Cocky the Fox (17)
January 6, 2011
HILOBROW is proud to present the seventeenth installment of James Parker’s The Ballad of Cocky the Fox, a serial tale in twenty fits, with illustrations by Kristin Parker.
The story so far: Cocky the fox, a handsome specimen of Vulpes vulpes living on the edge of an English town, is in trouble. His mentor Holiday Bob, top fox in the Borough, is dead. His family life has collapsed, and he’s moved in with his friend Champion, a distressed albino rabbit. His enemies are everywhere. And he’s been drinking a lot of aftershave.
Fit the Sixteenth might have been read with pleasure by an Inuit shaman or angakkuq. Having bid goodbye to his friend Champion at the borders of the Black Pond, our hero entered the cold and flattened dimension where the ravens live, and confronted them there. He defied them; he rejected them; he rebelled against their authorship. Cocky the fox, he said, was no longer part of a story written by ravens. Naturally they squawked and swore… Emerging then from a trance-like state, Cocky found himself lying in a frozen field, with Shakes the badger at his side. It was time to go home. It was time to return to the Borough.
Mouse-fur on the sparrow’s chest. Black branches implore the moon. Returning, this country should be familiar to me. Right? Cosy. But it isn’t. Not at all! The longest night is coming: the fox, at the base of his skull, feels the year grind on its pivot.
And now it’s daytime in the fields. Having crept and clung up a particularly haggard length of winter hedgerow, we’re halted under a skinny oak.
‘Thats it then is it,’ says Shakes, nodding ahead. ‘The Barrow.’
‘That’s the Barrow, yeah. Now hold up a minute. I need a breather.’
Rising ground is hard work for me with my knackered back leg.
‘No rush,’ says Shakes.
Quiet out here. Afternoon light quakes in the puddles, and a small, local wind tambourines the brown oak leaves above us. The Barrow: Rumpy’s country seat. A meanly wooded tumulus, very bleak. The grey earth, the trees in tangled congress, etc.
‘Vrrrr!’ I shiver.
‘Fucking place gives me the creeps!’ I say. ‘It’s memories, I suppose. Sadness. The woe of the woods. Arf! Come on.’
Shakes is watching me carefully. At least I think he is. I haven’t actually seen the badger for about two days, so loyally has he remained in the penumbra of my blind side: he’s been a voice to me lately, and a warmth.
‘We could go round. Dont have to stop here do we.’
‘Well, we do. Business.’
Yes, memories and sadness. Memories and sadness, streaking the inner skull-wall! Last time I was here… Cripes. The silent mouth of Rumpy’s sett before me and the squirrel overhead –—Popjoy, spread like a hang glider in his trellis of twigs, voice booming…
Life is nowhere, nothing now has fire,
but only flickers in a mocking show —
Oh, those words. Atrociously loud, clattering the treetops. Awful! I staggered away, and for days the gargoyle face of the squirrel pursued me, bellowing at me, my whiskers warping and my ears fluttering backwards in the endless grinding storm of his voice. I dragged Champion into a half-collapsed Nissen hut and we hid. And I raved in there, heedless of sun and moon, about Holiday Bob and the loss of the Borough and this and that and the other thing, until the Champ was more than usually nonplussed. He was starving, too — uncomplainingly — because I forgot about food! I was drying out. Or grieving? Champion was just losing weight.
‘Hurp,’ grunts Shakes in warning. There’s a big dark form of a beast sort of puttering and grubbing around in the low snag at the edge of the wood.
He looks up, an earthworm dangling from his lip. Bloody hell. It is Rumpy. Teeth worn, eyes a shade dimmer, bulk hanging more loosely… But that’s Rumpy. It’s in the set of his badger-shoulders, the tilt of his badger-head.
‘That you, Cocky?’ And there’s the old Rumpy rumble, the shuddering wattles.
‘It is. Again.’
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘Yes, I heard you’d been through.’ Gives me the once-over. ‘Got yourself bashed up out there, I see.’ He looks at Shakes. ‘Muscled up, too.’
I shrug. I can feel Shakes beginning to vibrate next to me.
‘What are you looking at, badger?’ Rumpy asks him.
‘Well I dont know,’ says Shakes. ‘Wot AM I lookun at.’
Rumpy holds his stare, very calm. Audible building of badger-blood between them, like the approach of heavy machinery. I tremble.
‘The great Rumpy eh,’ says Shakes. ‘Tax-dodgers terror and all that.’
‘Er, Shakes,’ I murmur. If it goes off now…
‘It’s alright, Cocky.’ In Rumpy’s old eyes, a profound unbudgeable candour. His strength, his disappointment — it’s all there. A serious badger. A serious beast. Was this how he backed them down in the Borough, one snarling, snickering lightweight after another — with seriousness? ‘No aggro here, son,’ he says to Shakes. ‘No fuss. Round here we like our peace and quiet.’
Five seconds go by, and then Shakes relaxes. Air hisses through gritted teeth. ‘Alright now I see it a bit,’ he says. ‘Yup. Now Im seein it. Fair enough Grumpy Rumpy.’
Phew. I cough loudly. ‘Aha-hum! Well now the introductions have been made… Glad we caught you, Rumps. My last visit you were down your hole.’
‘Don’t think I was actually. I think I was just on the other side of the wood. Pottering about. I’m retired, Cock.’
‘But Popjoy told us… Oh. Oh that little wanker. Unbelievable! Hear that, Champ?’
An eloquently aggrieved silence.
‘Ah. Sorry about that, Shakes.’
‘Force of habit. You know.’
‘Sorright I said.’
‘Where is the squirrel anyway?’ I ask Rumpy.
‘Having his snooze probably,’ he says. ‘Go on in, poke around if you like.’
We find Popjoy curled skeletally against the bole of a yew tree, rasping off snores. Next to him is a pitiful stash of acorns. His squirrel-face is pinched and fastidious, and his tiny hands are crossed. This, I have observed, is squirrel-sleep: simply a more settled state of pissed-offness with the world. Popjoy looks especially raddled: some whiskers are missing.
‘He’s got worse,’ I say. ‘Is that possible?’
‘Winters are hard on him,’ says Rumpy, gentler than I’ve ever seen a badger. ‘Popjoy… Pop-joy…’
One lid opens. ‘Hnh?’ The dull ball of an eye sharpens to a gleam. And then, blastingly: ‘AWAY! BREAK NOT HIS DREADFUL PEACE OF A THOUSAND —’
I was ready for this, but Shakes, I am delighted to see, nearly falls over backwards.
‘Ssssssh,’ says Rumpy. ‘None of that now.’
Popjoy gives his head a rattle, sits up. ‘What do you want, Flossie?’
‘I want to talk to you.’
‘You look like shit.’
‘So do you. I want to talk to you about a job.’
‘A job? No chance. Not interested. Get stuffed, Flossie. Piss off back to the Borough where all your poof fox friends live.’
‘Names COCKY’ says Shakes, recovering. ‘Not Flossie.’
‘Who the fuck are you?!’ He’s on his feet now, with pulses of fury thrilling down his ratty little tail. ‘Why are you in my wood, fat arse? You’ve got a fat arse and a FAT HEAD!’ Top volume. Shakes cowers.
‘Popjoy, Popjoy,’ soothes Rumpy. Such tenderness! ‘They’ve come a long way, these two. They’ve been out there.’
‘Beyond the Black Pond. So we’re going to give them a hearing, alright?’
‘Listen to me,’ I say. ‘I need you to go ahead of us and make a bit of noise. Stir it up, like only you can. I need you heralding us, Popjoy — all along the canal, into the Northside and right through the Borough. I need the words, know what I mean? Power words, words to make ’em shit themselves.’
Popjoy scowls, hops in a circle.
‘This is a big gig, a big opportunity.’ Oh, I’m in the groove here, smooth and urgent — the very model of persuasion. ‘You’ve never liked me, Popjoy, I understand that. But the situation’s changed. I’ve changed. The Borough needs me! And you’re getting on, squirrel. You’re in your winter now. Another beast, in my position, might ask if you’ve got the strength for this. But not me. Not me, Popjoy. Because I need the best. And when it comes to the best, well… I know you’re the best.’ That was weak, wasn’t it, that last line. Still, I’ve had an effect, I can tell! The squirrel is thoughtful. He taps his foot and eyeballs us.
‘Feeling epic, are we?’ he says at last. A hack, a spit. ‘Very well. Give me ten minutes. I might have something for you.’
‘Hur hur hur.’
‘Be quiet.’ For about the last hour Shakes has been reverberating with deepest badger-mirth. Bowelly chuckles beside me as we travel.
‘Ahur hur hur. Howdit go then,’ he asks for the tenth time. ‘He had bad habits, he lived with a —’
‘Talented squirrel that,’ he says. ‘Ahur. You were right about him. Came up with it double quick dint he.’
‘I’m going to fucking bite you in a minute.’
‘Orright orright. Ahur.’ He exhales, composes himself. ‘Orright.’ We proceed for a moment. Then: ‘HUR HUR HUR.’
‘Fucking hell, Shakes!’
‘Im sorry. Just give me the whole thing one more time and Ill stop goin on about it.’
Sigh. ‘Okay.’ And as flatly as I can, like a weasel with a hangover, I recite the verse lately composed for us by Popjoy the herald in Rumpy’s Barrow:
He had bad habits.
He lived with a rabbit.
Scratching about in the pits of his nature —
did you ever see a sorrier creature?
And then he was gone, and now he’s back.
‘HUR HUR HUR.’ Shakes, in his merriment, is rolling in the sallow grass. ‘ITS SO GOOD.’
We’re getting near town now. More rubbish and markings, more rinds and discards, tinnier sprinklings of fox-piss under the hedges, and from the other side of Safeway Wood the hazy roar of traffic rising. An aura, a call: our destiny! So I won’t get any hype from Popjoy — so what. I’d imagined him Tarzan-ing into the Borough, arm over arm through the high boughs, shooting long blue sparks of fear: the King of the Woods is coming! Woooooh! But we left him and Rumpy coughing and chortling together in their spinney. Bastards.
Shakes is right, though. He’s right. At anybody’s expense but mine, I’d have to say: It is a nice bit of verse.
‘If you’re quite finished…’ He’s lying on his back, gasping, with wet eyes. ‘In a way, you know, this might work out for us. We’re creeping back in. Low expectations.’
‘Under the radar like.’
‘That’s it. No organization on their end. They won’t bother us til we knock ’em out. Knock ’em out, knock ’em out.’ I start to shuffle, shadowbox, with stiff little hops. ‘No beast has put me down yet, you know that?’ I turn towards that shimmer of traffic-noise and hoist my head. ‘Stand by, fuckfaces! Here I come! Camouflaged in uselessness, the fox returns! Lock up your —’
‘Cocky.’ Shakes is staring over my shoulder.
‘Whuh?’ I wobblingly rotate, and there they are. The three Rogies from Patsy’s wood, the ones who all look like each other’s uncles, sitting and watching with oracular poise not ten feet from us. Their strange bond of blood has deepened — now I can’t tell them apart at all. Wide heads, coarse fur, lot of haunch. Sceptical gaze. Well, we’re going to have to fight them this time, no question.
Shakes, behind me, is ready to go. Of course he is. I can feel him. He’s on his feet and bulging with animosity. ‘Rurf,’ he says. ‘Ragh, regh.’
‘Are you acquainted with the Black Pond?’ I ask the Rogies.
‘Wait a second,’ says the fox in the middle. ‘I know you.’ He squints at me and cocks his spade-shaped head. ‘It’s you, isn’t it? Where’s the rabbit?’
‘He’s in a better place.’
‘No! I mean he’s literally in a better place. Somewhere nicer for him.’
‘And who took your eye?’
‘Not your fuckun business,’ says Shakes.
‘I suppose not,’ says the fox equably. ‘The point is, without the rabbit you’re dead meat.’
He paws the ground. The foxes to either side of him stalk wordlessly right and left, their eyes on us and their bodies curving inward. And I’m just bracing for the first charge when Shakes goes over me like a frigging train. Really over me: an instant’s huge odour and pressure, tattoo of paws, rasp of his belly-hair in my face. ‘FOR THE POND!’ he roars. And flattened, through grass-blades, I see the big Rogie hesitate as if something rather important has just occurred to him, some major detail he has overlooked. Then the badger’s heaviness seems to fold him inside. ‘I tried to warn you!’ I cackle. The other two falter, swap looks, so I go pegging in — ‘FOR THE BOROUGH!’ — off-balance and extra-hectic. Shakes rears and yells, gore smoking off his muzzle-end: I tunnel three-legged under the ribs of the nearest fox. Right for the bollocks. ‘I’ll sac you, fucker!’ He shrieks, disengages: two foxes run away, one lies glug-glugging and then — a last quick frown of effort from Shakes — he’s done with.
‘Black Pond: one,’ I announce (panting rather). ‘Rogies: nil.’
Shakes is cleaning himself. ‘You dint do badly for a lame’un.’
‘I know! Right?’
‘We should move. Everyone knows were here now. Any damage on you.’
I check myself — a scrape or two, a bump, nothing. ‘Miraculously unscathed.’
‘Lets get on then. Go see your aunt Patsy.’
Forward. We bundle along unmetrically, we two, not that nice anapaestic trot-trot-flump I had with Champion. Free verse, you might say.
The second I get my snout inside Patsy’s wood I know she’s dead.
It’s not the vibe of dereliction, because let’s face it, housekeeping was never her thing. Her famous training course — the tyre, the bucket, the mattress at the the bottom of the world… And it’s not this empty, empty feeling: my aunt Patsy had ever a whiff of the void about her. No, what tells me the old girl’s gone is a distracting sense of her presence. She’s been diffused into the atmosphere! Spores of her mood adhere to my fur; her rattling, snitty voice is in my ear. The cold hang of the light beneath these trees is the tone of Patsy’s mind. Crazy old vixen. She helped me, in the end. No body smell yet, but she’s rotting around here somewhere…
‘She went out like a champ,’ says somebody on my unseeing right. I stagger. Where’s Shakes?
I twist around but whoever it is has moved, keeping himself in my darkness.
‘Billy Seven Wives sent Robo to expel her,’ the voice continues, ‘and she mauled him superbly. Very technical, Patsy. Then she went off and sat by herself and died.’
‘Stay still so I can see you.’
‘Why should I? I was always in your blind spot, Cocky.’
‘You what?’ That’s a bit clever-sounding. That’s a bit… ‘Weez?’
This time, when I turn my head, he’s there: tiny, erect, well-groomed, fierce-eyed, fibrillating with emotion. My Weasel Paul.
‘Speechless,’ he says.
Shakes comes crashing through the underwood, pulls up short when he sees us. I’ve told him about the Weez. ‘Uh. Just bin scoutun around,’ he says, voice deferentially lowered. ‘Foxes comun up from the canal. Big ones. Not like you. Uglier.’
‘Northsiders,’ says Weasel Paul.
‘In the Borough?’ I say.
‘You have been away, haven’t you? Let me put it to you like this: Billy is a shit boss. Under a shit boss, it all breaks down. Factionalism, despotism, special interests. Fox-eat-fox. That’s why I moved out here, to the free state of Patsonia.’
‘Your aunt had some progressive ideas. You were too wankered to see that, of course.’
‘Now hold on —’
Shakes interrupts: ‘We fightun these foxes or wot. Be here in a minute.’
I turn to the weasel: my old friend, fully present. He lifts an eyebrow. Things are looking up already.
Cocky, Shakes and Weasel Paul vs. the Northside? Wot a rumble!
Does the Borough’s political future lie with the free state of Patsonia?
And why is he now called Billy Seven Wives?
Find out in the next episode, on Thursday, January 20th.
THE SNIFFER: Current and recent issues of The Sniffer, a COCKY THE FOX newsletter written and edited by Patrick Cates, are available only to subscribers. The first fifteen are available here: #1 | #2 | #3 | #4 | #5 | #6 | #7 | #8 | #9 | #10 | #11 | #12 | #13 | #14 | #15.
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