Short Story: A Million Years of Evolution

“Cute,” he had said – it was true, that was the word he had used – and it would probably haunt him to the grave. The gay guy who thinks the dormice are, “cute,” would be his handle for evermore, at least within the bounds of this tiny village.

Certainly, he couldn’t seem to cross paths with anyone these days without one of them saying the word cute, in some context or another. “Oh, the cottage will be so cute when you’ve finished,” or “it used to be so cute when Annie lived here – she had roses around the door,” or sometimes, less subtly, “how are you getting on with the cute dormice?”

And the truth was that he wasn’t getting on with them at all. And he wasn’t finding them cute anymore.

 

The original comment – that first, unfortunate remark – had been made the day, the very first day when they were carrying boxes in from the cars. A neighbour, elderly, (pleasant, bored) had wandered across to wish them well, or more probably to have a peer at the new gay neighbours. What a novelty! Real homosexuals in the valley – just like the ones on TV.

And he had pointed out what he at first had thought was a squirrel, and said, “Oh look Giles, a squirrel. How cute!” and like pretty much anything one said or did around here, the phrase has toured the valley.

It would be a few days before he found out just why everyone thought that using that particular word to describe that animal in this valley was so very, very amusing.

 

That first night with Giles, they were barely aware of them. On awakening they compared notes about vague sensations of movement in the room during the night; Giles even went so far as to suggest that there were maybe mice in the skirting boards, but that was about as far as it went. They were tired, shattered from the drive, the move, the endless boxes, too tired really to notice had there been a tiger prowling the edges of the room.

But the next day as they unpacked and scrubbed and disinfected the grubby surfaces, which it seemed must have been filthy even before they were left unused for seven years, they found no traces of mouse-holes. “If there are mice anyway, I expect they’ll fuck off as soon as they realize someone’s living here,” Giles suggested.

 

The second night though was entirely different, hellish even. The rustling scratching scraping sounds seemed to come from all angles simultaneously.  Some of the noises were specific and distinct – like that very specific percussion made by a rear paw scratching a flea infested chin, a noise Pete knew from his years as a cat owner, a sound that had prompted him in the past to buy flea-powder, a noise that prompted him now to start scratching himself.

“Lay still!” Giles protested, but it was no good; he had to get up and put the light on. He had to see that, of course, there were no fleas in the bed, nor as far as he could see, any rodents in the room.

“Maybe they’re ghosts,” Giles offered with faked amusement. For whatever was creeping around ceased to exist when either of them stood and switched on the light. “Maybe they’re ghosts of mice past.”

But at 4 am it was Giles who got up, Giles who left the room, Giles who took the top blanket and headed out to the car. “I’m sorry, but this is dreadful,” he said. “And I have to drive all the way back to London tomorrow.”

 

Right after Giles – never at his best after a poor night’s sleep – gave him a minimalist wave and powered off across the gravel in his Subaru 4×4, Pete took his own – far less suitable Fiesta – and went in search of a flashlight. The village shops were closed, so he ended up driving to Cardiff, an hour of winding roads each way, but there was no way he was facing another night in the haunted bedroom without a torch to hand.

 

That night – his first night alone in the musty cottage – he had his first inkling of the scale of the problem. For as he lie awake, listening to the multiple sounds emanating from the floor, walls, ceilings, he could barely decide which way to point the flashlight. And when he did, no matter which direction he chose, he would see a tail disappearing between the plaster and the beams, or two beady eyes, reflecting red and spooky at him from behind a rafter; he even saw one of the squirrel like beasts run along a wall and, quite impossibly, vanish into thin air. Whatever, the mystery was solved: they were coming from the loft. In the morning he would plug the gaps.

 

There were quite a few gaps, though in broad daylight it seemed almost impossible to imagine that any of the animals he had seen had fitted through them, for the dormice were surprisingly large – almost kitten sized, whilst the gaps were at biggest the width of a pencil.

“Maybe they’re Houdini dormice,” Giles laughed down the phone. Easy to laugh dressed in a crisp white shirt in a gleaming office in a tower block, Pete thought. But Pete wasn’t feeling at his best. He’d slept about three hours that night, and probably less the night before. Still, he had plugged the gaps with newspaper. He was feeling optimistic.

“Gosh, well, let me know how you get on,” Giles chortled.

 

At 11:40pm, according to the newly unpacked clock radio, Pete found out that newspaper wasn’t going to do the trick. He sat up and clicked on the bedside lamp, wondering what had struck his face. One of the beasts, emboldened now – used to the flashlight already – was stuck to the ceiling right above him. The newspaper wedge lay on his pillow. Almost too tired to care, he threw a book at it (Viginia Woolf – The Waves) and watched it vanish back through the impossible gap. It seemed to him that they went quiet after that, but he couldn’t be sure. He dreamt that they were too busy reading the book.

 

In the morning though, he found four of his ten or so newspaper wedges lying around, along with, on the bedclothes, lots of what looked like a number insect chrysalis or maybe they were seedpods. There had been a lot of these on the floor when they had first vacuumed, so he took one downstairs to analyse as he drank his morning coffee. It was only when he snapped it in two with a fingernail that he realized, with an involuntary gag, that he was in fact holding a dormouse dropping.

“They’re shitting on me while I sleep Giles!” he screamed at the handset. And he would later define that as the precise moment it all changed.

Yes, the instant when Giles, never a one for roughing it, said, “Oh, I forgot to say – I won’t be able to come down after all this weekend. Hellish new project on and so on. Sorry and all that…” That was the moment that Pete had stopped finding the doormice cute.

 

Now in B&Q Cardiff, the cute-if-a-little-chubby sales assistant (his badge says his name is Tim) shows him their vast range of rat and mouse poisons. “There’s nothing specifically for dormice,” Tim tells him, “because they’re a protected species.”

“I’m not allowed to kill them?” Pete asks, his brow furrowed.

Tim shrugs. “Not really, but they’re complete bastards. Most people just use this stuff and put it in an apple. Apparently they love apples.”

But though Pete no longer finds them cute, there’s something about tricking them with an apple that turns him off. Maybe it’s because he thinks of razor-blades in Halloween apples, but there’s something not right about it, so he purchases eight cages with spring doors and clever release mechanisms on which he will position lumps of Granny Smith. Feeling godlike and generous, he ordains that the dormice, protected species that they are, can live; they just can’t live above his head. He’ll catch them and drive them to the next town, a sort of forced migration. He thinks of Darfur.

 

It’s hard, back at the cottage, to work out how to position the cages high up where the dormice roam so freely, but by adding some nails and screws to the beams he manages it and only one of the traps snaps shut on his finger during the process.

The traps in place, he looks at his blackening fingernail, then at his watch and realizes that the dormice have stolen another whole day – another day when he should have been getting on with the renovation work. He’s hungry and tired but if he doesn’t get this place finished by the end of the month he’ll have to renovate and work at the same time. He sighs and picks up some sandpaper.

 

The cages don’t work. One falls on the floor waking him with terrifying abruptness. The others remain untouched; whilst The Beasts – he has started to call them simply, The Beasts, roam freely around the room. By the time morning comes he’s so exhausted he can barely focus on the paperwork the postman is holding in front of him. “How you getting in with the cute dormice?” the postman asks him.

“Oh,” says Pete, taking in that the postman has heard too. “I hate them.”

“Vermin!” the man says. “Took us two years to get rid of them. I shot some with an air rifle. The cat got the others. You wanna get yourself a cat.”

 

Pete loves cats, in fact this is the first time in his life he hasn’t had a cat, and it sounds like a great idea, even if Giles (of course) disagrees.

“They’re just such a tie,” he says.  “What if we want to go on holiday or something.”

“It’s cats or rats,” Pete points out. “When are you coming down,” he adds pointedly. “I feel like I’m doing this on my own. It was supposed to be a joint project.”

“Yeah, sorry and all,” Giles says “There’s just so much on… Anyway, gotta go. Toodle pip. Do let me know how you get on with the cat.”

 

Boris (he is already named Boris, which Pete rather likes somehow – it makes him think of that engaging buffoon from the Tory party) is a bruiser of a cat. A muscular five kilo ginger monster who purrs like a lawnmower the second anyone touches him. He’s a farm cat, the lady from the RSPCA assures him.

“I’m sure he’ll have a lovely time at the cottage,” Pete tells her as he writes a check for the optional but heavily encouraged donation of forty pounds.

Of course, Pete figures, as he drives back with the cat, Giles is right. Cats are a bind… But the dormice are driving him crazy. Something has to give.

 

Within moments of switching off the lights, it becomes evident though, that Boris isn’t the answer either.

 

“They’re on the ceiling,” Pete tells Giles the next day. “He’s a cat – not a spider-cat. He just watches them and makes a funny kkkkkak noise. They drive him crazy too.”

“Maybe you could build him a ladder,” Giles offers. “A little cat ladder so that he can get at the mice.”

Pete hangs up and vows not to phone Giles again until the problem has been solved. The experience of talking to smug, well-rested Giles in his office in London is just too irritating.

 

The following night Pete puts Boris out in the garden. His screeching/wining noises just add to the general level of discomfort in the room. The noise of the dormice is dreadful, but listening to the cat that can’t reach them is truly too much to bear.

 

It takes three more visits to B&Q (each one a three-hour round trip) and five full days work for Pete to install the trap door to the loft. He had other priorities, like getting the hot water working, fixing the flush on the toilet, but if The Beasts are coming from the loft, it is in the loft that the battle must be waged. As his drill first pierces the ceiling, showering him with equal proportions of plaster and dormouse-droppings, he knows that he’s on the right track.

Up in the attic he stands on the rafters and surveys the scene. The gaps between the rafters where one would hope to find loft insulation are filled not with fibreglass wadding but with mouse droppings. Everywhere he shines his torch he sees the animals in various states of relaxation. In some cosy nooks entire families are snoozing together.  There must be a hundred of them living here.

 

His first reaction is to chase them out with a stick, but they just move around unhurriedly, mockingly almost. Sometimes he corners one and it vanishes through an invisible hole only to reappear in the same place or somewhere entirely different seconds later. Startrek Beasts. They have teleport, he thinks.

He carts a reluctant Boris up the ladder and shuts the trap behind him, but the poor cat just whines and complains and begs until Pete caves in and lets him out. The odds are too difficult, even for Boris.

He tries, briefly, to catch them himself. He puts on thick gardening gloves in case they bite – they clearly have big enough teeth, and chases them around the loft space for a while, shouting, “Come here you fucker,” and “Yes, yes, no! Bastard!”

For they are much faster than him, and he worries that he will end up forgetting where he is putting his feet and fall through the ceiling. At one point he actually touches one, actually grabs the end of it’s tail. But the tail niftily detaches leaving the animal apparently unharmed as it leaps away through the trap door to his bedroom. Startrek Beasts with teleport and decoy tails, Pete thinks.

 

That night is the worst he has ever had. The dormice start shrieking at him – not squeakingshrieking. They’re complaining, he thinks. They’re complaining about the stress he’s causing them. They’re complaining about the chase and the cat and the drilling. The Beasts aren’t happy.

Each mouse makes almost the noise of a cat, a cat on heat. They call to each other across the room, and then reply, and then scamper and chase each other around. He can hear them running across the new trap door, seemingly thrilled by the novelty of his new highway to hell.

 

He gets just over half an hour’s kip, and by morning is pretty sure he would weep were Giles here to cry to. It’s just lack of sleep, he knows that, but his personality is starting to change. He gets angry – much angrier than usual, and much more quickly. Aspects of Giles character that he used to find slightly irritating are now so overwhelming he can’t be face phoning him at all. And when, on the way back to B&Q, a lorry cuts him up on the seven-ways roundabout he actually sticks his arm out the window and shouts, Wanker!”

“I told you they’re evil,” Tim agrees. “Everyone round here hates them.”

Pete is starting to feel close to Tim – he seems to be the only one who can understand; the only one who can understand and help. Sometimes he feels like he actually loves Tim, or that at any rate, if Tim could just make the dormice go away he might. “They’ve started shrieking at me,” Pete complains. “It’s like something from the exorcist.”

“That’s when they’re on heat,” Tim tells him with a wink. “They’ll be shagging. That’s what that’ll be…”

“You mean they’re fucking?” Pete says. “Above my head?”

Tim nods. “They have litters of about 10 each,” he says solemnly, flashing the whites of his eyes. “Imagine.”

Pete shakes his head. “No,” he says. “No way.”

“Poison?” Tim asks, reaching for a box from the shelf.

Pete nods. “Poison!” he says, adding, “Even the cat’s scared of them.”

Tim swipes the box back and holds it high above him, out of reach. “Ah, you never told me you had a cat,” he says. “You can’t go using this if you’ve a cat.”

Pete frowns. “Why the hell not?” He starts to redden in anger. Tim is about 6’4, and there’s something rather insulting about him using the fact against him in this way. “Give me that!” he shrieks.

“It gives them multiple organ failure,” Tim tells him gravely. “But before they die it slows them down. Trouble is, that’s when the cat catches them, doesn’t it. Cat eats poisoned mouse, cat dies…” he says with a nod.

“Jesus!” Pete cries. “OK, gimme the poison and I’ll solve the cat problem before I use it.”

“Promise?” Tim asks him.

Is he mocking or flirting? Pete can’t be sure.

 

As he drives back, he takes stock. So far it’s, Dormice 8, Human race, 0. He hasn’t slept for weeks. He’s barely started the renovation work. He’s wasted money on a trap door and cages… He and Giles are barely speaking and they certainly aren’t shagging – he hasn’t even scheduled his next visit. It’s not how it was supposed to be. The dormice are running his life. The dormice are ruining his life. But this is where it stops. He pats the box beside him. This is war.

 

Poor Boris has to return to the RSPCA for napalm week. At the last moment, as he hands over the cage, he remembers that the dormice are a protected species and that explaining the genocide he is planning to the lady from the RSPCA probably isn’t a good idea. “My mother, erm, died,” he invents, god forgive him. “I have to be with my father right now.”

The woman opens her mouth to suggest something but Pete cuts her off. “Oh, and he this a huge Alsatian dog…”

 

The poisoned apples are a major hit with the dormice – so far so good, he thinks as he checks the loft the next morning. Now I just have to wait.

Only nothing happens. For 48 hours the dormice conduct their little rodent-business as usual. The nocturnal rustling, scratching screeching seems even more poignant and disturbing than usual as he listens ever more hopefully for sounds of pain or distress. He worries he’s turning into a monster.

Finally unable to bear it, he takes his quilt down to the kitchen and sleeps on the kitchen floor. It’s a bit hard, but as he slips into sleep, he wonders why he didn’t think of it before.

 

On the third morning, his faith in Tim – the rodent slayer of B&Q – starts to wane. He picks up the phone to call him but then restrains himself and replaces the handset. Give it time, he thinks.

 

And then, on the fourth morning, something wonderful happens. The mice have vanished. He phones Tim. “They’re not actually dead,” he explains triumphantly – thrilled that the poisoned apples – or some other factor, the cat maybe, has simply made the animals move away. Maybe they have been spared after all. Maybe he’s not a killer of protected animals. “They’ve vanished. It’s a miracle.”

“They do that,” Tim tells him. “Bleeding to death makes you very thirsty, so they go in search of water… They end up dying outside usually. They’re probably all rolling around in agony down by the nearest pond.”

Pete swallows hard. “Oh,” he says.

 

He phones Giles to tell him the good news. “I got the dormice,” he says. “They’re all gone. Any chance of a shag this weekend?” He tries not to link the disappearance of the rodents to his expectation of a visit. He knows that if he wounds Giles’ pride, Giles will feel the need to prove that his absence has been nothing whatsoever to do with the mice. He’ll stay away even longer.

“I should be able to manage it,” Giles tells him. “I owe you anyway for not being there to help with those darned rats or mice or whatever.”

“No matter,” Pete says. “Just come and bring some nice food and we can shag and get back to normal. I’ve been feeling so horny.” He thinks, guiltily, of Tim.

“Anyway, well done for winning the war against the mice,” Giles says. “Of mice and men and all that, huh?”

“Yeah, well… I knew I’d win in the end.” Pete says, somewhat. “I mean mankind didn’t survive this long… I didn’t get to exist at the end of a million years of evolution without being able to beat an enemy or two.”

“Indeed,” Giles agrees. “Though, neither did the dormice.”

 

Pete waits 24 hours to be sure, then removes the poison, vacuums up the latest and final batch of droppings (he marvels at just how much shit each mouse must produce) and then drives back out to the RSPCA to pick up Boris.

When the woman at reception places a hand on his arm he remembers he’s supposed to be devastated. “It’s almost a relief to be honest,” he tells her. “She was in pain for that long…”

 

As the weekend approaches Pete is feeling rested and optimistic. At nights he sleeps almost soundly, interrupted only by the sounds of Boris moving around (he has to wake up to check that the noise is in fact Boris and not a return of the beasts). And the rest of the time there’s something about the strange, empty nature of the silence in the house that disturbs him – that makes him inevitably think of the massacre he has perpetrated: he’s a little disturbed by the sudden emptiness above his head.

 

On Saturday night as he sets the dinner table in the garden, he looks up to see a dormouse leap twenty feet from the tree to the side of the house. “No!” he mutters jogging inside for the torch. “This so isn’t happening.”

He gets back just in time to see one of the creatures vanish between two bricks.

 

Up in the loft, the lone dormouse blinks in the light. It doesn’t move and Pete wonders if it is dying, or stupid or just arrogant.

“Fuck off,” he tells it. “Or I swear I shall kill you.”

The animal twitches its whiskers then starts to lick its scarily humanoid fingers. To Pete, that’s as close to, whatchagonnadoaboutit, as a rodent can manage. His nostrils flare with rage. He reaches for a stick and heads across the rafters towards the animal.

The creature blinks at him again, moves about an inch, and then resumes preening itself.

Pete picks up the length of wood he used previously to chase them, only this time he’s not out to chase.

It’s a perfect swing and he is proud, triumphant even as the mouse freezes and sways like a cartoon drawing; thwacked unconscious with the first blow.

Pete swings again and strikes it flatly across the body. He feels the give – the fatness of the animal’s body through the stick. It quivers and drops from the wall.

Now, starting to think about the suffering of the animal, he smashes it again, only this time he aims at the neck, and the animal quivers, and then though Pete couldn’t really say how he knows this, he sees the life slip away from the animal, sees the moment it dies. For a split second he it taken by the mystery of life, by the wondering of what is this thing that leaves a body and suddenly there is no more cuteness, no more capacity to irritate, no desire to shag and make babies; by what it is that leaves a body and in so doing turns it into a pound of flesh and fur. And then the wonder goes, and he’s left feeling jubilant.

“Yes!” he whistles, a little shocked that he has so easily gone from vegetarian to man-who-beats-furry-animals-to-death-with-a-stick.

“Hello?” Giles voice rises from below. Pete was so lost in the moment he didn’t hear him arrive.

“Up here!” Pete shouts. “In the loft.” He freezes in position waiting, calculating the best angle; adjusting the position of the stick for Giles approval. He wants his boyfriend to be as surprised and impressed as he is himself by the caveman hunter he has become. He hears Giles mounting the stairs, and then Giles hard shoes on the aluminium of the ladder.

“Hello!” he says as his head appears. “Gosh, this had all changed. Did you put this door in?” He strokes the wooden surround of the trap door with a manicured hand.

Pete nods at him. “I had to,” he says. “A necessary step in the war against the beasts.”

Giles smiles at him. He looks out of place in his impeccable clothes in this loft in the country. “What’s with the stick?” he asks.

Pete shrugs nonchalantly. “Weapon,” he says. “Tools are the difference between man and beast. I just killed the last of the bastards.”

Giles raises an eyebrow. “Gosh! With a stick?”

Pete grins, lays down the lump of wood and steps towards him. “I told you I’d win. I knew they wouldn’t get the better of me.”

And then something shifts. The whole thing – from victor to loser – only takes a split second. But that split second divides and stretches like rubber into self contained, lozenges of time.

The first contains only the realisation (surprising, shocking, unexpected) that something has shifted.

In the second moment he sees Giles’ expression start to change, at the same time that he himself starts to frown. He is aware that their faces are shifting and changing in unison.

Then he hears the crack and realises intellectually that he has stepped off the beams and is standing on the ceiling.

And now he is falling; in fact it feels more like the room, the universe is rising around to swallow him up. Now what had been the floor – the ceiling from below, is rushing past his body, ripping skin from his arms as he sticks them out to try and grab at something, anything to slow his fall.

He has time, as his head crashes through the hole, to calculate where he is standing, what lies below: the toilet, the bath, the washbasin? And then as his foot hits something hard – yes the washbasin – as his leg crumples and his head inevitably lurches sideways towards the mirror, as he hears the first note of Giles’ scream from above, he thinks, obtusely, absurdly, “Damn! A million years of evolution…”

 

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