Act One: We are on the sofa at Halloween, besieged by a small grey mouse running around the room. (I say small, it looked rather large actually…)
Two fully grown, gainfully employed, generally rather sensible adults, not usually scared by small grey things, sitting on the light brown sofa while the pumpkin flickered on the mantel, trying to listen to The Nutcracker on the radio and hide from the kids knocking on the door for Trick or Treat.
It had been making its presence felt for some time. Leaving little black traces of itself behind, on the work surfaces and floors. We hadn’t been able to leave out food as the moment you turned away it would appear. Bold as brass and getting bolder. At first when we caught it in the kitchen, it would run, faster than a streak, just a shadow glanced from the corner of your eye. But gradually it had stopped caring and started taunting us.
The first time Klara saw it properly she had just got back in from a stressful day at work. Phone clasped to ear, talking to me, still on my late shift at the hospital, keys in her other hand, satchel over her shoulder and a bag of groceries balanced under her arm. Once the door was open, instead of our conversation continuing I heard a thump and a scream.
‘Hello…? Hello, Klara … what is it?’
‘He’s just sitting there Marie, on the window sill in the kitchen, staring at me.’
‘You know, that bastard mouse.’
‘Where are you?’
‘In the hall. I dropped the shopping on the kitchen floor and I shut the door.’
‘Klara… You can’t leave the fresh groceries out for it to eat!’
Where it was getting in from we weren’t sure. The weekend before, we had trekked to the DIY store, then diligently blocked up all the gaps in the skirting with wire wool covered with filler. We also bought the recommended Pest Clear 2000TM from the internet and it was plugged in a making a high pitched whirr I was sure I could hear, but Klara said I was imagining.
‘You’d have to be a mouse to hear it, the instructions say. Or a guinea pig. Keep the device away from small animal pets, as it may cause discomfort, they say.’
The internet also tells us that the Pest Clear 2000TM is an ‘ultrasonic and electromagnetic pest repeller suitable for the control of a mouse, rat or rodent problem or infestation in an average sized house of UP TO 2000 sq. ft. It comes with two year warranty.’
Let me tell you – it doesn’t work. The Pest Clear 2000TM has been plugged in for a fortnight and that little bastard is still terrorising us.
This evening it’s been running round the lounge like it’s off its head. It’s surprising how scary something only a few inches nose-to-tail can be… Earlier on we heard a rustling in the hallway and it was just standing there, looking at us, saying ‘Come and get me if you dare.’ We didn’t dare. Then it vanished and only a few moments later the curtain started wobbling and the mouse was scaling it. The lounge is its playground and we, traumatised, look on with a mixture of disbelief and awe.
I’ve never seen a mouse behave like this before. Maybe a mouse has never behaved like this before. Normal mice keep themselves hidden, only creep out when there’s nobody about, but this one seems to crave human contact, though we humans don’t crave his contact. And it seems to be getting bigger … but maybe that’s just my mind playing tricks on me.
‘Klara, you are going to have to buy some poison.’
So now here we are, Halloween evening, huddled up in bed, hoping that there are no holes in the skirting board. We haven’t seen any evidence that it’s made its way into this room at least, although I saw a TV programme once that said they can flatten themselves as small as a coin. I hope the gap under the door is not that big…
‘Marie, I’m a vegan – I can’t poison … Him.’
Him. When she first noticed it, Klara insisted on giving it a nickname, she’s watched too much Disney, she named it Maurice, this is part of the reason I think that Klara does not want to kill the mouse. Subconsciously she’s given it an identity, a raison d’être, made it into a sort of non-pet pet, whereas to me, the creature is still vermin. I was bought up on a farm, I’m not a confirmed city-dweller like Klara, whose only experience of the harsh realities of the life and death of animals comes via the television.
I’m a country girl. I separate animals into things you eat, things that work for you, and things that are to be exterminated so that your harvest is not destroyed, so I do not buy into Klara’ relentless desire to anthropomorphize it. It makes me scream though, when I catch it out of the corner of my eye… So unbeknownst to my dear vegan, I have hidden some poison behind the refrigerator.
I’m not sure if I had finally dozed off, or was still awake, when I first heard it. A distinct scratching at the door. It wants to come in…
I shook Klara, but she wouldn’t wake up, snoring gently, just turned over and muttered in her sleep. The scratching continued. The hairs on my arms and the back of my neck were tingling. The scratching continued and still Klara did not wake up. Maybe it was just my imagination. I put my head under the pillow but all I could hear was my heart beating loud – thump – thump – thump and the scratch – scratch – scratch at the door. Scratch – scratch – scratch – thump – thump – thump – scratch – scratch – scratch – thump – thump – thump – scratch – scratch – scratch
Then, THUMP – THUMP – THUMP – at the door.
I sat bolt upright. Klara still snored. I shook her, but no response.
‘Klara … wake up.’
THUMP – THUMP – THUMP
As if compelled by something else, and not really wanting to do it, but having to do it, I wrap my cardigan around myself and leave the safe nest of duvet. I approach the door, arm trembling as I reach for the handle…
The hallway is full of a strange glowing light. Crouching in front of me, a furry grey shape about as big as a five-year old child. It looks up, its beady eyes shining dark in the ethereal light, its long teeth showing as it twists its evil face into a demented grin. And then it squeaks. A high pitched noise that could shatter china. But I find I understand what the monstrosity is saying.
‘Come with me.’
It swishes its tail as if to punctuate the sentence.
Swish. Full stop.
It straightens up and stands on its hind-legs, balanced by the long tail. (The tail has a pinkish tinge, the hair on it is sparse, I can see the skin beneath; grey-pink skin, leathery, cracked and flaking in places. I shudder. He grins.)
He holds out His paw – I glance back into the bedroom, my slumbering Klara murmurs in her sleep as if she is aware-yet-unaware of what is going on not a metre away from her head – I reach out, my hand shaking and I take the Mouse’s paw in my hand. And at the moment that I touch the cold, reptilian skin … I begin to shrink. My cardigan and slip fall in a heap around me on the floor. And I shrink and shrink and shrink until I am no larger than He is, and I can see that He has shrunk as well, and we are now the size of real mice. And I fall onto all fours and I see in front of my face, not hands with chipped red nail varnish, but two furry brown paws with little sharp claws, and I feel something dragging behind me and I turn to look and I look down a brown sleek body that is no longer wearing a hastily pulled on pink cardigan over a black satin slip, but is covered in coarse brown hair with a long thick tail at the end of it. I scream, but all that comes out is ‘SQUEAK’.
Act Two: I can hear an annoying high-pitched whistle, more a pulse that cuts into my brain, fills my head. It’s like when you have had a bit too much to drink at the moment before the room starts to spin and you vomit. The Mouse King turns around and his evil ratty little face looks at me. We are inside somewhere, it’s dark but I can see. I can see everything. There is a sort of phosphorescence lighting the way. I notice for the first time that the Mouse King is wearing a battered crown. He leads me through the dark passageway, all the time getting further and further away from the bedroom where Klara sleeps. I stop and look back the way we had come.
Does my love stir in her dreams? Does she sense what has become of me? Does she know that I am no longer in her world, but that I have somehow fallen into this shining, luminescent underworld? Will she reach out her hand and when it doesn’t feel me lying there, will she awake at my loss, or will she have forgotten me as if I had never lain there in her arms?
The Mouse King lashes at me with his rope-like tail and issues a squeak of command. I am to obey His every word. Or bad things will happen. But they have already, haven’t they?
We come to a large cavern. It must be under the building. I had no idea this space could be under our building. I find it hard to take in the beauty of the cavern after that long journey through the dark-not-dark. Here, in the enormous space, which reaches out forever, there are trees, rivers, pink flamingos, mountains, ducks and butterflies. The river is a flowing torrent of jewels. Rubies, diamonds, amethysts, haematites sparkling in the eerie light. Whenever anyone moves (for there are people … what appear to be people…) a shimmer of glowing butterflies takes off and fills the air with their dancing patterns. Is this paradise? Am I dead?
I strain my eyes to look at the people. They wear bright clothes and they are dancing. Then I see them properly for the first time; they are mice. Standing on their back legs in ballgowns and suits, dancing in joy to a strange music that has no source, it seems to come from the air. I notice the butterflies shimmer in time to the beat.
I want to stand and watch, but the Mouse King pushes me on.
We finally come to our destination. A palace. His palace. The walls are made from a glittering black stone, it looks cold and hard, like the glint in His eyes. We enter the palace and servants take me away into a dressing room, where I am bid to stand on my hind legs. It’s difficult but if I use my thick reptilian tail to balance me, I can do it. They dress me in a bright yellow lace ballgown and a purple robe, then they place a tiara on my head and lead me by the paw into a grand room where the Mouse King sits on a throne.
He is dressed now in a pair of burgundy velvet breeches and a matching waistcoat, he also wears a purple robe, but his is trimmed with a mangy white fur dotted with black bits. There is a smaller throne next to him and the disturbing thing is that nobody is seated on it. He has a toothpick in his mouth which he is chewing. (Not a human size one of course, a mouse size one, a mere splinter to me if I had been my usual size.) He holds out his paw to me and indicates that I am to sit there.
I want to be sick. I think of Klara lying in bed, snoring. I think of all the things we’ve done together and all the things we were going to do together, and how much fun it was going to be and how we were going to dance a magical dance listening to the sublime music of our life together…
My fur is wet with tears as I take my seat next to Him.
Then I am introduced to the court; mice of all sizes, shapes and colours, all dressed in what appeared from a distance to be finery, but on closer inspection are actually just tatters of old rags and paper. My ballgown, now that I give it a good look, seems to be made of yellow toilet paper and the purple cloak some sort of matted felt made of hairs and fluff. But never mind the sartorial non-elegance of the parade of rodents in front of me; what suddenly dawns on me, through the high-pitched whirr that is cutting my brain in half and the strange shimmering music that almost succeeds in drowning out the whirr but not quite, is that to each and every one of these rodents, I am introduced as Queen, and that each and every one of these vermin takes my paw and bows.
So I am His Queen. Like Persephone, I have been kidnapped and taken to the underworld. Like Persephone, I can only hope that I will be allowed to return to my home for half the year, but looking at the self-satisfied grin on the vile, furry face of my new husband I doubt that will happen.
Act Three: The party trundles on into the early hours. I am made to dance a couple of times with dignitaries but as I am finding it so hard to balance on two legs they take pity on me and let me stay seated. Instead they offer me up trays of crumbs and discarded grapes, with mildew growing over them. I do not eat, I remember Persephone. I think I will at some point have to eat though, as my little mousey stomach is rumbling, and I feel impelled to eat twice my weight in grains, and what harm could a few buttery crumbs from a shortbread biscuit do?
And then they are all gone. Dismissed. And He looks at me expectantly and begins to take off his breeches. I run on all fours to the other side of the throne room but he runs after me and grabs me by the tail. I’m trying to get away but He pulls me back towards him and tears off my ballgown skirt (which after all, is only made of yellow toilet paper) and then…
THUMP – THUMP – THUMP
The Mouse King looks startled and lets go of my tail, I scramble to stand. He looks around, but of course all the servants have gone in order to afford Him privacy whilst He takes His night time pleasures.
THUMP – THUMP – THUMP
The Mouse King gives a squeak of irritation and walks on all fours from the throne room, towards the palace’s grand entrance. I look around thinking desperately that there must be some way out of here, but there is not one window and the only door is the one the Mouse King stands in front of.
THUMP – THUMP – THUMP-CRASH!
On the last knock, the door shatters. A toy soldier wearing a red jacket and a bearskin and pointing a musket enters. One of those old fashioned wooden dolls with a head far too large for its body. The toy soldier salutes to me and grins. It looks like Klara. Now I know for sure that I must have somehow accidentally eaten some of the mouse poison I hid behind the fridge and I am either dead, or lying in bed, frothing at the mouth, hallucinating on my way to being dead, whilst Klara phones my colleagues at the hospital in panic.
The soldier approaches pointing his musket at the Mouse King. The Mouse King bounds towards his throne where He has a sword hanging from His breeches. But really, does He expect a sword to be any use against a musket? The soldier fires and the Mouse King falls back onto His throne, the red cloud barely visible, growing, spreading on his burgundy waistcoat. He squeaks at me desperately one last time and it’s over. The soldier comes towards me and picks me up in his arms. His eyes are the same as Klara’s, but how can he be Klara? He offers me a nut from his pocket which he cracks open in his huge mouth. I start to eat it, but then reflected in his shiny wooden bearskin I see my face, a pointy-rodenty-furry face and I am filled with an immeasurable sadness for what I have lost and I start crying. And I cry and my whole body starts shaking, and the soldier is shaking too and calling my name and he sounds just like Klara.
‘Marie, Marie, honey … wake up.’
‘You were crying in your sleep.’
A dream? But surely not. I hold my hand in front of my face and look at it and it is pink and the skin is soft and the nail varnish is chipped and dark red, but it is a human being’s hand. I turn to Klara and hug her and kiss her and snuggle into her. Then I notice that I’m not wearing the slip I was wearing when I went to bed. My skin gets goosebumps as I remember the eerie music from the realm below.
‘Klara, did I wake you up?’
‘I guess so. I was having the strangest dream … I’ve had it a few times. In it I’m under the house. But it’s not like you would expect… It’s a whole other place. Sort of glowing. And I’m not me. I’m a toy soldier…Weird huh? We shouldn’t have had that cheese before we went to bed.’
Klara smiles and strokes my hair.
Later that morning, whilst Klara is in the bath, I go to make a cuppa and am not surprised to find my clothes lying in the hallway. Whilst I wait for the kettle to boil, I put on rubber gloves and carefully throw the mouse poison into the bin, hiding it under a cabbage leaf. Thinking of my cardigan and slip lying in the hall, and of that awful squeal I heard in the other place, I leave the Pest Clear 2000TM plugged in, just in case.
But that mouse, and no others, come back. One day perhaps I will ask Klara about her dreams again. But today I’m just happy to be back and have two legs.