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  • Anton Corvus

Signorina Lucia

Salvatore, Lorenzo and Paolo lived beneath the floorboards of an apartment in Turin. Though at first, it might seem an unusual circumstance that they should live together in this way, it should be understood that the three of them were brothers, and not only brothers but also mice; small white mice, with long pointed noses, little black eyes and large pink ears that could pick up the sound of a spider's footstep.

The aforementioned apartment was very fine indeed; conveniently situated on the third floor, and without a doubt, the best in the entire block. It had a kitchen and a bathroom, a dining room and a lounge, a hall, and no less than three bedrooms. Chandeliers of cut glass still hung from its ceilings, echoes of another time now, but very impressive nonetheless. All the doors were made of oak, and every single one of them had a brass handle - Paolo was especially proud of this feature, and frequently commented upon it to all the other mice in the block.

The floor of the apartment consisted of solid, wooden boards; which, on the apartment side, were beautifully varnished. Beneath them, there was a gap of roughly twenty centimetres, and then the ceiling of the apartment below. But that gap was no ordinary gap, for in it dwelt the three brothers, and to them it was the best and most homely gap in the whole wide world. To them, it was by no means any less impressive than the apartment itself.

Most notably, it was extremely spacious; having an area equal to the size of the entire apartment. Not only was it spacious though, it also boasted every possible convenience of modern living. In winter it was always warm, as the building's central heating pipes ran along one of its walls; and in summer it was always pleasantly cool, a most happy circumstance facilitated by no less than seven cold water pipes running along another of its walls. The brothers readily obtained any room temperature they desired by merely moving their furniture around between those two walls, until they had things just right.

Their gap also had excellent access, both to the guttering outside - so that they could descend to the street if they wished to, and also to the apartment above: 'their apartment' - as it was virtually the only place they ever went, except at Christmas and holidays - quite naturally. For several years the apartment had been occupied by an old professor. Fortunately for Salvatore, Lorenzo and Paolo, he was always very drunk and consequently never once noticed their presence. As a result of this, they had always found it exceptionally easy to go up into the apartment and, in actual fact, had done so daily, in search of food.

The professor had always arrived home at about eleven in the evening, stinking to high heaven of wine and brandy. He always brought food home with him and always sat at the kitchen table to eat it. He not only ate though, he also carried on drinking right through the meal. On several occasions Lorenzo, who was by far the most daring of the three, had climbed up one of the legs of the table and sat right under the professor's nose, eating the food off his very plate, while the whole time he just sat there completely oblivious, filling and emptying his glass of wine.

While they lasted, they were good days, but like most good things, those days eventually came to an end. One dark, Sunday night, the professor came home particularly drunk; he fell asleep on his couch and never woke up again. When the landlord called with his newspapers the following morning, he found him dead. Some men in white coats came and took him away: and that, as they say, was the last anyone saw of Professor Giacomo Alberto Grimaldi, Doctor of Physics.

For several days after that, the three brothers had no fresh food at all. They ate only what they could manage to salvage from the professor's cupboards, which, in other words, was not much; the Professor had never been a very good housekeeper.

On the Thursday after the professor's death, though, things seemed to have reached an all-time low; the decorators moved in. They made an almost unbearable amount of noise and stunk the whole apartment out from top to bottom with the smell of cheap paint. Salvatore, Lorenzo and Paolo were just about ready to leave in search of other, more suitable, accommodation when on Saturday morning, the decorators left again, and a prospective new tenant came to view the apartment.

It was late afternoon; Lorenzo had left his brothers in their home beneath the floorboards, and crept up into the apartment to look for food, suspecting that the decorators might have left something to nibble upon. He came up through a hole in the dining room floor and crept out from beneath the cupboard which concealed it. Having waited for a moment, just to make sure there was no-one around, he headed across to the kitchen. Sure enough, there on the kitchen floor, below the table on which the decorators had eaten their food, there were a few scraps of bread and cheese - and even a nice, big piece of tomato. Since it was he who had taken the initiative of coming up to look around, Lorenzo decided it would be quite in order for him to eat the best bits before going back down and summoning his brothers.

Lorenzo was just in the process of finishing a particularly well-sized chunk of Parmesan when he heard the apartment door open and some footsteps on the wooden floor. He scurried straight for the door and the small hole that lay beyond it, but before he could reach it, two people, the landlord and a young woman, had entered the apartment and were standing between him and his only means of escape. He felt suddenly trapped and decided to just keep perfectly still, in the hope that neither of them would notice him.

The landlord spoke at great length about the benefits of the apartment and the building in general, pointing out more than once that it was one of the few remaining apartment blocks in Turin with a working lift. The young woman seemed suitably impressed and asked about the rent; the landlord answered candidly, and she seemed to find his terms acceptable. It was then that she looked down and saw Lorenzo. For a moment, Lorenzo froze, as if, in an instant, he had been turned into stone. His little black eyes looked steadfastly up at her; he was certain she would scream, but instead, she just looked at him for a moment with a slight smile, then she turned her attention back to the landlord, and they continued their conversation. Lorenzo listened very intently, convinced that she would mention his presence to the landlord and ask for the place to be fumigated, but she said nothing whatever even vaguely relating to mice.

At the conclusion of their conversation, the landlord asked the young woman for a month's rent in advance and told her that she could move in the following day. That seemed to suit her very well; she opened her purse and handed the landlord a large roll of notes, which he took from her and counted. Appearing satisfied that everything was in order, the landlord asked her to come down to his office for a receipt; and both of them left.

As soon as the two of them had gone, Lorenzo darted straight for the hole behind the dining room cupboard. As he went through it, he breathed a deep sigh of relief and went off to find the others. When he told them what had happened, they were both profoundly alarmed. According to Salvatore, it would be the end of them; within a day of her arrival there would be mousetraps everywhere - tempting them with generously sized pieces of cheese and then breaking their necks as soon as they touched them. Paolo feared a cat; there would definitely be a cat. Lorenzo tried to calm them down. He pointed out that the young woman had not screamed when she saw him, nor had she said anything to the landlord, but nothing he could say would allay the fears of his brothers.

She was a young woman, was she not? And according to Salvatore, young women do not like mice in their apartments; unless they live in cages and run round in circles all day, and even then - very rarely. No, no, Salvatore and Paolo were quite convinced: this was it, their end was near. There would be cats, mousetraps ... and even rat poison. Lorenzo pointed out that they were not rats, but the other two would not have it; steadfastly maintaining that all rodents are alike to young women. The debate continued all through night; Salvatore and Paolo scurrying round in circles biting their tails, Lorenzo watching them with great amusement.

The following afternoon, the young woman arrived, accompanied by the landlord, who was helping her with her bags. When he heard the door, Lorenzo sneaked up into the apartment but stayed safely hidden beneath the dining room cupboard. The young woman thanked the landlord for his help and saw him out. Then she started to unpack; mostly in the other rooms, which meant that Lorenzo could not see. He was a patient kind of mouse though; he could wait until she came back into the dining room.

Lorenzo maintained his position for quite a while; then, after about an hour, there was a knock at the door. When the young woman opened it, a man handed her a wicker basket. From his position beneath the cupboard, Lorenzo could see quite clearly into the hall. The young women thanked the man for bringing the basket up for her and gave him some money; perhaps as payment, or perhaps as a tip. She carried the basket into the dining room and placed it down, virtually in front of Lorenzo's nose; then she opened it up. Immediately, a small, brown dog leapt out and began to lick her. The young woman laughed, then the two of them went into another room, and she shut the door. Lorenzo smiled to himself and twitched his ears; there was to be no cat, as Paolo had feared. Instead there was a small, brown dog, a small brown dog with a brass tag hanging from the collar around his neck; now what harm could he do them?

Lorenzo went back down beneath the floorboards and reported to the others everything he had seen. Paolo felt more at ease, at least: he hated cats, not without good cause it has to be admitted. Salvatore, however, always the pessimist, he was still not satisfied. According to him, there would still be rat poison and mousetraps by sunset.

Sunset came, and sunset went. The three brothers, by now extremely hungry, decided to risk a sortie into the apartment. Even if this young woman did hate mice, even if she had left traps and poison, the three brothers still needed to eat; and despite everything, it is a well-known fact - especially amongst mice - that where there are young women, there is also fresh food.

Shortly after midnight, when everything was silent, they crept stealthily up into the apartment; up through a hole behind the bathroom sink, and out into the apartment itself. Quietly, they made their way into the kitchen, all set to start rummaging through any bags or packages that were in sight.

As they entered the kitchen, however, Paolo noticed a plate on the floor. Upon the plate, there were several temptingly-sized pieces of cheese, together with a small white card, which had writing on it. The writing was very clear and the mice could easily read what it said: 'Dear little mice, I do not know your names, but please accept this cheese as a token of my friendship; my name is Lucia, I am nineteen years old, and I live alone with my dog, Alessandro.'

The three brothers read the note in disbelief; they read it, and then they read it again. What was the meaning of it? What kind of trick was it? Salvatore remained sceptical and stayed well back; Lorenzo and Paolo, however, were quite convinced - if not by the note, then by the cheese. The two of them climbed up onto the plate and begin to nibble with great gusto. Sure enough, the cheese was fresh: Parmesan, Gorgonzola and Lorenzo's personal favourite, Dolcelatte.

Salvatore stayed back at first, but after a few moments of watching the others, he too climbed up and joined in the feast. Within half an hour, the three of them had filled their bellies with the most excellent cheese that money could buy. Then, having finished one of the best meals of their entire lives, they went back into the bathroom, scurried behind the sink and descended back into their room beneath the floorboards.

They fell straight asleep and in the morning woke up happy and at ease. Had they been dreaming the night before? No, no, it could not have been a dream, because three young mice could not possibly have all had the same dream, and if it was not a dream then it must have been real - at least according to Paolo who had always considered himself a philosopher.

But how could it be true? It was far too good to be true. It is a fact well known to all mice that most young women do not like them. Even those that do have some liking for mice, only like them in cages, and most definitely do not want them loose in their own apartments. Of course, there are a few young women who are prepared to allow mice to roam free around their homes; but how many of those would actually leave food out for them? Even again, of the infinitesimally small percentage of young women that would conceive of leaving food out for them, how many would leave them a note too?

According to Salvatore it was the most amazing thing that ever happened in all his life. Who was this Signorina Lucia? What kind of a person was she? The three brothers discussed it at great length, only to conclude by finding no satisfactory conclusion. Eventually all three of them had to agree on the only remaining possibility: Signorina Lucia was an angel from heaven.

The days rolled into weeks and the weeks into months; still, every night, without fail or exception, a plate of finest cheese was left out for them. Sometimes they saw the small brown dog, Alessandro, as they crossed the hall between the bathroom and the kitchen. He very often wagged his tail at them or looked at them rather curiously, but never, ever did he bark at them; and as for Signorina Lucia herself, they hardly ever saw her. She spent most of the day out of the apartment and only came back after nine.

Lorenzo often speculated on what had caused her to treat them so well. He had sometimes heard of humans, very rarely it was true, who leave food out for animals so that they can watch them come and eat it. For there are apparently some people who mean animals no harm and actually derive pleasure from feeding them, but Signorina Lucia never came to watch them eat. Nor did she ever take photographs of them, such as might be used to gain some sort of recognition from other humans. She never left the cheese beneath inverted cups, either, as do those humans who like to find out how intelligent animals are. No, no, none of these things applied to their Signorina Lucia; for when the three brothers came up for their food, she was always fast asleep in bed.

No, it was most unusual; indeed, she was most unusual. Signorina Lucia did not feed them because she wanted to watch them, nor because she wanted to use them to gain recognition, nor because she wanted to test their intelligence; she fed them only because she was kind. Lorenzo often commented, how very rare it was that humans should be kind simply for the sake of kindness itself. He commented also on something even more unusual than that: that a human woman was not only able but actually glad, to live in peace with other creatures - even within the confines of her own apartment. For many years after that, all five of them lived together in perfect happiness and peace: Salvatore, Lorenzo, Paolo, Signorina Lucia and her little, brown dog, called Alessandro.

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