Miles Kington: Of supermice and distressed uncles

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The Independent Online

So, what are we waiting for? Let's go!


Uncle Geoffrey was just going to point out a Himalayan Balsam to the two children when Robert said suddenly:- "So, what do you reckon to giant, bird-eating mice then, Uncle Geoffrey?"

Uncle Geoffrey, startled, recovered his poise by saying that although as Darwinian as the next man, he didn't expect mice to evolve to the state of killing and eating birds.

"Wrong," said Susan. "The papers are full of this uninhabited island in the Atlantic somewhere, called Gough Island.

"It's normally a breeding ground for albatrosses and so on, but apparently mice were introduced to the island and have learnt how to attack and eat baby chicks.

"The mice are now two or three times the size of our normal mice, and they are endangering the world's population of albatross and petrels."

"And they birds don't defend themselves?" asked Uncle Geoffrey.

"No. They haven't learned about predators, so they just sit there and let themselves be eaten by the mice," his nephew replied.

"By the supermice," Susan interjected. "The newspapers have inevitably dubbed these rascally rodents 'supermice'.

"Which raises the question: if the mice can evolve to eat birds alive, how come the birds can't evolve to fight back ?"

If there was one thing that Uncle Geoffrey hated, it was being asked questions by the children he couldn't answer, but if there was one survival technique he had evolved over the years, it was how to dodge them.

"Look!" he said, pointing to a tall handsome pink flower in the hedgerow. "Can anyone tell me what that is?"

"Yes," said Robert. "It's a Himalayan Balsam."

"Another ruthlesss invader," said Susan. "Savagely, mercilessly, relentlessly, the Himalayan Balsam sweeps across continents like Genghis Khan, ravaging river banks and ousting indigenous flora until..."

"Yes, yes," said Uncle Geoffrey. "We get the idea. In fact, I have to correct you there, Susan - it never really invaded us at all. It was brought by well-meaning botanists to Kew Gardens in 1839, and adopted as a garden flower, escaping into the wild to ... to..."

Uncle Geoffrey often did his research well before these little rambles, but could not always thinking of the right word.

"Ravage the river banks and oust the indigenous flora?" said Susan.

"Shoot their seeds far and wide," said Uncle Geoffrey. "One of the oddities of the Himalayan Balsam is that its seed pod opens in the sun with a loud crack, and the seeds are fired up to fifteen feet away."

"Watch out, Susan!" said Robert. "There's a Himalayan Balsam behind you ! And it's armed!"

He made a loud noise and Susan obligingly fell over on the hillside, writhing and pretending to die.

"The flower got me!" she shrieked. "The world's all going dark! Am I going to die, Sergeant?"

"You're going to be all right," said Robert. "Don't you worry, soldier! We'll get you back to base and they'll get that balsam seed out of you and you'll be right as rain again, but just to be on the safe side, let me have your wallet and your money and silver cigarette case now, and I'll look after them for you."

Uncle Geoffrey fell silent. Somehow, the children seemed on a different wavelength to him, in a land where fantasy and fact were mingled.

Though at the same time, oddly enough, Geoffrey could not help visualising himself as a ruthless giant supermouse setting to work on two baby chicks who somehow bore than a passing resemblance to his nephew and niece...