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... quite surprised by the question.

 

‘In that case,’ continued The Rat, ‘I don’t suppose that you have ever heard a kettle sing?’

 

‘Oh, that is quite different,’ said Alice, regaining her confidence.

 

‘Not at all,’ said The Rat, sharply.  ‘It is all the same around here.

 

‘But do have some tea,’ he continued, in a more encouraging tone of voice, ‘and we will return to your question anon.’

 

So Alice seated herself at the table and looked around for a clean cup.

 

The Rat reached under the table and produced a fresh setting for her.

 

‘Always be prepared,’ he said.  ‘That is my motto.

 

‘Anyway,’ he added, ‘we have so few guests around here that it isn’t difficult to have fresh crockery ready when they do arrive.’

 

Alice poured a cup of tea for herself and cast a glance around the table.

 

‘Are you looking for something?’ asked The Rat.

 

‘Yes,’ said Alice.  ‘I am looking for some sugar.’

 

‘Over there,’ replied The Rat, waving his hand at a sparkling white sugar bowl nearby.  ‘Help yourself.’

 

Alice picked up the bowl and looked inside.

 

‘It is empty,’ she said, in a disappointed voice.

 

‘Yes, it is rather,’ said The Rat, taking the bowl from Alice.  ‘I used all of the sugar to make the sugar bowl,’ and with that he broke off part of the rim and dropped it into Alice’s tea cup.

 

‘Still struggling with the jug of milk, though,’ he added, ‘so we haven’t got any.’

 

Alice stirred her tea and took a sip.

 

‘Tell me,’ said The Rat, looking closely at Alice, ‘what sort of animal are you?’

 

‘Why, I don’t believe that I am any sort of animal,’ said Alice, in surprise.  ‘I am a little girl.’

 

‘Really?’ said The Rat, staring even harder at her.  ‘In that case, I think that I may have heard of you before.  Let me see …’ he wrinkled his brow, deep in thought, ‘… you are very dangerous, aren’t you?’

 

‘I don’t think so,’ replied Alice.  ‘At least, not that I know of.’

 

‘Oh, that is all right then,’ said The Rat, cheerfully.  ‘Just checking.  One can never be too careful.

 

‘But enough about you,’ he continued, changing the subject abruptly and rising to his feet.  ‘You probably want to know all about us.  Who we are, why we are here and what we are doing?  Well, we won’t keep anything from you.  We will be quite open and honest with you and we won’t hold anything back.  That way you will know everything that there is to know about us and we will all get on so much better as a result.  Why, in fact, I was saying only earlier this morning to my colleague here,’ (he waved towards the jug), ‘that it is very fortunate that we are so forthcoming otherwise people might think that we were trying to hide something.  Which, of course, we aren’t.’

He paused for effect and smiled at Alice.

 

‘There, now,’ he concluded, ‘isn’t it so much better now that we have explained ourselves to you, in such detail and to your full satisfaction?’

 

Alice looked back at The Rat.

‘I don’t believe that you have told me anything about yourself,’ she said.

‘Ah, that we did, just now,’ said The Rat.  ‘You probably weren’t listening.  You really must learn to pay attention.  Twopence a week should do to start with and we can renegotiate the rate later.’

‘Perhaps you can tell me where I am?’ asked Alice, trying to steer the conversation back on track.

‘Oh my, look!’ said The Rat, jumping to his feet again and rolling up his sleeves. ‘Time to do the dishes!  Do you want to wash up, dry up or put away?’

 

‘I don’t want to do any of those things!’ cried Alice, in frustration.  ‘I want to know where I am and I don’t see why you can’t take time to help me with my question.’

 

‘My dear girl,’ said The Rat, sitting down and fixing his beady little eyes on her.  ‘You must realise that one can’t just take Time whenever one wants. You must be realistic about these things.’

 

‘Quite so,’ said the voice-in-the-jug.

 

‘Time is not something that you can be flippant about.  He is a tricky customer at the best of times and you must handle him extremely carefully.’

 

‘Indeed,’ said the voice-in-the-jug.

 

‘Time will play all sorts of tricks on you,’ continued The Rat.  ‘One minute he will sneak ...

To be continued next week 

‘You must be realistic about these things.’