The Mouse Question
GLASGOW. Tea time. The dog has sighted a bee. His ears are at alert. The bee is on the wrong side of the window at the bottom of the stairs. The dog shifts spontaneously into murder mode. Now (though normally sweet-natured) he is a self-hired hit-dog, a bee assassin. He is bigger than the bee, as mountains are to molehills. But the truth is that his implacable hatred of bees stems from cowardice and terror. He buffaloes himself at the window.
Heroically, I step in and save the bee. Meanwhile my wife's school-ma'am voice thunders from the table: "Wolf!!" it yells, "Stop that!! You wee, sleekit, cow'rin', tim'rous beastie, oh, what a panic's in thy breastie!" The dog looks hurt for a second and then sits aloofly on the stairs as if nothing has occurred.
The thing is, you can never be entirely sure what expressive phrase a Scottish person is going to come out with next - or at least that's my experience, being English but with this close-at-hand above-the-border connection. My wife seems to have an inborn fund of Scottish expressions, osmosed, I suspect, at her mother's knee. I know I haven't heard them all yet, because every 12 months or so a new one suddenly surfaces like a forgotten bubble from the ocean floor. What does that mean, I ask, amazed. And she, obligingly, dredges her folk-memory and translates for the resident foreigner.
Not that I am entirely the alien I might appear to be. I actually had a Scottish grandmother. I find it helpful at home to mention this fact as an aside in moments of underdogness, though I'm not sure I'm altogether believed. The problem is that although my grandmother's name was unquestionably "Burn" - surely Scottish - I never met the lady or learned anything at all about her, so I can't be totally convincing about her national allegiances.
All of which has stunningly little to do with "the mouse question."
No, well, perhaps, after all, it does have something to do with it. My Granny was a singular Burn, but much more common a name in Scotland is that very same one pluralized, which brings me to the great national poet, Robert Burns. He is as likely as anyone to be the source of suddenly surfacing Scottishisms or spontaneous bursts of Scottish verse at appropriately enthusiastic intervals - and it was he, indeed, who wrote "To a Mouse." (He also wrote "To a Haggis" and "To a Louse" but that's another story. )
To an Englishman, Burns is an experience. There's no use pretending he isn't hard to understand when he's in his Scottish mode. I have heard his poems recited for an hour by a true devotee down in the Borders without understanding more than 2 percent. Reading them yourself seems to me a little easier (better still with a glossary), and Burns definitely repays the effort. There is a particular kind of revelatory triumph involved in arriving at comprehension with Burns because his sentiments turn out to be
so sympathetic; they can even be exactly what you feel - but much better put.
Burns liked mice. Today we would say he was green in his approach to these small creatures. In "To a Mouse" he apologizes to her for startling her - on "turning her up in her nest with the plough, November 1785." He sees no harm in the "wee, sleekit, cow'rin', tim'rous beastie," and wishes he could explain to it that it need see no harm in him. "Thou need na start awa sae hasty/ Wi' bickering brattle!" he assures it. "I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,/ Wi' murdering pattle!" (A "pattle" is a plow st aff).
The second verse needs no interpretation:
I'm truly sorry man's
Has broken Nature's social
An' justifies that ill
Which makes thee
At me, thy poor,
An' fellow mortal!
Of course Burns was a countryman. What he thought of city mice I do not know. The Scot in our urban dwelling, however, assures me he was a complete gentleman, and loved all creatures of whatever class, and I have no reason to doubt it. So what would he have done about our mouse?
We have had our mouse all through the winter. We have been careful to block up the gap under the door to the unlived-in part of the basement to make sure he knows his place. Sometimes, however, he's got through and reconnoitered the kitchen.
Then one day he, as it were, came to a head.
I was in London. My wife was alone at home. She was watching TV in her study, which is at basement level, across from the kitchen. On the phone she sounded jittery. "There's a rat!" she said, the tele- phone wires trembling slightly.
"A rat? Where?"
"It ran from under the house into the kitchen. It's enormous, and dark."
"How did it get under the door?"
"I don't know."
"How long is it? Six inches?"
"At least - seven or eight - it's enormous."
"Is that from tip of nose to end of tail, or is it his main body that is seven or eight inches long?"
"Oh! I don't know!"
I did my best to calm my better half. However, I began to realize she was going to demand action vis-a-vis rodents.
And when I was home again, one evening the "rat" appeared outside her study door again. "There it is!!!"
Well - it was no rat. It was a mouse of customary "wee" build. It had a peek in the dog's bowl and then trotted over to investigate behind the kitchen sink.
"You know they really can't hurt you," I said. Later when I told friends about the 2 1/2 inch "rat," she said it must have seemed bigger because it went so fast: stretched out like a racing car. Terror can certainly play cruel tricks.
However our mouse continued to stage guest appearances from the wings.
It should be explained at this point that I have a strange distaste for killing animals. The conventional mouse trap was not to be considered. Various ruses were tried to woo our "beastie" into the outdoors, including leaving the garage doors ajar with a pile of peanuts strategically placed outside it. The theory was that after a suitable time I would suddenly shut the doors and the mouse would be astounded to find himself locked out. The peanuts disappeared quickly enough, the door was closed, but the m ouse was still inside a day or so later. Telltale rustling could be heard under a pile of wood in the garage, and the dog snuffed around excitedly but aimlessly.
Then one day I found in the bin under the house containing peanuts (part of our ducks' luxury fare) our mouse, happily munching on the mountain of nuts. He must have done a flying-trapeze act to get into the bin. To get out would have been impossible. In the meantime he was not exactly facing starvation. I arrested him politely, asked if he would mind spending a few moments in a slippery-sided plastic cereal box left nearby, while I escorted him to the grassy area over the back-garden wall. In his nouris hed state he raised no apparent objection, and I launched him into his new career as a country mouse minutes later.
But we still had a mouse under the house.
"It looks," said I profoundly, "as if we have had two mice. And one is left." I was not certain how to proceed.
Then one day we wandered into a pet-and-garden shop in town, looking for a new dog-collar. On a shelf was a large container displaying pet mice for sale. Pet mice. The assistant was just behind us. I said, "Do you know of any way of catching unwanted mice without harming them?" And she produced a small transparent plastic affair and said "Like this?"
She hadn't any for sale, but we tracked one down of the same ingenious design. The mouse enters it with a view to the meal placed at the far end of this rectangular tunnel. As it approaches the meal it steps on a small bar which releases the little door at the entrance. Once this door is down, the mouse cannot escape, but is perfectly safe and undamaged within.
I tried it with cheese first of all. The mouse went in, stepped over the bar without touching it, ate the cheese, turned round, stepped daintily over the bar again and went on his rounds. Next time the door fell down - but before the mouse had entered at all.
The third time I put peanuts in and when I went to look later, the mouse was inside and the door was shut. "You and I," I said, as he beady-eyed me, "are going for a short journey."
In the long grass over the wall, he leapt for safety and vanished. I didn't even have time to quote Burns to him.
Mouse problem solved! But just in case he was a wall-climber of the heroic sort with suction pads on his toes, I peanutted the "trip-trap" once more.
In the morning there he was in it again. After a closer inspection, I was sure it was not he, but a different mouse. This one's expression wasn't the same. His good wife perhaps? So I let her go where he had been freed, and deposited a small pile of peanuts in the grass for the both of them just to keep them going while they adjusted to their new life: a sort of golden handshake, a retirement present.
And I put the bated trap ready again, with its door poised in the open position.
The mouse it caught this time was smaller and browner. Definitely. I thought that since he was obviously not a close relation he might like to seek new pastures further afield. And so began a new routine... .
With the dog's lead in one hand, and the mouse's mobile home in the other, I descend Sherbrooke Avenue and turn left down the lane to a nearby wild area, its summer grasses tall and wet with dew. Beneath an immature grove of silver birch, I open the door and the morning's mouse creeps or scoots or belts out to freedom and outdoor living.
To date, as I write, I have carried a total of 30 "fellow-mortal" mice to this distant habitat. Friends are skeptical. One believes it's all one mouse, following me back up the hill each day. She believes the local mice know me as "the peanut man." Another acquaintance thinks I'm merely making the mice vulnerable to "passing kestrels," thus substituting one fate for another.
But I think I'm just following in my Scottish grandmother's favorite poet's footsteps, and wishing no hurt to either one or a dozen small characters who have truly done me no hurt in the least. I'm sorry of course to be upsetting anyone's settled domestic arrangements ... but, as they say, "The best-laid schemes o' mice and men/ Gang aft a-gley."