My first nostalgic childhood memories are of mice...
This is of course not really true; it's just the sort of way one's expected to begin a serious and morally uplifting essay on Mice I Have Known. If my parents were to learn I'd been giving the impression that my cradle was infested with small furry writhing things all nibbling at the infant Langford, they'd doubtless streak up the M4 from South Wales and – having once polished off the sherry left over from their previous visit – disown me. Besides, the scars have all healed now.
In fact my real earliest memories of the wonderful world of nature have to do with caterpillars – like the giant one two-and-a-half inches long which menaced the household for days, even the dog being terrified by its aura of brooding power, until at last I recaptured it in the traditional pickled-onion jar. (I don't know why pickled-onion jars were so traditional – the 2 1/2" caterpillar looked more like a gherkin and didn't act pickled at all – but the habit was strong enough that to this day I expect caterpillars to smell of pickled onions. Maybe the pickled-onion manufacturers know something I don't.)
Getting back to mice... it occurs to me that by a staggering coincidence my most recent encounter with nature also involved a caterpillar. I was leaning on a bus-shelter and felt something squashy beneath my fingers. I took a closer look; straightaway there came that old sense of wonder at our ever-changing cosmos; here was a salutary reminder of nature's marvels, a caterpillar whose amazing tininess was equalled only by its unearthly greenness. Also, it was squashed. Mice have the advantage that they're less leaky and don't stain your fingers green; there are, however, few other advantages.
My first Wild Mouse Sighting was an unscheduled event; we'd been expecting a Stupid Bird Sighting as we unsealed the ancient, cast-iron kitchen fire from which were coming the most appalling noises. Personally I had diagnosed an unspecified number of sex-crazed albatrosses which had slipped down the chimney in search of privacy; my mother, belonging to a purer school of thought, inclined to the opinion that a pair of golden eagles were engaged in a death struggle without benefit of Queensberry rules. At last the rusted cover-plate creaked open; we pressed close with our bird-identification books opened to likely pages; but it was only as we studied the yawning emptiness within that an after-image developed on the retina – a grey blur extending from the grate, across the stone floor, through the open door, over the back-yard flagstones and into the rotting fabric of the woodshed.
"It was a mouse," said my mother in horror.
Now I knew. Mice were grey blurs forty feet long.
This first impression wasn't contradicted until many years after, at Oxford: my last terms were spent in one of several incredibly broken-down college houses in New Inn Hall Street. There was a preservation order on the frontage, which still stands but has acquired a new backage: the college was eager to rip out everything else and rebuild with smart modern luxury rooms around five feet square. (These architects never have been able to tell the difference between 'spacious' and 'specious'.) While I lived there the entire fabric – apart from that carefully preserved frontage with its cosy coat of ivy – was in the final stages of decay, like D.West without his habitual tilt. Doors fell from their hinges at the merest touch, floorboards sagged at the impact of a dropped paperclip, and the electric wiring – hastily converted from the original Roman water pipes – buzzed and crackled behind the walls like the ghost of some departed telephone exchange.. In this atmosphere of eldritch dread, half-seen Things stalked the ruined corridors (usually the pissed college boat club proving yet again that New Inn Hall Street doors would spring from their hinges at the merest touch of several muscle-bound shoulders) ... and one night a sinister rustling invaded my very room.
It is a fearful thing to lie in bed, able to see the whole room in the evil, ghostly radiance of the multikilowatt street-lamp placed conveniently just outside the window, and yet unable to trace the source of a rustle rustle rustle seemingly louder than all the stockbrokers of the City unfurling their copies of the Times in chorus. Being a fan of iron will and indomitable courage, I had little hesitation in shutting my eyes and hoping the sound would go. away. It didn't. This was the time for bold, decisive action! I put my head under the pillow. After a while, however, the spectral rustling percolated through: even so, I would have held firm but that I discovered a sudden, quixotic urge to visit the toilet....
To cut a long story to mere novelette length, I finally traced the haunting to the waste paper basket. At the bottom, a rather small mouse was disconsolately threshing about amongst the drafts of Langford SF stories better forgotten: it had climbed the curtain to forage on top of my desk and chosen the wrong direction in which to leap off again. (This theory was amply confirmed by the trail of tiny droppings across my opened copy of Woodgate's Elementary Atomic Structure. I was startled to find a mere mouse echoing my own critical judgement.) Throwing a swift towel over the top of the basket, I staggered back to bed and slept the sleep of a man who has thrown a towel over all his problems. Next morning, feeling humane, I furtively transferred the beast to the breakfast room of the nearby college annexe, Frewin Hall. There, I thought, it could lead a happy life without disturbing anyone, or at least anyone not living in Frewin Hall.
I now knew that, when not being grey blurs, mice were wont to emit a hellish rustling noise. I was destined to know much more: when I told a friend about the horror in the basket, he smiled evilly and began to creep about with his nose to the floor.
"You've got mice," he told me.
"Great heavens, Holmes, this is incredible!"
"No, no, you've got more mice." He pointed to the ancient electric toaster which stood in the fireplace. "Look there!"
I looked. "Those are crumbs. Mice are bigger than that."
"Crumbs, he says. Crumbs. Those are lovely, fresh mouse droppings."
I sat on the edge of the bed and thought about that.
"Did you know," said this former friend, "that mice are incontinent? They've been wandering hither and thither, widdling all over your bread, your butter, your cheese, your Earl Grey tea..."
The bit about the Earl Grey tea hit me hard. It seemed that even when they didn't stain your fingers green, mice could be even leakier than caterpillars.
"What do I do?" I screamed resolutely.
"Well ..." There was that in his voice which reminded me of dentists suggesting that everything come out. "Well, I think Robert Peach has a trap somewhere."
There was a long silence.
Robert Peach was something of a phenomenon. Robert was laden with all manner of scholarships and top grades and glorious prospects which he carried about with him rather like an ant dragging something many times its own weight: a burning urge to be ever so good at theoretical physics had seemed the only distinguishing feature of his personality until recently, when he'd developed something which he called a sense of humour and which tended to consist of blowing things up or taking them apart (often both). To turn Robert loose on my mice seemed rather like inviting Attila the Hun to move in and solve one's population problem.
I thought about the precious Earl Grey tea again, and again corrected my mental image of a mouse: a long grey rustling blur emitting a fine spray of urine like a peripatetic lawn sprinkler. After some very halfhearted attempts to convince myself that living in an atmosphere of mouse-pee was healthful, organic and good for the complexion, I climbed the creaking stairs to Robert's room and suggested he might like me to take his mousetrap out for an airing.
His wide smile would have unnerved a shark. "You want to kill mice?" he said with relish.
"Well, I can't see my way to opening diplomatic relations."
Robert looked puzzled for a moment, but was soon rummaging in his toolbox. "Kill," he murmured meditatively, and fished out a tarnished mousetrap of the model favoured by Torquemada. He studied this with satisfaction, pulled back the spring and let it snap loudly into place. "Take your fingers off if you're not careful," he crooned.
"I'll be careful," I said. Carefully.
"Perhaps I'd better set it myself," he said. "It's really very touchy. And you have to bait it just right. I'll come down now and set it up for you."
On the way down to my room he told me all about the horrific lethality of the machine, of how it could break necks, snap spines, crush skulls; how its mighty power was such that mice several yards away would fall stunned as the trap sprang shut, how he himself had slain kittens and small dogs with traps quite similar to this....
Possibly I exaggerate. But I did make a mental note concerning my habit of walking barefoot about my room at night.
Robert set the trap, put it in the corner by the toaster, and went on telling me of past slaughter wrought amongst small furry animals by his skills. I was halfway through my fortieth or fiftieth encouraging nod and attentive yawn when a feeble click sounded from the region of the toaster.
"Hah!" said Robert, and dextrously extracted a very, very small and dead mouse from his trap. The victim really was extremely tiny: hardly bigger than a caterpillar, or a gherkin. Robert put it into a plastic bag which happened to be handy (he kindly emptied it of its previous contents – biscuits – first, so I could hardly complain), and placed it on the mantelpiece as a souvenir for me to treasure. Possibly he thought I'd like to have it stuffed. Bloodlust partially slaked, he retreated to read quantum mechanics in bed; it was around midnight, so I too went to bed and wrestled with feelings of guilt about destroying such a small pathetic rodent ... since I have always been good at wrestling with such feelings, my sleep was delayed by mere seconds.
It was about half-past one when the snap of the trap woke me again; I removed a second corpse identical to the first, added it to the body in the plastic bag and beat my own record at speed-wrestling before going back to sleep. A repeat performance was given by special request of mouse number three, at two o'clock; in the morning my bleary gaze fell on yet another corpse, and my bleary stomach informed me that to eat breakfast would be mere vanity and vexation of spirit. What does one do. with four very tiny mice in a tasteful plastic bag? I had no notion. Possibly the college authorities should have their attention called to the matter; possibly the thing to do was to post the whole lot to the Domestic Bursar. This was not a wise idea, I decided after several microseconds' cogitation. Instead the bag stayed on the mantelpiece while I went to a lecture: this too was not a wise idea, since the cleaners discovered it whilst vacuuming the room, as I could tell from the fact that only half the floor had been vacuumed.
In the end I dropped the polythene sarcophagus into a handy dustbin with military honours, though not before Robert had dropped in to gloat a great gloat over his machine's death-toll.
I was mildly reproved for having wounded the delicate sensibilities of the college cleaners, but with Jesuitical cunning pointed out that by supplying hot and cold running mice the college itself had provoked the whole outrage. "This thing is bigger than both of us," they said then. "It is time for Higher Powers to be invoked." And they summoned the council ratman.
The ratman was something of a disappointment. I had enough Robert Peach in me to hope he'd seal the room and pump in vile corrosive fumes at the very least, muttering Cold Comfort Farmish things ("Ar, they vermin, 'tis flyin' in the face o' nature ... they do say when the spring lambs be bleatin', they mice be excretin' ...") whilst tiny rodent screams echoed within and a miniature thudding of corpses to the floor could be heard above the hiss of the nerve-gas cylinders.... Instead, a neatly-dressed chap called, pried up a few floorboards and deposited cardboard trays of something not readily distinguishable from the breakfast cereal served in college. (Even analysts would probably have been baffled. Should you ever visit Brasenose College, avoid the cereal, the jugged hare and the curried eggs.) I waited for the tiny rodent screams, but none came.
Next day a tiny rodent came in person. It weaved across the floor, twitching and staggering like a Bingley man trying to convince one of his suitability as a con organizer, and fell over with its legs in the air. Even this classic pose was too much for the poor creature; it rolled over and lay on its side with a slight air of satisfaction at the performance.
"Poor thing," I murmured, realizing. "It must have eaten some of the curried eggs." Tenderly I transferred it to the traditional waste-basket, along with supplies of water and selected crumbs from the toaster (perhaps some of these were mouse droppings, but I felt that those too would help reassure it). I thought I'd now taken sufficient pity on the beast, but Hazel arrived and took a bit more. Under her guidance the mouse was transferred to the cellar in an empty plastic dustbin (normally used for such simple undergraduate pastimes as brewing 40 pints of beer each fortnight) and nursed back to health with my best ginger biscuits. The nursing only took a few hours: on our next visit to the cellar we found this supposedly poisoned mouse doing standing jumps eighteen inches up the wall of the bin, boing boing boing like a hyperelastic ping-pong ball with St. Vitus' Dance.
"What a marvellous creature," said Hazel. "I shall call it Harli. Harli the Amazing Jumping Mouse." She reached down to stroke it. "Eep."
"Where's it gone?" I asked.
"It's up my sleeve," she told me in a strained voice. There was a pulsating lump in the region of her elbow; by the time we'd rolled up her sweater that far, the lump had vanished again.
"Oooooo," said Hazel.
Curbing my maniacal laughter, I enquired about the new location.
"There," she said, pointing delicately.
What could have been a ticklish situation was solved by Harli, who suddenly erupted from the neck of Hazel's sweater, attempted to carry straight on for the light-bulb and sailed in a gentle parabola to the floor. It landed with a plop, momentarily became a grey blur four feet long, and was gone.
"Under that old desk," said Hazel. I lifted the desk and the dingy grey lightning flashed again. "Under the roll of lino." Same results.
"Let us be scientific," I said. "If we remove all the furniture from the room there will be nowhere for this mouse to hide." At this late date I can't remember exactly what we intended to do with the amazing jumping mouse: certainly there was little attraction in a pet which kept one awake by thudding like popcorn against the roof of its cage. No doubt we would have given it a chance to start a new life in Frewin Hall or anywhere else not too close. At any rate, we did indeed carry all the old, broken furniture out of the cellar room (having carefully blocked the doorway with a piece of wood – we might have been stupid, but we weren't stupid), chase Harli three times round the bare floor and watch in wonderment as he or she gave a final leap straight up the chimney. With one bound, Harli was free! With several slow dragging motions, we put all the junk back into the room. Then, weary and disillusioned, we went away and left college and got married and started a new life in Reading. The mice, however, were there before us.
After living in the new house for a while, we began to detect this lurking presence. The presence would display its love of noise by dragging large pieces of aluminium foil about the kitchen floor; there would be a suspicion of grey blurs as you entered a room but before your eyes had time to focus; there were furtive gruntings and noises as of tiny honeymoon couples behind the skirting board. It was almost as tedious as The Amityville Horror. But Hazel didn't mind too much. "Mice are nice little creatures," she explained. "We can peacefully coexist."
"There was a mouse in the kitchen," she added some days later. "A horrible little mouse, just sitting there and staring at me. I chased it with a broom and it vanished under the stove ..."
"What happened to peaceful coexistence?"
She produced a well-nibbled Mars Bar. "That was my lunch for tomorrow! Peaceful coexistence is all very well, but this creature has struck at our very means of support!"
The next time we heard a rustle in the kitchen, I surged into the room and blocked all likely escape routes before investigating such hiding places as the washing machine, the bin, the pile of empty yoghurt pots, the grandfather clock (not that we own a grandfather clock, but it would be the natural hiding place if we did)... Bit by bit the room was stripped bare for action; in this arena, man would meet mouse with no place to hide ! I cornered it under the spin dryer and after a mighty struggle with many fell blows given and received (I kept concussing myself against walls when diving for the kill), the nibbler of Mars bars was sentenced to transportation for life. As I dropped it over the neighbours' fence, it gave a squeak of fond farewell and peed all over my hand.
Art is short and mice are long (not merely forty-foot blurs, but blurs lightyears in length as Einstein reckons time): there is no room to tell of the mouse I hunted down in the kitchen cupboard and transferred to the school playground nearby, nor that which I found guzzling my favourite cheese upon a rather high counter – I can only suppose the relentless pressures of evolution have led mice to perfect the thirty-inch standing jump. It performed the slightly less difficult Thirty-Inch Plummet, went into a Brownian motion routine about the kitchen floor and surreptitiously vanished into the gas-stove. It was never seen again, even though I vindictively turned all the gas-taps on. Through insane blood-lust coupled with a lack of mousetrap and a surplus of beer, an implacably vengeful Langford went on to construct an electric trap. Stunning in its (not to say the inventor's) simplicity, this Final Solution comprised a piece of old printed-circuit board wired to the neutral side of the mains, and in the middle a wire-caged lump of cheese connected to the 'live' terminal. The whole lay treacherously on the kitchen floor: "Surely it's dangerous?' Hazel said.
"Only if you touch it," I said reassuringly, not worrying over much about my barefoot wanderings through the kitchen to the toilet. As a concession to safety I added a fuse, so that the current sizzling through mice or bare feet would be limited to a puny 13 amps at 230 volts.
All night we slept fitfully, ears ever straining for the distant sizzle of success; in the morning I went down with much trepidation to tidy away the charred mouse (or mice). There is that scene in A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur's Court where innumerable knights are fried and fused together by a cunning electric fence: would I find a scene of furry carnage extending in great mounds about the original trap? Of course, there was nothing there at all. Our mice weren't stupid. To catch them, I had to buy an ordinary mundane trap which came from Woolworths and lacked all subtlety or finesse. The beasts had no soul, no appreciation of artistry.
This was years ago, and the shadow had long passed when Terry Hughes brought a caterpillar to visit.
"Hello Terry," I said with a swift grovel. "Come in. There's a caterpillar on your coat."
Our friendly TAFF delegate smiled uncertainly, unfamiliar with the strange British conventions whereby one's host is permitted to brush caterpillars from one's coat. I showed it to him: it was plump and green and tasty-looking. He recoiled slightly. "My god, there really is one," I thought I heard him mutter, emotions chasing one another about his face and vanishing round the back of his neck as he inwardly compared the USA (Land of the Free) with this country where caterpillars came and roosted on your coat. We turned Terry's passenger out to grass, and changed the subject. Now doubtless it must be sheer coincidence, but mere weeks later the Mouse Problem reared its whiskery head once more. A small but crazed mouse zipped from under the stove and was caught by me with less than the usual ado ... in fact it behaved like a mouse which had consumed some Brasenose breakfast cereal or nibbled at my collection of Terry Hughes fanzines. Not, you understand, that I wish to implicate Terry in any way. These things are better forgotten. I decided on extreme measures and took the mouse across the road before releasing it... but while I planned this disposal, perhaps tossing the rodent meditatively from hand to hand, the vile creature turned savage and bit me. (I really shall have to speak to Terry about this.) Imagine the horror, as this feral monster sank its gleaming fangs deep into my soft white flesh! We humanitarians are sadly misunderstood. I had a vague notion that one had to suck the poison from the wound, or even slash one's finger open to release the instantaneous accretions of venom and pus: I compromised on iodine. At last, I thought, I had paid the price in blood; perhaps now the mouse curse would be lifted? Moreover, this time I'd taken special pains to throw the exiled mouse at an inviting-looking mansion which I hoped it would find more hospitable than ours. (I am trying not to consider the possibility that I'm being hunted by the local police as the Mad Mouse-f linger of Northumberland Avenue.)
This unending saga of one man's struggle against the representatives of a hostile nature will have to stop somewhere (i.e. here). I am resigned to my fate. You think the curse is safely lifted, and then, just as in a Lovecraft story, that rustling. That eldritch squeak from beyond the furthermost portals of the skirting board! Iä! Iä! Shub-Niggurath! God, those unspeakable whiskers.., that grey blur ... I can write no more ...
It is my fate. Anyone devising a better mousetrap need no longer worry about my beating a path to his/her door: I'm awaiting the genetic engineer who gets around to devising better mice – ones which know their place, which is in someone else's house. For myself, I'll be content with a pickled-onion jar and a caterpillar. You know where you are with a caterpillar.