Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Quite a stuffing!

On a rainy Sunday afternoon in November, most people I know are either lazing in front of the TV, cozied up in a pub, doing the laundry or tidying the house. Yesterday, on this particular rainy afternoon, I was indeed siting in a pub, but in front of me was not a roast chicken with all the trimmings, in front of me, was a dead white mouse and a scalpel.

I should probably warn you now... if you are of a squeamish disposition I suggest you read no further. I would also suggest you don’t read this before you are about to eat, nor if you have just eaten. I understand that leaves you with a very small window of opportunity to peruse this… but so be it.

While most people are beginning to think of stuffing a turkey for Christmas lunch, or stuffing a stocking with presents, I was thinking of stuffing a tiny little mouse. A tiny. Little. Mouse. I know… the guilt began the moment I saw it. But I had considered this particular activity for the last 6 months and signed up for the mouse taxidermy class back in May, so I was prepared for a range of emotions, and had come to terms with most of them. I made sure that the mouse hadn’t died for our sake (that was my biggest worry) and discovered that most taxidermists will only ever take animals that have died of natural causes. Our particular teacher also treated us to the fact that nothing was ever wasted and that her cats would be the lucky recipients of mice leftovers, later that night. Oh God! But I also made sure that the class was being taught by someone qualified and that the mouse would be treated with respect (as much as skinning and stuffing a mouse can be respectful!).

I arrived at a beautiful pub in north London. Exquisite art bedecked the walls, deep luxurious velvet sofas beckoned bottoms, and several, very nervous-looking 30-somethings stood around the bar. A bar tender began hanging black drapes over the windows, informing us that no family wants to walk past and explain to their kids why there are mouse guts on the tables. Hmm, thanks for that. There were 8 of us in total, and after the barman’s comment, 6 people ordered alcoholic drinks. We were led into a stunning conservatory with hanging plants and twinkling fairy lights and on each table was a piece of newspaper, a white mouse, a pair of surgical gloves, and a scalpel. There was no getting away from what we were about to do, and the girl next to me, gave a very loud gulp and took a large swig of her drink.

I expect you are trying to picture what the other people looked like… what sort of twisted, disturbed people would do something like this? Well, there was me (not weird at all!), then there was the girl next to me, a delightful woman from Finland. She was staying with friends in London and had signed up to the class months ago, without telling them. As they all planned to go out for her farewell lunch, she told her friends what she was going to do instead. They were all horrified, even more so, when she told them that her son had asked for a stuffed mouse for Christmas, and that was the reason she was doing it. I laughed… was she sure her son had meant a real mouse, and not some cute fluffy toy? Oh yes, she replied, completely straight-faced, he already had a stuffed hamster, and now he wanted a mouse. O-kay. We then had a hilarious conversation about what would happen if she got stopped in customs, when she flew back the next day… that would be quite a difficult thing to explain, I imagine. The couple to my right – who had bought the taxidermy class for each other, as a gift – were charming, funny and dressed in M&S jumpers. Really, how weird can you be if you’re wearing lambswool crew-necks? Two girl friends sat to the far left of the room, both quiet and studious in thick glasses, not uttering a single word the whole 5 hours, apart from asking if they were doing things correctly. And finally, the only slightly eccentric couple in the mix, were two jewellery designers with more piercings and tattoos than the average Shoreditch hipster. They were the sweetest girls though, very shy and absolute perfectionists, until they made the slightest of slip-ups and then they swore like troopers. Our teacher was in her late 20’s, petite, pretty and patient as a saint. She wielded her scalpel like a brain surgeon, and we were in awe.

We started off with skinning our mouse. Ugh. Now I imagined this to be a very messy business, but if you do it right, you actually don’t see any blood at all. It was like peeling a minuscule satsuma. Actually… if any of you have cooked roast chicken, you know when you put butter or slices of lemon under the skin, and you separate it from the meat… it’s kinda like that but on a teeny tiny scale. Slowly, millimetre by millimetre, you remove the skin from the guts and skeleton. I’m not going to lie and say that it was fine, that it was all very clean, tidy and clinical. It really was one of the most disgusting thing I have ever done, in my entire life. It’s not only the visual horror show, there is the smell. As the mouse starts to thaw, it is highly unpleasant. Everything gets floppier and smellier. My Finnish neighbour made the huge mistake of taking a deep breath through her nose as she turned her mouse inside out, and then gagged several times. I then gagged, seeing her gag, and so it continued like a game of ping pong. Just vile. Whenever there was an exasperated cry or a groan of disgust, one of us would shout, “Just breathe through your mouth!”

Ok… so this is my second warning. The next bit is gross. Grosser than before, because once you have skinned the mouse, you then have to remove its eyeballs, brain and tongue… with tweezers. I just heaved, writing that, the memory flooding back in technicolour. In fact, as we approached the third hour of the class and we had to tweezer out every morsel of flesh from the skull, I had to ask our teacher for help. It was quite exhausting, concentrating for that long on something so gruesome. At the same time though, the process is bizarrely calming. You have to be so precise and accurate with your scalpel and tweezers that you go into a deep meditative state. Chunks of time fly past in absolute silence. And finally… you have just a skin. It looked like a mouse cape! You then wash it and give it a blow dry. Yup folks… you think the skinning process is bizarre? Well, holding your mouse like a glove puppet and giving it a blow dry is even more odd.

Then begins the stuffing. Two hours of wiring the body, filling it with cotton wool and sewing it up again. The wiring is to give the body its skeleton back, so it can be positioned. Again, I would challenge the greatest surgeons to try this at home because it is unbelievably tricky. Our teacher was quite adamant that we took our time, stating that this was when your mice either begin to look like cute mice again, or, if you do it wrong, when your mouse starts to resemble an alien being! My mouse began to resemble a weight lifter, too much padding in the shoulders apparently, but after some adjustment, I didn’t think it was too bad.

I am completely traumatised however. It was a gruelling five hours, and I never ever want to do something like that again. Ever. I also thought I would be quite freaked out with the end result. I mean, my mouse isn’t quite the cute fluffy thing it once was, but it’s not awful either. The question is... what on earth am I going to do with a stuffed mouse? Do I keep it or give it away? Do I put it somewhere in my flat… staring at me from across the room? Would I forget it was there on my bookshelf and see it out of the corner of my eye, scream, and bash it with a broom? But funnily enough, and perhaps it’s because I was so hands-on with the entire process, I have become quite attached to Midge (yes, she has a name) already. Midge sat on my passenger seat on the way home from class, and I had a nice conversation with her. Oh my God.. did I just type those words? Midge then sat on the table in my sitting room and it didn’t freak me out one iota. I do have a shoebox in my cupboard for emergencies, however, for occasions when Midge needs to be put away. This morning, for instance, I have a cleaner coming for a few hours, to do a winter clean, and I thought that a stuffed mouse might not be her cup of tea, so I put Midge in the shoebox. I’m just hoping she doesn’t accidentally knock it off the shelf or have a peek inside. My 5 hours of skinning and stuffing might result in a very squashed rodent!

And now for the finale. I know you’re dying to see Midge, so here she is.