Mercedes and I had been at The Stables for three years when the Habilis herd arrived. We’d moved there the year The Prehistoric Humans Freedom Act was passed. Before then we were in the Chiswick flat that’s become our pied-à-terre.
Dad left the country pile to me. My sister Genevieve got the property in South Ken. She was always more of a town mouse. “Gloucester Road and Gloucester county,” Dad would say when people asked him where he was from. He loved word plays.
Mercedes and I weren’t that bothered by the infestation at first. It happened before we had children.
“How on earth do you put up with them?” people used to ask.
“Live and let live,” I’d reply.
Things change when you’ve got kids. You are less willing to let things be. You become instinctively more protective – more driven to shape the world around you.
Country life was quite an adjustment for Mercedes. In our early years we hosted regular weekenders to smooth the transition. Metropolitan friends felt so at home in our rural pad they christened it London-upon-Marsh.
The Habilis arrived early one Sunday morning when Max, an old army mate, and I, were smoking a joint on the flat roof of the Gatehouse, watching the sun rise. He noticed movement first. He had been a better soldier than me; and made it to junior captain before throwing in the towel.
“Wish I’d bought the rifle,” he announced, mid-toke.
“What’ve you seen?” I asked, lethargically.
“Deer I think.”
We prised ourselves from our deck chairs and moseyed to the castellations on the east side. “Fence border, midway between gate and grass tump, 11 o’clock,” Max announced, Sandhurst-style, momentarily forgetting he was a stoned semi-professional Formula E3 driver on a comedown.
“There’s something. But doesn’t look like deer to me,” I said.
“Got any de-extincts round here?” he asked.
“Some in a sanctuary nearby. I think.”
“Well those are fucking hominids,” he announced, bluntly.
“Bollocks,” I replied.
“If they’re Neanderthals, you’re fucked.”
Fortunately, they weren’t. Max’s great uncle owns an estate in Nottinghamshire that contained limestone crags dotted with caves. When a herd of Neanderthal moved in, the whole area became a De-extinction Protectorate. He had to write off 200 acres.
Max and I watched the Habilis emerge from the treeline, led by a cumbersome alpha male. As soon as he and two other adults were in the field, others remaining in the wood passed the juveniles over the high barbed wire fence then clambered over it themselves. They climbed more deftly than they moved on terra firma. After reforming their group, the protohumans stopped in ankle-high grass on my land and crouched like a recce party inside enemy territory. After a short, scouting pause they set off towards the 25-metre walnut tree that hosted my treasured childhood treehouse. They moved with the customary awkward gait that makes their species look like they’re wearing invisible calipers. Max and I counted seven adults and nine juveniles – three of which were infants. The nesting began that day. Half the urban partyers, originally down for the weekend, stayed much longer.
“This is like the best safari ever.”
“They look too stupid to build something that complex.”
“Let’s feed them.”
At first, respected anthropologists were surprised when wild Habilis herds built homes in trees. Eventually the experts had to accept it was in the creatures’ nature to do so, and nothing to do with flaws in the de-extinction programme. With hindsight, the evidence was obvious: short legs, long arms, omnivorous diet largely leaf-based, prey to feline predators of their era. These hominids evolved to live in trees. If a bird with a brain the size of a broad bean can build a nest, it was ridiculous to think a species with an average IQ of 30 couldn’t. What surprised me was the complexity of their arboreal residence. Their communal shelter looked like a cross between medieval scaffolding, an Ewok village and a colony of weaver birds’ nests. My precious walnut tree was turned into a messy jumble of interconnected platforms and pods.
After a couple of years of increased visits from curious London friends, fascination with our Habilis herd started to fade. By then, the de-extinction programme saw numerous forms of released hominids settling all over the country. Homo Floresiensis had become the rock pigeons of urban areas – their smaller body sizes making them ideally suited to setting up home in utilitarian urban structures and accessing food waste.
“This country’s become a fucking laughing stock,” Genevieve’s husband James would regularly rant, Homo parrot-style. A Florensien herd had taken over Queen’s Gate Gardens, turning the once private residents’ retreat into a, “Fucking hobbit slum.” What really pissed him off was that he had to take his kids to Hyde Park for a runaround – forcing him to rub shoulders with the hoi polloi.
Before Rufus was born, Mercedes and I joked about our brother-in-law’s red, quivering, angry face. After Rufus arrived, we understood it all too well. Archaic hominids aren’t a direct threat. It’s the impact of the de-extinction programme on your lifestyle that causes distress.
Whether because of the pre-release training programme, or due to their natural inferiority to us, Habilis stay well clear of humans. But that doesn’t stop them shitting on our doorsteps. Literally. In addition their exasperating excretion habits, our herd rifled through bins, plundered our vegetable garden, stripped our fruit trees and stole tools for hunting and gathering. Before the de-extinction programme, we were masters of our island. These days we are unpaid zookeepers for tourists who’d never allow archaic species loose in their countries.
Although Mercedes and I started feeling unsettled by the herd after Rufus arrived, it wasn’t until he was two years old, with Lucinda a new born, that the first major incident occurred. Mercedes was in the orchard breastfeeding Lucinda and Rufus was tottering around, when a trowel dropped out of a pear tree and missed our little lad by inches. It plummeted, blade-down, sticking into the ground like a cheese knife dropped point-first into a wheel of Sage Derby. Mercedes rushed to his side and the guilty Habilis bolted from the tree above like a dog caught chewing furniture.
The next serious event occurred at Rufus’ fourth birthday party. James and Genevieve’s middle child, William, was playing in the back field with some older children when he jumped into what he thought, quite reasonably, was a pile of leaves. It was actually a deer trap – dug by the Habilis using spades and shovels filched from the barn. William twisted his ankle. Fortunately, being a lesser species, the Habilis were incapable of fashioning spikes for their prey to fall onto. Had they been Neanderthals or Heidelbergensis, William could have been a lot worse off. Dead even. James was furious and demanded we have the herd removed immediately. He and Genevieve left that afternoon, refusing to return until the infestation had been dealt with.
Despite these two unfortunate episodes, I refused to fork out for the relocation of the uninvited protohumans. I got quotes. £28 million was the lowest. Hominid relocation land is as expensive as London real estate – and the larger the herd, the more territory they are allocated. That’s why most landowners seek ways of living alongside their genetic ancestors.
My willingness to put up with them did eventually expire. The straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back was the slaughter of Rufus and Lucinda’s Glyptodon – a gigantic animal that, ironically, could have borne a camel or two on its back. Rufus was five and Lucinda three by then. They loved that gentle giant: jumping and climbing on it as it pootled around the paddock; scratching its bony head as it munched piles of sugar beet or gobbled down sackloads of carrots; trying to grab its leathery tail before it could whip its head round and lick them with its rough, yellow-green, slobbery tongue. I thought the gigantic pet was safe. I had special fences installed before it arrived to prevent it escaping. I presumed the shy Habilis, incapable of crafting weapons more dangerous than sharpish stones, would pose zero threat to a mammal with hide tougher than steel sheet. And the de-extinction process, quite rightly, does not permit the release of dangerous predators such as sabre-toothed cats.
On the pivotal day for my patience, Rufus and Lucinda had friends round. The first thing the excited bunch wanted to do after they’d got their wellies on was, “Ride the monster, ride the monster, ride the monster.” Genevieve let them into the paddock. “Careful of her feet,” she warned. The little tribe raced towards their quarry, froze like miniature statues when they reached her, then turned tail and came screaming-racing back. As they did, half the Habilis herd emerged from under the Glyptodon’s shell, hobbled across open country then swarmed over the eight-foot reinforced paddock fence.
They’d clubbed and hacked the poor creature to death using every metal implement they could get their hairy mitts on: axes large and small, a sledge hammer, a sickle, two crowbars, gardening spades and forks, a mallet and even a replica claymore that I had purchased at a charity auction and was planning to mount above the main fireplace. It must have taken hours for the assailants to finish off the poor Glyptodon. Throughout the slaughter the gentle vegetarian would have been confused and terrified in equal measure. I’ve never encountered a sweeter, more child-friendly animal.
“I’m caging them,” I declared as a few dads and I surveyed the shredded corpse – tipped on its side and butchered for flesh as if savaged by a cackle of deranged hyenas.
The process to get a caging licence is an absolute nightmare. And expensive as hell. The first thing you have to do is construct an approved habitat. If you don’t get a permit after that investment, it’s money down the drain. Next comes the consultants, licence fees, feeding plans, relocation insurance (in case the decision gets reversed – which it can, at any time), waste management facilities and a commitment to paying for a legally binding habitat review every twelve months. By the time I received approval, the herd had grown to 32 and overrun two additional large trees. Habilis might look like crosses between chimpanzees and Victorian street urchins, but they breed like rabbits.
Despite all the building work, the most tiresome aspect of the caging process was the sign language training. I had to pay two government-approved sign language experts to teach the primitive creatures, and me, how to communicate with one another. “You need to know what they need,” one of the supercilious sign experts regularly told me. All she and her colleague were really interested in was milking me for as long as possible to pay for their infestation-free flats in Bristol.
If the Habilis had settled into their caged environment, I’d have rediscovered the ‘live and let live’ attitude I had before Rufus and Lucinda arrived. But these human-esque creatures were incapable of appreciating the benefits of their new home: safety, autonomy, food, water, waste removal, emergency medical support (from our local equine vet) and shelter. Trees aside, they had everything they could want or need in their enclosure. So you can imagine how annoying it was when they began escaping – which happened all too often. A Habilis can tunnel with its bare hands as quickly as a badger can with its paws.
If the creatures had run off when they got free, I would have happily written-off the cost of building their specialist environment. But no, they’d return to my, by then, de-cluttered trees and start reconstructing their nest complex. After numerous escapes I had electrified rods countersunk around the base of their cage. That was another £600,000 plus VAT.
The Habilis turned nasty after their escape routes were cut off. They’d throw things at anyone who went near them: stones, food waste, pieces ripped off their shelters, excrement. We had to build an exclusion rail that circumnavigated their pen at a distance of fifty metres. Another unwelcome expense. Initially we’d let guests observe the creatures from behind the rail. But, despite their moronic intellects, they worked out that having sex or messing around with bodily discharges caused offence. Lucinda had to undergo counselling after watching two males anally and vaginally probe a willing female. By then I’d had enough. Try looking at your five year-old daughter’s distressed face and explaining that behaviour. The Habilis had to go.
Once caged, it is almost impossible to get relocation approval. Six months in a controlled environment and they are deemed domesticated. In other words, I was lumped with them. My only option was extermination. Since that was, and still is, illegal, I needed to find an untraceable solution.
I didn’t dare research Habilis poisoning online. That would have been picked up straight away. So I went to the British Library and read books on these prehistoric pests. I continued reading at a steady pace when I came across possible execution methods because, should their demise ever be investigated, tracking software could reveal I’d lingered too long on sections that suggested suitable substances.
Wheat was my salvation. Habilis evolved millions of years before the cultivation of wheat and are as wheat-intolerant as people with acute coeliac disease. First I tried offering them bread, pastries and other foodstuffs that were full of gluten. But they turned their noses up at anything obviously wheat-based. So I stopped giving them fresh fruit and vegetables (their favourite food) and, instead, provided fruit smoothies containing wheat protein. They chugged the smoothies back with gusto and, within weeks, began to look frail and withered. Nobody else was taking an interest in the troublesome creatures by then, so my scheme played out. They began to die. Juveniles first. They buried their dead in shallow graves at the far end of their sanctuary – so I could pretend I had no idea what was happening. What you don’t see, you don’t know.
One morning, some months into my extermination programme, as I took a reduced batch of smoothies out to the few remaining Habilis, a senior female caught my eye. She leaned against the bars and languidly signed, “Why are you doing this to us?”
So I signed back, “Because you’re fucking animals.” And handed her a drink.