Thor's China Diary

Dining Out on Laundry Soap

@22 April 2000

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Well, this is a record. The engineering feat is extraordinary, and so neatly executed... There is a mouse in China, it must be reported, at a very advanced stage of evolution. We may speculate that it will shortly surpass and supplant the human niche in the Chinese ecosystem.

You see, I cohabit with this, um, other mammal, I think. Its habits are entirely nocturnal, and indeed it has mastered some extra-scientific ability to vanish as soon as a light is turned on. Therefore, no firm claims can be made about its genus. I am merely assuming "mouse" because the housekeeper wordlessly delivered a kind of sprung cage when I arrived in these lodgings. Come to think of it, the sprung cage, whose technology exceeds my understanding, may also have been designed to capture some other lifeform, such as pixies.

Around midnight each evening major construction/destruction works get under way. Firstly, there a great scurrying of busy feet, inside the ceiling, in wall cavities, along cobwebbed trails unseen but no doubt rich with adventure. Then the excavations begin, a clawing-gnawing-tearing grind like a D-7 Caterpillar dozer demolishing old slums. I lie there in an apprehensive daze, suspended between a nightmare and naked flight. Surely, soon, in one of these dark hours there will be a rending crash as old timber and masonry collapse about my ears. But sleep always wins out, I drift of into parallel universes, some covert signal is flashed, and the pilferage begins.

Be aware, my visitor's habits have changed. Has some battle been fought deep in those dark recesses? Has the first-comer been driven out and supplanted by a fresh race of adventurers? Or has there been a mutation, the emergence of a new cyborg? I lean toward the latter theory. Our original partnership in cohabitation had a definitely mousy feel about it. Copious quantities of mouse-like droppings grew in little piles among the tangle of computer cables. This was a mouse looking for a buzz out of life. It ignored the temptations of honeyed raisins, the exquisite morsels of pickle, attached to an ugly steel rat  trap. Maybe its aesthetic sense was offended by the steel jaws of death, or maybe it was plain smart. But there came a day when my computer reported in stone dead. A severed power cable. In the following weeks my printer went the same way, then a special scanner cable. I began to think dark thoughts of revenge. Mouse had better start to get his kicks some other way, or there was gonna' be a war.

Telepathic too, this mouse. Or maybe a cyborg by now. The power cable attacks suddenly ceased; the mouse droppings disappeared. Not the visitations though. My new partner was an environmentalist and health fanatic, scrupulously clean, with awesome engineering talents. The kitchen is a fair trek from the wooden lattice underneath my computer desk, which seems to double as a toll-booth for the cyborg super-highway. In the kitchen is a small plastic waste basket wherein may be found the detritus of human activity. Torn plastic bags, bits of cooked rice, apple peels, old wine bottles... The nocturnal inhabitant is choosy in this supermarket, and careful. Miraculously, the plastic basket never tips over. Nothing is dropped on the long haul back to my computer desk, there are no droppings, no footprints. I never hear scurrying feet on the kitchen tiles. But each morning, under the desk will be a small collection of abandoned loot. An apple core, some peel, maybe a piece of carrot. Very healthy stuff. There must be a customs check point at the toll gate. Some goods just don't get through by sunrise.

But laundry soap is the real intriguer. This resides of course in the bathroom. On a ledge above a very slippery bath with sheer sides. From a mousy point of view I'm damned if I can see how Mickey could get there, cyborg or not. In the last three months the laundry soap has disappeared at least six times. At first it seemed more like the mischief of laundry elves. You know, the ones who steal at least one sock every time you use the washing machine. Or maybe my memory had slipped: soap isn't stuff that plays a big part in the daily struggle. Then one morning the evidence was there, under the desk. A pilfered piece of soap hadn't made it through the customs gate.

Hey, what's going on? If it were perfumed soap, soap to make you young again, soap made velvet with lanolin, soap with a brand name ... well, then you could say that at least my partner had upper class tastes. But when it comes to soap my lowly origins show through. I buy the cheapest, nastiest looking stuff around on the principle that what's good enough for washing underpants is good enough for washing my hair too. A few months ago I came across some genuinely rank washerwoman, scrubbing-board soap at half the price of all that pretty packeted stuff. Bought ten cakes. Last night my midnight flatmate decamped with the last of them. How the hell? I'm full of admiration.

"Dining out on laundry soap" copyrighted to Thor May 2000; all rights reserved
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