He found another job as a handyman, this time at a care home on the other side of town. A few weeks into the job, he was finishing up his daily rounds by replenishing the bird feeders when he spied one pinned to the frame of a ground floor window. It was almost empty, and the seeds that remained looked as if they had been there for some time. Taking a jam jar filled with bird seed, he was about to tip the contents into the mesh feeder when he saw the figure in bed beyond the glass.
It was an elderly lady, lying in bed, pink covers drawn up to her throat. Her eyes were closed, in sleep or death he could not tell, but her mouth was wide open and her skin as grey as the thinning curls of her hair.
He looked away. Never had he seen someone so close to death. He had witnessed the slow demise of two grandparents from cancer, but hadn’t been there in their final moments, and when his mother became seriously ill after her stem cell treatment, he was convinced she was not long for this earth, but he had never gazed upon someone on right on the point of expiration before, where the breath that they were drawing at that moment might be their last.
On the walls around her bed were photographs of her family: husband, children, grandchildren.
He tipped the contents of the jam jar into the feeder and continued his rounds. The next week he received a call from the permanent handyman, the one he had been covering for whenever he was away.
She died yesterday, he said. It wasn’t a surprise, really. She’d been unresponsive for months. Anyway, they want to move someone else into her room, so we’ll need to repaint it. I’m away next week, so that’ll be your job. I don’t think it’ll take more than a couple of days. There’s plenty of paint. Magnolia for the walls, white for the ceiling. Make sure you do the ceiling.
When he came to paint the lady’s room a few days later, there was no trace left of her, save for a small houseplant on the windowsill, and a framed pencil drawing of a house hanging on the wall. The wardrobe, chest of drawers and bathroom had been emptied, the photographs taken down and her possessions boxed up and taken away by her family. The window of the room had been left ajar, letting fresh air in from the garden.
He took the drawing down, and pulled the picture hook out of the wall with a pair of pliers. Taking the curtains from the wooden rail, he laid them on the bare frame of the bed and covered them with newspaper. He shoved the wardrobe and chest of drawers into the centre of the room and spread dustsheets against the skirting boards. Using a roller, he re-painted the walls in magnolia emulsion, and touched up the woodwork with quick-drying white satin. As he was painting, he looked at the bird feeder in the window. It was still there, the seeds untouched.
Once the paint had dried, he put the furniture back as he found it, and re-hung the curtains, ready for the next occupant. Surveying his work, soft light streamed in from the low winter sun. A fine room, he thought to himself, and pulled the door closed.
Later that week he received an email from the University of the Highland and Islands informing him his application for a supply bank English lecturer position had not been successful.
In early November he was back at the care home again, covering for the handyman who was on holiday in Tenerife. On the morning of his return, a thin layer of frost had covered the garden, leaving the lawn dusted with white. The rest of the garden was a riot of brown. Most of the flowers had already died back or wilted in the cold snap earlier that week. Lawns and flowerbeds were choked with dead leaves.
His first task was to replenish the bird feeders and put out some peanuts for the red squirrels. He liked to take his time with these duties, small early morning obligations like a form of absolution, as the sun warmed the morning air. There was a slight breeze playing teasingly with the last few leaves of the beeches. In the shallow hollow, below the home, the quicksilver river ran quietly to the firth.
He noticed the squirrel as he was gathering up the blown leaves. A small furry object placed between two parked cars. From a distance, he thought someone had dropped a handkerchief, but as the object came into clearer focus, he could see it was a squirrel, lying on its side with one paw tucked under its head. It was heavily anthropomorphic, almost human, like a sleeping character in a Beatrix Potter illustration. Only it wasn’t sleeping, it was dead, stiff with rigor mortis and the effects of the cold. He wondered if it was the cold that had killed it, or perhaps a cat had caught it, though its body was completely intact, if a little emaciated. There was no trace of blood, but all the colour had drained from its fur, leaving it looking grey. In death, it had switched species. Changed identity.
A little creature clasped permanently in the arms of Morpheus. This was the first time he had seen a red squirrel up close. Now he could see that the red was much smaller than the grey, Physically slighter, its coat less furry, its tail less full.
He considered the squirrel for a moment and wondered what to do with it. While grey squirrels were a common sight in the towns and cities of England, red squirrels were protected in Scotland. Still, it was quite rare to see a dead squirrel, grey or red. Taking his mobile phone from his pocket, he googled the Scottish SPCA to see if they had any information about red squirrels, then called the organisation to report it.
A female voice answered.
Hello, he said. I’ve found a dead read squirrel this morning. I know they are a protected species and I wondered if you would need to know about it?
Oh, I’m not sure, she replied.
Is there anyone there I might be able to speak with about it?
Not really. There’s only me here at the moment, and I’m not sure…who would be able to…have you tried looking at our website?
I have. There wasn’t anything on your website regarding dead red squirrels. But they’re a protected species aren’t they?
I’m not sure, I think so.
So there’s no one there who can give me any advice about what to do if I find a dead red squirrel.
No. I’m afraid there’s no one who can help in this instance.
Sorry about that.
Don’t worry. Okay, bye.
He hung up and looked at the squirrel. It hadn’t moved. He googled report a dead red squirrel and found the website for an organisation called Scottish Squirrels. The Scottish Squirrels website contained a detailed map which recorded every sighting of a red squirrel in Scotland, and a list of funding organisations. There was a contact number for an office in Edinburgh, so he called it and was answered by an out of office voice message. He hung up.
A middle aged man who was visiting his mother came out of the care home and walked to his car.
He nodded at the man. Dead squirrel, he said, pointing at it with his phone. I’m dealing with it.
Oh yes, I saw it earlier, said the man, considering the squirrel. Then he got into his car and drove away.
On the Scottish Squirrels website’s menu, he found an option for reporting a squirrel sighting. He clicked on the button and filled out the form.
Which species of squirrel did you see? He selected an image of a red squirrel in rude health, crouching and alert.
Was the species alive or dead? Dead.
How many squirrels did you see? One.
Date of sighting? He checked his phone and entered the date.
Location of sighting? He opened a new tab, googled the name of the care home, and entered the location.
The website asked him about the squirrel’s habitat, so he selected mixed conifer and broadleaf, which seemed to cover all the bases, even though he couldn’t say for certain where the squirrel had been living before it met its untimely end.
Then he added his contact details and clicked ‘Save Sighting’. He was returned to the homepage and the detailed map with its mass of red dots signifying all the red squirrel sightings that had been logged and recorded on the site. Clicking on the map, he zoomed in to find the care home on the map. A single red dot sat squarely in the centre of the building. Surprisingly, there were two more red dots in the grounds, and he wondered who had recorded those sightings, perhaps the regular handyman, and if they were in fact the same squirrel, or others from the same scurry, or, depressingly, just more dead squirrels.
Taking a garden fork from the workshop, he set about carefully prised the squirrel up from the frozen ground. This was more difficult than expected. The fork was too short, so he had to stoop to scoop the squirrel up. The squirrel itself was partly frozen to the ground and resisted his attempts to lever it up. Even though it was dead, he was fearful of harming it or damaging it in any way.
Eventually he carefully, delicately, lifted the squirrel and carried it to the far end of the garden, where the fence met the wood leading down to the river. Once there he pitched it over the fence, down the slope towards the water’s edge, watching it loop briefly in the air before landing softly in the undergrowth. Then he put the fork back in the workshop and went inside to carry out the weekly fire alarm test.