“Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,
Look upon a little child;
Pity my simplicity,
Suffer me to come to thee.”
I came across this prayer in anthology of favourite prayers chosen by people from all walks of life: a jockey, a fireman, a shepherd, a baker. One was chosen by John Le Carré and his caught my eye, probably because Le Carré recently died and his name has been in the news. His choice of prayer then further caught my imagination when I read why he had chosen it. “When I was young,” Le Carré wrote in a footnote to the poem, “I prayed for mice, of which I was very fond. It was a misunderstanding. I thought I was being told to, ‘pity mice implicitly’.” (By the way, I told my friend about this and she too remembered saying the same prayer as a child and she always thought the last line was, “suffer me to come to tea.”)
Both appealed to me hugely, how the childlike mishearing of the true words can, in my opinion, provide a charming twist to the prayer itself. It drew me into thinking about my own mice; mice that I feel particularly close to at Christmas. I have no pets, you see. Maire-Agnès, across the landing, she has cats – house cats, mousers – and occasionally, if her door is open, and I am coming or going on the stair, one will wander out and wave a tail imperiously at me, plainly telling me it has even less time for me than I have for it. Presumably, because of said cat, Marie-Agnès has no mice, which, upon first moving to a tenement, I may have thought to be a good thing, but now, a few years into my tenancy, I find myself oddly becalmed by the sound of my mice scratching in the walls. Soft and muffled, like a jazz shoe shuffle heard through thin glass, I lie in the darkness thinking of them scuttling busily through the old brick, so much to do; hurry, hurry.
Do I sound brave? I am not. I don’t mind hearing their distant pliés and pirouettes, but as soon as I see one – and that has only occurred once in four years – my body crumples and I really do, at that point, pity them implicitly as I want to exterminate them. That said, I’ve never done anything about it. Turning one’s back on irksome problems that may go away on their own is a long-held tradition in our family, one there is a lot to be said for. “Go back in under the washing machine,” I said to the mouse that night, “and stay there!’ It worked. I’ve not seen it since October 2017.
However, two years ago, on Christmas Eve, my mother came to stay. I gave her my bed and I took the pull down in the sitting room where, it turned out, the mice like to party behind the wooden slats of my Edinburgh Press – a built-in bookshelf. This was not the soft jazz dancing of my bedroom walls, the was a full-on rave, maybe even a construction project overseen by The Borrowers. They kept me from sleeping, but more than that, I feared them. I neither pitied their simplicity not pitied them implicitly, I dreaded their duplicity and needed them out of the wall there and then and banished somewhere far, far away. But, at 2am on Christmas morning, that was not going to happen. So, I did the next best thing: I woke up my mum. “Mum, there are mice! I can’t sleep. They distress me!” In a way that only mothers can do, she threw back the double bed duvet and spoke through her sleep, mumbling, “jump in.” And this is where the story shows a shocking loss of grace on my part. “I was thinking we could swap,” I said. “They won’t bother you.” She sat bolt upright, blinking hard. “What! What?” She was now fully awake and ready to address whatever adversity had befallen me. “What’s happened?” With one look – one that encompassed despair, exasperation and forbearance – she hastily swapped beds with me and fell straight back to sleep, zoning out the noise of the mice having a hooley in the wall. I, on the other hand, lay awake all night, which you might say (and many did) served me right!
“Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.”
(Clement Clarke Moore)
Happy Christmas, Mum. Don’t worry, I’m not alone, I’ve got the mice!