I hang out in the woods opposite the housing estate, scoping out the gardens. The wood is full of traffic cones, dog dirt, and coke tins. The trees are poor, stunted things.
They don’t like me around here. If I sit in their gardens, minding my own business, they try to scare me away with yellow-green faces and hissing lips, or they throw plant pots or old trainers at me. They put oil on poles to stop me climbing up to get the seeds. I snarl back and show them some claws. I give as good as I get.
I have my eye on an old codger’s vegetable garden just across the road. Look, there he is now, getting out of his little run-about car. He’s got his paper bag of blood pressure pills and statins from the chemists in the town, flowers for his wife.
He’s in his garden from sunrise to lunchtime, with his bowed back, weeding, digging, pruning, his cheeks puffing as his heart pumps through contracted arteries. He pauses to straighten himself up, wipe the sweat from his forehead and look contentedly at his work, the orderly rows of vegetables happy and warm in the rich earth.
At midday, his wife comes out of the house. There’s something about her that I don’t trust. She makes my skin quiver. She’ll call and gesture for him to come inside for his pork chop, carrots, and potatoes.
My stomach gurgles.
I see the squirrel looking down on my garden from the trees opposite. Sciurus carolinensis with eyes as black as coal. I stare at him for a few seconds letting him know I’m watching. I hiss, but he doesn’t budge. He is lean and defiant, a survivor.
Once, the woods were full of red squirrels, the ones you see in kiddies’s books. But now there are only the greys left. Noddy Jutsum and I used to shoot them. He’d sneak out his dad’s .410 shotgun and we got 50 pence for each tail. My wife says all I do is drone on these days and get more maudlin. Perhaps she’s right. I’d better go inside and put these flowers in a vase.
‘Squirrel’ has a chewy sound, as if you are trying to get rid of something stuck in your teeth. Now ‘badger,’ on the other hand, that’s a strong name, the name of a warrior. You wouldn’t mess with someone called ‘Badger’. I wish Mum had named me ‘Badger’.
It’s been one month since she disappeared and the world changed. Flowers don’t smell as good. Leaves are droopy and worn out, colours faded.
Mum taught me to work out every day and keep myself in shape. It helps me to stay calm. I am good at using my claws and teeth and I can stand up on my hind legs like a circus bear and fly like a bat. I eat small birds and anything mousy.
The sky is smoky-grey, foraging time, or as Mum said, the time between ‘the dog and the wolf.’ All I have are her words. I skid over to the old codger’s garden for a reconnaissance. I press my nose up against the conservatory window to peek inside.
I spy a couple of worn, cosy armchairs, a side table with reading glasses, a vase of flowers, and a pair of wellingtons. The old codger and his wife are semi-comatose in front of a crackling screen.
The gardens in the street are full of discarded bicycles, trampolines with puddles of rainwater and weed-strewn borders, but the old codger is tidy and takes care of his soil. He has an orderly mind. There are several vegetable beds – potatoes, carrots, beans, butternut squash – buttressed by wooden edging and access paths. He’s clever; he has grown flowering plants to attract bumbles and to keep bugs away.
I head for a nice row of carrots and tug one out for a taste. It’s juicy and sweet-delicious.
In the morning, I look out over the vegetable patch. Leaves are scattered. There is a hole in one of the beds. Someone has been pinching my carrots. I notice paw marks on the conservatory window and a deep scratch on the glass.
“I think we have a visitor,” I say to my wife. “A squirrel.”
“Like rats, they are. Sneaking around, helping themselves. You’re the big game-hunter. What are you going to do about it?”
“A squirrel is swift. It has excellent wide-angled vision, so it’s difficult to trap. Unless you can tempt it.”
“Can’t you poison it? A saucer of milk with a few drops of formaldehyde. That’d do the trick.”
“No, you’re not allowed to do that. Also, if you kill a squirrel these days, it’s your responsibility to bury or burn it. Or you must eat it. You can’t eat it if you’ve poisoned it. It’s all in the leaflet from the Council along with the recycling regs.”
“Shame. The back legs could make a nice stew if you add red wine and mushrooms.”
I kept silent long enough for my wife to think I hadn’t heard her last remark.
“Are you going deaf now?” she barks.
“Sorry. Let me chew it over.”
“Okay, but don’t take forever. In the meantime, I’ll check out my recipe books.”
I return home with a steel-meshed trap, 24 inches in length and 10 inches wide with a door at one end. Inside is a treadle plate so that when the squirrel steps on it, its weight triggers a strong spring that locks the door. I suspend the cage on the fence which the squirrel uses as his route from the wood to the garden and sprinkle a handful of peanuts inside. From the kitchen window, my wife gives me a big thumbs up.
I cross over to the old codger’s garden. He’s hung some kind of metal thing from the top of the fencing. I see peanuts inside. I’m not sure what to do. I have a cold, shivery feeling, the same I had when I found blue toadstools growing under a rotting tree trunk in the forest. The toadstools were sparkling and winking at me and all fleshy, but at the same time my bowels felt queasy.
I decide to approach the thing with caution. I take a step forward and freeze. I turn my head slowly, 360 degrees. All clear. I zig-zag forward. Phew! It turns out it isn’t too tricky. I nip inside, wolf down the nuts and skedaddle back onto the fence and draw breath.
I’m hanging underneath the thing by my front paws stretching my legs when I sense someone watching. I look up and see his grey face peeking out from the bedroom window. I love an audience, so I treat him to a monkey-crawl along the length of the box, finishing with a triple somersault twist before landing softly on the grass. The old codger has a big toothy smile.
I am enchanted. I enjoy watching its acrobatics. It is such an agile and determined creature, and while scrawny, it is in peak athletic condition. I’m pleased I deactivated the treadle plate for the initial stage of the entrapment. I want it to get used to taking the nuts and not be suspicious. In time, I can always activate the locking mechanisms.
I must give him a name, so I call him “Keef.” Keef is a showman, an entertainer; the way he does those pull-ups along the length of the fence, as though doing them for pleasure. I replenish the peanuts, always at the same time in the morning, and I make sure the door stays open, so Keef can come and go as he pleases.
Keef often turns up when I am in the garden and sits watching me.
So, you’re the old fool who has been feeding me peanuts?
I enjoy Keef’s company. I bring him extra titbits and snacks.
“Keef, you must be ecoliterate. Do you think it’ll rain this afternoon? Better finish packing in this compost soon, eh?”
How would I know? You’re the gardener.
To bury, to burn, or to stew? So many questions. Or is there a different way? I worry about what I am going to tell my wife. She isn’t one for indecision or complexities; if there is a problem, she wants it solved, not reconstructed. At our age, I don’t blame her. But is it possible she could forget about Keef if I somehow arrange for him to keep a low profile? That fragile hope is soon crushed.
“There is muttering in the town. About a manic squirrel that jumps out and bites people. It has got to be your squirrel.”
“You mean Keef?”
“Keef? He’s got a name now?”
“Yes. Keef. He keeps me company.”
“You lonely fool. A squirrel is a squirrel. It can’t be tamed like a puppy,” she says in a condescending tone. “And another thing. Stop talking to yourself in the garden. You’ll end up in a doolally home.”
She is resolute that Keef must go.
Crossing over to the old codger’s garden is a regular part of my day now. I stock up on the peanuts he leaves in my enclosure. I feel a sense of protection sitting high up on the fence looking out at the world. I don’t have to fear a sudden attack of canine fangs or a club-thudding blow from a cricket bat. For the first time in ages, I can relax.
I watch the old codger at work. He stops what he is doing, turns to me, and starts moving his lips. He mutters a few remarks and then carries on with his digging. He rests his fork, puts his hand on his hip, and talks for five or ten minutes, slapping his haunch for effect, even crumpling with laughter. Then he stares at the sky with a faraway look. He remembers where he is and continues digging.
Other people in the old codger’s street are not pleased to see me. One man in tracksuit bottoms, sliders, and a beanie throws a wine bottle at me when he is putting his rubbish out. I avoid it but he kicks a recycling box at me hard. He screams and jumps up and down on one leg.
A red-haired woman with smoke coming out of her mouth, sets her two Bengal cats onto me. They get me in a pincer movement, so I retaliate. One of them has my teeth marks on its right thigh from the scrap.
I am making a cup of tea when there is a knock at the door. It is Kyle, my young neighbour. He is limping and has a gruesome injury on his right foot.
“Can I come in? You won’t believe what just happened. I’ve been attacked by a monster. Built like a Samoan rugby player, it was. It leapt from behind the bins and bit my big toe. Look.”
He points down at his sock which is soaked in blood. My wife comes into the kitchen and starts peeling onions. She looks at Kyle’s foot in fascination. Kyle continues with his story.
“Jackie at number fifty six says her cats have been mauled and Flick had her thumb bitten. She had to go for a tetanus jab. It’s a psycho – just look into its eyes. Everyone is saying we have to take matters into our own hands.”
When Kyle leaves, my wife waves her chopping knife in the air and whispers, “Do something about that bloody squirrel, or I will.”
I protest. “I have done something. You saw for yourself. I’ve put up an enclosure on the fence. Stage one is complete.”
“An enclosure? An enclosure now, is it? It’s a cage, a trap, a holding cell. Not some bloody posh Conciergerie for rodents, for crying out loud.”
I go into the garden. Keef sits by the potato bed enjoying the warmth of the late morning sun on his salt and pepper fur. I’m worried. Kyle’s words about the neighbours ‘taking matters into their own hands’ echoes in my mind. I imagine a braying horde with pitchforks and candles wanting to cut Keef into scraps.
I look closely at him. He has put on weight recently. He is peaceful and calm, almost dozing and not deranged at all. Why would he attack people out of the blue, I ask myself.
“You haven’t been biting people, have you Keef? You wouldn’t do that, would you?”
I realised how silly I must have looked speaking to Keef but it seemed a natural thing to do. He stares back at me. It’s impossible to see in his eyes what he is thinking or feeling but I sense he trusts me. He looks away and starts nibbling on the grass. I see my wife watching us from the kitchen.
I must stop dithering, so I walk to the fence and reach up to the trap. I release the latch that locks the door when Keef treads on the plate and put nuts at the back. This time when he goes inside he will be trapped.
How Keef will fight and wriggle with all his stringy strength until he becomes breathless and exhausted. I can see the fear and confusion in his eyes. I tell myself to be decisive and hold my nerve. But what to do with Keef after he has collapsed? Then I have the seed of an idea.
I make sure my wife is watching as I walk down to the old dustbin that I use as an incinerator. I place some dry twigs and leaves inside and light a match. I stand back until the woodsmoke starts to spiral upwards. Then I add some wet leaves. That should build up into a thick haze in a few minutes. I give my wife a cheery wave before disappearing behind the smoke.
The old codger is sad. He carries on with his digging. I work out he’s in no mood for conversation. Then he turns to me. He has an odd, puzzled look in his watery eyes, as if he is struggling to work out the answer to a great problem.
I look up at the kitchen window. His wife’s face is puckered, her eyes like slits in a look of suspicion and hostility. I don’t know what she is so angry about. I haven’t touched the vegetable patch since that first night.
It is warm in the sun, there is a slight breeze and I feel my eyelids getting heavy. I’m in the forest where I grew up. The bright rays of sunshine slice through the trees with their whispering leaves. Every day, Mum teaches me how to collect and store nuts. We have fun. Then Mum loses her springiness.
She begins to slow down. She gets irritable with me for no reason. She tells me off, even when I haven’t done anything wrong. She stops eating. Her eyes are a strange, milky blue colour. She smells different. I nudge her but she doesn’t move.
I go to fetch berries, her favourite, but when I come back, she has gone. I search everywhere until the forest becomes dark and damp with black shadows and there is a strange moaning sound. I am alone.
When I wake from my nap, there is no sign of the old codger. There’s a smell of burning. There are clouds coming from the dustbin by the compost heap. I hope he knows what he is doing. I stretch my legs. I’m getting tired more quickly these days. I’m not getting any younger, that’s for sure.
I look around the garden through the smoke. I can make out the old codger’s gardening gloves and his hat and his spade. I guess he’s gone inside for his lunch. I hope he comes back soon. The smoke is starting to make my eyes itch. I think I’ll go up to my enclosure and munch on some peanuts. Then, with a full tummy, I’ll doze off one last time.
Peaking early, Ian won a prize (a certificate and a tin of chocs) for the Cadbury’s Writing Competition in 1965 with a story about a cocoa farmer, an anaconda and a Scottish terrier. He blames the usual ‘enemies of promise’ for the drought in awards since. However, since retiring as a university lecturer, he has found time to write a family memoire, stories for children, and an illustrated book: Cycling in the Canal des Deux Mers. His short story ‘Leaf Relief’ was published as a podcast on Yorick Radio Productions/Scintillating Stories in June 2023. Ian lives in Wales.