:: Article

Little Squirrel

By Gwil James Thomas.

At eight, Sara liked to climb trees. She’d get as far as she could and stare down at the ground grinning from cheek to cheek. Ripping leaves from the branches and watching them fall front to back all the way to the ground. She liked it up there – edging across those branches, beneath the vast green canopy, her brain and eyes taking in all the shapes and sights. The grown ups didn’t seem able to get up and it provided a good shelter from the sun. Sometimes she’d climb to the top with a stuffed toy or doll, as if to annoy the other children who struggled to get one foot up. Her friends had nicknamed her Little Squirrel. She was terrified only of spiders and sharks, but she hadn’t seen any there so that didn’t matter.

When walking back from school with her sister, the pair always stopped by the bottom of the tree. They’d saved and invested in a stopwatch too, but her sister didn’t want to confess that she hadn’t actually worked out how to use it. The tree itself was outside their flat; you could see the very tip of it from the balcony. Sometimes Sara imagined herself falling from the balcony and stopping herself in the tree, as if it would wrap its arms around her. Her father wasn’t around much and her mother wasn’t aware of her agility or ability. Or that she’d even attempted climbing it.

One day there was another climber. Sara and her sister had stopped, looking back and forth at each other several times.  His father, sat at the bottom of the tree on a folding chair, with a cigarette dangling from his mouth and a can of beer by the bottom of the seat.

“Well done Diego!” he shouted “Well done my son!” he continued. And sat back nodding his head, glancing around, as if to the thousands sitting round an imaginary arena.

The girls headed back.

That evening they sat in front of the television set, the fan thrumming away as it streamed out air at them, their legs crossed, a tray each on their laps as they ate Sara’s favourite meal, Cuban rice. With the sights and sounds from the cartoon flashing before their eyes, Sara had barely touched her rice. She was curious and certain that she could beat this new-comer to the tree. Outside the sun was setting across the city. It was too late to climb trees.

The sisters sat on their beds as Sara pulled out the encyclopedia that her parents had used to try and hide some porn videos. It had been on the top shelf and they hadn’t noticed that it had disappeared or expected anyone to be able to climb up there. Sara opened the book and read about something called a Babirusa.

The next day she returned to the tree, to find the father and son at the tree again. “It’s okay it’s not my tree,” she assured her sister. A whole week had gone by since she’d even stopped at the tree. As they passed it Sara’s sister suggested to climb it again. Just once. There wasn’t a lot of room, but as soon as Sara’s little hand touched the bark she could manoeuvre way around just fine.

“Little girl, there’s not enough room for both of you on this tree,” the man at the bottom of the tree said.

There was more than enough room, but the mean old bastard still insisted, until they eventually climbed down. Infuriated the man searched around and decided to try and strike a deal.

“Okay, little girl, how about this? You beat my son to the top and you can have the tree to yourself? If not you’ll have to find a new tree,” the man said, grinning, like it was some sort of rigged race.

Sara stood there. She wasn’t too sure what he was talking about. His son looked older, at least nine years old. It seemed unfair but she was determined to reclaim the tree. The man counted down and they raced up. Some other children who had been cycling past, had stopped to watch.

“That’s it Diego watch your step! Reach the top!” the man shouted, stamping his huge on the ground.

On the mid section, Diego miscalculated his movements and was stuck trying to reach a higher branch. It was no match for Sara; she remembered exactly where to place her feet. Sara reached the top and climbed down. Diego didn’t look up once. His father was cross, humiliated, his own alpha male offspring had been beaten by a girl.

“Little Squirrel!” Sara’s sister shouted.

“I won!” Sara shouted back.

“Keep it down, be a good sport,” Diego’s father said packing up his chair.

“I won,” Sara said.

“You cheated.”

“No I didn’t.”

“You cheated! You went before I said go. You’re a cheat!”

“…Well, you’re an ugly babirusa,” Sara replied, as the father and son walked off.

Diego’s father headed back, held out his hand and drew it back across her face. Sara fell to the ground. Diego’s father dragged Diego off, cursing him.

Sara sat there crying, slowly tasting blood at the side of her mouth. Feeling like she’d learnt something about people and about men in particular.

With her sister Sara then walked back home. Her sister reached up and pressed the buzzer, as they headed up the winding, broken-down staircase to their flat. When they got their the door was off the latch and their mother was on the telephone, complaining about something. Sara walked to the television set and searched for a cartoon.

Years on and miles away, she’d recall that incident.

Gwil James Thomas was born in Bristol, England in 1987. His writing has featured in Mungbeing Magazine, Fiction 365, Perhaps I’m Wrong About The World, Blue Tattoo and More Noize: The Worst Fanzine in The World. He is the author of a novel called Captains of Sinking Ships.


First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, September 27th, 2012.