A few years ago, two friends and I began renting a house at the top of Brixton Hill. It wasn’t a glamorous house – there’d been a hypodermic syringe sitting on a mantelpiece when the estate agent had shown us round (an ornament she made a heroic effort to ignore) – but it was big: a massive kitchen, large living room, creepy basement, a garden, and four bedrooms split between three of us, though our third was a lawyer caught up in a big case abroad, and couldn’t have spent more than a month in the house that whole year.
Best of all was my third-floor garret, separated from the rest of the house by two sets of doors and comprising a bedroom, a bathroom and a small office that I turned into a music studio. My housemate Will was using his own bedroom as a design workshop, yet entire days would go by without us bumping into each other; half the time I didn’t even know if there was anyone else in the building. I remember thinking from day one that it was the closest thing to an ideal living situation I’d ever encountered in London, and wondering how long it would be before something broke the spell.
The answer came a few weeks into our stay, when I woke one night to the sound of scurrying in the loft space a few feet above my head. As the veteran of more than one drawn-out campaign against domestic rodents, I knew from the noise that these weren’t house mice – there was an awful implication of mass to the bodies I heard scampering over floorboards and burrowing into boxes, and I felt sure I could discern the sound of claws scraping along exposed pipes.
The following morning I called our landlady and told her there were rats in the attic. There was a pause, then a sad sigh. They weren’t rats, she said, they were squirrels. They’d found their way in the previous summer via an overhanging branch, after which she’d had pest control in to lay traps, blocked up all the holes and trimmed back the trees, hoping that would be the end of it. She said she’d send someone over, and apologised for any inconvenience in the meantime.
A couple of days later the Rentokil guy showed up. He was a sinister sort, speaking slowly and with an emotional blankness that I assumed could only have come from prolonged exposure to the suffering of small animals with expressive eyes. Access to the loft was via a ceiling hatch in the corridor that joined my garret with the stairs leading back to the rest of the house; I waited anxiously while he poked around up there with a flashlight, returning a few minutes later to tell me that he was going to set up a few guillotine boxes. “Only thing big enough to take out squirrels,” he said. He asked me to guess what he used to bait them, and I told him I didn’t know. He produced a Topic bar from his overalls. “Squirrels can’t get enough of these things,” he said, unwrapping and biting into it in a way that was deeply unsettling. “Developed quite a taste for them myself, over the years.”
He told me that the traps went off with a loud bang, and that I’d probably be better off sleeping elsewhere for a week or so. I didn’t tell him that I’d vacated my own room that first night, and had since been sleeping on a nest of sofa cushions on the living room floor. Over the coming days I spent as little time as possible in the garret – I continued to work in my studio, but seemed incapable of listening to music for more than a few seconds without becoming convinced I could hear tiny claws skittering somewhere in the mix. I’d pause the track and sit waiting for a bang and a terrible scream, but there was only silence. On a couple of occasions the Rentokil guy returned to dispose of bodies that he carried out the attic and down the stairs in bin liners; once I heard him chuckling to himself as he poked around in the carnage above me. Yet in all that time I saw and heard nothing more of the squirrels themselves. The whole unpleasant episode, it seemed, might yet come to a close without my having to stare into the abyss itself.
Until the morning of my birthday, a weekday on which I crawled back into the house around 7am after a night spent celebrating with a girl I was seeing. I remember the feeling of contentment as I walked back up the hill, the first commuters filing on to public transport like condemned men and women while the rising sun set clouds alight. I remember stopping to pick up a box of cereal and eating two bowls at the kitchen table before sinking into the sofa cushions for what I felt sure would be a long and conclusive sleep, only to wake, no more than an hour later, to the sound of a man screaming.
I ran into the kitchen in time to find Will closing the door to the garden behind him, his morning cigarette still unlit in his fingers, his eyes wild and head shaking slowly. He told me not to go outside. I asked why, and he said because it was my birthday, and no one should start their birthday looking at something like that. I stepped around him, opened the back door and walked out into the garden, and saw something that even now I struggle to describe, despite the fact that I only have to close my eyes for a moment to see it printed against the black canvas of my subconscious.
It was half a squirrel. More than half a squirrel, perhaps, but certainly not 75%. Nor by calling it half a squirrel do I mean to suggest that it was neatly bisected along some obvious biological fault line – I wasn’t looking at the front end of a squirrel, nor the rear end. There was a front and a hind leg remaining, but they were both on the same side; the other side was a cross-section of bones and burst organs hanging in pink and blue ribbons. There was no tail, but there was a head, and the black eyes were open. The trail of blood told a horrifying story: the animal must have somehow worked its way side-on into one of those grisly guillotines, losing limbs and organs in the process, expending the last of its life force crawling out of the loft before either climbing or falling down the tree into the garden.
I’m not sure how long I’d been staring before I became aware of Will behind me, cigarette in one hand, bin liner in the other. He told me to go back to bed, that he’d sort out the mess. I didn’t argue. I picked up a card and a present from the kitchen table as I passed through, gathered my duvet from the living room and moved back into my bedroom. I never heard another squirrel scurrying around the attic, the Rentokil man never came to pick up the last of his traps, and I’ve never been able to look at a Topic bar since.
That was nearly four years ago. I’m still at the top of Brixton Hill, living alone in a one-bed flat in a big white block that under cover of night you might convincingly pass off as ‘art deco’. A nice enough place – clean and bright, glorious views of Telford bus garage, the 24-hour engine sound of which is a great balm to my tinnitus. I’m not here much – the place is a holding pen of sorts, a white pod in which to sleep and eat, to check emails and recharge appliances between days spent making music in a Soho studio. It’s not often that I find myself stuck in the flat with time to kill, but when I do, I tend to go walking in Brockwell Park, and that’s exactly what happened last Sunday evening.
The sun was setting by the time I arrived, but the heat of the day still lingered on the lawns; picnickers remained scattered around piles of crisp packets and empty cider bottles, parents sat gazing as their babies stumbled after butterflies, young couples lay entwined in each other's arms, drunk on desire. I’d bought a coffee en route, and I sipped it on a hill overlooking the city skyline, which shimmered against a canvas of electric yellow cloud. I thought how calm and stately those towers seemed, and wondered what my preference for viewing London from a distance said about the potential imbalance of the active and contemplative parts of my life. After half an hour or so, a cool breeze picking up and the hills clearing of people, I stood and began making my way home.
That was when I saw the squirrel, a crumpled pile of fur at the base of a big tree lining the path. Not a baby squirrel, but certainly no more than a kid – small paws undeveloped, body no wider than a belt. He lay motionless on his stomach, back twisted awkwardly and rear end elevated in a way that suggested a nose-dive towards the earth. I stepped closer, noticed simultaneously that his fur was crawling with lice and that his little chest was rising and falling so faintly as to be almost imperceptible in the gathering shadow. My mind turned over a dozen different instructions on what to do when discovering the victim of a violent accident, none of which seemed applicable to squirrels. With a single hand I gathered his body in my fingers, attempted gently to lift him from the ground, at which point his front legs began stretching uselessly, paws clawing at the grass, his breathing quickening though his eyes remained closed.
I called my brother, a doctor with a garden and a great deal of empathy, and he told me, as I feared he would, that the humane thing to do would be to end its misery. He warned against breaking its neck with my hands for fear of bad dreams if it went wrong. He asked if I had a spade to hand; I told him I did not. He suggested finding a large rock with which crush its skull, and I said I’d have a look, hanging up and sitting back down beside the squirrel. I couldn’t recall seeing any large rocks in my years walking Brockwell Park, and I didn’t intend to leave the thing to start looking now. I took a moment to focus my thoughts, glanced around the park to make sure I wasn’t being watched, reached over and took the squirrel’s head in my fingers.
At that moment I heard squeaking from high in the tree above me, and looking up I saw another squirrel, no larger than this one, frantically crying out as he skittered over branches. I stood and watched, certain I was about to witness a second plummeting squirrel turned into a twisted pile of limbs. His ability to cling to the tree was untrained – I couldn’t shake the image of the pair of them breaking out of the nest without parental permission – and more than once I watched him lose his footing and skid perilously close to the edge of the branch, all the while emitting a terrible babyish whimper filled with what sounded like familial loss. When I knelt back over the injured squirrel, his eyes were open, and he was making a wet, drawn out whine of his own, breaths that sounded like broken bricks being dragged along a broken road.
At that point I did what seemed the only thing left available to me: I took out my phone and began searching online for nearby animal hospitals. I got some advice from a lady who ran a charity in Croydon, left a message with a man who operated a volunteer animal ambulance in east London, listened to a recorded summary of the weekday opening hours of a rescue centre in Beckenham. Finally it occurred to me to call the RSPCA, the receptionist at which said they’d send an ambulance to my flat if I could find a box to carry the squirrel home in. I hung up and made a quick circuit of the few remaining picnic parties in close vicinity; none had any boxes, nor did the bins yield anything but sauce-encrusted takeaway cartons. I returned to the squirrel, removed my jumper, lifted him gently into it, and began walking over the darkening earth in the direction of home.
The world we passed through seemed created entirely for the occasion. Heavy shadows lay over the residential streets leading away from the park, yet the sky remained a sort of powdery blue, the clouds faded pink, no longer electrified at the edges by the sun, which had long ago set, but all the more beautiful for it. I pointed this out to the squirrel, who I had named Shen; I told him that the thing about sunsets, with their solar pyrotechnics and ceremonial stages of apocalypse, was that they were constantly changing – perhaps that was what made them so powerful, I said, the compressed span of their cosmic collapse instilling in us a sense of what our own lives probably look like in timelapse. But this thing that followed – this pale blue sky, these pink clouds – seemed in its majestic calm to imply something endless and peaceful following the firework shows that our little lives comprise.
It wasn’t easy to tell amid the shadows how much of this was going in. Shen remained slumped against the folds of my jumper, his front legs splayed at the same awkward angle they’d occupied in the park, his eyes closed. I gave him a gentle poke and saw his head shift, his little paws clutching empty air, and I sped up a little. I kept talking as we approached the flat; I told Shen about the building, which I felt no qualms describing as ‘art deco’ given the cover of darkness, and I apologised in advance for the mess – I’d not known I’d be having guests, I said. I told him not to expect anything grand; I explained about the studio in Soho, and how this was just a holding cell, a place to sleep and eat and recharge appliances. The usual spiel. If he was judging me, he managed not to show it.
Back in the flat I laid his broken body down on the living room floor, noticing as I did so that the jumper he rested on was already seething with lice. I set to work with a pair of scissors and a small cardboard box snatched from the recycling bin outside, padded the thing out with an old T-shirt and scattered a few raisins at the head end in an attempt to make it feel more like a luxury squirrel carriage than an IKEA squirrel coffin. I laid Shen inside – his breathing was almost imperceptible now – and carried the box out on to the balcony, where we sat looking south over Streatham. I apologised for the scaffolding, cursed the ongoing renovation work, pointed out Telford bus garage and made passing reference to its soothing qualities for a tinnitus sufferer. Just small talk. There was so much I really wanted to say – how I knew about life sometimes feeling like a crap carnival act, the garish colours and sad jokes, everyone dancing like puppets in an attempt to convince themselves that the days made some sort of sense. I wanted to tell him that everything would be fine if only he could get back into his tree, find a spot where he could see the sky unencumbered by buildings, and sit watching the clouds drift awhile. I wanted to tell him to fight. I wanted to tell him to live.
“There’s so much left for you to do,” I began.
At that moment the buzzer went. I paused, gave his head a parting stroke, then carried the box downstairs and out into the car park, where I found the ambulance driver standing beside his vehicle. My heart sank a little at the sight of his white van – part of me had been expecting a team of nurses and a gurney, an on-the-spot defibrillation before the thing screamed off towards the hospital, sirens wailing. As it was, the man smiled patiently – a kindly, middle-aged face, bushy moustache – and took the box that I held out to him. He peered inside, looked back at me with a sad expression. “Looks like he’s fallen out of the nest,” he said. “Probably not much we can do.”
I followed him to the rear of the van, where he placed the box carefully on one of a number of shelves, most occupied by similar-sized boxes, before locking up and heading back to the driver’s seat. He passed an envelope through the window, told me about the importance of donations, and thanked me for caring about animals as he started the engine. I waited until the van had turned out on to the street before walking back to my flat and out on to the balcony, where I sat a while longer watching the pink clouds strung over Streatham like a choir of Renaissance angels, the engines of Telford bus garage tuning up as though for a requiem about to begin.