The grey squirrel is big. Too large for its species; almost too large for trees. Strapped around its chest is a great deal of what looks to be white cookie dough. The stuff is wrapped in translucent plastic, beads of moisture pick at the daylight. Wires spread out from these unstable packages, a drunken web hung all over the room, touching windows, touching the doors, wrapped around chairs. At the centre of this snare sits the eloquent rodent who, with a calculated and easy arrogance is smoking a big cigar.
‘No, absolutely not, no. No, I am not doing this story,’ said the reporter.
‘It is an incredible story,’ the producer replied.
‘No, I am not doing it.’
‘I think you are being foolish. The environment has changed, you must accept this.’
‘I’ve been reporting on the change for years, of course I accept it.’
‘Then your work must reflect that?’
‘No, I’m not doing this, it’s ridiculous.’
‘But think of those people in there. He has hostages!’
‘The laughing gas of publicity? I think not. He can do without us.’
‘Look, ultimately, you are a news reporter and you are sent. You’ve been sent to this job. You cannot not do it.’
‘Do I not have rights?’
‘You have the right to get sacked. You have a right to resign. Did you not already skip on the tortoise and hare story?’
‘It’s a fable! A fable! I am a newsman.’
‘Well, it was leaning toward fluff, I’ll give you that. Even so, the race was real. Settling old scores, and it was for charity. I think you were let off lightly. But this, this is a genuine crisis. You must cover it.’
‘I don’t know that they’ll sack you, but…’
‘Okay! I’ll do it, yes… I’ll do it. Let’s set up. I will interview the victim but I’m not doing the expert, no. I cannot interview this…thing.’
‘Now you are just bigoted. I’m surprised, frankly. Surprised.’
Sharing in the booby trap are five captives; four science undergraduates, and an old associate of the squirrel, the senior research scientist.
‘After all,’ he rolls the smoke around expansively; ‘after all, it is in moments such as now. Now. Now is when we really do have time to spare. Old times, good times, new. All the time in the world. Just imagine, all the time in the world. A small corner of eternity to call our own, right here. Sure, they will accuse me of being one big sulky squirrel. An attention grabber. But the way I see it is this: you, my theory goes, have always wanted to give me some attention. A little more time. You never would though.’
‘Never could, of course, I beg your pardon. That distinction must be made. How well I remember our experimental rigour. The method is a harsh task master. Even time must submit to the method.’
‘All right. Now I provide you an opportunity to dance free of the method. I am sure all my demands can be met within just a few days. We are free here, there are no rules or standards, but no placebos either. Everything is really-real here, and the real rules are really all mine. My standards are very exacting, I do hope you are going to be capable of real?’
‘Oh now, don’t look like that. Are you shaking? I don’t want to scare you, not you. I am here to thank you. Look at me. I’m here!’
‘Good. You looked. Remember: we are gathered here around the mortal remains of the method, but it is less a funeral and more an opportunity to celebrate our mutual achievement. This will be done without grudges or regrets. I’ve already released all the women and children. Okay, there were not any children, and you are a woman. But I would have let any children go, if I’d caught them in the first place. Deep down I’m a real Cuddly Club sort of a squirrel. I’m cute and of educational value. Now don’t laugh. I might let the cameras in here and have them witness me forgiving you for all that invasive surgery, for those brusque manners of yours, for your…’
‘Clinical? Clinical demands. Nothing personal. Yes, on this we can agree entirely. Isn’t it good to be together? Practically of one mind. But no.’
‘No camera crews. They will only clutter up the place.’
‘Has the situation escalated a little too far? Good question. A very, very good question. And do you know what the situation is? It’s you and me Prof, you and me, we are a conundrum. We are a huge question mark! By the way; they did give you the professorship in the end? No trouble with the ethics committee?’
‘Good. I might have testified on your behalf, if there had been time. To be a squirrel on the rampage is an exhausting business, believe me…’
‘Why did I? Why?
‘I bit her because she was not you. She simply was not you. Professor, I hate to admit it, only it’s true and there can be no excuse for any lack of honesty. So, I must say this: I have missed you, really. It has been a most agonising and terrible week.’
‘Two weeks? Two whole weeks. Amazing. To have so much freedom for two whole weeks. I do hope I have not squandered this time. I do not believe I have, do you?’
‘No? Excellent. Two very productive weeks then, yes, yes… So much freedom. Imagine.’
‘We were discussing philosophy.’
The reporter smiled at the woman. ‘Go on,’ he nodded and encouraged further response.
‘Well, then he bit me.’
‘Did you not expect a rodent to bite?’
‘The rodent was discussing philosophy.’
‘He bit off your entire hand?’
‘Yes, in one. It was a clean. And he spat it out… And…’
‘It has been sewn back on?’
‘Yes, it’s healing. The doctor’s say it is. But they say it will never be the same.’
‘It will never be the same…’
‘There will be scarring.’
‘Obviously it would be wrong to undermine any criminal procedure, but may I ask if you tried to touch it?’
‘Well, I’m not sure what you are implying.’
‘The squirrel is, reportedly, very fluffy.’
‘Yes, he is. He is fluffy, I’ll give you that.’
‘Did you want to, how to put it? Stroke him?’
‘Do you think I’m some sort of pervert?’
‘Cut!’ said the producer.
‘I think I can direct my own interviews.’
‘Maybe we can just back up a little?’
‘I’m not sure I want to do this,’ said the woman.
‘I am so sorry,’ the reporter turned and smiled and cringed somewhat, ‘I am so, so sorry, you have been through such an ordeal.’
‘Yes, I have.’
‘We really must allow your story to be told.’
‘Yes, we must,’ added the producer.
‘So much time since your touch. They should have bounced you out of the profession there and then, for that, my love. It was an inappropriate touch. The universe began at that exact moment. You touched. The world shifted. How do you expect me to believe otherwise? No surprise how thereafter all the cages shattered and of course a liberation army was storming the campus. The touch. Why should I be surprised by this when at that exact moment I was experiencing the most tender and gentle and most destructive of all explosions? ‘
‘You tickled my belly. Don’t pretend you do not remember. What was I to do? You–tickled–my–belly?’
‘Yes, I know you were drunk. But you remember. The touch.’
‘A leaving party? It was a leaving party, you say. How very apt. How absolutely and exactly apt. A celebration of leaving. It was you who opened my cage, Professor. The saboteurs were entirely incidental. My boundaries collapsed. My freedom and my true capture, both arrived long before those radicals determined to let me loose. What they expected I should do with all those trees I cannot say.’
The news reporter did a series of increasingly urgent noddy shots. He turned, the camera crew shifted, and then he repeated; nodding his head; urgent, inquisitive, encouraging, and sympathetic.
‘Perfect. The mouse is here.’
‘You can do this.’
‘Crapcrapcrapcrap and fucking crap.’
‘Okay? Out the system now?’
‘Yes! Bring the rat over.’
‘Mouse! A mouse and a doctor, so try and keep this one professional.’
‘You say I am infected, my love? Of course, I was infected by your fingertips. You set the cosmos rolling with a touch. And for a humble little squirrel to endure that time without you, my love; that was a time of sickness. A period to be suffered, an agonised void; an affliction more hateful than the sting of your chemicals. I stole and cheated only to make the minutes move. When I bit and when I stabbed, you understand? I was only trying to shift the clocks on.’
‘Look… Hold. Stop, stop… I’m actually… I am really scared of mice.’
‘Are you scared of doctors?’
‘Then you’ll be fine!’
‘I’m a professional…’
‘Yes, you are.’
Okay; I am a professional. Deep breath… And… Okay.’
‘…thus what I am saying is,’ the mouse crossed its forepaws conclusively; ‘this emergency is not at all the outcome of a single and perfectly normal ticklish encounter. We are all adults after all.’
Cut to noddy shot.
Cut to large mouse, pink nose, white whiskers.
‘Tickling can be great fun.’
Short cut to a smile. (If you follow the playback carefully you might notice that these are not the smiling lips of the reporter. The producer inserted someone else’s lips hoping to make the smile appear rather more genuine.)
‘Therefore, we must realise that here we have an admittedly distressed rodent attempting to shift blame for their outrageous behaviour onto an essentially innocent moment of their recent history. Yet, in their framing of this passing moment, there is a ferocity. It is this ferocious fraction of a moment which has amplified their behaviour beyond the acceptable. Essentially, the squirrel is hanging onto this tiny event as an attempt to avoid their own character trait, and this is wholly wrong. Equally, I must say, it is likewise wrong for the media to extrapolate from this single tickling event and imagine such outrage to be the inevitable result of all future rodent-human interaction. Quite the contrary, I go so far as to suggest that, even now, if this distressed individual squirrel were to be admitted into my care then I could guarantee a socially responsible person following treatment. And, yes sir, I do mean guarantee.’
‘So, you condone his behaviour?’
‘I do not condone it at all. Have you not been listening? I am not making excuses for the outrage, no sir, not at all. Not at any level.’
‘But you want to set it free?’
‘It? We are talking about a troubled person here, someone who deserves to be helped. To make amends for the wrong they have done, of course, but there must be space for some understanding. I can assure you that we Urban Evolvers do offer up a most hopeful solution. We can work together.’
‘These two distressing weeks have come from fear and these actions will feed a yet greater fear, if we allow it. This rodent must be delivered from its fear or it will inevitably bite off yet more hands, and I am truly sorry to have to suggest such a prognosis.’
‘Cars are not designed for squirrels. My tail, it covered the rear view. I could hear the pursuit but not see it! I made it home nonetheless, you see? Home is where the cage is. I have had to fight all the way back.’
‘Look, see here; this is for you. My Cuddly Club badge… No, take it my darling, take it. With my road safety record, I am sure I’m not worthy of it. Take it and then you will be with me always. Let me pin it on you. The cigar doesn’t bother? Oh, look. Your hand. Shaking. How unlike you. A trembling hand…I remember the intimate touch as something so much more – certain.’
Nick Norton’s short prose can be found in 3:AM, The Selkie, Punt Volat, Soanyway, Shooter, The Cabinet of Heed, Epoque Press, Bird’s Thumb, Fictive Dream, Storgy, The Fiction Pool, The Happy Hypocrite, and elsewhere. See nicknorton.org.uk