Low life

It was carnage in our French cave

24 November 2018

9:00 AM

24 November 2018

9:00 AM

Evenings, I sit in a chair facing the cave interior and Catriona lies on the new sofa facing me (and, behind me, the window). Neither of us likes telly much so we read. She is currently consumed by a biography of Gerald Brenan; I’m enjoying The Unfree French, which is a history of the German occupation and the Vichy government.

The cave wall is light brown and pitted and striated by a river that once cascaded over it. The rock is stable and perfectly dry and according to one’s imaginative mood resembles either a gigantic petrified bath sponge or Arizona viewed from a light aircraft. To encourage visitors towards the second imaginative view, Catriona has placed a toy wigwam in a crevice and beside it a cowboy figure, who is taking aim with his pistol at a surprised and pitifully defenceless Indian.

After dark, shadows cast by angled house lights lend the rock an extra fascination. With a gun held to my head, and told to choose, I think I would rather look for hours at the cave wall instead of at a television. Last week, between chapters of The Unfree French, I looked up from occupied France to rest my eyes on the illuminated rock towering above Catriona as she lay reading on the sofa. And at a point about two feet from her head, a mouse popped out of an invisible hole and ran a little way down the rock face. It then paused, as if to read a sentence or two about Gerald Brenan over Catriona’s left shoulder.

It was a confident and very beautiful mouse, small and plump, its fur a rich chocolate brown. It ran headlong and vertically down, now quickly, now slowly, like a raindrop running haltingly down a windowpane. I could see its shoulder blades working alternately through the fur. Instead of drawing Catriona’s attention to our visitor, however, I thanked God with all my heart that she was unaware of it. She did become aware, however, that I was looking intently in her direction. Glancing up from her book, she smiled calmly and happily at me as if to say: ‘Our home. Four feet on a fender. Isn’t this cosy?’ I returned her smile with one devoid of all murine knowledge and lowered my eyes again to the page.

A week before this, I had been 1,000 miles away in England when Catriona called. She was distraught, shattered, crying. I thought, perhaps, that there had been a revolution and the house had been torched. She had seen a mouse. It had popped out of a hole in the rock and run down it and under the sofa and she was beside herself. It was like talking to the maid in Tom and Jerry. And Catriona is normally a down-to-earth and courageous person. To hear the change the sight of a single mouse had wrought in her astounded me. ‘You’ll have to set a trap, then,’ I advised.

When I returned to France and the cave house, I saw that she’d stuffed silver foil into every crack and crevice likely to afford access to a mouse. It was like Christmas. While I was away a neighbour had set traps for her. (Catriona had left the country, and returned to France ten days later.) He’d caught four — I was sorry to hear it, such beautiful mice — and removed the corpses, spiriting them across the Franco-Italian border, perhaps in his car. I was now given the job of filling Catriona’s selected holes with an ecologically sensitive confection of hydrated lime, special sand and ground-up rock, to be done in such a way as not to spoil the natural aesthetic of the rock face. This I accomplished, more or less, carefully tamping the plaster into the smaller holes with the end of a pocket-diary pencil.

Subsequent days passed without either of us seeing a mouse. I had ceased to mention how upset I was by the thought of so many beautiful mice, some of them mere pups, walled in by ecologically approved cement, slowly starving to death. Gradually the rodent invasion and all its horror began to fade from memory and inner tranquility was restored. Gerald Brenan lost his virginity at last, aged 22. The Americans invaded Saint Tropez. And habit being inimical to the fullness of life, we swapped seating in the evenings. Now I was the one prone on the new sofa and Catriona was in the chair facing the rock.

It must have been about nine o’clock. We were gently contending about whether to put another recycled log in the woodburner when Catriona suddenly grew haggard and infirm. She lifted an arm to point an outraged finger at the cave wall, her mouth fell open, and she turned to stone. I meanwhile braced myself and wondered if there was any hydrated lime left in the bucket.

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