A mouse (not the one from the author's kitchen). Picture: Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 1899
Show Hide image

Quite what Mousey wants with the recycling I do not know

I saw the recycling bag shuddering with Mousey’s orgiastic delight and started to reflect on animal cruelty.

I go into the kitchen one evening. Mousey is there: ambling across from the chopping board to where the teapot is.

“Please, Mousey,” I say, “give me a break.” It is late, and I am tired, so tired. Tired of being alone, of being a failure, of being tired. Recently some moron called me a “patronising git” and a “wealthy media lefty” for the column I wrote here in which I said I was very sad that the Tories were knocking down Shepherd’s Bush council housing and replacing it with luxury apartments. There are few things more tiring, in terms of the fruitless exasperation it causes, than being insulted by a moron. (The “wealthy” was especially fatuous.)

Mousey’s normal routine, when I come into the kitchen and he is having a snack, or a stroll, is to turn and scurry away as fast as his little paws can move him, which is pretty damned fast. But this time he doesn’t bother. He just stays there and looks at me for a bit, and then carries on, slightly slower than before, as if in mockery, pausing to sniff at the tea caddy (perhaps his way of saying, “Any danger of a cup of tea next time?”) before he disappears behind the cupboard next to the fridge.

Enough is enough. I have always, since I first read it, been impressed by Shandy’s Uncle Toby’s address to the fly that had been tormenting him all through dinner: “I’ll not hurt a hair of thy head . . .—go poor devil, get thee gone, why should I hurt thee?—This world surely is wide enough to hold both thee and me.” I did once hurt Mousey, very badly, when I found him gorging himself, oblivious, in an ecstasy of gluttony, inside a bag containing what earlier that evening had been a sliced loaf of bread, now reduced entirely to crumbs, and I had twisted the top of it shut and brought my heel down on it very hard and quickly. When I wrote about that, someone on Twitter said I was inhuman, but that person had not seen the bag, shuddering with Mousey’s orgiastic delight, from which I had been hoping to extract a slice for a snack.

My murderous impulses were not there this evening. I was too tired. Also, it is nice when an animal does not flee or attack a human being. And Mousey had not, this time, come to ravish my dinner.

Still, there is the question of infestation. That runs up against some deep-rooted human feelings. We may like cats because they do not flee or attack when we come near (for the most part), but the reason we liked them in the first place was that they killed the mice and rats in our barns, and scared the bejesus out of the ones that escaped. I cannot have a cat here, which is one of the reasons I am going mad, but I had heard that Mousey cannot abide the smell of peppermint oil – and that only costs a fiver from Holland & Barrett and, unlike with a cat, you don’t have to arrange for the oil to be fed if you go on holiday.

So I get a wee bottle of this oil and sprinkle it liberally behind the counters and cooker, which seems to be Mousey’s main thoroughfare. In fact, having no idea as to how much peppermint oil smells, I slosh it about very liberally indeed, and for the next few days I feel like I am living inside a Bendicks Bittermint. I also get some on my hands, and I discover that the sensation that occurs when you accidentally rub some on the sensitive skin at the corners of your nostrils is the closest sensation you can have to burning without it actually hurting. Still, at least the smell of peppermint is nicer than the smell of cigarettes and regret that is the Hovel’s current atmosphere. And Mousey will move on and there will have been no cruelty involved.

Well, you can guess how that turned out. The daughter, who had popped down for a brief weekend visit, came back from the kitchen to say she’d just said hello to Mousey; and a day or so later, I heard a rustling coming from the recycling bag kept next to the bin. Quite what Mousey wants with the recycling I do not know. Maybe he thinks there will still be some Curiously Cinnamon in the empty Curiously Cinnamon box he discerned through the blue plastic. Stupid Mousey.

I leave him. He can do what he wants there. But then next night I come into the kitchen and I see another Mousey standing by the bag, as if trying to give some message of solace and hope to the Mousey who is trapped. This is not anthropomorphism, or pathetic fallacy. I know that posture when I see it, and I am unmanned. Does that mean, then: that I am moused?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The myths of Magna Carta

Getty
Show Hide image

A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear