Lying in bed, Eva Summer heard the familiar sounds: the scuttling across the wooden floors, that faint scratching against the skirting boards, a squeak, and then another, prolonged – like a scream. But she could see nothing.
There had been a reprieve in the relentless Milan rain and now in the dark these sounds were all there was. Then a moment of silence, and she imagined the tiny grey mouse beneath the bedcovers, its long, translucent tail, twitching on her crisp, white sheets.
She drew up her legs, turned on the bedside lamp, and threw off the bedcovers. Across the white expanse of her sheets there was nothing mouse-like, but to be sure she reached for her glasses from on top of the book left on the pillow beside her. She listened for it, but now, with the room partly lit, the sounds seemed to have retreated to the darker spaces.
This was not something that she should have to deal with. In the morning she would call the landlady, Mrs. Pudzianowski.
Leaving the light on, Eva removed her glasses and lay down. If Martino were here he’d have done something.
It’s only a mouse, Eva.
She remembered the last time the mouse came. Martino looked so boyish in his striped pyjamas, down on all fours, teasing the creature out of its hiding place with scraps from the kitchen. To her surprise the mouse emerged, trusting of the gentle giant. Then he caught it inside a shoebox and took it outside. Martino had been good that way.
The rain started up again, softly at first, and then it really came down. No one told her the Milan winters were so much like home: long, grey and wet. Her agent in London often texted her, How’s life in sunny Italy? Inserting one of those awful smiley-faced suns. But her life in Italy was not at all like La Dolce Vita. Of course, it was good for her career, working with a language she loved, but the city and the people were not what she expected.
Perhaps she’d come in the wrong season.
It’d been raining since last Tuesday, a week since her breakup with Martino. And she felt it would never let up. They met – in Palazzo Sormani at the public library, which she took as a good omen – and it was good until she started falling behind in her work, and then she noticed his annoying habit of agreeing with everything she said and his neurotic, constant use of the superlative; and so it all came undone – subitissimo. She said it was over and he left and that, she thought, would be the end of it. But he called that same evening and the calls had come every day since. When she told him not to call, because she would not answer, she found him waiting outside. From the window, she saw him standing across the street, looking up, his blue umbrella open but held so far back that he got drenched anyway. She resisted the urge to shout down to him, to tell him to be sensible, to go home. A part of her wanted to let him in, take off his wet clothes, run a hot bath. Together maybe. But then she remembered the rain, and how much they were alike – comforting when gentle on an afternoon, but oppressive when incessant. No, it never would let up.
Closing her eyes, she listened to the rain and tried not to think about him or the mouse. The phone had not rung that evening, and that was a good sign.
In the morning she rang up Mrs. Pudzianowski. The old woman of Polish descent lived in an apartment near the Chinese quarter and seldom left home, where she seemed to pass her time reading Tarot cards over the phone for a closed circle of clients, and watching telefilms. She was often short tempered on the phone, complaining that she needed to keep the line free for her trade. When Eva first moved into the apartment three months ago, Mrs Pudzianowski said she’d call her up for a free Tarot reading. She had yet to do so.
Yes, what is it?
This is Eva Summer. Sorry to disturb you like this but, well, there’s a mouse.
A mouse? She huffed into the phone.
Yes, like before, only this time…
Have you actually seen this mouse?
Yes, of course, Eva lied.
It’s all this rain. They’ve nowhere to go. You need to get a trap.
You know, a mousetrap, to kill the little beast.
Well, yes, but I was hoping that you could…
I must go now, Miss Summer. I’m expecting a call, you understand.
Eva could think of nothing worse than going out in the rain. And, of course, there was the possibility that she might run into Martino. She moved her fingers through her hair, massaging her scalp. She was not going to stand around thinking any more. Thinking about what had been decided. About what she’d done. She needed to work on her translations. The ordeal with Martino had already taken away so much of her time. She had deadlines and her agent was losing his patience. She had to keep things clear in her mind. There would be no going back. But, first, there was a mouse to get rid of.
She went to the window to see how the sky was holding up. She drew the curtains aside. A sombre light came down with a light rain, tapping at the window, one drop after another. Holding the curtain against her cheek, she looked down across the street. An old man, like a character out of an Antonioni film, dressed in a grey trench coat, stood sheltering himself under a newspaper. But that was all.
She dressed quickly in stockings, skirt and her yellow raincoat and left the apartment. Although the rain was light and the fresh air would have done her good, she caught a taxi to the hardware store three blocks away.
A small elderly man with tiny, close-set eyes and a pointy nose stood at the counter.
I need a mousetrap, please.
At her request the man’s eyes seemed to grow even smaller and he disappeared into the back without a word.
Eva was left alone at the counter. She wondered if she had displeased the man in some way. How odd Italians could be. Another customer, a tall heavyset man, came into the store. She could feel his eyes on her legs, stretching out from beneath her skirt, hidden, she realized, by her raincoat. She rang the small bell on the counter. A different man came out from the back. Although younger, he resembled closely the man who, it seemed, she’d frightened away. He held in his hands a small, slim box.
Is that for me?
It’s a mousetrap, but it’s not your conventional guillotine. Those days are over, I’m afraid. You see, the mice have gotten smarter.
Will it, you know, do the job?
Oh, yes. Maybe not as quickly, but it’s definitely effective. Let me show you how it works.
The heavyset man had moved up beside her and stood there waiting with a large pair of shears – the new, sharp blades shining, caught by the stark store lights.
That’s OK. I’m sure I’ll work it out for myself. Thank you.
When the taxi pulled up outside her apartment, there was still no sign of Martino. Finally, he’s come to his senses, she thought, taking money from her purse. Standing in the rain like that, he’d have caught a death of a cold. She paid the driver, fastened her raincoat and dashed from the taxi.
In her apartment, she changed out of her clothes and into her nightgown. She went downstairs to the kitchen where she made herself a cup of tea. She removed the trap from its packaging and held the square piece of sticky card in her hand. It looked like nothing more than a cutoff of sandpaper. It was meant to be simple: the victim would scurry across the card, get stuck in the glue and that would be it. She set the single piece down beside the door of her pantry. The most likely place to trap a mouse.
She cleared the kitchen table, put on her glasses and opened her books. Translating could be tiresome, but for someone as meticulous as Eva it was a challenge. She set herself high standards and for this reason she was good at her work. Her clients had become more established over the years. The latest was the best yet: Giulio Einaudi, a famous Italian publisher. A new, long awaited book on the work and life of Caravaggio by a renowned biographer was already on the shelves in Italy and selling like tartufi. Its publication in English was a much anticipated event, and she would be a part of it.
She reread the text she’d been working on for the last few days. But it took more effort than it should have. She couldn’t make sense of it. The meanings of the two languages seemed to be evading one another like opposing magnets.
She looked at the phone on the counter. He had not called her today, and she hadn’t seen or heard from him at all yesterday. When they were together she felt that his constant presence left no space for what was important to her, and then when she told him to go he still continued to intrude in her life. Now he was intruding with his absence. Damn him. She needed to push him aside. She began to read aloud.
La condanna a morte di Caravaggio poteva esser eseguita da chiunque lo avesse riconosciuto per la strada.
She pronounced each word slowly, stringing them out, like pegged photographs on a wire. The words appeared before her, but were soon lost again, somewhere between the rain and the constant folding back of her thoughts, to him and the day she ended it. The look in his eyes had caused an unexpected, unwanted reaction in her. She lunged for his thick wrist across the table, but her hand was small and did not close the whole way around. His hand eased her grip with a slow but immediate sliding, and her fleeting hand slipped down to the other in her lap, where they lay like two fallen feathers. He stared up and she stared down and the only thing left to do had just been done.
She shut the book and ran her fingers through her hair. It was no use. He was in every word, rising up, woven into the frayed linings of her memories. She pushed the book aside and threw down her glasses. She stared hard at the phone. Where the hell was he?
She got up and strode into the other room. She yanked back the curtains and flung open the window. The wind and the rain swept against her as she stood looking down at the street. She could not make out the shapes moving below, but she continued to look, and the rain fell harder, but still she leant out further, holding on to the window ledge, going as far as she could, until completely wet, she rid herself of her nightgown, and fell on to the divan, exhausted.
She awoke the next morning with the sun on her. She lay there hypnotised by the shapes the sunlight etched along her lounge wall from outside the window. She imagined him beside her, a shimmering memory lagging behind warmly. She turned, this way and that, stretched – her back an arch, her belly a bridge, screamed a yawn.
She stood up, dressed only in a light slip, the sun’s warmth on her body, but the air cold and she walked to the window and shut it without looking out. The rain had finally stopped. Her nightgown a damp heap on the floor.
Then walking into the kitchen, she heard it – the single distinctive squeak. She felt cold and stepped towards the pantry door. With her arms around herself, she bent down slowly. Without her glasses she could just make out the soft, grey features of the mouse struggling to free itself. The sound was the worst thing. Kneeling beside it, she held her hand over her mouth as she began to sob uncontrollably. It was then that the phone began to ring. And Eva Summer let it ring, until it was all over.
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Photo by Tomek Dzido