Table of Contents
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Copyright © Gordon Reece, 2010
All rights reserved
Originally published in Australia by Allen & Unwin
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING IN PUBLICATION DATA
Mice : a novel / Gordon Reece.
ISBN : 978-1-101-51771-0
[1. Assertiveness (Psychology)—Fiction. 2. Mothers and daughters—Fiction. 3. Conduct of life—Fiction. 4. Bul-
lying—Fiction. 5. Crime—Fiction. 6. England—Fiction.] I. Title.
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My mum and I lived in a cottage about half an hour outside town.
It hadn’t been easy finding a home that met all our requirements: in the country, no neighbours, three bedrooms, front and back gardens; a property that was old (it had to have character) but at the same time had all the mod cons – a modern central heating system was essential, as we both hated to be cold. It had to be quiet. It had to be private. We were mice, after all. We weren’t looking for a home. We were looking for a place to hide.
We viewed scores of properties with the agent, but if we could make out a neighbour’s roof through the trees or hear the drone of traffic in the distance, we’d exchange a subtle glance that struck it off our list. We’d still go through with the visit, of course, patiently listening as the obvious was explained:
This is the main bedroom – this is another bedroom – this is the bathroom.
We would have felt it was somehow rude not to after the agent had driven us so far out into the country, and Mum could as soon have asserted herself over the cocky young man with his gelled hair and constantly trilling mobile phone (
We’ve seen enough, thank you, Darren, we’re not interested
), as fly to the moon. Mice are never rude. Mice are never assertive. And so we spent many Saturdays being shown around properties in which we had no interest whatsoever.
Eventually, however, we’d been taken to see Honeysuckle Cottage.
It wasn’t the prettiest cottage we’d viewed – with its brown brick facade, small windows, grey slate roof and smoke-stained chimneys, it looked more town than country. But it
wonderfully remote. Surrounded on all sides by acres of farmland, the nearest neighbour was more than half a mile away. The cottage could only be reached by following a tortuous single-track road that meandered its way around the large garden in a wide, serpentine loop. With tight hairpin bends, and hedgetopped banks obscuring the view, it felt more like a maze than a public road. For once we had little trouble believing Darren when he told us that few cars ever ventured down that way, wary of being caught behind slow-moving farm machinery. The long tree-lined driveway we had to negotiate up to the house, with its potholes and sharp dog-leg to the left, only added to the impression that Honeysuckle Cottage was too far off the beaten track for the harsh realities of the world ever to find us there.
It was blissfully quiet, too. When we climbed out of Darren’s four-wheel drive on a gusty day in early January, the silence was the first thing I noticed. It was there when the birds in the trees high above us stopped chirruping and Darren paused momentarily in his relentless sales pitch (
I love this house – and I’m not just saying that – I’d live here tomorrow if I could
); it was there, the most wonderful sound in the world – the complete absence of sound.
The owners, Mr and Mrs Jenkins, were an elderly couple. They met us at the door, all stringy grey hair and ruddy cheeks, nursing mugs of tea against their chunky cardigans, bursting into hearty laughter when no one had said anything particularly funny. Mr Jenkins explained that they were having to move back into town because of Mrs Jenkins’s health – a ‘dicky ticker’ as he put it – and they didn’t want to be out here ‘in the sticks’ if anything went wrong. They were heartbroken to be leaving, he said, and assured us that they’d had thirty-five wonderful years in the cottage.
Yes, thirty-five wonderful years
, Mrs Jenkins repeated after him, like a woman used to being little more than her husband’s obedient echo.
They took us on the usual awkward tour of the house: too many people trying to squeeze into the narrow hall and landing, the bumbling confusion (
After you – no, after you
) at every doorway. As we went from room to room, I could feel Mr Jenkins’s stare return to me again and again, trying to work out how a shy, middle-class girl had come to get those nasty scars on her face. I was relieved when they took us out through the kitchen and into the back garden so that I could drop back and avoid his prying blue eyes.
Mr Jenkins was an expert gardener and he was determined we should know it. We trudged behind him around the back garden while he showed off his fruit trees, his vegetable patch, and his two sheds. They were the cleanest, most organized sheds I’d ever seen: every tool hung from its own hook; even their gardening gloves had their own pegs, labelled
. He showed us his fetid compost heap, exclaiming proudly, ‘Here she is – my pride and joy!’, and took us down to the row of cypresses he’d planted when they first moved there. The trees now towered more than ten metres high, and as he expounded on the health of their bark, I peered cautiously through the thick foliage. Beyond them was nothing but the dun-coloured furrows of the farmers’ fields, stretching away into the distance.
Mr Jenkins was especially proud of his front garden. The wide lawn, shaved as close as a bowling green, was bordered by innumerable plants and shrubs, which still showed patches of bright colour here and there in spite of it being the dead of winter. ‘It’s important to have some winter bloomers,’ he told Mum, ‘and plenty of perennials, or else you lose all your colour during winter.’ Mum, trying to change the subject, said she didn’t know very much about gardening, but Mr Jenkins took this as an invitation to repair the gap in her education there and then. He began a long lecture on the different types of soil. ‘Now this soil,’ he said, ‘is a chalky soil. It’s a little dry, a little
. It needs a lot of farmyard manure, garden compost, turf...’ I wandered away, unable to listen to him as he churned on and on – ‘leaf mould . . . artificial fertilizer . . . limestone strata . . .’ I thought I heard him say ‘dried blood’ at one point, but decided I must have misheard.
I kept walking, the irritating voice fading to a dull murmur behind me, until I found my path blocked by a large oval rose bed cut in the centre of the lawn. The roses had been pruned back ruthlessly and seemed to raise their amputated stumps to heaven in protest. The whole bed had a forlorn look. With its great mound of turned-over soil, it reminded me of a freshly dug grave.
Looking around at the other plants and shrubs in the garden, I realized I knew the names of hardly any of them. If I was going to be a writer, surely that was something I should put right. Writers always seemed to know the names of flowers and trees; it helped to make them sound more authoritative, more Godlike. I made up my mind that the first thing I’d do when we moved in (because I already knew from the dreamy look on Mum’s face that this was going to be our new home) would be to learn the names of every flower and tree in the garden – their common names
their Latin names.
When I came back to Mum’s side, Mr Jenkins was unable to keep his curiosity at bay any longer.
‘And what happened to you, my dear?’ he asked, indicating with a vague wave of his hand that he was referring to my scarred face.