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The Squirrel and the Conkers

The squirrel grasps a conker in her hands.
Its supersize is disproportionate.
How great the prize, how small the gatherer!
She twists it round to get a better grip,
the way a learner driver turns the steering wheel.
Head up, right, left, alert to every threat,
the squirrel has a choice: to eat, or store?
She makes the choice, and now she needs her hands to run.
She gets a purchase on the conker with her teeth.

I’m straying close to cute photography.
Invent a caption, reader, for the postcard, as she
dashes up an ash tree to a hole
where once a branch was lopped. Two seconds in there,
out again, and down. Straight to a second conker:
same manoeuvres, different stratagem. This time
the hands are high-speed shovels scattering the earth.
She drops the conker in its grave, and covers it.

When hunger bites this winter, will she hesitate
or go unerringly to food stores, just as eels
find river mouths? Have unreflecting beasts
autistic memories?

She picks up conker number three
at random from the heap which last night’s storm threw down.
Now she rewards herself, from hands to mouth.
Her leavings, in this time of surfeit,
fleck her belly and her feet.

Why do I see benevolence and charm
in actions driven by necessity,
by certainty of death should these provisions fail?

Why should I feel this autumn sunshine blesses me?
The brain is smiling, so the face must smile.

Audio file

Listen to this poem — read by Zawe Ashton