A little up the hill, closer to the main town entrance to the park, Pete is sitting on his bench below a large ash tree – his bench, because Pete was here first: the council put the bench there for him. He chose the spot because it’s below the squirrels’ nests (his word) which he points out for me – one in the tree above him and one in a plane tree across the path.
I have spoken to Pete a few times before – we’re often the first two people in the park in the morning when the gates open, me walking and him sitting on his bench. Today I tell him I’ve been talking to Danny and Alan and he cups a hand over his ear. ‘Who? — Oh, those lads.’ He lets his hand drop and his mouth turns down. ‘My apprentices, they are. I’ve been coming here a long time longer than they have: thirty years.’
Like Alan, Pete used to walk through the gardens on his way to work, which was how he became interested in the squirrels. ‘They’re very intelligent – they understand language. If one takes one nut and then goes off and I say, hey, there’s another nut here, he’ll turn around and come back to fetch it. He understands what I’m saying.’
Pete’s attention is absorbed by the squirrels, and unlike Alan and Danny, he isn’t surrounded by a crowd of people, he doesn’t have a photograph album or even a camera or a phone. He doesn’t offer peanuts to passers-by. It seems that Alan and Danny, perhaps, like the fact that the squirrels bring them into contact with other humans. But Pete is only interested in squirrel life. A man walks by with a white terrier on an extending leash, the terrier chases a squirrel off the path and across the grass, and Pete starts forward violently, shouting.
‘HEY. Keep it on a short leash in here.’
The man doesn’t really hear but he turns to smile and nod hello at the sweet old squirrel man. Pete shakes his head. ‘Disgusting.’ Then a squirrel dashes up and pinches a peanut from between his fingers and we’re quiet for a minute. I think about what Alan told me – that Pete had an accident recently and broke both wrists, so he can’t come here as often as he used to.
‘They like to hold my hand’, Pete says suddenly. ‘Their paws are little hands. Look at it. Not paws, hands.’
His cuff comes back a little way while he stretches out to feed the animal and I can see a bandage under the sleeve. His arms are thin.