A Viking in my Dustbin. (34) Mouse House.

The light came on in my attic bedroom under the cobwebbed eaves of the old farmhouse, yet even with it on I couldn’t believe my eyes. The room was literally alive with not hundreds but thousands of mice, teeming all over my mums’ fruit cake like one hairy hungry creature.
They were on the floor, over my pile of washing and all over my bed. And in the shake of a mouses’ tail when the light clicked on, they were gone and so was most of my mum’s cake!
The mice, however, now believing my room to be a source of tasty baked products, turned up once again the following night. They were having a mouse convention in my room when I returned late from college. How they got to the top of the wardrobe I don’t know, maybe they used little helicopters, or perhaps there was a lift in the wardrobe.
As they’d done the night before, when the light came on they flew off in all directions. At least this time they hadn’t got the fruitcake, Eddie the farmhand from next door, had finished that off, mouse droppings and all.
Thinking the second night that I’d seen the last of the little blighters, I got ready for bed. That basically meant dropping my trousers and considering whether to take my socks off. Then I pulled back the bed-covers, only to find at least ten of the little buggers settled down for the night under the sheets!
Apart from the nocturnal encounters with my four legged friends, those last weeks on the farm were just heavenly. I’d never been on a farm
or rather lived on a farm and the timeless daily rhythms of the place in the fulsome Wiltshire countryside got into my bones as the longest June days stretched on into the evenings like a dream made of spun gold.

But it wasn’t to last. All too soon the college year would be over. The West Riding and Susan my fiancée back up in Wakefield already beckoned.
I ‘d been in a dreamland for a year totally unanchored in a southern paradise, as beautiful in the frost, snow and mists as it was now amongst the shimmering fields of green and poppy red.
It was June 1970 and the fruits and flowers of the late sixties were fading, even as the first gathering took place on a farm near Glastonbury. There was a sense that all that the sixties had been and had stood for, especially for the young, was on the wane as the new decade got into it’s stride and Maggie Thatcher sent her uniformed thugs to kick the arse of the Travelers who had gathered as they had for years, at nearby Stonehenge.

But if anything of the sixties love and rock and roll culture was to make it into the seventies, it was likely to come screaming and rocking on the backs of the great rock festivals which were alive and kicking in the South.
As the summer term was drawing to a close, there was going to be a huge festival at Shepton Mallet and the whole college was going. I was ashamed to admit that I’d never been to a rock festival in my life, not something you admitted at art-college, it was expected, it’s what you did. Though you’d never remember quite what it was. I really wanted to go to Shepton Mallet, it would be a great way to finish off the year..
So when one hot lunchtime in the refectory I was asked by one of the cowboy third-years,Dave who I’d got to know from his trips visiting his gun toting side kick at the farm, asked me if I was going and would I like a lift there in the side-car of his motorbike? I said, “Sure would pardner.”

It wasn’t the first time I’d had a ride with Dave. One night earlier on in the year, I’d had the dubious pleasure of traveling to Bath and back in his open motorbike sidecar. A bit of a technical mis-noma that, as it was actually a wooden fruit-box fixed on a frame fastened with wire and covered in sheepskins.
The reason I’d been hauled along on that trip, as I soon discovered once we’d set off, was because Jesse James needed someone to keep a finger pressed on two electrical wires inside the engine somewhere, to keep the damn thing running. If he’d had a roll of electrical tape I wouldn’t have been invited.
As it was we made it there and back but my finger , as it was in the winter almost didn’t. It took a couple of days before I could bend it again, I looked like I was constantly pointing. people kept asking me ’What? What" and looking off into the distance.
So I was under no misapprehension about why he’d asked me as he still hadn’t fixed the break, but it was The Festival and finger or no, I had to go. I couldn’t miss the chance.

Before the summer solstice and the date of the festival came around there were other lovely last days to be spent around the college and in the village, where the sunlight seemed to turn the mellow stone buildings to yellow marzipan cottages from fairy stories. Speaking of which; unknown to Jenny or myself our birthdays were close, and we were in for a fairy tale afternoon, but we had no idea.
It was a Thursday in late June. Whilst the peacocks strutted on the lawns, the fountain sprayed diamonds onto the sun-warmed gravel of the drive and the fat summer bees cruised amongst the gardens, our fellow foundation year students had been hard at work inside the gate-house in our common-room secretly preparing a surprise party for both of us.

Jenny and I were now on easy-going terms, after not having made it as young lovers, we were happily back to being close pals. One of our mutual friends Ingrid from Denmark (she who ate everyhting with her fingers- even soup), had told us that there was to be a foundation year meeting at four o’clockafter the last work session of the summer term. We all had to be there, she said and mustn’t miss it. Ingrid was someone to take seriously, so we both nodded dutifully.
As the bell over the arch of the gate house struck four, I climbed the stone stairs behind Jenny, marveling yet again at how she got about in those awful leg-irons, now rusted from the winter weather.

There was not a peep from upstairs, we thought we were the first there. But when we got to the top of the steps the room before us erupted. “Happy Birthdays!” All our friends shouted and screamed and clapped and someone rushed up and wrapped garlands of daisies round our necks and stuck butter-cups in our hair.
Then everyone parted to show us what they’d been up to. The work-table which ran down the middle of the room was decorated with daisies and buttercups, jellies, fairy-cakes all manner of shapes and colours, and little sandwiches and biscuits. It was a feast of kiddie food. There were chocolate drops and bowls of smarties and maltesers, and home made paper decorations with our names cut out strung from the rafters along with balloons. It was a childrens’ birthday party, a very sweet celebration to all of us, for our childhood and teenage years, which as were both about to turn twenty, were almost gone.
Elsewhere in the room the benches around and below the whitewashed walls with it’s deep and tall Elizabethan windows, were decorated with candles and great sheaves of wildflowers in fat jam-jars gathered freshly from the meadows down by the lake. Confused bees were still sticking their pollened bums out of the buttercups!

We all laughed as music played and stuffed ourselves on cakes and bowls of bright pink blancmange topped with hundreds and thousands which spelled out our names and drank sweet Kiora orange juice from paper cups.
It was a lovely party.
We were all there, all of us from our year. We sons and daughters of Britain who had started the year like strangers from distant parts of the same island, were now one. The North South divide having long since melted away. Now as the year drew to a close we were one happy family.

As we sat at the table and our friends sang Happy Birthday, I looked across to her and she to me and we both smiled.
Looking back, on that year she had become my first female best friend, a lesson that a young man has to learn is something quite possible. We’d been two outsiders sharing the mutual need not to be alone. At the end of the year that need had matured into a bond.

I wonder, forty years on, what might have happened to us if I’d not seen first the effects of polio on her and those awful leg-irons and instead let my heart fall for the luminous beautiful soul she was. I hope somewhere in the world, she is still lighting up people with that special smile of hers.

I still hear the laughter of that sun-blessed afternoon in the common-room as we all played as children, blissfully unaware as mid-summer approached, that our childhood had all but gone.

A Viking in my Dustbin. (34) Mouse House.

John Sunderland

New York, United States

  • Artist

Artist's Description

Installment 34, as the sixties ended so did our childhood.

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