“Alfred”, I called, raising my voice the merest fraction of a decibel.
“Who’s Alfred”, asked my daughter, Miriam, looking puzzled.
“A friend”, I replied mysteriously. “When Mummy and you went off on holiday, leaving me behind, I found myself a companion."
“Well, where is he? I don’t see your Alfred anywhere. I think you’re making it all up,” she accused, frowning.
I pointed: “There he is, under the fridge.”
“Yuck, it’s a horrible, old rat, “ she observed with disgust. “Wait till Mummy finds out.”
“Tell her, and I shan’t speak to you”, I threatened. “It’s to be our secret, do you hear?”
“Oh all right, I’ll keep quiet about it if it means so much to you”, she agreed, with a lofty, adult air. Meanwhile, Alfred appeared to take her derogatory remark to heart. Sitting up on his haunches, he wiped his whiskers with his fore paws, then proceeded to lick himself all over, as if wanting to make himself look presentable, which he very much needed to do. His coat appeared to grow in matted clumps, each terminating in an unattractive array of spiky bristles.
“Here Alfred, join us for a spot of dinner”, I invited. There was a moment’s hesitation as he turned and looked at Miriam. “ Is she OK?” he seemed to ask.
“Come on”, I urged, bending forward and holding out a piece of buttered toast. He scampered towards me, took the morsel from my hand and returned to his station beneath the refrigerator, steering a zigzag course both ways, like some guerilla fighter trained to avoid sniper fire.
“ Daddy, may I please?” begged Miriam. “May I feed him?”
I shrugged. “Ask him”, I suggested.
With great trepidation, she held out an offering, and with much hesitation Alfred accepted; but accept he did, to her delight.
“ Wow, he’s a super rat. He’s a darling”, she gushed, her eyes sparkling. Thus, over the next few days, the two of them cemented their friendship with scraps of food at tea time, when Mummy was normally not at home.
One evening, there was not the familiar response to the call of “ Alfred, look what we have for you today”. Instead of the little squeak of delight, with Alfred scurrying towards us, we heard the ‘voice of authority’ declaring in ominous measured tones:
“ Whoever this Alfred is, if I set eyes on him, I shall put my foot right through his neck.” It was Mummy who had made an early and unexpected return home.
Whether it was coincidence, or whether Alfred had actually picked up enough spoken English to take fright at the threat, we shall never know for sure. But from that moment, he disappeared from our lives and became but a tender memory in a long list of friends, among creatures great and small.