Almanac Short Fiction: ‘A Pest Exterminator’s Tale’

An illustration from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in
Wonderland, showing the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

 

A Pest Exterminator’s Tale

 

On a grey, blustery morning, George Smith brought his van to a halt outside the former Sailor’s Repose Hotel. It was a two-storey sandstone building that had stood derelict on a corner near the waterfront for decades. A local businessman had recently bought the place with the intention of turning it into a gourmet restaurant. He knew, though, that before starting renovations he would have to get rid of the building’s only occupants, a large colony of mice. To that end, he employed George, who ran a well-known pest extermination company.

 

George levered the boards off the main entrance to the building and went inside. He shone his torch around and noticed, unsurprised, that the interior was filthy, strewn with yellowed newspapers and covered in thick cobwebs. A musty, nauseating smell hung in the air.

 

In one corner, his torch revealed a group of mice bunched together. Just as he was about to return to the van to get his lethal anti-mouse spray, one of them spoke up in a loud, high-pitched voice.

 

“Hey!” said the mouse.

 

George thought he was hearing things. He listened more closely. Silence. Puzzled, he started in the direction of the van.

 

“Hey!” repeated the mouse, in the same loud, high-pitched voice.

 

“Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!” chimed in the others, having gained courage from the first one.

 

“Jesus!” said George, startled as he turned and shone his torch again into the corner. He saw that all their little mouths were moving. They were in animated conversation.

 

George wasn’t a brave man, but he felt he had to do something. He couldn’t flee to his next scheduled job as if nothing had happened.

 

“Wh-Wh-Whaddaya want?” he shouted nervously to the mice.

 

“Hey!” was all they could answer. “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!”

 

“C-C-Can’t you say anything else?” he yelled, his anxiety building.

 

A long silence followed. George was tap-rooted to the spot.

 

He shone his torch up a stairway and with the beam followed a mouse as it ran downstairs to join its fellows. “Hey!” the mouse shrieked when it got to them.

 

George’s mouth went dry. Terrified, he stared as the mice, in tight formation, advanced in his direction.

 

“Sheeeeet!” yelled George. He bolted out the front entrance, jumped into his van and drove off at speed.

 

For hours, he sped around the city. He drove recklessly, pushed the van as fast as it would go, wheeled it dangerously around corners and floored the accelerator along straight stretches of road. He felt like the pursued vehicle in a car chase – the only problem was that no one was chasing him.

 

He drove until day became night. He then found himself sitting at the end of a long pier with his legs dangling over the edge, unsure how he’d got there. As he looked down, he could feel the coldness of the water below, and for him it was voluptuous with extravagant, hidden terrors – giant death-grey man-eating sharks, huge stingrays with lethal stings on their lashing tails, hideously bloated, poisonous toadfish and a variety of nightmarishly grotesque sea monsters.

 

All that really was down there at the time was a couple of flathead feeding on the bottom.

 

At 3.30 a.m., a nightwatchman found George sitting at the end of the pier. Because George proved incapable of answering any questions, the man telephoned the police. Two constables arrived. One searched George, found his wallet and, from the information in it, ascertained who he was and where he lived. He didn’t appear dangerous, so the police drove him home – it would save them annoying paperwork back at the station.

 

The only thing George was aware of on the journey was the old pub. “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!” he heard coming from the derelict building.

 

The next day, George’s wife, frightened at his still-insensible condition, took him to their family doctor. When they entered the consulting room, Mrs. Smith drew the doctor to one side and had a brief, whispered conversation. They needn’t have bothered whispering, for George simply stood in the centre of the room wearing a blank expression, giving no indication he could hear anything.

 

Puzzled, the GP walked over to George and guided him to a nearby chair. He motioned Mrs. Smith to sit beside her husband.

 

“How are you, George?” the doctor asked, having decided a bantering, friendly manner would be the best way to gain a response.

 

George did not answer.

 

“Been under a bit of stress lately?”

 

Silence.

 

“Your wife? How are … um … things … between you?”

 

No answer.

 

“The kids? Not giving you any problems? … Have you hit your head on anything in the last twenty-four hours?…Work been busier than usual lately? … ”

 

George said nothing throughout the consultation.

 

He was committed to the main psychiatric institution in the city, Wax House, named after an eminent locally-born psychologist, Harold Wax. The psychiatrist appointed to George’s case had no more success (initially, at least) than the family doctor. When awake, George did little except sit mutely in his bed, looking ahead impassively. Occasionally, he turned his head and stared out the window, over the city skyline, at the blue-tinged mountains on the other side of the bay.

 

One day, George fancied he saw a mouse scurrying along the window ledge. He uttered his first sounds in almost three weeks. “Oooh! Arrghhh!” he yelled, looking with startled eyes at the nurse, who had folded back his sheets and was about to give him a blanket bath. She thought George was about to become violent. Fearing for her safety, she buzzed the duty psychiatrist.

 

Together, they managed to restrain their now-flailing patient long enough for the psychiatrist to administer an injection of calming drugs. George settled down almost immediately; so much so, in fact, that he was unconscious for eleven days.

 

When he came to, he felt different.

 

He started to talk again. At first, it was a strange gibberish. Words, phrases and sentences came out of his mouth as if they’d been jumbled about in a kaleidoscope. His psychiatrist thought it was a start, though, and immediately communicated this opinion to George’s wife, who was almost beside herself with worry, to calm her down.

 

George demanded a pencil and notepad as soon as he could communicate lucidly. At first, all he drew were dead mice. Then, as his condition improved, he went on to draw groups of mice, some dead, some alive. He progressed to watercolours. Over time, these became more rustic in setting, and increasingly elegant and beautiful. “Oddly reminiscent of traditional Japanese landscape art”, opined his psychiatrist, who fancied himself as an art expert, when he first saw these paintings. In them, mice were depicted anthropomorphically; infrequently, a dead one was painted in an obscure part of the picture, such as under a leafy bush or in the shadow of a tree.

 

Soon, George’s work became more eclectic. One of his favourite compositions of this time he titled Mr. Mouse’s Tea Party. The painting featured mice in a rural setting, wandering around in awkwardly fitting Victorian dress. “Stylistically, comparable to Tenniel’s famous illustrations for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was the psychiatrist’s observation, in conversation with a colleague. “Indeed, an onlooker could be forgiven for thinking the large mouse in the centre of the picture ought to be wearing a top hat with ‘In this size – 10/6” on it,” he continued, chuckling.

 

At around the time of the ‘Mr. Mouse’ painting, George was allowed to leave Wax House. As his wife drove him home, he felt pretty much back to his old self, at least to the extent to which he remembered who that old self was.

 

They drove past the old pub and he had a steady look at it. “Hey!” he thought he heard emanate from the ground floor. His wife saw his face go pale and body stiffen. She was instantly very worried.

 

“What’s wrong, dear?” she asked.

 

“Nothing. Nothing at all,” George replied, trying to convince himself, as much as her. Employing a relaxation exercise taught to him at Wax House, he took three slow, deep, deliberate breaths. After this, he became calm again.

 

* * *

 

To quote the words of his psychiatrist, George made “a wonderfully complete recovery” from his breakdown. He was, however, considerably changed by his experience with the mice. Somehow, it had left him more fragile and sensitive. He did not return to his pest exterminating job, but instead made a respectable living as a visual artist. In fact, he developed a good local following. Mr. Mouse’s Tea Party, incidentally, was eventually sold to the wife of an ear, nose and throat surgeon for the highly respectable sum of $10,000.

 

When it became apparent that George wouldn’t be returning to his former occupation, the local businessman employed a firm called Don’t Bug Me to rid the old pub of its mice. They got the job done without incident. Fandangle, the restaurant which soon occupied the building, opened to excellent reviews.

 

Read more from Kevin Densley HERE

 

Kevin Densley’s latest poetry collection, Sacredly Profane, is available HERE

 

Read more Almanac Poetry HERE

 

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About

Kevin Densley is a poet and writer-in-general. His fourth book-length poetry collection, Sacredly Profane, has just been published (late 2020) by Ginninderra Press. He is also the co-author of ten play collections for young people, as well as a multi Green Room Award nominated play, Last Chance Gas, which was published by Currency Press. Recent other writing includes screenplays for films with a tertiary education purpose.

Comments

  1. Kevin Densley says

    Pretty “left-field”, eh?

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