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11 December 2016

A mouse, some cigarettes, and a new existential panic

I have now slept alone more nights than with a woman by my side: this is a cause for crisis. The mouse is back, too.

By Nicholas Lezard

Definitely winter now, and it’s jumper time. You lot working in offices don’t know you’re born. Your boss may be a penny-pinching, uncaring scumbag, but even he can’t turn the heating off during the day. (Well, he can, because, contrary to what you might have thought, there’s no law against it, but it would be an unwise boss who allowed his workers’ breath to form clouds when they exhaled.)

However, in the Hovel, where bills must be paid, and heating isn’t getting any cheaper, we have a blast in the morning so that the early risers among us do not have their feet freeze to the floorboards, and a few hours in the evening until it’s lights-out time – that is, about ten o’clock. Residual warmth lasts longer if you keep all the internal doors shut, but still, there are nine hours during the day when the only options are bed, jumpers, or both. (I could, I suppose, go to the British Library, but that would involve going out into the cold in the first place, which would be insane, and defeat the whole point of working from home.)

Fortunately, my bedroom benefits from whatever sun happens to be shining at this time of year, so there can be a mini-greenhouse effect going on; and it does, after all – the clue is in the word “bedroom” – have a bed. I have only a thin duvet, but it suffices. Or it did when I shared the bed. And this is a cause of great melancholy.

I have steered clear of doing the maths, but I have a horrible feeling that I have now slept alone more nights than I have slept with a woman by my side. This fills me with existential panic, and I am beginning to worry that I have become institutionalised in my solitude. Who would put up with me, I wonder, when I can barely put up with myself?

Occasionally I toy with the idea of joining a dating site but the idea falls apart after a few moments of thought. For one thing, after Brexit, I have lost some faith in my fellow citizens, and besides, I don’t think the line “I have become loathsome to myself” is much of a goer when it comes to your own blurb on or whatever it’s called. “Lazy, selfish, borderline alcoholic” worked surprisingly well for me about nine years ago but the joke has worn thin and, besides, I am nine years older, after all, and more or less looking it.

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Still, there’s always Mousie. As Rabbie Burns noted, if not in these exact words, winter is tough on mice and tough on the causes of mice – but then, as long as there’s a relatively warm hovel whose skirting boards and infrastructure date back to the middle of the 19th century, there will always be a home for Mousie. I hear him skittering around the kitchen when I’m sitting in the living room; I make sure that all the edibles are out of reach, but there are always going to be crumbs behind the cooker. He does plague my housemate’s room from time to time, which she doesn’t like one little bit; the huge mystery is why he does not plague mine.

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I like to advise a stiff-upper-lip approach to this kind of thing but then I have not been tested myself. Maybe Mousie thinks my room is simply too much of a tip. I should perhaps be more grateful than I am about this: I learned on an amusing Radio 4 show that mice pee continually, and it’s their wee that you smell when infested by them. I can’t say that I’ve noticed the pong. This may be one of the beneficial side effects of smoking indoors: the fags and the mouse piss cancel each other out.

Meanwhile, there are three more months of this. This is just the beginning. I was delighted and grateful when, last month, a Subscriber of the Week, Mr Adam Gilbert, named me as his favourite writer. However, he put his finger squarely on the nub of the issue when he added: “God forbid he ever becomes happy.” I know this was not intended as a curse but I wonder whether it will have the same effect as one. Having been the victim of a curse in the past, and more than once, I know they work.

I shall just assume that the excellent Mr Gilbert means well. In the meantime I shall just have to stop moaning and remember that, what with one thing and another, the whole world seems to be under a curse, and one that is, moreover, coming to fruition.

Anyway, Burns had it right, or at least certainly got there before me. “Still thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me!/The present only toucheth thee:/But, Och! I backward cast my e’e/On prospects drear!/An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,/I guess an’ fear!” 

This article appears in the 06 Dec 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump