Since the start of lockdown, my enemy the squirrel has sought to contravene social distancing guidelines in a manner that can only be described as provocative. For all of last year he was happy to keep two metres between us. I would have preferred three or, ideally, more.
At some point in mid-April, the general absence of humans on our streets emboldened the natural world. Goats took over towns. Foxes strode the pavements like commuters. And the squirrel got closer. On several occasions we found ourselves nose to nose. Initially, we were both startled by these sudden instances of proximity – the squirrel would leap into the air, and so would I. But one of us got used to it.
I open the back door in the morning to see the squirrel hanging upside down from the nearest bird feeder, a chunk of fat the size of a ping-pong ball in his mouth. I take a step towards him, but he doesn’t move. I take another step, bringing us a single metre apart.
“Give me that,” I say. The squirrel looks around, and then back at me, but he continues to hang there. I raise my fist and shake it, like an old man in a cartoon. The squirrel scrambles lazily up to the top of the garden wall and waddles along it in the direction of my office shed.
“Yeah, that’s right,” I say, following. “Keep going.” Halfway along, the squirrel stops and turns towards me. I keep walking, but he holds his ground. I slow down. Then I stop.
“I’ll have you,” I say. Maybe it’s because I’ve never been close enough before, but this is the first time I’ve seen a squirrel raise an eyebrow. The next day I take a slightly different route to my office in the morning, along the other wall.
A week later I’m at my desk typing, door open to the hot afternoon, when something pushes a garden pot off an iron shelf and it smashes on the ground. I step outside to investigate.
The pot lies in shards on the patio, the soil sprayed across the bricks. Above me the shaggy crown of a heavily pollarded tree looms over the wall from the other side. Its broad leaves are shaking as if in a heavy wind, even though the air is still. There’s a weird, angry huffing sound coming from its centre: a possessed tree.
Suddenly the squirrel’s head shoots out from the leaves. He looks down at me and huffs.
“Jesus Christ!” I say. “What is wrong with you?”
“Who are you talking to?” my wife asks, crossing the threshold of the back door.
“He just went for me,” I say.
“What happened to my pot?” she says.
“The squirrel pushed it off,” I say. “I think he must have a nest in there. He’s being really aggressive.”
“The bastard,” she says. She walks across the garden, grabs a long bamboo stake and returns.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“I’m going to poke his brains out,” she says. “Don’t write about this.” She sticks the end of the stake into the roiling leaves. The huffing sound intensifies.
“What’s happening?” asks the oldest one, leaning out of the garden door.
“Nothing,” I say. “Mum’s just murdering a squirrel family.”
“Shut up,” my wife says, jabbing the stick deeper into the tree. The tree responds, like a mop being shaken.
“Cruel,” the oldest one says. My wife’s arms jerk forward.
“He’s grabbed the end of the stick!” she shouts. “He’s trying to take it off me!”
“I know I’ve said it before,” I say, “but these are weird times.”
The tree churns and quakes. My wife finally extracts the stick and throws it to the ground.
“Right,” she says. “Even I can’t contend with that.”
“He wanted it more,” I say.
“You’re on your own,” she says, turning back to the house.
At the top of the tree, the squirrel’s head emerges in profile against the afternoon sky, triumphant. He leaps into the air and disappears in a splash of greenery.