Cocky the Fox (2)
April 29, 2010
HILOBROW is proud to present the second installment of James Parker’s The Ballad of Cocky the Fox, a serial tale in twenty fits, with illustrations by Kristin Parker.
In Fit the First, Cocky failed to persuade his rabbit companion, Champion, to eat a carrot; he discovered that he’d slept through the round-up at which the Borough’s new hierarchy was to be determined; he reminisced about the days before Holiday Bob (the Borough’s top fox, and Cocky’s mentor) was killed; and he recalled a recent glue-huffing episode that had disappointed his cousin, Billy Five Wives. Then, while out foraging, Cocky ran afoul of two of Holiday Bob’s strongmen, the foxes Hughes and Hayes, who all but ordered him to skip town. He refused.
Now when it comes to a ruck I don’t piss about. You won’t see Cocky up on his hindies, paddling paws, vapouring and fronting like a beerboy in a pub carpark. No sir, I go in. Learned it from the best: I used to watch Rumpy the badger at his work, he’d go in so hard, so professionally hard, it sort of annihilated the previous thirty seconds. Wallop! And everything went backwards for a bit.
These two foxes want my macaroons. More than that, they want to duff me up somewhat, right here between these bakery bins. The night has contracted thrillingly around us.
‘Listen, Hughes,’ I say, changing my stance. ‘I know you mean well…’
‘You’re quite wrong, Cockles’ he says. ‘We don’t mean well at all. We mean ill. We mean sick. It’s time somebody —’
And with that I attack. I spin from Hughes and leap at Hayes, the loopy one, feeling the weird welcome of his damagedness as I go in: no technique in there at all, no guile, no respect, a total lack of what the late Holiday Bob liked to call savoir-fear. (‘Careful, Cocky. Hard to beat the fox who doesn’t know when he’s beaten.’) I bite for his face; snap air; get a warm dash of drool against my ear — where’s he gone? Past me, the goofy bastard, and down, snaking pointedly at my midriff and trying to sweep my legs. I pivot, going for the head-buffet, and he spirals away. He’s fast, but he leaves his neck open for a second and I’m in there, teeth fastened. Time for my extra-special move — time for The Cockinator. Still biting, gripping hard, I flip: a backwards somersault, right over his head. And as he feels his throat begin to tear what can he do but follow me, rising, tipping up and going down heavily on his back as I corkscrew in mid-air to land on his chest. Uffoo! goes his wind. Never fails. My weight is above. Now I reign. The Cockinator.
But fat Hughes is on my back, teeth in my scruff with his terrible softness overhanging me. They’ve done this before, these two. Cornering a fox between the bins and then doing him over two-on-one, that’s just their style. Hayes is gaping with laughter below, and the weight of Hughes, it feels like… dismay! I spasm fiercely, and then — have you seen a fox jump, stiff-legged, straight up? Don’t you know that the skin of the world is stretched taut for our delight? So I trampoline out of it, springing into one of the bins; they pursue with howls, and what a scene, we’re all yarling and snarfing about in a dream of flour, tearing up the bags and spilling cans, paper, burned baguettes. Hughes is in front of me, off balance, and Hayes — crazily crowned with a rumpled piece of kitchen roll — is climbing over his shoulders. ‘For the Borough!’ I cry with not too much appropriateness and push off against the inner bin-wall to shove into them both. Over they go, back and down into a corner as in a fury I dig and heave, rolling the big bags forward, cramming detritus over the top. They sink deeper, Hughes and Hayes, mutually embroiled, thrashing deeper into burial. And then they’re covered — smothered sounds of outrage from beneath.
I jump down, clang claws on the side of the bin and yell ‘Don’t get too cosy in there, you slags! That truck’s coming in the morning!’ Heh heh. Nobody injured, nothing that can’t be forgotten, and the Cockster riding high in the lists again. Result!
What’s red and black and white all over? A floury fox at midnight. Onward I dance in brief pride, in white whiffs, the bag of macaroons swinging jaunty in my mouth. They’re not for me though. For we come now to a shame of mine. A bit of a moral disaster. This sweetness that I have scored is not for me, not for Champion, it’s for… well, you’ll see.
It’s been suggested that I’m a moody fox. Surges, lunges, sprints of feeling. And then the lapses, the big lows, all connected to some invisible, quivering… thing. My artistic temperament, says Weasel Paul. But I’ll tell you what I am: I’m a great realist. I faithfully follow the humours of life. Now, for example, as I squeeze under a chainlink fence and enter the orbit of the Horde, my triumph declines. I get depressed. Fittingly, because this is the place where the rats are.
Did I mention our rat population? The Horde lives right here in the Borough, in a catacomb or rat-acomb that they found under an abandoned building site — flapping tarps, lengths of pipe, half-built walls, wrapped lumber, random construction crap all over the place. Which is so ratty of them, because they love that smell of dereliction, of a thing that didn’t quite happen, a job that didn’t make it. And once those cooling human traces are gone they’ll abandon it themselves in favour of something more freshly failed.
Holiday had the rats organised, with policing and pest control — a killing spree, now and again, was a great way to work off the tension in his own ranks. ‘Pruning’, he called it. And the Horde fucking well behaved itself when he was around. But now! Uppity rats boiling out of it at all hours, and heated dreams of domination in its atmosphere. Too much, somehow. Mother Mercury, distilling her venoms down there in the dark, she was always an enemy of ours, but this new thing has a deeper antagonism to it.
Well anyway. Leaden is my foxy tread, I tell you, weighted with defeat as I approach Reception, which is an orange cement mixer crusted grey all over and angled skyward like a stumpy defunct artillery piece, with some officious rat always poking his head out. Like now.
‘State your business,’ he says.
‘Up yours.’ I like to twit these jumped-up types.
‘Oh yeah,’ I say as I breeze by. ‘Right.’ And hear him throwing a fit in the dry bowl of the mixer, scrabbling and chittering with anger. No one can stop me, really.
So what am I doing here? I’ll tell you: I’ve been coming here for weeks, ever since a squad of Horde types sat on me after a particularly long night and whispered horrors into my twitching ears. Did they even use words? Pure psychic attack, it was. I went into some kind of evil somnolence or rat-dream, saw terrible things as through their eyes, in infra-rat: Bob’s body on the towpath, shining with the mucus of the canal; and then Champion, his radiant whiteness being extinguished by rats upon rats upon rats, blotted out until only a stab of light was left and then gone. I heard a voice: ‘Pay the Horde.’ A ratty voice, small and vindictively interior, like hypochondria. Nasty.
It was a shakedown, obviously: pay us, or we’ll do the rabbit. And as my head cleared I understood I had no choice. Half the night I’m foxing about, daytime I more or less crash. And five rats can take a fox. The Horde can do Champion anytime it wants.
Here I am, then, with my sad offering of ’roons. By a pallet of bricks the earth opens and I go down into the wadded darkness, into the pit of my own disgrace. Bouncer rats part before me, muttering, giving me a bit of shoulder. I’ve never really liked going underground; even in the days when I could be arsed to dig my own earth it was always a pretty shallow affair. I had one up in Royal’s Wood that was famously inadequate — I could back into it as far as my shoulders and that was it. I did look strange, with my head and forelegs al fresco. Weasel Paul came across me once in that position and thought that someone had tried to bury me alive.
But these bastard rats like to take you down, into the rat-light, which is horribly ancient — hit a certain level and the blind roots of Time are woggling around you like snail-horns. Panic begins to itch in my throat. I offer up a prayer: Protect me, Great Vixen, in this shit-hole! And right away, in all that black company, I see an ally, or a non-enemy at least. A big soldier rat named Ozric — a fighter, not one of this gangster rabble, guarding the entrance to the Chamber with a professional quality in his bearing that I very much appreciate.
He nods at me. ‘Alright, Cocky? Got your payment there?’
‘Let’s go, Oz. I need a word with Her Lowness.’
‘You’re late with that, you know,’ he says, pointing at my bag of macaroonies. ‘Some of the boys wanted to pop by your garden last night. I had to quieten them down.’
‘Shame. I’m always happy to see your boys.’
‘I hope it won’t come to that,’ he says seriously.
‘Yeah, well, let’s get this over with. Show me in, will you?’
‘Follow me.’ And toward the Chamber we go. ‘She’s moody today,’ he says over his shoulder.
I’m reluctant to enter the Chamber, because frankly it’s rather disgusting in there. Very dark, to begin with, and filled with the intimate sweet’n’sour stink of the rodents and the dismal scintillations of their shitey little eyes. And what can I tell you about Mother Mercury, the Horde’s womb, bedded down at the back amid her supernumerary spawn? By reputation entirely hairless, although we don’t know because she’s never been seen overground. A writhing rat-court attends her.
Shiftily I present myself, the bag at my feet.
‘Who comes before Mother Mercury?’ she says in her high, quailing ‘queen’ voice. ‘Who is brought before her now?’ As always, I deeply resent this theatricality and bullshit.
‘It’s Cocky, Mother. Cocky the fox.’
‘Who? Mother is weak for lack of nutrients and her hearing fails her.’
Here we go. ‘COCKY THE FOX!’
‘How long will you party, Cocky the fox?’ whinges up a thin voice to my left, and from the murk a rat-chorus delightedly answers:
‘Till the stars shake in their sockets.’
‘And who buys your drinks, Cocky the fox?
‘The one with the longest pockets.’
Sniggers all around. Bastards! I affect neutrality, but this versicle has always pierced me. Who wrote it? That little tree-rat Popjoy. I’ll crack his fucking bones.
‘And are there gifts with the fox?’ demands Mother. ‘Gifts of food? Mother Mercury must eat and eat, that she may provide for her babies. That she may be strong!’
‘Some macaroons, yeah, but listen —’
‘Does he hear her babies feeding? Their infinite hunger pulling at her teats?’
Sigh. ‘Yes, he does.’ The miniature raspings and guzzlings of her brood are indeed most audible.
‘And does he know the sorrow of Mother Mercury as her rat-milk flows? That she is lonely, so lonely? That her mother’s heart is inclined over a vacancy, grieving? Has the fox ever felt these things?’
‘Er, no, the fox has never felt these things.’
‘OF COURSE HE FUCKING HASN’T!’ she shrieks, and seems to swoon or topple over in the darkness, crushing a few of her little ones perhaps. A couple of rats rush to her side and there are noises of ministration, pattings and plumpings-up and so on.
‘Mother Mercury —’ I cough, try again. ‘Mother Mercury is the life and the source of the Horde. She exhausts herself for her children.’ Now the courtier rats hiss at me — they don’t want me getting in with her.
‘Yes,’ she pants from the floor. ‘Yes, exhausts herself… But she will give, and give. It is her nature.’
‘It is love!’ croons some ardent sycophant. Mother gives a chandelier-shaped sigh and subsides still further. More minions detach themselves from the darkness and rush past me. Alright, enough of this nonsense: it’s time to make my statement. I set myself in front of her with things dripping on me and speak.
‘Ahem! I’ve got your macaroons here, Mother, your favourites. Happy to hand them over. Delighted. But how about we make this the last time? You’ve got plenty of food, like.’ I gesture at the stack of glittering nibbles by the door, the heaped offerings of other pale-spirited local beasts. One or two nice items in there, I notice. Aftershave. Hairspray. ‘And more to the point, I’m supposed to be a fucking fox, know what I mean!?’ I’m whining now: the weakness of my position has overcome me. ‘Foxes don’t make pay-offs to rats!’
This is clearly ridiculous, asserting species pride at this juncture: I’ve been making these pay-offs for weeks. And the Horde has me over a barrel.
But what the hell? Can’t I deal with a rat or two, find an angle? Why so inglorious, Cocky? So hemmed-in? I must be fucking stupid. Mum got squished by the plumber’s van before I was properly weaned, that’s what it is. Not like these ratlings — they get their mother-milk, don’t they? They feel the mother-heat. But me, I lack nurture. My cub’s brain was not irradiated by love, I never know what’s going on, I have a question mark over my head in the shape of a broken lightbulb. That’s it. The nipple rolled away too soon and now I’m stupid. Damn!
Mother Mercury doesn’t seem to have heard me, and the court rats are frantic, lost in their obsequies. ‘MY BABIES!” she wails, and I’ve had enough. But as I turn to go I hear her old, knowing and completely rational voice coming at me from floor-level: ‘The rabbit lives at the pleasure of the Horde, Cocky the fox. So you’ll pay your percentage. This week, next week, and the week after that, until we tell you different. Everybody pays.’
‘Not everybody,’ I say. Ozric is in my way, half-thinking about blocking me. ‘How can you work in this madhouse?’
He frowns, steps aside. ‘You’re out of order, Cocky. When Holiday was on top he took his tributes from us. Now things have turned around. Pay the Horde.’
Calls Mother, foully: ‘Help yourself to some aftershave on the way out!’
‘Eh…’ I try to marshall some stinging riposte but I’m sick from being underground, almost breathless. ‘Fnnn… kish… gak…’ Light! Give me light! Give me air, courage, decency!
Back at the pad it’s Jaffa Cakes for Champion, Head & Shoulders and the remains of a curry for me: prawn korma. The light’s coming up. Dawn in the town, the colour of an empty milk bottle. This is our world — the hutch, the upturned wheelbarrow, the disarranged bits of lawn furniture and then the house, lined like a face as it enters the day. There’s cold in our bones but we’ve got our grub, and for a moment I imagine that I’m going to be allowed to recover my fox-poise.
‘Not bad, eh?’ I say rallyingly. ‘Jaffa Cakes!’
‘Ufngh,’ says Champion, noshing away.
‘We should celebrate, you know. The Cockinator was deployed tonight! Yeah, it was those two scummers Hughes and Hayes, they —’
Then I hear a soft chinking sound and smell that chocolatey smell as Otto the next-door comes padding up behind the garden fence. Shite. This is all I need. There’s one knothole in the grey-green slats and his shadow comes and goes behind it, his looming pampered bulk.
‘Ah,’ he says. ‘Breakfast time.’
‘Just ignore him,’ I tell Champion.
‘The usual is it, boys? Full English, plenty of tomato, keep the tea coming?’ Otto speaks to us James Masonically, his voice voluptuous with menace.
‘Go home and polish your chain, you poof. Eat your treats.’
‘I’ve been smelling you for the last half hour, Cocky. You’re like an industrial spill this morning.’
Otto laughs amiably. He’s a Rottweiler. ‘And how are you, Mr Bunny?’ Champion looks like he’s about to have a heart attack. ‘I see your good friend is feeding you again. Which bin did he knock over today, I wonder.’
‘Ever hear of an honest day’s work, Otto?’ I say. ‘There should be a flag over that kennel of yours, a nice big flag with a picture of a tin-opener on it. Your crest.’
‘Very clever,’ he says, and I can hear the pink weight of his tongue against his bright teeth. ‘You’re very clever, all you foxes. So witty, so hard to pin down. What will you be when you grow up, Cocky? An underwater explorer, like your Holiday Bob?’
‘Slave! Parasite! Bitch!’ I’m out of the hutch now, dancing and spitting by the fence.
‘Bitch? One swing of my balls could knock you out, chickenbones.’
‘Cannibal! You know what’s in those tins you eat!’
‘I’ll get over this fence one day, foxy,’ he says easily. ‘Or through it.’ The quiet furnace of his breath is close to the hole. ‘And then — after I’ve had your man there for elevenses — we’ll talk.’
‘Anytime, ex-dog. Anytime.’
I mean it, too. I think I could take him. Otto the Rot is big and healthy but he’s soft with privilege. I’ve seen them genuflecting behind him in the park, his ‘owners’, bending low to cherish his hot turds in plastic mittens. His turds are pretty amazing — great swarthy chunks all seamed from the pressure of his tip-top bowels and reeking of the good life like issues of Vanity Fair. How different from my own wracked bulletins, the dots and dashes, produced in a trembling-tailed crouch while looking over my shoulder…
Bloody hell. What a night. ‘Move over,’ I tell Champion. ‘Go on, shift.’ And in the dark rear of the hutch I go prone. Come, black sleep: absolve me. Morning spreads, its lengthening branches full of cheerless sharp-toned starlings.
And now the hutch-roof trembles slightly over our heads — it’s Minstrel the squirrel, skidding across, making his calls.
‘Round-up resolved!’ he cries, departing already. ‘Billy Five Wives new Borough boss! All kiss the arse of Billy!’
‘Cheers for that, Mince,’ I say.
I’m low, mama. Seriously. I might not make it.
So Billy Five Wives is the new boss — what will that mean for Cocky?
Why is everyone out to get Champion?
How many rats does it take to kill a fox?
Find out in the next episode, on Thursday, May 13.
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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