“I can get you a squirrel next week,” my accountant, Julian, said. “I’ll shoot one for you, and put it in the freezer.” Julian owns a very lovely and rather large piece of Wiltshire countryside in the south of England and regards squirrels as pests instead of the cute furry creatures that eat nuts and hop about the trees which is what townies like me think. I wanted a squirrel so I could skin it, cook it and eat it – if I was brave enough – all in the name of novel research.
I grew up in the countryside. Until I was ten I spent most of my spare time outdoors, in the fields and the woods, and my family had chickens, ducks and pigs all of which would vanish and then reappear a while later, browned and tasty on our plates. But since then I’ve had thirty-seven years of comfortable town living, where my food comes already eviscerated, plucked, skinned and packaged. Much of the novel I was writing takes place in the woods and mountains, miles from civilisation, in a place where the characters have to survive on what they can gather or trap. I needed to get back to nature.
While I waited for Julian to provide the squirrel, my husband, Tim and I walked the woods of Hampshire, where we live. He strode ahead while I dallied listening to the sound the wind makes when it moves through the tops of the trees, sticking my nose against rotten logs, and kicking through the fallen leaves. I would have liked to stay in the woods overnight on my own, but when it came down to it, I was too scared.
I telephoned Julian. He hadn’t shot a squirrel yet.
It was early autumn and Tim and I went away for a long weekend to the Lake District. We stayed on a farm that was once owned by Beatrix Potter, and on a warm and sunny Sunday we set out to walk up Wetherlam, the 2500 ft mountain we could see from the farmyard. (I suspect that 2500 ft barely registers as a mountain in the States.) Tim planned our route following clearly marked footpaths on the map he had printed out, and we set off, walking up the steepest track first. As we reached the summit – scrambling up a near-vertical path – we were hit by a cloud of freezing rain. In almost zero visibility we crouched beside a rock while Tim tried to work out the route from the disintegrating map and the icy rain soaked through our jeans. I was shaking with cold. We could barely see our feet, so had no chance of finding the way forward. All I knew was that I couldn’t return using the route we had come – descending backwards down the mountain in thick cloud. We decided to press on, and just as suddenly as we had walked into the cloud we walked out of it, into a beautiful autumn day. Still unable to find the path, we took the direct course back, down the side of the mountain, jumping from one grassy tuft to the next.
When we got home I phoned Julian. He had shot the squirrel and it was waiting for me in his deepfreeze.
The next week Tim and I went on a wild mushroom foray in the New Forest in Hampshire, led by the unlikely-named Andy Overall. Andy took a group of about twenty of us tramping amongst beech, oak and pine looking for winter chanterelles, oyster and horn of plenty, as well as teaching us how to make sure we didn’t die a horrible death from eating poisonous mushrooms.
A week or so later I drove over to Julian’s house for lunch, and he told me the bad news: he had taken my squirrel out of his freezer, but when it defrosted he had found it was foul-smelling and obviously decomposing and he had thrown it away.
Many of the descriptions that made it into my novel came from real-life experiences – hearing the wind in the trees, running down the side of a mountain, collecting wild mushrooms – but I have to admit that gutting, skinning and eating squirrel came straight from Youtube.
Claire Fuller lives in Winchester, England. Our Endless Numbered Days is her first novel.