2006: The mega-bus sits in front of us, waiting. I shoulder my bag, my brother, Alistair, at my side. Hours of Alistair’s car sickness, my boredom, and our freedom await us. The road ahead is long, the longest we’ve travelled without our parents. We’re going to visit our sister, Fiona, who lives in a little cottage in Nethy Bridge. With a population of just over 500, it isn’t the biggest of places. It’s a snow-centred, ski-loving, cold, wet village. Fiona works as the head cook at an outdoor centre in the area, and the cottage is part of her salary. Typical of houses that are part of a salary, it’s not in the best condition. It is deceptively small, with high ceilings that hide the lack of room, mouldy areas, draughts that give you frostbite and spiders galore, but Alistair and I are excited to visit because we’re going on our own. There are two things I will learn from this trip: firstly, peppermint creams are difficult to make; and secondly, mice are not allowed indoors.
As I enter the little cottage after our tortuous journey, the smell of peppermint is a wave of powerful scent that renders me unable to smell much else for days. It’s the pleasant, yet strong, result of a peppermint cream recipe gone wrong. It’s the type of smell that’s so evocative of a certain place or time that when smelt in the future I imagine I’ll immediately be lost in a daze of memories. It surrounds the holiday in a Christmas-like feeling of warmth and good will.
Mice are also a feature in this holiday. Like a sort of comical pantomime villain, they lurk in the shadows and only come out when our backs are turned. The only experience I have of them before now is seeing them in a cage at the pet shop, or hiding behind the unused sun bed in the garden. I know very little about them, other than that they are very small, very cute and that I’m not allowed one for a pet. Biologically, mice are an important part of the food chain in that they hunt and are hunted. While pet mice eat mainly seed (and cheese), in the wild they eat insects like worms and snails. They are eaten by snakes, owls, birds of prey. But somewhere in that process of surviving side by side, their lives and ours cross over.
I’m lying on my front on the couch with my legs bent in the air, playing with the frays on the mud-brown carpet below. The cold sinks into the cushions. It’s a constant presence, the chill: the house has a distinctive coldness about it in the way some houses have a distinctive smell. As my siblings attempt a half-hearted game of cards, my eyes focus on the little black dots on the carpet. ‘Fiona,’ I ask with a childhood curiosity that would be considered rude in any self-respecting adult, ‘What are those?’
She explains that they are mouse droppings, and that a result of living in the countryside is that mice are bound to pop up in every household in Nethy Bridge once or twice. The village’s history is centred in the forestry industry. That is, it was, until other areas brought in more advanced technology and could provide more and better wood. As a result tourism became a more popular aspect of the area: with bridges built in Victorian times of progress, a proximity to the Cairngorms, and the historic steam railway, it became more like a tourist trap during the summer. Forestry remains as a tourist attraction, but of course, with forestry comes lots and lots of trees. And with lots of trees come lots and lots of mice.
I freeze at the realisation of this plague on the house. Fiona smiles as if the matter is of no consequence, and so I pretend I’m perfectly comfortable in the cottage, even though the couch seems lumpy and uncomfortable now. There are mice in the house and although they’ve been in the house for the entirety of the holiday I know they’re here now and that changes everything.
At night, I lie in my bed, unable to sleep. Alistair is on the couch and I’ve been given a blow-up bed, in contact with the floor’s hardness due to the bed’s inability to hold in any air, but also in direct contact with any wandering mice. My eyes are tightly closed against the darkness characteristic of the countryside. With no light pollution, the darkness is so swallowing that I wouldn’t be able to see my hand in front of my face. I also wouldn’t be able to see a mouse if it sat in front of me. I picture them scurrying around me, crawling over me, nibbling at my fingers and toes. I hear scuffles and snuffles and squeaks. Terrified of the now malicious animal, sleep evades me as I lie with a posture so tense I know I’ll ache the next day. And then – SNAP.
I jump, the blow up mattress wobbles, and all is quiet in the oppressive darkness of the cottage. More terrified than ever, I lie still as if to compensate for the sudden movement of before. I listen for the sound of the mice that I can sense surrounding me.
‘When the little mouse, which was loved as none other was in the mouse-world, got into a trap one night and with a shrill scream forfeited its life for the sight of the bacon, all the mice in the district, in their holes were overcome by trembling and shaking; with eyes blinking uncontrollably they gazed at each other one by one, while their tails scraped the ground busily and senselessly.’ – Franz Kafka.
The fear I felt in the darkness of the night is inexplicable to me in the light of the day. I like mice, I’ve seen them in the pet shop and thought them exceedingly cute. But that was on my terms, while here is an unknown, unseen beast. It is uninvited, unwelcome, and yet it has come in anyway.
The next day, Fiona sends for help in the form of my future brother-in-law to empty the mouse trap.
‘Don’t look, Catherine,’ Fiona tells me, as she too hides from the coffin constructed of a plastic bag. She has killed this unwelcome visitor, this thief in the night. It has eaten her cereal, gnawed at her cupboard, left droppings on her carpet. So why does she feel so sad? Why do I feel so sad?
2009: I’m lying in bed when I hear the scratching. Like the monster under the bed, mice always come out at night. Spooked, I sit up and flick the switch of my lamp. I stand and prod at the roof, determined to give whatever is hiding in the attic above a fright. But it doesn’t stop, if anything it gets louder. I cower back into my duvet, terrified of this creature of the night. In the darkness, it grows and grows to the size of a dragon, merely here to tear the structure of our home down from the inside out.
I tell my parents. It is to be expected, they say, because of the field near our house. The field my siblings and I used to go to sledge, the field I now jog past on my morning run. The field belongs to Flenders farm, a farm housing all kinds of sheep, horses and cows. It’s big, the farmer’s nice, but it appears to have been the cause of our current troubles. The traps are put out, the mice are eradicated and we are safe for a while.
2015: I go to the kitchen for a drink. It’s late, and mum’s just picked me up from the station after a late library session. She’s tired, irritable and ready for bed. So am I. I wander into the kitchen and pour myself a glass of milk. Going through the motions, but comfortable in my own home. Safe. Until, in the shadows, a shape darts across the room. I scream.
Mum comes running. I turn red.
‘Mouse!’ I say, my voice resembling the mouse’s own with its high pitched squeaks.
‘You’re joking,’ she says. I shake my head. She sighs. ‘I’ll tell your father.’
2005: ‘It’s so cute!’ I screech, pointing (and subsequently terrifying) the little furry creature hiding under the sun bed in the garden. ‘Oh, look at it!’
Mum nods, her nose turned up. She softens at my gaze. ‘I suppose it is quite cute.’ She says, then glances behind her at the open back door. ‘As long as it doesn’t get inside.’
2006: The dead mouse isn’t cute. I get a glance of it, despite Fiona telling me not to. Its eyes are wide, blank, staring. Its mouth is gaping, revealing long fangs, un-blunted from the hard work it has done on Fiona’s table leg. It stares and stares and stares and I want to cry.
‘”The mice think they are right, but my cat eats them anyways.”
“This is the point, reality is nothing, perception is everything.”’ –Terry Goodkind
‘Why did you have to kill it?’ I ask my sister.
She is silent for a minute. ‘It doesn’t belong in the house, does it?’ she says, ‘It eats all our food, it bites my carpet and table legs.’
‘Why couldn’t you just catch it and release it somewhere else?’ I say.
‘Well, it would just come back, wouldn’t it?’ she says.
As I look at the dead creature, I wonder how true that is. Either way, it doesn’t look so scary like this, despite the wide staring eyes and the sharp fangs. It just looks small.
2015: I watch my dad fish out forgotten mouse traps from the attic. We’re redoing it as an unofficial guest bedroom so that when the family come to stay they won’t have to sleep on the floor. He picks up the mouse traps and sets them in various places around the house. I want to protest, but I don’t.
‘Why do we kill the mice?’ I ask him, with the curiosity of a ten year old coming from my twenty year old mouth.
He shrugs, spreading peanut butter on the traps. ‘They eat our food, do structural damage. Why do you kill spiders?’
Spiders, I tell him, are a whole different story. But at his unconvinced gaze I back down, because they’re not so different. I hate spiders because I hate them. We hate mice because we hate them. Looking back to my first mouse encounter, I remember the smell of peppermint permeating every inch of the holiday. I remember that warm feeling of protection while we sheltered from the cold outside. The house was warm, and so were we…But the house was cold. In fact, in the height of winter, the house was freezing. While I did feel safe, maybe this was a manufactured feeling. When mice enter our houses, why do we always kill them? Is it because, like my sister and dad both argued, they enter our house maliciously, eating our food and harming our furniture? Is it because we perceive them to be more like monsters than they actually are? Or is it just because they are out of our control, and as a result, we feel unsafe?
For some reason, humans feel more comfortable when mice are not in the house. Under our control, they’re fine, but out with it they must be killed. My dad’s currently setting traps for the winter when they’ll undoubtedly seek shelter from the cold. Their home has been attacked by cold and wind and snow and ours is safe and warm… But they don’t belong here. Humans, like me when I was ten years old, lying on a blow up bed terrified to sleep, need a sense of safety and ownership in our homes. And so, as a result, we take control, and mice are not under that control. So we kill them all until we feel safe again.
2015: We’re watching the news. Scenes of refugees desperate to enter our country cover the screen. We watch with straight faces, desensitised to these images.
‘Do you think we should allow refugees into the country?’ the journalist asks a passerby on the streets of Glasgow.
‘Definitely not,’ he says, ‘I just wouldn’t feel safe with them here.’