Sweetness and Light, chapter 11

2005.

Heidi reached into her freezer and took out a zip-locked bag. Inside, five mice were lined up like tiny marionettes.

‘Here,’ she said, ‘are our subjects. It’s best not to keep freezing and defrosting them. They lose a little of their lustre.’

‘Where do you get the mice? Do you kill them?’ I was sitting on a kitchen chair without a table. Outside Heidi’s window it was a rare grey day. I felt like I’d been allowed to stay at home and bake jam tarts with my mum.

‘Oh,’ said Heidi. ‘Pet shops will sell them to you. Pet mice or feeder mice. But some will only sell them live, so you have to take care of that yourself.’ She glanced at me. ‘Chloroform,’ she said, ‘and a hankie.’

‘A very small hanky,’ I commented.

She threw me a look. ‘It’s not the mouse’s hanky,’ she said.

I felt my cheeks redden. ‘Of course. I didn’t mean that. Just to get it to their noses.’

‘Anyway. They need about an hour at room temperature to defrost. Luckily,’ she popped her bag back into the freezer, ‘I defrosted some earlier.’

‘Do people really like it?’ I said. ‘Taxidermy?’ That sounded tactless. ‘To buy I mean, not just to put in exhibitions.’

‘Oh, yes. If anything, it’s frustratingly fashionable.’ She reached into the fridge and pulled out a second bag of mice. ‘Now. My tools.’ She pulled out a tray that looked like a memory game. Pliers, tweezers, scissors, wire, cotton wool, a reel of white cotton, black beads. ‘And a surface to work on.’ She pulled a sheet of plastic onto the work surface.

‘You do it in the kitchen?’

‘Why not?’ She threw me another look.

‘Why not,’ I agreed.

‘Now,’ she said, ‘the skeleton.’ She snapped off three pieces of wire with a grim set to her mouth. ‘And the body.’ She threaded pieces of cotton wool onto the wire, twisting the wire tightly with her pliers at key points. She’d made a fat ghost mouse.

‘This,’ she said, ‘is called the voodoo doll.’ She took the reel of cotton and wrapped it around the cotton wool, glancing back and forth between her ghost mouse and one of her victims on the work surface. ‘This keeps the body dense,’ she added. ‘It’s like a little mummy.’

I stopped myself saying, or daddy, just in time.

‘And now the eyes.’ She bit off some cotton and threaded it onto a needle, sewing two beads onto the voodoo mouse. ‘You pass the thread right through the head,’ she said, with some satisfaction. She picked up a scalpel. ‘And now,’ she said, ‘the fun bit.’ She sliced down the mouse’s back, her lips set in grim pleasure. ‘We’re cutting from the shoulder to the hips,’ she said. ‘Where a jacket would lie,’ she added. ‘A pinch of this goes in,’ she sprinkled some white powder inside her mouse’s jacket, ‘and on we go. Separating the skin and sprinkling in our Borax. It comes off easily,’ she said. ‘It’s only loosely attached.’

I wondered if my skin was so loosely attached that a couple of expert fingers could shrug it off so easily. I would have preferred the mouse’s skin to be more closely knitted to its flesh.

‘Don’t puncture the stomach,’ she said. ‘I’ve learned that to my cost. You don’t want to stick your fingers in there.’

‘Poor mouse,’ I said. I felt strongly that the mouse should be shown a little more respect. It had eaten its last dinner with no thought that it wouldn’t have another, with no complicity in this game of treating its laid bare, innocently pink stomach as an irritation.

‘Oh, poor mouse nothing. Don’t be sentimental about it.’

‘What do you do with them when they’re done?’ I asked, dragging my eyes away from her expertly loosening fingers working their way across the mouse’s body.

‘I dress them up,’ she said. ‘You know, dresses, tuxedoes, that sort of thing. They take part in tableaus. Pinteresque ones,’ she added archly. ‘Now the legs and tail,’ she said, the jacket of the mouse being finally free thanks to her busy fingers. ‘Peel the legs off like a sock, right down to the ankle. And snip.’ She reached for her scissors and snapped at the mouse’s leg. ‘It stays attached. We use that. The tail’s a bit harder – there’s reproductive and waste stuff so close.’

‘Poor mouse,’ I said again. She ignored me.

‘But basically it’s just a long, skinny sock.’ Her lips were pressed together, her eyes fixed points of attention in a way they never were when they looked at me. ‘And then roll the whole thing off.’ She held up a double bodied, no headed mouse – the mouse with its jumper pulled over its head. ‘Nearly done. Ears next.’

‘How did you get into taxidermy?

‘I’ve always loved animals. I thought of becoming a vet. We had so many animals when I was a child. Our lovely dogs and horses. But obviously with this place looming over me – my inheritance – I was pushed into doing something a bit more creative.’ She glanced at me as if just realising that conversations were supposed to be two-way. ‘And you? And your…?’

‘Photography. Well, I suppose Mum encouraged it,’ I said, though, of course, it had been my interest at the start, she’d just pushed me to believe in myself.

‘Yes,’ said Heidi. ‘They do that, don’t they? Helping us out, of course. It would be a shame to miss this opportunity. Now. The eyes. This is tricky, as we do want to keep the eyelids.’ Her face closed in in concentration. ‘And then,’ she said eventually, ‘just the nose and we’re done.’ She held up the mouse again, a meat mouse with beady black eyes kissing its fur brother. ‘We break the bones behind the nose.’ A tiny snapping. ‘And we have it.’ She held up the inside out pelt, flattened skin, a bony leg on each corner. ‘We clean this up,’ she rubbed away at the skin with her white powder, snipping pink flesh off the legs. ‘Perfect,’ she murmured under her breath, ‘perfect.’

‘It seems hard,’ I said. Strictly speaking, I felt that it seemed surgically violent, a little glimpse of pure evil.

‘You get used to it. Here we go!’ She held up an empty mouse, turned right side out, triumphantly. She licked a finger and wiped it inside the skin gently. ‘Keep it moist,’ she said. ‘Next we make four new legs.’ She held up four pieces of wire and some cotton wool and set to work.

‘Just mice?’ I said, ‘or do you do other things?’

‘I’d love to get my hands on a dog,’ she said. ‘If you know one?’ She glanced at me. ‘An ill one, obviously.’

‘No, sorry.’

‘Now the easy bit,’ she said. ‘We slip it on.’

The cotton wool ghost mouse filled the skin. Its face emerged and formed, fur wet from its ordeal, eyes plastic but vulnerable.

‘The old man,’ I said, ‘Clive.’

‘He’s not that old,’ she said.

‘Who is he?’

Heidi was pushing cotton arms into the skin, twisting wire around the bones. ‘One of the last lot,’ she said between thin lips. ‘From the seventies or whatever. He shouldn’t come here anymore really, the baton’s been passed on, but he can’t seem to help himself. Always poking around. It doesn’t seem to make him happy. Not that he’s ever really been happy,’ she said reflectively. ‘Even though he was quite a success in his time. You shouldn’t revisit your past, I always say. It’s like he’s prodding at an open wound. I suppose his happiest years were here and he can’t let go. When we were kids, me and John, he always carried a cloud with him. We had such happy times in Sussex, living practically next door to one another. But he had that cloud always, even though the houses and the cars and everything they had was so marvellous. Everything he’d got after leaving the fold. All the good stuff.’

‘He doesn’t live here, then,’ I said, with some relief.

‘Well, like I say, he shouldn’t. He doesn’t officially. But we do let him use a little room up in the attic. A camp bed, a little stove, that sort of thing. More out of pity than anything else.’

She turned the mouse upside down, its chin white and exposed, its legs curled up in a foetal position. I wondered if I could make her an offer and buy it; somehow conspire to give it its dignity back.

‘The tail now,’ she said, holding its tail with one hand and twisting wires with the other. ‘Then we sew it closed,’ she said. I was relieved for the mouse that we’d reached this stage – nearly the end, surely. ‘Do you want to pose him?’ she said, a needle between her teeth.

‘Oh! No. No, thanks. You’re the expert.’

‘Okay.’

‘And the others,’ I said, ‘from the seventies. Where are they?’

‘They left. Got on with other things. I’m not the one to ask though. John’s the only direct link with the last generation. Right. Crinoline or suit?’

I considered the mouse, furry cheeks still hollow, so obediently prone and still.

‘A suit,’ I said.

I took a sip of my squash and contemplated the suited mouse. He had a crisp, white shirt on under a black suit, a tiny, black tie. A little funereal, I thought, but maybe that wasn’t inappropriate in the circumstances. I stroked his soft cheek.

‘You’re safe here,’ I said. ‘You’re safe now.’

He stared at me unblinkingly.

I put him inside my tatty kitchen cabinet, where mice should be, and made my way out. He’d cost me a hundred pounds. I needed to be more careful with my money.

I stocked up on Weetabix, pasta, squash and baked beans in Waitrose. I pored over the ready meals and exotic foods, but thought that perhaps I’d try something different another time. This time I’d stick to what I knew.

As I made my way back up Kensington High Street, the sun was dropping in the sky and the day had that feeling of early evening summer promise. People walked a little more slowly, their heads held a bit higher. Skin was burnished and polished, clothes were expensive, well draped, revealing just enough flesh. I bought another black dress on the way home, this one slightly more shaped, and a pair of soft, bitter chocolate sandals. Effortless chic, I wondered on the walk back up Campden Hill Road, or dowdy and invisible? I had no idea.

Back at the studio I stashed it, still in its bag, next to the other black dress. Then I went to the common room, ready to trade on my new intimacy with Heidi.

‘You can’t. It’s none of your business.’ Heidi’s voice, high with strain.

‘I can do what I bloody want,’ said Felix.

I hung back, just shy of the common room door.

‘It’s our business.’

‘The point is, my dear, that it’s not your business.’

‘Don’t call me my dear, you patronising…’

‘Yes? What kind of ladylike language were you about to use on your dear friend Felix?’

‘Ladylike!’ she spat. ‘Who cares?’

‘That much is clear.’

‘You’re impossible.’

‘No. I just don’t always dance to your tune.’

‘I don’t have a tune. I just want to know a few facts.’

‘You want to know what your chances are.’

‘You think like a pleb.’

‘Ha!’ Felix laughed. ‘But I am a pleb, aren’t I?’

‘I don’t know what you are. Do it, Felix.’ Her tone of voice changed, got more wheedling. ‘Please.’

‘I’ll talk to who I want. You and your bloody plots. You put me on edge.’

‘Fine.’ A cup slammed into the sink.

A breath of warm wind lifted the hair on the back of my neck. I brushed it back impatiently.

‘Rhymes with nosy,’ a voice said quietly, close to my ear. ‘Rhymes with nosy, doesn’t it?’

I jumped and looked round. Clive backed up, smiling. ‘Be careful,’ he said, cheeks red, eyes a drizzly blue splattered with pink. ‘Eavesdropping’s one thing, but nosing around’s another entirely.’

He tapped a finger to his nose. I watched him disappear down the mossy corridor towards the stairs up to Heidi and Felix’s rooms, the back of his hair a haze of red.

Rhymes with nosy. I scuttled back to my room before Felix or Heidi could catch me.

As I type this, the autumn wind rattling at my window, a dish of half eaten pasta next to my computer and the heating on full blast, I realise that there’s a voice missing. A voice that tells the other part of the story. A voice that I should bring in.

It’s not a voice that I like. These are words that I’ve read and read. Words that I sped through – hungrily, but not with a wholesome hunger – and then went back to the beginning to re-read. They weren’t words that fed my soul. Instead they were words that ripped it apart, really, if that’s not too dramatic a phrase. Words that I read a third time, a fourth, more slowly, to be sure I’d understood correctly. Words that slid a finger down my spine and expertly loosened the skin.

I don’t have them to refer to, of course – he made sure of that. With the words in front of me, there’d be a little more stability in my shaken identity. At least I could point at the source and say, yes, it really happened. Yes, it was really said. But I’m floundering in nothing, grasping at memories of words. I’m not mad. It was there. It was written down. It happened.

Words scrawled on the back of a typed contract in thick, black handwriting. Pages and pages more of handwritten words like angry eyebrows on a furrowed brow. Large writing with exaggerated loops and spikes, thick dots to the eyes, confident downwards strokes, ‘T’s like gravestones. Real words.

I am not mad.

Those words are important.

They’re burnt onto my mind.

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