Grace watches Vanilla, her pink-eyed albino, racing frantically through her paces on the exercise wheel. Oh, to have her energy, her joie de vivre, she thinks, as she struggles to haul a body depleted of energy out of bed. She has been laid low with the flu for almost a week now, but knows that no matter how lethargic she feels she must get out and about today. There is no milk in the house and the mice are almost out of food. She moved the mouse cage into her bedroom for the duration of her illness. The rhythmic rotation of the mouse wheel is soothing, hypnotic almost. With effort, she showers and dresses in a pair of navy slacks and matching top. I need a hair cut, she thinks, staring at the dishevelled ghost in the mirror.
A mother and three young children are waiting at the bus stop when Grace arrives, the children strewn over the single bench seat like abandoned kittens. The middle-sized child is jumping up and down on the seat and looks at her mother with peeved indignation when asked to make room on the seat for the lady. Grace sits down and turns to thank the child, who smiles shyly, the indignation gone in a flash. ‘That’s a very pretty hairclip you’re wearing.’ Grace puts her hand up to the clip, running her fingers through the child’s silky blonde hair, folding it behind her small, pink, perfect ear. ‘My nanna gave it to me,’ the child replies proudly. As the bus pulls into the kerb it occurs to Grace that it has been over a week since she spoke to anyone. She hands over her fare, her fingers pressing into the bus driver’s palm. His skin is dry, spongy.
At the shopping centre she walks to the hair salon and makes an appointment for a trim, both hairdressers greeting her warmly. Hairdressers, she thinks, are most likely the kindest people on earth. She looks forward to her appointment next week. At the supermarket she buys milk, bread, arrowroot biscuits and mouse food. She really needs to do a big shop and get it home-delivered, but that will have to wait, she doesn’t have the energy today. At the checkout, the young shop assistant yawns and apologizes. How could anyone so young be tired? she wonders. ‘Had a bit of a big night, last night,’ he explains, the fatigue draining from his face as easily as sand through a sieve. Tiredness in the young is a transitory affair, she thinks, so unlike the bone-dense fatigue of the elderly that grips you from the moment you wake up, letting go only when you finally let go yourself to the release of sleep. The shop assistant’s long, slender fingers flicker over Grace’s skin as he hands over her change.
A cup of coffee and a sit down, that’s what I need, she thinks, as she passes a café on her way out of the complex, her meagre purchases already weighing her down. Collapsing onto a pink-padded seat she looks around her while waiting for her order to be taken. At the next table a heavily pregnant young woman is sipping orange juice from a tall glass, a piece of half-eaten chocolate cake in front of her. The woman is absorbed in a mother-and-baby magazine. Grace would have liked to have gone over and placed her hands on the woman’s belly, felt the baby inside, given her blessing to the new little life that tumbles and turns within. But she knows she must not. She made that mistake once, had reached out and touched an unborn child, after asking the mother-to-be when her baby was due. The woman had recoiled and in strident tones told her not to touch her. She had felt ashamed and embarrassed, and had been careful ever since. Not all people are kind, she knows this well, and wonders occasionally if that mother is kind to her child. The child would be five years old now.
Grace’s own mother died when she was two. Her father, overburdened with grief, left her in the care of his sister before enlisting in the war, never to return home. Aunt Flo had cared for her every want, as she had been apt to say with little need of prompting. And it was true, she had been well-fed and clothed and cared for in a dutiful kind of way. The sort of way that earned Aunt Flo one or two Brownie points with the ladies from the church, but not in the sort of way that had made Grace feel special. She had never been loved. She knows this. She had been forced to shuffle about in the shadow of Evelyn, Flo and Raymond’s only child. Evelyn, whose Christmas presents, if not more numerous, were bigger, better; Evelyn whose dresses had more lace trim; who was given piano lessons because she was musical. Evelyn who had a pet cat that slept on the end of her bed, but one pet cat was more than enough pets for any household according to Aunt Flo. Dear Evelyn, who turned out to be a very fine and kind person, but by then it had been too late for Grace.
And she thinks about this as she sits in the café. She thinks of how she has never been mistreated or abused. She reads so many stories in the newspapers and doesn’t want to believe it, any of it, because she knows how even the simple lack of love can affect you, leave you overcome with inertia, clutching at air, waiting, wanting, waiting for someone to come along and grasp your hand, take you under their wing … until eventually it occurs to you that no-one will come … because mostly they can’t see you. For you are invisible. And as she sits in the café Grace lays an imaginary hand upon the unborn child and offers up a blessing.
At home she fills her mice’s food bowl and watches Vanilla bolt like lightning from her second-storey sleeping-quarters. She waits for Fudge to join her sister and, when she doesn’t, gently retrieves her, cupping her quivering, inquisitive little body in her hand. Fudge is generally the more active of her two mice. She knows this uncustomary lethargy is not a good sign. She runs her fingers carefully over Fudge’s body, soon identifying the thickening around her neck. A tumour. It does not come as a shock. Fudge is an old mouse now and she knows that over eighty percent of mice will go on to develop malignant growths if they live on to the end of their second year. And it was with this knowledge that the history of the laboratory mouse had suddenly become clear. What better creature to toil and suffer for the betterment of mankind than the intelligent, sociable, inquisitive, perennially fertile mouse? Grace cannot understand why a person would recoil from a tiny mouse, a pet mouse, their face pinched with revulsion, fear even, at this most worthy of creatures. She feels a little respect is in order, a little appreciation.
From the very first time she held one of these curious little creatures in her hand, the world has been divided into two sorts of people – those who dislike mice, and those who think mice are nice. Aunt Flo had been chief cheerleader of the former; Evelyn, underground resistance leader of the latter. It had been Evelyn who had brought Grace her first mouse, knowing how desperately she wanted a pet. Aunt Flo had remained firm on the ‘no more pets’ front, despite her own daughter’s protestations. But Evelyn, determined and independent, had knocked on Grace’s bedroom door the morning of her tenth birthday, and whispered to her that she had a surprise. Now close your eyes, Gracie, and hold out your hand. Grace did as she was told, squeaking like a mouse herself as her eyes sprang open and the quivering contents in her hand were revealed. She’s for you, but it’s got to be our secret, Evelyn had said. You can keep her in your cupboard in the old bird cage. I’ll help you look after her. Evelyn, as usual, had it planned out to the finest detail. And so Grace had received a pet mouse and a big sister for her birthday that year.
She misses Evelyn. They had some good times together before Evelyn’s premature death from breast cancer fifteen years ago. Grace would fly up to spend Christmas with Evelyn and her family each year, staying on to watch the New Year fireworks display from the big balcony that overlooked Sydney Harbour. And as she gently strokes her little Fudge, she thinks of Evelyn as she lay dying, her tumour-ridden body so small, in the big king-sized bed in her beautiful home, and she thinks of laboratory mice trapped in cages the world over, growing their tumours so that people like Evelyn may one day be cured of their dreaded malignancies, and she thinks that she just doesn’t know what to think. So much suffering to end suffering.
She’d heard a young scientist speaking on the radio this week about his research. It had been a special program for Breast Cancer Awareness Week. He was trying to find a way of stopping the blood flow to tumours so they could not grow and spread. He sounded like a nice young man. Such important work. He didn’t mention the mice, but she knew they were there, behind his words of hope. Breeding, breathing, dying for us.
Her fingers rest gently on the tumour deforming Fudge’s neck, and she hopes that her own illness has not led to Fudge suffering unnecessarily. She knows the researchers look after the mice as best they can. She thinks of the animal rights protestors storming research institutions, disrupting research, and then she thinks of Evelyn again and she doesn’t know what to think. She pops Fudge back into her cage and picks up the phone to make an appointment with Dr McKay for later that afternoon. She expressed her concerns about animal experimentation to the vet once and he told her about the strict government guidelines that apply to all animal research but she knows there must be suffering – premature death, skeletal and organ deformation, spontaneous miscarriage. Otherwise, what would be the point of it all?
On the bus Grace holds Fudge in a small plastic lunchbox, the lid punctured with air holes. It is the latest in a long line of such visits she has made over the years. Closing her eyes, she thinks about Dr James McKay, veterinary surgeon, about how he has been a part of her life for over forty years. His hair is snowy-white now, but still thick on the top of his head. She thinks that if she had ever found a husband he might have been like Dr McKay. She discussed the subject of breeding mice with him once. Given the short lifespan of an average mouse, she thought breeding her own mice might be a good idea, a way of diluting her sadness at the frequent deaths of her pets. Dr McKay had smiled and said he would impart to her an interesting fact and she could then decide if she still wanted to become a mouse breeder. He told her that it had been recorded that one breeding pair had, in the space of a year and a half, produced one million descendants. She had learned that a female mouse can come into heat within twenty-four hours of giving birth. They had laughed together about all this in the quiet, polite way of friends at a funeral and Grace had said thank goodness she was not a mouse and had then felt a bit silly because, in truth, a million descendants is without doubt a better procreative outcome than none.
Grace waits in the reception area of the veterinary clinic, admiring once again the prints of birds hanging on the walls. She wonders if Dr McKay might have one or two original Gould prints adorning the walls of his own family home.
‘Hello, Grace. Come in.’ Dr McKay stands at the door to his consulting room, slightly stooped, always attentive. ‘Now, who do we have here?’ he says, as he offers Grace a seat.
‘Fudge. It appears to be another tumour. Around her neck. Poor little Fudge, she’s slowed down a lot.’ Grace takes the mouse out of the box and hands her to Dr McKay. For a moment their hands join as she slides Fudge from hers into his. He has large, strong, soft hands. The world would be safe in those hands, she thinks. Dr McKay checks the mouse’s tiny body carefully.
‘Her breathing is becoming a little laboured,’ he says finally, gently. ‘The tumour is causing pressure on her trachea. I think it’s time.’ He looks up at Grace.
‘Yes, I think so, James.’ James, please call me James, Dr McKay had said many years ago. But still, she sounds like a stranger to herself whenever she says his name. James hands Fudge to her while he prepares the anaesthetic. His hands fully enclose hers for a brief moment. Grace whispers to Fudge while they wait – private things, sweet things – before handing her gently back to the vet. When he has checked the tiny heart for an absence of pulse, Grace wraps the little body in a piece of pink flannel cloth. James asks about the well-being of Vanilla and Grace herself then, and they talk for a few moments. James and his wife are spending Christmas in Sydney with their daughter this year. Grace mentions that some years back she used to spend every Christmas in Sydney. She mentions how much she misses Evelyn.
On her way back to the bus stop she passes a woman collecting donations for Breast Cancer Awareness Week. She searches in her handbag for a five dollar bill and receives her pink ribbon. She wears her pink ribbon proudly. For Evelyn. For the mice.
‘Pink Ribbon’ was first published in Island 111, Summer 2007