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Humphrey and the Squirrel – Another FREE short story

Humphrey sat on the garden swing with the green pistol in one hand and the red pistol in the other. A large King Edward potato lay in his lap. He sat there patiently, quite motionless.

After an age, the squirrel came scampering up the steps from the lawn and onto his terrace. Pigeons waddled and flapped out of its way. It paused, sat on its haunches, front paws together, tail twitching. After a moment, it scurried up the leg of one of the garden benches onto the arm, where it sat surveying Humphrey’s trim lawn and the park beyond with its liquid black eyes.

Infinitely slowly, Humphrey raised the pistols to take aim.

They were not real guns, of course, but toy spud guns, bought from Amazon for £8.49. You pressed the nozzle of the pistol into a potato and this created a pellet which you could then fire at your target, thanks to a rather fierce spring in the barrel. There were plastic ones to be had more cheaply but Humphrey wanted the best available and these were die-cast metal. Even so, they did not have the satisfying weight or firing power of the model he remembered from his boyhood.

Still, he had checked the reviews and ‘Desperadoe [sic] of Droitwich’ had said that he would ‘defiantly recommend’ them, so Humphrey had pressed the one-click order button and they arrived promptly. He found they had a range of about twenty feet but for any impact to be felt, he would need to be around eight feet away from his target.

With its usual impudence, the rodent jumped onto the garden table and then, in one elasticated leap, onto Humphrey’s rotary washing line. Its obvious destination was Humphrey’s bird feeder, which hung at the end of one of the three metal arms through which the line was threaded, like a tough kind of web. There was no washing out today. Humphrey wanted a clear view.

As expected, the squirrel skittered along the line from the arm on which he’d landed, to the arm from which the bird feeder was hanging. Humphrey had filled it to the full that morning, to offer his prey the maximum temptation. The tree rat descended on the feeder and wrapped itself, body and frisking tail, around it, clinging upside down, gorging greedily on stolen grains. It was as if the gadget had acquired an obscenely quivering sleeve of fur.

Humphrey extended his arms to fire with both pistols when there was a violent screech from somewhere behind him.

‘Mr Icke, don’t you dare!’

Both his shots went wide of the mark. The squirrel dropped to the ground, scurried down the steps, bounded across the lawn and ran in a spiral up the trunk of the apple tree at the bottom of the garden and into the branches.

Humphrey turned around to face his neighbour, Mrs Bellingham, who was leaning over the fence between their two properties and trembling with rage.

‘Now look what you’ve done, you infuriating woman,’ Humphrey said. ‘You wouldn’t be able to mind your own business if it stripped itself naked, painted itself fluorescent mauve and danced a flamenco on top of a Bechstein!’

‘Don’t be silly, you preposterous man. You can’t go around killing squirrels,’ Mrs Bellingham said. ‘They’re protected.’

‘I think you’ll find they are not. Not the grey squirrel at least. They are acknowledged pests – they strip tree bark, they destroy saplings and they eat buds. Anyway, I wasn’t going to kill it. You can’t kill a squirrel with a potato.’

‘With a potato? With a potato?’ said Mrs Bellingham. ‘You’ve finally lost your marbles completely. I swear, one of these days I am going to have to have you sectioned.’

‘Well now,’ Humphrey said, ‘I think I detect a spot of hypocrisy there, Mrs B, because I think you, yourself, may well have more bats per belfry than Quasimodo, the bellringer of Notre Dame, to whom, I might add, you bear a more than passing resemblance.’

‘I haven’t time for your nonsense, Mr Icke,’ said Mrs Bellingham, turning to go. ‘Have you got a licence for those things?’ she said, turning back.

Humphrey raised the pistols at her.

‘For God’s sake, don’t point them at me!’ she cried. ‘Are they loaded?’

‘Of course not, I’ve just fired them. Anyway, why would I need a licence for a potato gun?’

‘What in heaven’s name is a potato gun?’

Humphrey thrust the pistols into his trouser pockets with the nonchalance of a prairie cowpoke. He bent to pick up the King Edward which had dropped onto the paving as he stood up.

‘They fire potato pellets. Harmless really. I just wanted to deter the squirrel from attacking the bird feeder.’

‘How old are you, Mr Icke?’

‘Sixty,’ said Humphrey sheepishly. ‘Actually it’s Doctor Icke, as you very well know. I have a doctorate.’

‘In infantility, no doubt,’ she spat. ‘Now don’t you even think of using those things on Aristotle. Good day, Mister Icke.’

Humphrey threw the potato into a flower bed, drew the guns from his pocket and fired several imaginary shots at her retreating back, first with the right hand and then with the left. He blew imaginary smoke from the barrels and tried to twirl the guns on his forefingers but dropped the green one.

Aristotle was Mrs Bellingham’s cat and the cause of a long feud between the retired academic and his spinster neighbour. Humphrey objected to the fact that the animal would slink through a gap in the fence between their properties and use his flowerbeds as a lavatory.

More than once he had been caught by Mrs Bellingham throwing projectiles at Aristotle. Nothing serious: olives, sugar cubes, and, on one occasion, a tomato – whatever might be on the garden table as he sat outside – but he was such a lousy shot that they rarely connected.

Until she mentioned it, it had not occurred to Humphrey to think of using the potato gun on the cat. But now, he resolved to do just that. On the whole, he would have preferred to train a hefty howitzer on it but the potato gun would have to do. He would have to be careful not to have Quasimodo see him do it. She had a habit of lurking. On minute she would be nowhere in sight and then she would suddenly appear at the fence. She had even been known to spy on him from an upstairs window.

Humphrey was aware of the absurdity of feuding with a cat and a squirrel and a harpy but a sufficient cause urged him on. Humphrey loved his garden, expertly tended by Mr Fitzpatrick, his silent gardener. He loved to sit on his terrace, above the lawn which sloped down to his fruit trees, and beyond to Victoria Park, where mighty ash trees screened the vulgarity of the city from view.

Most of all, he loved the birds which visited his urban paradise. Aristotle, the squirrel and, by association, Mrs Bellingham, were manifest enemies to all birdlife, Humphrey thought, and it followed that he must be constantly vigilant and ready to do battle on any front which threatened his feathered friends. He would redouble target practice with the potato guns.

Since his retirement, Humphrey sat outside whenever the weather permitted. He particularly enjoyed watching blackbirds on his lawn. They would take a short run and then stop abruptly with an upward tilt of the tail. And then another little sprint. He thought their alertness seemed charged. When they flew off into the bushes, with their curious dipping trajectory, Humphrey would be delighted by their hidden melodies. Speckled starlings staggered greedily about the grass, their legs too far apart for elegance. A cheeky robin would land on the table in front of him and cock his head, as if to say: ‘What are you up to today then, Humphrey?’ Pigeons were stupid and practically verminous, of course, but sometimes a pair of pretty ring doves would descend on the bread Humphrey threw out for his friends – and sometimes, there would be magpies and jays.

The first winter after Humphrey resigned from his post as lecturer at the city’s university, he decided that a handful of breadcrumbs was not enough. He found a bird feeder at his local supermarket and bought it, along with a two kilogram bag of ‘Pecking Order’ mixed birdseed. He hung it in the vine which clustered around the downstairs windows. For the first few days, nothing happened – then a robin arrived, and another, and a day or two later, tits began to use the feeder. Mostly the birds came for the seeds in the morning and at dusk but they would occasionally visit during the day too.

Humphrey was delighted. Though retired, he continued to contribute to learned historical journals but now he took to working at a table in the sitting room rather than in his upstairs study, so that he could watch the birds. Humphrey was a solitary man who could not help feeling at times that his life had dried up and that his existence was without purpose. The pastime of watching these little bodies and fluttering wings gave him a great deal of innocent pleasure.

In February, the squirrel came. At first, Humphrey didn’t mind. The pair of robins that had been feeding happily on a grey morning towards the end of the month flew away and a grey shape took their place. The squirrel had edged along the branch below the feeder and was holding its base with both front paws and feeding greedily.  Humphrey thought the paws were like little hands. He thought the little animal was quite cute.

‘Plenty for all,’ he thought, impressed by his own magnanimity. The squirrel did not stay long and the robins returned shortly after his departure. However, over the course of just a couple of weeks, Humphrey’s whole perspective on squirrels changed utterly. The interloper began to visit more frequently and to stay longer. The birds began to stay away. Humphrey saw the level of seed in the feeder decreasing more and more rapidly. He had been used to refilling it, perhaps a couple of times a week. Now it was every day, sometimes more. He began to see the squirrel as a marauding bandit, an unprincipled pilferer and as  larcenous vermin. It became the enemy.

All out war was declared when Humphrey returned from shopping, one morning in early March, to find the feeder on the lawn in front of his sitting room window. He was furious. The tree rat had chewed through the plastic loop through which Humphrey had threaded twine in order to attach it to the branch. The seed had spilled all over the grass and the squirrel had been able to feed at will without the slightest effort on his part.

A raging Humphrey went straight out and bought another feeder. He paid a little more for this one. It had a metal top and a metal ring from which it could be suspended. He attached it to the vine on a higher branch which reached further out. He mixed some chilli flakes with the seed, having read on a website somewhere that squirrels couldn’t abide chilli but that the birds wouldn’t care.

Nothing happened for three days. Then the birds returned. They didn’t mind the chilli flakes. The following day the squirrel reappeared. It didn’t mind the chilli either.

Humphrey bought a water pistol. It had a sharp, fierce jet and Humphrey felt that if he could only hit the creature often enough it might be conditioned into staying away. It proved a forlorn hope. Whenever he saw the squirrel at the feeder, he would lurk just inside the open garden doorway. Sometimes he would wait for up to five minutes before whipping round the door post and firing into the vine.

He was always too late and he would have to watch the squirrel frisking its tail, as if in contempt, as it dashed down the steps to the lawn and thence up a tree.

‘Don’t move those,’ Humphrey said to his housekeeper, Mrs Price, one promising afternoon in late March. There had been some warmth in the sunshine during the day and bluebells were out under the trees. He was referring to two large saucepans filled with water and placed on the hall table which he had moved closer to the open door.

‘Well, don’t go blaming me if you get water rings on that beautiful table, Dr Icke,’ she said.

‘I won’t,’ Humphrey said, waving her away from his view of the garden through the doorway. She went back to the kitchen muttering in her native Welsh.

Just then, Humphrey spotted the squirrel darting across the patio. He picked up one of the pans, waited a moment for the thing to climb the vine, and shot out side.

The squirrel climbed further up the still leafless branches. Humphrey thought he couldn’t miss. He flung the water at the beast but it was now too high up and Humphrey fell far short, succeeding only in soaking his own trousers. He let loose a stream of obscenities and hurled the saucepan at the squirrel which was already halfway down the lawn.

When he turned around, Mrs Price was standing in the doorway, shaking her head.

Iesu Mawr,’ she muttered and went back inside. After a decent interval, during which he could assume that she was back in the kitchen and he would not have to encounter her, Humphrey retrieved the saucepan and took it inside, leaving it on the hall table with the other – full – one. Then he went upstairs to change his trousers.

He read for a while in his study until he he heard the front door close. Mrs Price had finished her shift. Downstairs in the hallway, Humphrey noted that both saucepans had been removed and there was a smell of lavender furniture polish in the air. In the kitchen, Humphrey mixed a powerful martini and carried it through into the sitting room.

Standing at the window with his drink, he saw immediately that the bird feeder was empty and six fat and stupid pigeons were feeding on seed in the grass. Among them frisked the squirrel. Occasionally, it would chase one of the birds away with a loud squawk. The pigeon would evade it with a kind of sideways wobble but would soon be back.

This was preposterous. Humphrey had filled the feeder just after lunch. He went out to inspect it ande saw immediately what had happened. The odious little animal had chewed through the plastic surround of one of the two feeder ports and all the seed had spilled out onto the ground. As he unhooked the feeder he saw that Aristotle, Mrs Bellingham’s cat, was watching him from where it was sitting on the arm of the garden swing. It was as still as an ancient Egyptian icon, apart from the occasional blink. Was it gloating?

Humphrey took the feeder into the kitchen to examine it, collecting his martini on the way. As he sat at the kitchen table looking at the gadget, he had to conclude, ruefully, that it could not be repaired, or rather that there was no point in attempting to repair it. He could tape over the ruined port, he supposed, but he had no doubt that the squirrel would make short work of gnawing through the tape. Alternatively, it would perhaps chew through the other port as efficiently as it had the first.

Humphrey mixed himself another martini and sat there brooding. After a third, he knew what he must do. He would not give in. He would buy yet another feeder but he would not hang it in the vine.

The next day Humphrey bought an even more expensive model which had metal surrounds to its ports. He hung it from the end of one of the arms of his rotating washing line. Almost immediately, the birds loved it, even queuing on the washing line and on the back of the garden seats. Humphrey admired this exquisite courtesy.

Of course, the squirrel was there within a couple of hours, accessing the feeder with its astonishing acrobatics along the washing line. It was around this time, that Humphrey bought the potato pistol and had his tiresome altercation with Mrs Bellingham.

He couldn’t for shame be seen with the guns again and threw them out. He began half-heartedly to research pea-shooters until one night he dreamt he was stealing furtively through the Amazonian jungle, armed with poison darts and an immensely long blow pipe, stark naked apart from an equally long penis sheath. This dream embarrassed him so much that he began to wonder if he should not just tolerate the squirrel.

After all, the birds still visited the feeder. It was true that the squirrel seemed to be there just as often as the birds but maybe it would have to be a question of ‘live and let live’. All the same, it was becoming rather expensive to keep the feeder stocked and Humphrey felt the bile rising when he saw, from his dining room window, the squirrel swinging violently on it, perhaps in order to shake seed onto the ground, perhaps to try to dislodge it altogether.

One fine weekend in April, the BBC weather forecast promised a high of 23 degrees. Humphrey decided it was time at last to do a big wash and dry it outside. Normally, Mrs Price would deal with the laundry but it was her day off and Humphrey thought he would seize the moment. He stripped his bed and the bed in the guest room and bundled the linen into his washing machine. A couple of hours later, it was very  gratifying to see the sheets, brilliant white in the sunshine and fluttering gaily in the stiff spring breeze.

Since it was such a lovely day, Humphrey thought that he would have his lunch al fresco and went into the kitchen to prepare a salad of sardines, tomatoes, cold sliced potatoes and olives. He brought it all into the garden along with a glass of cider.

The devastation that awaited him quite took away his appetite. Frustrated perhaps by its failure to wreck this third bird feeder, the squirrel had chewed through the washing line and his sheets lay on the newly mown grass, lifting limply in the breeze. On closer inspection, Humphrey saw that they were also covered in bird shit.

‘You are an eternal child, Humphrey Icke. It is utterly puerile to let your life be controlled by an arboreal rodent. And even more childish to anthropomorphise it and ascribe malice and vengeance to it.’

The speaker was Garth Porter, a portentous, well-upholstered man, who taught history in the university department from which Humphrey had retired.

‘It is springtime, you noodle,’ he said. ‘Your feathery friends can feed themselves now. And so can the squirrel. It would leave you and your laundry alone if you stopped providing it with free meals.’

‘Ah, now I’m afraid you’re wrong there,’ said Norman Retford, a lecturer in the Faculty of English, ‘about the birds at any rate. At this time of the year, they are nesting and bringing up young. Migratory birds are returning. A regular supply of seed is a wonderful boost to their diet.’

‘Gather round, all ye that have ears to hear,’ intoned Garth, ‘St Francis of Assisi speaks. What are you? Some kind of twitcher?’

‘In a modest sort of way, yes,’ said Norman.

‘Well, it would have to be “in a modest sort of way” with you, I suppose,’ Garth said. ‘I can imagine you trudging around the countryside with binoculars and sandals, looking for the lesser spotted bog pipit or the great crested trouser warbler.’

‘There are no such birds,’ said Norman testily.

‘Did I say there were?’ Garth said. ‘I only said you were looking for them.’

Mes enfants! Mes enfants! Desist!’ said Hector Podowski. ‘Cease this bickering immediately. Stop it, I say!’

Hector was Head of Art at the grammar school around the corner, and as camp as Butlin’s, though he was married with two children.

The four men met in The Seven Stars twice weekly, over pies and pints, to bemoan what had become of the human race during the twenty-first century. They called themselves The Evangelists, not because they bore good tidings – far from it – but because there were four of them. Hector was their self-elected chairman. He rather deplored Garth’s bullying of Norman, usually a rather mousy character. Humphrey, he knew, could look after himself.

Humphrey now told the Evangelists, in a rather self-deprecating manner, about the water pistol, and the potato pistol, and the saucepans of water. He also mentioned the fouled sheets. He didn’t mention the blow pipe or the penis sheath.

‘I tell you, the furry bastard is taking over my life,’ he said.

‘What you really need is a twelve bore, you hopeless  jellyfish,’ said Garth.

‘But I’m such a hopeless shot,’ Humphrey whined.

‘OK,’ said Garth, ‘time to get serious. What you really really need is a 155mm AS-90 which has a range of up to twenty-five kilometres.’

Garth’s specialism at the university was the history of weaponry and he would harangue anyone, who cared to listen, on anything from trebuchets and flintlock  pistols to Big Bertha and weapons of mass destruction.

‘I was thinking more like eight feet?’ Humphrey said.

‘Of course, the Russians have better,’ Garth continued, ignoring Humphrey. ‘They can use something called a base bleed round to range out further. They’re horribly inaccurate but the Russians don’t care.’ Garth was warming to his theme. ‘We Brits also have missile systems which can fire something called the “grid square destroyer”. Now, that would certainly take out your squirrel. Mind you, it would also take out your house, Upper Bishop’s Lane, the cathedral, the university and – not to put too fine a point on it – most of the county.’

‘If I might interrupt, O, Wrecker of Worlds,’ Hector said. ‘With respect, I believe Humphrey’s objective is merely to deter the squirrel not to blast it into eternity.’

‘Correct,’ said Humphrey.

‘I think I might have the answer,’ said Norman.

‘I imagine you would propose that the squirrel be given a jolly good talking to and a slap on the paw,’ said Garth, ‘and the birds entered for an intensive course of potty training.’

‘Do shut up, Garth,’ said Hector. ‘Go on, Norman.’

‘Well, as I see it,’ Norman said. ‘Humphrey has two problems. One: he wants to continue to feed the birds without their crapping on his washing. Two: he wants to continue to feed the birds without interference from the squirrel. Am I right, Humphrey?’

‘University of the Bleedin’ Obvious,’ Garth muttered under his breath. Hector rapped his knuckles with a fork.

‘Now, if you were to pootle down to B&Q,’ said Norman, ‘you would find that you can buy a metal pole which you drive into the ground. It has a T bar at the top and there is a hook on each end from which you can hang feeders.’

‘Sounds good,’ said Hector.

‘It does,’ said Humphrey.

‘Now, you should also be able to find an “Acme Squirrel-Proof Bird Feeder Mark IV”. This miniature miracle of engineering works like this: if anything heavier than a robin or a blue tit lands on the perches or the top of the feeder, the outer casing closes down over the feeder ports so the intruder – a squirrel say – can’t get to the seeds. And it’s all metal. Infallible.’

‘How do you know all this?’ said Garth.

‘You said it yourself,’ said Norman. ‘I’m a bit of a twitcher.’

‘It sounds just the ticket,’ said Humphrey. ‘I’ll certainly give it a try.’

‘Not cheap though,’ Norman said. ‘The pole and the feeder will set you back about thirty quid.’

‘Worth it if it works,’ Humphrey said.

‘Why don’t you just get a budgie?’ said Garth.

‘Very well, we’ll consider that settled, shall we?’ said Hector as if he hadn’t heard. ‘And now, my masters, I declare this convocation of the Guild of Backbiters and Defamers (Seven Stars Chapter) well and truly open, Hector Podowski, Chief Bitch, presiding. Who is it in our brotherhood that will propose today’s topic for deliberation?’

‘Brexit,’ said Garth, a staunch supporter of ‘Leave’.

‘Christ, no!’ said Humphrey.

‘Absolutely not!’ said Norman.

‘Overruled!’ cried Hector, using the HP Sauce bottle as a gavel.

The very next morning, Humphrey drove to B&Q and made the purchases Norman had recommended. Mr Fitzpatrick drove the pole into the ground sufficiently far enough from the washing lines but still within view of Humphrey’s sitting room window. Humphrey filled the feeder and hung it on one of the hooks. If this works, I shall buy another one, for the sake of symmetry, if nothing else, Humphrey thought, and went inside to watch.

Almost immediately, his cheeky friend, the robin, flew out of a nearby rose bush and landed on one of the perches. Then came his mate. Then blue tits, great tits and the pretty coal tits. All pecked greedily at the four ports of the feeder. Then came finches: chaffinches, green finches, and a pair of gold finches with their red faces, all

thronging the feeder.

Humphrey remembered an English lesson from his schooldays long ago, when they had been asked to research collective nouns for various creatures. Humphrey had particularly liked a clowder of cats, a parliament of owls, an exaltation of larks and – yes – a charm of finches. How apposite!

Mind you, the finches were quite aggressive and the other little birds had to wait their turn. They were also extremely messy little guzzlers,

chucking the seed about as they fed. This had an added bonus. Ground feeders gathered around and under the pole to peck up the spillage: blackbirds and pigeons mostly, but also the occasional starling or song thrush.

Humphrey was in ecstasy.

And then the squirrel came. Humphrey was watching from his window when it made a prodigious leap from the top of the garden swing onto the top of the device. The birds flew off indignantly.

Humphrey wanted to clap his hands like a child as the squirrel’s weight clamped the device shut. The squirrel writhed and swarmed around it and over it and under it but it could not get at the ports. Norman had been right.

On another occasion, Humphrey was astonished to see the thing climb the pole, which was vertical and over seven feet tall. But once again, the moment the squirrel touched the perches, the feeder snapped shut. The defeated creature hung there by one tiny claw and then dropped to the ground.

Humphrey witnessed no further attempts.

Instead, he would look out of his window and see the little birds merrily feeding and, beneath them, blackbirds hopping and pigeons waddling. Among them, his tail frisking, would be the squirrel, nosing in the grass for the crumbs the birds allowed him.

I, Humphrey, have done this, he thought. I, Humphrey, champion of robins, feeder of finches, guardian of blackbirds, vanquisher of squirrels, have done this thing. Single-handedly, I have rebalanced nature.

Spring turned to summer and the garden flourished. One hot afternoon, Humphrey heard a cuckoo calling from beyond the park and the river – perhaps from the golf course on the opposite slope. He could have taken the bird feeder inside now – there was ample food for the birds in the garden and in the park – but it gave him so much pleasure to watch them close at hand, that he continued to fill it from time to time.

One hot morning, Humphrey had a lie-in. He had drunk one too many dry martinis the night before and was not yet ready to face the world. It was not unpleasant to watch the shadows of foliage playing on the curtains of his ground floor bedroom. Mrs Price was doing the laundry and the splish-splosh rhythm of the washing machine was a soothing accompaniment to his drowsing.

Suddenly, Humphrey heard a terrifying scream. He grabbed a dressing gown and shot out into the hallway. Mrs Price stood on the threshold of the garden with both hands to her mouth. She had dropped the basket of washing she had been holding.

Diw, Diw, Diw!’ she said, with more than a hint of melodrama. ‘Oh, Dr Icke, look!’

She pointed a quivering finger to where the squirrel lay at the bottom of the pole, dead. Its huge eyes were open, but unseeing, and there was blood around its neck.

Underneath the garden table, crouched low, his green eyes glowing in the shadow, was Aristotle, keeping a proprietary watch over his kill.

Humphrey picked up the washing from the step, his old knees protesting a bit. He put it back into the basket and handed it back to Mrs Price.

‘Go on now,’ he said gently. ‘Just give it all another rinse and spin. I’ll deal with this.’

But I’m not going to touch it, he thought, as she turned to go back to the utility room He shooed Aristotle away and the cat slunk along the terrace, looking back maliciously as if robbed of its prize, until it poured itself through the gap in the fence and into Mrs Bellingham’s garden.

Humphrey called out to Mr Fitzpatrick who was weeding at the bottom of the garden. He came trudging up the lawn.

‘What’s the matter with her ladyship?’ he said. There was no love lost between his gardener and his housekeeper. ‘I heard her scream. Hysterical, that one. Least thing.’

Humphrey pointed to the dead squirrel.

‘Cat got it?’ Mr Fitzpatrick asked.

Humphrey nodded.

‘Expect you’re pleased?’

‘Not really,’ Humphrey said.

‘I thought you hated it.’

‘I did…or I thought I did,’ Humphrey said. ‘It’s just such an ignominious way to go.’

‘I’d have shot it if you’d asked,’ Mr Fitzpatrick said.

‘No, I wouldn’t have wanted that either,’ Humphrey said. ‘Look, do you think you could just give it – you know – a decent burial?’

‘Full requiem mass?’

‘No, of course not. Just a quiet corner of the garden. You needn’t tell me where.’

‘Now you really don’t want me to be doing that,’ Mr Fitzpatrick said. ‘Fox would only dig it up again. Might attract rats. Best just put it in a black bag and throw it in the bin.’

‘Oh really?’ Humphrey said. ‘Well, yes, then. Whatever you think best. Only do it now before Mrs Price comes out again and has convulsions.’

‘Right you are,’ Mr Fitzpatrick said, and he picked up the corpse of the squirrel by the tail. Clouds of flies arose. The gardener carried it off unceremoniously to his shed.

‘Just going for a shower, Mrs Price,’ Humphrey shouted down the hallway. ‘All clear!’

‘Right you are, Dr Icke,’ she replied. ‘I’ll be out again now in a minute.’

Sometimes Humphrey struggled with her Welsh idioms.

Humphrey told the tale the following Tuesday in The Seven Stars.

‘Nature red in tooth and claw,’ said Norman.

‘Sorry?’ said Hector.

‘Tennyson,’ Norman said.

‘Ah,’ said Hector.

‘Storming Norman is right, for once,’ said Garth. ‘Nature does not admit of sentimentality. Every living thing is a criminal. Your birds don’t sing their melodious lays to charm your ear. It’s all about sex and rape and avian adultery. Your squirrel lives to steal. Your cat, your felonious feline, lives to kill. No point in Disneyfying it. Nature is unremittingly cruel.’

‘Indeed,’ said Humphrey dreamily. ‘It is what it is.’

‘You’ve changed your tune, Matey,’ said Garth.

Humphrey didn’t reply.

He hadn’t really been listening.

He was thinking about the Great Chain of Being.

He was thinking about how he was going to provoke a blistering row with Mrs Bellingham about her murderous cat.