THE MOUSE THAT STOWED AWAY

The story of the stowaway mouse is much like that of every orphan. His untold story has no happy origin, few happy memories, and rare are fairy tale endings in the lives of the lost and lonely. It began bitterly enough for this lost soul, however, and his tale is a hard one to tell.

The mouse’s life began on December 25th, 1900 in the cargo hold of a tramp steamer called Lucky Star just as the sun cast its eye down upon the City of Belfast. Just in from Madagascar on the 22nd, she was silent and empty. Her crew had been given 3 days shore leave for Christmas. While they were wherever they were, the mouse was born, just as he would die. All alone in a filthy engineering compartment of a ship.

His mother, already frail, and diminutive from a prolonged lifestyle of malnutrition and deprivation suffered throughout the pregnancy. In the end, her legacy was her undoing. The Mouse would be her second baby, her only living heir, the last of her hard life’s greatest sorrows, and the final light in her dying eyes.

The first baby born to, Charlotte Mouse that morning came into the cold dank world with her fraternal twin brothers umbilical cord wrapped around her tiny throat. Nothing could save her.

Two minutes later the mouse was delivered in a gout of dark red blood as Charlotte began hemorrhaging from a fatal tear inside of her. As the mouse drew his first breath of fetid air their gazes met and he stared up at her, watching silently, without a care or a name. As the spark went out in his mother’s dying eyes her blood soaked his skin warming him. It sustained him when his natural curiosity and intense hunger pangs lead him to taste it.

The mouse’s luck truly ran out when the ship’s Engineer found him lying in a pool of coagulated blood, cold, hungry and near death. The old Scotsman took the scene in and assessed it quickly, as engineer’s will. Pragmatically he set to putting his ship aright again. His heart took pity on the orphan and he cleaned the mouse up dried him, fed him sweet cream, and then stowed him away in a wooden crate he’d fashioned to look like a toolbox to the casual eye. No sailor onboard would dare touch it as the old man’s temper was legendary when it came to his tools or his machinery. The ship was his world and in it, he was a man you’d not trifle with but once.

Even so, he knew what would befall them both should the mouse be discovered onboard the ship. Sailors are a superstitious lot as tradesmen go and that included the crew of the Lucky Star. They would view the baby which the engineer had named Mouse in his mind as an evil omen due to the circumstances of his birth and if he was discovered at sea the men would throw him overboard like he was a dead albatross that had fallen from the clear blue sky. They might throw him off too; just for the sake of argument.

Happily, baby Mouse was quieter than a church mouse, so he sailed with the Lucky Star until 1908 when the hand of fate intervened again and the Engineer took his own life rather than wait to die from Consumption. A company paid physician assured him he had weeks to live during a routine check-up ordered by the Captain who suspected as much.

He was ordered to pack his things and disembark in three days when the Lucky Star sailed for England wat dawn. The last thing the old Scotsman did before he drank an entire bottle of Laudanum was to write a note to an old friend from college and paid a boy to deliver it. The note bore no explanation, simply a dying old man’s last request for his long-time friend to smuggle Mouse off of the Lucky Star and turn him loose on the waterfront. The note stated that the mouse was to be left there where he could forage and fend for himself with the rest of the mud hens and the wharf rats that permeated Belfast’s shoreline. The secret of the Lucky Star’s invisible mascot has gone untold until now.

He made the transition smoothly and adapted to waterfront life like a duck takes to water. Few people saw him; nobody took notice of him. To human eyes the mouse was invisible so it was easy for him to vanish into the booming yards of Harland and Wolff; shipbuilders, when they began laying the keel for their biggest contract to date March 31, 1909.

The mouse made himself right at home in the vast expanse of lumber and steel and soon discovered he could move around unseen more easily at night. Oftentimes he would venture into one of the many break rooms where the crews gathered for lunch and sample their wive’s cooking. He was especially fond of cheeses and sweet treats but he never ate enough that any of the tradesmen noticed food was missing.

For three years he haunted the passageways, catwalks, and ductwork inside the immense structure which got bigger and more complex by the day; without being spotted more than once. On that one occasion, the mouse bolted for the fence when a security officer spied him going into a breakroom in front of the prow of the massive ship. Satisfied that he had chased the vermin away for good, and had single-handedly saved lunch from a fate worse than death to use the parlance of the times. James Heath, retired flatfoot retired to the lunchroom and helped himself to an apprentice riveter’s cold beef sandwich. He told himself he could blame it on the mouse if push came to shove.

Naturally, push came to shove soon afterward because it was such a fine idea, the low paid rent-a-cop supplemented his meager diet at the expense of many a man. Soon the legend of the mouse who raided lunch boxes with impunity grew faster than the great ship itself. Still, nobody ever laid eyes upon him. This increased the growth rate of the rumor exponentially. Soon, some of the workers in the shipyard were leaving a plate of food out on the table in every lunchroom on the job site in a futile effort to lure the chow hall chupacabra away from their own food.

Several attempts were made upon the life of the mouse by way of offering poisoned sandwiches, which were clearly labeled so that no human being ate one by mistake. After 3 weeks in a row. The baits had gone untouched, while the lunch buckets started coming up short of food again, and the mouse’s legend grew rapidly.

By the time the White Star Line’s legendary ship was ready for her owners and arrived in England, Titanic was ready to sail for New York.  By April 12th, 2012 the mouse had been in and out and all around the ship to the point he might have been considered the world’s foremost expert on the majestic super-structure.

He was familiar with the entire ship, and every piece of her machinery including her three massive, coal-fired engines that could propel the mighty ship through the frigid North Atlantic at a speed of  23 knots, or roughly 25 miles-per-hour per hour. Historians say Titanic was speeding along at 22.5 knots when she struck an iceberg and sank on the night of April 15th, just 3 days after embarking on her maiden voyage she went to the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean.

When Titanic left that morning amidst the biggest public spectacle England had seen since the coronation of her last monarch, Titanic’s manifest listed 2,223 passengers on board bound for New York. The unofficial total, however, was 2,224. Counting the mouse.

By then the crew had been working on the ship while she underwent sea trials, upgrades final fittings, and final shakedown cruise. They were used to seeing the mouse around the ship in places where he could not possibly have been. Yet time and time again, there he was, begging for a treat, which the stewards were more than happy to provide him with. Soon the mouse was starting to bulge noticeably about his belly. He was absolutely corpulent some might even say but nobody did of course because to the crew the Mouse was an omen of good luck and they all had an uneasy feeling lingering in the backs of their minds that Titanic was cursed.

Anything that might chase that bad luck away was good enough for the men and women who staffed the mighty ship, so the mouse was living the lifestyle of the filthy rich, and famous. Nobody else on board, Titanic, not even Captain Smith was any the wiser for it.

The mouse stayed hidden well out of the sight of all of Titanic’s passengers, and a few of the crew members as well. They had expressed an unbending disdain for their unofficial mascot whom they knew only as, The Official House-Mouse To his Majesty’s ship, the mouse. Some tried to say it was an ill-portent but they were shouted down by the vocal majority who felt he was full of it and said as much within the range of the mouse’s hearing.

He didn’t really understand the intricacies of human interaction having no real frame of reference to go on. But he instinctively understood what hatred was, however. He had seen more than his share of that during the time he spent living along the waterfront.

To the mouse, the opulent appointments and fixtures in the first class accommodations were not lost completely because he often found things here and there like a ball, a stray jack, and other toys that had fallen out of a careless child’s pocket. Things left there unnoticed by its owner to appropriate as his own. In his secret living places strewn throughout the big ship, the mouse had amassed quite a unique collection of worldly goods of an eclectic nature to be sure. In one spot you would have found only a small red rubber ball or a few bent, and partially mutilated rivets that had been rejected by Titanic’s builders.

In another part of the ship, you might have found another stash that consisted of several chunks of coal, an ivory button from an officer’s custom-tailored tunic, a small wrench some mechanic had dropped below decks, and an official Titanic playing card. The Ace of Spades.

In one compartment, low down on Titanic’s starboard side between the prow, and engine room, you would have found nothing but the bed where the mouse slept every night no matter what was going on. It was warm all the time from the fiery furnaces that turned coal into horsepower. And it was there, more than anywhere else, that he felt the safest because it reminded him of the ship where he was born and raised. The thrum and vibration of Titanic’s massive walking beams marching around and around in perfect harmony lulled the mouse to sleep better than anything in the world. This was his world and in that world, he was safe and warm. That, he instinctively knew, was not to be trifled with lightly.

One child was rumored to have befriended the mouse. A young girl whose real name has been lost in the tangled issues in the days following the wreck of the “unsinkable” Titanic. For the sake of convenience, we shall call her Allison. Both of them were, by their nature, painfully shy and retreating and so it was only natural they would find one another and become fast friends on sight. It takes one to fully appreciate one.

While the little girls’ parents were in the parlor taking their “fancy-schmancy dinners, dances, and brandies with stinky old cigars which Allison said, “smelled like burning horse manure,” to her. She had to stay in their suite with the butler to watch her. Allison and the mouse played together for hours on end until 11:00 o’ clock when her mother and father would drunkenly roll and stroll back to their luxurious first-class suite filled to the gills with champagne and brandy.

Allison’s mother was invariably draped in a glamorous evening gown that in some countries, represented half of their gross national product. That didn’t even take into account that she was dripping diamonds and pearls., and wrapped herself in enough mink and fox fur to reupholster a full-grown Clydesdale. Or that she wore each gown once and then threw it away like other’ people toss out their used toilet paper.

They could hear Allison’s parents coming down the companionway a mile away so on the two nights, they spent together, the mouse was able to escape their notice by slipping out through the heat ducts. Meanwhile, Ali, as she said everyone called her, would distract their attention and cover his getaway. The mouse didn’t know what would happen if he was sighted in first-class. But Allison knew they would throw him overboard. That was what the butler had assured her when she saw their suite for the first time and looked it over.

“The better class of people must be protected, Miss, Allison.” He explained to her in that special stuck-up way Jarvis, the discriminating English butler, had with words.

“What? Oh, I see.” she had replied, her face set as hard as if it had been carved out of the same stone from which Jarvis’s face was chiseled. Allison faced her butler and pinned him to an index card with a pushpin in her mind. “But of course.” she quipped, her voice dripping with unfiltered vitriol. “We simply cannot have vermin in the woodpile now can we?”

Quite so Miss, Allison.” Jarvis replied. Allison’s venom dripping from his visage like water rolling off of a duck’s back. One of his less endearing qualities in, Allison’s eyes. But, just as she asked herself all the time, ‘what could she ever hope to accomplish by arguing with an old stick-in-the-mud like, Jarvis anyway?’ All she had to do was keep the mouse out of sight for a few days and, Bob’s your Uncle, they’d be in New York and it would be irrelevant.

On the evening of April 14, Allison’s parents returned to their suite five minutes past eleven o’clock. They were in their usual state of inebriation and feeling boisterous in their cups. Behind them came a crowd of their upper crust “friends” from the salon and they were in the mood to party. They sent Allison to bed and called for Jarvis to bring a round of drinks.

Meanwhile, the mouse wended his way down through Titanic and to the lower decks where the third class passengers were having an impromptu celebration of their own. Unable to join in the fun, he sat there watching, mute but filled with a sense of longing he would never understand.

He swayed to and fro in time with the music which was also something to which the mouse was unaccustomed, but he knew liked it. There were couples dancing up a storm in the confined spaces of the lower staterooms and everyone was laughing and singing so joyfully that it began to make his little heart fill with longing again. 

He took one final look at the festivities and then walked away. He made his way carefully down to his bedroom, such as it was, and curled up in his bed. Within minutes the mouse was fast asleep and dreaming those sweet dreams the lost can only dream of. Meanwhile, high above him on Titanic’s foremast the two men standing watch in the Crowsnest noted the time was 11: 35 P.M.

Titanic’s destination would have to wait forever because her destiny was waiting for her five minutes, full-steam, ahead. The mouse slept peacefully for the first time in his life below while the watchmen strained their eyes through binoculars at a flat-calm sea. By the time they did spot the iceberg, it was dead ahead and coming on fast. The call went out to the bridge and the First Mate ordered all stop, full reverse to port in a vain attempt to avoid the collision. But Titanic was never meant to be maneuverable, she was built for speed. 

As the iceberg raked down the mighty ship’s side, ice sliced through riveted steel plates like they were made of wood. A report came into the bridge from down below. The iceberg had breeched Titanic’s hull and water was pouring in through the breaches faster than they could pump it out again. The first Mate closed all the watertight doors below decks and Titanic’s compartments began to fill.

The first passenger to die that night was sleeping like a baby beside the hull where the worst of the damage was felt. The shock of the impact knocked him from his bed but before the mouse could gather his wits about him a 6-inch steel pipe was ripped away from its hanger above his bed. The mouse died instantly as 1200 PSI of live steam scalded him ending his sad story as abruptly and violently as it had begun 12 years before on the Lucky Star.

As the ice cold Atlantic filled his home his burned body was tossed around the steel-sided room like a rag doll. Above him, Titanic’s passengers were unaware that 1,517 of them were going to die.

 Belfast, Ireland. April 16, 1912.

Two wharf rats stare at a discarded newspaper whose headlines read, “GOD WINS BET! TITANIC LOST!” The two crud encrusted mud hens looked at one another in silence for a moment before one orphan asked the other. “Wasn’t The Mouse on Titanic?”

“Yes, he was, Mate.” the younger wharf rat replied, tears falling unbidden from his eyes. They scarcely ran down his muddy face before vanishing into the dirt on his 7-year-old cheeks. Wiping the tears away with a filthy rag, he sobbed wishfully,

“Lucky bastard.”

March ‎6, ‎2019