Mouse Trap

Chloe leans against one of the chairs, smiling at him, her mouth slack from drink; her lipstick has collected round the outline of her lips giving them the look of something peeled. He boils the kettle and opens the packet of coffee he bought for exactly this occasion. Normally he makes do with instant.

-Milk? Sugar?

He doesn’t even know how she takes her coffee.

She shakes her head, takes the top off the black marker-pen she holds in her hand and writes non merci in the air flamboyantly. Her body bends over, her hands and hair sweep towards the floor like a puppet taking a bow, but instead of bouncing up again she’s seen something. She reaches down and retrieves it from beside the fridge. It’s a black plastic container the exact shape in miniature of those covered stair-things that are wheeled against the sides of planes to convey passengers on and off the more expensive airlines. She opens one end of the container and peers inside.

-It’s a mouse trap. An ethical mouse trap, to catch the mouse alive…the mouse walks up the ramp, like this… making the whole thing topple and then the door snaps shut…

-Eek, she giggles. Re-setting the door, she returns the trap to the side of the fridge.

The trap has been in position for a week now, but there’s still no sign of the mouse. The man in the shop had advised using a Mars Bar as bait; it needed to be something sticky so that it would stay in place at the top of the slope. But it seems this mouse doesn’t like Mars Bars.


He hands her a mug and leads the way into the living room where he puts on a CD. ‘Air’, they’re French; she probably likes them. ‘Moon Safari’, it’s their first album; he keeps meaning to buy the second one but hasn’t got round to it yet. On the sofa, she leans against him. He puts his arm awkwardly round her - is this what she wants? He can feel the blood to his arm being cut off. He tries to relax. She plays with his other hand as if his fingers were piano keys. What does she expect of him? Pins and needles are forming in his arm, as if his blood was crystallising. He doesn’t have a free hand or he’d touch her hair or her cheek, test the water for a kiss. Her fingers are small and soft, darker than his own. She turns his hand over, and examines his palm tracing the creases with her thumb. She takes the lid off the pen and writes palm in his palm. The pen tickles. She blows the ink dry, her breath warm and smelling of coffee. There’s a rush of blood to his groin. She runs her thumb over the ball of his hand. Her stroke is numbing, hypnotising. She inches her fingers under his sleeve, pushing it back to expose his wrist. His erection pushes against his trousers, a blind man looking for an exit. She writes wrist on his wrist. Leaning over him, she balances her mug on the arm of the sofa and moves until she sits astride his legs. Her thighs pin the cloth of his trousers against him. The blind man noses more insistently against his fly. She still holds the pen. She pulls at his t-shirt, tries to take it off. It gets stuck. He holds up his arms as if in surrender, she eases it over his head. Her clothing brushes against his bare chest. The fine hairs on his body stand alert. She leans down to kiss his neck where it meets his shoulder; but instead of kissing she writes. He can smell the ink, feel the cool drag of the pen on his skin. She bends down further and her lips graze his nipple; she writes nipple on his chest and then lower down, belly button. Her English is perfect.


It is popularly believed that most men think about sex every six minutes whilst women may only think about it once a day. This has helped perpetuate the idea that either women are the innocent sex or that they are frigid. This in turn has licensed men over the years to behave promiscuously and in extreme cases to rape; men have assumed an entitlement, on the basis of the frequency of their urges, to seek out satisfaction where they can find it and to take it where it is not freely given.

As a general rule it is true that a woman’s sexual desire is different in kind from that of a man. Why not when so much else between the sexes is different? But a mistake of the past is to make assumptions about winners and losers. Why should difference alone confer superiority on one over the other?


He met Chloe a month ago, during his last night in Den Bosch. There had been a party in the squat where he stayed. Any excuse. Drink, the thought of returning home, the dope. Everything melted that night. Both sad and glad to be going, he hugged everyone. He’d seen her before, but felt intimidated. She was older and French, an artist too. In the dim light the gloss of her lipstick emphasised the outward curve of her mouth, like the sticky petals that extend from carnivorous flowers; her hair was coiled and densely black. When she spoke English, her accent was a precision tool, not like the Om Pah Pah of Dutch he’d become used to. Most of the others in the squat were into green politics, or worked with refugees or people in drug rehabilitation programmes. He felt embarrassed for being an artist. At first he had been in awe of his hosts and their country; they were slim and blond, as tall as sunflowers, inhabitants of a paradise of fresh air, bicycles and comfortable clothes. Towards the end he looked forward to returning home. He wanted to see a hill again, to see a bit of countryside that didn’t have a prescribed use, that wasn’t under plastic or taken up with growing artificially fat tomatoes.

The morning after the party she’d driven him to Schipol airport in her draughty 2CV. A month later, he was standing at the airport in Edinburgh in front of the arrival/departure panels, waiting for her plane to land. The two airports neatly bracketed the time that they had spent apart.


Sexual attractiveness comes high on the list of desirable attributes. Unlike ‘intelligence’ it connects directly to our basic instincts, bypassing however many hundreds of years of civilisation, taking us right back to the hierarchies of the tribe. Consumer culture taps the resultant anxiety like a mosquito drawing blood from the body of its host. You will spend more than you can afford in order to increase your sexual attractiveness. Your life is a sine curve defined by the peak and trough of your reproductive capability. Your sexual attractiveness is the marketing which determines your exchange value.


The arrivals panel flashed: Chloe’s flight was delayed.

His memory of Holland is coloured by the day that he cycled along the canal and through the woods to a Nazi detention centre. There were no signposts. Only walls remained, dividing up the ground with the outline of buildings. It was February. The trees had no leaves; knuckled branches grasped at a sky that looked as if it had been rubbed out. There were no birds, no noise, except for the snap of twigs, brittle as old bones, under his feet. When he left, a force field extending out from that place seemed to follow him. Since that day, a hushed silence lay just beneath the surface of everything. Or perhaps it was just the effects of a cumulative isolation that comes from not speaking the language, the way that silence roars in your ears when you are alone. He was just a visitor. He was in Dem Bosch on a residency to make art, to paint pictures, so that’s what he did. He painted space stations and satellites. Men on the moon. The others stopped making an effort. They went back to speaking Dutch in their heated discussions over the kitchen table. And then he had met Chloe.

As she was older, had a child, was a more successful artist than him, he’d thought she wouldn’t be interested. He’d seen some of her work in a group show in one of the galleries. Little papermaché figures, painted and glazed, all female, doubled-over, thigh-smacking, rolling on the floor, all laughing. Each figure, the gallery hand-out had explained, was made from chewed-up bibles. She had stripped out pages, one bible at a time, as a performance piece, filling her mouth with them and chewing until the paper was reduced to a grey pulp. She had spat the pulp into jars and later moulded it into figures. Would the inside of her mouth taste of incense and mildew? What did she do with the covers? The figures had names: Sarah, Mary, Ruth…


In evolutionary terms, the worst thing a man can do is bring up another man’s child; all his energy and resources are used up in the perpetuation of another man’s genes.


Arrivals. The panel flashed again. His heart beat, maybe for nothing.

They had exchanged emails, light and breezy: Hi Stephen, how’s it going…

Batting them gently back and forth. And then they had got more intense: Stephen, I dreamed about you again last night…and his replies; he told her things he’d not told anyone before. Now that they are going to meet again, he is not sure how they and their email-selves will tally. Email can become detached from the sender, like a ventriloquist’s dummy, or like a hybrid of the sender and recipient, the ones words fleshed out by the others projections and desires …

She must be claiming her baggage.

He didn’t need the complications or the expense of a long-term relationship. Especially not one with a child in tow – two-for-one. He had arranged for her to give a lecture at the Art College where he worked; eggs had been divided between more than one basket. The College paid for a hotel too; so no assumptions needed to be made about sleeping arrangements. He could just wait and see.

People poured out of the exit.

She was smaller than he remembered, as if she’d been cut out of a different sized photograph from everyone else. The way she dressed was precise, her pink coat was like something a doll might wear. He kissed her, or bent to her kiss; who can tell who inched forward first? A continental one-two. Hands reached out and touched each other on the arm. Neutral territory. Establishing contact.

-How was your flight?

She nodded and smiled at him. He took her rucksack, slung it over one shoulder. She kept her hand luggage.

-We’ll get a taxi.

Again she was silent.

-I thought we could go to the hotel first, drop off your things, and then if you like I’ll show you around the College, before your lecture …

And that’s when she did it. She smiled and took a notebook and pen out of her bag. She held the notebook under his face where he could see it. The handwriting was peculiarly French, a style that he remembered from the white boards in the language-lab at school: Bonjour! Thank-you, yes, I had a pleasant flight.

He stopped, reached for the notebook as if touching it would make the situation clearer. She pulled it away.

-Have you lost your voice?

She flipped over a page and, as if it were toast on a toasting fork, held it to his face again.

No, I’ve not lost my voice.

As a response to the war, I have decided not to speak.

She turned the page, held it up to his face as if browning the other side.

It’s a performance piece. It’s my protest, a response to feeling powerless.

He reached for the notebook again and the pen she was holding, but she pulled them away. Was this a joke? Was she mad? What was the point in her being here if she chose not to speak? What about the bloody lecture? He’d gone out on a limb to get her that.


In a single day a man may produce one hundred million sperm, whereas a woman between puberty and the menopause will release around four hundred eggs. It follows then that men are able to pass on their genes to far more off-spring than women. The current record for fathering children is held by one Moulay Ismail the Bloodthirsty who sired eight-hundred-and-eighty-eight children before collapsing, a spent force, at aged fifty-five in 1727. The equivalent record held by a woman goes to Madame Vassilyvev who produced sixty-nine children, bunched conveniently in sets of twins, triplets and quadruplets, before keeling over in 1765 at the comparatively young age of forty.

What’s the relevance of this? Well, the point is that the consequences of reproduction for men and women are very different. A man fulfils his biological destiny with a little rub, the stiffening of his member and the ejaculation of his seed. Point and shoot. Over in the blink of an eye. Women on the other hand, to secure the future of their genes, invest longer in the production of each child. Forty-weeks gestation, six months or more breastfeeding, sixteen years of nurturing outside the womb.

Is it any wonder that in a recent experiment amongst university students in which men were approached by a woman unknown to them who invited them to have sex with her, three-quarters readily agreed whilst one-hundred percent of women taking part in a similar experiment turned the young man down with a polite no thank-you. OK, advances in contraception in the twentieth-century provide both sexes with a variety of options to inhibit procreation, but instinct runs deep and is not easily diverted.


Before Chloe arrived, a week or two in advance, he had booked a table for two, at one of the expensive seafood restaurants down by the shore. He had imagined their evening: the light fading, candles, some unobtrusive music, the murmur of conversation, a slice of sweet white fish, as firm as a well toned arm or leg, as if they were eating each other’s bodies, delicately bathed in butter, herbs and garlic.

The lecture had gone well, the students had loved her. She played a video-diary consisting of a collection of freely associated thoughts about the war – recorded a few days before it began – and about her work as she went about her business, brushing her teeth, getting dressed, just going out, just coming in… She showed slides and took questions, writing the answers on a flip-chart in that curly writing of hers.

Afterwards, when they actually got to the restaurant, he felt conspicuous, as if he were dining alone or with someone with an embarrassing disability. The other tables hummed with Friday night good humour; from their table there was just the sound of his voice, cowed almost to a whisper, and the squeak, squeak of her black felt pen on paper. She pointed and he ordered for her. Her responses to his questions were curbed by the diameter of the notepad. He drank more than he’d intended, they both did. He felt stung by the bill; he’d paid and left a generous tip too, smiling, not wanting to let his shock at the cost of the evening show.


So you see, the point is not that women are coy, shying away from sex for fear that it may affront their delicate sensibilities. On the contrary, women, on an instinctive level, require something different from sex than men: they are after quality not quantity and with reason are keen to vet potential candidates from the disorderly queue of hopeful males who may line up to fertilise their eggs. Women are not numbed, cowed or awed. They are not passive recipients of male advances, as history would have us believe. To a large degree they control access to heterosexual sex. They are the gatekeepers of the species.


It’s Saturday evening and he’s at the airport again saying goodbye. He needn’t have escorted her, except maybe she’d have found it difficult to get a cab. She hadn’t stayed last night. What seemed promising had fizzled out. She had not after all wanted to sleep with him. She labelled his component parts one by one and then requested a taxi. Bitch! In the shower this morning he had been unable to remove all the traces of the permanent marker from his body. She’d led him on. After she’d left last night, he’d milked himself into his t-shirt and then again that morning in the shower, but he hadn’t been able to more than postpone the itch. Her perfume and the proximity of her small body stirs the dumb creature in his pants.

Au revoir!

She hands him the last page from her notebook and they kiss each other on the cheeks, a kind of undoing of the same dipping forward action of the day before. She disappears through the gate as if the film of his life is being played backwards.

From the top deck of the bus back to town, he watches the planes glide stiffly across the tarmac. Bleeping little trucks carrying baggage skate into position. He thinks he sees her pink jacket in the distance walking towards the plane and disappearing into the mobile walkway, but he can’t be sure.

Copyright Kate Tregaskis 2005.


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