December, Greenwich Park, South East London
A young boy stood staring out the window of a Victorian house into Greenwich Park. His face was sad and his eyes were dull. Beside him stood a Christmas tree sparkling with colourful lights. Presents lay in abundance beneath the tree while Silent Night played on the radio and candles flickered on the mantelpiece. The boy stared up into a sky of scattered stars and a full moon that shone as brightly as the sun. Moonlight cut through skeletal branches, casting shadows over powdery snow. The boy noticed something darting across the garden wall. It stopped and stared at him for a second, making him smile, then it jumped into the park. Digging into the whiteness, it swiftly moved on to dig again, but found nothing.
The boy, Leo, watched the squirrel focused on its hunt for food. It searched here and there, thrusting its nose down deep. This time, when its snow-covered whiskers popped up, it held a prize nut in its mouth. Leo felt pleased that the squirrel had finally found its supper. The squirrel’s nose twitched, it stared at him, then bounced away leaving tiny tracks, before darting up a nearby tree and vanishing out of sight.
“Leo,” called a voice, “it’s time to get ready for bed.”
Leo frowned, trying to spot the squirrel again.
“Leo?” repeated his mother’s voice.
“Okay, Mum,” Leo replied, turning from the window.
“Can you switch off the tree lights and blow the candles out, please?” his mother called from the top of the stairs.
“Yes, Mum,” Leo groaned. He turned from the window, admiring the beautiful Christmas tree and all of its flashing lights, and then knelt amongst the presents and switched off the lights. Standing again, he saw the photograph of his brother, Noah, on the mantelpiece. Noah had died last year from an accident on his skateboard. He was only fifteen years old and this was Leo’s first Christmas without him.
Leo sighed with grief, but his older brother smiled happily back at him from within the frame.
“I miss you, buddy,” Leo said, before blowing out the candles and heading upstairs to bed.
The living room, empty and silent, was bathed in moonlight. Outside the air was still, without a hint of wind. The park was full of dark shadows and gnarly trees. The green meridian laser line shot across the sky. A fox prowled in the bushes while an owl hooted from a branch.
The squirrel that Leo had been watching twitched his nose, the nut still held firmly in his jaw.
“Hey, Alfred,” whispered Red the fox, “you can’t hide up there forever.”
There was a hoot from above. “Alfred, why don’t you hang out with us for a while?” The owl blinked, slowly swivelling its head. “It’s going to be a beautiful night.”
Alfred the squirrel looked down at the fox then up to the owl before springing for his life into a dark hole in the middle of a giant oak.
“Darling, I’m home,” he said in a muffled voice, unable to speak because of the nut.
“Is that you, Alfred?” said Mrs Squirrel in a faint voice. “Oh Alfred, come quickly!”
Alfred sensed trouble, something was wrong. He dropped the nut, scurrying deeper into their home, while it rolled along behind him.
“Peggy?” he shouted, hurrying down a dark passage. “Are you all right? What’s the matter, darling?”
“Alfred, come quickly,” she squawked.
Oh my, oh my, my, my, it’s time, thought Alfred. It must be time. He raced through the kitchen, then the living room, before bursting through a wooden door that led into the bedroom.
The room was cosy, lit with candles. A wooden bed sat in the middle, plumped with pillows and warm blankets where Mrs Squirrel lay.
“Peggy,” asked Alfred, pulling on his ears, “what is it? Is it time?”
“It’s time,” said Peggy, in a soft voice. “It’s time.”
“Oh my, oh my, oh my, oh my!” Alfred panicked, springing around the walls like a crazed cat.
Peggy watched him become a blur as he raced around the bedroom. “Calm down dear, please.”
Alfred came to an abrupt stop in the middle of the ceiling, then let go of his grip, and crashed to the floor. Oof! He winced in pain before popping his head up at the foot of the bed, his wide eyes staring at Peggy’s weary face, then down to her enormous tummy that heaved under the blankets. “What do I do? What do I do?” cried Alfred, petrified.
“Shh, darling.” Peggy held a claw to her lip. “There’s nothing you can do dear, so just calm down and let nature take its course, okay?”
“Okay, okay.” Alfred stared at the stomach, then back at his wife’s face over and over again, becoming more and more excited.
Peggy gazed into her husband’s eyes. “I wonder how many? Will they be girls? Or boys?”
“I don’t care how many,” Alfred puffed his chest out. “just as long as they’re healthy little baby squirrels, with tiny little fluffy tails, and, and, big nut-cracking teeth! Then it’s fine by me. Oh, oh, speaking of nuts, I had a nut, a great big juicy one for ya, Pooky, and ... where’d it go? Where did it go?” Alfred frantically searched himself.
“Oh, Alfred, relax honey. You’re so funny and sweet. But I’m not hungry, not right now. I love you, you big grey fluffy wuffy fur ball, you!”
“I love you too, Pooky Wooky,” swooned Alfred while they rubbed noses.
Suddenly Peggy groaned. “Oh, oh, it’s happening Alfred. It’s happening right now!”
“Oh, oh!” Alfred panicked again while he held onto Peggy’s paw. “Be strong, Pooky, I’m here, I’ve got ya!”
Alfred watched in awe as the first tiny baby squirrel was born. “Here’s the first one, Pooky. That’s it, keep going. You’re doing great!”
Another and then another baby were born. Alfred stared in amazement at the astonishing sight. As each baby squirrel was born, a magical glow of light shone from its tummy up to its head. Alfred gasped, and his black eyes sparkled, reflecting the magical light.
Peggy asked, “Alfred, what’s the matter? Are they healthy? Are they okay? How many? Are they boys? Are they girls?”
Alfred stared at his newborns, mesmerised by the strange ghostly aura that shimmered around them. Then he jumped back, frightened by something he couldn’t believe.
“Alfred, what’s happening?” demanded Peggy.
Alfred was lost for words, but he didn’t want to scare Peggy. “They’re … all fine,” he said finally. “But … but … I can’t tell who’s who, Pooky. They’re all just pink and wrinkly with their eyes squinted tight like this.” Alfred popped his head up, demonstrating to Peggy what the baby squirrels looked like by pulling a funny face.
Peggy chuckled. “Silly, you had me worried there for a moment. Now, how many?”
“Er, I don’t know, hang on.” Alfred counted them carefully one by one, pointing a claw at each of them … “One, and two … and … four … and … there’re six, Pooky. Six! You hit the jackpot! Six little tiny wrinkly, squinty, pinkly pooky wookies.”
“Six?” Peggy clasped her paws to her cheeks in shock. “Oh my, oh my, oh my! How are we ever going to raise six kids?”
“Well, it’s going to be busy around here, Pooky, that’s for sure. A nut fest. That’s what it will be. Nut-a-mania. A nut house! A … a … a … hmm.” Alfred couldn’t think of another nut word.
“We barely had enough for ourselves last winter, Alfie. And you’ve been out late still searching for food. How are we ever going to feed six hungry kids?”
“I don’t know, Pooky, but we’ll find a way, we always do.” Alfred cuddled up the babies into a blanket then carefully laid them into Peggy’s arms. They squirmed and wriggled, then one opened its mouth and gave a big yawn.
Alfred and Peggy breathed in deeply then let out a big proud sigh. “Aww.”
“He’s the biggest,” said Alfred. “And he’s a boy.”
“I think you should name this one, Alfie.”
“Really?” Alfred’s eyes were alive with excitement.
“Yes, really.” Peggy smiled, placing the baby squirrel in Alfred’s arms.
Alfred looked down at his son while a proud tear grew in his eye. “I’m going to name you Grey,” he said. “You will be Grey squirrel.”
“Oh, that’s just lovely, darling. It will suit him perfectly when he’s all grown up big and strong.” Peggy gazed at all her beautiful babies.
“Now Peggy, you have to name one too.”
She said, “They’re all boys except for one.” She pushed her paws into the blanket, gently picking up the smallest of the litter. The baby mewed like a kitten. “Aww, she’s such a little tiny titch. That’s it. I will call her Titch.”
“Titch it is.” Alfred punched his paw into the air.
“Oh, I love you, Alfie,” crooned Peggy, yawning. They both sighed with contentment.
“It’s getting late, we’ll name the rest in the morning.” Alfred blew out the candles then nestled down to sleep in the cosy blankets with his new family.
“Goodnight, Alfred.” Peggy closed her eyes.
Alfred lay there for a while, staring up at the ceiling, thinking about the strange sight he’d seen. What could it mean?