Arabella The Mouse
A short story by Rebecca Libermann
Cats hate water. But in a stormy winter night in Helsinki, mine learned swimming the fast way.
Splish, splash. splish, splash… “How comforting and soothing”, I thought listening to the soft waterfall noises of rain hitting the roof, which had woken me up. It was pitch-dark, and the illuminated display of my alarm-clock showed 3 a.m. I turned in bed, feeling save and cozy, and drifted off again.
But the rain kept drumming stronger and stronger, the windows rattled, the roof groaned, and my cat made weird noises. And then there was this strange, dripping sound. Dozily, I went in the darkness to the window front of my bedroom/office, to find out what went on outside. Suddenly I noticed, that I was soaking-wet, even though my windows were still tightly closed.
Utterly confused I crossed the room, water running down my body, and turned on the lights. Jo and behold, the room had become a lake with a waterfall, where my cat tried to learn how to swim.
For two days we continued to wade through the drizzle, which run down from the ceiling. Our condominium quite in the center of Helsinki was soon to be the main attraction for all our neighbors and their friends.
Not to wake anybody too early, I called at dawn – well, what is deemed in Finland in winter as daybreak – the house manager. The man stoically advised me to stay calm and put a bucket on the floor.
One bucket? A whole line of buckets, all bath towels and linens in my possession as well as a row of baking trays covered already my beautiful 70-year old parquet, and it was quite a feat to empty them continuously.
Repeated calls, polite begging, and shouted threats, in Finnish and English, did not move the man into to some form of action. “Take it easy. Empty the bucket. We talk about it tomorrow”, where his ill received advises.
In the meantime a whole bunch of people had collected in my home. There was a young student from next door, whose rented mini-apartment had become like mine a shower room, a retired professor from the apartment below mine, who naturally did not want to have my swimming pool dousing his home, and finally a public prosecutor, a friend of mine, who helped me move my office and all my thousand belongings into the living room.
We all took turns to call the house manager, and he, not knowing that we were all sitting in the same living room, told everybody an other story, why nothing could be done, should be done or had to be done so fast or at all.
In the afternoon he gave up his massive resistance and rung the bell at my slightly undulating apartment door, a battered plastic bag in his right hand and a patronizing building contractor at his left side,.
“Well, don’t you worry, little woman. This is just a mere triviality, which will be over and done with in a few days. We will get back to you again sometimes tomorrow”, exclaimed house manager and building contractor unisono after glancing for half a second dismissively at the still water spewing crack in the ceiling which run through the whole room. Both retreated hastily.
On the third day, a different wind was blowing, generated by a deafening machine, which was supposed to dry out our in-house lake. Incessantly, for two long weeks, the storm roared in our two-room apartment, while I and my big, chubby, long-haired cat, Arabella The Mouse, camped nose to tail in out living room, surrounded by our thousand belongings. We even managed to work a bit, in order to put food in our mouths, which the shock had still not closed.
Our home door however stood non-stop open, with workers as well as a whole bunch of not-greeting (a Finnish habit), un-announced and sometimes un-welcome people moving in and out of our home, from 7 a.m. to sometimes 10 p.m., disturbing layers upon layers of fine white powder dust, which coated everything and everybody.
After 10 days the lake, which my cat had become to love, had vanished, but the wetness had spread in the walls and ceiling, and it was decided to open parts up. Two walls of mine and the ceiling took on crater landscape-like qualities, so that I considered to declare the room an installation art work and take entrance fee.
A little while later rebuilding started and three weeks more pandemonium of a different kind. Arabella The Mouse, once snow-white with dark-grey back, was now mouse-grey, in keeping with her name. Most of the time she set hidden by a table-cloth on a chair under the dining table, and came down from there, only when nature called, … or late at night.
She thought that the boxes, furniture and heaps of things arranged into towers crowding our temporary living/bed/working room, were her very own adventure play-ground. Night after night I heard her happy cries and the clattering and clanking of I don’t know what.
In the meantime, me, the house manager, the house board and the insurances had commenced a trench war. I discovered that the house, as so many in Helsinki, was to some extend neglected. Costly repairs were done only when unavoidable. That the roof leaked was known, also that a rain pipe was missing, but who in his right mind listens to an old crony or some stupid apartment owner reporting such things.
Rule number one in Finland: One does not discuss problems, one sweeps them comfortably under the carpet (more about carpets later), and digs them out only, when they start stinking.
Or, as some highly qualified building experts, who lives in the same house as I, told me, when I showed myself bewildered: ”The Shoemaker’s children always go barefoot”. More bewildered yet, I asked: “Since when do I belong to your family?”
Against the building contractor I won the war. Like quite a few Finnish men, he treated women like children. Like quite a few workers everywhere, he did as little as possible for as much as possible money, and had probably planned our somewhat decrepit house as fixed income in his monthly budget.
He suggested a renovation in several steps with pauses of here some days, there some weeks in-between, so that he could do other jobs. Aesthete that he was, he also wanted only to paint the two water-damaged walls and half of the ceiling. Furthermore, he was of the opinion that damage was not so bad. A bit drying and painting would do the trick.
But I had a hunch, that he was wrong and insisted on a sensible approach in terms of logistic, finances and quality. Needless to say, I won. The contractor retreated in the end with his family to a Caribbean island, a holiday he had already planned, before he spoke to me, and left the supervision of the renovation in the hands of a lanky, young guy, who started a love affair with my cat.
He told her endless stories about his own slightly bizarre minicat and his father, whose hair got grey overnight because of a similar experience than mine, a fire destroying part of his house. Well, my hair, already grey when not colored, thinned considerably and I grew bald.
Anyway, the chatty, a little shifty eyed painter who out of whatever, maybe sinister, reason downright refused to take my house-key, which would have made me independent to leave the house, drank endlessly coffee and ate masses of cookies I offered him in the hope to get him to work faster.
How it happened that, suddenly, I was surrounded not only by chaos, but also by more animals, I really can’t say. Friends went abroad and left me their mini-parrot in exchange for some quiet, dust-free hours of sleep in their apartment. But Sinatra wanted non-stop to be stroked and screeched like a banshee.
Another friend gave me the key to her apartment, in order to lend me peace. But there waited a big dog for me, howling like a wolf and insisting for me to walk, feed, stroke it and to play with it.
Finally I had enough. I cancelled everything, told people and animals, including my cat, to leave me alone, closed the door to my home, slipped under the bed covers and went to sleep for 24 hours.
Halfway rested, I entered the thick of the battle again, while Arabella The mouse mewed at the condo’s door and wanted to move out. In the end we both moved out, or at least to a certain extend.
But first, we had still to win a battle with the home insurance. The insurance claims for the whole apartment house had – unchallenged by the house board and the house manager – already been turned down. The insurance refused to pay for water damages caused by a storm to an old leaking roof with missing drain pipes.
Different from my Finnish neighbors, I did not wanted to go down without a fight. I and a friend of mine, well versed in law, read ourselves through countless pages of my home insurance contract and the relevant Finnish law and came up with a valid claim. Only few days and one e-mail later, my insurance company informed us, that they would pay their share.
Reinvigorated, dreaming of peace and calm, Arabella The Mouse and I went into exile. On a snowy afternoon, we moved into the empty apartment of yet another friend. Packed with quite a part of our possessions on the stairwell, we suddenly came face to face with a drunkard, not an unknown sight in the Eastern part of Helsinki or actually in Finland as a whole.
He received us shouting: “Get out of here. I am fed up with people coming and going here all the time, and people moving in and out.”
“Well, no wonder they move”, I thought later at 2 a.m. listening to the racket in front of my new door and the row in the neighbor apartment which ended later in an ear-splitting crescendo.
But who needs sleep. I had to get up at 5 a.m. anyway to let the painter with the strange mini-cat in my apartment. Often I had got up early for nothing, because he, for instance, “had to drive 30 km, in order to fetch paint” or “had forgotten his tools on a building site in Vantaa”, a neighbor city of Helsinki. The only time I came late, he, of course, was on time and got mad at me for letting him wait
The next time he brought a young colleague for reinforcement whose hot love romance with a student living in my house blossomed in the numerous, lengthy work pauses.
Nonetheless the devastated walls of my bedroom/office slowly but surely got their peach-color back, and so did my parquet floor. And, in addition to the color, the floor had also gotten a very avant-garde scratch pattern, which was not completely to my liking. Then again, the door frames, sprinkled with dark-green patches, once covered evenly by white color, matched the new style.
I caught up with the painters just before they tried to escape without their goodbyes, and forced them into painting my door frames white again. They took it too literal, and now I need sunglasses at home because of the glaring whiteness. Which reminds me of the building contractor vacationing in the Caribbean. He had returned to Finland but never to my apartment. To send a bill he did not forget.
Whatever. After nearly two month utter mayhem, finally tranquility… ,and half a meter high fine white dust and dirt in every nook and corner. My two love-sick painters wanted to save plastic covers and just thrown them artistically here and there over something.
Washing machine on, expensive clothes and two Persian carpets to the dry-cleaner and a call to the cleaning lady of a friend, and I was in business. So I hoped. The hard to come by help came the next morning, her husband in tow and some suspiciously dirty looking rags in one hand. Soon the dust swirled … from one corner to the other … and in all the swirling the husband knocked a painting from the wall, so that its frame broke.
„No problem”, said the cleaning lady whose mouth never stood still, while her husbands never opened. “My husband is good with his hands and will make you a brand-new frame.
In the meantime, her husband polished proudly and lengthy the old and ugly brass knobs on my kitchen cupboards ignoring the kitchenette itself, which was filthy inside and out, with unwashed dishes piled up in the sink.
The next day I brought my cat from the other apartment where she had taken on some pitiful habits, having been left alone. At home she became in a wink the darling of the cats-owning cleaning lady and her husband, who from then on waited more on Arabella The mouse than my floors. He also brought me the “repaired” picture frame, which matched my new modernistic door-frames and parquet. The color had turned from black to bright orange. A corner was missing and the wood was here and there chipped. While we still discussed it, his wife – to my utter horror – put my bathroom under water.
To save time and because she always does it like that, she had taken the shower and doused the painted walls, the wooden furniture and the cracked tile floor with the only half functioning drain thoroughly with water. Another lake, only this time in the bathroom. The lake in the bathroom would have consequences. But that is an other story.
Stressed I left my home in direction dry-cleaner. Tonight, I wanted to laze around with my cat for the first time since weeks on our cozy carpet and watch TV. It was not going to be. When I arrived at the dry-cleaners and looked at my carpets, I wished for some magic, rugs are supposed to possess. One had lost half of its tassels, and the side seams had come apart. The other, originally blue and brown, had now big orange spots. Why does everything change color?
“The orange was for sure already there. You only have not noticed it before”, lectured me the sales girl behind the counter.
A new tug-of-war began. No coziness for further four weeks, in which I sprayed my new peach colored walls with black ink from an ink jet cartridge, which I tried to fill myself in order to save money. Well the avant-garde black pattern on the peach colored walls fit well with the modern scratch pattern of my parquet and the glaring white door-frames. You should come and visit.
After four weeks I visited the dry-cleaner again. My one carpet had now even more and longer tassels than before and also its seams were repaired, but it also had a new pattern, three big stripes made by some chemical. The other carpet had still its orange spots. Raving and screaming as only I can scream I demanded a refund of the money I paid already in advance.
While behind me the line of quietly waiting customers grew and grew, I was told, that the three streaks would necessitate a further dry-cleaning, which would probably take some weeks. Money I would not get back, because the carpets had been cleaned.
“Don’t be so critical. Apart from the streaks, the carpet looks wonderful having been now so masterfully restored. But if you are not satisfied, we keep the carpets for some experts to have a look at them. In that case it might take some months until you have them and maybe your money back”, the dry-cleaner claimed.
Now there was definitely no stopping me. My cat had taught me, not only how to hiss, but also how to strike. I threw myself over my carpets, called a lawyer and afterwards the somewhat taken aback director of the dry-cleaning company. The customers did not complain about waiting. They loved the reality show.
In a very short time, the fight was over and the 100 Euro as well as the streaky, so “masterful” restored carpets mine again.
At home, I worked on the streaky carpets with curd soap, and the streaks vanished immediately.
Well, now I know, how to clean Persian carpets, and Arabella The Mouse knows how to swim.
Copyright Rebecca Libermann