I took the Daves away for the whole of August, so that Stepanov could get on with the home improvements. We went to Norfolk, and Scotland, and France, and arrived back in London on a warm summer’s evening, looking forward to being in our own home. Parched and travel-strained, slung with bags, and I brought our enormous green suitcase to rest outside our friendly-looking front door. But as I started searching for the keys I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a young rat lying by the doorstep.
The three of us squatted down to take a closer look. It was alive, scrabbling its front feet and turning its head to look at us, but its back half seemed to be paralysed.
“What should we do?” asked Dave 2.
“I think we should kill it,” I said, and its beady black eyes met mine.
“Because it’s not going to get better. It would be a kind thing to do. Better to be bashed on the head than to die of hunger, or get eaten by a cat, or a fox…”
“Are you sure?”
“Well, what would you prefer?”
“Bashed on the head.”
“OK.” I took a deep breath. The rat squirmed and scrabbled.
“Are you going to do it, then?” asked Dave 1, one eyebrow raised.
“I think so. Why?”
Dave 1 shrugged.
“What do you mean, ‘think so’?” asked Dave 2.
I stared at the rat, wondering about the right implement, trying to imagine a swift, clean kill.
“Well, I’m not doing it,” said Dave 1.
We fell silent, and the rat became still. The sun beat down.
“I’ll do it if you like,” sighed Dave 2.
I stood up, found my keys and opened the front door. But we couldn’t go inside because there wasn’t a floor.
“Where’s the floor gone?” asked Dave 2.
“I don’t know,” I whispered, staring down into the rubble between the joists. I would have sank down onto the doorstep and put my head in my hands, but the rat was right there, trying to look over its shoulder.
“Stepanov must have taken it,” said Dave 1.
“Where to?” asked Dave 2. “To sell it? How much money do you think he got?”
“I don’t think even Stepanov could have got anything for our rotten floorboards,” I said.
“What are we going to do?” asked Dave 2.
Continued in The brigands.