Fur, Ashes and Soot 

By Jon Crout.

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even a …no, that was not quite true. There was a noise. A faint, barely discernible scratching. Mickey lay awake in bed, confused by the sound of something he could not identify. It seemed distant, yet not quite external, as if it was travelling to his ear through his pillow. He was tired, but sure of what he could hear. He kept as still as he could, and held his breath. There! Again came the mysterious noise. He blinked sleepily, and in that instant had a revelation and cursed himself for a fool. His own eyelashes were scraping gently on his pillowcase.

A bottle of red wine and a large whiskey had helped Mickey to a relatively early night. He didn’t much care for Christmas these days. It had unpleasant associations for him. He didn’t like to be reminded of his pain, and at this time of year he avoided anything festive, and wallowed in the solitude afforded by his housemates all dispersing to their respective family bosoms.

Mickey kicked back his covers and resolved to get another drink. It was only a short walk to the kitchen, but it was a cold night, and he had to prepare himself mentally for the expedition. He told himself that another stiff one was just what he needed to help him sleep. It was dark, and the only light in his room came from the street light down the road straining through his curtains. He was about to reach for the glass on his bedside table, when he became aware of the dark becoming slightly dimmer still. Looking up, he could make out a shape by his window, a silhouette, one that seemed almost familiar. It was a large shadow, and it wasn’t Hank Marvin. He pressed the power button on his phone for the faint glow, and the figure moved towards his bed. Mickey gave a little cry.

“Jake!” he burst out, faintly. His eyes began to pick out more detail in the low light. He could see that his visitor seemed to have a handkerchief tied around his head. Jake was wearing his favourite Alice in Chains t-shirt, and had a chilling sparkle in his eyes. Not bad going for someone who had been dead for seven years.

“Hello Mickey,” said Jake hoarsely. Mickey was full of questions. He wasn’t sure what to ask first. It isn’t every night that your dead lover appears at the end of your bed.

“What’s wrong with your hands?” Mickey could see that Jake seemed to have hold of something strange. Jake raised his arms, and Mickey was horrified to see that each of Jake’s fingers was gripped by an old fashioned wooden mouse trap.

“The mice aren’t happy, Mickey. I’ve come to warn you.”

“What are you on about? What’s with the nippers?”

“Every day I take these off, and every day ten more snap back on. These are the mousetraps that I forged in life, and I must endure them always. You have forged a very large collection of mousetraps yourself, and it has grown much larger these last seven years.”

When Jake and Mickey had shared the Victorian terraced house that Mickey’s dad had left him, they had always had a problem with mice. They had used traps and poison. They had stopped up gaps with filler and expanding foam. The mice never went away. Sure, they caught plenty, there was a steady supply of tiny rodent corpses for the kitchen bin, but it was only a matter of time before one of them would see a small dark shape shoot under the washing machine, a thin tail disappear behind the bookcase, or simply sit and observe one of the bold little pests roam around the lounge floor on a crumb hunt, as they watched telly.

Mickey had turned their old lounge into his bedroom. When he lost Jake, he could not face going to work any more. He supported himself by renting out the three upstairs bedrooms to students, all of whom had gone home for the holidays. So there was no one to hear him chatting to his deceased partner about the prospect of a painful purgatory consisting of some sort of penance for having been so steadfast in their determination to try and exterminate the entire murine population.

“You will be visited by three spirits,” Jake told Mickey, “and you must heed their warning, lest you become cursed as I am.”

“Did you really just say ‘lest’? Does everyone become Dickensian in the afterlife?”

“You have until dawn!” Jake rose solemnly, and with a truly miserable countenance, faded from view, dissolving into the chilling gloom. Mickey grabbed his glass and headed for the kitchen. He had always known something like this would happen. The two of them had often talked of coming back to see the other should they pass on. He was a bit baffled as to why it had happened quite like this.

Opening the kitchen cupboard where he kept his single malt, he went to reach for the bottle, then stopped short. A tiny, baby mouse was sitting on the shelf, looking him square in the eye. Seconds passed, and without knowing quite what he was supposed to do, Mickey put his glass down. The wee mouse was fast, and it ran down and through his legs and out the door. When he got out into the hallway, he saw it on the stairs.

“Where on the stair?” he said out loud, as much as to try and dispel the surreality as to try and be funny. The mouse laughed not, and shot upstairs. Mickey followed, and found himself led into the master bedroom. Their bedroom. At least it had been. These days Mickey rarely came into this room, and when he did he blanked out the mess that his current lodger lived in. But there was the funny thing. The mess was gone, along with the smell. His old bed was in its old place, and that hideous bedding that his mother had sent one Christmas was all neat and clean on a well made bed. Nobody in this house made beds like that any more.

A toilet flushed, and Jake came out of the en suite. Not pale, miserable, dead Jake, but young, vital, happy Jake. The one that he missed every day. The phone on the bedside table rang, and Jake lay on the bed before answering.

“Hi, where have you been? The lasagne’s ruined!”

Mickey started. He remembered this conversation almost word for word. It was his voice that Jake was hearing on the phone. He had gone on an impromptu work Christmas thing, not bothered to call home, and they had ended up having a massive row. Jake had gone to a lot of trouble, cooked a lovely meal, and because of the argument Mickey hadn’t even come home that night. He never saw Jake alive again.

Mickey zoned out as Jake carried on the barney that he was so familiar with. He had to leave the room and go back downstairs. He threw himself back onto his sofa bed and pulled the duvet up over his head.

Snap! Mickey sat bolt upright, ears pricked. Snap! It was a sound he knew well. He got up and went through to the kitchen. There were lots more snaps before he got there. Mickey knew that there were only three traps set in the whole house, so something wasn’t right. He turned the kitchen light on, and he smiled at the ridiculousness of what he saw. Like something form Tom and Jerry, the entire expanse of linoleum was covered in little nipper mousetraps, not baited with cheese, but a smorgasbord of different festive treats.  There were Pringles, mince pies, pickled onions, and even the occasional shot glass full of what Mickey took to be Baileys. And in the middle of the floor amongst this uncanny, dangerous buffet, was his laptop. It was open and on. Something was playing, but the angle was too acute to see what it might be. Perched on top, looking right at him, was a corpulent, well-fed mouse.

Mickey spotted a broom propped up against the kitchen wall, and thought he would be clever and literally try and sweep himself a path to the computer. He was still feeling the effects of the alcohol that he had consumed earlier, and unfortunately was more unsteady than he realised. He leant for the broom, and ended up toppling forwards, and sliding down the wall. He landed to a cacophony of triggered traps, and suddenly found himself in a world of pain and mini pork sausages. He could see his laptop well now, though. Skype was open, and he could see his sister’s family in their own lounge, the two children decorating their tree.

“Daisy?” Mickey called out, but they could not seem to hear him, but he could hear their conversations all too well.

“Will Uncle Mickey be coming for Christmas this year, mummy?”

“No dear, he’s made his excuses again. We’ll see him soon, I expect.”

“He’ll be wallowing in booze and self-pity, same as every year.” The harsh comments were from the children’s father.

“He wasn’t always like that. He used to be the life and soul, generous and fun.” Good old Daisy, she always defended him.

“Well, he’s always been a vindictive bugger when it comes to killing mice.” Colin could be a bastard, but Mickey knew that he had a point.

Mickey grabbed his bottle of whiskey and fetched the Waitrose cheeseboard from the fridge, then went back to bed. As he sat washing down Stilton with single malt, he became aware, not for the first time that night, of a noise that he couldn’t quite place. He was used to the occasional bit of scurrying from under the floorboards, but this was different. It seemed to be coming from the whole room at once. Then it became focused around the redundant fireplace. Then something moved. He squinted at the wall, and saw the surface shift. The paint burst as mouse after mouse forced its way through the gaps in the brickwork. As they poured through, they dragged with them the aggressive stench of damp soot from the chimney. Years of accumulated ash and rain were unnaturally pulled into the room’s atmosphere. The mice scampered over each other in a writhing mass of chaos, and gradually became a moving pile. This rodent tower gradually took on a shape, and as Mickey watched, he saw them coalesce as a giant composite creature, leaning over him. He tried to pick out the individual animals, but they were moving too fast. Then they all shifted as one, and before he could even think about crying out, he was covered in small furry bodies. His vision was obscured, and then as quickly as he had been covered, they were gone.

Mickey realised that he wasn’t in his bedroom any more. He was lying on grass, next to an open grave. A huge stone slab was already in place as a headstone. Jake had always favoured a particular brand of poison, and the only words on this stone were in a typeface that Mickey found all too familiar: Mouse Killer. His curiosity got the better of him, and he peered into the deep hole. His unsteadiness was his undoing once more, as the earth at the edge of the grave gave way, and he toppled all too predictably into the dark space. No sooner had he landed in cold dirt than he saw the headstone start to list, in what for him was entirely the wrong direction. He had no time to scream.

Waking with a start, he found himself a clammy mess, but alive, and back home in bed on this chill Christmas Eve. He reflected as best he could on what he had experienced and seen. He resolved to get over himself, and move on. He would make every effort to be closer and kinder to his family. And above all he would abstain from killing mice. How many had they despatched over the years? He had no way of knowing, but he had probably seen the ghost of every single mouse that he had ever thrown in the bin when that great mass had formed in front of him.

Mickey noticed a subtle change in the light on the curtains. ‘You have until dawn,’ he had been told. Well, he had done it, he had made up his mind to mend his ways. He wanted Christmas morning to arrive proper so that he could find a small boy to be nice to.

The dank, fireplace smell assailed his nostrils once more. He strained his ears, but there was no noise this time, no scurrying. He relaxed into his soft covers, and then realised that they didn’t quite feel right. He looked down and saw the bed start to shift around him. The surface he was lying on was not one thing, it was lots of tiny, soft, moving furry parts. The stench became overpowering, and he was overrun in an instant, disappearing into the mouse mass.

It was after New Year before anyone else entered the house. Mickey’s remains were not a pleasant sight. Speculation went on for some time as to just how this grief-stricken, borderline alcoholic had met his end. The post mortem revealed very little in his stomach, he hadn’t had a proper meal in days. No one questioned where all the contents of a large, luxury cheeseboard had gone.