Written by Rowan Whiteside

Voices

Atonement

Ever wanted to apologise for something but don’t know where to start? In a regular series where our writers atone for their past sins, Rowan Whiteside has a brush with death.

squirrel 2 croppedDear Baby Squirrel,

I’m sorry. I’m really, really, really sorry. It’s been almost six months since I saw your little face at the side of the road, and I still think about you often.

I imagine the life we could have had together; you sitting on my shoulder watching me type, with your fluffy tail brushing my neck. We would’ve shared walnuts, cashews – brazil nuts for a treat. Your bed would be at the top of the study bookshelf, a cosy nest of warm cloth, and you’d wake me up every morning with an enthusiastic chitter.

When I walked into town that fateful day and spotted you clinging onto a wall, my immediate thought was how cute you were. And then I wondered where your mummy was. Maybe she’d turfed you out of the nest while she tidied up, maybe she’d taken a trip to scavenge for food.

So I looked around, pausing to tell you just how adorable you were, but there was still no sign of your mum. In the meantime other people had stopped to admire you and I’d proudly agreed that you were lovely. But I was getting anxious – you were so close to the edge of the road and that junction was filled with two rows of growling cars.

“We had a bond already, you and I. I’d take you home, bring you up on my own, feed you with an eye-dropper. I’d take you into work, watch you bounce around the rafters and charm my colleagues.”

So I took out my phone and Googled what to do. You see, I was scared that if I picked you up your mum would reject you. I didn’t want to strip you of your family when I tried to rescue you.

Mid-scroll, you jumped down from the wall and scampered over to me, looking like you’d already decided that I was your new mother. I moved over, blocking you from the road with my clunky booted feet and sent out a tweet asking for help.

Then you put your tiny little paws on my boots and I melted inside. What could I do? I didn’t want to bend over to pick you up in case I scared you into the traffic; I had no scarf or bag to scoop you into.

I tried to tell you to run up my legs and into my arms, but then someone else walked past and you bolted to the right, sending fear up my spine. I dodged and followed you, waved my arms to try to encourage you into the garden and away from the road. And you did; you ran into the space like you’d known what I meant.

We had a bond already, you and I. I’d take you home, bring you up on my own, feed you with an eye-dropper (or whatever you wanted). I’d take you into work, watch you bounce around the rafters and charm my colleagues. I’d call you Squiggle – like I used to call all squirrels when I was little – and I’d become that girl with a squirrel. It would be my USP, my love for you.

I called my boyfriend, thinking he could drive down, bring a shoebox to put you in, and – as if you knew my attention was diverted – you ran onto the pavement and bounded along the edge of the path. He didn’t answer, and I looked up to see you perilously close to the petrol-monsters.

squirrel 3 croppedI felt the pit of my stomach drop down far, ran after you with the urgency of a mother who’d just seen her toddler veer towards a plug socket, little fingers poised to poke. And I kept you away from the road, at least for a bit, but it was as if you thought we were playing a game, and you kept dodging around me.

And then you dashed into the road, stopped in the middle with all the desperate realisation of a horrific mistake. And I started whimpering, gesturing for the traffic to stop, frozen on the side of the road. You ran backwards and forwards and an old man walked by and told me that it was too late, that the damage was done, that I should just walk on.

Then the lights turned green, and even though I told them not to move, the cars started moving, and. And. And.

I made a noise that I’d never made before, bent over double like I’d snapped inside. Felt my face crumple and my eyes fill with tears. The old man pulled my arm, made me walk away, told me it was just nature, that there was nothing I could do.

Except I could’ve just picked you up and wrapped you in my jacket. I could’ve saved you and I didn’t; I just stayed to watch you die.

I wrenched the man off me, walked hastily away, remembered that I was supposed to meet somebody, cried and cried and cried. Called my mum, told her what happened, sobbed some more, all choked and echoed; Mum, the squirrel died, and I let it, how could I do that, what am I going to do?

I watched the people walking by slide their eyes across me, wonder why the strange girl was dripping with tears, felt the dark shadow of your body resting on my shoulder.

Later that day, I sat in the grounds of the cathedral, after lighting a candle for you and all the others who lost their lives too soon, and two vicars came up to me.

“Can we pray for you?” they asked.

Somewhat aghast to be confronted by religion (and in the grounds of the cathedral, no less!), I said nothing. And then the wind brushed the leaves of a willow, and I thought of you, no longer going to discover all the trees you could climb.

“Can you pray for the squirrel? And can you absolve me?” I asked, and told them the story of you. And they held my hands, and prayed, and I cried some more. I’ve tried to atone but I’ve not forgotten. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

@DilysTolfree

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Written by Rowan Whiteside

Rowan Whiteside is a writer, reader, and consummate gin-drinker. She is never without a book and sheds to-do-lists wherever she goes. Like everyone else, she is currently working on her first novel.