Vermin

A certain amount of time ago, not too long but not too recently, a mouse was born beneath the floorboards of a small, shabby pub in a small, shabby corner of rural Yorkshire. He began his life as a bald and blind pink ball, naïve and unaware of his surroundings. All he knew was his mother, and even then he didn’t acknowledge her as a mother, but simply as another larger, furry ball that provided food and warmth.

As days passed by the creature gradually grew stronger and came to look more mouse-like. He gained downy grey-brown hair and developed shining black beads for eyes. With these eyes came sight, and with sight came a sense of adventure. He was curious, but of course he didn’t know or understand curiosity. All he knew was that it was absolutely necessary that he saw everything the world had to offer. He yearned to experience life above the floorboards, and eventually, when he was strong enough, that time came.

The mouse one day became mesmerised by a small shaft of light that cut through the darkness in his home beneath the floorboards. It was time for his very first expedition into the real world. His twitching nose led him towards the exit from the dank depths. He clambered up and out and found himself beneath a table in a discrete corner of the worn tavern. His ears quivered as he listened to the dull hum of noise that drifted towards him from a group of locals on the opposite side of the room, and without fear he began a casual perusal of his new habitat. He gazed about the bar, took in the sallow walls and misty windows, breathed the scent of hops and stale food, and immediately spotted tasty looking crumbs scattered across the floor.

The rodent scuttled towards a grey morsel and grabbed it with his perfect white teeth. It tasted as grey as it looked, but it was food, and it was in abundance. He followed his nose towards the next morsel, and the next, sweeping up the crumbs like a novelty vacuum cleaner. He suddenly stopped and raised his head; his nose had discovered a particularly foul and yet interesting smell. He followed the trail through a dim hallway and squeezed himself through a gap beneath the front door of the pub.

He froze. He found himself outside in the dull, damp evening, quivering against the craggy brick building. He’d known there was life above the floorboards, but he didn’t know there was even more life surrounding that. He gawped at the pebbled concrete ground; yellowing cigarette butts strewn across it and weeds sprouting from its crevices. He watched as a man on two wheels wobbled past in the distance. He stared up into the slate sky; endless, seamless grey.

It wasn’t long until he himself became the foul yet interesting smell lingering in the nostrils of a cat. The young mouse was unfamiliar with his natural enemy. He did not yet have the scout-like sense to be prepared. The feline padded slowly towards him, ready to attack from behind.

‘Oi! Gerron!’

The noise came from in front of the mouse, from a tall, rough figure, standing rather unevenly on the flat ground as though on a slope. The cat slipped away round the corner but the mouse remained, glued to the ground in utter fear of the giant that swayed before him. It made another noise, softer this time and longer;

‘You oughtta be careful, Jerry. Avoid that Tom. He’s a crafty one, ‘im. I’ll watch out fuh ya.’

It lurched towards him and the mouse finally had the sense to flee. He scuttled through the great figure’s legs, into the pub and behind a table leg. Peeking out, he caught a glimpse of the monster through a grimy window and watched aghast as it breathed smoke from its mouth.

The thing lumbered back into the pub and settled itself at an angle against the bar. In the artificial yellow light the mouse was able to focus his ink-black eye and see more clearly the terrifying figure. It was a man; bearded, unkempt and with a worn, crumpled face. It was the facial hair that was the most striking part. Not so much the beard itself but what it contained; food. That beard was a wiry, whiskery larder, hoarding delicious remnants of roast meats, pie crust crumbs and flecks of irresistible gravy. There was a feast to be had in those bristles.

The man grunted at the Landlord and was handed a glass of deep brown, frothing liquid which he slurped down eagerly. He turned so that his hunched back leant against the bar and he surveyed the shabby room, hairy head turning slowly from left to right and small eyes darting back and forth. He took in each of the locals that were slumped against the bar or over tables; each one avoided his scowl. He looked down at the stained carpet and something in the far corner of the room caught his gaze. With a squint he managed to focus upon the little mouse that took cover there.

The mouse stared up into the crooked face. The man stared back. Neither one made a sound or moved an inch, but simply exchanged a long and curious look. Eventually the mouse lost his nerve with the realisation that this monster could pounce on him at any moment. The rodent hastily scuttled to the nearest hole he could find and slid into the cool, comforting depths of the pub floor.

That was the mouse’s first encounter with Man With Beard, and at the time he was unaware that there would be many more. As he grew older he gained speed and agility and grew more confident. The thought of humans and cats still encompassed him with fear, but he was cunning enough to outwit and escape them when in danger. He did not let fear stop him from scurrying through the pub at the busiest of times to get the biggest and tastiest crisp crumbs.

One such evening, the mouse was lucky enough to discover a feast of crushed crisps, pork scratching scraps and a handful of dry-roasted peanuts. The scraps were formed into a small mound and perfectly positioned in a quiet corner underneath a chair, allowing the meal to be enjoyed alone and hidden from view.

But Man With Beard was watching, and as the mouse tucked into the grub the human ambled slowly towards him and took a seat beside the makeshift rodent restaurant. He watched as the meal that he had gathered and lovingly arranged was devoured. As the last morsel of food slipped into his full stomach, the mouse came to sense that he was being observed. He noticed a massive scuffed boot placed just half a metre from him. He raised his quivering nose and his eyes took in a denim leg, leading up to a protruding belly clothed in a plaid shirt and a tatty leather jacket.  The mouse ran.

Moments such as this kept occurring. The mouse would discover awesome feasts, and after bolting down the food was frightened away by the close proximity of Man With Beard. Often as he ran he would hear a booming sound from behind him.

‘You enjoy that, Jerry? Go careful now, lad. Don’t let Tom get ya.’

With time though, the mouse began to realise that the hairy creature was not harmful. After each time the mouse ran away from the giant and was in safety, he realised that he was completely intact and unharmed. It also seemed that as much the mouse tried to hide from human eyes Man With Beard would always seek him out. Yet he would never give the wee creature up to other drinkers or even to the landlord. Man With Beard had always kept himself to himself, and he planned to keep his new acquaintance private also.

The boom of Man With Beards voice soon became a familiar sound to the mouse. He heard the rumbling tones mixed with short murmurs of acknowledgement from the Landlord; the same melody every day.
‘Pint of bitter, please George.’
‘Aye. Good day?’
‘Not bad, not too bad. Bin up to Stoke today, I ‘ave.’
‘’Ave you?’
‘Aye. Not too bad a run.’
‘Packet of plain?’
‘Nah, I think I’ll ‘ave Cheese ‘n Onion today, George. Be a bit adventurous, eh?’
‘£3.10 then.’
‘’Ere y’are. Thanks… Aye, not too bad a run. They don’t send me on these big journeys down south and across the waters anymore.’
‘No?’
‘Nah. Too old, aren’t I.’
‘Y’think?’
‘Aye. It’s a young blokes job, lorry driving. They can drive for miles. I’m getting old. All they’ve got for me is the short runs, ‘n they only gimme them out of pity. Got nowt else going fuh me, see. ‘Ave I?’

The little mouse recognized the routine rise and fall of Man With Beard’s opening conversation, and would creep from beneath the floorboards, knowing that this growl coincided with suppertime. A moment of silence was followed by a thud of boot followed by more silence, and it was time to emerge once again from the floor and go in search of dinner.

A certain amount of time would pass during which light would dwindle, before a bell would ring and the Landlord barked a command, then another familiar melody was heard.
‘Well I s’pose I’ll try one more pint. Got nobody to go home to, ‘ave I, eh?’
‘Aye. Same glass?’
‘Yeah. Save you on washing up. No bloke should be washing up. Every bloke should have a wife to wash up after him. That’s why I ‘ave to do me own. You shouldn’t be washing up though, eh, George. You got your lovely missus to it for ya. You lucky sod. Where is she tonight?’
‘She’s out.’
‘Tell ‘er from me, she should get back behind this bar soon. It’s nice to ‘ave a bit of female company every once in a while. Well, it’s nice to ‘ave any kind of company every once in a while, isn’t it?’
‘Aye.’
‘Bit of conversation to keep the mind going,’
‘Mm.’
‘Cos when you’re a lorry driver all you’ve got is yourself. And I tell you what, George, I’m not so great company.’
‘Mm?’
‘Nah. I’d be married ‘n all that if I were good company. Beautiful wife. Coupla kids roaming round the place. Mebbe a dog. Definitely not a cat. I’d ‘ave it all, George. If only I were good company. Shame I’m a moaning old bastard, eh?’

A second bell, a second bark, and not long after the click of the lightswitch, the clunk of a key turning, and silence until the next day when it would all begin again. Day after day passed and the mouse grew fatter with each one. He didn’t know what hunger felt like.

The mouse couldn’t acknowledge weeks and months, but it was after a significant amount of time that his routine suddenly changed.

From the darkness of the pub flooring, the rodent heard the well-known clunk of the door unlocking for noon-time opening, and almost immediately Man With Beard’s grumbling tones.
‘They’ve got rid o’ me,’
‘Fuh good?’
‘Fuh good. I’m too old fuh them, they ses. They gotta mek cuts and they gotta keep on the young ‘uns oo’ll work fastest and ‘ardest.’
‘You’ll find summat else, mate.’
‘I should be so lucky,’
‘You got years of experience.’
‘It’s lorry drivin’, George. Int bloody rocket science. They just want their young lads ‘oo can drive. It’s all I’ve ever ‘ad, y’know? All I’ve ‘ad is work. Well bollocks to ‘em. Early retirement it is.’
‘I’m sorry, mate,’
‘Aye, me too.’
‘This ones on me.’
‘I don’t want your bastard charity, George. I’ll pay for me own pint. I’ve lost my job but I’ve still got my pride, for the time being at least.’

The mouse hastily made his way into the pub, curious, wondering if there would be food waiting for him already. He spied Man With Beard at the bar, necking his pint like it was water.

The entire afternoon was spent observing Man With Beard, who seemed insatiably thirsty. He built a glass fortress upon his table and scattered tab ends outside like confetti. Soon, Man With Beard began to sway and slop his ale onto the carpet, where it fizzed and frothed before seeping into the bare wood and dripping between the cracks. With each new pint came a new roar.
‘What the flaming ‘ell am I gonna do, George. Eh? Tell me. I got nothing.’
‘Savings?’
‘Eh?’
‘You got money saved?’
‘Money? I couldn’t give a shite about money. What will I do with my life? With my time? Eh?’

‘You know what? I came out of school at 15. I worked with my dad, loading up wagons. I got me own license and I started driving ‘em myself. And I’ve done that ever since. ‘Ow pathetic is that? Up and down the country, across the continent. I’ve seen come countries, George. All of ‘em through the windscreen of a bloody lorry. Spent me ‘ole life looking through a chuffin’ wagon windscreen. What sort of career is that?’
‘Aye.’
‘You’ve got it good ‘ere George. Pub. Friends. Family. You’ve got it all. You lucky son of a bitch.’

‘I’ve got nobody in this world, George. All I’ve got in this bloody world is you, my beer, and that bloody mouse.’
‘What mouse?’
‘That cheeky bastard Jerry who sits and watches me and takes his food and pisses off again.’
‘I think you’ve ‘ad too much to drink.’
‘I don’t think I’ve ‘ad enough. Get me another pint you sanctimonious bastard.’
When the first bell rang and the first order barked, Man With Beard stumbled to the bar. The mouse listened to his grumble, lower and quieter than it had been all night.
‘I think… I’ve ‘ad enough. D’ya think? Eh? George?’
‘Aye, I think so?’
‘Unless you wanna gimme that pint. Now. Y’know. Cos you said, earlier, didn’t ya?’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Why not? You can’t take back your charity offer now. And I’m spent up.’
‘You should be going ‘ome,’
‘Ah, gimme another pint. Got nowt to be up fuh ’int morning, ‘ave I?’
‘Go  ‘ome.’
The mouse watched Man With Beard lumber away from the bar and stumble out into the dark.

From that day the routine was different. The mouse settled himself under the usual table waiting for scraps as soon as he heard Man With Beard enter the pub at noon. He was never disappointed. Like a faithful dog he sat patiently day after day, observing the changes in the mighty human. That proud beard grew more straggled and became dusted with salt and pepper as it greyed. The jovial crumples in his face deepened into large crevices. His back became more slumped as the days went by until he looked like a puppet with broken strings. He was decaying, and was bringing the rodent down with him. The mouse’s downy belly had got bigger and bigger over the months he had known Man With Beard. His teeth had gradually yellowed with the greasy bar snack stains. He had become slower; his scuttle was now a waddle. He’d lost his curious streak and given up on any attempt to explore any further than the bar; he only needed food, and food was in abundance.

Then came an evening, as the mouse tucked into his third feast of the day, that Man With Beard raised himself up, with effort, from his stool and wandered outside, with a parting grumble.

‘Enjoy it, Jerry lad. Mek most of it.’

The mouse ate and ate until his stomach felt like it would burst and proceeded to wipe the grease from his whiskers with his front paws. He caught a bitter whiff of sloshed beer on the floor and meandered a few feet forward to refresh himself. He lapped at the russet liquid and soon, as was usual, began to feel unwell. The feet of the locals moved past him slower than usual and as he turned his head the whole pub swirled around him and then swam into place. He felt far too hot and craved some cool air.

On unsure paws the mouse began to make his way outside, turning round corners that didn’t exist and meandering between boots that were far too close for comfort. He heard noises that seemed to come from far away in the distance;
‘What the bloody hell?’
‘You’ve got mice, George!’
‘I always knew this was a shithole’
‘Get the cat onto the little bastard.’
‘If there’s piss and droppings in my beer, George…’
‘You don’t like it, drink somewhere else!’
‘He’s a big fat one, ain’t he?’
‘I’ve got some poison at home, kill off any vermin you want it to.’

With effort, the mouse squeezed his bulk through the crack in the door and was outside, allowing the chilly evening air to work its way through his body and clear the ale cloud from his brain. Slowly he began to feel more normal, and as he did he noticed a peculiar sound. It was a dull, desperate groan interspersed with wheezing, rasping breath. It sounded frightening.

But the creature didn’t run. Curiosity got the better of him, and he tentatively crept forward, keeping close to the pub wall, and peeped around the corner down a questionable alleyway. He was faced with the image of Man With Beard leaning against a wall, one hand clutched to his chest.

The man glanced at the rodent from his eye corner and looked into those beady eyes, his face twisted in pain and fear. His legs buckled and stumbled, giving out on his body which then fell to the floor with a thump.

The mouse was not afraid of the monster that had fallen. He darted across the ground towards the heap of man. He watched the bloke’s chest shudder as it rose and fell with each strained breath. He listened to the growls of pain that slipped from his lips.

With a few swift hops and bounds, the mouse leapt upon the beast and clambered onto its chest. He could feel the heart stutter and jolt; it seemed like it would burst out of its cage at any minute.

As Man With Beard’s eyes quivered to a close his breathing steadied and he seemed to slip into a normal slumber. The mouse could feel the irregular pounding beneath his feet cease as the man’s heart lost the will to fight and his muscles began to unwind. The creature stared into the lifeless human face; in his short life he had not yet come across death.

A few minutes passed and the mouse’s nose began to twitch. He meandered slowly up the lifeless body’s neck and clambered onto its face, his tiny claws scratching at the weathered skin. He snuffled around the impressive beard with his skilled nose, sought out the treats hidden there and without a second thought, slowly to munched his way through gravy soaked titbits. After all, he was just a mouse, and a mouse has to eat to live.

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