Aromatherapist, Aromatherapy, Bad Cat, Bath, Bathtime, Cats, Dead Mouse, Death, Doctor, Dream, Dreams, Duel, Duelling, Edinburgh, Edinburgh Bargain Stores, Humor, Mouse, Mousetrap, Sleep, The Meadows, Vodka
[“Musophobia” is one of the finest short stories on Tychy – “A hit, a palpable hit!” – and it can be read here. Ed]
My wife and I went to Edinburgh Bargain Stores last week to buy a mousetrap. Whenever, as a young man, I spied a little mouse scuttling around on the floor, I would idly extend a foot and grind it beneath my heel. Now they run rings around me.
If mice were the size of dogs, they would be universally renowned as the most disgusting animals on Earth. They will eat anything, ranging from the very walls of your home to even the less lively of their own children, but their defining mission as a species is to transform the baguette which you bought for your dinner or the wires behind your computer or chunks from your favourite book into vast sprinklings of shit. They shit at an extraordinary rate. And imagine if you visited a friend’s home, and found all of his shits from the last eight months lying around on the carpets and sofas and tables, whilst he sat munching away energetically at his dinner, completely oblivious to the smell. Well, such a scenario is quite commonplace amongst mice.
Luckily, at least for them, they are not the size of dogs, and this species has only survived the extinction which they richly deserve by swaying humans with the misleading impression that they are like dainty little clockwork toys, pattering nimbly about and tidying away stray crumbs.
I wish that I could say “enough of mice,” but unfortunately the rest of the story is devoted to them. An unspecified number of mice had had the run of our apartment for several weeks. One night my wife was making toast and the entire kitchen was suddenly filled with a pungent burning smell. Sure enough, when the toast was done and she peeped over the side of the toaster, a little charcoaled body was bobbing away inside. My wife’s mind was blown out like a candle and she collapsed in a heap. We had to throw the toaster away.
In the dead of night, I would be awakened by odd cracks and detonations at the foot of my bed. They were far too loud to be made by a mouse, but they could have only been a mouse. It eventually seemed that this mouse was keeping me like a dog on the end of a leash, and that he would not let me off to romp in the pastures of sleep, but he was always tugging me back. Incidentally, on the last evening of the toaster’s working life, I had not enjoyed a solid night’s sleep for four days running. The mouse had made a very persuasive case for its own death.
Edinburgh Bargain Stores is a marketplace of oriental extravagance, and the cheapness of the wares makes it the sort of shop where one nips in to buy a tube of toothpaste, and emerges a little later with three bags of shopping. They sell every conceivable kitchen utensil, as if the store was a scale model of a housewife’s subconscious, and some of the items – such as the sundae dishes, the three-tier cupcake stands, the porcelain ashtrays with little pictures of Edinburgh Castle, and the packets of Lemon Bon Bons – have surely sat on these shelves since the 1950s.
EBS characteristically sold a mousetrap to satisfy every housewife. There were mysterious black labyrinths which promised that they would hide the mouse’s body for those distressed by the sight of the destruction which they had wrought. To satisfy you that the mouse is dead, however, they should print out a little photograph with its agonised face pixillated. The most curious mouse traps are those made of glue. Presumably to keep on the right side of various laws, they warn the purchaser that the stuck mouse must be “disposed of quickly and humanely,” perhaps by pushing a pin through its brain. My wife and I bought a pair of spring jaws with a spot of syrup on its tongue.
This trap sat at the foot of my bed until it had acquired a perceptible coating of dust. For successive nights, the mouse seemed to gravitate around this trap and I would listen outraged as it rustled and bumped harmlessly up to and around the very spot where the trap had been placed. Perhaps the mouse regarded this trap as a remarkable new sculpture which had been erected in his neighbourhood, and he was admiring it from various distances.
I consulted with my wife about the mouse trap and we had one of those airy conversations in which we alluded to the mouse’s necessary death as if we were officials who had been appointed to execute the mouse for the good of society, and must do so without rancour or sentiment. My wife was very stoical, but in actuality she is terrified both of the mouse and of killing it. This is simply a dread of the mouse’s probing, ticklish physicality – the drumbeat of its advancing footsteps up her leg; its rank fur suddenly darting into her face like an awry rocket; the shock of having to peel its mangled body out of a trap; or, even worse, discovering it half dead and having to put it to death by hand.
My wife suggested that we could borrow a cat from somebody, because mice will freely abandon a household with any hint of a cat about it. I pointed out that whilst cats are usually the most sensible of animals, they become uncharacteristically crazy when killing mice. If the cat caught a mouse it would spend several hours torturing it to death, before finally strewing its internal organs all around our apartment. My wife gulped and reached about quickly for something to keep her steady.
We had unexpected plunged into a pit of desolation. Had the mouse won? Would mice gradually conquer the entire apartment and eat all of our furniture? We felt like clapped out pagan monarchs who were trying to suppress the invincible new God. Moreover, the mouse had invaded my head and pushed out all of its normal everyday contents, like a spiv who has purchased your family home. It now seemed that all I could think about was this wretched mouse.
A deep sleep will always subtly alter the world, so that one awakens regarding yesterday’s problems from a new distance, but the mouse’s triumph was that I could no longer sleep. I remained trapped in an old and unrefreshed mind from several days ago.
I invited my old acquaintance Dr. Stefan for a few glasses of vodka, and after politely waiting for him to finish with his own remarks, which amounted to a tirade that the country had gone to the dogs and now required a period of martial law to restore it to order, my trap sprung and we were suddenly discussing my insomnia. He was clearly grumpy that I had not booked a formal consultation, but behind his petulance I sensed a growing interest in my travails.
He asked me to conduct him to the bathroom, where he began to prepare an elaborate bath, fretting over its waters and producing packets of weeds and herbs from his messenger bag. The steam rose and a tremendous heat ripened like a flower in the room. Although always a very neat man, Dr. Stefan had rolled up the sleeves of his shirt into fat little knots like a child’s armbands. His face was red and shiny and he was gnashing his teeth, boiling away like his own mad bath in a private frenzy.
“Now undress,” he snapped.
A cold dismay fell across my body like a ray of light. I did not want to stand naked before this peculiar little man, with his keen flinty eyes and moist lips. Yet my mind seemed to roll like a whale in the heat and after a odd, intricate effort I was extracted from my clothes, grimly conscious of the great stale smell of my body.
Dr. Stefan dug his little paw into my forehead and he wheeled me around the bathroom like a pushchair. I snorted with protest as scalding water crashed against my legs, a tangle of stinking flowers and slime slopped up to claim my body, and then the bathwater rose after it to swallow me as wholly and inexorably as death. The world was blotted out. I only began to thrash with panic when Dr. Stefan’s paw held me firmly below the surface of the bathwater, and the water seemed to flood inside my head and race down to extinguish the deepest, tiniest spark of life in my brain. With a gasp, I expired.
I was lost for eternity. Then I was seated inside a baking sports car which stank of air freshener, whilst Dr. Stefan sat restless at the wheel, clucking impatiently to himself. It was early morning and the Meadows veered up to us, every blade of grass immaculate in the stark, fresh light. A young man waited for us in the shade of some elm trees. He helped us to back our car into a parking space, and when I had climbed out into the hot morning, Dr. Stefan introduced me to this youth, whom he described with a grimace which I think denoted irony as “Mickey.”
“Good morning, Mickey. How do you do?”
Mickey’s eyes flashed and he emitted a sort of hiccupped yelp. He was a slight young man who was not very pleasant to look at. He had blotched skin, thin stiff hair, and untidy flakes of beard and moustache colouring his jaw.
“And where is your second?” Dr. Stefan inquired.
Mickey gave another hiccup, like a bubble popping on his surface.
Dr. Stefan nodded to where a similar looking young man was peeping out from behind a nearby tree. “Somewhat irregular,” he observed.
I chose my blade and sliced open my thumb to test its sharpness. Mickey selected a rapier which looked as forlorn and dirty as himself.
I strode out into the open air of the Meadows to fight and Mickey padded after me. I immediately perceived that my opponent possessed no bravery or strength, but he managed to evade my strokes with a vigorous guile, darting backwards and almost tumbling over himself with extravagant cowardice. From the very beginning, he was retreating steadily.
Dr. Stefan was hectoring us and his voice had a disagreeable bleating quality which seemed to whip on the fight. “He frightened your wife. He ruined your toaster. He will not let you sleep. You cannot awaken to a world in which he is still alive. Finish him. Finish with him.”
I finally cornered Mickey against a tree and I slew him with a couple of brisk flecks of my rapier. The blade passed through his body with astonishing ease and he died blandly, offering up his death as one might give you a light. In death his jaws gaped open with a faintly embarrassing lack of composure, his body twitched as if wishing to settle for good in comfort, and a massive quantity of dried little shits emptied out beside him.
I was awakened by the alarm clock. I tore myself from my sheets and shot to the end of the bed. For the first time, the trap was shut. I picked it up, marvelling at the lightness of its contents, and when the jaws opened, with an inaudible fanfare, a little body was nestled inside, crushed.