Scene: England: Our lovely cottage on a high hill in the Herefordshire countryside.
Time: December 10, 2008
My mother died in England just a few days before 9/11. Her heartbroken husband, David, collapsed from a heart attack in their home seven years later and was taken to hospital via ambulance. As the medical techs left the cottage one helpfully turned off the heat to save on fuel bills. Standard procedure.
But just days later England was slammed with the worst winter in over a century. Feet of snow fell. And stayed. Birds dropped off branches, dead. (I witnessed this.) Pipes froze and exploded. No one possessed snow shovels, or knew how to cope. Not a soul owned snow tyres. Ice covered the country. People who normally food-shopped every day in their little villages, were trapped inside their ice-cold homes. Snow paralyzed everyone. Lorries couldn’t deliver food to stores. NOBODY knew how to handle road ice. Electricity went. Fridges failed. Below zero temps stayed, and stayed………..
Our cottage's pipes burst, too, but, with David in hospital, no one noticed. Torrents of water roared down from the ceilings and flooded through the structure and out the front door for over two weeks before the disaster was finally discovered by social workers who’d come to the cottage to ready it for David’s eventual return. They were overwhelmed by gushing water.
A full week later Joe and I were finally notified by authorities (David was eventually able to give them this vital information) and we immediately flew there. David would recover in time, but his lovely home was wrecked.
Joe had to fly back to the States ten days later, but I stayed on for nearly six months to try to save Bryn Garth cottage. One back bedroom was still habitable. While damp, it was still possible to sleep there. The electric shower failed; toilets froze…
Every night at sunset I gratefully retreated to that back bedroom to fall thankfully into bed wearing four layers of clothes. There were no lights. Only my torch. My hot water bottle, heated from the big kettle on the wood stovetop, was heavenly to hug as I nestled under the musty blankets. Odd noises were discernible as I drifted into sleep, but I shrugged them off, too exhausted to be curious.
Weeks passed as I began to salvage what wasn't flood-ravaged. And slowly I began to comprehend that rats were invading my home. Huge ones. I glimpsed them running along the high, exposed ceiling beams in the library as I laboriously sorted through mountains of damp books. They emitted high, raspy, squeak-shrieks as they explored their new territory. And- I was pretty sure their numbers were increasing.
This cottage was theirs; they'd lived in it for weeks. I was an unwelcome invader.
We'll see about that, thought I, as I motored the 6 miles to Ross-on-Wye to buy poisoned bait. I laid it- and waited.
Two days later, while chatting with my new, very nice builder* in the ruined library, a big dead rat fell from the exposed rafters onto my shoulder before dropping to the floor. His crew, tearing out soaked walls and heaps of destroyed wiring and split pipes, was horrified.
But I was delighted!
More bodies appeared in every room in the cottage. After a few days of tossing the kitten-sized beasts into big rubbish bags I noticed the bedroom walls had gone quiet.
I slept well for about a week.
Then, the second wave hit. And it was apocalyptic.
In the dead of night I woke suddenly to loud grinding sounds. Rats were gnawing, gnawing through the bedroom walls! They’d squeezed through chinks in the centuries-old exterior stone foundation to make their way up between the ancient beams that supported the interior walls. I set my ear against the sheet rock: they were nearly through. Every rat in the ancient forest behind our home wanted in. Wherever I pressed my ear I heard them working toward that goal.
My God. The cottage was besieged! I'd be overrun in a few hours!
I banged the bedroom walls with a shoe, which kept them at bay for about an hour. I caught a few winks, but woke with a start when rats ran across the bed. I leaped out, switched on the big torch and screamed at them. Alarmed, the creatures poured back through the hole they'd just made. I was alone again.
But it wouldn't last.
Absolutely furious, I dragged in heavy bags of worksite nails to cover the new breach, and then retreated to the destroyed kitchen to add wood to the embers in the little potbellied stove. After downing cowboy coffee and a hardboiled egg I settled down and made a plan.
This was WAR.
One I'd win.
But only with professional help. Right NOW.
I rang Gaynor, a dear friend in Hereford who raises horses, and she immediately recommended her rat man (vital when one owns stables).
"He'll sort you, Dee. Dilbert lives to kill rats."
I rang him immediately, though it was barely daybreak. The guy, alerted by Gaynor to my plight and hearing the desperation in my voice, came straightaway. A tall, whippet-slim, eager fellow in his mid-sixties, with tufts of clean white hair that stood straight up, he was dressed tidily in cords, a collared, pressed shirt and a warm vest. He’d dedicated over 45 years of his life to dispatching rats. (On the phone his wife had assured me that he had a 100% success rate.)
"Don't you worry, lassie;” Dilbert said, cheerily. “I'll get 'em. I’ll need three to five days."
He hugged me, grinned, and then cheerfully began the hunt. First, he announced, he’d get the 'lie of the land.' That elderly Sherlock scoured Every. Foot. Of. Ground. within 70 feet of the house, and even climbed up to the slate roof to search the eves for entryways. He explored every inch of the exterior stone walls, and investigated every inside place, even peering into the backs of all the mold-slick cupboards. Occasionally I'd hear delighted yelps, or chuckles sprinkled with 'tsks.'
Dilbert inspired confidence. He was thrilled by the challenge, and expressed amazement that I'd been living there while the rodent rogues schemed and plotted how to run me out.
“Rats is clever, you know. Dangerous, too…I’m thinking we’ve a major problem here.”
Then came the tour. I bundled up and we tramped outside. He showed me how the ‘scout’ rats had stepped from the drooping, cedar's snow-heavy branches onto the cottage’s roof and then entered the attic through a crack under the eves that they'd patiently enlarged with their sharp claws and incisors. They'd even tunneled under the stone foundations to scurry up through the walls to gnaw through the backs of the kitchen cupboards. Dilbert pointed to where the earth next to the foundation was packed down, indicating where they’d dug.
Feces and bits of half-munched birdseed provided more clues for this dedicated investigator.
Dilbert went to his car to remove six large black plastic briefcases housing industrial strength poison that rats can't resist. There was an inviting passage built into each case that opened onto their own tunnels….
He explained that when they paused to sample the bait as they passed through his cases- only to die days later- their bodies would be desiccated, eliminating most odor.
He set the big, loaded briefcases on the ground next to well-traveled entrances and winked at me.
Inside, he located and plugged rat holes – four were gnawed through cupboard backs- with tightly wadded newspapers. "If these wads are shifted, it tells me they're still coming."
He paused, then added quietly, "But the papers won't move." His eyes twinkled. "They're done for, lassie."
What happened then? OMG. Tune in next Sunday...
P.S. *By the way, no firm would take on the renovation; one contractor looked it over, shrugged and told me to plow it under and start over. Others were sure I couldn’t pay; I was foreign, and had no bank account there. Besides, they were overwhelmed by local demands to restore collapsed roofs and rooms that had caved in from snow weight. Business was booming.
Two months later, in mid-February, I finally convinced a contractor to help, and assured him I most certainly would pay every bit, somehow. But he was positive that I would never be able to manage the huge bill. Horrified by my circumstances, though, he couldn’t walk away, so he’d decided to take it on, and write it off. The massive redo took his crew almost eight months, working five days a week.
When I paid him every single penny owed, just two weeks after his crew finished the job in May of 2010 (from the insurance payout that took me a year to wrestle from the adjusters), I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a more astonished, incredulous, joyful reaction.