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.”
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’.