Authors: Elizabeth Jane Howard
For my brother, Colin,
known as Monkey
nce upon a time a very old white mouse had her seventy-fourth child – a small grey mouse she called Ulric because she had run out
of names. He was born in a house called No. 3, The Grove, but his apartment in the house was No. 16, Skirting Board West. A great many other mouseholders lived there as well, but luckily several
families of people also resided there, which meant that there was generally enough food to go round.
All of Mrs Whitemouse’s children were born in a doll’s summer hat, which was made of straw with a cherry-red ribbon and three daisies sewn to the brim. Mrs Whitemouse had made a good
nest in the Hat out of chewed-up bus tickets and tiny bits of fluff that she found all over the place. When Ulric was very young he just stayed in the Hat, having drinks of milk and sleeping.
Gradually he grew nice thick grey fur, and beautiful translucent ears – like your eyelids when you look into the sun – and a useful tail that tapered off to an elegant point. His eyes
were shiny black like the buttons on a doll’s boot and his whiskers were silvery white each side of his twisty nose – he could move it sideways as well as up and down. When he was
nearly a full-grown mouse he announced that he wished to be called Freddie. As he was known in the family for being rather moody, they all agreed to this.
The trouble was that Freddie really did not like being a mouse. ‘It’s just a phase,’ his mother said at first, but it wasn’t.
Weeks later, when Freddie was full grown, he was hating it more than ever. When he was younger he had been able to pretend that he would become eNORmouse – the size of one of the boots
that people left in rows by the back door, the size of the bicycle that a man rode away on every morning, the size of the man himself . . . But after several weeks of not getting any larger than
his mother, he was forced to recognise that he was a mouse, and a mouse he would remain. The thought horrified him.
I simply can’t spend the rest of my life like this! If only someone
would help me! Anyone!
He shut his charming beady eyes to squeeze the tears out, and when he opened them there was the most extraordinary creature squatting in front of him. He was so
surprised (which is Mouse for frightened) that as he jumped backwards all he had time to notice was that the creature was about eight times his size and had two pitch-black unwinking eyes set at
the edges of his wide flat head. ‘Who are you?’
‘I am a toad by birth and a sorcerer by profession. I heard your call for help, and here I am.’ His very wide mouth got even wider, and Freddie’s nose trembled in fear. The
toad’s mouth seemed to take up most of his body, and Freddie, who had been taught by his mother that quite a lot of creatures actually ate mice, was afraid that the toad might be one of
‘What is it you want?’ the sorcerer toad asked.
‘I want to stop being a mouse.’
‘Oh, that! No problem at all.’
‘Good! And can you do it now? Change me, I mean?’
‘I could, of course. Any idea what you want to change into?’
‘Something larger. Actually, much larger.’
He had heard of them from his mother, when his sister was complaining about the cat who prowled outside the house. ‘Be grateful for small mercies,’ his mother had said. ‘If it
was a tiger out there, none of us would stand a chance.’
The toad shook his head. ‘You wouldn’t like that. Either you’d live in a horrible hot jungle, or you’d be in a cage with people staring at you all day.’
Freddie suggested several more animals but the toad found objections to all of them. Monkeys were made to work in circuses, dogs were ignored by their owners and thrown out after Christmas,
various birds were hunted.
Freddie felt very depressed. Then he had a good idea.
‘Couldn’t I just see what it would be like being a tiger, for instance – just for a couple of days? Then I could come back and report to you?’
There was silence while the toad dealt with a passing fly. His tongue shot out and the fly seemed to stick to it, and then, quick as lightning, both vanished and all Freddie could see was the
light ripples of the skin on the underside of his chin.
‘Where were we? Oh yes. Well, I’m afraid I’m not doing all that sorcery simply for a couple of days. A week is the least I’m prepared to offer. And even then, you will
have to put up with retaining some of your murine characteristics.’ Seeing that Freddie looked baffled, he added, ‘Murine means mouselike; it is also your language. You speak Murine,
and if I wasn’t a sorcerer, I wouldn’t understand a word you said. So, what is it to be? A tiger for a week, or a mere mouse for a lifetime?’
So Freddie chose (and I’m sure you would agree with him) to be a tiger for a week.
reddie must have been asleep, because the moment he opened an eye (the other one was squashed against something) he saw the most enormous
paw just an inch or so away. It had huge, black, extremely sharp-looking claws at the end of it.
The end of me
, he thought in panic. Freddie was used – as most mice are – to
being frightened, but this time there had been no warning – just an awful shock – like waking up to what you thought was a bad dream and it not being one. He could not move from
But then the paw moved – stretched out past his head revealing a long furry limb . . . striped fur . . . He lifted his head and beyond the limb saw the body of a fully grown tiger who was
now engaged in a slow, luxuriant stretch, which he found was most extraordinarily enjoyable.
It’s me! I really am a tiger! Just what I wanted
He found he was lying on a ledge of a cliff that overlooked a small river and a few yards downstream he could see there was a pool with some animals drinking from it. He was surrounded by tall
dry grass and the sun was very hot on his fur. Watching the creatures drinking made him feel thirsty and he decided to join them. There were large black birds, a number of greyish pigs with tusks .
. . Best of all there was a herd of small deer; nervous drinkers – they would take a sip and then look up anxiously as though afraid of something. The sight of them brought a sudden rush of
juices to his mouth. He had jumped off the ledge and now began to prowl through the long grass. Every time the deer stopped drinking, he crouched, motionless, until, reassured, they lowered their
delicate noses to the water. A few more steps and he would be able to pounce . . .
But, oh dear! Just as he was about to make a grab for the deer he had picked out as being the nearest, a gang of monkeys burst out of the jungle, swinging down from the trees, rushing over the
ground, whooping, chattering, even yelping. They saw Freddie at once and uttered such piercing shrieks of warning that all the deer immediately fled from the pool, along with the birds and the
pigs. The monkeys crossed the river, leaping from rock to rock, and settled on the far side. Their cries subsided into a taunting gabble as they attacked some bushes that held small yellow fruits,
spitting out the stones and watching him. Fruit was no good to him, he thought angrily, as he realised how very hungry he was.
Well, at least he could have a drink. He must have woken up very early in the morning, as it was now getting steadily hotter; the sky was bleached to a thick white – everything was
breathlessly still except for the ticking and humming of tiny insects; the monkeys, having stripped the bushes, had gone as suddenly as they had arrived. Freddie’s fur itched intolerably and
all he wanted was to lie in the water, where it would be so much cooler than anywhere else. He waded cautiously in (as a mouse he had been afraid of water ever since he fell into a coffee cup that
had been left outside No. 16, Skirting Board West; it had been full of thick black liquid and tasted horrible; various relatives had hauled him out by his tail) and soon found that he was out of
his depth but it didn’t matter because he was swimming! It was a lovely feeling; he swam across the pool and back several times until he almost began to feel cold. So he waded out and shook
himself so that sparks of water shot out of his fur; the air was so hot that it seemed to dry him in minutes. But the swim had made him hungrier than ever, and as he padded off into the jungle the
sudden thought of cheese overwhelmed him. You didn’t have to hunt for cheese, it didn’t run away from you when it saw you coming, it just lay there while you munched it up.
On the other hand, he realised wearily, jungles did not seem to have cheese in them. You needed people for cheese, and the jungle seemed pretty short of them. Perhaps I should explain here that
if you are thinking of a jungle as a dense dark green place full of ferns and creepers and tall trees, you are thinking of rainforest, which is quite a different thing.
The jungle that Freddie found himself in was dry, because it hadn’t rained for months, and was full of small shrubs and trees of varying sizes, with some open glades and a great deal of
dry tall grass and sometimes large grey rocks. The glades, he discovered, were where the deer grazed: he came across two small herds of these, but they fled the moment he got near them. To begin
with he chased them, but all that did was make him tired and even more in need of food.
But Freddie was not stupid. In a few hours he had learned to move soundlessly through the grass, to wait much longer before he started the chase, and, most important of all, that even when the
deer did not see or hear him, they ran away if they smelled him, but if he got into a position where he could smell them it was much easier (hunters call this ‘getting downwind’, but
Freddie didn’t know that, never having met any). He certainly was not stupid, but all the unsuccessful chases had made him much weaker.
, he said to himself,
got to catch one. It might be my last chance