A Ratty Tale
Mid-winter 1985 my brother Malcolm was down from Brisbane for a short stay in Hobart. During his visit we booked a table at the prestigious Outlook House for dinner. The two-story Georgian building had been built for James Buscombe in the 1830s as his residence. Since the 1970s, the house had been converted into a restaurant with tourist accommodation provided. It was renowned for its beautifully marinated venison and its gorgeous old-world setting Accompanying us were Ellie and Don Crumble, a sprightly couple in their seventies with whom we got along well at the Aberfeldy Saturday wine tastings. The Crumbles were discerning in their wine and were expert raconteurs.
It was a chilly night when we set out; the rain constantly pelted down during our trip. With extra bodies in the car, the windows fogged up sufficiently to obscure views of the delightful Coal River vistas we were passing through. Soaked by the incessant rain in the short dash from the car, shivering we waited patiently at the restaurant's entrance. Eventually, a portly, middle-aged blonde appeared and ponderously ushered us into in an empty dining room. Her manner was dour. We were dismayed to find the room temperature chilly, despite a pathetic log fire struggling to burn inside the hearth of the white marble fireplace.
‘Can we please be seated by the fire?’ I asked. ‘No’ replied the woman in a thick, German accent. ‘You vill sit here. That table reserved.’ Abruptly she pulled back a chair for Ellie at a table furthermost from the fireplace. ‘I think I’ll keep my coat on,’ Ellie informed the Maitre D’. Reluctantly we took our seats at the designated table. ‘Bloody Tasmanian weather,’ Malcolm muttered as he rubbed his hands together for warmth. Was his comment the portent of a disastrous evening? Thankfully Ellie’s sense of humour came to the fore as she began a round of ‘Hausfrau’ jokes to entertain us while we waited for service.
‘It’s a bit chilly here!’ Malcolm yelled out. ‘We want more wood on the fire. I’m a tourist from Brisbane and I am freezing.’
‘Shush, Malcolm, we’ll be thrown out!’ I remonstrated, embarrassed. Soon, a pleasant-looking waitress appeared, smartly attired with an armful of wood and proceeded to build up the fire. She was rewarded with a huge grin and a ‘thank you’ from Malcolm. Shortly afterwards, a well-dressed man in his thirties appeared with two little girls in tow. They were beautifully presented: their hair was in ringlets and beribboned, and their frocks were complimented with silk sashes. The waitress seated the family by the fireplace. Meanwhile Malcolm audibly grumbled about favoritism in seating. Once he had calmed down we concentrated on making the best of the evening. It was just as well the venison stood up to its reputation and we all agreed that the meal was delicious.
Halfway through the course, George was oblivious to the conversation around our table. He had stopped eating, and turned his attention to the lofty ceiling. Something had caught his attention.
‘What are you looking at?' I asked, perplexed by his antisocial behavior. ‘There’s what looks like a hole in the ceiling.'
‘So what! There’s nothing special about a hole. Have you gone stark, raving mad?’
‘It’s so peculiar — one minute the hole is there and then it’s not. Something covers the hole from time to time. ‘See over on the left, there’s a mouse or some animal that comes and goes.’ We followed his gaze and scrutinized the ceiling. Certainly there was a small cavity — nothing else.
‘Can’t see a bloody thing, George. Perhaps the grog is going to your head,’ pronounced my brother facetiously. We all laughed. However, just at that moment — just as George said: that ‘something’ was darting across the perforation.
‘It’s not a mouse, it’s a baby rat!’ Ellie triumphantly exclaimed. Her beady eyes had made out its distinguishing features. The rat obligingly put its head through the opening and momentarily re-appeared much to our amusement. We were so distracted by its antics we stopped eating. The hole became bigger, so big we could see its black-and white fur. The guests at the other table noticed what was happening and began to laugh too. Suddenly the rat fell from the ceiling and dropped to the floor. The little girls jumped onto their chairs and screamed their heads off. What a sight! It looked as if the girls were re-enacting a scene from a Walt Disney film.
‘Now what’s wrong?’ asked the waitress as she rushed to the room. When apprised of the situation she immediately returned with an overweight cat. It sniffed the floor awhile and then sat by the fire, unperturbed and languidly washed its face as the rat ran up the red velvet curtains and hid inside the lining. The waitress tied the curtains into a huge knot. Unfortunately the lining was unattached at the sides; the rat escaped and proceeded to run around the floor in a zigzag fashion. When sighting the rodent the girls jumped onto their chairs and squealed — this time with delight.. It was high comedy! With all the drama being enacted before us the bleak atmosphere in the restaurant had changed to one of jubilance.
‘The Health Department should hear about this’ said Don in a mock-stern voice to the waitress as she brought us our deserts.
‘If the health authorities knew that rats are running around this restaurant they would close it — quick as a flash,’ added Ellie in a pitch loud enough for all to hear. Malcolm turned to the other party and cheekily queried, ‘Our bills should be reduced. Don’t you agree?’
‘Definitely. That’s what we think too.’ The waitress placatingly asked if we would like a complimentary Brandy or liqueur, compliments of the house. With liqueur and Brandy glasses filled to the brim we toasted one another. ‘Here’s to rats in in high places!’ quipped Don. ‘Hear! Hear!’ we called out exuberantly. At that stage, I felt the need to go to the bathroom and was directed to follow the signs outside to use theirtheir facilities.
The bathroom was located in an ancient outer building. I couldn't fasten the latch properly so the door swung open. There, on the threshold, looking at me was another rat - this time an adult but with similar white-and black markings on it fur. Involultarily I screamed. The rat bolted. What kind of restaurant was this? Flushed in the face and heart thumping I returned to the group.
"You'll never guess what I saw in the loo,' I said simultaneously half laughing and crying.
'Not another rat?'
"Yes, another bloody rat, but this one was huge. It stood there at the door and looked at me with its slanty pink eyes so defiantly I thought it was going to bite me.' Laughter rang through the restaurant as I described the circumstances of our encounter.
WhShortly afterwards when our bill arrived we were charged the full amount. Not to be undone Malcolm had the last word and wrote on the account: ‘Sorry this is such a rat-shit tip!’ as we exploded into another round of gut-wrenching laughter. Giggling, the little girls rushed into the hallway and returned about five minutes later. We assumed they had gone to the toilet. Not so, because when we opened the Visitors’ Book to write a comment, there was already an entry, in large, wobbly printing which read: ‘Two manie rats!'
Can anyone ever forget an evening like that?