Tim Dowling: it was the last thing I cared about, and the squirrel ruined it

Tim Dowling: it was the last thing I cared about, and the squirrel ruined it

I hadn’t seen my enemy the squirrel in so long that I thought he’d moved on. Last spring, the tree on the other side of the wall where I’d always assumed he lived was cut down; I figured that during his search for new quarters he’d found a garden where they refill the bird feeders more regularly.

The squirrel and I had a number of confrontations over the years: he would pull bird feeders to pieces, or smash clay pots by pushing them off shelves. During lockdown, he got bolder, and was increasingly determined to stand his ground – he stopped running away when I chased him. I can’t say that I missed any of this. I thought: good riddance.

Before I see him, I see evidence of him: a large tomato, resting on the corner of the raised bed nearest my office door, with half a dozen tiny bites taken out of it.

“So,” I say, “you’re back.”

This particular tomato was the sole survivor of the blight that carried off the rest of my crop; only the day before I’d gone out to where it was hanging – on the stump of a leafless vine – and felt its ponderous weight. It was a deep pink, shading into red. The sun was shining on it. One more day, I thought.

And now it was just sitting there, partly chewed. The tomato was too heavy for a squirrel to pick up. He will have rolled it to where I’d be sure to see it.

Two days later, my wife and I are approaching the house on foot after a weekend away when I notice some kind of commotion in the front garden: the plants are all stirring as if moved by high winds, even though there is no wind.

“Look at him,” my wife says.

The squirrel is dangling between the stalks of two seven-foot sunflowers, while helping himself to the seeds at the centre of a lower bloom. I decide that this is my wife’s battle – as far as I’m concerned, the gardening year ended as soon as I saw that tomato.

“Get out of it!” my wife shouts, swinging her bag. The squirrel leaps into the air and lands at her feet. My wife swings again. The squirrel runs between her ankles, out through the gate and under a parked car. I look up at the windows opposite and think: this behaviour is not front garden-appropriate.

The next day, my wife is complaining about the state of the area immediately surrounding the coffee machine when some movement in the back garden catches her eye.

“What does he think he’s doing?” she says.

I look up to see the squirrel digging a hole in the lawn, with something black between his teeth.

“He’s just burying a seed,” I say.

“I’ll kill him,” she says.

“He’s doing what squirrels do,” the oldest one says. “It’s cute.”

“He was in my sunflowers yesterday,” my wife says. “So that seed is probably mine.”

She kicks open the back door and grabs the massive water gun she keeps handy for squirrels and parakeets, but its reservoir is dry and mossy from underuse. The dog runs out into the garden from behind her, excited and confused, while the squirrel makes a leisurely jump for the trellis.

“You bastard!” my wife shouts. I think: this is what a back garden is for.

I don’t see the squirrel for another week until, frustrated by some work, I lean back in my office chair and glance out of my shed window into the garden. Once again, the squirrel is crisscrossing the grass, pausing here and there to dig small holes.

He could be looking to bury another seed, or to find one he’d buried earlier, but from where I’m sitting it looks like sheer provocation. Every time he finishes with a new hole he sits up and looks in my direction, as if to say: how do you like that one?

I don’t move. I think: you’ve already ruined the last thing I cared about, a tomato so perfect I was probably going to take a picture of it before I ate it.

“Do what you want,” I say. “Nothing matters any more.”

The squirrel’s circuitous route brings him ever closer, and still I don’t move. For a moment, my work frustrations rise up to preoccupy me, and when I glance up again I see the squirrel is sitting on my office step looking back at me, as if to say: “Are you coming out, or what?”

“You won,” I say. “Get over it.”

The squirrel inches closer still. He stands on his back legs and puts his little hands against the glass either side of his head, peering in.

“There’s nobody home, mate,” I say. “Nobody home.”