The gnawing fear that something was wrong first surfaced this summer, when the emissions warning light kept flickering in my wife Angela’s Honda CRV, and occasionally it would refuse to start.
It was only a couple of weeks ago, however, when a pipe under the sink sprang a leak and we found a bite-sized hole in our granddaughter’s baby-food carton that we began, figuratively speaking, to smell a rat.
By then, it was far too late.
As Angela parks her car beside the recycling bins that serve the 13 flats in our building — a handsome old red-brick house in Surrey — the dastardly intruder had made its nest in the engine compartment.
A safe, warm refuge for cunning rodents, it transpires.
Rats are invading British homes as lockdown closures of cafes and restaurants leaves them needing to search for food elsewhere
It might sound rather amusing to find a rat’s lair, made from pine-leaves and bits of chewed-off battery insulation felt, beneath one’s bonnet.
When we learned the full extent of the damage, though, we certainly weren’t laughing.
By munching through various wires, the rodent had caused so much destruction, the garage told us, they would have to strip down the engine to find the problem.
That would cost thousands, and even then it might be beyond repair.
Cheaper to cut our losses, write-off the eight-year-old Honda and buy a new one.
Reluctantly, we took their advice, and now reverse into our parking space in the hope of keeping the new car’s engine as far as possible from the bins.
Since then, pest controllers have laid bait-boxes around the gardens, yet our furtive new neighbours are still darting about as brazenly as ever.
Last weekend, while storing the garden furniture away for the autumn, we spied a whip-like black tail poking through the wickerwork.
Our neighbour often sees them darting along the fence towards the compost heap.
Because their teeth grow continually throughout their lives and need to be filed down, rats will chew through almost anything, even soft metals.
Meanwhile, whenever we hear a creak or rustle at dead of night, I reach for a shoe or a hammer and tip-toe around the flat trying vainly to corner — and clobber — the elusive interloper.
Or should that be interlopers, plural?
One night, brandishing a golf club, I padded into the kitchen to find the remains of an empty milk carton on the floor.
The top had been eaten away and shreds of plastic were strewn about.
On another nocturnal rodent hunt, I turned the light on just in time to see a dark shadow sliding below the washing machine, beside which I later found a fist-sized cavity in the plasterwork.
Monthly call-outs for rat and mouse infestations reached a six-year high last month, DAVID JONES’ home in Surrey was among the properties to be invaded
Then there was the occasion when Angela accused me of nibbling apples and replacing them in the fruit bowl.
Now we put every last food item in the fridge, and the bread-bin lid is weighted down.
It comes as some small comfort to learn that thousands more families have similarly uninvited guests.
Yesterday, a report by Britain’s biggest pest control firm, Rentokil, revealed that rodent-control call-outs have risen by 22 per cent in the past month — a six-year high.
As such call-outs had already soared by 120 per cent following the spring and summer lockdown, it seems we may be reaching the point where there is a plague on all our houses.
One woman — a single mother living in Dover — feared she would have a heart attack after seeing the flinty eyes of a rat staring up at her from the bottom of the toilet bowl. Revoltingly, since rats are adept swimmers, with webbed feet, the creature might well have paddled along the sewage pipe.
Experts are united in the belief that the rat explosion has been caused, albeit indirectly, by the coronavirus pandemic.
The closure of many cafes, pubs and offices means there is insufficient discarded food in city centre bins and skips to feed Britain’s 120million rats. Nor is there much point burrowing into the kitchens of closed-down restaurants.
Clever and adaptable, they have therefore migrated in their hordes to the suburbs, and to smaller towns such as ours, feasting on the household leftovers which have increased greatly now that millions of us are working from home.
‘Certainly, from March, we’ve had a lot more calls — it went crazy after the lockdown started,’ says Alec Minter, of Basingstoke-based PestUK.
‘It’s all down to the change in human behaviour.
‘As people are at home more, they are also doing things like feeding birds, and bird food attracts rats.
‘I’m not surprised they nested in your car engine, if it was near the bins. That’s quite common, because the more dominant ones live as close as possible to their food-source to avoid predators such as cats and foxes.
‘They are usually nocturnal animals, but if they have to find food that’s only around in the daytime, they will.
‘We’ve had someone with rats living near their garden pond. We worked out that they were diving in the water to steal the fish-food pellets after the householder fed them each day.’
The collective noun for a group of rats is ‘a mischief’, but this euphemistic term doesn’t begin to convey the emotions they can instil.
In gangster films, they are a byword for the lowest form of traitor; in George Orwell’s novel 1984, Big Brother placed a cage containing live rats over Winston Smith’s face.
In real-life, rats have also been used in the most hideous imaginable forms of torture.
The Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet trained them to gnaw into the stomachs of strapped-down political rivals.
All of which helps to explain why it feels so disturbing to find them in and around your home.
Although they are by nature surprisingly clean, grooming themselves and leaving just one or two raisin-like droppings (unlike their incontinent cousin the mouse), they can also carry some very dangerous diseases.
Despite being relatively clean, rats can spread deadly disease – and a change in Britain’s daily habits, brought on by lockdown, means we’re more likely to encounter the vermin
Indeed, the deadliest pandemic in history, the Black Death — which swept through Europe and Asia in the Middle Ages, killing anywhere between 75 and 200 million people — is believed to have emanated from rat fleas.
Through their urine, rats now spread illnesses such as Weil’s disease, which is said to infect more than a million people worldwide each year, with one case in ten proving fatal; Hantavirus, another deadly disease for which there is no vaccine; and salmonella poisoning.
In Britain, such infections are mercifully rare. Nonetheless, they are sufficiently hazardous for Ian Miller, a director of Cleankill Pest Control, the company tasked with purging our building of rats, to warn that they must be expunged as quickly as possible.
As they produce a litter of young — collectively named (with what can only be described as deceptive sweetness) pups and kittens — every couple of months, and their offspring become sexually mature at six to eight weeks, this isn’t easy.
Moreover, in this country there are strict regulations on how rats can be killed. Travelling through Canada several years ago, I found one glued to a sticky-board which had been smeared with some peanut butter and left beneath my bed.
The trapped animal was left to scratch for an hour before the chambermaid took it away.
Here, the methods are altogether more humane. The bait-boxes that are usually deployed contain anticoagulant which gradually thins the rat’s blood so that it drifts gently into a fatal coma.
However, as rats are very suspicious of any new object that appears on their regular runs, they will sometimes go out of their way to avoid these boxes, tempting as the bait inside them might smell.
If that method fails, old-style traps can be set. Just occasionally, pest controllers like Sam Boylett, who visits our building, manage to stop a live rat in its tracks. When that happens, he will dispatch them with a swift tap on the head with his screwdriver.
Wasn’t he wary of approaching them, I asked him yesterday, as he checked the bait-boxes on our patio? After all, I had heard that they were likely to leap for your throat when cornered.
He laughs: ‘No, you do hear these horror stories about rats, and if they feel threatened they might squeal and lunge at you, but they don’t really attack humans.
‘They’re more frightened of us than we are of them.’
This was heartening news.
My wife and I are just praying that our own boomtown rats will scuttle back to their old haunts before they gnaw through the engine of our brand new Honda.