Written by Julie Balloo

Arts

Short story: Cat and Mouse

To celebrate National Short Story Week, Standard Issue is running a selection of short and (not always) sweet fictions. In Julie Balloo’s tale, a mother and daughter fight for a brave new world.

Anti-Cat and Mouse Act poster from 1914The wretched woman lay quite still conserving energy, but her emaciated frame gave her the appearance of a dead thing.

Yesterday’s feeding had been particularly violent; her nostril had split and was now caked in dry blood and the remnants of yellow vomit clung miserably to her robe.

No doubt her mother would meet her on release. Her humiliated and shamed mother who, although ridiculed by friends and neighbours, found it impossible to ignore her daughter’s plight.

“Drink this,” she’ll plead, offering up a homemade tonic.

“Into the carriage, before anyone sees us, come, come.”

On release many of the women went into hiding, becoming the ‘mice’ to the authorities’ ‘cats’.

As a young girl she’d sat in the back garden watching Harold, their well-fed tom, toy with his rodent prey.

Spinning it around until the poor creature was weak with giddiness, allowing it a short respite, while it staggered off to assumed freedom, like a drunkard trying to walk a straight line, but just as it thought it was safe, Harold would pounce yet again. The game wasn’t finished. No, it would go on and on, until the unwilling competitor gave up and its wretched body flopped onto the grass for the last time. No life left, just a mauled carcass.

The bolt was released and the heavy iron door dragged open.

“You can be off now, Madam.”

The guard was used to her now. Some of them didn’t return; they were so weakened and traumatised by the prison experience they generally withered and died. Their demise would be hushed up and the consumption blamed or, thankfully for the Government, they were simply no longer fit enough to carry on the fight.

But not this one; this mouse was not going to go easily.

“If they’re the educated ones, heaven help the rest of them,” sighed the guard, aware of what his job was worth.

“‘You should have seen the doctor’s face, Mama,’ Annie said. ‘He was in such a temper as he tried to pry open my teeth with that steel contraption.’”

Her mother was there, as she’d imagined, her face a mixture of pride and sorrow. She was holding a banner bearing the slogan DEEDS NOT WORDS, and though Annie’s form crumbled her heart soared.

“I’m not going back,” Annie announced once safe in the carriage. Her mother had anticipated this choice and, although she could hardly bear the outcome, she knew she had to aid her daughter in her efforts to hide from the authorities.

Later that evening while Annie rested in her own bed her mother informed her of the plan. She would stay in the house for the next five days then quietly slip away early one morning. The preparations were made for the journey and a sympathetic distant cousin would house the young woman until she was nursed back to her robust self and ready for more toil.

“You should have seen the doctor’s face, Mama,” Annie said. “He was in such a temper as he tried to pry open my teeth with that steel contraption.”

It’s barbaric: doctors should be tending to the ill not harming the strong.”

“They’ve lost control so they treat us like beasts. The tube he managed to force down my throat couldn’t have been that long but it felt like four feet in length and much too wide for my mouth. As soon as the putrid food was poured in I sicked it back up. I could hear Edith, the woman in the next cell, going through the same ordeal.

“When it was all over and we were left alone I tapped on the adjoining wall and called out as loud as I could muster – ‘No Surrender!’ I waited and soon came her weak response – ‘No Surrender!’”

Her mother shook her head and years of society’s conditioning seemed to fall away from her. She sat, still shaking her head as she struggled to come to terms with this new world and what it meant for her family.

@julieballoo

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Written by Julie Balloo

I am a former standup and now write stories and stage/radio scripts. My long- time collaborator is Jenny Eclair.