Rats, Smack and Suicide — My Stoke Lockdown

There’s no good place to be locked-down, but doing it over a rat-infested Stoke pub was a particularly bleak experience

Rats don’t die easily — or at least this one didn’t. It was still moving a full 12 hours after we’d put the poison down. Everytime I went out for a cigarette I’d see it on a different part of the smoking terrace, curled up in pain and clinging onto life.

A group of my landlord’s mates came over every night during lockdown for a booze-up on the terrace — that day’s first arrival took one look at the animal and booted it into the alleyway behind the pub.

It didn’t solve the rat’s problems but it meant we didn’t have to look at it any more.

I hate to see anything suffer, even rats, but it was only a matter of time before I woke up to find one the creatures at the end of my bed.

Closing Time

I spent my lockdown over a pub in Stoke, but the boozer in question had been closed down just before I moved in. My landlord, “Dirty Barry”, had lost his licence reasons that stretched from after hours drinking, via Class A drug dealing to a series of assaults linked to the establishment.

Twelve months earlier one of the barmaids had been murdered, though it was made clear to me, not by a regular.

That pub was cursed.

Matters Temporal

At least that was my landlord’s take on why things kept going wrong but I saw a more temporal source for problems. Take the rats — they hadn’t arrived by accident.

In a characteristic combination of penny pinching and solipsism, Dirty Barry had cancelled the bin collection as soon the pub was shut; ignoring the fact he still had tenants living in the building.

Foolishly assuming Dirty Barry had a plan B for the rubbish we dumped full bin bags out on the terrace, soon big holes appeared in the black plastic sacks; animals were gnawing their way in. I moved the trash into the alleyway, but by then it was too late.

Go Forth and Multiply

The hot days of early April, and the steady supply of food had turned the smoking area into a breeding ground for rats, the gap under the wooden terrace slats provided the perfect shelter for them to reproduce.

And multiply they did.

You could hear their numbers increase daily, the echo on the wooden slats as they scurried around under the terrace, their high-pitched squeals as they fought over a particularly juicy morsel of food. We told Dirty Barry about it. Not that we needed to: he could hear them himself every night as he held court to his mates. But it didn’t affect him, so he did nothing.

In normal times you could ring up the local council and get them to deal with a pest infestation but the UK had closed — I couldn’t even get an emergency dental appointment so good luck with finding a rat catcher.

Instead my flatmate bought the rat poison and we dealt with the problem ourselves.

A Mersey Paradise?

Stoke is slap bang the middle of England, it’s at one end of the Mersey Canal and halfway between Manchester and Birmingham, a strategic location that meant it used to hum with industry. Now it just smells of skunk.

Alcoholism, heroin addiction, casual violence, homelessness, Stoke has all the symptoms of social failure that you would expect, as well as others I’d never come across before.

The city is well known for monkey dust, or bath salts, a formerly “legal high” with horrific side-effects of paranoia and psychosis. These drugs are normally only found in prisons — Stoke is the only place in Britain where they are widely used by people who aren’t incarcerated. It’s a metaphor for the city.

Regurgitated Methadone

Stoke has more problems than just monkey dust. One of Dirty Barry’s mates taught me a two-word phrase that I will never forget; “regurgitated methadone”.

And yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like.

I can’t imagine how desperate you must be to pay to swallow someone’s opiate replacement-infested vomit. But in Stoke it’s a thing.

Stoke’s hard drug epidemic meant other unwelcome visitors to the pub. The daily drinking sessions meant a pile of fag butts that proved to be catnip to heroin addicts — or could it be crack users? I never quite got to the bottom of that one — who used the charred cigarettes to light their fixes.

Luckily I had a room was out front, but nightly my flatmate would wake up to drug addicts pillaging the ashtrays outside his window.

Smacked-Up

How to deal with our late night visitors was a regular topic of conversation at the daily booze-up on the terrace. As all the potential solutions involved varying degrees of violence, I decided not to push it. The experience with that rat was enough.

A simple lock on the downstairs gate would have solved the problem, but that would involved Dirty Barry doing something that didn’t directly benefit him.

I had come to Stoke for work, Christ knows there’s no other reason to go there. After 18 months living in Laos, I’d taken a job as on a trade magazine. I started work on January 28, three days before the UK reported its first Covid 19 case — life is all about timing, and mine couldn’t have been worse.

The prospect of 18 or so months jetting around the world evaporated: Tokyo, Dubai, Hong Kong, Dublin, Paris— one by one the conferences I’d meant to cover and trips I’d planned were cancelled or postponed.

On Probation

Laos was dull, but I’d exchanged a walk-on part in a bore for a lead role in a cage. And I certainly didn’t wish I was there.

Remarkably Covid turned out to only be a secondary problem. The UK’s insane housing policy somehow trumped a global pandemic in making my life worse. Stoke is a shithole, but because no-one wants to live there it’s one of the few places in Britain with affordable housing.

The problem was my new job came with a three month probation, and a one week notice period, that potential landlords wouldn’t risk. With no other options I turned to AirBnB and the room over the pub.

Things Can Always Get Worse

Despite the misery of lockdown Stoke saved the worst for when it was lifted. One day in early July, my fellow inmate came outside, pale-faced and on the verge of tears, “my mate has just…has just hanged himself… live on Facebook” he stammered.

Fifty year-old “Bazza” Bailey’, was a Stoke legend, a former boxing champion who had helped hundred of troubled local lads to find a better path in life. But there was no-one looking out for him when he needed it.

He ended a lifetime battle with depression over livestream. Facebook had taken down the video in minutes, but it was too late for my flatmate — he’d watched it happen. And that’s definitely an image you will never forget.

I should have left right then but my options were limited. The end of lockdown meant it was possible to view flats but I didn’t fancy taking a six-month lease on a place in Stoke. But where to go next?

Worse Than Stoke?

The landlord’s feral son made my decision for me. A walking advert for fetal alcohol syndrome, he’d started hosting late night coke and booze sessions in the closed pub downstairs.

If only he’d stayed below deck. Just as a cat marks his territory by pissing, one night Dirty Barry Junior took a young girl upstairs from the pub and into our bathroom, I found them both in there as I went for an early morning slash.

The Nightbus to Istanbul

We had a sharp exchange of words which he ended by waved a wine bottle in my face. The confrontation made my mind-up. I went back to my room, booked another AirBnB and headed to London the next day.

I didn’t have a plan beyond getting out of Dodge, but sometimes anything is a good option — and surely, nothing could be worse than Stoke?

I didn’t stop in London. Seeing another lockdown looming I did the only thing I know — I went on the lam, quit my job and jumped on a plane to Sofia. After a couple of months that I took the nightbus to Istanbul, on the basis that it was the furthest place away from Britain I could get to.

There’s a lockdown here as well, with a total curfew at the weekends, but so far I haven’t met a heroin addict, dealt with a suicide or seen a rat. I’ll grant you that’s a low bar, but for the moment I’ll take it.

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Writer and wanderer

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Aaron Woolner

Aaron Woolner

Writer and wanderer

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