I travelled from Hereford to Chester by train and went on to Holywell by bus. I was more fearful than I had ever been. The Church in Holywell was huge and the Presbytery next door forbidding but a small woman opened the door and immediately made me welcome. “Your tea is ready,” she said, “and Monsignor will see you later.” She chatted on and showed me my room up a steep stairway. It was large with two gothic, church-like windows, and a small gas fire. I found myself living at the end of a large rambling house that was very old, part of it three or four centuries old. It was half way up a very steep street called Well Street, and at the bottom of the street was a spring or well, but no ordinary well. I would come to know it and write about it and almost live there at times. The house was connected with the huge church through a long passage, but it was a house infested with mice. I could not get over the strangeness of it. Bridget, for that was her name, was rambling on about the mice. She seemed to think that was the problem I had come to sort out. There was a strict house rule, no poison, only traps. Bridget needed me more than the parish did, she was close to despair, and I began setting traps at her bidding. It was September 1955. I was 28 and had been ordained a priest two months earlier.
We caught mice every night, sometimes two at a time, and it became my task to remove the bodies. Bridget was grateful and calmed down, Monsignor, unaware of any problem, was living on another plane and I could not even suggest that what he really needed was a cat, not a curate. He assigned me various duties but otherwise expected me to discover the needs of the parish on my own. He himself lived on the other side of the house, the posh side. He seldom came into the servants' quarters, the kitchen and rooms above, where I now lived. He was the Vicar General of the diocese, concerned with important matters, spending most of his days in the offices of the bishop in Wrexham. He was not, therefore, much concerned with mice but he did disapprove of them dying under his nose, so to speak, hence the `no poison' rule.
The tension rose when I failed one morning to remove a dead mouse from a trap. It was the first event of my day, remove corpse, reset trap. This particular trap was under the kitchen table but I had been distracted and forgot to remove the large and very dead contents. It was not there the next day, the mouse and trap had gone. This was highly mysterious and rather worrying. Bridget swore she had not touched it. The idea that Monsignor might have come in and removed mouse and trap was unthinkable. Bridget and I were still conjecturing as to what might have happened, when suddenly an enormous rat crossed the floor immediately in front of us. Bridget screamed. The rat lumbered away faster and climbed over quite a high step, the bottom one of the staircase to my room. It disappeared through a doorway on the other side. It had a hole behind a bookcase and the bookcase backed on to the bathroom wall. I followed its path and eventually discovered another hole inside the bathroom cupboard which went through the wall and clearly linked up with the back of the bookcase. The trap was lying on the floor of the cupboard, it was blood stained but empty. The mouse had clearly been eaten whole, head, tail, the lot, nothing was left but a few hairs. I realised with some misgiving that the enormous creature must be hiding behind the bookcase at that moment. I had no desire to find out. It was also obvious that it had come back into the kitchen looking for another dead mouse. I did not mention that little fact to Bridget but was astonished that the rat had managed to haul mouse and trap across the kitchen floor, up and over a high step, drag it behind the bookshelves, get it through the hole in the wall, and only then settle down to have its supper.
Bridget was panic stricken. She was sitting white faced on a chair, her hair in disarray, fear in her eyes. She was small, a bundle of energy, carelessly dressed, never any sign of make-up, but now she was paralysed and about to have hysterics. Rats, for me, had a peculiar fascination. There were hordes of them in the Isle of Man where our family lived in 1940. They invaded the garden, the house and especially the outhouses where we nurtured an enormous pig. We caught them in big wire traps, up to 6 at a time, and drowned them in a stream which ran through the garden. We cut off their tails and cycled to the Town Hall in Douglas to be paid 6 pence for so many. There were numerous cats on the Isle of Man too, Manx cats with no tails. (We thought at the time that was the reason they could not catch rats). Somehow this creature in the presbytery in Holywell was different, bigger than I had ever seen before, and times had changed, there was poison available. I didn't think we could cope with the rat without poison.
"We are not supposed to put down poison, Bridget.”
"I can't stand it. I can't stand it any longer.”
"OK, we'll put down poison. But what happens if I'm fired?”
Bridget managed a laugh. “You don't know Monsignor. He won't do anything abut it.”
"So we put down poison. I put down poison.”
What was I doing disobeying the rules and poisoning a rat? I went out, bought the stuff and put it on a saucer in the bathroom cupboard. We did not see the rat again. It preferred to move around at night but it obviously enjoyed its meal and ate the lot. The next night I put down the same quantity, only half was eaten this time. All was quiet; I was sure the rat was now dead and I felt a bit like Hamlet after he had killed Polonius. “Where is Polonius?” asked the king, to which Hamlet replied, “If you find him not this month you will nose him as you go up the stairs to the lobby.” I hoped the rat would be sensible and go out of the house to die, but of course it was not at all sensible. The consequences were unfortunate. My career, such as it was, was in jeopardy after only a month in the place.
Obviously, I should have had the courage to consult Monsignor about the rat. I should have waited until he returned from Wrexham. He seemed to be always in Wrexham or locked up in his study. In any case, I am sure he would have suggested a larger trap and, neither Bridget nor I, were prepared to bait such a trap or deal with the consequences. The rat had decided to stay in the house, which was warm and comfortable, and the result of its negligence became evident within a few weeks. An unpleasant smell seeped into the corridor connecting the house with the church. The smell was strongest as you past Monsignor's room. Indeed the whole of Monsignor's side of the house began to smell. He became irritable; he had the cellars, which were under his room, lime washed. No relief. Soon he found it impossible to work in his study and would bring his papers into the dining room. He was portly and serious and not in the best of humour. It was rather tiresome having him in the dining room which impeded our freedom of movement. The weeks passed slowly. Bridget and I would skirt round Monsignor's chair and his mountain of papers, hurry past his study to the front door, the waiting room or the church, and pretend we had no idea what the cause of the problem was. Bridget was poker faced. We both waited anxiously.
“Where do you think the rat is?” She found the situation very funny. She had a sort of giggle which was infectious. “It's not funny, Bridget.”
"It's probably in Monsignor's room, but there is nothing we can do about it now.” She had stopped going into his room to clean. He had stopped going in at all.
When the stench had become quite unbearable and wa