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Mice & Mendelson

Joan Aiken





  Mice & Mendelson

  Joan Aiken

  Illustrated by Babette Cole

  Music by John Sebastian Brown


  The Bag of Time

  Mr. Mendelson Goes Backwards

  Pastry in the Sky

  Managing Without the Moon

  The Fiery Christmas Trees

  Looking After Rosa

  Mr. Mendelson Learns to Fly

  A Biography of Joan Aiken

  Two Mice and Mendelson

  Two mice and Mendelson, out in the park

  Bask in the sunshine, dream in the dark

  Sure that when night time has floated away

  Morning will bring them a wonderful day.

  Two mice and Mendelson, out in the park

  Frolic in sunshine, doze in the dark

  Listen to rain, sniff the wind when it blows—

  What they don’t know about, nobody knows.

  The Bag of Time

  FAR TO THE NORTH OF England there is a big wild neglected park, known as Midnight Park. In this park, about a hundred years ago, lived an aged Orkney pony whose name was Mr. Mendelson. He was only about three feet high—if he had been standing on the other side of a kitchen table, all you could have seen would have been his head. But his head was big and handsome, so that he looked like a much larger horse, whose legs were only half the proper length. He was black all over, except for one white triangular patch in the middle of his back, which was covered by a saddle when he wore one. His coat was very thick and shaggy, and his tail was so long that it almost touched the ground. This was very convenient for his friends Gertrude and Bertha. I will come to them presently.

  Mr. Mendelson had been ridden for years by a boy called Sam. But the day came at last when Sam grew too big for the old pony, and his legs touched the ground on either side. And very soon after that, Sam had to go away to boarding school.

  “Old Mr. Mendelson is going to be lonely when I’m gone,” Sam said to his grandfather, who was called the Old Lord. (Sam’s mother and father had died.)

  “Perhaps I ought to sell him to someone who will ride him?” said the Old Lord doubtfully, putting a plate of porridge in front of Sam.

  Sam and his grandfather were having breakfast in the stable, where they lived. (The big house in the middle of the park had burned down long ago.) The Old Lord was in a wheelchair, because he had rheumatism, which made him very lame. But he could get about in his wheelchair much faster than most people can walk. He always made the breakfast. Sam washed up afterwards.

  “No, no,” said Sam. “I didn’t mean we should sell Mr. Mendelson. What I meant was that you should get him a piano.”

  “A piano? Why, in the name of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego should I get him a piano?”

  “He likes thinking about tunes,” said Sam.

  “But he can’t play a piano.”

  “No,” said Sam. “But his friends Bertha and Gertrude can.”

  Gertrude and Bertha were not horses. I will come to them in a minute.

  “There’s the old piano you gave to the town band,” Sam went on. “Now there’s no town band, nobody uses it. You could have that put in the park, under the big oak.”

  “Oh, very well!” said the Old Lord. “And I suppose you’ll want it covered with a tarpaulin to keep off the rain?”

  “Yes,” said Sam.

  Then the carriage came to take Sam to the train which was to take him to boarding-school. So he rubbed Mr. Mendelson’s nose for the last time, said goodbye to his grandfather, and got into the carriage, and it drove away.

  The Old Lord had the piano moved into the park.

  “There!” he said to Mr. Mendelson. “That’s for you and your friends.”

  And he rolled himself back to the stable in his wheelchair.

  Mr. Mendelson, of course, could not play the piano. But his friends Bertha and Gertrude could play remarkably well.

  Gertrude and Bertha were field mice. At one time a musician had lived in the old ice-house in a corner of the park. They had learned to play from watching him. So they were delighted when Mr. Mendelson’s piano was put under the big oak.

  “Every night we’ll play tunes to you,” said Gertrude.

  “Why not every day?” said Mr. Mendelson.

  “We have our mousework to do in the daytime,” said Bertha.

  The two mice kept tremendously busy all day, sweeping and dusting. One of their biggest jobs was tidying Mr. Mendelson. This took hours, for his coat was so thick that it held any amount of dust. They had to go all over him inch by inch, brushing and beating with bunches of twigs, raking and scraping and currying with their tiny comb-like claws, so that he always had a beautiful shine on his thick black coat; and they also combed and teased out his long black mane and tail (in which there were now some white hairs) until each hair hung separate and shining. In return for this kindness, Mr. Mendelson allowed them to take as much hair and fluff as they wished for a warm lining for their nest. And he also carried them about the park, and allowed them to use him as a step-ladder to reach fruit and nuts on the high blackberry clumps and hazel bushes in the park. Which saved them a great deal of trouble and climbing.

  “We’ll have a concert of piano music every evening at six o’clock,” said Gertrude.

  “Please!” said Mr. Mendelson. “Will you tell me how I am going to know when it’s six o’clock? Suppose I am over on the other side of the park?”

  “You can see the stable clock on its tower from anywhere in the park,” said Bertha.

  “But I can’t tell the time!”

  “When one hand points straight down, one hand points straight up, that’s six o’clock.”

  “All right,” said Mr. Mendelson. “That I can remember.”

  So every day as he wandered about the park munching grass, he kept a careful eye on the stable clock.

  And when one hand pointed down, and one up, he would gallop to the piano from wherever he was and drag off the tarpaulin with his teeth.

  Then the mice would run up Mr. Mendelson’s tail on to the keyboard, and, side by side, dashing to and fro, they would play the most beautiful waltzes and polkas, mazurkas and minuets, while Mr. Mendelson stood breathing heavily with pleasure, gazing in wonder and admiration at his clever friends, with his chin resting on the end of the keyboard, so that the vibrations from the music went right down his neck to his tail.

  And all day, as he wandered about the park, the beautiful tunes danced inside his head.

  At first, sometimes, there was a little trouble about the time.

  “So why aren’t you playing?” Mr. Mendelson would demand. “It’s six o’clock already, and I’ve taken off the tarpaulin. Leave combing my tail and play the music, please, ladies!”

  “It isn’t six o’clock yet, Mr. Mendelson. It’s only half-past twelve.”

  “But one of the hands points up, and one is down.”

  “The long hand has to be up, and the short hand has to be down.”

  “Long hand, short hand!” grumbled Mr. Mendelson.

  “Why do they have to make time so complicated, answer me that?”

  Then the winter evenings came, and it was dark by teatime.

  “Now I can’t see the stable clock at all! So what I am I supposed to do, wait till the moon rises? By then it will be too late, probably!”

  “You must listen till you hear the stable clock strike six,” said Bertha

  “How do I know what is six?”

  “One strike for each foot,” said Gertrude, running up and down his legs.

  “And one for each ear,” said Bertha, biting them affectionately.

  “Four and two makes six!”

  “Do me a favor! I’m too old to learn all this complicated mathematics!”

  But just the same, Mr. Mendelson did learn, and the only trouble then was that he would sometimes wake them in the middle of the night, shouting, “Oy, ladies! Wake up! I heard the stable clock strike six—we must have been sleeping all day!”

  “This is six o’clock in the morning, Mr. Mendelson. Our concerts take place at six o’clock in the evening.”

  “Oigh, may the devil fly away with them, why do they have to have two six o’clocks, will you tell me? Isn’t there enough confusion already? Are they so stingy they couldn’t afford another number?”

  “Oh, never mind!” said Gertrude. “We’ll just tell you when it’s time for the concert, Mr. Mendelson. Then you won’t have to waste your time worrying about it.”

  “But I enjoy worrying! It doesn’t waste any time at all!”

  Meanwhile the two mice were becoming so expert on the piano that the Old Lord rolled himself over in his wheelchair almost every evening to listen to them.

  Now there was also, at the time I am telling you about, a gypsy called Dan Sligo, who lived in the woods outside Midnight Park. He made a living from buying things cheaply off people who didn’t realize they were being swindled, and then selling the things again at much higher prices to other people. Dan Sligo was also a thief, when he could steal without getting caught, and he had an uncommonly sharp eye for picking things up—he could spot a coin lying in a patch of dust that a hundred people had walked past without noticing.

  When the piano was put out in the park for Mr. Mendelson and his friends, Dan Sligo saw it, and he thought to himself, “What a waste! Why should an old numbskull of a pony and two persnickety mice have a piano all to themselves?”

  Which was not at all fair, for anybody who liked could come and listen to their music.

  Dan Sligo set his wits to work, thinking how to get the piano away from them. It was no use trying to steal the piano under cover of dark, for Mr. Mendelson was so fond of it that he stood sleeping all night with his chin resting on the keyboard.

  So presently Dan Sligo wandered along to Mr. Mendelson, carrying a bag of fine gray ashes.

  “’Morning, Mr. M!” said Dan. “Not getting any younger, then, I see! White hairs beginning to show in the old mane, eh?”

  Bertha and Gertrude had just finished combing out Mr. Mendelson’s mane, and it hung all silky and black-and-white in the sunshine.

  “What you need, Mr. M,” said Dan Sligo, “is a bag of time. Everybody needs more time as they get older. A few extra years’d come in handy, eh? And I’ve got the very thing for you, right here in my hand,” he said, dangling the bag of ashes under Mr. Mendelson’s nose.

  “See here! This bag’s plumb full, chock-a-block with time.”

  “Time? Time?” murmured Mr. Mendelson. “Any more of that stuff, I don’t need! Those mice give me plenty of trouble with time as it is.”

  “O’ course you need it!” said Dan Sligo. “Everybody needs more time. And here I’ve got a bag of it—real, vintage, 99 percent proof, Grade-A, 22-carat, first-class time. It’d be worth its weight in diamonds if I could be bothered to take it to the Houses o’ Parliament! Just look at that.”

  He trickled a little dust out of the bag into the palm of his hand.

  “See! That’s ten minutes’ worth. I’ll make you a present of it. If you had the whole bag, Mr. M, it’d give you days and weeks and months and years and centuries of extra time. Why—just think! you’d have two days to everybody else’s one. When all the other folk was on to Thursday, you’d be having a second Wednesday!”

  “Why would I be wanting two Wednesdays?” said Mr. Mendelson. “Enough is sufficient.”

  “Humph,” said Dan Sligo. He saw that he must change his tactic a little. He said, “How long do those mice play to you each evening?”

  “A couple of hours.”

  “Well! Just think—with this bag of time you could spread out that two hours to five or even six hours! And look—” he went on, as Mr. Mendelson still seemed doubtful, “as we’re pals, I’ll throw in this handsome watch and chain, which you can wear round your neck. Then you won’t have to worry about watching the stable clock—you’ll be carrying your own time round with you.”

  And Dan hung the watch round Mr. Mendelson’s neck on its chain. It was a very old watch he had picked up in a spinney in the park. It was so corroded and caked with mud that it was quite black, and it had not gone for thirty years, but Mr. Mendelson did not know that. He looked down at it rather proudly.

  “See? You’ll be the only horse in the north country wearing a watch. You’ll wonder how you ever did without it—or this priceless bag of time,” said Dan, and he dropped the bag of ash between Mr. Mendelson’s feet. “Now, the only thing I’ll take in exchange—and I’m doing myself a bad turn, just because you’re such a good friend, Mr. M—is this old piano.”

  Dan had already arranged to sell the piano for fifty pounds to a pub called The King’s Head. They needed a piano for a party that very night, and the landlord was waiting with a cart outside the park fence, ready to take it away. So Dan, who was very strong, pulled a rope from his pocket, knotted it round the piano once or twice, hoisted up the piano on to his back, and began to walk off with it.

  Mr. Mendelson gazed after him in stupefaction and horror.

  “Oy! Hey! Wait!” he cried. “You can’t take the piano!”

  “Sure, I can! I’ve given you a fine watch, and a bag of top quality time for it. Fair exchange is no robbery.”

  Tears the size of golf balls began to roll down Mr. Mendelson’s nose.

  “But how can we have our evening music if you take away our piano?”

  “Go buy a harp!” called Dan Sligo mockingly. However just at that moment Bertha and Gertrude came bustling through the grass, and they saw the tears rolling down Mr. Mendelson’s nose. Bertha ran to wipe them up with a bunch of feathers, and Gertrude cried, “Mr. Mendelson, what’s the matter? And why is Dan Sligo taking our piano?”

  “I bought it from him at a fair price!” said Dan Sligo. “I gave him a gentleman’s half-hunter watch, and a bag of twenty-denier time.”

  He was very annoyed that the mice had turned up, for he feared they would not be so easy to deal with as the old pony. And he was in a hurry, for the landlord of The King’s Head had to be back at his pub by half-past five, and he had told Dan Sligo he must have the piano by a quarter past five at the latest.

  “You must let me play Mr. Mendelson one last tune,” said Gertrude. “See how upset he is! I’m sure he didn’t understand that you were going to take the piano right away.”

  “Of course he didn’t,” said Bertha. “You must let us each play a last tune. That’s only fair.”

  “Oh, very well,” said Dan. “Only one tune each, though! I must take the piano by five o’clock.”

  “All right,” said Bertha. “We’ll play till the stable clock says five. I’ll go first,” she said, biting her sister’s tail, “and then it will be Gertrude’s turn.”

  So Dan Sligo irritably set the piano down again and undid the knotted rope. He slapped open the lid, and Bertha ran up Mr. Mendelson’s tail on to the keyboard and started to play.

  How she played!—with what agility and strength and brilliance, what runs and trills, what crashing chords, what spectacular leaps from black notes to white, and back to black again. It was more than a piece of piano music—it was a whole ballet as well. Even Dan Sligo was amazed. Some of the chords Bertha was obliged to play with her long tail, since her legs were too short to stretch. At last she
was quite exhausted, and sank down panting on four white notes at the left-hand end of the piano—trrrump!

  “Now I got to take the piano,” said Dan. “I can see the landlord of The King’s Head waiting.”

  “No, no!” cried Gertrude. “I haven’t had my turn yet.” And before Dan Sligo could stop her, she too had scurried up Mr. Mendelson’s tail, and was dashing to and fro along the keyboard. Dan Sligo didn’t like to shut down the lid on her, but he was very impatient.

  “Come, on, now, that’s enough. That’s quite enough!”

  “No it’s not, no it’s not!” panted Gertrude, playing a magnificent arpeggio by dashing at top speed along half the length of the keyboard, pressing down the keys behind her with her tail. “It isn’t five o’clock yet!”

  “It must be! You’ve been playing for at least an hour. I never heard such a long piece in my life.”

  “Look at the stable clock,” said Bertha, who had her breath back by now. “It only says half past four.”

  True enough it did, for while Bertha was playing, Gertrude had scurried up inside the clock tower and wound a bit of wool round the pendulum, stopping the clock.

  Dan looked over towards the park fence and saw that the landlord of The King’s Head had whipped up his horse and was driving away to find himself another piano.

  “The deal’s off!” he shouted to Dan.

  And then, since Gertrude was too tired to play any longer, Mr. Mendelson said politely, “I’ve been thinking, Mr. Sligo, and I’ve decided I don’t want your bag of time, or your watch, so you can take them back, thank you! I haven’t used any of the time. And I would far rather keep my piano.”

  “Oh, what do I care?” said Dan angrily, kicking over the bag of ash. “It’s only a parcel of dirt and a rusty old watch that don’t go!”

  He swung round furiously on his heel and walked away.

  But next evening, when the Old Lord came to listen to the mice playing, he said, “Why, bless my soul! That’s the half-hunter watch that I lost when I was a boy. I’ll have it cleaned up for you, old fellow, and then you won’t have to worry about looking at the stable clock.”