The convention had been an unqualified frost from the beginning. He was disappointed; there was no doubt about that. This had been his first challenge to represent the firm at one of these international get-togethers, and he had been keyed up with excitement at the prospect. He had imagined himself as an integral part of a great conclave of scientific intelligence, rubbing shoulders with men of eminence, offering his opinion, and perhaps having his opinions sought. He had thought of nothing else for weeks; had visualised the convivial dinners, the analysing working parties and study groups, and had even mentally drafted a speech so that he would not be unprepared if he was called upon to address the meeting. No one had even asked who he was. True he had been given a plastic nameplate to attach to his lapel, but this had forestalled the necessity of anyone sufficiently interested to have to ask him his name, and to his knowledge no one had even been close enough to have read the little notice board.
He trudged slowly through the dim streets of suburbia back to the impersonal lodging house. His mind wandered back to Emily. His Emily! He wished he had never left her. She would understand it. This was their first separation since their marriage 10 years previously; uncomplicated, contented Emily. He could see her bustling about the house preparing the evening meal while having one ear cocked for his homecoming. He smiled, this was one of his little indulgences, this fancy that Emily would be on tip toes waiting for his arrival; it was something that he always had to imagine because after all, if he was at home, she would not be waiting for him, and it if he was not at home how could he see her glancing at the clock and listening for his footsteps. He had often thought that he would like to peer through the curtained windows to see if his supposition was indeed fact, but the thought of being caught by the neighbours, like some peeping Tom, was too much for his courage. Anyway, knowing some of them as he did, he was pretty sure that they would misconstrue his motives and he had no intention of laying Emily open to malicious gossip.
The thought of one of Emily’s teas made him cringe at the realisation of what awaited him at his lodgings. He was not the type of man who sought comfort or entertainment in a Public House and rarely entered one, except when there was a farewell party for a colleague, or he had to entertain a client. In the normal, even run of his life, the lounge bar was an alien refuge for the unfortunate. Tonight he felt unfortunate. He would look for a nice bar in which to pass a little of the long evening that rolled out before him. It could be no worse than the convention had been and would probably be a lot better than his bed-sitter.
He decided that, as he had more time than he knew what to do with, he would be very selective in his choice of oasis, something not too gaudy, and yet not too quiet; no singing but a little life. He walked on through the streets turning his path away from the residential district where lay his solitary confinement and went towards the red glowing roof over the city centre, bright lights and traffic noise heralding life with a capital ‘L’. He glanced casually into the window of a pawnbroker shop. Where he lived such a shop was unheard of to people of such gentility, they sold things to ‘rag and bone’ men ‘to help them, you know’ but would never ‘pop anything at uncles’. The shop fascinated him. There were dozens of rings threaded on a brass bar projecting from the woodwork of the side of the window. He wondered how many broken marriages and tattered personalities were recorded there; watches, hundreds of them, fishing rods, tools, bedding and even a set of false teeth. His eyes roved over the window display like a small boy’s at a toy fair, then he stopped, stared, and finally shifted his position so that he could improve his vision through the chequered grillage that protected the window. He could hardly believe his senses. A mouse in a bottle! Not a dead mouse in a bottle of formalin, like the ones that had ranged along the shelves of the Natural History Museum; nor a dead mouse in a jam jar that arrived there by mischance during the night; but a stuffed mouse in a dimpled whisky bottle. He had seen boats and toy aeroplanes and even model cars in bottles, but never a stuffed animal. He approached as closely as he could to the window and twisted this way and that to see if the base had been cut, but as far as he could see there was no ring around the bottom to support this theory. He spent an absorbing twenty minutes trying to solve the mystery before moving on to find his Public House.
When he entered the lounge bar he knew that his judgment had not been at fault, the room was quietly lighted, warm and hospitable. He bought a drink and, seated in a corner of vantage; he surveyed the rest of the company. He tried to concentrate on them but his mind kept returning to the problem of the mouse in the bottle