The planned holiday is cancelled; a Spanish island, floral decorations on the bed. Birdsong, the whispering of the sea and the sounds of sun-inspired universal movement are replaced by those of a scurrying mouse.
It probably came in through a pipe in some secret corner. Outside is a parody of spring. The cold creeps through the walls, everyone wants some warmth.
Climbing into a plastic waste bag, the mouse eagerly licks the remnants of sour cream and tucks in to the millimetres of greenery left in the corners of wild rocket boxes.
The presence of the mouse feels cosy; it’s nice to hear another creature scratching around, to know that it’s sated and warm, that I’m useful to someone, generous, and – not alone. I try to remember all those songs full of diminutives about the little grey mouse, about how quick and clever she is, but I don’t. Only something about a ring that sparkles somewhere over there* . . .
Lying in my bed in my flowery cotton Spain, I mutter something, and my muttering, like a dust ball, travels along the floor toward the kitchen, and I feel that the mouse must have picked up my sleepiness signal through the antennae at the end of its whiskers. The melatonin – I sometimes take it to give myself a deeper sleep – conquers my gnarled thoughts and I sink into a swooning ocean and can feel shrimps biting my toes. Water swallows, pink water scissors. They cut off a little piece for me, only I don’t know of what.*
‘How’s it going?’
‘It’s Friday night.’
‘But how are you doing?’
‘But what what what is hardest for you?’
‘I like to take on all sorts of things, but then I can’t do them fast enough. I’m alone until about midnight, or for the rest of my life.’ ‘But it’s Friday night!’
‘I’ll read a book. Every night is the same for me.’ ‘Well, there it is, life, and then it’s over.’
‘Now who’s biting me?’
‘The pink scissors are biting you.’
‘So then why bother shaving my legs?’
‘They’re neither Spaniards nor Italians. Kind of strange . . . maybe Portuguese?’
‘You’re talking about shaving because it’s Friday?’
‘They’re neither Spaniards nor Italians. Kind of strange . . . maybe Portuguese?’ ‘Now who’s biting me?’
‘The pink scissors are biting you.’
I wake up wondering about the Portuguese, smooth legs, scissors and Friday; it’s now the second week that I can’t distinguish the days of the week and don’t go anywhere, so there’s no point in shaving my legs. What a strange dream. Are mice monogamous? Probably not – only swans are so noble. Drinking coffee on an empty stomach makes me acidic; I guess there’s no pleasure that doesn’t come with side effects.
I walk on my hairy legs toward the kitchen. Then an unpleasant surprise: little teeth have taken a bite out of an apple. Next to the coffee – black droppings and the prints of dirty little feet. And a bad smell. I feel disgusted, my head spins with the names of communicable diseases. At least this whole mousy drama is happening at this strange time: my home is filled with disinfectant solutions, so I’m thoroughly protected. I pick up my phone and look for poison and trap services. But then thinking like this seems excessively brutal, so I send out some messages to cat-owning friends. A kitty might scare away my unwanted roommate, or would have fun hunting it down, playing its predatory role in the ecosystem cycle, so my hands could remain clean. The Portuguese lan- guage sounds like melodious lisping. I visited Lisbon a few years ago.
Only one colleague replies: her cat is still young and silly, he would just make a mess of my place and the mice would rather hunt him, rather than the other way round. She suggests I come over, when the quarantine is lifted, she invites me to visit for some cat-cuddling (when asking about mousers, I had hinted at a lack of tactile tenderness). In another message she writes that she could lend me her cat to look after, since soon there’ll be a need for this: in fact, her family was planning to visit a cottage in the country the very next weekend. It sounds insensitive. I don’t want to be in a happy family’s service. My mood gets even worse and I just hope that some coffee will lift it.
I realise from the sounds that the mouse has jumped back again into the garbage can and is once again rummaging through the waste. That’s quite brazen behaviour: it’s still morning after all, a time when all decent rodents are still hiding, snoozing, or digesting last night’s feast. I open the cupboard door with a sudden motion and tie up the bag. The mouse is kicking about in the trash. A second later the kicking has stopped, it’s pretending to be invisible, nonexistent. I throw a coat over my pyjamas and slip into some shoes. I don’t know how to get a mouse out of a bag. I place the black package under my neighbour’s balcony and leave it untied. I look around to check if anyone can see me. (It’s a quarantine morning: there’s not a soul around, the cars stand abandoned in the rain. Everyone is at home, in their night clothes, working online.) I don’t like to leave trash around, but my motivation is noble: I am trying to resolve the mouse issue in a humane way, I have just granted the wee creature its life. I feel somehow uplifted, I imagine that my karma has improved. A crazy thought even crosses my mind: from this moment on, my personal life is going to start to improve.
“I am not here for something stupid like sex, money or citizenship. I read your profile as clearly as I can and I respect it all. I hope you can read my profile before responding to me. I know I might sound a bit weird, but I came across your profile and I have to admit that it was too hard to take my eyes off of you! You are truly a fabulous, glamorous, gorgeous and beautiful angel.”
Gaurav 37, Delhi, India
“Hey, what are you up to :)?” Mindaugas 29, Vilnius, Lithuania
“A bit of 3D, some music, ice hockey and the rest for you to findout…”
Epicurus 42, Hammarland, Finland
“I want to know your hot and funny side.” Ozgiur 31, Ankara, Turkey
“Hello there again. I love your attitude, sounds very refreshing and honest. I also love Bergman, I think his language is so special. Our match rate is high, would be pleased to hear from you and explore our connection . . .”
Don Juan 34, Mexico, Mexico
I dampen a sponge with some vinegar and clean up the mouse turds. I throw all the apples out of the fruit bowl, rinse it with boiling water, rub it with lemon peel, wash it with dish soap and spray it with rubbing alcohol. There’s a bad smell coming from the oven. It must have shat inside it, somewhere between the electrical parts. Armed with chemicals and rags, I get into the oven. Or could I be imagining that smell?
I eat broccoli and bread for breakfast, that will make me feel more alert. I send a few girlfriends a message about the mouse and my nobleness. My mood is a bit better, I might even be able to get some work done.
“Hi, i.e., good morning, Don Juan, thanks for your message. Happy to meet someone who likes Bergman. What is the time now in your latitude? What about Donald’s wall, is it being erected? Or has COVID stopped it? P.S. BTW: Which of Ingmar’s films do you like best?”
“Hello, why do you think that money, citizenship and sex are stupid? I’m not an angel; I’m an eel.”
“Hello Epicurus, what a quirky combo, your name and the country you’re from! Your profile sounds intriguing. I love 3D printers and ice hockey. Greetings from Vilnius!”
I lie in my cotton flower garden, it’s only 9pm. I try to remember what I did today.
Thyme tea, coffee, cherry cake . . . I made vegetable soup for lunch, mixed in some frozen dill, it was good; I aired the house, the draught blew some old theatre tickets off the table, but didn’t in any way reduce the stench coming from the oven; I scrubbed it with baking soda and vinegar, “Fairy” liquid, fumigated the flat, burned matches, applied some French eau de toilette, what else can I do, my head is throbbing from all these competing smells . . . When this isolation finally ends, I’ll go to a Russian church and ask the priest for some liturgical incense, for an exorcism of the smell… What else? I tried to work, Epicurus wrote back, I blocked Ozgiur, chatted up a comics artist called Daniel from Los Angeles, he hasn’t replied yet, I gave myself a manicure, filled out an application for a busi- ness licence, clipped my toenails, shook out the vacuum cleaner bag . . . Quite an intense day, I feel tired. Oh, and I listened to a programme about Aristotle on BBC radio: a Greek academic discussed Aristotle’s ideas about biology. Aristotle thought that an animal’s gender is determined by temperature: a doe that becomes pregnant in warmer weather will bear male offspring, but if a turtle lays her eggs in the shade, it will result in a hundred female baby turtles. It sounds sexist, the old song about the yin-yang or hot-cold oppositions. But I like the ideas about stars as autonomous creatures. I get another message from Epicurus, who seems like an interesting guy: he’s an architect, half-Finnish, half Greek. Our compatibility is 89 per cent. I look through the questions he’s answered: he too is looking for a long-term partnership, likes trips into the wild, he wouldn’t jump into bed on the first date, he smokes occasionally, doesn’t celebrate Halloween, is careful with money, has had relationships that have lasted longer than 12 months, has travelled on his own; sounds pretty good, except for his answer to the spider question – “Would kill it”. “What would you do if you found a spider in your bedroom?” Of course, I would pick it up and escort it, apologizing, through the window. Or I would simply leave it – leave it alone, let it live. But kill it? . . . Maybe he put a tick in the wrong place? Based on his photos he seems like a pleasant person. He dated a Russian woman for five years. Maybe he thinks I’m Russian too? I’ll tell him about the mouse, let’s see how he reacts: it’ll be a good trick, a way to test my fellow architect’s relationship with wildlife and arachnids . . . I’m crashing out. I’m not even thinking about the missed flight to Spain, I won’t agonise about it, my body just craves cotton flowerbeds, and thoughts about stars – those relatives of deer and turtles – are pleasantly calming and somewhat amuse me.
Something rattles in the kitchen and interrupts my sinking swoon. I prick up my ears: knocking mixed with rustling. Mousey is back! My brain is flooded with adrenaline. I cannot tolerate this audacity. I stand by the cup- board: behind its door, in the garbage bag, a solo orgy is taking place, so it’s clear that my presence doesn’t frighten the rodent.
And the stench coming from the oven, the cupboard’s neighbour, reminds me of Mousey’s ingratitude. With a swift movement I grab the plastic bag and tie it up. I lock myself in the bathroom; if that wretch should use her teeth and gnaw through the bag, there would be nowhere for her to escape, there are no cavities anywhere around. I grab a hairbrush that’s lying on the washing machine (it’s wooden with eco-bristles, bought in Germany before all this pandemic) – it’s light but strong enough to give a blow. I feel the bag with my fingers and, having found the round, warm little mound, I smash it with all my might. Maybe eleven times.
I can sense my mouth twisting with fury. I step back from the bag and wait. It’s quiet, there’s no wriggling. I clean the hairbrush with hand sanitizer. Tomorrow I’ll burn some more incense – the ritual might ennoble this violent death. I leave the bag in the bathroom, close the door and return to my cotton Spain. A daft thought about Epicurus crosses my mind: our compatibility rating has just gone up.
I fall asleep instantly.
* The passage is based on the theme of a popular Lithuanian song about swallows, the living scissors of the sky.
* “Mouse, mouse, with whom is the ring sparkling?” was a popular children’s game before the internet era, in which a ring was hidden in the palm of the hand.
Excerpt from Roses and Potatoes
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