Animal magic?

I nearly hit a squirrel this morning. It hadn’t occurred to me that the car in front of me and the van in front of that were swerving for any other reason than because they were dreadful drivers, but there it was, the squirrel, no, a squirrel, being all squirrely and dying a squirrelsome death. I felt sad for a few moments. Whatever had hit it had done enough damage to bring it down but not put it out. It was wriggling and twitching and as I drew level it almost sprang back to normal, as if convulsing itself better through sheer force of will. Alas, this was just another act in a death scene and with another violent jerk the whole body twisted once more and that was the last I saw of it. In most ways it would have been better to have gone straight over it and finish the job quickly, but on the other hand I didn’t fancy the idea of washing the car a week later and finding a few ounces of squirrel anus deeply embedded in the tread of the front driver side wheel. I also took some small compensation from the fact that in this particular drama I was not to blame in the slightest.

I like squirrels. On the whole I tend to think that calling them vermin is a bit too much. I mean, what do squirrels really do that’s so awful? They climb trees, they stop suddenly, they perform a range of tasks involving the acquisition, storage and consumption of nuts and they get hit by cars. I expect some overly anxious animal expert will tell you that they spread disease, but until I catch diphtheria off one I don’t think I’m going to join a queue to head off on a squirrel massacre. Animal lovers also have a real gripe with the grey squirrel because there are loads of them and not very many red squirrels, but in the scheme of things who really cares, they’re just squirrels. If you’re desperate to see a red one then go and live in a ditch in Scotland or settle for looking at other red things, such as ripe tomatoes. But just the red ones. Sorry, I got distracted. I did briefly wonder if that squirrel meant something. I might well like squirrels, but there wasn’t a lot I could do for that one by the side of the road. No doubt a fox had first dibs on the corpse and got hit by a Honda Civic for its trouble. It’s all part of nature, except for the car bit. Of course it meant nothing. Why should it? The other day a fox walked out onto the road as I was negotiating a roundabout, it was two in the afternoon and it clearly didn’t care. A very good acquaintance told me they’d recently seen a fox trotting along carrying a rat. In its mouth or on its back, they didn’t specify, though I’m sure it should earn double bonus points on the Springwatch website. But was it a portent or just a fox with a rat? Is there more to a spasming squirrel that meets the eye?

Which brings me to some sort of something that looks a bit like a point: there seem to be a lot more animals in my life at the moment, and I don’t know whether I should read anything into it. Magpies seem to be thicker on the ground these days. Sometimes it’s just the one, and thank goodness I’m not too superstitious because we all know that one magpie is almost as good as a cast iron guarantee that sorrow is coming your way. Imagine if a single magpie landed in the middle of a packed football stadium or on stage at a festival – thousands of people would automatically be forever cursed to live their lives in misery through no fault of their own. Fortunately, I’ve also seen some magpie couples, at which point each time I have had to stop so that someone can surprise me with a big lottery cheque, a free bottle of wine or the opportunity to rule the world. They’re just so fickle and teasing, magpies, fluttering about, busy deciding whether to dole out agony or ecstasy to a stranger on a whim. Of course, there’s just as much chance they haven’t got a clue and it’s all a load of rubbish. Perhaps we’ll never know. Perhaps we shouldn’t care.

On top of the hot magpie action there have been some pigeons. Like squirrels, pigeons are considered dirty fuckers, ‘rats with wings’ as your average veterinarian would put it, usually without a trace of compassion. In fairness there does seem to be an awful lot of them around. It’s hard to believe that we once managed to wipe out the passenger pigeon population but if you want to take a pop at one now you have to apply for planning permission. At the moment pigeons wake me up every morning as they squabble on the roof. They’re fat, idle things and I’d much prefer they bugger off to a faraway tree, which is why I’m thinking of writing them a note. Oddly enough, as I left for the gym I saw there was a pigeon lying in the middle of a neighbour’s driveway, considerably dead. Knowing that I wasn’t the culprit my mind started to play games. Had it simply dropped from the sky following a cardiac event? Had it been the look out in an elaborate burglary and then taken a sudden turn for the worse? Or was it some bizarre death threat aimed at the house owner? And that was just the first three possible options; you see, you can read an awful lot into an animal if you’ve got absolutely nothing better to do.

Possibly my favourite animal at the moment (with the eternal exception of Miss Hairy Mary Miyagi) is the gym heron. I don’t think the gym heron knows it’s the gym heron, but it is certainly a heron and it spends a lot of time around the pond outside the gym, so for now the name can stay. From the treadmill I can watch through the window at the pond and casually note my feathered friend preen and dive and swoop to its heart’s content. I’m sure the gym heron is at the top of the chain on that pond. Not that I’ve seen it catch anything yet; either it’s on a diet or it’s just not that good at being a predator. Or it’s very shy and knows I’m watching. Whatever the reason I’m quite glad, because for every live animal I see there seems to be a dead one to go with it, like that squirrel and every other squashed fur burger I’ve winced at on the curb. Last weekend I arrived at the gym to see the path littered with some pretty compelling evidence of violence. Clumps of white feathers were wafting around in the breeze and the decking was decorated with angry splashes of blood. Clearly a bird had met a fox and come off second best, I nimbly deduced. Maybe it was the roundabout fox. The blood stains are still there, the feathers have long since drifted away and I expect the fox has been hungry and fed several times since. Unless it forgot to look both ways at the traffic lights on the way home.

For thousands of years we’ve been observing animals for signs of things to come. And then if that hasn’t helped we’ve just turned them into dinner or something to wear. I don’t know why there are so many animals littering the periphery of my life at the moment, but I doubt it’s much more than a coincidence; or at least I hope so because if every encounter meant something I’d be in an even bigger pickle than I usually am. Most nights I am kept awake by foxes shouting at each other in the woods nearby. Are they calling for me to join them or just very thoughtfully trying to remind me that my passport needs renewing next year? Some days I wish I was a less complicated animal than a human being. It must be nice to be a squirrel sometimes. I’m sure life would be so much easier and I wouldn’t spend so much time worrying about all the silly things that happen or the things I have no control over. I’d just dart around and collect nuts and stop suddenly for no apparent reason. And then one day I’d be a bit too cocky crossing the road and get hit by a Ford Focus, and as I writhed about in an agonising death grip I’d probably catch the eye of the dozy looking twat swerving out of my way and I’d think: it could be worse, I could be him, he’s so stupid he probably thinks this all means something.

G B Hewitt. 28.05.2022

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