When I heard my aunt leave the house I knew it was around six a.m. The sun had been up a few hours already, though it couldn’t penetrate the grey blanket of cloud floating above the farm. Overcast days were the easiest to endure after a night of broken sleep. Those last few weeks of the summer holidays I slept badly. Thoughts of starting the big school and moving to a new town made me restless. The estate we were going to was a hole, and we were the wrong sort to get on with the locals. Same with the school, but it was the best in the county, and I’d got the grades.
As I passed the hen house, I could hear Top 40 radio blaring out. My aunt would be in gathering eggs. I couldn’t make out the tune, some dance crap my cousin liked. He wouldn’t be here yet though. I hurried past; if she knew I was awake she’d rope me into helping her.
A car I didn’t recognise was parked at the mouth of the lane, off to the side, so as not to block it for other vehicles. A man and a girl stood at the corner of the field where we grew grass for silage. The girl was about my age.
‘You okay?’ I asked as I reached them. They didn’t seem startled, given they were on private property.
‘Morning,’ the man said, then turned back with the girl towards the field. With his pressed suit and shiny shoes, he had the air of a headmaster, or a city type, certainly not a farmer. They were probably from the next town over, where I’d be moving soon, but they weren’t from the scummy part. The girl looked even more out of place with her wellies and matching plastic raincoat, both printed with cartoon frogs. The rain would go through them as if they were torn chippie bags. She wore her hood up, even though it wasn’t raining. The face of a toy monkey peeped out of her side pocket. She was a bit old for cuddly toys. I was proud I’d outgrown them. It reminded me of what my cousin said the night before when there was a wildlife program on about monkeys. He said monkeys had AIDS before humans, and the first human to get AIDS must have been shagging a monkey. If he’d a monkey he’d call it Adrian, to remind him not to go near it. My mum and aunt told him not to be saying stuff like that in front of me. He said I was old enough to know about the birds and bees. I was impressed by adults who cursed around me, even though he was barely one, adults who didn’t tailor their language for childish ears. It made me feel like I was old enough to curse, but when I tried it, using a mild word to test it out, and said I wouldn’t go near a bloody monkey, I felt the back of my mum’s hand across my face. I hated that I’d cried in front of my cousin, and that he was laughing about it. My aunt said mum was just right to hit me a clash; she wished she’d done that with my cousin, but it was too late now. That’s why she could gather the eggs herself this morning.
‘What are you doing?’ I asked. It was none of my business really; this wasn’t my farm, but in the countryside people had a curiosity for strangers.
‘We’re freeing a mouse,’ the girl said. She held a pink shoebox out in front of her, as if she was doing an important deed. ‘Daddy was going to drown it,’ she said, looking at her dad, half-accusingly. Her voice made her sound even younger than I’d thought. Maybe she was tall for her age, like I was short for mine.
‘Is it a house mouse?’ I asked.
The man kept his back to me, turning his head only to give me a nod. He seemed as if he wanted me to leave them alone. My dad wouldn’t have taken me out this early to release a mouse. He was going to drown the one we caught that time, but the squeaks of the wee thing made me feel sorry for it. I talked dad out of it, saying we could release it in the park at the bottom of the estate. He drowned it while I was at school and said it escaped, ran out the back gate before he could get his boots on. I found its body in the kitchen bin later that evening.
‘What’s the name of your monkey?’ I asked the girl.
‘He doesn’t have one yet,’ she said.
‘You should call him Adrian,’ I said.
The man turned and gave me a strange look that made me wonder if he got the joke. I looked down and scratched my foot back and forth across the loose chippings on the loanen. I realised the man just wanted me to go away; I was spoiling some special moment between father and daughter. I’d love to have pinged a stone at his car, but he’d have driven in the lane after me. I’d get another slap.
The girl lifted the corner of the shoebox lid and whispered something to the mouse. I couldn’t fault her; she was at that age where she probably believed it had a mouse wife and mouse children wondering where it was. It wasn’t so many years ago I’d have thought something similar. Having lived in the countryside only a month I’d already started losing my townie ways. Even my accent was sliding towards sounding like my cousin’s, all long scooped up vowels learned from farm animals.
‘You should let it loose further down, away from the nettles,’ I said. ‘It’s got a better chance of hiding in the longer grass.’
‘Thanks,’ the man said. With a gentle hand on her shoulder, he led the girl down the lane. I stood where I was and watched. The girl crouched down. Again she whispered something to the mouse, before tipping it out on the grass. The mouse gave a wiggle while getting its bearing, and shot straight into the field. The man and the girl waved to it, with big beamers on their faces, as if they were simple. The girl jumped in the air, letting out a happy shriek that probably made the mouse run harder. A cow in the field behind us answered her with a moo.
‘Shut your face,’ I said turning to the cow. It wasn’t even our cow. I’d only done it to get a laugh, but the man and the girl acted as if they hadn’t heard me. The cow flicked its tail against its side, swiping away a cleg.
I wondered if the girl had wanted to keep the mouse as a pet. If they’d caught it yesterday, she’d probably spent all evening talking to it, making friends, while the mouse pumped adrenaline round its small body, wondering what was happening to it. Whatever age she was, she was close to the age I’d been when my parents’ long drawn out break-up started. An age where animals could be like people, after teddy bears stopped being like people.
Mice couldn’t switch as easily as people between the town and the country, that’s what I hadn’t known at her age. And if that mouse could have talked like a person, it wouldn’t have thanked them for setting it loose in the countryside. All that time spent sneaking nibbles of crumbs her family dropped on the floor would have dulled its instincts. It wouldn’t see a cat coming. A few times I’d watched my aunt’s cat, Barley, dispose of a mouse: biting the head off first; cleaning out the guts; then swallowing the body, tail and all. The same way every time. And those were field mice that had grown up on the farm. Even if luck was on this mouse’s side and it managed to avoid the cat, we’d put bait blocks out only the week before. The mouse would suffer, either a violent death from another animal or a slow painful one from poison.
As they walked back to the car, the man said he’d buy the girl a treat for doing a good deed. The girl jumped over a pot hole and shouted ‘ice cream.’ As the car drove off she didn’t even wave. Not at me, but at her mouse friend. The mouse would be forgotten in the coming days, lost to the distractions of a childish attention span. Still, they meant well. I suppose.
Walking back in the lane, I wondered if the first place the mouse would head was the farmhouse. It would be a nice idea leaving a few crumbs out to make it welcome, but I didn’t want the dirty wee bugger in my room. As I reached the hen house my cousin drove past me; he beeped his horn and gave me the fingers. My aunt stuck her head out the door and shouted was I coming in to give her a hand with the eggs. I was finally feeling sleepy, but I didn’t want to go back to bed. Barley pottered up to the hen house door and dumped a dead mouse at my aunt’s feet. She hit the carcass a kick, and told Barley to get away. Barley ran to the mouse and with one bite took the head clean off it. Then he began the process of cleaning out the body. As I watched Barley gulp the dead mouse down, I wondered if the girl had even tasted her ice-cream yet.