Samuel and Theodore believed that Maxwell couldn’t speak but they were mistaken. Ten years ago Samuel and Theodore had been heated-debating. It may have been about whether ducks really were “lazy-mouldy-bread-eating quacks” or a revert to the controversial and emotional subject of the Disappearing Red Squirrel but it was definitely a crisp but sunny February morning, over breakfast. Maxwell felt his heart hit hard against his ribcage, more urgent this time and he had had enough. He was diagnosed with acute stress and Dr. Otter prescribed 72 hours of bed and voice rest. This was welcome enough news for Maxwell to kiss Old Otter hard on the mouth but of course he wasn’t quite friendly enough to share his line of work. Otter would have had The Pigs out pronto, those lowest of animals. Those that send out a stink which one very quickly learnt to associate with a nasty, punishing pain. They were down on the farm, looking to the untrained human eye as foolish and high on filth, when in reality they were military style training for the fight against the growing number of rascals about. The hard work took a toll on their rubbery pinkness and the swelling was from all of the exercise. The 72 hours passed in peace and pleasure in the form of television through windows and his partner, Tansy. She created a cocoon of nut roasts, bubble baths and other pampering scenarios which Maxwell would not detail to his friends, but a well-timed wink meant that he was a hero after the gymnastics they read into his three days in bed. Maxwell had intended to talk again but he suspected that Tansy preferred him schtum and anyway, he enjoyed his right to remain simply silent. Although lately he’d considered getting out of the business for good and doing a bit of yoga-meditation down in Brighton.
Again, night. Benjie lay where he was left, at the side of the road. The light from the lamppost reached him and warmed his side. One pair of shoes passed and made their way somewhere, quickly. Benjie lay alone. His smell had grown to rage then left to explore as the day cooled. He was a mangled clump of grey and congealed blood, a perfect nature morte, a talking-point in an art exhibition. A nearby bush shifted and rustled, then was still. A few minutes later the heads of three grey squirrels appeared above the foliage, swung left, right and forward in unison and their bodies promptly followed, taking quick, careful steps through the leaves. Hazelnuts were clasped to their bellies as a last respect and their eyes glittered in the light of the lamp. They stopped in front of the bird, placed the nuts on the ground and began to speak. “Our father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name”, one of them started sombrely, snout to the sky, at once holy and reverent. “ Not the place, nor the time, Samuel”, the squirrel next to him cut in, shaking his head. “And you’re not of the religious persuasion”. Affronted, Samuel turned to him and replied, “But what art thee saying? How could thee doubt it? And if I ain’t, well, Theodore, what life in the world don’t need prayer?” Then, an answer of the darkest blue, perhaps the satin-ripple fall of a figure’s cloak and for five long moments they could not see. Instead, their blindness gave their ears the power to evoke Westminster, to hear Big Ben chime midnight. The great bell swung, heavy, under a spell and between each deep gong the three squirrels fumbled for the gasp of their breaths, the only other sounds they could hear. Each gong pronounced them alive and Benjie dead. Then, just as suddenly, everything was as it was. Only, by degrees, the temperature began to rise. Not that the squirrels had noticed yet. “What the bleedinell ‘appened, there?” Theodore recalled seeing Samuel’s expression before. It was when they thought they were going to be caught, in the last robbery. The fear had started in his foot paws which were rooted to the ground on tip-toes. His knees had wobbled and his hips had followed, shaking up to a face that sweated with the concentration of staying alive. His shoulders and his arms had held a trembling trophy of bananas in the air above his head. He appeared as though doing some form of complex Latin dance. The monkeys of London Zoo had torn and “a-a-a-a-ah”ed overhead, enraged. Samuel and Theodore sold the bunch to some rich and greedy pigs for twice the going rate to make up for it all, over at the city farm in Vauxhall. But Samuel’s face relaxed into its habitual amused order. “I’d have asked Maxwell but e’d be no help” he said, regarding the third squirrel lovingly. “Dumb pet.”
Shortly after, Winston was on his shift. He started at Putney Bridge and as usual began to remove the chewing gum from the pavement. It was easier now that they had given him the stick and claw. It was kinder on his back and he could play games with it. He challenged himself with picking up a bottle top in one go or tweezing an apple core by its stalk. The bridge was wide and long and only ever very busy if the rowing was on. He crossed it, picking, then walked back, shaking his head yet secretly pleased at litter freshly dropped. He crossed the road and worked his way up the other side, picking. He would then negotiate Putney High Street and at this point it would become extra challenging. Today, though, had been unusually hot. The heat made crispy the teenagers, flirting, flustered, often leering, they would prowl and parade. It slowed and made sweaty the sports fans who he’d see again later, jeering and punching each other. As always, Winston became tangled in leads guiding guinea pigs for dogs but today they yipped at his ankles in irritation too. Like normal, prams blindly and sometimes not so blindly pushed into him but today he ducked, dived and had to weave around charging children too, loaded with ice-creams and whatever else they’d commanded. Winston had to fight the urge to use his stick and claw like a baseball bat. He passed the station to the hill and it was simpler, quicker and he would finish at the top of it. He was outside the Green Man pub and about to begin his last cigarette butt mission of the day when he saw Benjie. He stepped into the road, bent down and picked up the bird. The body was hot and heated Winston’s glove until the latex began to melt. He moved to the side and softly placed the bird in the curb’s cool shadow and protection. The people at the bus stop looked at Winston in a dismay that was quickly overcome by a familiar contempt.
They had been waiting all day for night’s desolation and now it was time. The feathers had fluttered since 2.42pm when Benjie had been hit by a car. The tyre had pasted him to the road and took part of him, rolling, to a driveway in South Norwood. His blood had oozed out a short while later and ants had fanned away from him, out of respect. People at the bus stop turned away, suddenly strangely saddened, despite the plague that the living Benjie had symbolised to them. His pecking, scratching and scavenging had earned their disgust and they talked about him even when he was close enough to hear them. In reality Benjie held a mirror up to them and somewhere deep they knew how close their lives were to his. In front of them the wind cut through the heat and brought distress to Benjie’s right wing, which spread in the air as though about to take flight. His family had been incapacitated with confusion. They surrounded him in disbelief and horror and a few jabbed at gravel, mistaking it for food. A car then rounded the corner and they flew, wailing. The heat bore down upon the bird, beginning to heat and cook it. The blood seeped into the tarmac and the air was thick and sickly sweet.
On a still, silent street it hunches under a dim lamppost. The light drops, rounds the figure’s back and falls to a puddle at its feet. Around, a few lost and wandering rays find their purpose in a deadlock with thickening wisps of mist. A lorry passes; first felt, then heard, then seen. In its dumb trance it turns right at the lights and will shortly become part of the conveyor belt to Dover. To take steps closer is for it to fade from monochrome filter to a palette of sepia and watery pigments. The sky, deep, dark blue with dreams and nightmares is moon and star-less. There is no room for them tonight. The weak, burnt orange of the lamp barely picks out the grass a few metres away. A fly draws patterns in the light while it sleeps. The silhouette bobs and shuffles from foot to foot in giddy excitement. Dribbling and demented from the pleasure of it all, soon it will have the compulsion to remove its cloak. But then with squinting uncertainty it could be carved of onyx. Some small steps closer. Chisel in grip it scrapes a vertical line off a sign, now in view, reading ‘PUTNEY HEATH’. The procedure has the precision and solemnity of a holy ritual. It stops, panting, and some time passes in gargoyle lifelessness before it cracks and crumbles to begin with the same measure on the horizontal. At last the chisel takes its final peel upwards, stripping stark black from naked white and leaving the question mark of an empty space behind. Suddenly the street is deserted. Only the fading clash of chisel on pavement remains. The lamppost stands over it, reluctant in its revealing and unable itself to hide. Its only offering flickers for the letters ‘PUTNEY HEAT’.