A Field Guide to Whacking Squirrels and Marrying Trees
Cycling to Devon was my plan B. I’d considered running there first, a bit earnest, I know. I’d gone so far as to research running-rucksacks online (and therefore: too far) before deciding that it was not a smart way to move 150 miles. Running with a rucksack is not kind to shoulders or vertebrae, plus trust me when I say this: the chafing is outrageous (And I’ve cycled around the world, which is to say: I know a lot about chafing).
The August bank holiday weekend was looming, summer’s finale and the most fun-filled weekend of the year; a time to expend any latent joy so that it doesn’t spill over into the long and cheerless British winter, a massive faux pas. I was planning to meet friends at a campsite perched on a Devon hillside, where a mix of healthy pursuits, like wild swimming and hiking, would pass in tandem, and perfect equilibrium, with unhealthy ones, like sleepless nights and binge drinking. Given that this was a holiday though, and not a military training camp, it occurred to me that the after-effects of an extremely long run – muscle cramps, heat stroke etc. – would be a little antisocial, and so in the end, two wheels had won out.
I do love running and yet it was hard to think precisely why running 150 miles with a pack had ever proposed itself as a reasonable thing to do. Clearly, this was taking an enthusiasm much too far, like bathing in craft beer, or making love to a cheesecake. On reflection, I suspect that the spectre of my fortieth birthday – a few weeks away – played a part. I’d prefer to be acquiescing to middle age with a healthy, level-headed attitude, but there are several ultra-marathons in my diary, and an expensive mountain bike on my shopping list, so I think it’s fair to say that I’m not taking the news lightly.
Aging is shit: come on, it is. The apparent small pleasures of reaching my middle years – letting my ear hair grow, for instance, stretching out my stories, listening to more complicated jazz… none are worth the ever-clearer premotions of death. I’m hopeful that I won’t always think like this. While cycling around the world, I obsessed over how far I’d come, until at some point there was a welcome shift in perspective and the miles seemed of no real value or consequence. Age is just a number too, albeit a number that represents terrifying physical decay.
Biking to Devon then was a last-minute plan and last-minute plans suffer preparedness problems. Firstly, I was lacking in the stuff I needed to make such a journey, most noticeably a bicycle, since mine turned out not to be fit for a run to the shops. After pleading a little on Facebook, my mum’s partner, George, kindly offered up his – a handsome and capable machine, maladjusted for my particular frame, to which I attached two panniers unmatched in size, brand and colour. After attaching everything else onto the rack with bungee cords, the rear of the bike was far heavier than the front, provoking wheelies on the slightest of climbs.
After wheelie-ing out of Oxford, villages passed in serious rain and a headwind of such endless violence that I wanted to curl up in the centre of the road at times and sacrifice myself to a truck. I wondered darkly about what effect the next 145 miles might have, since I felt harassed after five, weather-worn and raw-bummed. Happily though, I’d existed in such a state for six years, and so a sort of nostalgia overcame any sense of defeat.
Like my journey around the world, I recall this ride to Devon now in scenes, a series of flashbacks, with little connecting them together. I have erased the filling: the brain-numbing B roads, the monotony of fields, like how the memory of childhood is filled with snow and sunshine and adventure, and those drizzly, listless days are mostly out of reach.
In a village churchyard, a man is gazing fondly up at a tree, and as I pass him, but without looking at me, he says That’s a lovely tree, isn’t it?
I suppose so, I say, noticing how its trunk split into two below head height, creating a Y shape that would be apt for a child to climb, and how the bark has peeled away into flakes, like the spread leaves of an old book.
It’s such a lovely, lovely tree. I think I’d like to marry this tree, he says.
His eyes climb the boughs and zip along the branches to the ends, his smile undimmed.
I wonder… can you marry a tree? he says at last, and before I can address the legal and reputational repercussions of trying to, he adds Probably some sort of special license or summit. I pedal on, leaving him stalled and in awe, not doubting that out here, a special license to marry flora is not impossible.
A Weatherspoons is as good a place as any for earwigging, in fact, probably better. Outside, a mobility scooter is parked up with a large St George’s cross flag flying from the seat. Inside, a man with a lean, bristled and half-drunk face is lent over the bar. It’s 11:30 am. He addresses the barmaid.
I couldn’t go to ‘is funeral. He’s in a jar now, I mean his ashes, or they used to be anyway. We used to sit together sometimes, me and him, him in the jar. Sharon, she knows his son, says there’s white roses over there, why don’t you go and give him to them? So I did, and that’s where he is now, with the roses.
The rain comes heavy, unrelenting. In a bus shelter, a man sits by a fully loaded bicycle, flask of tea in hand. Come in, come in, he beckons. Conversation passes in the usual way of travelling bikers united: we talk of our respective routes, kit packed, all those places we’ll ride one day (a wishlist that never seems to end). He pauses at times, screws up his face and struggles for words.
What’s your… erm. Your… Sorry, I know you’ve told me. It’s so embarrassing. I’ve got this brain thing you see… brain injury. Brain haemorrhage. Fell right off my bike, into the canal. Couple of guys fished me out but I’d been underwater for some time. I was in coma after that. Had to learn to walk again. My memory’s useless now, you’ll have to excuse me. What was your name again?
What is it about bike rides that they seem peppered with such moments – some peculiar, some comical, some moving – more than normal life likes to provide? Cycling invests the world with a depth and range and loveliness, but how? A trick of perspective, perhaps: on a bike, it’s not the world that’s been changed, but me. I squander hours like we all do, hopping between tasks, too easily distracted, but on a bike I’m freed at last from my buzzing phone and the minutiae of workaday life. My antennae spring up. I’m tuned in now, alert to the strangeness of the world. It’s meditative: the circular motion of legs and wheels, allowing my thoughts to wander too. There’s so much pleasure in the small stuff, a tailwind, a Snickers, the calm, above all, the calm.
Inside a cheap hotel room, there is an explosion of kit spread out over the floor, like someone’s life depended on something at the bottom of a pannier, a syringe of adrenaline, perhaps. It’s my second night on the road, and I explore Taunton that evening, too tired for conversation and glad that I’m alone and don’t have that duty. It’s an odd sort of town, friendly enough and yet mostly indistinct, only the BBQ joint, Bare Grills, grabs my attention (Boomers: this pun might be lost on you) and the sprinkling of Somerset girls, all lovely, I decide, with their wellies and dimples and (I assume, it’s too dark to see) bracken in their hair. (Wiltshire girls are rumoured to be pretty much the same, but they have hairy toes).
The next day I arrive at last into Devon, a county that strikes me as a place devoid of news, which is why the headline board outside the newsagents seems so jarring.
‘BODY FOUND IN TOWN PARK’
It’s just so hard to imagine anything so torrid here, in this rural idyll, but there’s no more information, no byline. Mayday is some way off, so a ritualistic human sacrifice by Devon’s pagan community seems doubtful. Perhaps, had I picked up the paper, I’d discover a less lurid conclusion.
‘Police announce that body found in town park was just Dave Lambert the butcher taking his afternoon snooze. The bloody stains on his clothes turned out to be from lamb skank.’
It’s easy to forget just how much older the citizens of rural England are compared to those of the cities. I pass an ‘Old People’ sign, a stooped black figure in a red triangle. Danger, it seems too say… Rambling stories about the war. Extreme dithering. Reflexive racism.
I’m being unfair, of course, but as the road dips down to small streams and cottages that could be front covers for Country Living – centuries old, their grounds meticulously cared for – I bristle, triggered by the reminder of Britain’s inequities, and of a pace of change that seems set stubbornly to slow here, a place not simply of different opinions to my city world, but of vastly different conversations. It’s my bad, and hardly their fault, but still, I’m unreasonably irritated by the notion of people secluded away, cosy in their little kingdoms. I imagine them handwringing about the cities, disorientated, as life in Britain evolves too fast for their tastes.
Precipitous hills herald the campsite, and there’s a feeling of being about as remote as you can be in southern England. This is not true of course, I can’t be far from a WH Smith or a Subway, but it’s an impression I count as another boon of arriving by bicycle. Rather than hopping off the M5, I’d spent the meat of two days on winding country lanes which was like navigating a labyrinth at times, the hedges twice my height, concealing even the fields for hours.
The following day, I go for a run in the kind of hills London can’t offer: a penance, paid up front, for all the hedonism in store. Up ahead, in the lane, there’s a man and woman on horses. As I get closer, they pause.
Sorry mate, says the guy. Bit weird but there’s squirrel up there, dunno what’s wrong with it. Stunned or summit. Just sitting there in the road. He must be sick, but we can’t do much about it
He points to his horse, as if to say: ‘See? I’m stuck up here’
But maybe you could try summit? He says
Yeah, says his partner. Like a rock or summit
A rock. They want me to euthanise a sick squirrel, with a rock. A horrific scenario flashes to mind, me pounding a squirrel with a bloody rock, a squirrel that refuses to die but just looks up at me, as if to say ‘what are you doing?’ and ‘how could you?’ as I bring the rock down again and again onto its cute and confused and smashed and deeply sad squirrel-face. This could be something that will surface years later in therapy. People might say ‘Stephen? Oh he’s alright I suppose. He was never the same after that squirrel business though’ and people would nod in understanding.
Ok, I say, and then, sensing that I sound unsure, add: I’ll sort it, while suspecting that I will do nothing of the sort.
It occurs to me that this could be some sort of test, or cruel joke, carried out by country folk on city folk like me. Perhaps the squirrel isn’t sick after all, but merely hypnotised or drugged (by the pagans, naturally). Perhaps there’s a whole bunch of rural folk hiding in the hedge, watching to see what I’ll do. Perhaps this is what passes for entertainment in deepest Devon.
I look for a rock for a number of nanoseconds and then decide that there definitely aren’t suitable weapons to hand and that it would be the definition of torture to euthanise a woodland creature without something hefty or sharp to hand, and especially one rendered so cute by Disney. The squirrel is making small rasping breathes now, and a little blood is bubbling from its mouth.
What the fuck am I supposed to do about you? I ask the dying squirrel, out loud, which is probably not the kindest thing to say, and I should point out not something I would ever say to a human patient.
In the end, I sigh and say sorry mate (again, bears no relation to national palliative care protocol) leaving it alone, but in the middle of the road, where inevitably a tractor will put an end to its life with more certainty, and less cruelty, than I could.
My fears may still be realised though, perhaps I’ll be haunted by squirrels now. Anyone know a good therapist?