A Good Rat Yarn

The Monkey King Dances is a collection of columns written for two New Zealand newspapers – which don’t archive online – between August 2007 & July 2008. Columns are reprinted as originally published barring any serious grammatical errors. Pictures and links added for fun.

It’s been eight months and I’m so used to the oddball questions now, mockingbirds hesitate longer than I do.

“Is that a horde of rats in the background?!?” asked my friend when I called home recently.

“Yeah man. There’re everywhere here, and they eat anything. I had to go to the grocery store yesterday and get a cattle prod.”

“Jesus! They sell cattle prods at the grocery?”

“When it’s rat season they do. Right at the front next to the candy.”

It’s been eight months, and my friends are so used to the oddball answers, they don’t even hesitate.

“Please tell me they have Hershey bars, there.”

“Of course, what kind of place do you think this is?”

To be fair, I didn’t know what kind of place this was when I threw down $500US (NZ$750 and rising) for a work visa. New Zealand isn’t exactly “world history” material for any school curriculum. My friends thought I was going to Scandinavia and my folks thought I was going crazy. All I knew was that I was going to place where Peter Jackson filmed the “Harry Potter” series.

Being thousands of miles away from people who remember when you used to wet the bed (five years and counting) affords some room for creative possibilities. I want friends and family at home to miss me and more than anything, I want them to lie awake at nights, envious of the great fun I’m having. So every time I go aboard, I lie through my teeth about nearly everything I do. No one wants to be disappointed, especially the envious.

In India, it’s not difficult to tell unbelievable yarns that don’t require much exaggeration. But bored with real stories, I also spread the rumour back home that I was dead. That one didn’t go over too well. Even my friends majoring in literature didn’t laugh when I told them the rumours had “been greatly exaggerated”.

Since then, I’ve toned-down the rhetoric. There’s basic math in telling good OE yarns. If two or more mates have been there, only lie up to 50 per cent of the time. If everyone you know thinks that county in the South Pacific belongs in the EU, go crazy. Which is exactly what I’ve done. Once, I described cutting off members of the Mongrel Mob in my car, then having to fight them back with just a pair of stubbies and some Tim-Tams. Think about it. The words just sound tough when put in the right context.

There are two big problems with these “Rat Yarns”. The first one is fairly obvious: I can’t stop what I’ve created. Make up a few (or a 100) little exaggerations and the imagination runs wild. Friends form strange conclusions and I respond with stranger replies.

The second problem was quite unexpected and maybe a bit of karmic justice. Now, after a particularly good yarn, there is a prolonged and labourious meditation on the bits of truth in each one.

Of course it wasn’t a horde of rats my friend heard. It was the honking of seagulls, which seem to blanket Timaru. I was born and raised in one of the most peaceful spots on earth, the Ozark Mountains. There are no earthquakes, no tornadoes, and no floods. The closest body of water is Beaver Lake. It’s a dam good lake, but it isn’t exactly exciting.

I’ve seen more seagulls in this town in a week than I have in all my 20-odd years. And ever since the Rat Yarn, I’ve been laying awake at night asking myself: “If this place is infested with seagulls, how come I haven’t seen any bird poo around town? Not a single white drop, anywhere?!?”

I haven’t slept in four days.

This may sound like a silly, almost childish question. But when you move to a strange land and people are always screaming at you to drive in the “right” lane, these things demand attention.

Usually, with such an existential conundrum, the best trick is to relate the problem to something familiar. But that hasn’t helped. It’s coming on to day five of insomnia and I still can’t figure out one of the silliest and most embarrassing questions I’ve ever wrestled with.

You see, back home, it’s sparrows and squirrels that blanket the town, especially on the university campus where the squirrels are the size of junior rugby balls. These vermin poop EVERYWHERE. Usually in the fall, just as the oaks begin to change colour, there is a five day squirrel season. The mayor hands out a blue ribbon to the person who nabs the most and I won it the last year. It’s really easy when you have a cattle prod.

Timaru Herald, March 21, 2008

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