Voice and Silence

Julia August


In the same week the kittens found a family of field mice under the rosemary bush, my mother ripped the voice out of a greeting card that had been interred in the bottom drawer for years. I wished she hadn’t, afterwards. She meant it to be recycled, but the recycling men must have refused to take it away. When I next went up to the road, I heard its distant, tinny melody and realised only after I had been hearing it for some time that it wasn’t just in my head. The bins were out waiting for collection at that point, but the next time I chased the kittens up there and stood in the cold for twenty minutes, waiting for them to emerge from the hedge, I could still hear it somewhere whistling its three unending unrecognisable bars. But by then all four of the mice were dead and it was too late.

She burnt the card. I don’t know why. It seemed unkind.

I recovered the more cautious kitten and went back inside, thinking about the places where voices went to be recycled, when they did. The broken body of the third mouse lay sadly on the concrete slab by the path, where I’d transferred it from its original resting place on the doormat. They were shooting at the end of the lane, probably the pheasants from the shoot up the valley that had gone bust at Christmas, and I would have preferred to have both kittens safely in the house. But the smaller kitten was discovering the joys of tree climbing, and not even muffled explosions were going to scare him down.

I thought the voice of the greeting card would wear itself out eventually. I could hardly hear it half an hour later when I went to see whether the kitten was still out there, which he was.

It was a brilliant day for January: the lane was damp but the sky was ultramarine and I wished I’d brought my camera to catch my black-and-white kitten quivering and bouncing against it. In the curve of my ear, like sea-spray coiling in a seashell, I caught again the tired echo of that torn-out voice. But it was fading badly. It had been very old, that card. I suppose that’s why the recycling men hadn’t taken its voice away. No one would want a weary, dying thing like that.

The first mouse came to me in the dark. It had round black eyes and a short, stubby tail, and its head was too blunt to be a shrew’s, as we had originally thought.

First the kittens came in at two a.m., as they do, and chased each other over my bookshelves and through all the fragile things on my dressing table and tried to eat each other’s whiskery heads in the middle of my bed. Then, when I was hopelessly awake, the mouse came in. I heard it scuffling and turned on my light and there it was. If the light had been brighter, I might have seen the dampness of its fur. But I was dazzled and the light bulb was the energy-saving sort and in the hazy gloom all I could see was something small and brown mousing around by the door. Then one of the kittens pounced, and missed, and the mouse zipped under my bed faster than anything I’d ever seen.

I sat up straight, heart pounding. I don’t mind mice. I don’t even mind whatever it is that scritches behind the skirting boards, although the hamsters, when I had hamsters, did provide a more satisfying explanation for that. I do mind the kittens losing their mice in my room in the early hours, though. The kittens were pawing at the green valance the hamsters had torn to tattered shreds, squeaking to each other. They’d lost it, I realised with icy clarity. I was afraid the mouse would die down there and never be found and stink like the one that ran behind the fridge one year. Or I was afraid my mother would hear about it and insist on putting poison down, and then the kittens would find that. Maybe, I thought, it had a hole down there.

I listened as hard as I could. All I could hear was a distant, dimming whistle. Eventually I turned the light off and tried to get back to sleep.

It was two days before the second mouse appeared. I was brewing cochineal in the kitchen and trying not to spend any more time with it than strictly necessary when the kittens hurtled down the stairs after a winter butterfly. It was a revelation. I hadn’t realised they could jump so high. I made a note not to put food on that particular table and went next door to check on my dye-bath, which stank so much it made my back teeth ache.

Breathless, I retreated to the other room, where a bunch of Radio 4 comedians were wilfully misunderstanding a politician. The kittens were nosing at a gap in the skirting board under the cupboard where my mother kept her candles. “Hey, babies,” I said, crouching down. “What’ve you found?”

Then I heard it moving in the cupboard. The kittens whined. I sighed.

I’d looked for the mouse under my bed the morning afterwards. I hadn’t found it. The space was a dystopian landscape of old art projects, empty suitcases, used tissues, boxes, bags, long-lost toys. I was sure I’d been able to get into it once, but that was ten years and two dress sizes ago, before I went to university, and it’s remarkable how much going up a bra cup size can inhibit your ability to wriggle into confined spaces. In the end, I’d decided to believe the mouse had got away and let it go at that.

But there were always mice around in this house. I looked down at the kittens, who twisted their fluffy necks and peered up expectantly with yellow eyes. “All right, you awful beasts,” I said to them. “Ready?”

I opened the cupboard doors. The thing darted out too quickly for me to see much more than its shredded ears. “Oh, you would,” I said aloud, as the kittens bumped their heads against the bottom of the dresser. “Why didn’t you turn up when the cats were small enough to get under there?”

I guessed the kittens had already had a go at it. They had stretched themselves out at either end of the dresser, hackles up, poised to pounce. The bigger kitten’s hindquarters were twitching, which would have been a dead giveaway if anyone had needed one. I thought he’d probably get out of the habit once he got a bit more hunting experience under his metaphorical belt.

My mother poured another glass of wine and put poison down. I didn’t mind it going under the dresser, although it seemed a bit belated. The mouse had made a clean getaway as far as I could see.

The third mouse came down the concrete path from the lane. It looked like what it was: a silly young rodent that had kept the kittens amused for a whole afternoon.

It was twilight. All the windows were misting up, except where my mother had already closed the shutters, and I had started a fire in the wood-burning stove. The moon had been out since well before sunset. I was going to get a jug of water when I heard what I took to be one of the kittens squeaking outside the door.

It wasn’t a kitten. They were both asleep inside on my chair. I stood under the porch and tried to work out what I could hear, and why it had such a tinny, artificial ring.

It was the voice of the greeting card. It was trying to sing something trite like ‘Greensleeves’, and as it sang the limp matted thing that had been lying dead beside the path for days, the third pathetic member of the four little mice the kittens had caught and brought noisily inside and released and chased between our boots and mauled and tossed up in the air and quarrelled over and, after all that, decided not to eat, skittered silently down the concrete path and leapt across my fake fur slippers into the house.

I was dumbstruck. I stood there staring out into the dark and all I could hear was the voice singing louder and squeakier and more gratingly with every repetition of its three maddening bars.

I couldn’t find the mouse anywhere inside. I didn’t want to. I couldn’t have seen what I knew I’d seen. The kittens would root out this mouse along with all the others in due course.

In the middle of the night, I woke up with the voice whining in my ears.

It was as tuneless as a beginner’s violin. Any sweetness it had once possessed had rusted to nothing during its long sleep in the bottom drawer. It wailed ‘Greensleeves’ at me and I slammed upright, still practically asleep, and hit the switch so hard my lamp fell over. I scrabbled to right it, my hands shaking. In the dim light, I saw the fourth dead mouse. It trailed wires.

I almost doubled over. I was imagining it, or I was dreaming: I needed to bury my head under my duvet and squeeze my eyes shut and not even breathe until the morning. But I couldn’t move. The thing was singing at me. It was clawing its unsteady way up the valance. The voice had recycled itself.

There was something moving under my bed. A lot of somethings. I could hear them scritching.

There had been a farmhouse here for three hundred years. I couldn’t think how many mice must have died here in all that time.

I should have screamed. The thing was coming right over the end of the bed now. I managed to prise my mouth open, but no sound came out. I was going to retch.

Then the kittens burst out of the dark in a flurry of teeth and fur and exuberant claws, like the psychopathic little murderers they are. They don’t care whether their victims are alive or dead, so long as they wriggle. I never saw such an uproar. I huddled in terror while the voice, howling distress and anger, scraped up and down my spine, until the smaller kitten shook the fourth mouse so delightedly the tangled wires came free.

I jumped up so fast my head spun. The voice buzzed against my palms as I tumbled downstairs to the stove, which was still warm. The wires snaked around my sweating fingers. I tore it off with a convulsive shudder and thrust it deep into the glowing ash.

At last, the noise from upstairs stopped. After a bit, both kittens pattered downstairs and began to wash themselves smugly. I added another log to the fire. It seemed to be blurring. My feet were freezing. I hugged my shaking knees.

Eventually I realised the singing had ground down into silence.