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A lesson can be learned from the violent death of my old friend Mousie

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

I have always rather liked the picture of me that appears in the paper edition of this magazine – insofar as I am capable of liking a byline picture of myself – but it is now inaccurate. The eyes you see in it should now be replaced by the cold, dead eyes of a killer.

The victim was Mousie, long-term secondary character in this column, sometime provider of solace during times of misery, as hopeless prisoners make companions of those smaller and even more wretched than they (I wonder: is Chris Huhne, even as I write these words, befriending a Mr Jingles in his cell, like in The Green Mile, and leaving him morsels of toast while he tries to forget his crimes? “A Liberal Democrat in a cage/ Puts all heaven in a rage,” as William Blake so very nearly wrote).

However, the days when I looked sentimentally on Mousie passed a long time ago. There was a part of me that was resigned to him skittering across the floor and picking up whatever crumbs he found there – after all, if I had failed to sweep up, I had only myself to blame for any infestations – but a kind of Rubicon was crossed when he decided to leave several turds upon what had hitherto been a respectably clean chopping board. It was as clear a message of contempt as the v-sign or the sprayed obscenity – as well as being a taunt. “Catch me if you can, stupid human,” was the clear signal being received here.

Since then there have been the usual pitiful attempts to eradicate Mousie: the charm ingly retro mousetrap, which succeeded only in trapping my finger; the so-called “humane” trap, whose very name indicates the self-defeating oxymoron, whose nature I will return to in a minute; the glue trap, which failed to pick anything up at all except lint; and the space-age sonic device that plugged into the wall and is supposed to send out a high-frequency shriek inaudible to humans but torture to rodents. This worked for about two days and has since then been so ineffective that it actually, despite still being hopelessly plugged in, seems to serve the same purpose as the clock at Waterloo station used to: that is, as an official rendezvous point and rallying place for Mousie’s friends and relations. The only things I haven’t tried are poison, for I do not want (a) to be bothered by the smell of unreachable dead mouse if it works or (b) plagued by an infestation of poison-resistant supermice if it doesn’t. And a cat, for reasons far too complex to go into here.

These days all the best houses have mice: a combination of sloppy personal habits and central heating have aided a population explosion. But not only that: also, our own squeamishness. I refer you to the “humane trap” mentioned above. This is for the milksop who does not want a mouse in the house but is too timid or pious to do anything about it. When Tristram Shandy’s Uncle Toby releases a fly into the outside world with the words,“This world surely is wide enough to hold both thee and me,” he has a point but mice, unlike flies, do not upon release thank their lucky stars and promise to mend their ways and never get themselves into that kind of a fix again; they go right back and compound the original crime. They know they’re wrong: when they scurry away from you when you go into the kitchen, it’s not self preservation that moves them, it’s guilt.

In the end, Mousie got greedy: he got stuck in a plastic bag in which I had two slices of bread ready to toast to accompany my soup for dinner. I left the kitchen for two minutes and returned to find the mouse in the bag and the bread already reduced to crumbs. Mousie had always been too fast for me; but now, demented by avarice, he had failed to take precautions and all I had to do was twist the neck of the bag, tie a knot, ignore his desperate attempts to kindle any nascent anthropomorphism and then put the bag on the floor and stomp on it with the heel of my boot.

It took me a while to untangle the metaphor in all this, for I am not wholly given to making them; but it recently occurred to me that, when it comes to parasites, why didn’t we do the same with some other notorious ones, when we found themselves stuffing themselves with our dinner and contributing nothing to our lives except their turds over our chopping-boards? We had the bankers and the hedge-fund managers where we wanted them for a few minutes a few years ago; we saw, before their selfinterest reasserted itself, the panic of guilt in their eyes; but we were weak, and timid and let them go, to crap again.

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 25 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After God