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A Shout From The Attic: Of Mice And Then

...We had a succession of black cats called Dinky. It was as if when one died, he was immediately reincarnated and returned to his former abode to have another attempt at getting off the wheel of life...

Ronnie Bray recalls the household pets of his childhood days - and the fate of one particular mouse.

Somewhere in the dim and distant past of childhood years, I remember a Pekingese dog that dwelt on Nanny’s lap. I do not remember the flat faced dog’s name, disposition, feeding, or exercise habits. Like many parts of my childhood, these were secrets belonging to grown-ups; parts of adult life that children were never permitted to see and, apparently, dogs were included in this category.

We had a succession of black cats called Dinky. It was as if when one died, he was immediately reincarnated and returned to his former abode to have another attempt at getting off the wheel of life. Dinky must have managed to achieve neutral karma, because he always came back as a black cat, always to our home, and he was always called Dinky. Although it did not seem odd at the time, when I think about it now, it seems solemnly strange.

One deviation from this pattern was when he came back as a Siamese cat called Mingi. Mingi’s karma was not so hot. Before he could grow old, he developed colonic cancer and had to be prematurely mustered out of mortality. Dinky, when he was either Dinky or Mingi, ate boiled cod heads that I brought from Woods Fish Wholesalers in the Wholesale Market in Brook Street every Saturday morning.

He exercised himself when he was let out into the back yard, from where he ran a series of interesting operations throughout the neighbourhood. That is, except when he was Mingi, who was, I was often told in serious tones, so I know it’s true, a very expensive cat. “She (Dinky never explained the karmic logistics of achieving this) cost a lot of money!” Mingi did not go out to exercise, and I have no idea how she managed her toilet. Perhaps that too is immured in karmic esotericism.

I was fond of animals, although I was never close to them, except the cat, that I took to bed with me to serve as companion and hot water bottle. In cold weather, and there seemed to be lots of that about, I also took a stone hot water bottle filled with boiling water from the Creda electric geyser that hung on the wall over the big porcelain sink in the kitchen. I had the annoying habit of pushing the bottle out of bed with my feet when I woke in the night and found it cold. I put that down to self-preservation. Whether the cat enjoyed serving as a heating device, I can not tell, but perhaps the fact that it was never there when I woke in the morning gives the game away.

When I was about thirteen, I saw my first white mouse. These belonged to the Hampson boys. They lived on Water Street, and their father was a painter and decorator as the attractive sign adjacent to their front door advertised. I was taken through the house and in to the back garden where, in a stone outbuilding was a variety of mouse hutches housing hundreds of mice in all shapes, sizes, and colours. I liked the white ones with pink noses and eyes best, and arranged to become holder of a title deed to one of them.

The agreed price was one shilling and sixpence, a lot of money to a lad with no income, but it seemed a genuinely good price for the livestock. I returned and presented myself at the Hampson’s front door as soon as I had managed to finagle the money out of mother. I do not actually remember doing this, but it seems a good bet that this is what happened. The eagle-eared Hampson boys heard my timid knock and led me back into the Aladdinesque Kingdom of Mice in the rear garden.

Cadbury’s Cocoa came in round half-pound tins, and we drank plenty of it. I had taken a cocoa tin to be the carrying case for my little rodent. The experts, no older than myself, looked scornfully into my tin to find that there was no bedding for the little chap that I selected, I think, it is really impossible to tell when all white mice appear to be identical, and they took a small handful of fine sawdust and generously popped it into the tin. Then, they plopped in my mouse and I handed over eighteen pence.

I was now the proud owner of an animal that I knew nothing about. What did they eat? I sensed that my problems were only just beginning. Walking home, I decided that I would take some of the old bits of wood that were always lying about somewhere and make a small hutch for the mouse, and make a door out of some perforated zinc. In those days, you could buy anything you wanted, and it was cheap.

First, I had to get him safely home. Clutching the tin with my left hand, I placed my right hand palm-down over the lidless top so that he could not escape. I walked out through the back garden gate door with a cheery “G’bye” and turned on the back lane towards the track that ran up the side of the furniture factory and opened out into the Rifle Fields. Along the Rifle Fields I went, a bounce in my step, and joy in my heart, for the mouse in the tin, brimming with the prospect of companionship-cum-lordship that ownership secured, or so I thought.

Across Greenhead Road, opposite the girls’ school, and on Greenhead Lane, through the Little Park, to Trinity Street I went. Home was in my sights, or would have been if I could have seen round corners. Seven-eighths of the way across Trinity Street, I did what I have always been inclined to do when bearing treasure home, and that is, take a look at it. Still walking, I raised my hand from the top of the container and peered carefully in so’s not to allow my subject the opportunity to gain his freedom from benevolent thraldom.

There are times in life when we look, and immediately wish we had not done so, because what we see is not what we expect or wish to see. Incredulously, I swished the can around to disturb the solitary sawdust but there was no mouse in the receptacle. My reaction was my standard response to disappointment: instant depression. If you saw a young lad dragging his scuffed shoes along the ground, his knee socks crumpled around his ankles, rounding the corner of Trinity Street into Fitzwilliam Street, his head hanging down, and carrying an empty cocoa tin that day in 1948, that was me!

I could not share my mortification with anyone, because the mouse was my little secret, and would not have been made welcome into the household. I left my cocoa tin with its abandoned bedding somewhere, and went to sit down to be miserable for a while. Since I was mostly disconsolate, this did not attract attention. Thus I sat and sulked, unhappy with life, distressed with my muses, and fuming in solitary silence with the Patron Saint of Ill-starred Kids, for letting me down again. Most of all, I was unhappy with vanishing mice. “I should have bought a dog,” I mused, “At least if a dog disappears you can see it do it!”

I sat and brooded, grieved, and fretted, pondered and pouted, until I arrived at the conclusion that if you ever get to the point where it seems that existence might have, at least occasionally, the semblance of fairness, something will rush along and breach your balloon. With a sigh that should have gone straight into the Guinness Book of Records for duration and profundity I settled back into the chair. No sooner had I done so than I received the distinct impression that something was happening under my jersey and jacket.

Some slight, almost imperceptible, movement that made me wonder if I had taken a sociable blackclock on board. Again, I felt the scuttling creature, but this time, the sensation was too pronounced to be as small a creature as a cockchafer. With what approaches panic in the lethargic, I removed my coat and rolled up my jumper to find my pink-nosed escapee looking at me as it held onto the knitted fabric of my jumper. Having had his fill of emancipation, he offered no resistance as I closed my ecstatic fingers around his downy coat.

I made his home in a shoebox, which he promptly began to eat. A slice of bread and best butter satisfied his taste more completely than the cardboard, which he then left off eating long enough for me to cobble together his hutch, complete with a perforated zinc door. He was safe, but did not stay my secret for long. It was not until I became a parent that I realised that you had to be extremely sharp to hide anything from the most backward of parents.

I enjoyed my mouse for a time, but soon recognised the shortcomings of a rodent as a substitute for human companionship. My disappointment, which has been reflected in so many of my endeavours into escapism from, and substitution for, the unfortunate circumstances of my beginnings, led to neglect. One day my prize was found stiff and dead in his cage by my granddad. He had died from starvation. How terribly sad that I was too preoccupied with my own deficiencies to see the need in another creature.

Although I did not know its name at that time, I felt the searing pain of condemnation that all hypocrites, inevitably, must experience, and I have never forgotten the power of that conviction. It has led me to fill as much as I am able, the need of others, and my life is the better for it. I do not know the penalty for starving a mouse to death, but I know that nothing seems to be able to expunge the offence from my memory. Perhaps perpetual guilt is a small price to pay to ensure that nothing like that ever happens again though my neglect.

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