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In the Kitchen


 

"The time has come!" my grandmother said. "The great moment has arrived! Are you ready, my darling?"

It was exactly half-past seven. Bruno was in the bowl finishing that fourth banana. "Hang on," he said. "Just a few more bites."

"No!" my grandmother said. "We've got to go!" She picked him up and held him tight in her hand. She was very tense and nervous. I had never seen her like that before. "I'm going to put you both in my handbag now," she said, "but I shall leave the clasp undone." She popped Bruno into it first. I waited, clutching the little bottle to my chest. "Now you," she said. She picked me up and gave me a kiss on the nose. "Good luck, my darling. Oh, by the way, you do realise you've got a tail, don't you?"

"A what?" I said.

"A tail. A long curly tail."

"I must say that never occurred to me," I said. "Good gracious me, so I have! I can see it now! I can actually move it! It is rather grand, isn't it?"

"I mention it only because it might come in useful when you're climbing about in the kitchen," my grandmother said. "You can curl it around and you can hook it on to things and you can swing from it and lower yourself to the ground from high places."

"I wish I'd known this before," I said. "I could have practised using it."

"Too late now," my grandmother said. "We've got to go." She popped me into her handbag with Bruno, and at once I took up my usual perch in the small side-pocket so that I could poke my head out and see what was going on.

My grandmother picked up her walking-stick and out she went into the corridor to the lift. She pressed the button and the lift came up and she got in. There was no one in there with us.

"Listen," she said. "I won't be able to talk to you much once we're in the Dining-Room. If I do, people will think I'm dotty and talking to myself."

The lift reached the ground floor and stopped with a jerk. My grandmother walked out of it and crossed the lobby of the hotel and entered the Dining-Room. It was a huge room with gold decorations on the ceiling and big mirrors around the walls. The regular guests always had their tables reserved for them and most of them were already in their places and starting to eat their suppers. Waiters were buzzing about all over the place, carrying plates and dishes. Our table was a small one beside the right-hand wall about halfway down the room. My grandmother made her way to it and sat down.

Peeping out of the handbag, I could see in the very centre of the room two long tables that were not yet occupied. Each of them carried a notice fixed on to a sort of silver stick and the notices said, RESERVED FOR MEMBERS OF THE RSPCC.

My grandmother looked towards the long tables but said nothing. She unfolded her napkin and spread it over the handbag on her lap. Her hand slid under the napkin and took hold of me gently. With the napkin covering me, she lifted me up close to her face and whispered, "I am about to put you on the floor under the table. The table-cloth reaches almost to the ground so no one will see you. Have you got hold of the bottle?"

"Yes," I whispered back. "I'm ready, Grandmamma."

Just then, a waiter in a black suit came and stood by our table. I could see his legs from under the napkin and as soon as I heard his voice, I knew who he was. His name was William. "Good evening, madam," he said to my grandmother. "Where is the little gentleman tonight?"

"He's not feeling very well," my grandmother said. "He's staying in his room."

"I'm sorry to hear that," William said. "Today there is green-pea soup to start with, and for the main course you have a choice of either grilled fillet of sole or roast lamb."

"Pea soup and lamb for me, please," my grandmother said. "But don't hurry it, William. I'm in no rush tonight. In fact, you can bring me a glass of dry sherry first."

"Of course, madam," William said, and he went away.

My grandmother pretended she had dropped something, and as she bent down, she slid me out from under the napkin on to the floor under the table. "Go, darling, go!" she whispered, then she straightened up again.

I was on my own now. I stood clasping the little bottle. I knew exactly where the door into the kitchen was. I had to go about halfway round the enormous Dining-Room to reach it. Here goes, I thought, and like a flash I skittled out from under the table and made for the wall. I had no intention of going across the Dining-Room floor. It was far too risky. My plan was to cling close to the skirting of the wall all the way round until I reached the kitchen door.

I ran. Oh, how I ran. I don't think anyone saw me. They were all too busy eating. But to reach the door leading to the kitchen I had to cross the main entrance to the Dining-Room. I was just about to do this when in poured a great flood of females. I pressed myself against the wall clutching the bottle. At first I saw only the shoes and ankles of these women who were surging in through the door, but when I glanced up a bit higher I knew at once who they were. They were the witches coming in to dinner!

I waited until they had all passed me by, then I dashed on towards the kitchen door. A waiter opened it to go in. I nipped in after him and hid behind a big garbage-bin on the floor. I stayed there for several minutes, just listening to all the talk and the racket. By golly, what a place that kitchen was! The noise! And the steam! And the clatter of pots and pans! And the cooks all shouting! And the waiters all rushing in and out from the Dining-Room yelling the food orders to the cooks! "Four soups and two lambs and two fish for table twenty-eight! Three apple-pies and two strawberry ice-creams for number seventeen!" Stuff like that going on all the time.

Not far above my head there was a handle sticking out from the side of the garbage-bin. Still clutching the bottle, I gave a leap, turned a somersault in the air, and caught hold of the handle with the end of my tail. Suddenly there I was swinging to and fro upside down. It was terrific. I loved it. This, I told myself, is how a trapeze artist in a circus must feel as he goes swishing through the air high up in the circus tent. The only difference was that his trapeze could only swing backwards and forwards. My trapeze (my tail) could swing me in any direction I wanted. Perhaps I would become a circus mouse after all.

Just then, a waiter came in with a plate in his hand and I heard him saying, "The old hag on table fourteen says this meat is too tough! She wants another portion!" One of the cooks said, "Gimme her plate!" I dropped to the floor and peeped round the garbage-bin. I saw the cook scrape the meat off the plate and slap another bit on. Then he said, "Come on boys, give her some gravy!" He carried the plate round to everyone in the kitchen and do you know what they did? Every one of those cooks and kitchen-boys spat on to the old lady's plate! "See how she likes it now!" said the cook, handing the plate back to the waiter.

Quite soon another waiter came in and he shouted, "Everyone in the big RSPCC party wants the soup!" That's when I started sitting up and taking notice. I was all ears now. I edged a bit farther round the garbage-bin so that I could see everything that was going on in the kitchen. A man with a tall white hat who must have been the head chef shouted, "Put the soup for the big party in the larger silver soup-tureen!"

I saw the head chef place a huge silver basin on to the wooden side-bench that ran along the whole length of the kitchen against the opposite wall. Into that silver basin is where the soup is going, I told myself. So that's where the stuff in my little bottle must go as well.

I noticed that high up near the ceiling, above the side-bench, there was a long shelf crammed with saucepans and frying-pans. If I can somehow clamber up on to that shelf, I thought, then I've got it made. I shall be directly above the silver basin.

But first I must somehow get across to the other side of the kitchen and then up on to the middle shelf. A great idea came to me! Once again, I jumped up and hooked my tail around the handle of the garbage-bin. Then, hanging upside down, I began to swing. Higher and higher I swung. I was remembering the trapeze artist in the circus I had seen last Easter and the way he had got the trapeze swinging higher and higher and higher and had then let go and gone flying through the air. So just at the right moment, at the top of my swing, I let go with my tail and went soaring clear across the kitchen and made a perfect landing on the middle shelf!

    

By golly, I thought, what marvellous things a mouse can do! And I'm only a beginner!

No one had seen me. They were all far too busy with their pots and pans. From the middle shelf I somehow managed to shinny up a little water-pipe in the corner, and in no time at all I was up on the very top shelf just under the ceiling, among all the saucepans and the frying-pans. I knew that no one could possibly see me up there. It was a super position, and I began working my way along the shelf until I was directly above the big empty silver basin they were going to pour the soup into. I put down my bottle. I unscrewed the top and crept to the edge of the shelf and quickly poured what was in it straight into the silver basin below. The next moment, one of the cooks came along with a gigantic saucepan of steaming green soup and poured the whole lot into the silver basin. He put the lid on the basin and shouted, "Soup for the big party all ready to go out!" Then a waiter arrived and carried the silver basin away.

I had done it! Even if I never got back alive to my grandmother, the witches were still going to get the Mouse-Maker! I left the empty bottle behind a large saucepan and began working my way back along the top shelf. It was much easier to move about without the bottle. I began using my tail more and more. I swung from the handle of one saucepan to the handle of another all the way along that top shelf, while far below me cooks and waiters were all bustling about and kettles were steaming and pans were spluttering and pots were boiling and I thought to myself, Oh boy, this is the life! What fun it is to be a mouse doing an exciting job like this! I kept right on swinging. I swung most marvellously from handle to handle, and I was enjoying myself so much that I completely forgot I was in full view of anyone in the kitchen who might happen to glance upwards. What came next happened so quickly I had no time to save myself. I heard a man's voice yelling, "A mouse Look at that dirty little mouse!" And I caught a glimpse below me of a white-coated figure in a tall white hat and then there was a flash of steel as the carving-knife whizzed through the air and there was a shoot of pain in the end of my tail and suddenly I was falling and falling head-first towards the floor.

Even as I fell, I knew just what had happened. I knew that the tip of my tail had been cut off and that I was about to crash on to the floor and everyone in the kitchen would be after me. "A mouse!" they were shouting. "A mouse! A mouse! Catch it quick!" I hit the floor and jumped up and ran for my life. All around me there were big black boots going stamp stamp stamp and I dodged around them and ran and ran and ran, twisting and turning, and dodging and swerving across the kitchen floor. "Get it!" they were shouting. "Kill it! Stamp on it!"The Whole floor seemed to be full of black boots stamping away at me and I dodged and swerved and twisted and turned and then in sheer desperation, hardly knowing what I was doing, wanting only a place to hide, I ran up the trouser-leg of one of the cooks and clung to his sock!

"Hey!" the cook shouted. "Jeepers creepers! He's gone up my trouser! Hold on, boys! I'll get him this time!"

The man's hands began slap-slapping at the trouser-leg and now I really was going to get smashed if I didn't move quickly. There was only one way to go and that was up. I dug my little claws into the hairy skin of the man's leg and scuttled upwards, higher and higher, past the calf and past the knee and on to the thigh.

"Holy smoke!" the man was yelling. "It's going all the way up! It's going right up my leg!" I heard shrieks of laughter coming from the other cooks but I can promise you I wasn't laughing myself. I was running for my life. The man's hands were slap-slap-slapping all around me and he was jumping up and down as though he was standing on hot bricks, and I kept climbing and I kept dodging and very soon I reached the very top of the trouser-leg and there was nowhere else to go.

"Help! Help! Help!" the man was screaming. "It's in my knickers! It's running round in my flaming knickers! Get it out! Someone help me to get it out!"

"Take off your trousers, you silly slob!" someone else shouted. "Pull down your pants and we'll soon catch him!"

I was in the middle of the man's trousers now, in the place where the two trouser-legs meet and the zip begins. It was dark and awfully hot in there. I knew I had to keep going. I dashed onward and found the top of the other trouser-leg. I went down it like greased lightning and came out at the bottom of it and once again I was on the floor. I heard the stupid cook still shouting, "It's in my trousers! Get it out! Will somebody please help me to get it out before it bites me!" I caught a flashing glimpse of the entire kitchen staff crowding round him and laughing their heads off and nobody saw the little brown mouse as it flew across the floor and dived into a sack of potatoes.

I burrowed down in among the dirty potatoes and held my breath.

The cook must have started taking his trousers right off because now they were shouting, "It's not in there! There's no mice in there, you silly twerp!"

"There was! I swear there was!" the man was shouting back. "You've never had a mouse in your trousers! You don't know what it feels like!"

The fact that a tiny little creature like me had caused such a commotion among a bunch of grown-up men gave me a happy feeling. I couldn't help smiling in spite of the pain in my tail.

I stayed where I was until I was sure they had forgotten about me. Then I crept out of the potatoes and cautiously poked my tiny head over the edge of the sack. Once again the kitchen was all of a bustle with cooks and waiters rushing about everywhere. I saw the waiter who had come in earlier with the complaint about tough meat coming in again. "Hey boys!" he shouted. "I asked the old hag if the new bit of meat was any better and she said it was perfectly delicious! She said it was really tasty!"

I had to get out of that kitchen and back to my grandmother. There was only one way to do this. I must make a dash clear across the floor and out through the door behind one of the waiters. I stayed quite still, watching for my chance. My tail was hurting terribly. I curled it round so as to have a look at it. About two inches of it were missing and it was bleeding quite a lot. There was a waiter loading up with a batch of plates full of pink ice-cream. He had a plate in each hand and two more balanced on each arm. He went towards the door. He pushed it open with his shoulder. I leapt out of the sack of potatoes and went across that kitchen floor and into the Dining-Room like a streak of light, and I didn't stop running until I was underneath my grandmother's table.

It was lovely to see my grandmother's feet again in those old-fashioned black shoes with their straps and buttons. I shinnied up one of her legs and landed on her lap. "Hello, Grandmamma!" I whispered. "I'm back! I did it! I poured it all into their soup!"

"Her hand came down and caressed me. "Well done, my darling!" she whispered back. "Well done you! They are at this very moment eating that soup!" Suddenly, she withdrew her hand. "You're bleeding!" she whispered. "My darling, what's happened to you?"

"One of the cooks cut off my tail with a carving knife," I whispered back. "It hurts like billy-o."

"Let me look at it," she said. She bent her head and examined my tail. "You poor little thing," she whispered. "I'm going to bandage it up with my handkerchief. That will stop the bleeding."

She fished a small lace-edged handkerchief out of her bag and this she somehow managed to wrap around the end of my tail. "You'll be all right now," she said. "Just try to forget about it. Did you really manage to pour the whole bottle into their soup?"

"Every drop," I said. "Do you think you could put me where I can watch them?"

"Yes," she answered. "My handbag is on your own empty chair beside me. I'm going to pop you in there now and you can peep out as long as you are careful not to be seen. Bruno is there as well, but take no notice of him. I gave him a roll to eat and that's keeping him busy for a while."

Her hand closed around me and I was lifted off her lap and transferred to the handbag. "Hello, Bruno," I said.

"This is a great roll," he said, nibbling away in the bottom of the bag. "But I wish there was butter on it."

I peered over the top of the handbag. I could see the witches quite clearly sitting at their two long tables in the centre of the room. They had finished their soup now, and the waiters were clearing away the plates. My grandmother had lit up one of her disgusting black cigars and was puffing smoke over everything. All around us the summer holiday guests in this rather grand hotel were babbling away and tucking into their suppers. About half of them were old people with walking-sticks, but there were also plenty of families with a husband, a wife and several children. They were all well-to-do people. You had to be if you wanted to stay in the Hotel Magnificent.

"That's her, Grandmamma!" I whispered. "That's The Grand High Witch!"

"I know!" my grandmother whispered back. "She's the tiny one in black sitting at the head of the nearest table!"

She could kill anyone in this room with her white-hot sparks!"

"Look out!" my grandmother whispered. "The waiter's coming!"

I popped down out of sight and I heard William saying, "Your roast lamb, madam. And which vegetable would you like? Peas or carrots?"

"Carrots, please," my grandmother said. "But no potatoes."

I heard the carrots being dished out. There was a pause. Then my grandmother's voice was whispering, "It's all right. He's gone." I popped my head up again. "Surely no one will notice my little head sticking out like this?" I whispered.

"No," she answered. "I don't suppose they will. My problem is I've got to talk to you without moving my lips."

"You're doing beautifully," I said.

"I've counted the witches," she said. "There aren't nearly as many as you thought. You were just guessing, weren't you, when you said two hundred?"

"It just seemed like two hundred," I said.

"I was wrong, too," my grandmother said. "I thought there were a lot more witches than this in England."

"How many are there?" I asked.

"Eighty-four," she said.

"There were eighty-five," I said. "But one of them got fried."

At that moment, I caught sight of Mr Jenkins, Bruno's father, heading straight for our table. "Look out, Grandmamma!" I whispered. "Here comes Bruno's father!"


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