Where was Quiqui? He couldn’t leave without him.
The old man listened harder. There had been a crashing sound not far. Coming from the big house, the nice house all lit up. He started towards it, painfully dragging his left leg; the cold made it hurt even more than usual.
“Dirty squirrel! Go away! You’re the one destroying my flowers all summer long!”
A squirrel darted on the sidewalk, barely avoiding the broom maneuvered by a big woman. A car screeched around the corner – dissonant in the silence of the night – and sped carelessly down the street. In its wake, the squirrel was a small trembling bundle on the ice-covered curb.
“Quiqui, come!” the old man said, gently despite his hammering heart, and opening his large coat. “You forget there are no acorns left. You’ve become as old as me, my friend...”
The squirrel jumped high and scurried inside the old man’s coat.
“You too, tramp!” yelled the woman even louder. “Go away or I'll call the police!”
For a short moment, the old man contemplated the idea of spending the night at the police station, warm for once, maybe even with a small piece of something to eat. But he could not...
He turned his back to the woman and began walking away as quickly as his bad leg would allow him, tightening his coat around him against the bitter cold.
The house was so big that it took the old man a while to go past it. He didn’t look up; it was enough to see the colored lights reflecting on the frozen sidewalk and he could imagine the beautiful, warm, shining things inside. Another world.
Only once, he glimpsed up and then he saw her. From the last window, a young girl dressed in white and silver was watching him with wide eyes. An angel. He tightened the collar of the coat around his neck and walked faster. If he walked all night, in the morning he could be in the country and there...
Small hurried feet tapped behind him on the frozen sidewalk.
The old man stopped and turned around. The girl from the window was standing there, wearing only her beautiful silver dress.
“You should go back inside,” he said kindly. “You'll catch a cold.”
“Sir, is it true what I've seen? Do you have a squirrel in your coat?”
Her voice was like chimes, full of excitement and anticipation.
“I have several,” he said, tilting his head towards her with a mysterious air.
“Please, sir, can I see them?”
The old man opened one side of his coat. In the lining, he had sewn six large pockets and out of each pocket, a squirrel was showing its little head.
The little girl’s eyes widened. One was surely the black one that Mrs. Fanu had just chased away. Three others were grey. There was also an albino. And a red one was wearing a red and white scarf around his neck.
“That's Fifi,” said the old man, following the girl’s gaze. “She is very sensitive to the cold...”
Excitement and disbelief mixed on the little girl’s face in an almost comical way.
“They are my friends. They are cold, hungry... I take care of them. They are my friends...”
The girl glance over her shoulder. By one of the towering windows, a gigantic Christmas tree sparkled in all colors. It was warm in her house and it smelled of cinnamon cake.
“Don’t you have a home, sir?”
“Yes, several.” He smiled and pointed to a bench from the park on the other side of the street, the one opposite the statue of the knight. The bushes had lost most of their leaves and the bench was visible from the sidewalk. “There it is. That’s my summer house.”
The little girl frowned.
I've never seen you there, she wanted to tell him but that wasn’t true. She had seen him every day but she had never looked at him. Except when her friends had made fun of his long worn out coat that he was wearing even in July. When she had laughed as loud as the others.
“And in winter?” she said. Shame was making her cheeks very hot.
“My winter house is behind the supermarket in Clinton Street.”
“Aren’t you cold?”
“Yes, sometimes it is very cold.” He wanted to say more but then he suddenly changed his mind. “Excuse me, but I have to go now. It’s good for me to walk. Walking ... it helps with the cold... Good bye, little girl.”
The little girl’s heart felt incredibly heavy.
“Are you leaving?” she called after him.
He stopped again, even more reluctant this time.
“Yes ... They took all my boxes ... I have nowhere to sleep. And ... There is a new guard and he doesn’t like to see me in his park. He doesn’t like my friends, the squirrels. There are also more and more cars ... Last week, Quiqui almost got hit by a – Well, even today… We’re leaving. In the country, there will be more food for us and maybe some work for me. Goodbye ... you're very kind for coming to talk to me...”
The girl thought harder. She wanted so much to help this old man.
Suddenly, she had an idea.
“Can you repair a faucet?”
The old man frowned. What a strange question...
“In fact, yes… I was a plumber when I was young, before... before all of this...”
A little smile passed briefly over the old man’s eyes.
“You are too young, of course,” he said, “but forty years ago there’s been a huge flooding and no one seemed to know how to fix it –”
“I know! My grandpa told me this story! A real hero saved the town. You saved my house too. Was it really you, sir?”
“It was just a broken pipe, nothing else. I was just able to find it and fix it, that’s all…”
The little girl smiled happily.
“Listen, I know that my father is looking for a new caretaker. He’ll be home tomorrow. This is a very old house. Ancient… There is a leaky faucet next to my parents’ bedroom. Nobody seems to be able to repair it and the noise keeps my father awake all night long. You don’t want to be next to him when he’s grumpy. The former janitor got scared and left. But I’m sure that you’ll know how to fix it, sir. Please, come inside to shelter and tomorrow everything will work out just fine. You’ll see... This evening you can relax in the hall, under the stairs. It is warm and...”
The little girl’s enthusiasm brought tears to the old man’s eyes.
“Thanks,” he said. “You're a very nice young girl. But I cannot leave my squirrels alone. Really, they have no one else but me... Thank you ... but I couldn’t. Thank you...”
He turned his back to her again, not just to walk away but to hide his tears too. Tricky tears, they always did what they wanted.
“No, sir,” she cried. “You misunderstood me. You are all invited!”
He felt her small hand on his arm.
“Please, sir! Come!”
It was warm in the hall. Almost too warm for the old man who hadn’t known anything else but the cold for such a long time. The sweet Christmas music sounded to him like a forgotten lullaby. Quiqui, Riri, Doudou, Fifi, Coco, and Snow-White were quieter than ever, they too almost asleep. His little squirrels… his children…
Heavy steps stopped in front of him. It was the lady with the broom. He tried to stand, scared that she was going to chase him away, but she smiled to him gently. She put a large silver tray in front of him.
“Here you are,” she said. “There’s soup and bread for you, and a lot of nuts for your friends. Merry Christmas, sir!”