Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Year of the Mouse, Pt. 3.

The Purrfect Solution.

You've seen that movie with Lee Evans in, Mousehunt, and had a chuckle at all the anguished bungling and ruined lives, for the love of one little mouse. It seems a far-fetched caper, even for Hollywood. But while Lee was only hamming it up and walked away with a zillion quid for his trouble, I'm left here, gurning with genuine rage, agonising over new schemes to get shut of the pest.

First, though, some intelligence gathering. The first clue for the mouse file comes unexpectedly, while my cousin and I are nattering over coffee in the garden one afternoon.

"There's your mouse," he says, cocking his head to the shed.

"What? Where?"

"Just came through that bit of offcut pipe, past your strawberries and slipped under the decking."

In fairness a small foal could get in there.
It is my second inkling of the kind of gaps these critters can get through. The radiator seems like a conservatory by comparison. The slit between wall and decking is little thicker than a playing card.

"Under there?" I say, aghast.

"Yup. They can flatten their spines into their stomachs. Probably got their own underground world down there."

"I think it's just the one," I say unconvincingly. And ripping up thirty square metres of decking isn't my idea of fun, so the wife isn't going to hear about this one. I always assumed mousey lived exclusively indoors, but the fact he can come and go at will makes me think about his tradesman's entrance, and I eye the overflow pipe and dishwasher outlet warily.

Days later I buttonhole the next-door neighbour, advising her to look out for critters. She hasn't been in the property long and lives on her own, but it seems she has already had the standard rodent welcome.

"Had to take the settee apart," she says, with a shudder. "It was living inside."

"That sounds familiar," I say, and go on to describe various highlights of mousey's year-long stay, including the bedcovers scream from the wife that Sunday, which doesn't go down too well. She cringes visibly, turning paler still. "I can't bear hearing it scratching everywhere. There's traps and poison down now, that should do it, right?"

"Err, yeah. Good luck with it," I mutter, thinking of our own collection of vermin lures that remain fossilised with peanut butter and rust.

From the increasingly neurotic conversation comes a further clue. Her new neighbours the other side asked if she'd seen 'all the field mice yet' and she laughed at the time, wondering if it was some colloquial joke. But, thinking about it, there's an old shed in their garden, she says. A perfect breeding ground, untouched for long periods and set into the soil. Their house had been empty for many months before the sale, and even now they only occupy it for four months of the year, living in Cyprus the rest.

Did you see something just move?
This new update explains some dimensional anomalies I was perhaps in denial about. The first mouse, who interrupted my morning ablutions was scraggy and dark brown in colour. The one in the radiator was smaller, sleeker and of an, erm, mousier colour. Another time, watching it clump up the stairs from my desk, I thought it had bigger ears. The shed theory makes one thing sickeningly clear. It is not just one mouse we are dealing with, but a succession of clones, each more cunning than the last. It is from their rickety community residence that they plot to take over the world; a chilling conspiracy to sizzle the brisket of any Englishman and awaken, finally, a touch of Blighty spirit. This whiskery Third Reich grew in my imagination, jackbooting its way in columns down the Champs-Elysee of the potting shed, through the Arc de Triomphe of our front doors, looking for something to gnaw on.

Not on my watch.

"They probably have a weekly lottery to see who gets the presidential suite and vol-au-vents," I joke, trying to make light of it through narrowed eyes. "By which I mean there's only ever one. Considerate, in a way."

"Sneaky shits," she shudders, and sneaks gingerly into her empty house, clearly wishing she could shoot the messenger too.

So I may have the diplomatic nous of Prince Philip on ketamine, but it's clear now. The combination of their shed and my decking makes for a flourishing population, where six lucky ticket holders each week get to check into the Dorchester of their choice from the half-dozen houses connecting their garden stronghold.

There's only one place to go from here, and it rhymes with Datsun Cogs Gnome.

Carole wants him cute and fluffy, but I want him mean. A combination of all three would be ideal, and by a stroke of serendipity, there he is. Black as night, disembowelling a twig on his cage floor.

"Look at him, he's a killer."

"He's not! Just a kitten. Aww, how cute!"

So our new saviour mews skittishly from his box on the passenger seat, a twelve-week old ball of fur, unaware that he is about to enter a life of hunting Nirvana, as well as an inordinate amount of injections, pampering and fake, catnip-filled mice to practice on.

"What shall we call this beautiful boy?" asks Carole.

"Churchill," I declare, pursing out a puggish frown. "For he will bite them on the feetses."

It was clearly one of those rhetorical questions women ask before they tell you. "I used to have a Gizmo before, We're calling him that."

Of course it's early days, but while the scratches heal on my hands and our curtains hang in shredded strips, things are certainly looking up for a winter clearout. Progress below in the form of a training video.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Year of the Mouse, Pt. 2.

Of course we put traps down, humane ones at first; three of them, laden with peanut butter. They go for that, apparently, the cheese thing is a wives' tale. Except he didn't care for it, nor the salt beef, nor the flakes of cod. The locations of the traps changed, under the sofa, behind the surround sound, in the gap between armoire and desk, but the hippy snares always came up empty. He wasn't daft, the whole house was a larder of luxuries. Crackers, crumbs of chocolate, Cheesy Wotsits. Real, killing, neck-crunching traps had the same effect, i.e. none.

During this time of occasional scares and fleeting visits, our luck changed. The stultifying job that paid the bills disappeared in a sink-hole of recession, the sort where companies merge and the least paid and most compliant replace their polar opposites for double the workload and a salary freeze. I pity the fool who took mine, and this without any trace of rancour, I assure you. We got creative and set up a business. Our lives changed. I went back to Uni, we took up golf. Things got good and I, thirty years a corporate wage-slave, didn't have to worry about the rat race any more. The mouse race, however, carried on unabated, all through the winter and into spring. We graduated to poison, little blue pellets of wheat, strategically placed where we knew he went. All beautifully ignored.

The more we succeeded as entrepreneurs, the more I failed as great white hunter. The wife's patience reached its nadir with a bedcovers sortie one Sunday morning while she was enjoying a bacon sarnie and catching up on the soaps. Three streets away, an old veteran heard the shriek and woke from dreams of the trenches, shivering.

"It ran straight over me," she squealed. "This, is beyond a joke."

He was still in the bedroom, somewhere. We lifted the bed to the wall and he scurried out, looking for a bolt-hole. There is nowhere to go though, because I've blocked up every visible orifice that doesn't have a lifeform attached to it. My nails have a permanent coat of Polyfilla. And at last, we have him. This time I go for the mop myself, finding a more convenient weapon in the process, an extension pipe from the hoover. The last place to hide in the denuded room is a small bedside table. We lift it, triumphant. I wait, panting, for him to spill out, the steel pipe poised above my head. My son opens the door to see what the fuss is about and a brown blur shoots out at escape velocity with me at his heels, cursing and clubbing blindly at the carpet. Into the bathroom he scoots, behind the tiniest gap in the bath panel he slips. Damn!

"You should have brought the whole hoover," Carole advises, unhelpfully. "Sucked the little shit up."

"This luck of ours, maybe it's the mouse," I say. "A talisman. He's been with us through thick and thin. It might not be fate to catch him. He's symbolic."

Of all the stupid things to come out with, and the wife's opinion rightly differs. "Symbolic? Some bollocks you talk."

It wasn't a discussion to dwell on, I realised, because I could tell that before too long the neighbours would hear it.

And so came August. Temperatures and redundancies rose, shares fell. Indoors, my mouse-catching had devolved to the half-hearted hefting of tv remotes as he frolicked in the car park of his own private drive thru under the table, waiting for service. Occasionally he would disappear, sometimes for weeks on end and we'd heave a sigh, too scared to mention him by name in case he took it as a roll-call.

Just for a few nights. Till the welfare cheque clears. Honest.
"Have you seen 'you-know-who' lately?"

"No, thank God."

"They have to mate sometime," I say, putting an even bigger foot in it than usual. "Makes sense."

"Oh, so he's coming back with the wife and kids then?"

"Might be even luckier for us, babe," I continue, still sawing at the branch I'm sitting on. "We might win the lottery!"

"It'll pay for the Black Death then, and the lawsuits from the council."

Black Death is rats. I think about correcting her, but it really is time. Time for me to shut up and curb this critter's plaguing of us. He's back, of course, but I think I finally have a plan.

To be continued (with video)...

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Year of the Mouse, Pt. 1.

Checking the diary, it's been almost a year since, sitting on the toilet at five am, I first saw the mouse. In it saunters, almost past the point of my slippers, looks up at me, does a sort of double-take then skitters back the way it came, under the door. I can still hear its little claws on the lino, scrabbling for traction and was minded of that mid-air run Scooby and Shaggy sometimes do when running from a ghost. I can also remember looking up from the book I was reading and thinking, "Hmm, very big spider or very small mouse?"

And, on balance, being marginally glad it was the latter.

Balls to this harvesting lark.
I took a moment to get over the shock and then, since it was unlikely to be offering squeaks of "fair cop, guv" on the other side of the door, thought about how to get rid of him. It was October, the chill was starting to bite and the fields behind us offered nothing to compare with central heating and the odd discarded bra to nest in. I could perfectly understand mousey's reasoning and thought about explaining that to the wife when she woke up. I decided against it. Women can't always appreciate the foibles of nature, they're just as likely to turn paranoid and club at random shadows with mops. Nobody wants that, especially during Match of the Day.

So, what then? A brief flashback revealed my mum, her own mop bristling with carbolic as she rendered the house uninhabitable for man and beast alike. Domestic overkill was her generation's answer to everything and I smiled, remembering how we thought our nasal hair would never grow back and our lungs would forever wheeze with the croaky rattle of Phosgene survivors.

No scattergun approach then, and besides, those chemicals have long since been banned. A waiting game sounded more sensible (and a lot less labour-intensive). After all, he might quietly slip away into the night now he knew we lived here, like a conscientious squatter. "Sorry man, my bad. I've left the seat down and a quid in the gas meter."

And if not? I closed the book and washed my hands, muttering. "It's just a wee mouse. Shouldn't be too hard to catch, when the time comes."

How terribly naive I was.

Now peripheral vision is a funny thing. This gift of human evolution must have been great for snagging bats off cave walls to roast, or spotting the blade of grass a sabre-tooth just moved. Today though? Well, it's just a bit of a pisser isn't it? There are some things you'd rather not see, if it means having to conduct a mouse-hunt every time he catches the corner of someone's eye.

Three months on. A typical scene. We are watching tv and there's movement from the through-lounge carpet. Under the dining table, a piece of sweetcorn from dinner is about to be claimed. He is less discreet now, his appearances more regular and brazen. We merely gape for a moment, fascinated at his audacity and at how plump he's become.

"He's like a tiny hoover," my daughter giggles, as he scoots under the sideboard.

"Except there's no bag for the doings," I remind her, and croon, menacingly: "Little pellets in your clothing, little pellets in your hair..."

It is a costly song and the shrill unison of 'ewws!' from wife and daughter alike spell doom for the singer. A tolerance, borne of cuteness and fellow-feeling has been thoughtlessly shattered. I am an idiot.

"Don't worry," I bluster, "Where's he gonna go? Everything's open plan. They like nooks and crannies, holes in skirting boards. He's pushed it too far."

"Don't hurt him!" the daughter relents, "even if he does poo he's still sweet."

Except he had somehow vanished, leaving us to scratch our heads. Later, we found he had a trick of slipping inside the middle of the double radiator. The third time he did it, Carole spotted his tail hanging down between the impossible gap and the skirting board. "Well I'll be!"

I opened the patio door, just a foot away from his spot. "I'm giving you every chance to leave quietly," I said. "Before it gets ugly."

But he's safe within an impregnable fortress of steel. The only thing I can do is tug his tail, and he's either going to detach it (they can do that, apparently) or sink needle teeth into the webbing of my thumb and forefinger. Carole, less gingerly and more angrily, approaches with the mop.

"There's nothing you can do," I say. "He's in his ivory tower."

"Get out of my way," she snarls, and begins whacking the radiator with gusto. "I might not be able to get at the little f***er, but I can certainly ring his bell!"

Put the freshness back. And buy a shotgun.
This is typical of his endless inventiveness and in the months that blossom into summer, months where it is WARM outside and things to eat are PLENTIFUL, we go on to discover the new sanctuary he creates inside the frame of the sofa. There's a further embellishment though, he has tunnelled up underneath the far cushion, the one where crumbs from peanuts and pretzels fall while snackers watch telly. I lift the cushion one day to hoover and there's a nest of offcut paper, a million droppings and a puckered hole in the lining above the springs. A light goes on and my mother's face appears above folded arms and beneath a knotted headscarf, beaming from ear to ear with I-told-you-so. I coat the entire sofa in the strongest chemical nanny-state Britain permits: Shake N Vac. Then I ask Carole to look for something more potent on eBay, from Russia maybe. Army surplus.

Tomorrow - Part Two - Of Mice and Men.

Sunday, 3 October 2010


We took the Pendolino from Manchester to Euston recently. There was a problem with our train. It was a fine train in many respects, very space-age, with its aircraft-style features, and the quaint rotato-toilet that has the alarm conveniently alongside the open/close door button, so a reliable succession of idiots (like me) can set it off and blame it on being 'jogged' at a crucial moment.

Scoff a Ginster's in style. Or not.

We couldn't go as fast as it is possible to go, nor would the 'active lateral pneumatic suspension' work properly because, the announcer explained, the track was made of nineteenth-century wax, or something. A bit like putting the cart before the racehorse, I thought, but didn't say anything.

It'd been a long time before that since I went on a train, and I noticed that the problem was still there. The same one as before. It's the same problem they'd have if they decided to make buses into hover-coaches. They could put the finest minds of science into it, make them stylish, and functional, and fill them with modern gadgets, like, oh I don't know - a sauna and an eyebrow press. But - and here's the problem - there'd still be the same people on them. You're not suddenly going to get a more discerning class of passenger just because you polished up the ride. Mr 8-litre Ranchero is not going to renounce fingerprint engine starts and sprint for the nearest bus-stop, yelling, "Eyebrow press, y'say? Lead on, Carruthers...!"

No, some things you just can't change, unfortunately, and that was the real problem with our train. It was as if these people had never been away. I can only assume that they are, in fact, career misfits, graduates of a school specially designated for the job. Most notable among them was mister 'Still-pissed-wrong-stop-student.' two seats in front. Mr. Still-Pissed should have got off at Tottenham many hours ago, but needless to say, didn't. Now, he's telling anyone who will listen how much that return ticket cost and why it is such a travesty. What comes across clearly, as he relays this to the third unfortunate listener on the other end of his mobile phone, is the outrage and disbelief at the fish-eyed grunts at Piccadilly, who refused to let him come back for free.

"I mean, right, I facking fell asleep, yeah - fair enough. But then these caants've got the facking nerve to charge me 'aandred and firty-four quid to get back! 'aaandred and fackin' firty-four facking quid!! En I'm a stoodent, en ai?"

So, straight away, it's nine-thirty in the morning and we are already a captive audience to this foul-mouthed cockney melodrama. Speaking of gobby southerners, I remember that I happen to have one at the side of me, whom I married partly for this express purpose.

"Deal with your kinsman," I think about commanding, but she has already foreclosed on the notion by giving him a lecture in his own tongue. I don't know exactly what was said, it was all a bit diphthonged and lairy-larynxed, but I did manage to catch 'ere do you moind?' and 'I've got children 'ere.."

Cor blimey Maori Pawpins!

There was only ever going to be one outcome from this altercation, and in due course the oik stumbled off to annoy a different carriage, mouthing the word 'bollocks' behind him.

"I don't want to know what's keepin' yer ears apart," Carole snaps after him, and in the lightened atmosphere of laughter and applause (all implied rather than physical, of course, in the English way) I remember why I love my wife so much.

I then made the mistake of believing that the next two to three hours would be filled with a peaceful silence. What I should have been prepared for, were I a more seasoned train traveller, was the inevitable white noise that would magically take up the slack and fill this void, from the many, many other annoying dysfunctionals aboard.

And that's what's really wrong with trains. All this money spent on making things that don't work in areas that can't support them would have been a lot better employed in other areas, namely - acoustics.

Imagine being sealed in a opaque, hermetic, sound-proofed bubble for the duration of your journey, with just a little rubber-gloved inlet so that the ticket master can check your ticket, or dispense a small thimble of absinthe for the children.

Now that would be progress.