In the summer of 2006, four friends and I moved into a house share in South London. We were variously a writer, a comedian, an actor, a teacher and a civil servant. It was This Life but with less sexual tension, 100% more miserable temping and an acute rat infestation.
The noises started not long after we moved in. At first, faint scratching in the walls half-heard on the way to sleep. Later, increasingly insistent scrabbling detected behind the kitchen skirting boards. We coped until several of us had baths wholly ruined by frantic activity beneath the porcelain. You can go nuts with scented tealights and pan pipe moods, but I defy you to unwind when there's a rodent Paso Doble in full swing anywhere near your naked bum situation.
Why not just move out? Well, there were mitigating factors. The rent was crazily cheap and we were busy, time-poor young professionals sharing our first house in London. The rats were only in the walls, we would say to each other: 'They have their space and we have ours.' Also, we were lazy – mostly that, in retrospect. As long as we could all just respect those boundaries we would get along fine. 'This is just what you have to put up with,' I wearily explained to my parents. 'Get some hand sanitizer,' they suggested.
Knowing how much worse it would eventually get, our TV analogue seems less This Life and more Hoarders. In each show we're taken back to a time - two, five, ten years ago - when the decline could have been halted, the crisis reversed. There was always a point when each hoarder could have simply said, 'Actually, I won't buy twenty dolls from the thrift store today' or 'You know what? I think I'm going to get the plumbing fixed and only wee in milk cartons some of the time from now on.' Of course that moment is only ever distantly glimpsed from the wreckage of the present. The film crew wouldn't be there if the mummified-cat-under-mattress meltdown had been avoided. I wouldn't be writing this if the rats had stayed in the bloody walls.
In an effort to do something, we called in pest controllers who placed poison in the dank crawlspace by the back door. It only made conditions worse. When a poisoned rat dies in an unreachable place, beneath floorboards or behind a wall, the stench of it spreads and then lingers. There are only so many times you can tell a date, 'No, let's go back to yours. My house smells of death.' And once that smell fades, the flies aren't far away. On each occasion maybe 50 fat blue bottles would emerge and settle on the net curtains shimmering like a Damien Hirst installation.
We would later learn that while poison works against finite numbers of enemy units, it matches poorly against an infinite spawning point. If there are continual reinforcements then each poisoned rat just becomes a tempting, toxic morsel for its former friends. I once opened the crawlspace to find a perfect conga line of corpses, each having expired halfway through eating the next: a crazy moebius strip of carnage. After a few cycles of this we decided: 'No, that's ok, you rats can have that space. We'll stay out of each other's way. We won't go poisoning you anymore and you, well, just don't explode into clouds of pestilence, okay?'
Our appeasement didn't last long. I came into the kitchen to see a baby rat disappear into a tiny corner crevice. They had evolved and found a way in. Clever girls. So began a new phase in which we encountered them with increasing frequency. We would round corners to the disappearing flash of pale, sinewy tail or turn on a light to find them, with growing belligerence, openly waiting for our return from the pub. When droppings appeared in the cutlery drawer, it seemed like they were getting vindictive. They had escalated the conflict. Goddammit, we were being trolled.
I bought an electronic pest repeller online that was 'guaranteed' to scare vermin away. It looked like a 1980s battery charger and sat idiotically blinking in a plug socket. I strongly suspect, if I'd ever pried it open, it would have contained a single LED and a stack of Pokemon cards. For all the good it did we may as well have hung dreamcatchers in the windows, drawn chalk pentagrams around our food cupboards or taken to wearing tinfoil pyramids on our heads.
The rats continued to taunt us, crapping on, in and around everything we loved. It was at this time we started referring to them collectively as the Rat King, after the medieval myth of a gigantic fused rat ball. It was somehow easier to consider it a single, malevolent intelligence that we were up against. The Rat King took up permanent residence on our side of the house, holding court in our mammoth pile of 1980s board games and charity shop VHS purchases (highlights: The Edge of Hell, Maniac Cop II, Stripped to Kill). One of them chewed a hole all the way through our TV Times Television Quiz Game 1985 and laid waste to a stack of questions about Oh No, it's Selwyn Froggitt! as if it WAS NOTHING.
We called the council pest control back in the desperate hope that one last bombardment might break their morale. I watched as a trainee recoiled in disgust from the corpse strewn crawl space, swearing, dry heaving and eventually, with a shriek, frisbying an unexpected dead mouse through an open window. 'I don't think I'm cut out for this, if I'm honest', he sighed over a cup of tea.
A few weeks later I, almost literally, stumbled over a rat the size of an UGG passed out in a sugar coma, surrounded by half-eaten party rings it had filched from a drawer. I picked it up, whimpering pathetically, opened the back door and rolled it under a bush. The very next day my housemate texted a photo of a marigold gloved hand dangling a dead one by its tail, captioned: 'Do I put it in the bin or burn it in the garden?' It was time to admit we needed help.
In Hoarders this is the turning point. The disposal experts, given permission by the homeowner, work with concerned family members to dispose of the adult diapers, ten-year-old bacon and lizard carcasses. It's the point where the subjects start to see a way forward and a possibility of change. I love this bit because the show insists that (in theory, at least) these lives are all fixable. No matter how bad it has become, we can get back to some version of normality if we can take responsibility for our mess, clean it up and confront our underlying traumas.
The only thing we confronted was our intransigent landlord. This is a man who once claimed he hadn't complied with multiple occupancy rules because he always assumed we were a single family i.e. a married gay couple and their three adopted adult children. Getting him to pay for anything was an ordeal.
Eventually, he relented. The rat assassination equivalent of Seal Team Six rolled up and discovered the source of our problem. The house had been built over a bricked-up, disused stretch of sewer. As the house had subsided, the brickwork had partially collapsed, opening a PORTAL TO HELL directly into our walls. For every rat we killed two more would come to take its place. If this was The Avengers our only solution would be to get Tony Stark to fly a nuclear warhead into the alien sky anus. For us, the only recourse was six months of building work. We would have to move out.
We found new houses, separately and together, escaped the horror and tried to forget our seasons in the abyss. I moved nearby so would sometimes walk past and smirk at the boarded-up windows and the skip full of plaster in the driveway. We'd been living in a condemned house! Hardcore. Of course one day the boards came down and, just as the area's gentrification reached a tipping point, the Court of the Rat King became a pair of luxury flats. But if reading Stephen King has taught me anything it's that even fancy hotels built on Indian burial grounds don't stay fancy long. Good luck with your imminent rat eruption yuppie dudes. Good luck.