FICTION (October 2018)
Victoria and the Mice
by Holly Tinsley
FOR many years, it had been a great source of annoyance to Margaret that she had not been born a Victoria.
There was something very upsetting about being called by a name that wasn’t really yours.
Margaret was such a nothing name.
Nobody who ever heard it imagined anything in particular. Margaret did not inspire the imagination or evoke the senses.
Victoria, on the other hand, was a marvellous moniker. It was regal and impressive. The very sound of it rolling from the tongue conjured images of crinoline and corsets. There was something majestic about the slant of the letters when written in cursive. Margaret should have liked it very much.
Mama did not understand. Mama was a stupid woman. Margaret had told Mama in quite clear terms and with careful explanation, why her name was just not suitable at all. Mama had, as so many adults do when their children tell them things of great importance, assumed that Margaret was being silly. It was just a phase. She had told her quite plainly that Margaret was a perfectly good name for a young lady. One day she would learn to love it.
It was one of Mama’s many fabrications. Often it seemed to be that more deception than truth ever spilled from Mama’s lips. Bad parents always lied to their children. Like the time she told Margaret that a tooth fairy would leave a coin beneath her pillow. The tooth had wobbled for a while. Margaret had been sad when finally it had fallen out. That night she had gone to bed, holding the little white pearl in a clammy hand. It had been her favourite, top row third from the centre. It was a good tooth. When the fairy had eventually arrived, it had looked a lot like Papa.
Weary from a long day in the office, the fairy did not walk with light feet and so was not as quiet as it should have been. Margaret kept both eyes closed tight. It would disappoint him if the illusion were shattered. She did not want to make him unhappy.
Papa was a great man. He ought to have been a king, and had the whiskers for it. Deep lines wrinkled across his forehead because his head was filled with numbers. Sometimes, Margaret would not see him for days at a time. It was a very important thing, to work for a bank. He always smelt of cologne and ink smudges. The skin beneath his fingernails was always blue.
Whilst Papa was away, Mama would organise all sorts of pleasant activities for them to do together. Margaret did not enjoy them. They were not the sorts of things anybody named Victoria would like to do and so Margaret could not abide them either. Mama would call her to the garden and they would sit on a blanket spread across the grass. There would be tea and scones with jam and cream. Victoria did not like jam because it made her fingers sticky. Mama told her it was not polite to pretend to be someone else.
It was not polite to scurry beneath the crawl space beneath the house to catch the mice that lived there either. It was not polite to scoop them up and bite their screeching heads off. Victoria loved to do that. The fur would tear and the blood would taste rich and warm. Sometimes Margaret would be having such a frightfully wonderful time being Victoria, that hours could pass before she remembered who she really was. It was always such a disappointment when she did.
Mama would have had a fit, to see her daughter smeared with mouse blood. Margaret would run to the tap that stuck out from the side of the house, splashing away the evidence. Holding her hands beneath the faucet, she would gulp mouthfuls of water, swishing it around. Little pieces of fur and sinew would get caught between her teeth. Beneath the house lay a pile of little skulls. It was fun to count them. They all had names.
Margaret told the little skulls stories of Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. She had been a magnificent ruler with an empire that stretched across many lands. The mice were wonderful listeners. Sometimes Margaret would pretend that they too lived, not in a boring old house, but in a palace surrounded by date trees. There would be elephants on the lawn and the ladies would all carry parasols. India was terribly hot. Margaret would run around and around the house until her lungs would ache and sweat would pour from her armpits. It was more realistic that way.
Sunday morning was always the best time of the week. Papa would stay at home and spend the day doing fatherly things. Fixing the clocks or sitting in the armchair. Mama would go to town to have her hair done. It would be just the two of them for hours. Papa let Margaret eat butter from the dish and never told her off for being dirty. Because he loved her very much, once he had given her a brand new book with a picture of the real queen named Victoria in it.
Margaret had torn the picture from the page and put it in pride of place next to the mouse skulls. Mama had been cross. Papa was not to encourage her. There was no more talk of Victoria after that.
One Sunday, after Mama had left for town, Margaret stood in the door of the bathroom and watched Papa shaving. Billowing clouds of steam floated around the room. Warm water filled the basin as Papa dipped the razor blade into it, flicking the droplets from the handle. The shaving cream turned the water cloudy. Margaret watched as the skin of his throat was exposed, sharp edge gliding along and tearing at the newly emerging short black hair.
When Papa was done, the water was emptied and he went into the bedroom. Closing the door behind her, Margaret smelt the rich scent of the aftershave. She turned the wicker wastebasket on its end and climbed on top, wiping one hand across the foggy mirror.
The blade sat on the edge of the basin. Margaret had never held one before. It scared her a little. What if she were to slip and fall? Her arms might be sliced open and all of the blood would pour out. This was why she did not like to be Margaret. Margaret was a coward.
Unafraid, Victoria picked up the razor and touched it to the tip of her tongue. It tasted like soap and sweat. Lifting a large section of hair, she cut through the locks and let them fall to the floor. When all the long hair had been sawn away, Victoria scraped away at her scalp. It didn’t hurt, even when the blade nicked at the skin. If she had known better, perhaps she would have used oils or lotions. It was too late and there was no point in leaving the job half done. She was having tremendous fun until the door swung open and Papa stood there, jaw slack in disbelief.
Knowing that there was bound to be trouble, Victoria went away immediately. Margaret was left in her place. Papa did not speak at first. He was too shocked. Margaret looked up, bald and bleeding, clumps of hair covering the bathroom floor. Of course, Mama was furious. Margaret was scolded until her voice was hoarse. When she had finished admonishing her daughter, it was her husband’s turn. Papa was to blame. Mama should not have trusted him to be responsible for their unruly child. Papa had not been paying attention. Papa was a bad man. Now Margaret would need to wear a hat to cover up her naked head.
The vicious words festered in Margaret’s ears, the sound of them like the mewling of an alley cat. The woman squealed and spat lies. The venom spewed from her mouth, a snake spitting poison against a wonderful man. To lie was a sin. Mama was the one to blame. If Margaret could just be Victoria, she would have beautiful hair and wouldn’t have needed to cut it all off. It was intolerable to be expected to be something that you just were not.
When Mama looked away for a moment, she ran to the front door, pulling it open and disappearing beneath the crawl space. She clawed at the mud with stubby fingers. The mouse skulls watched through hollow eyes. The picture held court over them all. Margaret took it with both hands and kissed the sepia face. Queen Victoria had not aged a day since last she had seen her. The queen would never age. They always lived forever.
There she sat until it grew dark and Papa’s worried voice called out from the front step. Emerging from the dusty underground, Margaret wiped her dirty hands across the front of her dress. Papa looked tired. There were dark circles beneath both eyes.
Mama sat sulking in the bedroom, wailing like a banshee and wringing her hands. The gentle curls that had been so carefully arranged in town earlier wasted. Mama had soft hands. Rings dotted with sapphires and rubies adorned slim fingers with polished nails. The woman had never done anything useful in her whole life. Papa’s hands were rough and calloused from hours holding a pen to paper, scribbling calculations and writing letters to important people.
On the second floor of the house, at the end of the hallway was the small room that was used as an office. On days where Papa had a lot of work to do, he would sit in there all night, brow furrowed by the light of the lamp. Margaret climbed up onto the leather chair, pulling it closer to the mahogany desk. She took a piece of paper. Pictures brightened his day.
Papa was a great appreciator of the arts. Many a masterpiece had been scrawled at that desk, each one proudly displayed upon the wall. There were pictures of little mice dancing in circles. They held paws and danced to the merry-go-round music at a grand mouse festival.
Holding the pen tightly, the wet ink smudged across the sheet. Circles and sticks grew together to form faces and shapes. A tall man with bushy whiskers at the sides of his jaw stood proudly next to a queen with no hair. They looked upon a devil woman. The succubus danced before them in robes of silk. The queen and the whiskered man were not fooled for a moment. Margaret scratched at the page, tearing away the eyes of the woman until the wooden surface of the table began to show through the holes.
It was not long after that the whispers began. Mama would consort and conspire. A parade of visitors would come to the house. The first of them came whilst Papa was at the office and so could not protest Mama’s evil doing. He was a stout man with a large nose and thick-rimmed glasses. They shut the door so that Margaret could not hear them talking in hushed tones.
Mama called Margaret to the kitchen and told her that the man was a doctor and wanted to meet her. Mama was not sick. Another story concocted to mask the lies.
The doctor was a frightful bore. Margaret told them quite plainly that the toys he gave her were silly. What use did a queen have for puzzles and riddles? The doctor would poke at her tongue and look down her throat. They all did, for there were many that came to visit. She was weighed and measured, prodded and jabbed with fingers and instruments. Perhaps Mama intended to sell her like a cow. Papa would come home and Margaret would be gone.
As the days wore on, Papa would arrive home later each evening, some nights stopping at the office until the early hours of the morning. Margaret would wait at the window for as long as she could. She would pinch her arm skin until it turned red just to stay awake. When she grew too tired to keep her eyes open, Victoria would selflessly offer to take over. Margaret was so very grateful. Margaret was exhausted and Victoria loved Papa as much as she did. They were all he had left now. Mama had betrayed them all.
When Papa finally did come home, Mama would turn on him like a dog. Margaret would sit beneath the house or in the bedroom and listen to their voices as they argued. Papa stayed away too long. Papa did not bring home enough money. Doctors were expensive.
Mama always wanted more. Margaret would stamp her feet and scratch away at the bedcovers, irate at the gall of the woman. Mama was not sick, and so the doctors were a waste of money. It was her fault that Papa would stay away.
One evening, after they had eaten supper, Papa came to her room and sat upon the bed. There was a gentle patting of one hand upon the covers. Margaret crept out of the closet where she had been hiding. The mattress sank and rose as she climbed up beside him. He stroked her head, ruffling the short, coarse hair. Papa had news.
There was to be a great change. Margaret hoped fervently that finally, Mama had relented and she would be allowed to become Victoria. It would be the greatest and most wonderful news of all time. Papa’s shoulders hung low.
Margaret had always been well aware of just what an important man Papa was. Why would the bank keep him so late every day if not because his presence was integral to the very survival of the establishment? So it did not come as a surprise that he was needed for a very important job in another office. It would mean leaving home for quite some time. Holland seemed so very far away. All would be well though, there were sure to be just as many mice across the sea as there were at home. Margaret would like to leave for a while. It would not be as hot as colonial India, but it would do quite nicely.
It was not until Papa wrapped both arms around his daughter and held her tightly that Margaret understood. He had not come to tell her of the great adventure they would be embarking upon together. Rather, he had come to say goodbye. By the time Margaret woke again in the morning, Papa would be gone. This was Mama’s doing. She had driven Papa away with all the doctors and her lies. What other reason could there be? He would not leave of his own accord, Margaret was quite sure of it.
Papa was tired. It was getting late and there was more work to be done before bed and sleep could come. He left Margaret and went to the office. The door locked behind him. Margaret sat upon the bed, fingers stroking at the indentation he had left. Mama was downstairs in the kitchen, scrubbing at the floor. Margaret crept from the bedroom.
The bristles of the brush made scratching noises on the tiles. It sounded like a thousand little mice scurrying across the ground. She watched from the doorway and thought about how she should like to bite off Mama’s head. It was frustrating that her mouth could not open wide enough.
The handle of Papa’s razor was smooth to the touch. It would do just as well as a clamping jaw. Margaret felt the cold, smooth tiles beneath her feet. The floor was still wet. Mama crawled across the kitchen upon her hands and knees. Margaret trembled, the blade shaking. A steady hand touched the one in which the blade was held, settling the nerves and calming the movements. Margaret was afraid, but Victoria was not.
The bucket spilled across the floor, the soapy water crashing against the skirting boards. Her skin was soft and split like a ripe banana peel. Mama did not squeal as the mice did. Nor did she scream. Instead, she bleated like an old ewe at the slaughter shed. The razor sliced into her back. Victoria was strong. Mama was weak. The doors of the cupboards were doused in red as Margaret slowly died and Victoria was born in slashes and cuts.
Falling to the floor, Mama rolled over and looked up. The light in her eyes flickered and faded. It had always been destined to end this way. Sitting astride Mama, Victoria ripped at the skin, tearing the collarbone and throat. Skin and muscle flurried into the air, floating to the floor and catching on her eyelids. Warm, oozing confetti for a coronation showered their parade as the new queen was crowned and Margaret became no more. There was only Victoria.
By the time Papa reached the kitchen and saw what had happened, the evidence of Victoria’s ascension had been laid out for him like a Christmas day gift. Mama was gone, her body lying upon the tiles. He would be happy now. There would be no more doctors and lies. The fresh Dutch air would do them both good.
They would take walks upon the river banks and Victoria would hold court over all the little mice in the city. The best ones would dance in festivals and the bad ones would have their heads snipped off. Papa would not mourn for Margaret. He would understand that truly she had never really existed at all. You cannot mourn for something that never was.
Papa clutched the tattered remains of Mama’s body, crying tears of joy at his good fortune. As he did, Victoria crawled beneath the house one last time. Anticipation and excitement surged through her veins. The court of mice welcomed their new ruler with great joy. There were the sounds of applause and hundreds of jubilant voices singing.
They had waited for such a very long time for her to arrive. It was a pity she had to leave so soon. She made an extra special effort to say goodbye to each and every one of them, thanking them for their loyal service and kindness. Empty eye sockets stared back at nothing, rotting fur clinging to the fresher additions to the pile.
Taking the picture of the old queen, Victoria folded it in half making sure to keep the edges sharp. Tucking it underneath one arm, she bid a final farewell to the court. Papa was waiting for her when she rose out from beneath the house. There was vomit on his lips and tears in his eyes. He was not alone. Victoria did not know whom the man standing there was, but Papa assured her that he was a friend and wished them no harm. Papa would not tell lies.
Perhaps the man was an emissary or foreign dignitary coming to pay compliments to the new queen. The man held out his hand and Papa told Victoria that everything would be well.
As they walked from the house together, a shiny car parked in the distance, Victoria listened to the sounds of the night wind rustling through the trees. There was a pattering of tiny feet. She glanced from left to right and saw hundreds of black eyes blinking in the grass. The mice had come to wave her off.
They sat on their haunches and clicked their yellow teeth together. Their voices echoed through the shadows, squeaking in high pitched shrieks.
“God save the queen.”