Cocky the Fox (18)
January 20, 2011
HILOBROW is proud to present the eighteenth 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.
In Fit the Seventeenth, Cocky reconnected with Rumpy the badger and his attendant, Popjoy the squirrel. Rumpy treated him with respect, but Popjoy was his usual unpleasant self, composing a rhyme that cruelly mocked the Cockster. With the faithful Shakes at his side our hero travelled on, incidentally bashing up three unaffiliated rogue foxes or ‘Rogies’, and in Safeway Wood another old friend was met with: Weasel Paul. The awkwardness of Cocky’s reunion with his former consigliere was relieved by the approach of a hostile Northside crew. Time to fight!
Pressure of light between the trees: mid-morning smear and dazzle, with five foxes coming through it. Five foxes cresting the slope, all business, shuffling short-legged across wintry wood-slough. Northsiders. Four dogs and a vixen. Their smell goes ahead of them.
‘Strewth,’ says Shakes, wincing.
‘I know. Try not to inhale.’
One has spatters of green paint on his throat and chest. Another displays raw patches of skin, chemical burns or something. A third is missing an ear… Whelped in a plastic bag, suckled by a lawnmower: that’s your Northside look.
‘Second from the left,’ I say. ‘He’s the boss.’
He isn’t the biggest, but there’s an economy in his movement, and something proprietary in the way he turns his head. He spots us, scans us, says a word. And as they come within range he drops one shoulder and they all pull up. Bared teeth, some seething and straining, but they hold the line. Not bad.
‘Lovely day for a stroll,’ I say.
‘You must be Cocky the fox,’ he says.
This elicits a little snort of appreciation from Shakes. But the Northsider is unamused.
‘Gibby and Maurice were friends of ours.’
‘Gibby and Maurice,’ I say, abstractly. ‘Gibby and Mau-rice… Do we know those gentlemen, Shakes?
‘Not ringun a bell.’
‘No, not ringing a bell, sorry.’
(You’re wondering: where’s Weasel Paul? I’ll tell you. Not ten yards behind us a yellow bucket lies on its side, and it’s there that the weasel is hiding. All part of the plan.)
‘Gibby was in several pieces when we found him,’ continues the Northsider. ‘Head here, stomach there. Eyes gone.’
‘How upsetting for you.’
He’s getting riled now, growling a bit. ‘Maurice was still alive. He told us he’d been done by a treacherous badger.’
‘Dear oh dear,’ I say. ‘A treacherous badger. What do you think about that, Shakes?
‘Spect he pissed the badger off,’ says Shakes. ‘Very touchy badgers.’
From behind the Northsider, a wheedling low-born voice: ‘Come on, Orville. Let’s get stuck in.’
‘Quiet!’ he says, and the younger, bigger fox drops back and dips his head. Orville must be quite tasty: I think I’ll let Shakes deal with him. ‘What’d you come back for, Cocky? Foxes round here queueing up to rip your arse.’
‘All things must pass. Including my arse.’
‘And includun yours too,’ adds Shakes. ‘OR-VILLE.’
The Northsider’s eyes have the dead glare of a security light over a loading bay. He looks from me to the badger and back again, deliberately apportioning the hatred — the old Northside hatred for the Borough and all its wit and works, all its friendships, all its elegance, all its poetry, and hatred for the fox who moves lightly, with a sweet line, like a sideways treble-clef…
Then he chuckles.
‘Fucking Borough, I tell you,’ he says. ‘Fucking Ning Nang Nong. Fuck it. Alright lads.’
Shakes hits Orville with unearthly speed, knocking the air out of him — Guff! — and sending him over backwards. Waves of astonishment press outward as always but the crew doesn’t blink — they’re not Rogies, this lot. They’re hard. In their dreams they see forklifts and barking blue-overall’d men. Also, there’s five of them. One leaps snarling on Shakes’ back, the other three are looking at me. Turning, I cry ‘Well come on then you SAUSAGES!’ — an old taunt, a reference to the thick hips of the generic Northsider — and hobble wildly towards the weasel’s hiding-place. As I pass it, with two of them snapping at my brush, I hear him shrilling ‘Northside scum must die!’ in a bucket-distorted voice — the ambush is on! But the third fox thinks fast. He flips the bucket before the Weez can emerge, imprisoning him beneath it, and then sits on top. Scrabbles, screeches, claws on plastic — the Weez is trapped.
Well, it was never much of a plan. And now I’m fucked, aren’t I? Backed up against this tree and utterly scuppered! A dog fox and a vixen advance upon me, wet-mouthed, malevolent. Over their heads I see Shakes disappear under two heavy and fiercely writhing Northside bodies — Orville must have got himself back in the fight.
‘You’re not bad-looking,’ I say to the vixen. Actually she’s crosseyed. ‘You got any Borough in you?’ She shakes her head. ‘D’you want some?’
‘Fucking smooth-talking loverboy Borough BASTARD,’ spits the fox.
‘Ignore him,’ I say. ‘You and me, darling.’
She butts me under the chin with quite stunning force. My front feet leave the ground! Coming down, my head clangs off one of the great buttress-roots of this tree. Groan. Then I’m smothered, Northside bristles in my face, Northside pong and Northside darkness all over, with forepaws brusquely applied to my chest and teeth fastened in my neck. Countdown to (as we say in the Borough) rippage.
The ravens snap their clapperboard. Life, oh Life, we never understood each other!
But what’s this? Daylight? There’s a drumming in the ground, dead leaves twitch and then WALLOP. The Northsiders are erased from my sight. An enormous shout is raised overhead, and four half-frozen birds lurch up in stiff-winged terror.
‘LUCID AND TERRIBLE HIS SINGLE EYE! A CORKSCREW OF FURY IN HIS KNACKERED LEG!’
A large face fills my vision — white snout with black V’s over the eyes. Above it some piece of wailing decrepitude goes through the high branches.
‘HE KNOWS DEATH, DEATH KNOWS HIM! THE KING OF THE WOODS!’
‘Still with us, Cocky?’ says Rumpy the badger.
‘I believe so. Is that… Popjoy up there?’
‘Back in a minute.’
He gallops on, flanks rolling. Raising my head I see the dog fox laid out next to me, deeply unconscious and buzzing slightly, and the vixen showing a clean pair of heels fifty yards away. ‘Nice arse!’ I shout. ‘Come back!’ A roar from behind me — ‘Dint your mate Maurice TELL you about this!’ That’s Shakes. Fighting alongside Rumpy? Bloody hell what a pair. Even Holiday Bob only ever had one badger.
The fox sitting on top of Weasel Paul’s bucket is still there, looking very miserable. I appreciate his position.
‘The problem is,’ I say, ‘when you eventually climb off of there, which you will have to do, and let him out, he’s going to be rather irritated.’
The fox whimpers.
‘I’m surprised you didn’t think of that.’
‘Help us out, Borough,’ he says.
‘Me? I’m clearing the area.’
Blood in my one eye, damn it. I smear at it with a paw, tottering forward, and then through red murk see Rumpy and Shakes dragging Orville towards me. A dead fox lies behind them. Dead, dead, dead. Evacuated of interest.
‘That was beautiful that.’ Shakes is addressing Rumpy. ‘Wot was that.’
‘Heh heh. Wanna know the secret of fox-fighting, son?’
‘I do yeah.’
‘You get ‘em in the doubts.’
‘Between the legs you mean.’
‘No! You get ‘em in their doubtful hearts. They’ve all got doubts. All of them. Even the gamest. Even a Northsider! Being a fox is what you might call a doubtful condition. Right, Cocky?’
‘He’s right,’ I say.
‘So that’s where you get ’em.’
Orville’s coming round, hanging between the two badgers. ‘Better finish me off, Cocky,’ he coughs, as his eyes regain their focus.
‘Not at all,’ I say. ‘You’re going to deliver a message for me. It’s very simple. I want you to tell Lost Johnny this: Northside for the Northside, Borough for the Borough. Respect the boundary. Think you can remember that?’
‘You can’t run this place,’ says Orville. ‘It’s too late.’
Shakes cuffs him in the back of the head. ‘Dont be cheeky.’
‘Dismissed,’ says Rumpy, sending him on his way with a kick. So this is what it feels like to have muscle. I could get used to this.
‘Well Flossie,’ says Popjoy, who has alighted. ‘I see you are dictating events.’
‘With a little help from my friends,’ I say. ‘Nice timing!’
‘Try not to get too excited. This is about real estate.’
‘We’re moving in here,’ says Rumpy. ‘We need to be closer to town.’
‘Better amenities,’ says Popjoy.
‘You’re moving into the free land of Patsonia?’
‘It’s not as if we have nothing to offer,’ says Popjoy.
‘We were thinking,’ says Rumpy. ‘Some kind of training school. An obstacle course, a ring for sparring.’
What can I say? ‘I LOVE it!’
To the rear, a sudden squalling.
‘That’ll be the Weez,’ I say. ‘Coming out of his bucket.’
The Northsider tears past us, wide-eyed and bleeding, lashed by trails of his own saliva.
And the two badgers boom softly with laughter.
I’ve been missing my cubs, my sons and daughters. Fruit of my loins, most dear to me. I’m sure I’ve mentioned them. My three fine boys: Fester, Lester and Chester. And my girls, my beauties: Esther and Hester. I think there might be another one too but I’ve forgotten him/her. I couldn’t be prouder of them all, at any rate. I don’t say I’ve been the greatest example to them, or the most constant father. Nonetheless, they know who I am. The night of their birth I was… well, I was in the area. I must have been.
Here’s one of my boys anyway, standing guard at the top of the bank overlooking my den, all splendidly grown-up and face-of-thunderish.
‘Now hang on,’ I say. ‘Hang on. Don’t tell me. Fester!’
‘Er — Lester!’
‘…Chester?’ He contemplates me sourly. ‘Alright, alright. Is your mum here?’
He steps aside, very sullen, and nods in the direction of the den.
This place used to be one of my spots, up on this bank. I’d lie here on a hot afternoon — oh, how many times — thinking about vixens, thinking about dental floss, Red Bull, Peking Duck, thinking about who I should beat up, and so decline, not unhappily, into a mood of festering sensualism. This was my state for many months, for most of my life perhaps. All seems very far away now. Did I lose something out there on my travels, I wonder? What if I let some wisp of the old foxy phogiston escape me? Some breath of it go puffing out of me? If my vixen rejects me now…
There she is, her back to me, burying something. Poor dipped head. She’s lost a lot of weight. Twiggy little ribs I see, and those neat hips jolting now beneath the skin. Still that lovely, deadly tautness in her line though. Still my vixen.
‘Nora it’s me.’
She doesn’t turn, but sits down suddenly and heavily. Plop. Was that me, Cocky, making her go weak at the knees? Or is it just relief, relief that her fox is back: she does look terribly alone. And she was never made for aloneness, my vixen.
‘Let’s have a look at you,’ I say. And slowly she turns. Someone’s savaged her face: there’s a twistedness to it now, and a rubble of scar tissue across the nose.
‘Nora,’ I say, very moved.
‘You should see the other fox,’ she says.
‘Heh. What about me?’ Thrusting out my muzzle I show her my scrunched and lightless eyehole, this collapsed celestial object on one side of my head. ‘And then of course there’s…’ I wobblingly rotate my crooked peg in the air.
‘I like it better,’ she says. ‘You were too handsome before.’
‘And you were too beautiful. It was intolerable.’
I scrabble down the slope and jump at her. She lays her head against my neck. How different this is from my imaginings! In my mind I saw us almost frozen with dudgeon, moving in stiff circles, quacking out one-liners. But here we are deep among the old endearments. Somehow we’re giving each other a break. The crimes, the catalogued crimes, the long annals of offence and counter-offence… Laid aside, for now. Nyum nyum nyum, nickety-nack, adorable foxette — if they dare touch a hair on your head… Well, another hair on your head… We break from our nuzzlings because there’s some arguing over on the other side of the bank. I can hear my son Chester yapping off, and then the answering vibration of Shakes, low-voiced and conciliatory.
‘That’s my badger,’ I say.
‘Chester’ll have a pop at anybody,’ says Nora. ‘He’s the most like you.’
‘Maybe that’s why I’m so horrible to him,’ she says, the idea clearly occurring to her for the first time.
‘But he loves his mum. Very loyal. Unlike you in that respect, I suppose.’
‘He’s been protecting me.’
‘From your fucking cousin, among others.’ She surveys me again, with more scrutiny this time. ‘How’s your fighting these days?’
The row is getting louder.
‘Excuse me for a second,’ I say.
Chester, the little idiot, is right in Shakes’ face. ‘I dont want to hit im Cocky,’ says Shakes.
‘I’m not having this lump hanging around our den!’
‘Mr Shakes happens to be a colleague of mine, Chester.’
‘I couldn’t give a fuck.’
‘A very distinguished colleague. He’s travelled with me all the way from the Black Pond.’
‘Well he can fuck off back there. And so can you.’
‘Watch your mouth, junior. A momentary contraction of my gonads, that’s all you are.’
‘Ahur,’ says Shakes. Chester flies at him and then seems surprised to find himself three feet away, in a heap, while Shakes thoughtfully rubs his right paw.
‘Sorry Cock,’ says the badger.
‘It’s alright. Now Chester. Chester — listen to me. Sit on him, would you Shakes? There. Chester, this is your father speaking. This is Cocky the fox. Squash him again, please, Shakes. Thank you. Okay. Now listen, Chester. You obviously don’t mind making a twat of yourself, and that’s a virtue in my book. The question is, do you KNOW when you’re making a twat of yourself?’
‘Wanker!’ says my son, with difficulty, from beneath the weight of Shakes. ‘Deadbeat dad! I’m not listening to you.’
‘I’m not the one you’re angry with, kiddo.’
‘Oh yes you are!’
‘No. No, son. No. The one you’re really angry with is that low-rent gangster Billy Five Wives… I mean Seven Wives.’
‘Whatever. He’s a hollow fox, a boss of nothing. He upset your mum. He’s the one you need to go after. And today is your lucky day, because Mr Shakes and myself are going after him too. Now will you stop this silliness and join us?’
He ceases his struggles. ‘You’re going after Billy?’
‘You bet your red arse we are.’
‘Times up for that crew,’ says Shakes. ‘The ravens are singun.’
‘The ravens are singing…’ says Chester. ‘I like that.’
‘Can I then instruct Mr Shakes to climb off you?’
‘I want to fight Billy. I want to fight alongside you.’
‘And what do you say to Mr Shakes?’
‘I’m sorry Mr Shakes.’
‘No problum,’ says Shakes, heaving himself to his feet.
‘Let me just tell mum,’ says Chester, adding ‘You’re still a dickhead.’ Then he disappears over the bank.
‘Understandable,’ says Shakes after a pause. ‘The anger I mean. Abandonment.’
‘Listen, if his mother can forgive me then he fucking can as well.’
‘Harder for the kids though.’
Where are Cocky’s other children?
What day of the week is this?
And will the Northside be subdued by Cocky’s new hard line?
Find out in the next episode, on Thursday, February 3rd.
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