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After my return from Paris I was about to load up the empty fridge when my eyes snagged on something on the floor. A dead orchid leaf, elongated, browny grey. Only it wasn’t. Slap bang in the centre of the frowsy purple mat by the cooker sat Mr Jingles, tail curled round him, bright eyes looking up at me, not at all afraid. I didn’t scream (I never scream). I let go of my shopping, clenched my eyes tight shut, then opened them again, slowly. The mouse was still there. Hadn’t moved, in fact.
Resurrecting Mr Jingles could only mean trouble, as I well knew. But of course this was the real world: this was Berlin in the twenty-first century, not fiction. And yet, a few steps down the corridor, inside my silver-shell suitcase with the Air France tag, lay a paperback copy of Stephen King’s The Green Mile. I’d finished reading the book only yesterday, over a café caramel on Avenue de L’Opéra, crying so hard my tears had formed little puddles on the table. When the waiter brought the bill, he’d dabbed at them with the corner of his white apron, like a nurse cleaning a wound. Now, blinking at the memory, I stood rooted and watched the mouse. His flanks rose and fell in shivers of light; his whiskers trembled ever so slightly – playfully? – and I could see his nose twitch. What to do?
In the end I fetched the cheese dome from the cupboard and placed it over Mr Jingles as if he were a lump of furred roquefort or stilton. ‘Sorry,’ I mumbled, ‘just so you don’t get squashed by accident.’ He remained quite motionless, even his whiskers had ceased trembling. For a moment I fancied that the very essence of him had fled to an existence elsewhere and I was looking at an effigy, not a real mouse. But then he unfurled his tail, carefully licked one of his front paws and tripped forward to sniff the plastic surface that separated us. As I began to stow away my purchases, he half-turned, perhaps to keep me in his sights. Would he like some milk? A sliver of smoked salmon? Or toast, maybe? Not cheese, though. Months ago I’d set a mousetrap in the larder, baiting it with smelly camembert, and all it had attracted was dust.
I poured a little cream into the lid of a jam jar and crumbled some rye bread. When the doorbell rang, I wasn’t surprised. It would be old Frau Krämer from downstairs, wanting to drop off my keys. I pulled the door wide…
… and came face to face with tousled curls and a blond beard. An orange T-shirt glowed under the man’s jacket like hot coals in a stove. One of his hands was splayed casually on the doorpost.
‘Hi, I’m Jonas,’ he said with a smile. The crooked line of a scar ran through his upper lip. His eyes were large and what in the trade we call cerulean.
‘How did you get in?’ I blurted. ‘The street door’s kept locked.’
’Ah, but I know how to unlock things. Abracadabra!’ He waggled a finger at me, then grinned when he saw me flinch. ‘Joke. I met your neighbour in the street and she invited me in for coffee.’
Shit, Frau Krämer was seriously losing it if she’d started picking up strangers. I made a mental note to speak to her always too-busy doctor son in Potsdam.
‘You won’t get any coffee from me.’ I nudged the door closed.
‘Didn’t expect any,’ he said, with a counter-nudge. ‘I’m collecting for TierHAUS. See?’ He flipped open his jacket to indicate the logo of a black turtle on his day-glo T-shirt, then produced a lanyard from a pocket. ‘Should really be wearing this. Damn cord always gets tangled in my beard.’ He laughed, but I didn’t join in. The turtle’s shell was a stylised house complete with roof and windows from which protruded all sorts of animal heads, flap-eared, bristly, whiskered, scaly, feathered, horned. I pushed at the door again. Harder. Jonas pretended not to notice. Had I heard of the two-year legal wrangle over Immenhof, the old farmhouse near Schlachtensee? No? Well, TierHAUS had recently been made its rightful owner. Meaning the charity was now able to provide shelter for even more strays. ‘Dogs and cats. Donkeys. Parrots, pet rabbits, snakes. And turtles, of course. You’d be surprised at the number of abandoned turtles and miniature hedgehogs the size of your palm.’ He cupped his hand in imitation. ‘So. We need donations for urgent repairs and maintenance, not forgetting food and vet bills.’ Still holding out his hand, doubtless a well-practised trick, he looked at me. Then his gaze suddenly flicked away, towards the kitchen.
‘What in hell is that?’ he exclaimed. ‘You playing a weird game of ouija?’ And yes, I could see it too: the cheese dome was moving. Centimetre by centimetre it came snailing along the tiled floor, following the shimmering path of a sunbeam that slanted through the kitchen, halfway down the corridor.
‘I’d better go.’ I shoved at the door with both hands.
‘It’s a hamster, isn’t it?’ Jonas said, a glitter of threat in his voice. ‘Or a kitten?’ Before I could stop him, he was inside, striding towards the dome. ‘Fuck! A mouse!’
‘Leave him be!’ I rushed after him. ‘The mouse is fine. If you don’t get out of here right now, I’ll phone the police.’ I snatched up my mobile from the kitchen counter and retreated behind the table, fingers poised above the emergency number.
‘One sec … That’s it. Ah…’ Exhaling softly, Jonas backed away, towards the door. Too late I realised he’d grabbed his own mobile and was filming Mr Jingles’s floor show.
‘I’ll be in touch.’ The dreamcatcher by the entrance tinkled gently as the latch clicked shut.
I nearly tripped over the cheese dome. Should I go after Jonas? Chase him down Niklasstrasse in my pink slippers while brandishing a rolling pin, the caricature of a crazy Hausfrau? The street door banged. What was he going to do with that video? Had Frau Krämer bragged about my job at the Nationalgalerie? Easy to imagine the lurid headlines:
‘Nationalgalerie Curator Torments Mouse in Ouija Experiment’ or ‘Mouse Makes off with Curator’s Cheese Dome’.
Leaving Mr Jingles to his slow, patient progress, I went downstairs and knocked.
‘Welcome back, Alice, welcome. Are your babies okay?’ Frau Krämer always called my orchids ‘babies’, with a gleeful relish that seemed to say, At your age, I had two sons at Gymnasium, a high-flying husband and a house of my own. Try matching that!
‘Yes, great. Thanks for watering my plants.’ I gave her the kitschy bonbonnière I’d bought at Charles de Gaulle airport.
‘How very kind,’ she burbled. ‘What a charming –’
‘Right,’ I said, ‘that charity guy just now, what exactly did you tell him about me? Not where I work, I trust?’
‘No, no, Alice. I may have mentioned what a pleasant neighbour you are – oh you are, you are – and how highly regarded in your field. Always travelling abroad with new exhibitions.’ The soft folds of her chin concertinaed as she nodded. ‘Such a nice young fellow. I contributed €30. Better to keep the strays safely kennelled, away from our streets and gardens. Talking of which…’ And she launched into the story of a black and white cat that had begun to make incursions into the small orchard behind our house.
I ached to get away, bone-weary all of a sudden. I’d just spent two hectic weeks at Centre Pompidou, co-curating ‘Impressionism – Expressionism’, the current touring project of Alte Nationalgalerie. As my neighbour’s voice washed over me, I let myself drift off into a universe of blue horses, yellow cows and blue-green deer, of figures shaped like blades of grass, and a world fragmented and rearranged inside a kaleidoscope.
Frau Krämer was shaking her head and gesturing. I caught the words ‘… shiny big leaves in its mouth … brings them to my patio… vegetarian cat… vegetarian… whatever is nature coming…’
My phone began to ring upstairs and I left her stalled in mid-monologue, her hands patting her lilac perm like it was some sort of a pelt.
The moment I lifted the receiver the answering machine kicked in. A hang up. Then I noticed the cheese dome. It had got stuck in the utility-room door, which was standing ajar. But it wasn’t merely stuck, it had been vacated, abandoned like an old shell, thanks to the slight difference in floor levels. By now Mr Jingles, veteran disappearing artist, could be anywhere in the two-storey labyrinth of my flat. Buried in the earth of the plant trough in the living room, say, or in the wood chip and coconut fibre of half a dozen orchid pots upstairs, asleep on a hammock of fat, straggly roots. Or hiding behind a row of books in my study, snacking on crispy paper. As a child before I could read, I used to lick printed pages, absorbing the sweet or tongue-shrinking inks in vague hopes of osmotic revelations. Whatever Mr Jingles’s tastes, I knew I wouldn’t find him, not even if I dismantled the whole flat. Best to wait for the telltale droppings.
But there were no droppings, not that day or the next. No fusty odours. No scuffling or skittering of tiny feet either. Only the insistent cheep-cheep, cheep-cheep from the fledgling sparrows and blackbirds in the nearby trees. The mouse had vanished like he’d never been, and The Green Mile now rested peaceably in my study, sharing shelf space with my art books – if Mr Jingles wanted to frolic with Franz Marc’s imaginary animals, he was welcome. Meanwhile I’d thrown open windows and balcony doors, front and back, turning the house into a living, breathing body whose cavities tingled and thrilled with the warm inrush of spring.
When I got home from work on Friday afternoon, the light on the answering machine was blinking again. A two-word message this time: ‘Mouse online’. And so he was, on the TierHAUS website: Mr Jingles inside my cheese dome, pushing it forward with his snout like a poor, demented slave. Because of the refraction, all you could make out was the grey-brown blur of a creature seemingly desperate to escape. The caption read: This exhausted mouse was discovered in an affluent neighbourhood by one of our volunteers. Please donate via Paypal to help us put an end to such cruelty. Mercifully no other details had been disclosed. I sighed with relief, then stared at the screen. That silver object in the final frame of the clip… I froze the image and, after a bit of fiddling, managed to blow up the suitcase tag and sticker. My name and flight number were unmistakable.
I began to tremble; my hands had gone so clammy they’d left damp patches on the keyboard. Ever since returning from Paris I’d had this queasy, slip-sliding feeling, like I’d become part of an Expressionist painting, was myself a blade of grass, an elongated figure in a tumbled world of psychedelic animals. But that way madness lay and I knew it.
To steady my nerves, for the moment at least, I allowed myself a couple of betablockers from the stockpile I’d accumulated after my breakup with Kurt. No point in accusing TierHAUS of privacy infringement, I’d only draw their attention, and then all manner of nutters would crawl out the woodwork, scuttling on too-many legs, feelers twitching… I needed to hold a war council.
Even at dusk it was still sultry on the balcony. The warm weather had hatched all sorts of bugs and flying insects which helter-skeltered around the scented candle. Bats zig-zagged in sooty- winged silhouette across the lavender sky, rehearsing perhaps for Walpurgis Night. I’d invited my friend Tina for an Italian takeaway. Cooking had never been my forte, despite Kurt’s expectations.
‘Prost!’ Tina and I chinked glasses. But instead of her smiling face, almost as if superimposed on it, I saw the blur of Mr Jingles’s soft nose butting at the cheese dome and I had to look away. Down in the orchard, shadows had gathered and thickened around the trees, weaving a web of darkness. Afterwards, I interrupted Tina’s account of her latest veterinary conference before she could digress into environmental issues, her hobbyhorse, and started talking about the exhibition at Centre Pompidou, in particular Expressionism. ‘Franz Marc’s artwork is amazing,’ I said, swallowing a mouthful of spaghetti. ‘He sought to paint nature and animals from the inside, through colour and shape.’ And I pointed to the pizza with its slices of tomato, curls of green pepper, onion rings, black olives and artichoke hearts. ‘He wanted to express their anima, bring to life their real selves.’ This was the perfect lead-up to Mr Jingles.
Just then the phone rang. I jumped to my feet and nearly knocked over my wine. Some drops spilled over the garlic bread, ruby-red on its buttery skin.
‘So you’re Dr Alice Lischer, the mouse-trapper… Enjoy Paris?’ The whisper was like the scratch of someone’s fingernail across a canvas.
I hung up without a word and muted the sound, then went into the bathroom to douse my face with cold water. Bloody TierHAUS were in for it now; I’d sue them if necessary.
‘All right?’ Tina asked when I sat down again. She’d taken a cigarette from her pack and was leaning towards the candle flame.
‘Any new animal stories?’ I blurted out.
Tina shot me a glance and, pouting her lips, blew smoke. At last she said, ‘Well, did I ever mention Laila, the camel with the broken leg we operated –’
‘Yep, you did.’ For a while only my fork was audible, nicking the inside of my spoon as I twirled a few forlorn strands of spaghetti.
Then I told Tina about Mr Jingles and Jonas, no details spared. She didn’t believe me, of course not: she was a vet. So I fetched my MacBook.
But the TierHAUS website looked different; no sign anymore of the video clip starring the mouse. Was I going bonkers? Alice in Mouseland, I imagined Tina thinking.
‘It’s getting chilly out here,’ I said. My chair scraped against the balcony floor. ‘We’d better move indoors.’
We were on our second bottle when the buzzer went. I ignored it, but whoever it was refused to be ignored. ‘Don’t be daft, Alice.’ Tina flicked her blonde hair at me. ‘Let’s see who it is. Mr Jingles?’ She giggled.
Frau Krämer’s voice boomed in the stairwell, urgent and wheedling: ‘A nightcap, just a little nightcap?’ Then there were footsteps coming up the stairs.
By now Tina was at the spy-hole. ‘Your neighbour,’ she mouthed and started to open the door. I pushed her aside. ‘Sorry about the noi–’ I began.
Behind Frau Krämer stood Jonas, hair tied back in a ponytail, plain black T-shirt cut off at the shoulders to expose his sleeves of tattoos. ‘May I have a quick word?’ he said. And, with a big-boy smile at Frau Krämer, ‘Afraid I’m in a bit of a hurry. Can I take a rain check?’
‘Anytime.’ Returning his smile, my neighbour glanced at me: Try matching that! then wished him goodnight.
‘Was that who I think it was?’ asked Tina when I finally rejoined her at the kitchen table. ‘Dishy. Nice tattoos, too…’
I shrugged. ‘Came to accuse me of hacking into the TierHAUS website – me, hacking! – because the video clip had vanished off their server. Just sort of evaporated into e-space, he said.’ I sloshed more wine into my glass.
While I’d been out on the landing with Jonas, Tina had done some googling and discovered ‘Contemporary Conundrums’, a forum on which members were currently debating the plausibility of an untrained mouse inside a plastic container manoeuvring said container along a flat surface. Several people had placed virtual bets as to distance and speed.
I couldn’t help a triumphant ‘Huh!’ Wherever Mr Jingles had withdrawn to – back to The Green Mile, most likely – he had indeed left his mark.
I fingered Jonas’s business card in my pocket (a PhD in sociology, no less). He’d passed it to me after our contretemps, with a nonchalant ‘Coffee some time?’ But his sky-eyes had been way too wide for my liking.
‘If you shave off your beard first,’ I’d said. ‘It’ll grow back, you know. Afterwards.’
‘Afterwards?’ he’d echoed, grinning. Loud enough for Frau Krämer to invent her own little fantasy, turning over in her mind possibilities too seedy by far for her well-ironed bedclothes and the tick-tock, tick-tock of her alarm clock.
Sipping my wine, I imagined touching the crooked scar on Jonas’s upper lip – from a cleft palate? An accident? A fight? Yes, I definitely preferred a fight…
‘Alice?’ Tina was waving her cigarette at me. ‘You okay?’
‘Sorry.’ I smiled and offered her a refill, but she said she’d need to make tracks soon to release the babysitter.
I tipped the remainder of the bottle into my glass and lifted it. ‘Well, here’s to Mr Jingles’s vanishing act.’ Then I tapped a farewell cigarette from her pack.
The tap-tap continued for several seconds, coming, it seemed, from the living room. ‘Mr Jingles making a reappearance?’ Tina chuckled. ‘Probably a May bug trying to knock its brains out against the picture window,’ I said and stubbed out my cigarette. But all I found when I went to investigate was a damp scatter of earth near the plant trough, which I’d watered earlier. Plants were funny things, immobile yet moving stealthily this way and that, their roots always poking and probing, disturbing the soil; their stems and leaves too, never completely at rest, always unfurling, stretching, shifting and flicking, even rattling on occasion in the stillness. And yet, the secret activities of my plants surely couldn’t account for that much dislodged earth. Was Mr Jingles at it again, playing hide and seek now? Choosing the very places I’d singled out for him in my imagination? ‘Be right back!’ I felt a scrabbling uneasiness as I ran upstairs to my orchids in the spare bedroom. The tallest of them, which I’d grown from a cutting, was tilting groggily against the wall, roots grasping at nothing, blooms splayed open, delicate lips distended. Shreds of bark lay on the carpet. Next door in my study the rows of books at first sight looked untouched, hardbacks and paperbacks ramrod straight as a line of soldiers on the shiny, polished wood. Except that the far end of the middle shelf was strewn with scraps of white paper. Directly above were my favourite art books and, leaning like a renegade against them, The Green Mile.
‘Feeling a little peculiar,’ I told Tina on my return to the kitchen. She laughed, said to take a couple of Alka Seltzers and go easy on ‘the mousing’.
I could hardly wait for her to leave. Almost shoved her out the flat. Over her shoulder she whispered, ‘Don’t let this guy slip through your fingers, Alice. And not too many BBs, mind.’ She knew about my stash of betablockers.
As soon as I heard the street door close, I dialled the TierHAUS number on Jonas’s card. Only ten past eleven; someone would doubtless be up, tending to the animals. Someone who could advise me. The phone rang and rang. There was a hollowness on the line that seemed to open up vast, heartless spaces, whole continents of neglect and cruelty needing to be overcome before the safe haven of Immenhof could be reached. After two minutes I killed the call.
The message light on the answering machine was in overdrive and I pressed the delete button. Then I went and stood on the balcony, breathing-in the night. I could no longer see the bats, but I sensed their erratic, ancient flirrings in the darkness, tiny vibrations that seemed to continue inside of me, replicating and setting my nerves jangling.
No, Tina truly had no idea what she was talking about, or what I was dealing with. But perhaps not-thinking about Mr Jingles would make him disappear. Because that’s what he thrived on, wasn’t it, the being thought of and talked about? So, the not-being the centre of attention would cut off his existential oxygen supply, drain the life blood right out of him … and zap him for good.
Maybe it had all been coincidence anyway: the scattered earth, the tilting orchid, the scraps of paper. And why not? I now remembered pulling some of the withered leaves off the bottom of the straggly ivy in the plant trough while doing the watering, and having to pull really hard. Some soil, adhering to the undersides of the leaves, could easily have plopped to the floor in the process. The scraps of paper? Well, hadn’t I emptied the hole punch into the wastebasket in my study only yesterday? More likely than not, the fragments had been whirled up into the air by a draught from the open window. As to the orchid – orchids often overbalanced once they grew a mature, top-heavy funnel of leaves, especially if they weren’t anchored inside a ceramic pot. And loose bits of compost had fallen off before, hadn’t they? The mouse itself was just a mouse, nothing to do with The Green Mile and the resurrected Mr Jingles.
Don’t forget, Alice, you were plagued by mice during the winter, hence the trap in your larder. So, until you see the mouse again, if you see it again, don’t worry. Buy a better trap. As for the video clip, any hacker worth his or her salt could have scrubbed that. A sabotage act by an opponent of TierHAUS is a distinct possibility, a reality, in fact. And now, come on, girl, phone the other number on the card. Phone Jonas himself. What are you waiting for?
But of course I know exactly what I’m waiting for. A sign. Then I’ll phone.
Next morning, sitting on the balcony with my second cup of espresso, I notice the black and white cat crouched by the apple tree, staring down at something in the grass. A leaf, it looks like. Elongated, browny-grey. As I watch, the cat suddenly arches its back, its mouth a hissing triangle, its fur as stiff as an old paintbrush. Then it begins to slink away towards the bushes beyond the orchard. The leaf, meanwhile, has disappeared.
A little later Frau Krämer rings my bell. ‘Guess what I’ve found near my patio door,’ she
says with a try-matching-that smile and holds up a sandwich bag. Inside is the limp body of a mouse. ‘Not a vegetarian cat after all.’ She sounds relieved, as if her world is back to normal again. ‘You know, I think I’ll adopt that cat. It seems a shame to send such a lovely creature to the TierHAUS place.’
I make no reply and for an instant close my eyes. When I open them again, Frau Krämer is still there. She’s gazing at me with almost motherly concern, the plastic bag dangling from her hand. Above us the dreamcatcher has started tinkling very faintly, set off by a rogue current of air, perhaps.
Just as I’m about to turn away, I find my glance drawn back to the bag… and that’s when I catch him, catch the mouse giving me the fleetest of winks. I burst out laughing, I can’t help it. ‘I’m sorry, ‘ I splutter, ‘so sorry, Frau Krämer.’ And then I laugh and laugh into my neighbour’s startled face.