, her husband’ll stay with her, or if she’s lost he’ll go searching for her.”

“Or vice versa,” I remarked.
“Aye, I suppose so,” Billy Peel answered. “Like my owd missus comes for me, if I’ve been laikin’ around too long in the pub, wanting to know who’s keeping me, eh?”
✱ ✱ ✱ ✱ ✱ ✱ ✱ ✱ ✱ ✱ ✱ ✱ ✱ ✱
They say that when you harness the power of darkness, if you believe in suchlike that is, of course, you’ve got to beware of the consequences. After all, Lucifer is the Father of Lies, according to Christian doctrine, and it’s to be expected his agents should share in his crafty, trickster nature, to a greater or lesser degree, depending on what’s in it for them, in any bargain they might make with fallible humanity, deluded into thinking they’re all-wise.

In pacts like that, it’s said, you get exactly what you ask for – no more and no less. That’s if you believe in all that, needless to say.

Maybe Mould did summon the king of the rats, drawing him into his power by the use of his name and kingly title but, if old Bill was right, it was the queen who was the sovereign, and she remained at large due to Mould’s oversight in the matter, still with her full sovereign powers. And she pined for her husband. All things, it’s said, are possible, but (as I said to Mould) some possible things are best left alone, and that’s a form of truth I devoutly believe in.

There weren’t any cats at Mould’s farm when the Police arrived there after his death; not a single, half-starved, half-wild ferocious tabby. His ragged lurcher came down from the moors about a week later. It was, as everyone knew, a bright dog, but no one could do anything with it much after it had been on the moors, and eventually a local farmer shot it to put it out of its misery.

There was a pile of bones on the flag floor of Mould’s farmhouse kitchen, picked clean and white – it looked, as the Police said, as if Mould had been thinking about wiring them together as a complete skeleton, to sell to a vet or anatomist as an exhibit.

They were the bones of a big dog, of about the size of an Alsatian, with a disproportionally large skull and jaws and massive shoulder bones. Maybe two bits of different dogs, the Police speculated eventually. Mould having a reputation as something of a joker with an odd sense of humour and lifestyle, but then they’d never seen Gelert…

The bike? The Triumph bits with the tank mural of the grey rat snarling into the cross hairs of a sniperscope? It was auctioned off, along with Mould’s other bits and pieces, during a two-day sale by the local auctioneers, under the auspices of the Crown Receivers and the Duchy of Lancaster (both of whom work for the same boss anyway, namely Her Majesty the Queen, Duke of Lancaster). It was bought by a guy who owned a show-winning Harley – expensive, gold-plated and engraved and chromed, one of the best I’ve ever seen – who lived out Shipley way, and didn’t fancy exposing his glittering pride and joy too much to the exigencies of the trans-Pennine weather. As he said, Mould’s bike was the ideal rat bike.

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