One Man and his Snail

1

This is the story of one man and his snail, or, as we are legally obligated to say (due to the Snails Rights act of 2016) one snail and his man. They lived together in relative prosperity; their home was lined with graceful cedars, the occasional mighty oak, wild berry bushes. Happiness. Their home was as cosy as cosy could be, big enough for just the two of them, but not invading on nature. It nestled between two sapling birch trees; a glorious, freshly painted wheelie bin.

At that moment, something inside began to stir, rocking it gently to the right, and back again to the left. The top was flung back- and Ratbreath the tramp stretched, greeting the sunny new day. He thrust his arms high into the sky, elbows cracking, back arching, and shouted at the top of his cheerful voice, "Good morning World!"

His snail (or not, there still is that pesky Snails Rights act) slimed its way up the inside of the bin and clambered onto his hand, wiggling its stalk-eyes awake. "Hello Buggins," said Ratbreath, stroking his shell lovingly, "you sleep okay?"

Buggins shook his head slowly and sadly.

I kept thinking about what they did, he said, his snail-face scrunched with resentment, and then gestured with his eyes directly ahead of them, where, out of their paradise of nature, a long tarmacked thing stretched from east to west like a scar.

"Oh, I see. Those college students again? Well don't worry Bug, we'll get 'em next time they come along here."

Buggins perked up at that, and waved his eyes happily, coming to rest with anticipation on a large pile of stones Ratbreath had previously collected. College students had always been a problem, and Ratbreath and his invertebrate companion had been at war with them for with them for what felt like a millennia. Every day- excluding the weekend, of course-the college students would drive past, packed together in their tiny cars and 'cool' looking motorcycles and mopeds, jeering at Ratbreath and Buggins. These were not university students, who were, most of the time, too drunk to be a problem. These were college students; those dastardly sixteen to eighteen year olds, too young to drink, but plenty old enough to create mischief. However, Ratbreath and Buggins were, naturally, used to them, and they had got along decently. But that was before a clever student decided he thought it would be funny to throw one of the knobs off the dashboard at Buggins. He still had the crack on his shell today.

So the Dynamic Duo had been launched into a full-scale war against the students, throwing stones, dropping nets and otherwise employing every guerrilla warfare tactic they could come up with.

But it wasn't all doom and gloom (blast and ka-boom) in their homeless lives, for while the motorway presented many difficulties; it offered just as many rewards. Ratbreath's possessions consisted of, as follows;

One, black wheelie Bin (complete with a self-grafitied message reading 'born to wheel' and worthy of a capital letter).

His secret manuscript (A masterpiece challenging even JKR's skill! But so secret even he didn't quite know what it was about.)

Several old blankets (plus a teabag for Buggins' sleeping purposes).

A harpoon, net and pile of rocks (college students beware!)

One pointed stick (carefully sharpened to perfection).

And lastly…

One sign reading, "git me if yu can- 1 point stumak- 5 point hed- 10 point eys"

This was Ratbreath's main, and only source of food. Having come upon his trampdom back many years ago, stumbling his way blindly onto the M25, he found he could harness the power of stress. Namely, other people's stress. He witnessed with his own eyes, how, at around nine o' clock dozens of men and women dressed in suits and angry looks would drive along his motorway towards their stressful and hateful jobs, tooting and honking at everything that moved. So, skilfully, he had constructed his sign, and every morning stood by the edge of the road holding it into the air. They had soon caught on. Bananas, apple pies, cold spaghetti flung itself into the car fume fragranced air and hurtled their way towards Ratbreath's licking lips. He only had to watch out when more painful objects (such as knifes and small boulders) flew at him from particularly friendly motorists.

Overall, it was a happy and prosperous life, one that he was sure many other tramps would be jealous of. Here he had good food, good enemies and his best buddy in the whole wild world by his side. What could be better?

Ratbreath climbed out of his Bin, clambering over the branch of one of his beloved neighbouring birch trees, detangling his bushy brown beard from twigs as he went. Buggins moved up to a safer spot on his shoulder.

"Time for some Brekky," he said to himself, Buggins and the World. He walked over to the motorway where a traffic jam was already building and picked up his sign, sitting comfortably on the crash barrier that bordered either side of the road. It was almost time; he could hear the telltale beeps already in the distance.

"GET OUT OF THE ROAD YOU BASTARD!!!" floated the alluring voice of a woman driving a expensive looking silver automobile, honking the driver of a slightly less expensive blue car, which was therefore inferior, who had the nerve to try and pull into the lane in front of her. The two outside lanes slowly ground to a halt as the jam built up, angry nine to five'ers opening their car windows to shout abuse at everyone around them. Ratbreath held up his sign.

"Mrs Cole!" shouted Ratbreath to the apparently familiar driver of the silver car. The woman stopped in mid rant to a bewildered looking French tourist and narrowed her eyes at Ratbreath.

"You!" she cried, and dived at a bag sitting in the passenger seat, pulling it into her lap, "I'm gonna hit you RIGHT BETWEEN the EYES this time, you piece of crap!" She stuck her arm into the bag and produced an apple, winding her hand back and throwing it as hard as she could at Ratbreath. It glanced his arm. Thankfully for him Mrs Cole was a terrible aim- he suspected he'd be in the hospital if she was any good. "This jam is ALL your fault, scum! People like YOU are destroying this country!!!" she screamed, and hurled a piece of cold chicken at his feet.

"Anything for Buggins, Mrs Cole?" asked Ratbreath politely, scratching him under the shell in just the way he liked it.

A bunch of turnips bounced off Ratbreath's head. "I HATE YOUR GUTS!!!"

As her car travelled almost beyond hearing distance Ratbreath called, "Thank you!" –he could still hear her raging as she travelled beyond the horizon.

***

"It's not a bad life, is it Bug?" Ratbreath said, sprawled out in the farmers' field behind the motorway, nursing an orange. Buggins replied by nibbling on the hard-won turnips. It had been a good haul that day; after Mrs Cole there'd been several other usual angry motorists and a family driving to their holiday home. The children had had great fun trying to aim sausage rolls and pork pies at his… ahem, sausage roll. They'd managed to collect enough food for that day (and several others) and get away before the dastardly bad college students showed up.

He stretched out his rumpled shirt and stared up towards the clouds. It was a beautifully clear November's day; the leaves were shaded lemon yellow, dappled with brown from Nature's paintbrush, with rustic red blood running down their tiny veins. Winter was a hard time for tramps, but weather like this and plentiful food from the motorists made it more than bearable. He'd been a tramp for quite some time, having realised at a young age that civilised society was not the way for him. He'd tried first of all to become a forest hermit, but had discovered quickly that stinging nettle soup and mushrooms made for a poor supper, and had searched for a new approach.

He had snuck on the back of a truck carrying bundles of straw in an attempt to get to London, so he could try out the begging there, but had been found by the driver at a service station and thrown off. So there he was, stranded on the M25, with nothing but the clothes on his back. Nineteen years old. It was then he'd come up with his method of getting food to feed him until he managed to get a ride to London, then he'd found his Bin, met Buggins and everything just seemed to… click, into place. He had everything he needed here (eg, food, food and more food) so why move? That must have been twenty years ago; he was thirty-nine now, or forty, maybe forty-one. He'd sniffed an awful lot of glue in product design back in his school days.

Ratbreath sighed in contentment, and produced from his pocket several crumpled bits of paper. It was his super secret manuscript, which he hadn't even shown to Buggins, to whom he shared everything with. He took out a gnawed pencil and started scratching at it with his badly-spelt un-joined letters, covering the novel protectively with his other hand and once in a while stealing glances at Buggins to check he wasn't looking. The snail himself didn't seem too interested however; he was now immersing himself in a big juicy piece of lettuce.

A few minutes of frantic scratching passed and he stopped, biting the end of his pencil, then uttering a low "Ah!" and setting back to work with mutterings of "I'm such a genius" and "this'll be a great plot twist".

Buggins finished off his lettuce and slimed his way up Ratbreath's arm, nudging him with his eye-stalks.

What are you doing? he asked, looking amused.

Ratbreath jumped and hurriedly stuffed the novel back into his pocket, grinning nervously at his snail companion. "Oh- oh hey. Nice lettuce?"

Delicious, said Buggins, with a knowing look.

Of course, snails cannot really talk, though this is a matter of debate between some hippies. But the fact of the matter is that this snail, Buggins, did not possess vocal cords. However, Ratbreath had known the snail for so long that he found he could understand what he meant without even having to flip open the phone-book size Snail-to-Human translation guide. He knew him so well that he could understand what Buggins meant without explanation; indeed, together the two of them with their wits had created a whole new pantheon of sports- including the acclaimed 'trolly racing' which should be self explanatory.

At this moment, Buggins decided to allow him a reprieve, turning his attention back over the crest of the hill, to where the motorway lay.

"Don't worry," Ratbreath said, who could read what his companion meant as easily as one could read a book, "it's all prepared, those students won't know what hit them. We'll teach them once and for all not to mess with us," he chuckled under his breath, rubbing the side of his hairy chin.

***

This would be the final showdown, he decided. Ratbreath and Buggins VS the evil college students. They'd never bother them again after what he had planned for them. The students usually started coming back at around four o' clock, so he had prepared his 'trap' earlier that day, under the instructive eye-stalk of Buggins.

Ratbreath was an observant fellow, and this was a great characteristic for a tramp to have, for a tramp must be able to adapt to his environment, and take whatever life threw at him or her. Using his amazing observational skills, just as he had done with the angry motorists, he realised that college students were incredibly poor, almost as poor as the university students, and would jump seven feet into the air at the prospect of free money. So he'd asked kind Mrs Cole for some paint and the next day she'd swung it straight at the tree next to him. He took the paint and turned his sign around, plastering on it 'Fre muny for colege studants. aply here'. He set up the sign by a close lay-by, and prepared phase two of his plan. Under the sign, and disguised by the recent littering of red-brown leaves he laid his net, tying the rope attached to it round a helpful horizontal tree branch.

After that, he need only lay in wait. The students were sure to take the bait, and when Ratbreath finished with them they'd regret what they did to Buggins. He'd make them beg for forgiveness.

"It must nearly be four by now," Ratbreath said, hiding behind the tree which had become his command base, where he would pull the rope and lead his side to victory. Buggins once again perched on his shoulder, looking over to the sinking sun in the sky with a determined look in his eyes.

The afternoon traffic roared past, a silver car honking and tooting the one in front of it, (piloted by an old woman who raced at Buggins' speed). Ratbreath watched curiously.

'Mrs Cole must have got out early,' he thought.

More time passed, Ratbreath glancing worriedly up to the sun once in a while and grumbling under his breath. 'It's typical', he thought, 'they're always here when I don't want them, but when I do- they're late.' He spat on the floor. College students.

It was the loud bass music pumping over the motorway that alerted him to their presence, beating out some new 'hip' tune. A tiny black car sped down the inside lane with its windows open, a figurine hand with its middle finger stuck up wobbling in the back. Ratbreath ducked back behind the tree, hoping beyond hope they would notice the sign. There was some finger pointing in the backseat of the car (having nothing to do with the figurine) and someone shouted something that was lost over the rumble of the road. The little car moved into the middle lane, the outside lane, and swerved into the lay-by.

"Dude! I told you, it says we can get free money!" One voice said.

"You're right! But… where's the money…?" said another.

Ratbreath edged his head cautiously to the side of the tree to look at them. There was the three of them; the students he himself had given names. Nerd-guy, a boy with glasses and a romantic interest for computers. Wimp-guy, who had a constant twitch. Lastly, there was Dude-guy, a surfer-wannabe who failed in all aspects of seeming cool. And all were standing by the car staring furiously at the sign as though it would give them money just by looking.

"The money… is under… the sign…" Ratbreath called in what he hoped was a suitably mysterious voice.

"I just heard a voice inside my head dude!"

"So did I!"

"And me!"

Ratbreath lay pressed against the grass, listening as the silence stretched between them.

"So do you think we should look under the sign?" One asked finally. Ratbreath restrained himself from laughing at their stupidity; he was so close away to trapping them. His head bobbed by the side of the tree once again and he saw them walking towards the sign, their mouths spouting some other student nonsense that Ratbreath didn't care to listen to.

He took hold of the rope and watched intently, obsessively, Buggins craning his head to see what was going on. They all stepped onto the net- and Ratbreath jumped up and pulled. The students were hoisted up into the net, their feet swept out from underneath them. "WHOAH!" They chorused as one, as Ratbreath laughed openly and tied the rope to the tree, leaving them suspended in mid air.

"What's going on?" yelled Nerd-guy, twisting this way and that in the net.

"Dude! This isn't good! Dude!" shouted the Dude-guy.

"HeeeeeeeLPPP!!" called Wimp-guy.

Chuckling evilly, Ratbreath came forward, brandishing a sharp looking stick in his hand. "Nice to see you again boys," he said.

"Oh no," whined Wimp-guy, "not him!"

"Yes," said Ratbreath, a smirk clambering up and settling on his pleasant features. "me."

"Okay, you got us," said the whining student, trying to speak rationally, "you win. We lose. Just… just don't hurt us!!!" he erupted into tears, wiping his nose with his sleeve.

Buggins jumped up and down in excitement, throwing his eyes towards the pointed stick.

Let's do it! Let's do it! he chorused.

"Oh yes, of course Bug," Ratbreath said, raising the stick.

"Why's he talking to himself?"

"I dunno dude, I'm kinda more interested in the thing he's holding." The Dude-guy looked in apprehension towards Ratbreath's pointed stick.

The tramp himself advanced towards the students, as they hid their heads under their elbows and clambered over each other to get away from him, scrambling round in circles in the net.

"He's crazy!" Nerd-guy cried, and he clawed his way at the net almost in tears.

"Help us!" Dude-guy shouted vainly towards the motorway, "HeeeeLPP US!!!"

The sharp stick decended.

"Ouch!"

"Yeow!!!"

"Mummy!"

Ratbreath laughed with glee, "Take that, you mangy curs! That's for what you did to Buggins!" Buggins himself had his own sharp stick (more of a twig actually) and was poking dude-guy's nearby foot furiously.

At this moment however, Fate decided to intervene, and gave Reality a good poke herself.

SNAP!

Aside from this starting a good catfight in the heavens, the net snapped and broke loose. The students tumbled out onto the ground into a pile, Ratbreath still thrusting his stick towards them, laughing. They stumbled their way to their feet, pushing each other over in the process to get away from the deranged tramp and his even more deranged snail. They finally managed to get up and ran to the car as fast as their exercise-deprived muscles could go. They piled into the front seat, the car speeding away with the door still open and Dude-guy's legs poking out.

Ratbreath looked to his happy companion, "That was fun, wasn't it?" he said, and Buggins nodded contently. They watched the unlucky students swerve their way down the motorway, Dude-guy only just managing to pull his legs in before they were ripped off by a passing lorry.

The sun sank behind the hills, throwing out tendrils of soft red and orange.

"A perfect day," murmured Ratbreath.