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Sarah remembered the summer of three years ago fondly. The bin men were on strike and all of the rubbish was left uncollected for three or four months as a heavy, dank, putrid mist hung in the air over her affluent neighbourhood on Dublin s Southside. The smell didn t bother her, nor the flies and other vermin that were attracted to the waste, it was different and it annoyed her parents and it caused a chaos of sorts. People from the area began to despair as rats congregated in larger numbers around the overflowing wheelie bins, children were kept inside for fear of diseases being spread, some of her neighbours had even fashioned incinerators in order to get rid of the excess waste. She wasn t sure what it was about the bin strike that made her happy, but looking out her bedroom window over the acres of sports fields and playgrounds she couldn t help but wish that she might experience something like it again. She took a hairbrush from her desk and began running it absently through her shoulder-length auburn hair. She was trying to remember how the dispute with the bin men had started, something to do with a pay cut or a grievance with the city council, but she quickly lost interest. Standing in front of her bedroom mirror, a full-sized Arabesque which her mother had imported from Morocco, she soon became enraptured in the task of brushing her hair. With a determination quite alien to Sarah s character she parted it on one side and slowly brought the brush along each section in a long, arching motion. Each time she finished a section of hair she winced at her reflection in the mirror, put down the brush, quickly picked it back up again and started on another section. She had made plans to meet a few friends for drinks later that evening but standing in front of her mirror with a towel wrapped around her frail, almost skeletal frame she knew that she wasn t going to enjoy herself. She threw the towel on the floor and stood naked in front of the mirror. This was a ritual she performed daily, examining every inch of her body, scrutinising and internalising her fear. She placed her thumb and forefinger around the part of her arm where her bicep should be. They touched easily and this pleased Sarah. She put both of her arms by her side and allowed her eyes free reign over her body, surrendering herself to a savage glare. Her ribs were visible through her smooth, almost cream-coloured skin, as were her shoulders and collar bones. She turned around and looked over her shoulder so she could see herself from behind. The vertebrae of her spine were clearly visible and could be counted in sections. Her upper back, were her neck and shoulders met, looked as though it was armoured with bone, plated, twisted, contorted in some hideous parody of the human form. She began to sob as she slowly sat down on the edge of her bed and pulled on her Carine Gilson underwear. This isn t fair. She said this aloud, and was surprised when she realised that it sounded more like a question than a statement. She tried again, this time with more conviction. This is not fair. Sarah sounded more certain this time, even if she wasn t sure who or what was being wronged. She was steeped in self pity and she knew it, but no matter how much she tried to drag herself out of her depression or how much she tried to make herself better she knew deep down that she was beyond help. She reached towards her bedside locker and took a packet of Marlboro Lights from the drawer. Taking a cigarette out of the packet she placed it between her small and incredibly feminine lips. She lit the cigarette and took a long, resigned drag, holding the smoke in her lungs for a couple of seconds before exhaling. She felt distant when she smoked; it gave her something to focus on and transported her, if only for a couple of minutes, to a place where all that mattered was that cigarette. She inhaled again; she could hear the dried tobacco crackling as she sucked on the
filter, the silence of the empty house amplifying the noise so it sounded more like the crackling of an open fire. She lay down on her bed, feeling more comfortable with the cigarette in her mouth, and began to think again of the bin strike. She remembered how the women from the neighbourhood had taken to covering their mouths and noses with expensive headscarves when outdoors, presumably to mask the smell. She remembered how the trend had quickly caught on and how the trend had quickly turned into a competition. How the women would try to outdo one another by wearing more expensive scarves around their faces. She remembered her own mother falling in line and taking her into town, were she would spend upwards of 300 at a time on ornately decorated scarves of wild silk from India or Egyptian cotton. She remembered how foolish they all looked standing in their front gardens gossiping or driving to the shops, how her own mother would shamelessly look for reasons to go outside in order to show off her new scarf. Sarah could feel herself growing more and more anxious as memories of her mother s affected and myopic behaviour drifted through her mind. She sat up and tapped the ash from her cigarette into an empty can of Diet Coke. Dragging herself from the bed she half-heartedly pulled on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. The t-shirt had a picture of a bat on it and the word BEDLAM printed across the front. Despite her child-like frame the top fit tightly around her body, accentuating her narrow waist and stomach, her small, undeveloped breasts, the arch of her spine. She moved back towards her bedroom window and turned on the radio. A child was singing a song about not being able to take it anymore and this reminded her of Abe. Determined not to let herself cry she quickly turned the radio off and began thinking again about the bin strike. She recalled how the rats, during the course of the summer, had become less and less concerned with their human neighbours. At first they would scamper back into the piles of refuse sacks or under cars or down manholes at the first sight of a human, but as they grew more accustomed to the presence of people they grew less and less wary of them. They would simply stop what they were doing and look at the residents as they tried to go about their everyday lives. The rats, Sarah was sure, were aware that the people could ultimately kill them, either through poisoning or a more heinous crime, but they were also aware that without the people they wouldn t be able to fatten themselves on so much free food. She remembered one rat in particular that had settled quite happily in the collection of refuse sacks at the end of her driveway. It was darker in colour than the others she had seen and far bigger. Its tail was long and rope-like and it dragged behind the animal like a dead weight. The creature was hideous in every sense. It seemed to be in a constant state of transitory moistness, as though it had just been born, but Sarah knew that this was just due to it spending so much time in bags full of decaying plant and animal matter. Its pink claws were cut and bloodied and it moved about in slow, short steps. She watched as the rat grew fatter and slower over the course of the summer, impossibly fat, Sarah felt. However what really set this rat apart was the brazen manner in which it interacted with people. While the other rats slowly came to realise that people were scared of them, the dark rat never appeared threatened. From the day he arrived in Sarah s garden he seemed perfectly at home. He negotiated the rockery and flower beds effortlessly. Sarah recalled how one night she had seen this grotesque creature corner and kill one of the smaller rats. It was mid July and one of the hottest days Sarah could remember and as she stood at her front door having a cigarette she saw the rat slowly stalk and corner its prey at the far wall of her front garden. She stared captivated as it crept closer, carefully cutting off all escape routes. She remembered how the smaller rat hadn t really put up a struggle, allowing itself to be overcome as the darker rat, at least twice the size of the other animal, bit hard into its neck and used its enormous, bloated body to half suffocate, half crush the smaller creature. When the dark
rat was sure that its prey was dead it dragged the carcass slowly and carefully into the centre of the garden. Garden lights illuminated the area where the creature had dragged the carcass and Sarah could see clearly how the dark rat bit and tore at the dead animal. It peeled small pieces of flesh off the back and tail of its prey. She remembered how effortlessly the teeth of the dark rat had pierced the skin and drawn blood. The entire process had taken no longer than five or six minutes and Sarah watched unblinkingly from beginning to end. Not once did she have to look away, she didn t feel sick or have any sympathy for the dead animal. When the attack was over the dark rat turned around with heavy, laboured steps and looked straight at Sarah before making its way back to the bins at the end of the garden. The dead animal was barely recognisable as a rat, most of the skin had been removed and bits of flesh and sinew lay in grotesque clumps around an enormous pool of brown-red blood. Sarah remembered how she had calmly put her cigarette out in a stucco pot that sat by her front door and entered her hall, walked upstairs and into her bedroom and locked the door behind her with trembling, white fingers.
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