That our breakfast was enlivened by the spectacle of wild life feeding on the bird table makes our joint existence at the House appear impossibly bourgeois, almost geriatric. Magpies, thrushes, weasels and frogs queued up in a seemly manner for a calculated diet of raisins, bread, millet and Cheerios. Cashews and acid drops suspended from twine were particularly popular among the avian folk. However, one squirrel in particular began to behave in a suspiciously precocious, even forward manner.
He (perhaps she) took to leaning on the hopper as if it had been in a bar in the Bronx ordering a round of drinks. That morning the squirrel pulled itself up to its full height to give me the Thumb’s Up. Having untied the last cashew, the creature was off, not scampering but sauntering across the lawn, glancing back with an amused expression, the cashew tucked under its arm like a briefcase.
Weeks passed before I saw the animal again, its behaviour hardly justifying the term “wild life”. The squirrel was then talking to a wayward magpie wagging a finger in its shamed face. It turned, looked in my direction, and I believe, shrugged its shoulders. “Well, what can you do?” sprang to my mind.
“Hi there.” It spoke in a soft, even husky voice with a mid-Atlantic accent. “Kids today. What would you do with them?” It untethered an acid drop. “Got a weakness for these little chaps, me. Sweet tooth. But at least they’re all mine. Teeth that is. ” One of the little animals rushed up and with a lisping lilt reminded the supervisor to tell me about the Conditions.
“ Thanks, Hank.” It cleared its throat “Stop me if you’ve heard this one.’ The little ones scuttled away. “We all used to climb the wisteria to the Library window sill. Generally we all put on a show for the CCTV, ducking, diving, etcetera. Swinging on trapezes. Shimmying on ropes. You know the scene. Your property manager must have told you. Previous residents made surplus cash from selling the results to BBC at Bristol.” It paused to cough. “Us forest dwellers never lost an opportunity to learn, to improve ourselves. Newspapers. Brochures. Illustrated books and not just for children.” Leaning forward confidentially, it continued.
“Now it’s clear that residents in the House make full use of notes, jottings, ill considered communications left in a hurry. But one summer afternoon I was well fed and curious and reading over the gent’s shoulder I saw him listing in his day book the Twelve Conditions of Epistolary Roulette.” It nodded in approval as I produced my own notebook. It cleared its throat again.
“I have watched you at breakfast – your deferential attitudes to the ladies, polite but somehow….” It sucked its teeth, “… restrained. And I thought there’s a prime candidate for Epistolary Roulette.” It paused to correct my spelling.” I mean it’s up to you, Squire, but it could be a way out, a sort of liberation, a redemption, so to speak. Getting more fun out of life. ”
Making itself comfortable in the empty Hopper it dictated the Twelve Conditions of Epistolary Roulette. There was a Handbook in the Library but the Squirrel’s version, I was to find out, saved so much distillation of complex, even contradictory data. “Better get back.” I said. “It never looks good to be taking dictation from a squirrel.”
I made a fair copy of the Twelve Conditions which for your convenience I will now list.
1. curt observation;
For obvious reasons, I opened the notebook in the privacy of my own work station and began attaching appropriate statements to each condition. How easily each criterion came to be met, some with helpful accompanying diagrams. On completion I rushed to the window to see the squirrel on the lawn giving me another Thumbs Up, more vigorous this time, supported by a fine set of shining, sharp, white teeth. Numbers 1 through to 4 demanded little creativity, reflecting as they did the general conduct of our domesticity. Numbers 4 to 9 allowed me think long and hard.
It was the composition, the refining of the last three Conditions that represented my imagination taking flight, bursting with unusual colours, mustering incredible scenarios well within the law. An early draft was rejected as it seemed to offend against the local bye-laws. Although the Squirrel made it clear that any composition of the Twelve Conditions was none of its business, I did make it a matter of honour that I could, if confronted, justify every damn thought. Each condition was printed neatly in capital letters on a piece of folded paper, and tipped into a velvet bag, the sort that Magicians use in their schtick.
Two days after, I determined it was to be Feuillton Day, my first, perhaps last, exercise in Epistolary Roulette. We were alone in the House. I woke early. I packed a light lunch in case I had to make a quick exit. I practiced a casual stroll in front of the mirror.
As the clocks were about to strike for breakfast , I pulled, unopened, one of the Conditions from the bag. It was vital then to destroy all eleven conditions remaining, so if I were to lose confidence, I could not find out by a process of elimination, which of the twelve had been delivered. Let Roulette be the determinant of the Future. As the Squirrel put it.
“ Odd. No Squirrel this morning,….” you said.
As I sat facing the window, I opened my wallet, extracting the folded condition. “Thanks” you said tucking it into your top pocket. I cleared breakfast away.
The squirrel was in fact clinging to the underside of the Bird Table, I suspect making sure I had carried out my commission. The House fell quiet. Deliveries filled the box at the Lodge. Clouds passed over the Sun. The clock in the Scullery struck Noon.
“Come quick,” you said. ”The Squirrel’s back , doing a sort of soft shoe shuffle.”
You turned and adjusted my tie. “You Cheeky Monkey….” , and popped the Condition back into your top pocket.