Anna had a rare moment of delight when she saw the mouse. It was creeping slowly with all four legs hunched and its belly nearly touching the floor. She had never seen a mouse move with such obvious trepidation and intent, like a tiger stalking.
Jason was in his high chair. He had almost fallen asleep over his mashed vegetables, and the only noise in the tiny kitchen was the soft whoosh of the one burner alight on the gas stove. “Look, Jason,” Anna whispered breathlessly, “A mouse!” Immediately the spell was broken and the mouse disappeared into the five o'clock winter shadows of the room. Anna switched on the light and picked Jason up to get him ready for his bath in the kitchen sink.
Downstairs, down the five flights of rickety stairs that led up to the two rooms she occupied with Ben and Jason, the front door slammed, sending a muffled reverberation up through the layers of damp peeling floors. Anna tensed; was Ben home already? Then she heard another door open and shut on the second floor landing, and sighed with relief. There was no room in the kitchen for the three of them at this time of the day.
Anna was nineteen years old but she was beginning to feel more like ninety. She loved her baby more than anything in the world, but her devotion to him had become a burden. The mundane tasks of maternal love – the most pressing being nappy changing and bottle making - added to the thousand inescapable duties of domestic life, punctuated her day and took away all sense of freedom. She was determined to carry them out conscientiously no matter how tired she was. She lifted Jason, wet and dripping, from the sink and wrapped him in a towel. Then she took him into the adjoining bedroom where his pyjamas had been warming by the electric fire and eventually put him, powdered and pink, into his cot. Sometimes, at this banishment from her arms he burst into a bellow of rage, but she had discovered that if she stayed in the same room he would usually calm down and fall into a deep and snuffly sleep. Every fibre in her body longed for this to happen and when it did she put her head down on the pillows and gave way to exhaustion.
She woke up suddenly about an hour later, sweating with anxiety. What time was it? Where was Ben? The room was quite dark apart from the lurid glow of the electric fire. She turned off one bar and staggered, dizzy with sleep into the kitchen.
Ben's dinner was a disaster. It had been in the oven since six o'clock and had dried up completely. Anna opened a window on to the dark and brooding garden, far below. The air was fresh, dank and cold and a relief from the smell of burnt lamb chops. What a waste of money. She was scraping the remains into the waste bin when she heard a faint but frantic scratching noise from somewhere vaguely in the corner of the room. It wasn't until the sound was accompanied by a few squeaks that she realised that, of course, it was the mouse. Poor little thing, it must be hungry. Perhaps it could smell Ben's dinner, in the bin. She fished out the lamb chops and put them on a piece of newspaper in the middle of the floor, then she sat down in the dark and waited, breathless and silent, for the mouse to appear. It did not, though the scratching and shuffling noises got louder until she gave up and put the light on again.
“What colour was it?” said Ben, when she told him about the mouse.
“What colour? I don't know! No colour at all, really. Why?”
“Was it brown or grey?”
“Well, if it was brown it was a mouse and if it was grey it was a rat.”
Anna stared at him. “A rat!”
Ben sat down heavily. “These houses are over a hundred years old, Anna. We're living in condemned property. There will be rats everywhere in all of them.”
Just then the scratching and squeaking started again, despite the fact that the light was on. Ben got up and pulled the corner dresser out from the wall to investigate. “I can see it!” he said. “There's a hole in the wainscoting here as big as a loaf of bread. The wood's completely rotten.” The scuffling noises grew more frantic. “ I think it must be trapped. I can't get at it....nothing we can do. Well, it's as well off as we are. Let's leave it alone to find it's own way home. I've got more to worry about than that.”
Anna put her face in her hands briefly, and then recovered. “I could give you egg and chips...”
The kitchen became more oppressive than ever, the air thick with the smoke of hot oil. Ben was grim-faced and silent for most of the evening and Anna could only guess at what was worrying him – the need to find different accommodation at a rent that could be afforded. She failed to find any words that could have heartened him – she was too dispirited to try - and so the evening was spent in another round of washing up, clearing the kitchen, and getting ready for the day ahead. At least Ben gets out, thought Anna. At least he meets and talks to other people. He can walk into a pub and have a drink. He has so much more freedom. She suddenly realised that the freedom she envied was the freedom of not having to look after Jason day and night, and felt ashamed. Communicating any of these thoughts to Ben was impossible. They were both locked into their own worlds, and Anna thought helplessly that the gulf opening up between them could only be bridged by massive good fortune: an unexpected promotion at work, finding another flat, a large sum of money floating down from the sky and landing in their kitchen. She wished that she could believe in miracles.
Ben and Anna slept on a sofa that converted to a bed at night. That was usually the last task of the day for Anna, dragging the heavy bedclothes out from the drawer underneath. Ben muttered under his breath with annoyance when he found the bed unmade. He sprawled heavily on it as soon as he could and dropped into a deep snoring sleep. “I've got to be fit for work tomorrow,” he always said.
There was no bathroom in the flat, so Ben had washed and changed in the kitchen. His suit had to be hung carefully to make it fit for another day and while she was doing this Anna noticed that he could do with a clean shirt as well. Her heart sank – she was just too tired to clear the kitchen worktop and lay out the ironing cloth. She would do it in the morning. She changed into her nightdress and folded her clothes neatly on the kitchen chair. When she turned the light off the scraping and squeaking sounds from the corner continued more vigorously. It's still trying to escape from that hole, thought Anna.
Jason was beginning to stir. “Keep that baby quiet,” snarled Ben, opening one eye. Anna changed his nappy in the dark, and sat in the one good armchair feeding him one of the bottles she hoped he would soon not need. As she relaxed, a tear slid down her cheek and she cuddled the baby for comfort. It shouldn't be like this, she thought.....there must be another life somewhere. She knew it was possible to have another sort of life, that other people sometimes had beautiful houses and gardens and babies that slept all night. She drifted into a fitful sleep, full of anxiety and longing. Half awake, she had the most vivid dream about the rat. 'Rat' she thought now, a dangerous and clever rodent, not the lovable picture-book mouse she had first conjured. It appeared walking on its hind legs from the hole in the corner, smartly dressed Beatrice Potter style, in an expensive city suit. It had acquired an air of tremendous confidence and determination. It carried a shiny leather brief-case with a gold motif on the front; obviously a rat with a difference – a frightfully important job with the government. Lucky rat. Then while she dreamed, the brief-case turned into a battered brown suitcase packed, strangely enough, with all her own belongings. Spilling out of it were her best underclothes, her jeans and dresses, her good grey suit she was saving for work. The rat was walking out with her own life packed into a bag - her own life condensed into the most simple of needs.
She half awoke, staring straight ahead into the darkness. In her imagination she got out the battered suitcase and packed it. She needed so little. It was so simple. She could put Jason on her back in that Indian sling, pick up the suitcase and just go. She could use the rest of the housekeeping money to get to her sister, who lived in Camden. If the rat could escape, so could she. Why had she never thought of it before?
“Come to bed, love.” growled Ben. “You'll be tired out.”
She put Jason in the cot and snuggled into the warm bed beside Ben. Now she was fully awake, staring ahead into the future. Face facts, Anna, she told herself. Escape, in some circumstances, is simply not a possibility. Yes, she could go to her sister, but what then? The same streets, the same cramped housing, probably the same rats. Ben would be heartbroken, and Jason only cared about the things he was used to.
This was her life, and since that was so she would do her level best to make it a good one. She would get up early in the morning and iron a shirt for Ben. She would take Jason out in his pram, maybe even get to the park before it got dark. She was aware that Ben and Jason would both look to her to stand for the things that were valuable in life. Running away was unthinkable.
Escape was a possibility for the rat, though. Tomorrow she would, by hook or by crook, get it out of the hole in the wainscoting and into the freedom of the garden.