Pen

The Best of Times Short Story Competition


Autumn 2018 Results




The Plaid Piper of Hammerlynn

Copyright © Geoff Covey 2018


Rats! The little town of Hammerlynn was plagued by rats! They were everywhere! They were eating the food, and what they didn’t eat they spoiled. They were chewing holes in everything. They were running around all night in peoples’ ceilings and even over their beds while they tried to sleep.

Of course, the council had tried all the usual things. The town rat catcher had been given an assistant, but even though they were catching an unprecedented number of the rodents, the number remaining was ever increasing. The council engaged all the local vermin control operatives and although the number of rats caught increased further, the problem of the infestation remained. They went further afield and employed rat catchers from other towns, but all to no avail.

It was obvious that traditional means were not going to solve the problem.

The Mayor was under enormous pressure; he addressed an emergency meeting of the council, "The time has come for drastic measures. We will go for an 'alternative treatment approach'."

"What’s that mean?" asked Alderman McTavish, as he adjusted his ear-trumpet.

"Well, not following traditional, mainstream approaches. Trying someone who uses unconventional tricks."

"Ehh?"

"Look, you remember when Alderman Wickersneed had his problems with his memory, and kept forgetting things?"

"Yes."

"And the tablets that Doctor Cammeron gave him didn’t help?"

"Yes."

"So he went to a herbalist – one practicing alternative medicine – and she gave him a herbal mixture to cure the problem?"

"Aye, but his memory didnae improve," offered Alderman Jenkins.

"Well it would have done if he had remembered to take the mixture," snapped the Mayor. "Where is Alderman WIckersneed today anyway?"

"I think he forgot about the meeting."

"Ah. Well anyway, everything else having failed, I suggest that we advertise for unconventional rat controllers to come and solve our problem and offer one hundred gold pieces as reward."

"But the expense!" complained the council secretary. “Suppose in the event he is no more satisfactory than the others."

"Then we don’t pay! This time we only pay on results. Payment deferred until the town is free of the rats."

"Do I have yer agreement?"

Now that they knew it would be no cure, no fee the councillors rapidly gave their consent and the rest of the meeting was devoted to determining the exact wording of the notice (the council solicitor got very busy here) and how it should be distributed.

***

The response was disappointing to say the least. Just one man put himself forward.

On the appointed day a tall, rugged Scotsman with a broad accent. They didn’t have to wait for him to speak to know that he was Scots – who else would appear wearing a kilt, sporran and the rest of the highland garb and have a ferocious set of bagpipes slung o’er his back?

"So. Ye’ ha’e a wee spo’ o bo’r wi’ the ratties I ken?" he said without any preceding ceremony.

The Mayor and his staff sat in silence for a few seconds while they mentally translated this.

"Aye. Why we a’call’d ye," replied the Mayor before he could stop himself. It would nae do – I mean it would not do to have the man think they were taking the mickey.

"That is to say," he corrected himself, "We do seem to be having a plague of rats and need someone to rid us of them."

"Weel! A’im yer mon then, Nebbut's why A’im abein’ here ye ken?

"Now let us be sure, yair willun’ t’pay un h’ndr’d pieces of geld is that nae so?"

"Aye … I mean yes indeed. Once the job is done of course."

"And by pieces of geld we do mean Krugerrands I’m thinkun?"

"Yes."

"A h’ndr’d of the ain oonce ones mind ye?"

"Oh yes. For a job well done."

"Weel, I had bett’r be startin’ then ye ken?"

"What straight away?"

"Aye, the soooner cummunced the sooon’r done ye ken."

He turned and walked into the street. The Mayor and his staff followed. The Scotsman reached the middle of the town square, unslung his pipes, put the mouth-piece to his mouth (well, where else did you expect him to put it?) and began to play.

The sound he produced was like nothing any of them had heard. Even people who normally like the sound of bagpipes – and there are such people, in legend at least – would have drawn the line at this.

For normal people it was excruciating. The Mayor was about to demand that the piper stop playing when the most remarkable thing happened.

From every house, from every shed, from every drain and from every other place where rats might hide, there erupted a torrent of the rodents. They swarmed away from the piper apparently compelled to escape the awful sound.

Except in cartoons, rats cannot run on their hind legs. However, these rats were trying to run as fast as possible while clamping their front paws over their ears. The result was rather comical. Even the local RSPCA officer found himself laughing so much that he decided against summonsing the piper.

The living tide flowed out of the town, down to the river bank and then plummeted into the foamy water, where all the rats drowned. Only then did the piper stop playing – none too soon for the human listeners, pleased as they were to be rid of the plague.

"Weel, I theenk I ha’e achieved what ye wanted."

"Indeed it seems that you have," agreed the Mayor.

"Nobut yee’l be awan’n a pay me the noo thun."

The council solicitor stepped in rapidly here. "Perhaps it would be as well if we waited until the morrow," he suggested mildly, in a very insistent manner. "Just to be sure there are no residual beasties to be dealt with."

"Weel, I thunk I cannae be arguin’ wi’ that. It’s a mickle late to be on ma’ weey noo anyhoo. Providin’ yeel provieed ma lodgin’ an’ vitals to neet?"

"We should be delighted," said the Mayor rapidly, a possibility forming in his mind. "Nae doot … I mean … No doubt you’ll be tired after all your work and want to get there now. The town clerk will show you the way."

As soon as the Scotsman was gone, the Mayor called the Aldermen together – even Alderman WIckersneed, who had forgotten he had an urgent appointment out of town and had wandered into the square because he had forgotten his way home.

They held an impromptu council meeting and having drunk large quantities of champagne to celebrate the departure of the rats, they got down to the serious business.

***

The next morning, the piper presented himself at the town hall and was shown into the chamber where all of the aldermen were assembled (except Alderman WIckersneed – I need not tell you why he was absent).

"Good Mor’n, Ai’l joost be coll’n ma paymeent afore ai’m on ma weey, ye ken."

"Good morning to you too, good sir," said the Mayor in honeyed tones, "On behalf of the council and the citizens of Hammerlynn, we wish to express our heartiest thanks for the splendid service that you bestowed upon us yesterday." His voice had progressed beyond honey and now dripped molasses.

"As a token of our gratitude, we have had our best scribe working all night preparing this beautiful illuminated scroll expressing our appreciation."

The Scotsman accepted the scroll with a slight nod. Terrible suspicions were forming in his mind. "I ha’e a muckle way t’ journey this day. P’haps I can be tackin’ ma paymeent noo an’ bein’ on ma wee?"

"Ah yes, of course, we would not wish to waste your precious time. But regarding the payment … when we set the rate we were expecting quite a time to be required to rid the town of its rats. You will acknowledge that you took less than an hour yesterday, and as such two or three Krugerrand would be generous payment." He held up his hand to forestall comment from the Scotsman. "However," he continued, "such is our gratitude for your efforts we have decided that we will give you five gold pieces. We are sure that under the circumstances you will regard this as a generous reward."

"I dinnae  that," thundered the piper. "Yair offu was for ridding the toon a’ t’ ratties. Thur wa’ nae menshoon o’ the taim to b’ tacken. AI’l be thankin’ yee t’ pay the agreed amoont!"

"No, no. Quite impossible. The amount we are offering is most generous under the circumstances and we have also giving you the splendid scroll of appreciation – which is beyond the intended payment."

"Is tha’ yeer last woord?"

"It is."

"Then ai’l bid yee gud dae and must tack oth’r meesures." With that he laid the scroll on the table and turned and left the room without taking even the five ounces of gold offered to him.

The Mayor smiled, "Well that turned out even better than we hoped. Perhaps we can put the five Krugerrand to better use in terms of a council banquet and some other …"

His colleagues never learned what the better use might be, for at that moment the bagpipes started up again outside the window. But this time it was a very different tune, a swinging, rocking, boogying, rapping, hip-hopping tune.

The Mayor and Aldermen hurried to the windows and saw the piper heading down the street, he was followed by all the teenagers of the town dancing in a trance-like way in a modern sort of conga.

The councillors tried to follow but found their feet rooted. The same seemed to be happening with all the other adult townsfolk. Only the teenagers followed the piper – away into the hills where they disappeared into a cave which no one had seen before and which closed up after them so that none could find a trace of it.

***

That night the streets of the town were very different from usual. There were no crowds of shouting youths or irritatingly giggling girls. There was no loud music from boom-boxes. There was no new graffiti, overturned rubbish bins or similar mild vandalism. When the pubs closed there were no roisterers singing and being sick in the town square.

***

The next morning the Scotsman reappeared in the council chamber – alone.

"Well? Ha’e ye learn’d yeer lisoon?"

The Mayor and Aldermen nodded gravely.

"Pay me ma hoondrud piecus – OR – Ail bring the teenagers back!"

They paid up immediately.