Cocky the Fox (1)
April 15, 2010
HILOBROW is proud to present James Parker’s The Ballad of Cocky the Fox, a serial tale in twenty fits, with illustrations by Kristin Parker. Installments will appear every other Thursday. Our thanks to the project’s backers.
I come round suddenly, almost wholly made of self-pity, like I’ve been pitying myself in my dreams.
Groogh! I feel rough. I taste rough. Stench of aborted nap in the hutch: something woke me, a noise or something. Champion the rabbit is at my side, senseless, dense with sleep. He looks even bigger when he’s sleeping and released from his panics. There’s an empty packet of Quavers under his front paw and yellow Quaver-crumbs all over his face. Oh dear, is this my life? I think, yes, I think it is. The sour muzzle, the inward bulge of tears — my life, my life. In pain I raise my head: outside it’s dusk, and the sky as viewed through my hutch-wire is nothing but weird liver-coloured light from end to end.
And there’s that noise again, the noise that woke me up — something skittering over the thin roof of the hutch, fast, clawed… Then a shape across the wire, flying or racing. Oh I know who this is.
‘Argh,’ I croak. ‘Minstrel! Bugger off, would you?’
Minstrel the squirrel lives out by the playground, scarfing snacks that drop from the mega-prams. Puffed corn dusted with spinach-powder; tiny cheese biscuits; what the mums feed their little ones these days. He scrapes across the wire, is gone, scrapes back again and pauses, clinging. Then he’s off again, in the fever of his nimbleness, that daft tail of his nodding gravely behind. The speed of him is making me queasy. And here he is stopped all of a sudden, freeze-framed, spreadeagled in silhouette across the hutch-wire.
‘Cocky!’ he says in his pouncing way. ‘Cocky Cocky Cocky!’
I groan profoundly. No rest, ever? No peace? Minstrel hangs before me, pent and strumming, a satire on expectation. He’s been packing on the pre-winter pounds, I observe, but still there isn’t much of him. These squirrels — they’re just bundles of nerves, really.
‘What do you want, mouthful?’
‘Cocky where were you?’
‘The round-up! Cocky where were you?’
I bark at him now from my hutch-bed, a vicious noise that sends him squirting in terror along the fence-top and then, with a bounce, into the small trees beyond.
‘No good, Cocky the fox!’ I hear him say as the branches thrash behind him. ‘No good no good!’ And he’s away, the sounds receding, the leathery squeaks and quacks of a pissed-off squirrel.
From his sleep, Champion utters. ‘Feng?’ he says. ‘Fish fandy?’
And I was in a good mood this morning, too! I came down the garden in glory, bearing Quavers and a carrot and all the gifts of my own foxy selfhood. The grass was shaggy with dew and the mad little spiders were tilting their webs at the sun. Somewhere in the night I’d guzzled half a bottle of mouthwash and the taste of it was still at the back of my throat like a small, fatty flame. Cinnamon flavour. Yum!
At the hutch Champion awaited me in his haze of anxious rabbit-smell, pellety, throbbing in consternation. Damn rabbit! Don’t I always come back? But it’s his nature to worry. ‘NEW DAY?’ he honked when saw me, dumb panic italicizing his voice. ‘SNAPPY NEW DAY?’ Yes yes, I assured him, it’s a snappy new day for the two of us, and Cocky has the goods.
Champion is white all over, and his eyes are pink as if the blaze of his own whiteness has injured them or made them sore. He’s a big bastard too, rough-clawed and yellow-fanged, something of a monster in his rabbit way, but absolutely helpless. We’ve been sharing his wire-fronted hutch and I bring him nibbles because the terrible fat child who’s supposed to feed him never does. I laid out my robbings and of course he went straight for the Quavers, biting through the bag. I should have kept them out of sight.
‘Come on,’ I said, ‘I got you a nice carrot.’ I waggled it in his face. ‘You like carrots don’t you? Don’t rabbits like carrots?’
‘I want Quavers.’
‘Eat the carrot.’
‘Quavers!’ And he gave me that pouty look, half-fierce half-fearful, his big shoulders bunched. Another showdown. Bloody rabbit!
‘You’re thick, you are!’ I snarled at him. ‘You’re a real thicko! You don’t know what’s good for you!’ Well, that was the mouthwash talking, but still, I was upset. I’d made a special point of robbing that carrot for him, and now he wouldn’t touch it! What could I do though? He had his head in the bag of Quavers, crunching away, his surly red eyes regarding me through a rip in the plastic…
No more sleep for Cocky. That Minstrel’s imprecations have ruined my repose. Scolded by a squirrel, by a tree-rat: has it come to this? I used to have some clout around here, for fuck’s sake. I used to know people. That’s right — me, Cocky the Fox, on a first-name basis with all the faces. The late Holiday Bob, Borough boss and gamest fox ever, took a special interest in me. He ran the Borough like a ringmaster, and all the beasties hopped to their tricks. Oh the capers and the japes! ‘I crack the whip, Cocky,’ he’d say, ‘Give me any trouble, I’ll whip your crack.’ And he’d laugh like a trombone. There was Rumpy the badger, his muscle — Grumpy Rumpy, war-faced with his black and white stripes. Long snout, bite like a pig’s, he could take a pizza-slice out of anything. And of course Marcus (I called him Mackie) Viles, king of the stoats, another character… But then they lifted Holiday out of the old canal on that breezeless afternoon, dead weight in a fisherman’s net, head hanging as if in shame. Rumpy, who loved him, was useless after that — faded away. And Mackie Viles took his whole squirming tribe and moved out to the country. Which is where I’d be, probably, if it wasn’t for Champion. Ssssss… Look at him now — out for the count, his rabbit-mouth wetly open and rotating its breaths like a ghastly spindle. I wouldn’t mind a chat, but he needs his sleep: if I wake him up he’ll be impossible for days, his whole cycle off.
Ho hum. Well, I should be about the night’s business. Shoulder to the hutch-door, hop down into the grass. Stretch, spread toes, and then YAWN, with a fine cartilaginous crackle. Right: off I trot. The town tonight smells like a wet bandage.
So I missed the round-up, did I? That might actually be a little bit of a problem. It’s been chaos around here with Holiday gone. Fox on fox, rat on fox, food distribution all collapsed — I even heard ravens have been seen in the Borough. Not just any ravens either: the Twins. The fucking Twins! Wild talk everywhere. Some say this fox is taking over the rackets, some say that fox. Some say my cousin Billy Five Wives. One or two say me — well, one actually. Weasel Paul, my mate. Love you Weez! The keener foxes, anyway, convened this get-together, all squabbles laid aside, to try and find ‘the way forward.’ That’s what Blandley’s been saying: ‘We need to find the way forward.’ Blandley, that bureaucrat, strutting and fussing. A hefty fox, but hollow where it counts: we both know that in a battle he’d be under me and squealing in two seconds. It’s a marvellously clear understanding between us.
Mind you, I was as shat-up as he was, the day they found Bob. From hedge and hole and parapet we watched. From tree-spire and piss-pile. We all watched: Our boss, our hope, dragged eyeless from the old canal in a funeral robe of green weed. Now what? The afternoon seemed to pin us down, immobilise us in a deep and terrible cluelessness. Weasel Paul was next to me, my counsellor, whispering “Changes, Cocky, changes.” And: “This is seismic.” Like I didn’t know.
The round-up is a rarity, a once-in-a-generation event. Foxes sitting soberly, like statues in an immemorial mist: Rogies, Ramble-Ons out of the country, a rep from the Northside maybe, and of course the Borough’s best and gamest. The branches around nodding with the weight of attentive squirrels, ready to rush out and broadcast whatever gets decided. Not the sort of parley you want to be left out of. ‘Be at the round-up, Cocky.’ The words of Billy Five Wives, last week. ‘It won’t look good if you’re not there.’
We were at the car yard, and I’d just found a little tub of something on the ground, some kind of glossy sludge-putty, an evil grey-blue colour, not quite dry, with a wooden mixing-stick protruding. For spackling bodywork or something, gluing in windscreens. It smelled vicious — just the aura of it was making the air go wavy.
‘So you’ll be there, yes? I can count on you. Don’t sniff that.’
‘What is it?’
‘Just leave it. Leave it —’
Oh that was good! I took a good huff of that, my snout was in the pot. Noise like the sky unzipped and a carcinogenic lightshow behind the eyes. Oh that was quite something.
‘The round-up, yeah!’ I managed, after a minute or so. ‘The old round-up. It’s… when?’
Great silence in the universe. ‘I’m going, Bill! I’m fucking… You can…’
But Billy was looking at me greenly, across wobbling chasms of smell. Something had gone wrong. A waste, he was saying, and he had that ancient, weathered face of disappointment on, the bummer-face, exhibiting its terrible patience. What a waste, Cocky.
So, yes, I slept through the round-up. Or I was off in a daze from drinking aftershave, or splayed horribly in the turret of a plastic climbing frame, at the bottom of the wrong garden. Oh well. Perhaps Billy Five Wives stood up for me there — made the case for the old Cock? ‘His noble character, obscur’d of late’… A wistful thought.
I follow the railway line, past the low brick arches, a fur-flash along blackened walls. All quiet, apart from the occasional stampede of a night-train overhead. Past the 24-hour garage, the forecourt empty, held in its spell of illumination.
And here’s the bakery.
I adore this place. I do. They have bins out the back — two lovely deep square metal bins, parked at slovenly angles, with wheels and hinged lids, the sort of bins that get emptied by trucks, and you can find some very high-end stuff that’s just past its sell-by date. Questionable territory: battles have been fought and refought over this prized ground. But so what? I’m sniffing the sullen weed-tufts by the wall, treading a light slurry of refuse, just a fox about his business. The back door is open but the bakers are all inside, sweating away, talking loudly and playing their music. All clear.
And the first bin I try, springing up on the rim to make my inspection, I score big: a dozen or so macaroons, bagged up in clear plastic and sitting right on top like a little gift. Macaroons! Perfect. And I didn’t even have to tear open a trash bag and get all floury from the bakery sweepings. I’m on the point of dropping down, bag in mouth, when I hear a scuffling in the next-door bin.
‘Can’t you show some class?’ says a soft, thick voice. ‘Why’d you have to eat that crap? There’s croissants here!… Stop chewing that!’
‘Fuck off, you! It’s still warm. I love it!’
I peep over. Two foxes, a fat one and a thin one, wallowing about on the heaped trash bags and arguing over a hunk of dead dough. Weasel Paul told me all about this stuff — how the bakers can’t just throw out the leftover dough because it’s still active, still growing, it would seethe and burgeon in the darkness of the bins and make a big mess, so they bake it off. Out of the oven it comes in heavy heat-scarred lumps, in rough organic shapes, black and brown. Not bread, but some of the coarser beasts have a taste for it.
‘Give it here…’ says the fat one.
‘No! Let go!’ says the thin one. I know these two — the fat one is Hughes, the thin one Hayes. Used to be soldier-foxes for Holiday Bob back in the day, part of his elite. And now look! I watch them flounder and rustle on the rubbish-surface, giving dough-muffled yelps as disturbed flour rises slowly around them. The struggle intensifies — a real fight? — when suddenly they both lapse back into the swollen bags, panting.
‘You are proper trash, dear, ’ says Hughes finally. ‘Pure garbage.’
And they start giggling — shick! shick! shick! A horrid sound, recalling me to hard nights misspent in the company of this pair… Hughes was always mean-minded, a backbiter, but Hayes used to be alright, he was a game fox once upon a time. Then he took a right spanking off Rumpy — I forget why — and he’s never been the same since. The moody badger just about bashed poor old Hayes to bits — left him with one milky sightless eye and a tongue that always seems about half an inch too long. Tell him a joke and he’ll stare at you and then laugh two days later, out of the blue… I hop down, lay myself unseen alongside their bin and give a low dry fox-cough.
‘Whuh?’ says Hughes, starting. ‘Who’s that? Paws or claws?’ Their two heads pop out over the bin-rim — Hughes’ wide and truculent, Hayes’ longer and looser-necked. Both of them have an aristocratic powdering of flour around the eyes.
‘Paws, you morons,’ I say. ‘And can’t you keep it down a bit, like sensible foxes? All this noise, you’re gonna bring the bakers down on us.’
‘Oh, Cocky,’ says Hughes, not sounding too impressed. ‘It’s you.’
‘That’s right,’ I say. ‘It’s me.’ There was a time when these two would have basically stood to attention when I addressed them. Now I can feel a fight coming.
Hughes sniffs. ‘Good thing you missed the round-up, Cock. They were all slagging you off.’
‘Just saying,’ he shrugs. ‘I’m not political, me.’
Hayes is murmuring and licking Hughes’s ear, Hughes’s head lovingly cocked.
‘Hayes wants to know what’s in the bag,’ says Hughes. ‘Cause they look like macaroons in there.’
‘I know who likes macaroo-oons!’ sing-songs Hayes, and their scent reaches me, queasy, climbing, tangled, rotten-sweet. They’re an ill mixture, these two. It was a bad day when they met.
‘What crap,’ I say, but I know I’m rumbled.
‘Shick! Shick! Shick!’ goes Hughes. ‘Gotcha!’ His neck-fat shivers with glee, and then — clownishly abrupt — he is sombre. ‘Want my advice, Cockles? Seriously. Clear out, mate. Quit the Borough. A life in the country. Safer there for you, now that Holiday’s gone.’
‘Leave your bunny,’ adds Hayes.
‘And we’ll take the macaroons,’ adds Hughes.
‘You don’t give me advice, shitbags,’ I bark. ‘Yagh! Have you forgotten who I am?’
‘Oh!’ cries Hughes in honest amusement. ‘Oh! I think everybody’s forgotten about that.’
And down he drops in front of me, quite noiseless for such a fattie, and down drops Hayes behind and look at Cocky now — stuck between two bins with an enemy fox at either end. Hughes is excited, breathing hard. Hayes is pawing the ground and I can see the fight-drool gathering on that too-long tongue. And all of a sudden I feel it, and know that I’ve been feeling it for days: an eye, up in the dark blue midnight terraces, a dark eye that opens and closes, wingbeat by slow wingbeat, watching us.
With a sigh, I attack.
Who will triumph in the dust-up between the dustbins?
Did Cocky’s absence from the round-up doom his hopes?
Who likes macaroo-oons?
Find out in the next episode, on Thursday, April 29.
Each installment of THE BALLAD OF COCKY THE FOX was complemented by an issue of THE SNIFFER, a COCKY THE FOX newsletter written and edited by Patrick Cates. Originally sent only to subscribers, they are now all freely available here.
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