by Becky Collett
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there lived a boy named Alex. Alex was 19 years old, and an avid rower, belonging to the notoriously rowing-obsessed Oxford college – Oriel. And because he was the men’s rowing captain, both he and the women’s captain were entitled to a large and grandiose room adorned top to bottom with blades from bygone glories and old wooden boats that had once sliced through the murky waters of the Isis to victory. In addition to these, was a rather peculiar feature specifically of Alex’s room: this was the carcass of a large tortoise. Alex had recalled that moving in, he had found the presence of this tortoise a bit odd, but had just put it down as it being one of those ‘weird Oxford things’. And all was well. For a while …
One morning, Alex had just come back into his room after a gruelling 5am outing to find that the tortoise carcass which had previously sat dead centre atop the Hardy Norseman – one of the wooden boats hung up in his room – had seemingly shifted at least three or four inches towards the bow. Alex blinked, unsure of what he was seeing. But, exhausted and craving some hash browns at hall breakfast, he disregarded the matter, and went about his day as if nothing had happened. A few days passed and the carcass stayed put, its hollowed eye sockets perpetually staring into the expanse of the room.
And then, one evening, as Alex stumbled back into his room after a Halloween bop, he looked up to find that the carcass was missing. His stomach dropped. ‘It must have fallen off the boat’, he thought. Some great earthquake or temporary lapse in gravity might have been required, but it couldn’t have just … moved by itself. It was a carcass, after all. Alex sank to his hands and knees, scrambling around on the floor in search of pieces of shell. But he found nothing but old scraps of medical tape used by rowers to cover the blisters inflicted on them by their blade handles. Alex put himself to bed, too tired to search any longer.
The next morning, he woke up to an agitated knocking on his door. It was Amelia – the women’s captain. She was holding her cream-coloured rowing blazer. All over it were tiny bite marks, as if a rat had found the blazer and rather taken to the taste of the wine residue left on its lapels. They both deliberated, and decided that Oriel must have a rat problem.
But, if this was the case, then the rats were on the move … in the next three days, another three rowers returned to their rooms to find their blazers bitten up. But, peculiarly, none of their other clothing had been targeted. And the problem worsened and worsened until all of the rowers’ blazers but Alex’s had been attacked.
On All Hallows’ Eve, it was a clear night. There was no breeze and the air cold and still. Stars twinkled above the dreaming spires of Oxford’s cityscape and a full moon glared brilliantly in the night sky. Alex was fast asleep, tired out from a day spent in the Oriel library, when he was awoken by a quiet scuttling coming from under his bed. Alex sat straight up in his bed. If it were a rat, he didn’t want it anywhere near his bare toes. But the scuttling continued, getting louder and more aggressive by the second. Soon, it was a cacophonous chaos of incessant scratching and scraping. Alex couldn’t bear it any longer. He reached his hand under the bed in a desperate attempt to make the noise stop. Ow! He lifted his hand. A trickle of crimson blood slithered down. Something’s claw had swiped him. Terrified, he ran to Anton’s room to spend the night with him.
The morning after ‘the incident’, Alex and Anton tentatively returned to Alex’s room. But nothing was out of the ordinary. In the fresh light of day, everything was just where it should be. Other than the tortoise, which was now back in its rightful place, its hollowed eye sockets staring at the two boys, its tiny mouth curled up in a smile.
P.S.: College records describe, years after Alex graduated, how the tortoise in his room had been savagely torn apart by rats in Oriel’s wine cellar in the 1930s. To this day, the inhabitants of this room report strange scratches and bites on their hands and feet, and unusual holes appearing in their coveted rowing blazers.