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 that week. Lawns and bed were covered with dead leaves.
His first task was to replenished 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 began to warm 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 silvered river ran silently to the firth.
He noticed the squirrel as he was gathering up the blown leaves. A small furry object placed between two parked cars. At first he thought someone had dropped a handkerchief. As he drew closer 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.
It was a truly piteous sight, this little creature, permanently in the arms of Morpheus. This was the first time he had seen one up close. Now he could see that the red was much smaller than the grey, Physically slighter, its fur more wiry, its tail less full. While grey squirrels were a common sight in the towns and cities of England, red squirrels were protected in Scotland, not that it had helped
He considered the squirrel for a moment, and wondered what to do with it. Taking his mobile phone from his pocket he googled the Scottish SPCA to see if they had any information about red squirrelts. called the Scottish SPCA to report it. A female operator 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. They are 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’ on his phone, and found a 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 acknowledged the man. Dead squirrel, he said, pointing at it with his phone. I’m dealing with it.
Shame, 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, crouched 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.
Finally 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 terrified 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.