The Hedgehog / by Alex Williamson

A few days after the funeral, he saw the hedgehog again.

It was the second time he had seen it. The first time a few months earlier, while preparing the ground for a garden shed.

That afternoon he had been levelling off the soil he heard a loud rustling close behind him. Expecting to see a pigeon, or some other bird, he was surprised to see this bundle of spikes moving ponderously, if determinedly, towards the beech hedge.

He been moving some tyres in the garden earlier and wondered if he had disturbed its hibernation. Speaking to his neighbour the next day, it emerged that the hedgehog had been resident in the garden for years.

This was only the second time he had seen a hedgehog in the wild. The first had been in the garden of his old home, on Middlewich Road in Sandbach, when he was fifteen years old.

The old house had been rented out for over a year, being vacant for several weeks. It was going back on the market, and his father asked him to help tidy the overgrown garden to earn some extra pocket money.

The previous tenants had shown no interest in maintaining the garden, and the grass on the small front lawn had grown almost to knee height. The back lawn was worse, almost to waist height. Both would need to be strimmed and mown.

That was the first time he met Len, the old farm labourer his father used for occasional odd jobs. Len had brought an array of hand tools with him, including a scythe. He had a weather-beaten face and skin the colour of pine, having spent his entire life working in the open air. He was jovial and gruff, and frequently unintelligible. There was a kind of art to his working methods. Deliberately slow, languorous, unhurried. As if he took pleasure in labour.

While Len scythed the back lawn and his father cut back the hedges, he tackled the front lawn.

As he was going over the grass with an electric strimmer, he encountered a small hedgehog. He had always been fascinated by hedgehogs, knowing that they only came out at night. Retreating to a short distance, he watched it make its way laboriously through the grass towards the hedge. Then he continued strimming the rest of the lawn.

A few weeks later he returned to mow the lawn again. This time he found a desiccated, dead hedgehog close to the hedge. Fortunately he spotted it before he ran his mower over it. He didn’t relish the thought of having to scrap it off the inside of the mower with a stick.

As he looked at this other hedgehog now, in his own garden, he instinctively knew that there was something wrong with it. It had strayed far from the hedge in broad daylight, and looked to be suffering some disorientation. As it moved it swayed unsteadily on its small legs, hesitating before making the next step. It looked incredibly fatigued, frequently stopping to lie down and close its eyes.

Taking uncertain steps over unknown ground. Looking for somewhere to die.

He asked his wife brought it some water, which she did and then drove to the supermarket to buy dogfood. Roused, the hedgehog drank a little of the water, before methodically working its way through the dogfood. Their children joined them in the garden and watched it eat. His eldest found a cardboard box and prepared a nest of straw and wildflowers for it.

They were by now incredibly close to it, close enough to hear its tiny jaws pulping the food. The food and water seemed to revive the hedgehog, and, placing a small trug over it as a shelter, they left it smacking its gums against the gelatinous mass of processed turkey and chicken.  

In the garden the next morning he found the hedgehog a short distance from the trug, motionless and curled up under some weeds. The rest of the dogfood remained untouched. Convinced it was dead, he brushed the hedgehog’s back with a broken cane, and the spines pulsed and it appeared to resume breathing. Relieved, he lay the cane to one side and went back into the house.

That morning he took his children to a wildlife park in the Cairngorms. It rained almost incessantly. They saw two male polar bears gnawing frozen blocks of blood and fat, while a seagull swept in and stole the bloody remains of the polar bear’s lunch. A tiger reared up at a man wearing a white golfing glove through the protective glass. A snowy owl peeped comically over a rock, before rejecting the dead mice laid out for it. They saw wolverines and monkeys, bison and camels and two snow leopards.

Just as they were about to leave, his wife texted him to say the hedgehog had died.

Once home he checked for himself. The hedgehog hadn’t moved. It was curled up in the same place, only now its spines looked strange, as if its had body had deflated.

He gently prodded it with the same broken cane and this time it didn’t stir.

He called the SSPCA to ask how best to dispose of it. They suggested placing it in a bin bag and putting it in the green bin. He hung up and went inside the house to get a carrier bag. When he said he was going to put the hedgehog in the bin, his wife objected. It had only just been emptied. Couldn't he bury it?

So instead he dug a deep hole in the back garden, not far from where it lay. So as not to harm the hedgehog, carefully lifted it onto his spade, before letting it slide in the hole. As he covered it with earth, he half expected it to move. To come back to life. But it didn’t.

He smoothed over the soil and put the spade back in the shed. Then he went into the house and threw away the rest of the dog food.