Rameses was going about the daily exercise he called Mice Base. This exercise involved a thorough and forensic search of all areas that might possibly have contained, presently contain, or have the potential to contain living mice. While the children were at Break-fast and Mrs Vowles was sitting at the kitchen table absorbed in one of her well-thumbed Golden Nile romances, Rameses slipped in at the kitchen door and tracked, nose down, along the greasy board that ran along under the cupboards, his paws squeaking slightly on the oilcloth. Ha! He stopped, one paw lifted, as a tantalizing whiff of mouse drifted out from behind the board, turned his head on the side and burrowed his nose under the tiny space where the board was lifting from the floor. A squeak, a scurry of tiny claws and Rameses barrelled along after it, nose to the board, body slunk as low as he could get it. What disappointment, how he scowled, when his head ran, thump, against the corner where the board met it, where the smell of mouse died out. He lay down, his black tail switching, his front paws spread wide apart, opened his mouth and emitted a faint snicker of disappointment. Then he prowled along the wall till he met the warped door that gave into the pantry. A bunt of his head and the door opened enough for him to slip into the bready-oily-cheesy-jammy-sausagey-mousy atmosphere. Here he stood at his full height, his head switching alertly from side to side, his whiskers at their fullest extent, his fine eyebrows almost starting from his head. His eyes bulged with concentration. He heard the nibble and tiny crunch, the scratch and scrunch and scurry, and knew that behind paper sacks, inside cardboard boxes, between rattling jars, mice, mice, mice were busy, their little eyes shining, their whiskers atwitch, their teeth anibble, their hairless paws aclutch. Along shelves he prowled, poking his head where it would go, withdrawing it coated with flour, bran, glistening with spilt oil. But the shelves were so laden with crumpled paper bags half-full, sagging cardboard boxes, lidless jars and bottles of nameless substances, that he could not get a run at a mouse.
Out then, out of the kitchen and along the wooden corridor that ran to the schoolrooms and the Leaders’ quarters. It was no use, he knew, turning towards the dark quarters where the children slept, or the schoolrooms, for there was nothing there a mouse would eat. Up the stairs he padded to the Leader’s corridor, where the floor was covered in a thick carpet and delicious smells drifted from the different rooms. Outside Odell Vincent’s study he had often caught a glorious whiff of hot buttered toast. Bernard Hamm’s room was a positive riot of mousishness. He paused there, pushing his nose under the door, inhaling the rich scent that told of generations of mice in the skirting board, behind the dusty fireplace, among the socks that had fallen down behind the chest of drawers, in the depths of old boxes of biscuits thrust into the backs of drawers. It was on the top of his list. A burning building, a panic in the middle of the night, Learners and Leaders rushing out in their nightclothes, and Rameses would be up the stairs and into Bernard Hamm’s room. He left it reluctantly and slunk past the door of the man he thought of as Lie Low. From this room there was not a single sniff of mouse, or of anything else. The carpet backed thickly up against the door, the door sealed tightly round the wood, the lock was a narrow slit that let no light through. Rameses skirted this door, automatically lowering his body closer to the ground, and took the final staircase, where the carpet grew even plusher. Here was the room he thought of as the Easy Room. The mice were fat and lazy, and Rameses had often had success. Today there was one stout mouse perched on the desk with its nose buried in a goblet that had fallen over on its side. Rameses jumped onto the plush seat of the armchair that stood behind the desk, but before he could put his paw out to trap the mouse’s tail, a great rustling and flapping was heard at the window and he turned to see those dratted birds hovering out there, clutching at the iron curlicues of the shutters, beating their wings to stay in place, their beady eyes staring in at him, their brainless voices hooting and fluting. Rameses rushed to the windowsill and stood at his full height, scrabbling with his paws against the glass, his mouth open in a furious snarl, and it was in this pose that he was found by Dr Crane, who came drifting in from Assembly with his white hair backlit by the sun that fell on the corridor from the great loft window, his black gown billowing over a spotless white waistcoat and soft velvet pants.
‘Cat!’ cried Dr Crane, ‘Beast! Blasphemous beast!’
* An excerpt from Crane Mansions