It was one of the defining television moments of our generation.
Sally and Jaime Ridge had just been introduced in Episode 1 of their reality show The Ridges, and they were already beset on all sides by trouble. Sally had recently bought a 13-room boarding home, only to discover it was an uninhabitable hellmouth. The carpet was beyond saving. The bathroom, a hairball-encrusted swamp. But in the kitchen, a nightmare lay in wait.
Unidentifiable viscous brown substances were scattered across the floor. There was a snail shell on the tiles. Jaime poured Purell on her hands. Sally took the bottle, noting its germ-killing properties. "Only 99.9%," she said. "The other 1% is why we wash our hands," Jaime replied.
Even as she spoke, the mouse was in motion. It crept up silently. Jaime saw it first. She screamed. Sally immediately screamed in reply. The mouse just seemed to dance in the centre of the room, ignoring their distress, taunting them like a deranged shaman of the underworld.
Jaime was rattled. She left the house and returned with a mouse wrangler - her ex-boyfriend Dwayne Rowsell. Sally pointed him toward the kitchen. He entered, and miraculously emerged with the mouse clutched in both hands.
The scenes were a hit. The mouse was a star. His face was plastered over the morning papers.
But some were sceptical. They were adamant the mouse was a plant; the scene was staged.
For years, those suspicions bubbled away unproven. Today, I can put the matter to rest. In this Spinoff expose, I will prove the doubters were right. TV is a parade of fakery and lies.
The Ridge mouse was not wild.
The mouse mystery bubbled into the public eye again recently, when The Ridges was replayed on TV4. Stripped of the visceral joy of its first showing, the scene begged some unsettling questions. Why did the mouse sit in the middle of the floor, seemingly unphased, as the Ridges lapsed into what can only be described as guttural death screams? Why was its coat so lustrous, despite living in a grime-ensconced dump villa? Why didn't it struggle to escape Dwayne's loosely clasped hands?
I put those concerns to Rosie Miles, an animal trainer for film and TV with 25 years experience. She said the mouse didn't exhibit many of the behaviours she would expect from a wild rodent.
"A wild mouse would stick to the corner of the room, and zoom along the edge of from hiding place to hiding place," she said. "If you saw them, it would be out of the corner of your eye.
"If it had been poisoned and it was a bit woozy, then it might behave like that. But it didn't look like it had been poisoned."
She noticed the brown stuff the mouse was feasting on appeared to be nuts.
"The nuts were suspicious - walnuts on the floor all broken up. The mouse has got to be attracted to the walnuts. It looks a bit like they were placed in the middle of the floor."
Then there was the matter of its coat.
"This mouse is a dark chocolate brown. The ones in the wild are called 'agouti' - that's that grey colour you see."
I asked for a definitive verdict. Was it a stage mouse?
"I would say it's a domestic mouse. But you couldn't say for certain that they planted it. It could be an escaped pet.
"It doesn't look like a wild one to me," she said.
Sally Ridge picked up the phone on a Friday afternoon. I told her I had several concerns about her apparent mouse invasion; that expert witnesses had cast doubts on the veracity of the scene. She was kind, but evasive when it came to the true nature of the mouse.
"It definitely wasn't a trained mouse," she said.
I asked whether it was a wild mouse.
"I can't confirm anything," she said. "I definitely did not go and buy a mouse."
She seemed a little defensive, perhaps nervous.
"Yes I've had mice. I've had mice in the past," she said. "But now I have two cats."
I tried to keep up my line of questioning, but for the first time, she sounded slightly irritated.
"Could you not call me at work?" she asked.
I arranged to call her later that afternoon. She didn't pick up.
My breakthrough came in the form of a phone call from a shadowy source. He claimed to be able to put me in touch with a key player in The Ridges production - someone with first-hand knowledge of the mouse. I asked what I could expect to learn.
"What I can tell you is that it does appear there was a plant in the show," he said.
When I was connected to the Ridges insider, he was cagey, perhaps still afraid of breaking the show's confidentiality rules. We danced around the veracity of the scene for a while, before I put a series of direct questions.
Was the mouse wild?
Was what happened in the Ridge kitchen a real mouse invasion?
Then the clincher.
Was the mouse brought in by someone connected to the show?
The source claimed the Ridge mouse was housed in a box, and only taken out when it was needed for a scene. The Spinoff understands the scenes were filmed in reverse order to how they appeared on the show.
Though the information was shocking, the source was impeccable. The mouse scene was a sham affair, staged for the silver screen. Yet more fodder for the sad parade of losers telling us "reality" TV isn't real.
The mystery was solved, but somehow I wasn't happy. I texted Sally.
That should have been the end of it. I was a strangely despondent. The Ridges have survived in New Zealand's celebrity fishbowl for more than a decade, despite enduring some weird court battles and an unrelenting blitzkrieg from Rachel Glucina. I quite liked them. It would have been good to have an honest and frank conversation about their most famous TV moment.
That evening, I went to a restaurant opening. I looked up at the wine table, and for the first time in my life, I saw her: Sally Ridge, in the flesh. This was providence. Destiny. I walked up to her and said, "Sally, we spoke earlier today." Then, with as much affability as I could muster: "I know the mouse was not wild."
She was good-humoured, but refused to buckle. I tried a different tack. "An animal expert has told me the mouse is not wild." Sally didn't answer. Instead her friend Warren told a story about the time he caught a mouse in the middle of the Ridge family lounge. Though the children cried, he resolved to flush the rodent down the toilet. They told the kids the mouse was going to heaven, took a deep breath, and pulled the lever. Here, Sally made a face like a desperate rodent bobbing in the water. Somehow, the mouse had refused to go down. It hung around, like an old scandal, like the Ridge mouse mystery; doomed to die, but somehow clinging to life until the bitter end.
I left without getting a confession.
My wife and I walked straight to a bar down the road. I looked up, and saw her: Jaime Ridge. For a while, I stood there, contemplating the contortions of fate that had delivered me to two Ridges for the first time, on this, the only day I'd of my life I'd needed them. Was this The Secret in action? Did God want me to speak to the entire Ridge family? Would I happen upon them one by one until the truth was out?
And then I thought about me, walking up to Jaime Ridge in a crowded bar, and saying "Hello, I am investigating your mouse." Or, "I just spoke to your mother."
That seemed like it would be a terrible experience for both of us. I left without speaking to her, knowing full well that the truth would come out soon enough.
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