The squirrel leant against the scratchy bark and curled his tail around his cold feet. The sharp wind repeatedly forced prolonged blinking, but he could still watch the show from his lonely vantage point.
The badger, woodpecker, fox, hedgehog and a few garden birds revolved around the feeding station. To the rose-tinted lenses of human eyes, it could appear these wild animals were chivalrous and amicable, like long-time friends gathering around the evening feast. But the squirrel knew the truth. He could picture the snarls and feel the passive-aggression crackling through the air. This bunch of freeloaders only rubbed shoulders every night because they had to maintain their on-screen charm. Performing as happy garden mates to the wildlife camera caused the humans to proffer food night after night, delighted at their expanding zoological parade.
A hearty, savoury scent floated over to the squirrel, triggering a pang of hungry sadness. Why couldn’t he join in? What had he done wrong? The humans were intent on making everything inaccessible to him. Shiny nuts were in an impenetrable cage; a jar of creamy peanut butter sat in a baffling contraption that only small birds could master; and glutinous fat balls goaded his grumbling belly from behind wire mesh. He could try for the fox, hedgehog or badger food, but he’d only receive abuse and further ostracisation. He understood when he was not welcome and besides, that fox was a sharp-toothed, self-important grump at the best of times.
All the other animals had been given endearing denominations. The fox was named Frederick, absurdly sophisticated for an overgrown thug; a skittish, self-conscious wren was called Audrey, a glamorous alias that she didn’t live up to; and Bertie Badger even had a special dish emblazoned with a stylised illustration alongside his name.
And the squirrel?
Sodding. Sodding Squirrel was what he had been saddled with. The distasteful branding baffled him, because as far as he could tell he had acted exactly like the others; as a wild animal, helping himself to food provided by these people.
As he watched the sparrows and robins jostling greedily over the peanut butter, the door of the house slid open. A human hopped over the gravel to a tree at the edge of the patio and fiddled for a while, attaching a small box to the trunk. Once finished, she glanced straight at the squirrel and he frowned, wanting to scream that no, she needn’t worry, he wasn’t going to steal whatever morsels she was laying out for animals she found cuter than him.
Once back inside, she kept looking at him. He realised that the birds had momentarily ceased their gluttony and were staring his way, too.
A sparrow sprang onto the box on the tree and trilled a few bars of its song, directing it towards the squirrel as if trying to communicate. The squirrel cocked an eyebrow and, deciding he had nothing better to do, bounced a little way across the lawn to investigate. The box had a window, permitting a visible display of the paradise within: glossy hazelnuts, smooth sunflower seeds and chunky walnuts.
Just as the squirrel’s jealousy reached record heights, the birds erupted in chirpy cheer, swirling around the box. Bizarrely, they did not eat any of the gourmet delights inside – instead, they settled back onto their tower of feeders and continued looking at the squirrel. He could swear their little determined faces showed softer expressions than usual, almost smiling at him.
Turning back to the box of heaven for a final admiring gaze, he noticed scrawl etched into the wood above the window.
Flooded by astonished gratitude to the point of feeling a little woozy, he sat on his hind legs for a few moments.
Then, he dived forwards to accept his long-awaited invitation to the party, never to look back again.