A Month In The Countryside

In her first column on the highs and lows of life in rural Rutland, Helen Walmsley-Johnson salutes the confidence and advanced circus skills of the local mice.

Illustration by Claire Jones

The other night I was woken by the unmistakable sound of dainty rodent paws doing the Macarena somewhere behind my head. After a few minutes and some sleepy swatting I realised the mouse was actually on the other side of the wall and in the roof space. Ace predator Mr Pushkin Cat continued snoring richly from deep within the duvet. Like the Cat, mice don’t bother me, or at least they don’t until they eat the handle on my new steam iron.

In that other house – the one I can see now from my kitchen window and the house where I brought up my daughters 20 years ago – encounters with furred, feathered and occasionally amphibian house guests were part of daily life. That other house was 400 years old at its core (this “new” one is half that) and it was almost derelict when we moved in. In the middle of fields it had earth floors, a scullery, a septic tank and no mod cons at all. The mice living inside the metre-thick rubble filled walls had been enjoying a life of quiet undisturbed industry for many years, mostly to do with stripping the insulation from the electric wiring. Once I interrupted one washing itself in the middle of the sitting room floor. The mouse eyeballed me beadily. I eyeballed it back. The atmosphere was taut with tension. The mouse shrugged and went back to washing its tummy. Mice in Rutland are disturbingly confident.

I spoke sternly to our cat collective about entering the house bearing gifts without first checking for a pulse. It was frankly astonishing the number of limp bodies that sprang up like Lazarus and legged it into the soft furnishings. One of these zombie mice lived quite happily in the kitchen curtains for several months. We called it The 6 O’clock Mouse because it used to appear at about the same time every evening. It wobbled, tail spinning, along the pelmets like a tiny Blondin, then shimmied down the other side and zipped off around the corner as if on two wheels. We should have sold tickets.

Mice are habitual little beasts and obligingly visit the same places every night, all within a few yards of their nests. (I know this because while I am tolerant I am only tolerant up to a point and it pays to know your enemy because then you can decide tactics.)

Where mice choose to nest, however, defies all logic. For instance, I imagine the one that chose the toe of a wellington boot briefly comprehended the fragility of life before the forcible insertion of someone’s size 6 unwittingly snuffed it out; likewise the one that set up home in the bottom of the toaster.

When one of our regular power cuts seemed to be going on a bit, we trouped off to the fuse boxes. There, lightly sautéed and gently smoking, we found our “power cut” stretched out terminally between two connections. I’m ashamed to say we were entirely insensitive and laughed like drains. We’re still laughing now.

Still, the fact remains that while mice are charming and funny with their amusing capacity for inventive death, they can also be a bloody nuisance. There are two main mouse nuisances: the first is the teeth. Mouse teeth grow at the rate of five inches a year – can you imagine! Mice have to chew things or they’d never afford the dental bills. (This is a joke; mice almost never go to a dentist.) The second is mouse wee, and obviously by extension, poo. Mouse wee is the mousey equivalent of the post-it note. It says, “I was here half-an-hour ago. Don’t bother checking the biscuit tin.” The poo is incidental – all 50-odd deposits of it every day. They’re sex mad too and breed like the proverbial. When you live in the country you expect to have dealings with mice but indulging their delightful persons with 5* luxury is not an option – they have to be dealt with.

There was a regular mouse run along the top shelf of the larder (preserves and pickles) so I tucked a Little Nipper amongst the chutney and promptly forgot about it. Apparently children can find a stinky electrocuted mouse hilarious but seeing a mouse, dead, in a mousetrap leaves them traumatised for life. It was a difficult evening and ended with me promising to buy a humane trap. This worked wonderfully well: the mice stuffed themselves with the chocolate bait and then waited patiently for me to take them outside and drop them over the fence into the paddock. After disporting themselves in the sunshine for a bit they rounded off the afternoon with a pleasant stroll home again. I think the health of the resident rodent community improved considerably over this period.

If you want to really understand how mice can play Hamlet with your psychological wellbeing I recommend you watch Mousehunt. This is a very silly film with Nathan Lane and Lee Evans and it hurts me to watch it – both for the painful recognition of how things can snowball with the little blighters but mostly because it’s ridiculously funny.

As for the Macarena dancing mouse in the roof, I haven’t heard it again but I’m sleeping with one ear open and the Cat on high alert…

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Written by Helen Walmsley-Johnson

Helen Walmsley-Johnson is a journalist and author who writes as the Invisible Woman. She has a weekly style column for older women which she writes for the Guardian. Her first book, The Invisible Woman: Taking on the Vintage Years, is out now. @TheVintageYear