HILOBROW is proud to present James Parker’s The Ballad of Cocky the Fox, a serial tale in twenty fits (April 2010 — February 2011), with illustrations by Kristin Parker.
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.
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.
A gloom, a glowering. Heavy-legged with rancour I stalk the quiet streets. These are the wee hours, when the town can only think of one or two things at a time, its powers of concentration dwindled to the whine of a streetlight or some rain on the bosom of a speedbump. And me, here, sleuthing moodily by walls and closed gates.
My fuse is short. Some tit of a bicyclist goes by – out of nowhere, into nowhere, the amnesiac whizz of his wheels — and I go bananas. ‘Rats, foxes, fucking WHO-E-VER!’ I bawl at him. ‘Come at Cocky, you’re gonna LOOOOSE!’
What’s my problem? Politics.
‘It would be politic, Cocky the fox, for you to make a gesture of loyalty to your cousin.’
Thus Weasel Paul, two hours ago, establishing the theme of the evening. I was taking my rest in the hutch, and he spoke to me from beneath it, his voice poking at me through the plywood floor. ‘He is the new boss, duly elected, and nobody knows quite where you stand on that. You were close to Holiday Bob. Your intentions at this time are obscure.’
‘It makes for uneasiness, a poor atmosphere. Beasts like clarity.’
‘Bloody hell. Why can’t everybody just leave me alone?’
‘Because, you lazy bastard! Lying up there in a heap. You’re making trouble for all of us!’
He was in an awful mood, Weasel Paul, a right huff, the result of an earlier thing. Apparently he’d tried one of his little trance dances on a couple of bored-looking mice, over in his spinney behind the all-night garage there, and it hadn’t gone well. Instead of being transfixed by his recitations and eerie motions, and offering themselves up as lunch, they shrugged and pissed off. The Weez was fuming!
‘Alright, alright,’ I said, quite mellow in my hutch-bed, thigh to thigh with a dozing Champion. Plus I was on half a bottle of nail polish and a puddle of Red Bull. ‘Listen. Those mice. Maybe you just did the wrong routine, eh.’
‘The wrong routine?’ Small sounds of rage from below: frettings and gnawings and tearings of grass-blades. ‘The wrong routine? Never in all their shivering mouse-hours had they seen something so sinister and enchanting!’
‘If you say so.’
‘Cocky, I invited them to awaken from this fool’s dream of a life! To discover truth on the point of my puncturing tooth! I squirmed, I was tricky!’
‘And they didn’t go for it?’
‘They heckled me.’
Oh dear. That was bad. ‘Small minds, Weez.’
‘The old charms of the wood, Cock — they’re losing their power.’ This spoken with sadness. I peered over the edge of the hutch and there he was: my friend the weasel, my consigliere, on his back in the grass, looking up at me with his weeny eyes that cross like two beams converging on a target.
‘Nonsense,’ I said. ‘You misread your audience. Big deal!’
‘I’m telling you, since Bob died it’s all been out of whack. Imbalances, insubordinations. Grudges renewed. Which is why…’
He leaped up, started bustling about and throwing weaselly shapes. ‘Why you have to get your arse over to the Yard and settle it with Billy! The Borough needs a boss. The lid’s been off too long.’
‘All for our amusement, the blackbird said.’ That was Champion, bizarrely. In an entranced and sacerdotal monotone, with his eyes still shut.
‘Wait — what?’ I said.
‘What did he say?’ said Weasel Paul.
Eyebrows raised, we scrutinized the Champ, who said nothing more but breathed deeply, blissfully.
‘He is odd, you know,’ said the Weez at last.
‘Tell me about it.’ Big sigh from me. ‘Alright look, I’m going to do this.’ What could it hurt? I should check in with Billy. He might have something for me. A position. ‘In fact,’ and I creaked to my feet, ‘I’ll do it right now.’
‘Good boy. Heed the word of the weasel.’
I gave Champion a kick in the ribs. ‘Back in a bit.’
‘Love you,’ he mumbled, in his own voice.
‘Need some back-up?’ said Weasel Paul. ‘Billy has his whole crew over there.’
‘What are you gonna do, shake your hips at them?’
‘Comedian. They’re not your friends, that lot.’
‘I’ll see you later.’
Actually the Weez is a fearsome fighter: I’d never bet against him. I’ve seen him back down cats, rat-squads, even a dog or two. And when he goes at it with another weasel, crikey, get out the way. Rolling and flipping and flying about, like two fireworks in a tangle… They go white-hot, an ecstasy of antagonism. Step anywhere near it and you’re liable to lose a toe. Weasels and foxes haven’t fought for a while. Officially, that is: there might have been a skirmish over a dead wood pigeon, a bit of hissing and bristling. But the late Holiday Bob was good pals with Mackie Viles, ‘King Of The Stoats’, and it seemed to trickle down, in the Bob style. Fox-weasel amity. These days, though, who knows?
It was Bob, too, who picked out the Yard for us. Perfect spot — snug inside the territory, but close enough to the edge that we can keep an eye on things. A car-place, a garage-scrapheap, full of wrecks and rebirths and zombie chunks of engine. We use it for meet-ups, and as a staging area for some of our capers. Or we used to — lately it’s just been more of a hangout for Borough types who don’t know what to do with themselves. I came by the other night and found an old-timer called Dorsey weeping into a Chinese. The state of him — he’d eaten half the polystyrene tray as well. I mean, really. Get it together, Dorsey!, I said, but he just blinked at me and ground his plum sauce jaws.
The way into the Yard is under the fence; one strip of corrugated iron is browning and twisted up at the bottom, with a scuff-hole in the earth beneath to widen the gap. I swarmed through and there, in the bonkers glare of the security light, was my cousin Billy Five Wives mounting his vixen Trixie. One of his vixens, I should say, because you know Billy. He staggered slightly on the stilts of his hind legs, inelegant, his paws on her shoulders, throwing desultory glances — the only time you’ll see a fox looking absent-minded is when he’s shagging — as she backed patiently into him.
‘She loves it,’ rumbled a phlegmy voice beside me.
‘Shut up, Tony Volpe.’ Tony Volpe is the Yard’s disgusting old watchdog, a collapsed mastiff with x-ray ribs and black stains on his face from years of eye-seep. Holiday had some arrangement with him, bribed him or threatened him into a state of snickering passivity. A very off-colour animal, he’s been getting noticeably worse in recent weeks. I put down the robbings I’d scored on the way over: the sachet of moisturizer, the almost uneaten kebab. ‘Touch that and I’ll have you.’
‘How can I touch it if I just died of fright?’ Wuffles of sour amusement.
Billy spotted me. ‘Cocky! Just a second mate. Ooh. Ooh yeah. Whew! Right — how are you?’
‘Popped by to pay my respects, Bill. To the new boss, like.’
He frowned, gave himself a shake. Billy’s a doing fox, always on the go. What’s next? might be his motto. ‘You remember Trixie?’
Did I remember Trixie. Trixie was looking very nice, very ripe, quite velvety and sated. Onto her side she flipped and then began idly to prettify herself, combing a foreleg with her teeth, her tail-tip teasing the air. Her parents were Ramble-Ons, low-born rustics, but still: what a vixen! Where she rolls there’s scorchmarks. I gave her a hooded covetous glare, whiskers like sparks, flaring my lewdness. Come on, come on, you bitch — you need a little rotter like me. You know you do.
‘Something wrong with your eyes, Cock?’ said Billy.
‘They’re sort of bulging a bit, that’s all.’
‘Allergies,’ I said, but took a submissive step backwards. Billy’s a big proud fox, thick-bellied and sleek with muscle. Our last scuffle left me with my ears ringing.
‘And where have you been, Cocky?’ asked Trixie, soft and solicitous, from her warp of sexual heat. ‘Haven’t seen much of you lately.’
‘Oh you know,’ I muttered. ‘Here and there. Getting my scene together.’
I flinched, goggled. Nora. Billy cleared his throat. ‘Step into my office, Joe Cocker.’ He nodded at the desecrated Volvo that had been Bob’s war room, entrance through the broken rear windscreen. ‘Let’s have a chat.’ Obediently I jumped in.
And almost landed on Robo. A large and aromatic fox of tremendous stupidity who was sitting there waiting for me. Whoops!
‘Alright Cocky.’ Staring at me like the lump that he is.
‘Robo! Shit! Er, paws or claws?’
No answer. ‘Good manners cost nothing, you know,’ I said, a bit tart. Who did he think he was? Billy joined us, rasping his bulk swiftly through the windscreen-hole. The two of them on the back seat, me opposite, wrapped tentatively around the gear stick. It crossed my mind: Was Paul right? Am I going to get mauled in here? But Billy seemed relaxed, settling back presidentially into the torn upholstery. Spurs of glass glinted in his dark coat.
‘You know this could be you sitting here, right?’ he said.
‘Borough boss. It could be you!’
‘Well,’ I coughed. ‘Naturally I —’
Leaning forward: ‘Listen to me, Cocky. I’m a game fox. I know that. I can flatten all the talent for miles. I can flatten you. And I’m quick, too, with my mind.’ He gave a fox-yawn. ‘I’m decisive. It’s why the vixens like me. I think of something, it happens. Bang! Am I right?’
‘And I can tell a beast what to do. Robo here would run into a brick wall for me.’ Robo continued to stare me down, fatuous with menace. One day, fuckface. ‘But acumen? Seeing through things, to the motives behind? Nah. You and Bob, that was your department. The pranks, the head trips. All that private laughter between you.’
‘True, true,’ I said. This was good stuff, very perspicacious of Billy. I hadn’t thought him so insightful. ‘They used to call us ‘The Academy’, didn’t they? Ha ha!’
‘Did they? Well anyway. You’re top level, Cock, in that respect. Leadership material. And still quite handy, yeah? I heard about your little rumpus at the bakery. That Hughes is no pushover.’
‘Past his best,’ I demurred. ‘Too many buns.’
‘So I would have spoken up for you at the round-up. I really would. Others too, probably.’
‘BUT.’ He sighed. ‘You’re a wreck, aren’t you, since Bob went? I mean let’s face it, you’re all over the place. You’ve abandoned your vixen and cubs —’
‘She abandoned me! Nora, she -’
‘Ach!’ Now he looked disgusted. ‘Where’s your pride, fox? Pissed out with all the mouthwash. These wanker’s pursuits of yours.’
‘I’m self-medicating, Bill, if you must know. There’s a certain amount of stress in my life right now.’
‘Stress my arse. And the rabbit! Seriously, Cocky. Living in a hutch? It’s a bleedin’ embarrassment.’
‘Not your business, is it, Billy Five, where I lay my head.’
‘Oh no? I’m the boss now. Me. And I run a clean organisation. Foxes keep to their own, and we leave the chemicals for the toerags on the Northside, for Lost Johnny and his mob.’
‘All the lost johnnies,’ added Robo.
‘That’s right, Robo,’ said Billy. And then to me: ‘Cousin or no cousin, you’ll follow the code.’
‘Balls. I do what I want.’
‘Not in my Borough you don’t.’
‘Your Borough? Do me a favour.’
A taut grin from Billy. ‘I’ll be honest, Cocky. I wasn’t looking forward to this conversation. But now I’m starting to enjoy myself. You’re going back to your den tonight, and you’ll say whatever you have to say to Nora, and tomorrow night you report to Robo here, and he’ll have a little job for you. And if you’re not sober as an astronaut, I’ll hear about it.’
Robo was looking at me like I was about to make his night. But against those two? Inside a car? I’m not suicidal, not quite. So I gave Billy a very formal snarl, signalling Dissatisfaction and Protest, and made my exit.
Outside Trixie was on her feet, tensed for imminent aggro. And behind her, like a smirk on four legs, was that tosser Blandley. I might have known. This little rigmarole in the car – far too finely-tuned a piece of anti-Cockery for Billy. It had Blandley’s pawprints all over it!
‘You,’ I seethed.
‘Not to worry, Cocky-Locky,’ he said, all cream. ‘I’m sure you can work your way up again.’
‘Think I’ll forget this, Blandley? ‘Cause I won’t!’
‘I’d be rather hurt if you did.’ And he slid away, and Billy and Robo were leaving the Yard too. ‘Come on, Trixie,’ said Billy.
Trixie! Over the soft coil of her shoulder she gave me a humid look of pity, in parting. Now that really crushed me.
‘Rrrrrrr… I’ll take ’em ALL on! I’ll do them like THIS —’ I gave a feint with my head, to my left, a flycatcher, snapping at air. ‘And like THIS —’ To the right! Nyap! Nyap! ‘And then a little bit of THIS —’ A flurry of shadowboxing, and I fell over and scraped my nose.
‘Yep,’ said a voice. ‘That’s deadly stuff alright.’
‘Shut up, Tony Volpe,’ I said, and heard a soggy-muzzled chortle between walls of dead car.
I picked up my robbings and headed for ‘home.’
And now, rolling grimly up the garden at the night’s end, I hear murmurings from the hutch. The door is open; there’s the smudge of paleness that is Champion, almost phosphorescent at this hour, and next to him the narrow form of the weasel. Are they talking about me? What else could they be talking about? Their voices in quiet communion, domed by the approaching dawn: the thin, confidential voice of Weasel Paul, the louder unmusical voice of the Champ. Outrageous, after the night I’ve had. Intolerable to me is this gentleness, this early-morning mutuality. I must destroy it!
‘Worst consigliere EVER!!’ I screech, loud enough to bring answering woofs and cackles from the surrounding gardens.
‘What happened?’ Paul’s shape rises in the dim hutch.
‘You and your analyses! Useless! They made a wanker out of me over there!’
‘Kebab?’ suggests Champion. Greedy rabbit: he can smell it.
‘Wait,’ says Paul. ‘Wait. I know what happened. Your cousin had a go at you and you lost your temper. You blew it.’
‘Call yourself a weasel? I’d get better advice from a fucking hamster!’
Two warning jolts of red from his eyes, like brake-lights. ‘Watch it, Cocky… We’re friends, but —’
‘I should have asked Champion what to do!’
The Weez’s head is weaving from side to side, his upper lip peeling back. ‘You don’t want to get on my mental side, fox.’ He clicks his teeth. ‘My dental side, know what I mean?’
‘Oh, give me some of that, then, go on,’ Kneading the ground with my forepaws. ‘Let me taste it. How bored I am with this chitty-chatter! For weeks you’ve been chitty-chattering at me. And you’re a crap dancer.’
‘Oh yeah?’ He’s bobbing about like Prince Nas now, snake-necked, all fluffed up with fury. ‘Oh yeah? Then fucking COME ON!!!!’
And he flies at me, full stretch, his little fanatic’s face zooming in from between the white V-sign of Champion’s ears. Gah! And then for a time I seem to be not so much ‘fighting’ as ‘catastrophically involved in a vortex of weasel-ness.’ Bites from everywhere, insults from everwhere, ‘Die, you foxy bastard!’ in both ears although he’s not trying to kill me, is he? I hope he isn’t. Vainly I swipe, I gnash, I got my teeth into something there but it might have been my own leg…? More than one of him in this attack, surely — some weaselly fission has occurred and there are several Pauls whizzing round and round, unfooting me, beating me. The vehemence is terrible, the speed. ‘Okay! Okay!’ I shout. So it ends: Cocky on his back, bemused and smarting and trussed in invisible wires.
Sparrows prattle around us. The air cools. I’m entering a state of serenity, all passion spent etc. But I think I’ve hurt Weasel Paul’s feelings. Look — there he goes, limping for the fence, his shoulders congested with sorrow. Oh dear!
‘Oi,’ I say. ‘Weez. Come back.’
But he doesn’t.
‘So what’ll it be, French?’ Silence. Just the hum of his mystique. Fucking cat! I’m on top of the hutch, waving my paws about in the vivid after-rain evening, and French Edward from two gardens over is down there giving me the cat-stare. I know what he wants: he wants his Old Spice, his regular tipple. And I know he wants it now, otherwise he wouldn’t be getting his precious arse wet in this unmown grass. But if I wait for him to ask me for it, I’ll die of old age.
‘Can I offer you something, French Edward? A drink?’ The pores of the evening are open; the garden is being generous with its smells. Soft personalities roam the middle air. My nostrils, though, are scratchy, and I’ve got the twitches. There’s a crumbling at my margins, a feeling I know of old: the encroachment of error. And this cat, to be honest, this frowning minimalist before me, is not helping.
‘Well,’ I say, ‘maybe next time, eh?’ And make as if to descend from my perch, gathering my bottles and samples, when French springs up soft-footed next to me. Hilarious, the feline leap! Shocking speed, and then the instant restoration of poise, as if to move at all had been a lapse in taste.
‘My Old Thpithe, pleathe,’ he says. All cats lisp.
‘Of course, mate, sorted. And you’ll be paying me in…?’
‘Pork pieth.’ His eyes, level with mine, seek to initiate me into the higher cat-mathematics.
‘What kind of pork pies?’
‘Jolly good. Could you make it half a dozen this time? He really likes them.’ I nod at the hutch beneath us. ‘His Nibs.’
Again with the cat-stare, the heatless glare.
‘Probably not what I should be giving him,’ I babble, ‘but he’s just so stubborn when it comes to —’
‘Your couthin know you’re thtill dealing?’
‘Billy? Fuck him.’
Town-sound goes up around us, a vague unanswerable roar.
‘And the Horde?’ says French Edward slyly. ‘I heard you’d been declared Undethirable.’ He’s quite right. Mother Mercury’s been preaching against me in her cellar, anathematising the Cockster. Her presence floating over the rat-mob, bloated like an out-of-date carton of something or other. Undesirable — me!!
‘Let ’em come. I’d eat rat brains every day if they didn’t give me the shits.’
‘Quite, quite.’ His most Zen look, one of supernaturally candid appraisal. ‘Lonely, aren’t you?’
‘New moon tonight. Careful out here, Cocky.’ The disc of a face, for a second, seems to be fringed with abstract fire. Then he picks up his aftershave and skims away.
Fucking cat! Lonely? I’ve got friends all over this Borough! And a couple out in the country as well. I mean, yes, I did have that small disagreement with Weasel Paul, my consigliere… And when I think of my cousin Billy Five Wives and his crew my heart goes black with vengeance… And then of course there’s Nora. Sigh. Nora, my vixen, whose deep simple love is gone from my life. She’s stopped loving me; I can feel it. Without her love the earth draws harder at my bones, and I sink into carnality, bad habits. What’ll I be without her love? A dead one, soon enough. A hairy rubble of organs in some lot somewhere, melting away. A stain, with the ground stealing my minerals. Depressing? I think so. I’m quite fucking depressed about it. For the day does lag and the bones do sag/And the earth drags at your bollock-bag… (One of the Weasel’s, that. You’re a poet, Weez!)
Nora, sweet Nora, trotting and skipping ahead of me with her winking vixen-parts, through the cloudy grey-green nettle beds! I came upon her, light of step and neat of hip, the exact and freshly-discovered shape of my desire. This, apparently, was what I’d been after all along; these were the specifications. So we nipped and tumbled and somersaulted in circles, tightening centripetally towards the moment of fox-on-fox. A sample of our chat (add the panting and the clack of teeth):
— I’m the fox for you. The big dog fox for you.
— Could you please me? I don’t think so.
— Pleasing you is not what I’m after.
— You’re lacking in brains, fox. The vixen poked by you makes a litter of stupids.
— Don’t bring our children into this. This is between you and me.
— Not yet it isn’t.
And so on. Just good clean foxy banter, round and round. I had her in the end of course, on top of a heap of wet leaves; those loins were narrow and wobblingly gained, but Cocky gets his way. And as we sank together into our aftermath, all pressure off, I grew amorous. ‘Where I go, you go, little thing,’ I said. ‘And I’ll batter the fox that comes near you.’
But now I have no love, and now I see my death, and the rude weeds that will poke up around my scattered giblets.
‘She stuck with me through thick and thin!’ I thump on the hutch roof with a back foot, desperately. ‘Champ! Champignon! Do you hear me?’
We parted badly, my Nora and I, but at the moment of our parting she still loved me. It was summertime and I was in the den — a disused garden shed — with Hughes and Hayes. We’d been in there all day, doing hits of conditioning mousse. Foam from a spraycan, great quivering chunks of it, we gobbled it down, we had a session. Hughes had been posturing and reciting something, Hayes had a sick wet grin on his face, and I was just lolling, degraded, a rotted king on a throne of splints. Cans clanked — the cubs were rolling the empties back and forth across the floor, weak and irritable with hunger. I smelled the brisk stink of approaching Nora — her shockwave of Nora-ness — and realized I’d been dreading her, dreading her. But then I thought: Fuck it.
So in she comes, through a hole in the wall, bristling with sobriety and daylight. Total buzzkill — even Hayes looked up, his grotty rapture pierced — but I feigned cheeriness. The hearty husband. ‘Alright doll?’ I said. ‘I’ve got Hughes and Hayes over.’
‘The atmosphere in here is disgusting,’ she said.
‘Join us in some mousse, Nora?’ said Hughes, smirking. What a shit-stirrer! Nora picked up one of the cubs, who were now complaining loudly at her feet.
‘No one fed you, I suppose,’ she said. ‘Any foraging, Cocky?’
‘Now hold on,’ I said. ‘Hold on a frigging minute. Where have you been all day?’
‘I’ve been finding us another den, you idiot.’
‘Oh yeah, that’s right…’
‘You IDIOT,’ said Hayes, and bayed abruptly with loose-lunged laughter. We all jumped except Nora, who bared her teeth. ‘Out!’ she hissed. Not to be trifled with, my girl. Bloody Nora they used to call her.
‘Sorry about Hughes and Hayes,’ I said when they were gone, having suffered much winking and leering from Hughes on his way out. ‘Bob never really liked those two.’
She said nothing and started bustling about, ‘clearing the place up.’
‘What?’ I said. ‘WHAT? Because I had some friends over? Damn it, Nora!’ My whole being vibrated grandly with offense. The cubs were piled up on each other in a corner, heads squirmed out of sight: they hate a row. And then ‘BUT—’ I was saying, and ‘BUT—’ she was saying, while shimmering bands of wrath overlapped in the air between us. ‘How come you don’t get beaten up more often, Cocky?’ That was one of her comments. ‘Eat my shit!!’ That was another. She called me a fake fox. I laughed. All of it was unforgiveable. I accused her of wanting to bite my balls off: she cursed me with her eye, and I felt it settle over me like some sort of whitening ague, like something that might bring down a tree in about fifty years.
‘My testicles for breakfast, yeah!’ I said. ‘And don’t look at me like that. Unless you want a clump.’
Then she put the claw on me. She did! She blazed out with a right to my head and left a hot, bleeding groove over one eye.
‘Oh, you’ve done it now, Nora,’ I said, cowering. ‘We’re finished!’
‘I decide when we’re finished. Now fuck off!’
So I did. I fucked off. ‘That looks painful!’ chirped Minstrel the squirrel as I wobbled out into the afternoon, and if not for the blood running into my eye I’d have had him — he barely made it up the tree in time.
And where did I go, after my row with Nora? I went to the garden. Or rather, I found myself there. Again. For weeks — ever since they pulled Holiday Bob out of the old canal, really — I’d been showing up at the hutch on my way home, at bender’s end, coming down off this or that, or with a fight reverberating in my cells like a struck gong. Consoled, I suppose, by his haiku-like conversation style, and the tragic noisy relish with which he’d scarf up any titbit I chose to throw his way, I’d become a bit of a regular chez Champion. My trail in the dewy grass behind me, dark splashes breaking the silver, I’d cool my furious belly in the dampness and just blabber away at him — my issues, my anxieties. His ears would move, responding. Ah, the garden, the garden, in the hour of the snail. My chillout zone!
This time was different, though. It was mid-morning and the poor rabbit was half-drowned in the back corner of the hutch, a real mess, blinking between drooped and sozzled ears, his fur churned, his meagre straw blasted about and the hutch-walls all dark and wet. What’s all this?, I said. Shivering, he told me the story. The fat kid, his owner, had only been trying out his new mega-water-pistol on him — his Super Soaker! Pinning down the Champ with hose-like lateral fire. Little prick! In my mind I could hear his shrill glutted laugh. Champion still doesn’t get it, incidentally; he worships his owner despite everything. I can never utter a bad word about this kid for fear of a big sulk. ‘He was p-p-playing with me!’ he said that morning, the words brayed through chattering teeth.
I looked at him there, in his compartment of wire and wood. His life was no pleasure cruise, was it?
‘I just thought of something,’ I said.
‘Me and you, pal. We’re gonna be roommates.’
When I wake from my nap everything has changed. Night is around us now, cool, dark and instantaneous, and now I see that little fang of a moon up there. I’m alert. I’m spry. I’m slightly less ill than I was. I smell action. ‘What’s up?’ I say.
Champion’s sore red eyes are on me and he’s all clenched, chugging like a generator, the fear-fumes rising.
‘Rats!’ he groans.
Ah yes. That’s what I’m getting, the air is all a-whine with it — that thin inimical rat-stink. Lots of them, near in the darkness. I’ve been expecting this. I squint through the hutch-wire: rat-eyes prickle, like the lights of a distant slum. Rat-action, under the rat-grin moon.
‘Okay,’ I say, ‘Alright. But let’s try to keep it together, shall we?’ Scaredness is like champagne to rats. Right to their heads.
‘FC?’ gibbers Champion.
‘Nah, nah,’ I say. ‘No FC anymore.’ Which is true, as far as it goes. Let me explain. Rats, being so stickily numerous, are very gang-oriented — they can’t stop clumping together and forming things. Like the FC — the Friendship Club — a rat-gang that was very big around here a few months ago. Large enforcer rats who snorted bleach and were scary, into really rotten violence, heads gnawed off and so on. Not quite crazy, they pretended to be, which is so much worse. Some of the saner soldier-rats quit the Horde because of them — from what I understand it was quite a drain on the officer class. But worth it, because the rep that the Friendship Club had was tremendous, just tremendous. For a couple of weeks the name alone could send any beast back down his hole, me included. But then their legend undid them, as tends to happen. Younger, unaffiliated rats and small-timers started claiming they were FC, like the swaggering pube who snatched a packet of Jelly Tots out of Champion’s rigid forepaws one day, which of course he’s never forgotten. This callow rat just leaned in through the wonky hutch-wire, sneered ‘FC!’ and helped himself, leaving Champion aghast for weeks.
‘They broke up the FC,’ I tell him. ‘This lot here are the BRG.’
‘BRG?’ The Burly Ragged Gentlemen: another gang. Mother M. encourages them. Gang life keeps her rats keen, and factionalism suits her ruling style. Pitting one crew against another is how she stays on top, and the resulting casualties are never a problem — no shortage of rats, after all.
‘Yeah. One rat, two rats, three rats, four…’
He brightens. ‘BRG knocking on your door!’
‘That’s it!’ Champion and I enjoy the various battle-rhymes that are bandied about the Borough. ‘Five rats, six rats, seven rats, eight…’
‘Never clever to make ’em wait!’ He’s cheered up a bit now, which is good — don’t want his terror-vibes wafting over to those greedy rats.
‘You got it!’ I say, full of encouragement. ‘Now if you listen, you can hear them grooming.’
This turns out to be a mistake. Halfway down the garden fence, shadowed from the house lights, there’s a lot of dabbing and mewing and slurping going. The BRG always groom extensively before battle. They come prancing in with whiskers knotted, all vicious and dandified and shining with rat-spit. Their top boy, Ambrose, even gives himself a sort of filthy centre-parting, spreading the fur between his ears with prissy pink rat-hands. Anyway, Champion, once made aware of these sounds, is instantly terrified again.
‘BURLY RAGGED GENTLEMEN!’ he cries, then flattens his ears and goes into shock. I’ll get no more sense out of him tonight.
One lone rat, an outrunner, comes scurrying up the garden towards us and then stops a few feet away, twitching his whiskers neutrally. I oblige by baring my teeth through the hutch-wire — there’s a certain form to these things — whereupon he pisses off to make his report. A fox with a hangover and a scared-stiff rabbit, sir. I recommend immediate offensive action. Up in one of the next-door windows I can see Otto’s great head in silhouette, the ears quizzically cocked as he looks down.
I have to get out of the hutch. Can’t operate with the Champ in here, and besides, I can do much more damage on the ground. The typical rat-tactic when taking on a larger beast is to try and work in around the edges, out of bite-range, keeping clear of the head and aiming for the belly and midriff. I’ve seen it a hundred times. They’ll try to give me some woundings to the lower body, deep as they can, mad rats battening there until I’m weak enough to be dragged down. Then they pile on: rat-delirium, what Horde types tenderly call ‘the Overkill’. And fifteen seconds after that, it’s finished.
So I hop up onto the upturned wheelbarrow, with the fence at my back. That way my arse is covered, at least. Two gardens over, I can hear French Edward’s owner calling for him. Good luck with that. The Frenchman is stretched in undomestic darkness somewhere, off his tits on Old Spice!
‘Stay there,’ I tell Champion. ‘And keep the door shut.’ He’s out of his mind, though.
The moist hubbub of their grooming ceases. Suddenly the rat-static hits me and my tail flares like a Christmas tree. Okay then. It’s on.
THAT FEELING again.
Often in these high pre-battle moments I sense a cold monitoring from above, a sort of celestial surveillance. So go ahead, eye in the sky: look down. There’s the garden at night, see it? Way below, between the other houses and gardens. Tree-blobs, street light, tonal blotches. Now brush the threads of night-mist aside and zoom in. The air thickens. There’s the hutch, and there, waiting, the many-eyed mass of the Horde, and there — see Cocky primed and heroic upon the plinth of his upturned wheelbarrow, coat in quills, now then you rodents, who wants
Slight squirt of vertigo as the first rat comes at me, making a snittering solo run through the damp grass: rat-movement is a wrongness, a corner-of-the-eye flicker seen head-on. It’s why we want to kill them all the time! Into my face he springs and I snatch him in mid-flight, pop his skull between my molars, toss the death-heavy body aside. Easy peasy. The next one too — crunch, spit, like eating tapas. As each rat launches himself I can hear him give a grunt, a workmanlike untroubled little hup! You have to hand it to these Horde mobs — they’re very Horde-minded, not too bothered who lives or dies so long as the job gets done.
And here comes Ambrose himself, fussing and bustling, with light from the windows glancing off the crease of his centre-parting. I’ll want a word a word with him later, so I just give him a half-bite — what the late Holiday Bob would have termed a ‘perforator’ — and sling him into the fence. Nice thump as his body hits the wood.
Now there’s an extra-big one in front of me, up on his back legs, moving waistily, stamping, hissing and paddling his hands as if the burden of his Cocky-loathing is just too too much. Well, it’s all personal, isn’t it? And if it isn’t it fucking well should be. This is a major, major rat and I go straight for his throat, shooting horizontally off the wheelbarrow. That’s the thing about rat-fighting — no hesitation! With a dog, even in the heat of it, you can circle about, talk some trash, work on his emotions a bit: they’re all puppies deep down. But a rat sticks his own death in your face in way you can’t ignore. Long ago, at the first hatching of light in the first rat’s brain, the whole line made its grim little pact with extinction. ‘Kill’em hard,’ is what we say in the Borough.
So here I am at rat-level, whirling and snapping. Notice how happy I look in a fight like this, how complete — the unscrewed grin, the hectic fur, my napkinned breast drenched in claret and my tongue tossing ropes of drool… I’m following my bliss! But these rats are everywhere, seething, treading in each other’s eyes to get at me. Another mob has just arrived on the scene, I can hear the captains arguing back behind the lawn furniture. Ah, this is warm work.
Whoops. I stopped whipping my tail end about for a second there and one of them banzai’d in and stapled himself to my left hip. Other rats have clambered onto him, hooking their teeth into his flanks — they call this the Daisy Chain — and with all the extra weight I’m listing somewhat… They’re under me now too — I’m hopping around on rats, rats, rats, with the tinfoil tang of rat’s blood in my mouth. Behind the action orders are being given, sibilant directives, and I note the sour clatter of cans as a squad swarms up my mound of empties toward the hutch. Will we go down together in our garden, then, me and the rabbit, in the light-weakened murk of a town night? Fuck that. Break out, Cocky! Eat them, beat them down… But then my head fills with noise, with feedback, a blinding bone-baring sort of a whistle.
Champion is screaming.
The rats around me stand up, jaws dropped, rat-hands hanging loose, ravished. I make for the hutch, lugging the two or three that are still attached to me — if I get to the Champ before the Horde does, I don’t know, I might kill him myself — anything to stop this NOISE…
But now I’m lighter all of a sudden, less encumbered — did I shake them off? The rat-surge is faltering, something’s blowing through it… Counterpoint to Champion’s demented treble, a low hoarse pulse, then another pulse — Otto the Rot is barking! Bloody great night-shaking woofs and dog-vowels, with his huge upholstered paws crashing against the fence, his claws in their sheaths of leather. And then he’s through, the mottled slats giving way and the rats shrilling in panic as he plunges among them. A joy to watch. Foolish Cocky, imagining that this beast was out of shape! Here’s where nutrition pays off and good sleeping patterns. It’s a right old rampage, cyclonic, with rat-chunks in orbit around his pectorals.
In about ten seconds the garden is clear — just flattened astonished grass, quivering night-molecules and Champion wheezing by the hutch door, which now lolls from one hinge.
Otto is standing there, genteelly winded, like he’s been fencing or doing the tango. His deep moist eye is upon the Champ, I see, so I jump up onto the hutch roof and distribute a few cautionary lightnings. Respectfully, of course.
‘Nice one, Otto. Thought I’d had my chips there for a minute.’ Prowl, zap, keep back you bastard.
‘Nothing to do with you, cowboy,’ he says levelly, the deluxe tongue prodding the air. His head is enormous. ‘Every dog hates a rat.’
‘Yes, well, an exciting evening all round. Shame it’s over, in a way.’
Otto considers this, considers me, considers the aesthetics of the event. Then he slurps in that tongue and straightens up.
‘One day, Cocky,’ he says.
‘One day!’ I answer gaily.
And he pads back to his kennel, all slouch and symmetry. Class.
I jump down again. Bits of me hurt, but righteously. I stalk along the base of the fence, nosing bodies aside. ‘Ambrose?’
‘Yuuuh…’ He’s not moving much, maybe I wounded him more than I meant to. Who cares? I stand over him, forelegs planted on either side, and let it all drip down into his face. Blood, spit — I want him to feel my heat. I don’t like to gloat, but… Actually I love to gloat.
‘Heh heh,’ I say. ‘Knock at my door, see what you get.’
‘You’re out of touch, Cock,’ he manages. ‘BRG got taken over.’ He coughs up a little spew of blood.
‘The Tears. We —’ he coughs again, gestures at a nearby corpse ‘— are Mother’s Burning Tears.’
‘What? Well anyway, listen, the point is, you can all get stuffed. No more rat-tribute from me, understand? And no more rats in my garden.’
He’s drifting off, eyelids fluttering. I give him a nudge. ‘I said no more rats in my garden!’
‘Which…? Oh. Yeah.’ Revived, he makes a gallant attempt at a sneer. ‘You’re finished here, fox. You know that.’
‘Hm!’ I work something out of my teeth, a bone-fragment, and spit it to one side. ‘Rats used to taste nicer,’ I say.
‘You got no future!’
‘We’ll see. Say hi to your big fat horrible mum.’
He sighs and drags himself off, smearing the grass with his damaged haunches. Mother’s Burning Tears, eh? Bloody hell. They sound like a bunch of maniacs! All part of the Horde’s new vibe — the cult-like thing, the humourless romanticism of it. I’ll have to tell Paul, he’s very interested in these subcultural formations; as he says, there’s no end to the invention of a truly servile mind.
The night is settling down: TV-burble from the rowed houses, French Edward’s owner still calling. The yeast of combat is leaving the air. No future, said the rat, and he may be right. Just the present, that seems to get less and less habitable… Well — enough of these ruminations. Grabbing the still-numb Champion by his scruff I haul him under the upturned wheelbarrow with me for some kip.
There’s foxes I know who have trouble getting their rest. The late Holiday Bob himself suffered on occasion from a festering wakefulness, and would stalk the Yard, spinning plots and talking to whoever was around. Not me. I take the two ends of myself — my dripping barking face and my electrified tail — curl them inward, close the circuit and sleep. Polluted as I am, sleep is nice for me. Black, forgiving. When I go to sleep I rejoin the total animal.
THE MORNING after the rat-fight we wake up under the wheelbarrow, Champion and I, all smushed together beneath its metal dome like canned fox and rabbit. It’s getting stuffy in here so I obtrude my long curious head and take a sniff of the garden. Dead rats, early morning, nice nice. In such a way, I reflect, does the universe announce its newness: we have the clarifying dawn-world, with its first rumours of rush hour, and we have the high witty scent of death at its freshest, silvering the air above these rat-heaps. I’ve got no hangover, I’ve had a good tear-up, I’m feeling rather lyrical.
Until I see the raven.
He’s black as a bomb and smells of nothing at all, which gives me an immediate scare — it’s like discovering a dead spot in my nose! He has his immense back to me, the wings folded in scholarly fashion, and is bent mutteringly over a rat-corpse. Grey fleshless shins below the shredded short trousers of his leg-feathers, three-toed dinosaur boots. ‘And?’ I hear him say. ‘And? Yes? And?’ Then with two robot jabs and a whole-bodied tug he’s split the rat’s body and spread its innards on the grass. He’s done the same, I observe, to three others already. I withdraw gingerly for a think.
Now which of the brothers is this? We’re all fully coached in Twin-lore, here in the Borough: Randall the gentleman villain, his elegance and lacquered blackness and so on, and then Corvin, the psycho junior partner with the steaming scalp. If it’s Randall I might be safe, for now: they say it amuses him to have manners. But if it’s Corvin…? I cock an ear. Wet crackling noises as he beaks around among the ribs and entrails, going ‘And? And?’ like a mental case.
Bollocks. It has to be Corvin.
What’s he up to though? Not eating, just buggering about with dead things. He’d love to pop me open, wouldn’t he, have a yank at my vitals… I tremble a bit, here beneath the wheelbarrow. Seriously, I quake.
‘You smell scared’ says Champion.
‘Fear of the blackbird.’
‘You are joking, mate. Fear?’ But I do seem to have fear up the arse-crack, where it has lodged like a probe. The Champ gives a loud sceptical sniff.
I mean to say: You only live once, if that.
This is our garden.
I ease from my hiding-place, fill my chest and hail the raven.
‘Oi! Midnight!’ I shout. ‘Graverobber!’
The wide cloak of his back gives a twitch.
‘Oi! Death-breath! Over here!’
His head lifts, he trudges about to face me and, gracious, I almost cack myself on the spot. The voltage of the bird bangs into me, his lunacy goes fizzing down my spine. Argh! Hackles up! He ticks his head to the side and turns on me the berserk jewel of his raven’s eyeball.There’s a length of bitten gizzard swinging wildly from his beak-end. The carcass he’s been working on, I now see, is rather larger than your average rodent. Rather larger, yes, and with a pair of white forepaws, like the white gloves of an archivist —
That’s no rat, for fuck’s sake.
That’s French Edward!
I have a remark prepared for Corvin, something about how he can go and eat his breakfast off the North Circular, but it dies on my tongue. Instead I flatten against the ground, ears back, and start making low whirring hate-sounds. Rrrrrr….. RRRRRRR! You don’t know how much you hate madness until you meet a real deep-core nutjob. Bob told me about this, about getting ravened: the S&M face regarding me, the black breast panting slightly as if overloaded with malevolence. My hackles rise even further, my growling gets trebley. And the worst of it is, I can see myself as he sees me — a diffident shitty fox, cringing by an upturned wheelbarrow.
‘Good scene, this,’ he croaks. ‘I like it. Lots of GUTS.’
What a monster! He jerks his beak, his black-market endoscope, at what’s left of French Edward.
‘Minor character. Killed by rats. All your fault.’ Then the laugh: ‘Heurgh heurgh heurgh!’ Like something chiselled up from the floor of a burned McDonalds.
He takes a step towards me, and another. I ready myself for impact. I wince.
And then – amazingly – he leaves! I hear him snort, and opening one eye see him give two great contemptuous swats of his wings and lift off, heavily at first but with gathering prowess, until he’s shooting ninja-style up a column of air and the Borough and all its business, the tumble of the town and the fields and woods beyond it, are shrinking away beneath him, shrinking to comedy and then to absurdity and then to… An eyeblink of distance, and he’s gone. Zoomed out.
Strewth. I give myself a furious nose-to-tail shake, with propellor-sounds. ‘Wow!’ I say. ‘Look at old French.’
‘That’s not French,’ says Champion, tin-voiced beneath the wheelbarrow.
‘Not anymore, is it? Huh. Makes you think.’
A solemn moment. I salute you, French Edward, your body raven’s meat, your spirit installed untouchably in the zodiac of cat-ness. It was the Old Spice that did for you: a sober Frenchman would never have been caught by low Horde rats. You had to have your Old Spice. Which is the odor of the morning, now I think of it: death wearing aftershave. You were a cat, a tippler, a mathematician —
But absorbed in these orisons I neglect the fast-moving shadow behind my right ear, which is in fact Corvin, returning, descending on a long sizzling fuse of a nosedive that he detonates beak-first — boom! — on top of my skull. Poor Cocky. Spanked, spatchcocked, legs in all directions. Goosh!… Goosh!… goes the blood in my brain, or the flogging pulse of the raven’s wings as he brakes over me and pulls back skyward. His laughter clatters, dwindles — Heurgh! Heurgh! — and I see a vision. I see foxes arrayed in finality, grey and high-shouldered, with long scowling boneless hillbilly faces. One of them raises a withered wrist. He beckons. ‘Not yet, skinny bollocks,’ I mumble. ‘Not now… Not today.’
After a little while, I get to my feet.
‘The other one is nicer,’ says Champion.
‘The other what?’ I mop my head with a faint paw. I appear to be bleeding, big-time.
‘The other blackbird. His voice is nicer.’
‘His voice? What the fuck are you talking about?’
‘Come on, whose — ’
But the Champ, hooded by the wheelbarrow’s metal lip, is staring frozenly. He’s unnaturally still! And there it goes, damn it, that xylophone-run of pure fright along my spinal knobs.
‘Very entertaining, your fox,’ he says, in a voice I’ve never heard before. ‘Wonderful sort of picaresque resilience. He’s driving the plot beautifully.’
‘All for our amusement, of course.’
I open my mouth, shut my mouth, open my mouth. Because now I know that this voice, this shabby/posh 40-a-day drawl coming out of Champion’s rigid body, is the voice of the raven Randall du Noir. He’s been walking up and down in this garden, chatting with my friend.
The rabbit relaxes: his nose starts working again.
‘Get your shit together,’ I tell him. Although he has no shit, of any sort, at all. ‘We leave tonight.’
‘Come on! Move your arse! This is ridiculous!’ No good. Nothing I say can make Champion go any faster. ‘Oh come ON! You’re taking the piss now!’ Should I bite him? A quick nip to the rear? My coaxing words have no effect on the rabbit.
We’re moving down the canal towpath at very low speed, by night of course, him doing his clogged bunny-lurches and peering about him with blunted eyebeams, me sort of dawdling and skipping and circling around him, mad with frustration. Along our narrow course we go: water on one side, the canal’s greeny-black stopped traffic, and the cool breathing mass of the park on the other. Here and there a night fisherman sits shapelessly on his bait-bucket. Are we supposed to be careful? I suppose so…
This slow-motion thing, I have to say, is doing my head in. I’m a fox! I’m all about the whip-through, the scrape-by, the glancing visitation — a quick sniff and I’m on my way. But this is like, here’s this bush, and here’s this bush again, and hey, what do you know, HERE’S THIS BUSH. I’ll prance ahead, cursing, and then look back to see the pathos of Champion, see him advancing down the path in his dim corona of rabbit-awareness, going ‘Where… where’s… where’d…?’ Poor kid, he’s confused. I’ve tried carrying him, his nape gripped in my mouth, but that was too sad altogether — he just hung there without a word, his sullen white poundage swinging.
This is the Limit: on the opposite bank of the canal is the Northside, where we don’t go. I say ‘we,’ meaning Borough beasts in general; I’ve actually been over there a couple of times recently, when my mood ran low. There’s a Northside fox called Gumma who has a den just on the other side of Twat’s Bridge (so called because you’d have to be a right twat to cross it), and Gumma does a nice line in nail polish remover. Ethyl acetate: talk about wiping the slate clean. So do I creep along there, round Gumma’s, bearing pork scratchings as payment. High-risk behaviour, I suppose — they’d love my hide, the Northsiders — but then what isn’t, these days?
The Northside, as it was once explained to me by the psychologist Weasel Paul, is a side-effect or ‘symptom’ of the Borough. When Holiday Bob first started organising foxes a couple of years ago, establishing the territory, setting up the rackets and all that, there were a few beasts who couldn’t go along with it (too proud or too bonkers) and rather than purge them all Bob kicked them over the canal, into the badlands of the industrial estate. It’s a fox-unfriendly place, draughty hangars and ringing concrete spaces, lacking the angles in which we thrive, but these exiles were hardy. They were sociopaths, for the most part, born survivors, and they found a way to make it. The Northside came into being. Every beast for himself is the rule over there, none of your Borough niceties. Raw appetite sweeps through it like a wind, unchecked by hedge or fence. Chaos!
And believe it or not, there was a moment quite early in Holiday’s boss-hood when it looked as if the Northside might be getting ready to make a move on us. A fox called Big Barry had put himself on top with some very dirty and well-publicised fights, and to their astonishment the Northsiders had something like an organization. The Northside Kings, that was Barry’s crew, and for weeks they’d been lounging darkly into the Borough in twos and threes, either crossing the bridge or going the long way round, over the railway track. Nothing too heavy had occurred — a stand-off here, some thieving there — but it was a classic territorial wind-up. Playing us, pushing us. And the Kings were a very rough bunch, all with that low Northside look, thick-headed, slanty and opportunistic, not like us gallant and high-stepping foxes of the Borough. We didn’t savour the prospect of a straightener. Not at all!
But listen to how Bob did the Northside. It was magic. We’re sitting around the Yard one evening, a bit down in the mouth, when he beckons over his herald and special envoy, the squirrel named Popjoy, and leans towards him all sotto voce with fox-lips curled in pleasure. The ripple of mischief, the full Holiday! Wsss wsss wsss he goes in the ear of Popjoy, who gives a snort of laughter and scampers off. Here’s what Holiday Bob says, and what Popjoy, flying across fence-tops, broadcasts within minutes around the Borough and environs:
Blackberries not yet ripened —
scent of Barry’s urine in the morning.
Lovely. What economy. A note of poised foxy wistfulness, a Proustian pang by some smirched wall somewhere, its bricks warming faintly in the dawn. Definitely not an insult rhyme or a bruiser broadside.
The effect it had, nonetheless, was devastating.
The suggestion of greenness, unfitness; the presence of fruit; above all the connoisseurial attitude taken towards the pee of the gang leader…. Lethal. Word of mouth got it over to the Northside: within a couple of days no one believed that Bob had made it up, they thought it was part of the lore or something. We all wondered how it first reached the ears of Barry himself. Which of his boys would have been loony enough to recite it to him? Or maybe it crept up on him in his sleep. At any rate it was the end of his designs on the Borough, and of the Kings too, because after Bob’s little aperçu had done a few laps of the Northside Barry had his hands full keeping order on his own patch. Whispers of hilarity encircled him. Round the backs of warehouses there was an airborne snigger against him. He grew paranoid, ridiculous; beatings for anyone caught sniffing his traces, and so on. Soon they were calling him ‘Blackberries.’ You can’t run a Northside gang with a name like ‘Blackberries.’
Funny thing, though: the undoing of Big Barry turned out to be a strategic error, upon which Bob would ruminate from time to time. Because after Barry, who was just a bargain-basement despot, came Lost Johnny — and we’re still worried about him. Look: there’s a Northside fox watching us right now from one of the yards over the water, motionless at the chain link fence. I don’t like his stance, his detachment. I yell at him — ‘The Borough’s undefeated!’ — no reaction. A car makes a turn up ahead on the bridge and the headlights catch his eyes: they flare emptily. Is he connected? One of Johnny’s? A rat-friend or raven-friend? Anything’s possible — there’s no pride on the Northside, as we used to say.
‘Seriously,’ I grumble to Champion, ‘Can we please get a move on?’
‘Itching ear!’ he says, and shakes his head fiercely. He took a couple of rat-bites back there, and they can be very irritating.
‘Know what an itch is?’ I say. ‘It’s a pain with a sense of humour. Arf! Arf!’
He looks blank. I’ll be honest, I’m not satisfied with our effectiveness as a mobile unit.
Here’s the plan: to go somewhere else.
What do you think of the plan?
We had to leave, is the point. The hutch, where I have known peace — or stupor, at least — is blown. Rats I can fight; dogs I can fight. Foxes? I’ll do ’em one by one. But now the Twins are above us, malefacting at 10,000 feet, and the garden is bathed in the purple tractor beam of ravenry. Their designs, their thrall. Very entertaining, said the charcoal voice of Randall du Noir, ventriloquized by my friend Champion. Randall’s apparently been quite the popper-in of late. ‘He comes when you’re asleep,’ said Champion. Imagine that! Me conked out in the hutch, X’s for eyes and tongue-tip protruding, while Randall treads the garden with infernally dainty raven steps, up and down, up and down, boasting like a Bond villain.
So we had to go. But how to get Champion out of the garden, that was the question. As far as I knew he’d never left it before. Out of his hutch a few times, maybe, flopping down to take a sort of stunned promenade in the crappy grass, but never beyond the garden fence. I prepared myself for a mega-showdown, full of threats and suasions and fantastic promises.
‘Champ,’ I began, and my brain tingled with handy lies. ‘Feel like going for a walk, old buddy?’
‘Just a wander, you know, bit of a ramble. Some fresh air. See the sights.’
‘OK.’ Just like that. What a character this rabbit is. The back gate croaked a fairytale warning, and we were off. He’s made a couple of shuddering halts, but I’ve told him there’s a big packet of Maltesers waiting for us at the end of the trail. Who knows? There might be!
Day comes at last, hauled up like scenery. We’ve gone about two and a half yards, but the
Champ is out of breath, and we need to stash ourselves. This caravan travels by night only. ‘Hold up,’ I say. ‘Know where we are?’
‘No,’ he says. Silly question, really.
‘This is good territory. Friendly. Come on!’ And we cut away from the towpath and begin the lumpy-bumpy climb into Safeway Wood, which is a strip of banked copse overlooking the supermarket carpark and giving onto ploughed fields behind. Home to my aunt Patsy.
Autumn has burgarised this wood, trashed it. Stripped and startled trees and muttering mulch-tones, with violation in the air. Not long ago a band of teenage gluesniffers built a little hide in here, a lean-to of slimy boards – the supermarket people chased them off and knocked it down, but the detritus is still around, the used hardened glue-bags still hanging in the briar like ghosts frozen in mid-flight.
Patsy has the place to herself, by decree of Holiday Bob. Or she’s supposed to. The Champ and I are checking out a half-empty bottle of Orangina when a movement makes me raise my head: two young ’uns passing though the wood’s upper reaches, in the bare leafless light of the morning. One of them has something in his mouth – a lump of cheese? – and they noticeably fail to speed up when they clock me, cheeky sods. They aren’t Northsiders and they aren’t Borough; Rogies then, rogue foxes, seeing what they can get away with. If I was alone I might go after them and have a word. As it is I shout ‘Wankers! The Borough sees you!’ and leave it at that.
My aunt Patsy, when we find her, is in something of a state. Propped against an elm-stump, all bashed-up looking, and talking to herself in a strange, unconcerned murmur. Those two rogies have obviously just worked her over: ruinous underscents all around – the scorching of Patsy’s dignity, the sourness of defeat – and trailing echoes of tooth-clash, muzzle-knock, the old vixen’s jolted rhythm as she tried to fight them off. Nasty wound in Patsy’s shoulder. She’s a hulk of a fox, is my aunt, fully scarred up from various legendary rows. ‘Sit tight,’ I tell Champion, pushing him backwards into a pile of dead leaves.
‘Maltesers…?’ he gulps.
‘Shh!’ And I give a loud fox-cough.
Patsy stops that fluting murmur, for which I am grateful, and half-turns her head. ‘Well look who it isn’t,’ she says.
‘Did they take your lunch again, Patsy?’
‘Lunch? That was a sparring session!’ Oh yeah – I’d forgotten this: Patsy’s permanent fantasy that she’s running some kind of training camp up here. ‘Two of my most promising pupils.’
‘They did look tasty, I’ll give ’em that.’ I get nearer, and the bacterial buzz of her breath almost puts me on my arse. Teeth going, poor old girl.
‘I teach them the way of the woods.’ She’s looking around, distracted. ‘You never learned it, that’s your problem… Bastards. They did take my lunch.’
Down in the carpark there’s early-morning movement: a bluecoated man, with subdued ceremony, is steering forward a grand shining serpent of trolleys. I haven’t had a drink for hours, hours, hours, hours. Patsy has begun to weep. ‘I’m too old,’ she wails. ‘Paws cracked, nose gone… Ears no better than turnip-ends…’
‘Come on, Pats. Couple of Rogies, that’s all. We’ll get our own back.’
‘I shouldn’t have lived to see this!’
Champion’s a few feet away, rattling the dry leaves with his fear-tremors. Where do we live, for fuck’s sake? Where are we going? Now Patsy’s got her tongue out, lapping at her ruined shoulder. This whole scene has me quite freaked out. I start giving little jumps, and making mewing sounds.
‘Tension, Cocky?’ enquires my aunt, suddenly dry-eyed.
‘Don’t you worry about me. I’m loose as a goose on cuckoo juice.’ Bounce, bounce.
‘You’re going the wrong way, I’ll tell you that for free.’
‘What do you mean, the wrong way?’
‘Well, you need to go back, don’t you? You need to get a couple of lumps from the Northside and go back and fuck up your cousin.’
‘You’re barmy. And Billy’s your son!’
‘He thinks he’s better than me.’
‘Lumps from the Northside. What would Bob say?’
I slump down, drained. Life is fiasco. Daylight has shrunk the world. ‘Alright if I hang around here for a bit?’ I say.
Patsy looks at me with eyes shrewd and ungenerous.
‘Your call, nephew,’ she says. ‘You’re on the run.’
Cold autumn afternoon and we’re out in the gashed ploughlands. The woods simmer with rain, the fields hide their colours. It’s been like this since we left Patsy’s. Drooping light, poor drainage; everything sulks and seeps. Half a mile back I saw a weasel, asked him where I was, he just lifted his rain-maddened eyebrows and sighed.
‘Why are we stopped?’ says Champion. He’s been riding on my back and humming to himself as we go, a drone that dips and jolts as I navigate the lumpiness of the countryside. Which I hate — the lumpiness, I mean. Give me pavements, gravel, the bald municipal spaces! We’ve worked our way along a hedge-and-ditch arrangement between two fields, following the swell of the land towards high ground and trees. I’m sticking close to this hedgerow — hawthorn and stinking elder — taking no chances: we’re dreadfully exposed out here. Now we pause, a soaked two-headed animal at the edge of a landscape. Between my ears Champion’s breath is smoking like a censer.
‘I’m having a think,’ I tell him.
‘What are you thinking about?’
‘Mind your own beeswax.’
Here’s what I’m thinking about: I haven’t had a drink, other than slurps of puddle and rut-water, for days. Days! No aftershave, mouthwash, shampoo, paint thinner, floor soap, Red Bull, none of it. Trapped in the atmosphere of my aunt Patsy, sequestered in her rubbishy edge-of-town coppice, I endured a kind of withdrawal, perhaps. A little detox? Certainly I sweated and trembled, I felt reptilian. And yes, in my weakness I submitted to Patsy’s ruling fantasia, her ‘training program,’ whereby with the querulous dogmatism of the aged she had me doing slides and combat-rolls, jumping in and out of bushes, even attacking an old gym shoe: counterfeit savagery, flashing sad incisor in the gloom of Safeway Wood.
‘Less Cocky!’ she kept yelling. ‘More death!’
Champion looked on, from the rim of a cast-off tractor tyre, as I flounced in despair towards this target or that. He really seemed to be taking an interest. The ears were up, the nose working dispassionately: old scout, aficionado. ‘Enjoying this, are you?’ I said, rather bitter.
‘Dissolve!’ cried my aunt. ‘Abnegate! Depersonalise!’
I did try. I tried for her, out of helpless fealty to something, the past, tradition, the lays of the Borough, I don’t frigging know. But there was more sweat and trembling, more of that reptile feeling, web-footed and scaly, rolling deep glints in the murk.
‘Enough!’ I panted at last.
‘Not yet,’ said Patsy in her scratchy madam’s voice. ‘Not nearly. We’re looking for the killer in you, nephew. The arse-chewer, the eater of hearts.’
‘The eater of hearts?’
‘Metaphorically. You will consume the courage of your enemies. Chewing arses, though — that’s literal.’
‘Look at me… Your eyes should be lamps of death, casting the cold light by which death sees her way. But your eyes are all full of bullshit and too much sugar.’
‘You old carcass. I could fuck you up in five seconds.’
‘While you’re here, you’ll train, junior. Now hop to it. Another crack at that shoe. Go!’
‘Wait — where’s Champion?’
We looked around, Patsy not too bothered, me taut-jawed and swivelling my radar ears. Champion gone? A swat of panic. But there he was! Fifty yards away, splodged whitely against the dismal underwood, having hobbled off — so it seemed — in a pocket of rabbity curiosity.
‘Look at that,’ I said. ‘Two days ago you couldn’t get him out of his hutch.’
Patsy coughed, spat. ‘Well, another ten feet and his troubles are over.’
‘Those alders. That’s Rogie-town over there.’
I was by Champion’s side in a trice. And none too soon! From the patch of tree-gloom indicated by Patsy three foxes were watching him. Big foxes too, wide heads and thick conker-coloured fur. Strong Rogie vibe: the stare of stupefied aggression, the dense rustic consanguinity, as if they were all each other’s uncles.
Some back-up would have been nice, even from my wobbly old aunt: Rogies are a tough fight, always — their pain threshold is out there. But I could hear Patsy far behind me, grumbling and scabbing around in her camp. I squared up anyway, tremolo in the legs, eye-sting. Lamps of death, eh? I could do it.
‘Ready for a taste of the streets, lads?’ They didn’t move. ‘Well come on, you fucking bumpkins!’
The Champ shuffled forward, sniffing diagnostically.
‘You with him?’ asked the biggest fox, country-gruff.
‘Er, he’s with me.’
He consulted with his colleagues. Murmurs, frowns, rumbles of assent. Then: ‘You,’ he said, ‘there’s a number of parties we could hand you over to, do quite well for ourselves.’ The other two foxes nodded. ‘Food and drink for a week, if we show up with you. But that one? That one we don’t touch. So. On you go.’
‘Pass on, scandal.’
Well well. I looked back, for Patsy. The old vixen was in her own world, dragging with muttered curses a plastic bucket towards a mattress, arranging fresh configurations of knackeredness, intent it appeared on setting up some kind of obstacle course for me, her pupil.
‘Listen,’ I said to the Rogie chief, stance relaxed, fox-to-fox now. ‘How about you stop bothering her, too? You know? A bit of peace in her seniority. She hasn’t got long.’
The look on his face was: Don’t push it, sunshine. Telepathically, however, he acquiesced. I think.
And still the Champ advanced, making his lo-speed break for the edge of the wood. Ahead were the fields, with their heavy clay, and the magnetic roar of the horizon. ‘Pssst,’ I whispered, trotting alongside. ‘Where are we going?’
‘Badger-time, Cocky.’ He was out of breath.
‘Rumpy, you mean?’
‘We need [huff!] friends. Big strong friends.’
‘Yeah but what about the whole Northside thing? The hired lumps, like Patsy said? Pop over Twat’s Bridge, we could hook ourselves up with some serious goonage.’ (Pronouncing it à la française, straight from the salons of the Borough.)
‘Later,’ said Champion. ‘First [huff!] we find the badger.’
Sourceless light above the fields, water-shine in the sky. Open land, no feature or form. Could I dance out there, against the suction of the grave? Cocky must dance. How solemn were the Rogies, watching us go!
‘You’re the boss,’ I said.
And on we went.
Champion’s stopped humming, and his ungroomed yellow claws are biting into my shoulders.
‘Everything OK, partner?’
‘Ravens are watching,’ he says carefully.
‘Shite!’ I jink inwards, towards the ditch, where being top-heavy with albino rabbit I lose my balance and down we both go, arse over tip, scrabbling at the bank (me at least — I see Champion sliding by with eerie resignation) and coming to rest haunches-deep in freezing brown water, facing each other. ‘Where are they? In front? Behind?’
‘Ravens are watching,’ repeats Champion with precision, as if he’s been rehearsing the line in his mind. The sky overhead is of course quite empty, and we’re in our own little autumnal slum down here. Drowned grass, mud edged with ice, the hawthorn above in evil coils. Dead stems brush our noses.
‘Well, good one,’ I say at last. ‘You’re keeping us on our toes.’
‘Hm,’ says Champion, apparently quite satisfied.
‘Did he put you down here too?’ says a small colourless voice behind me. I whirl around in a spray of ditch-water, ready to fight, but its only a thin trembling almost-negligible country fox, his scent cancelled by the wet leaves that are all over him.
‘Eh? Who are you?’
‘He told me not to come out until it was dark.’
‘The squirrel up in the wood. Did he put you down here too?’
‘Nobody put me down here! I fell down here! Which squirrel?’
He’s not listening. The glumness of the ditch-spirit has him possessed. ‘It’s to be expected, I suppose,’ he says, in melancholy recitation. ‘This is the first time I’ve been out of my den for two months — I haven’t been very well — and this is what happens. But it’s to be expected.’
‘What are you talking about? Who’s this squirrel?’ I’m half-inclined to duff him up, so disgraceful a spectacle of foxiness is he presenting.
‘The singing squirrel in the wood. He told me that I was disturbing the badger and that I was to stay here until it got dark. He told me the power of the badger would strike me down if I moved.’
‘A-HA! Hear that, Champ old pal? That sounds like some friends of ours.’ I slither up the bank and look around. ‘Where do they live?’
The ditch-fox, peering up with smudged gaze, nods his head toward the higher ground, which I now see is a wooded tumulus. ‘Up there,’ he says. ‘We call it the Barrow.’
‘The Barrow, eh? Alright then! Come on, Champster, out we get.’
‘Five minutes. I like the water.’
‘You’ll make yourself ill. Come on!’
He pouts, but I have no time for this, so I crash back into the ditch and yank him out by his scruff. ‘You should climb out and all,’ I say to the little fish-fox. ‘Dry off. For your health.’
‘But the power of the badger — ’
‘You let me worry about the badger.’
‘Um, OK.’ But makes no move. I sling Champion onto my neck, and we head for the Barrow.
The power of the badger. Too right, mate! I caught a casual backhand off the old Rumper once, the reason long forgotten, and let me tell you it was a trip. Pillowy half-thoughts and distant, tinnital birdsong: I was gone for hours. I saw how big animals would go against Rumpy, fully up for it, and then how at first contact they’d change, half-turn from him, sink into deep inscrutable funk. As soon as Rumpy was installed in our crew the various problems we were having in and around the Borough just melted away. Physical, of course, his presence, but it had the force of an idea. Why fight? Why object? The idea prevailed.
And somehow Holiday Bob made the badger love him. The Rumpy era was the peak of Bob’s organization, high times for us racketeers. They all lined up outside the Yard with their tributes, and Rumpy the badger would work the door. Massive, sparklingly groomed, a spiffy monster guarding an invisible velvet rope. His looks had strange effects: so glorious he appeared, in his grey and white livery, in his size, that a certain class of beast would feel obliged to have a pop at him. Drunk weasels, urchin foxes, Rogies and Ramble-Ons from the country, something about Rumpy just outraged them, demanded a response from them, this affronting spectacle of indomitability. Once, I swear, I saw a young dandy rat go up to him and, impossibly, trail a limp paw down Rumpy’s chest. ‘Pretty nice coat, man,’ wheezed the rat. ‘You wouldn’t want to me to FUCK IT UP, now would you?’ Amazing!
This Barrow of his is very Rumpy, very Ancient Britain — grimly isolate, with views all round, a hump of druidic copse on bone-grey earth between three fields. Bush-scrag, twig-tangle, rooks half-arsedly complaining in the upper branches. How will I greet him? With a sketchy grin and no treats. Crap. I know his mafioso palate — a packet of Jaffa Cakes would have served me well in this situation. ‘Scared! Scared!’ sing a pair of ignorant starlings, beating their way through the soaked mid-air, as I put Champion in the hedge and step warily into the shadow and mood of the wood: there’s two old yews conspiring darkly in the middle, over what must be the entrance to his stinky frigging hole. Ugh.
‘Er, Rumpy?’ I call. ‘Rump? It’s — ’ And then something comes shrieking at me out of the tree-wires, pure panic, something with a wingspan and a terrible cry and — mad bulbs for eyes? I somersault backwards in a windy sprawl of terror and then… Wait a second.
A great voice fills the treetops and the rooks scatter. ‘Away!’ it booms. ‘Break not his dreadful peace!’
‘Popjoy you little fucker! Come down from there!’
‘Flossy?’ I always hated it when he called me that.
‘Yeah! No! Let’s see you!’
And he lands in front of me on the matted wood-floor, weightless as an insect, a cigarette-end of a squirrel. He doesn’t look well — the whittled-down neck, the two bug eyes in the fragile housing of the skull… His front teeth are blunted, wobbly. He’s lost a lot of his coat. His tail is a spike of nude cartilage with hairs like dandelion fluff. He sees me giving him the once-over and grunts.
‘The eating’s not so good around here. Not like in the old days.’
‘Well that’s why I came. Sort of on that theme.’
‘Eh?’ He hops weakly towards me.
‘The old days. There’s some, ah, trouble in the Borough and I was gonna ask Rumpy if — ’
‘OH no,’ he says, shaking his head. ‘Oh no no no! No, Flossy! Never!’
‘But I haven’t even — ’
‘Break not the peace of the badger! His earth-slumber of a thousand years!’ He’s back in the treetops now, rattling dead branches.
‘You’ve gone potty, you have!’ I shout. ‘You’ve been out here too long, in your weirdo tree-houses! I want Rumpy, the tax-dodger’s terror! Rumpy, scourge of the slag! There’s beatings to be given! Grumpy Rumpy, come out! Emerge! RISE!’
Popjoy contemplates me from his nodding perch, splinters of white sky behind him. ‘Did you ever hear his poem?’ he asks.
‘What poem? Rumpy never wrote a poem.’
‘Oh but he did, my friend. A poem indeed. I may have helped him a little, supplied the odd word, but the feeling was all his. Listen.’ And in his wood-shaking Dylan Thomas voice, with eyes closed and extra drama, he begins to recite.
‘Slow moves the hour, and thick is my heart’s blood
With grumpiness, and sad rememberings…’
‘Rubbish!’ I shout, fretting in the briars.
‘Because they took my Holiday away
And left me here, at the back end of things.’
‘Back end? What is this, a drinking song?’
‘Life is nowhere, nothing now has fire…’
‘But only flickers in a mocking show…’
‘Because they quenched my flaming Holiday
In waters that are black, and never flow.’
‘It’s… terrible. Stop, please.’ I can’t move — something’s come over me. Popjoy inhales gustily and booms out again:
‘At his command I let my rage expand
I hammered all our foes into a haze
And now I live alone in these cold woods
Til some avenging slag should end my days.
All those great battles, all the beasties bashed
When Holiday and I were stepping strong!
The gruntings and the glory! They have left me
Powerless to move this hour along.’
He concludes. He waits on the high branch. Half a field away the rooks cry in their orbit. And I say nothing.
There’s nothing I can say, because my heart, my fox’s heart of oil and gristle, is breaking.
Knee-high in a stream, nosing shreds of scent above the water… This great and empty happiness. No more the old Cocky, the old flavours: the sugary medical taste of Red Bull and the tinfoil taste of rat’s blood. All I am today is golden spores of love. It would take nothing now, a touch, a puff. Blow on me, Death, and watch me softly detonate!
A fungus did this. Baked-looking and ruffle-edged, sticking off the tree like an enormous salt-and-vinegar crisp. ‘Full of information,’ she said, the sly country vixen. How to conjure for you her slyness, her slinkiness, her eyes with their exclamation-mark pupils? ‘Not bad,’ I said, munching away. I wanted to chase her, do the love-skips and the sex-flips, but that was five hours ago… two years ago… some time ago, and she’s gone now, and here I am, alone with my remembered darlings. My Nora, her face a torrent of bliss fixed between eyes like stars; the deep shuffle of Champion’s heart as he lay next to me in the hutch…
Bob was with me before, with holes for eyes and altered smell. Pond-smell, his fur rotted. Same old Bob though. ‘I don’t like your attitude, fox,’ he said to me. ‘I’m not surprised,’ I said. ‘I don’t like it either.’ Then he got freaky, told me that in the Borough in his last days he’d seen an overcoated man on a park bench turn into a raven. That he’d seen another man through an upstairs window, lifting weights by the light of a single lamp, lateral lifts away from the torso, and the shadow on the wall was raven’s wings. Told me, if you can believe it, that I had to take the rabbit to Barbecue Towers, the lightning-struck oak tree where the Twins live. ‘Champion?’ I gulped. My friend with the joke ears, the pink uncomprehending eyes?
I got home one morning and found the rabbit awake, crouched and concentrating on his favourite spot, which was in mid-air about a foot in front of the hutch-wire.
‘When you reach nirvana, let me know,’ I said.
‘Make way,’ And I clambered in and curled up for a kip. ‘I’m knackered, me. I’m fucking cream crackered.’
‘Chat, Cocky?’ said Champion. ‘Chit-chat?’
‘Sleepytime now, pal. Busy night.’
‘I know you, you bugger,’ said Bob, scratching at an eye socket with a falling-off back paw. I saw the white of his anklebone. ‘You’re on a one-way ticket to Barbecue Towers.’
‘And back,’ I added. The ravens. Those waddling tramps. Those weapons.
Rain hits the surface of the stream. A leaf floats by, incredibly poised. Soupy scatterings of thunder. Yes, I’ve been hated. Hated! Rocket-booted rats have launched themselves at my person, almost tearful with hate. But the Cockster was not rattled. In the dawn where the sparrows prattled, I came, I sniffed, I battled. Now let these tales get tattled. We ran across a Northside patrol yesterday. Miles into the country, a Northside patrol! Fast-moving, murky-eyed, unmistakable – we hid in a hedge while they passed. ‘Lost Johnny knows you’re out here,’ Bob told me. ‘He’s looking for you. He’s interested. You want to be a bit careful.’
‘Oh sod that,’ I said. ‘I mean really. Who’s Lost Johnny? I’ll kill him. I’ll scratch him. I’ll make him cry.’
‘That’s the spirit.’
‘I’ll twist his tail.’
The daintiness of the fox is his pride, he can walk on water. The slipperiness of the fox is his life, moving between realms on his fox’s press pass. The yawn of the fox is sharpness and heat, there are flames in it.
Steady rainfall now, it hisses in the trees. Fungus I love you wholly. Fungus I’ll never be the same. Champion went with the vixen, didn’t he, snuffling trustingly behind her.
I’m sure he’s fine.
Up we go, up the track at the edge of the wheatfield, seeming to ascend into this towering windless afternoon. Grass and dried tractor-ruts. Me on my twinkle toes, him lumping and loafing along on his forelegs, white ears against the blue. Trot-trot-flump, trot-trot-flump: the triumphal metre of our progress.
‘Nice bit of sky’, I say.
‘Yup,’ says Champion. Ahead of us they’re laying on another huge mute pageant of late summer cloud.
‘What is that,’ I say, ‘some kind of cumulus? Altocumulus castellanus?’
Champion is squinting upward. ‘Hawk,’ he says. His senses are sharp! He’s living on good greens now, the marrow of the country, not that crap I was feeding him back in town.
‘I see him.’
The hawk is way up there, teetering on his column of air like the hermit on his pillar. Miles off, but you can hear that hawk eye going clickety-click, clickety-click, sectioning out the landscape: White rabbit in Quadrant F… White rabbit in Quadrant F…
‘Don’t you worry,’ I say. ‘We’re untouchable.’
Untouchable? Yes. Since our session with the fungus, that was pressed upon us in the wood by the saucy vixen whose name I can’t remember, Champion and I have been in a state of grace. Moving through the world like wizards, we two — pacy, gifted, our toes and ear-tips crackling. Glorious fungus! The Champlifier had about four helpings, munching away dull-eyed and noisome, his usual thing, displaying no outward marks of revelation. And then later I think I heard him snoring. But he’s with me now! Spooled back somehow from severe autumnal doldrum, we’ve been restored to the high August of our days: nettles are tall, thistledown is blowing, through every gap in the brambles a buttery wedge of heartland Essex. It’s a miracle!
Our plan is to start some kind of movement. A gathering or something. A colony. A new race. Early days yet, but we’re deeply agreed on the basic thing of us being in charge of everyone else, by virtue of our closeness to life’s essence. We’re in a swoon of concord.
‘Are they ready for us out here, old buddy?’ I say.
‘Ready or not,’ says Champion.
‘For how long have they lived in lowness, these beasts, just snarling and spitting along?’
‘Long time,’ says Champion.
‘We’ll open them up like cans of tuna.’
‘Ah!’ he assents, lurching forward. Trot-trot-flump, trot-trot-flump.
As for me… Well let’s just say, if Nora could see me now, in the wild nudity of my spirit, she’d collapse in dread. Nora my vixen, her heart scaled like an old kettle from our endless spousal boil-ups, she’d do a backflip. She’d —
‘Hold up.’ Champion halts, his ears suddenly rigid. ‘Incoming.’
I listen. The wheatfield next to us bristles. I can hear the fine tick and crackle of fecundity across its whole surface, the sound of a field about to be harvested. Beautiful.
‘Through here,’ Champion stares into the yellow-white cave of wheat-stalks. ‘Fifteen seconds.’
The ears micro-adjust. ‘Two. No. Three.’
‘Right. Watch this.’ I arrange myself — expression of modest beatitude, bum on the ground, Cocky sejant. ‘I’m going to blow their minds.’
Now I hear them, thumping and huffing towards us at speed — definitely a Northside patrol, travelling with that heaviness. Poor rubbish, they don’t know what they’re in for.
‘Stand back,’ I say.
And they crash through as if expelled or bounced from the wheatfield. Two hefty dark-coated foxes, heads turning, eyes narrow against the afternoon, classic Northside snouts. Plus a shitty little badger, a local by the looks of him, low to the ground and reeking of enmity. He must be their scout or something. They need a scout — they’re far from home out here.
‘This him?’ says one of the foxes.
Contrary to expectation, these goons do not reel back from my superb-ness. Instead they rush upon me with buffeting noses and offensive breath. But I will not speak. No fight-talk here, no bluster or ball-brag. I will gaze, smile, incline the head, and my radiance will break upon them inwardly.
‘What did they say he’d smell like?’ says the other fox.
‘Hula-Hoops and cuckoo juice.’
‘He fucking stinks.’
‘Is this him though?’
‘Where’s the rabbit?’
‘Scrag him, fucking do him, why are we hanging around?’
The badger hoists himself up, gives me a leer of all-purpose fury and then headbutts me. I go over backwards, more in surprise than anything.
‘He’s supposed to be tasty. This isn’t him. Look at his face.’
‘He’s gone soft or something.’
‘Who cares? CAN YOU HEAR ME? ARE YOU MENTAL?’
‘IF YOUR NAME’S COCKY, WE’RE SUPPOSED TO DO YOU. Heh heh.’
‘He does smell weird. Like a vegetable.’
‘It’s him though, isn’t it? Got to be. All weird out here, by himself.’
‘Johnny said to make sure he never came back.’
‘Johnny’s scared of him.’
‘Scared of what?’
‘WE’RE GOING TO DO YOU NOW.’
‘Go on then, grab a leg, I’ll de-throat him.’
‘Get a good mouthful, Gibby. All the pipes in one good bite.’
Face it, my magic isn’t working. They’ve got me pinned down. The head of the fox called Gibby is above me, jaws wide and dripping with half-laughter.
‘Now just hold on,’ I say. ‘Just hold on a fucking minute.’
‘You can talk, can you? That’s good. Because now Mr Gibby is going to EAT YOUR WORDS.’
‘But… the things I’ve seen!’
‘What have you seen?’
‘I’ve seen pylons moving in rows across the fields, elbows out like ladies lifting their skirts!’
‘You’re a fruitcake.’
‘Up the Borough!’
‘Hold him, Maurice.’
Then Champion gives a little cough. Gibby’s head turns, and a drool-string hits me in the eye.
The Champ is shuffling out of the hedge. One twig rides his ear like an antenna. ‘Beasts, beasts,’ he says gravely. He does actually look rather spiritual. ‘Beasticles.’
‘The soft bits are mine,’ says the fox called Maurice. ‘You know, the organs.’
‘But this is lowness,’ says the Champ. ‘This is all snarling and spitting. Be more like tuna!’
‘His head’s for me to chew on,’ says Gibby.
‘Thistledown,’ says Champion.
‘Come here, lunch,’ says Gibby.
‘Wait a minute.’ The badger is growling, thick-accented. ‘You don’t touch this rabbit.’
‘You what?’ says Gibby.
‘What is this, World Softness Day?’ says Maurice. ‘Fuck off out the way of our lunch.’
‘I’ve heard about this rabbit. No one touches this rabbit,’ says the badger, louder. He’s let go of my leg. ‘Speak on, rabbit! I’ve heard about you!’
‘One of your fairytales, is it, Shakes?’ says Gibby.
‘Country trash,’ says Maurice. ‘I told you, Gib. Local yokels. They’ve got some right funny ideas out here.’
‘You’re off your patch, Northsider,’ growls Shakes the badger. There’s going to be a battle!
‘Pylons,’ says Champion. ‘Buttery wedges. Nora will collapse.’
This is my moment. Go time. An up-strike, coming hard off the canvas, straight at Gibby’s exposed gullet. ‘De-throat me, would you?’ Fox neck, fox cartilage, good days. With a contact spark of pure joy my teeth meet somewhere behind his windpipe, and then I’m ripping the scream right out of him. Behind me there is scuffling, a squealing — Shakes the badger seems to be tangling with Maurice. ‘Wild nudity!’ cries Champion.
Then it’s all over.
Gibby stands there, spilling his strength in pulses, with his tubes hanging out.
‘Well,’ I say cheerfully, four-footed, gore-faced. ‘That’s torn it!’
‘I have a hideous colour inside me,’ he manages. And then, going a bit wobbly: ‘Help me, Maurice.’
‘Maurice fucked off, mate,’ says Shakes. There’s a Maurice-shaped hole tunnelling into back into the wheat, the ripped stalks quivering.
Distantly, in the vast placidity of the afternoon, we can hear him trampling about and swearing.
Shakes looks like he wants to get after him. ‘He doesn’t know his way out of there,’ he says, flexing his claws.
‘Leave it,’ I say. ‘Let him get home. A message to the Northside. Incidentally, was that headbutt really necessary?’
But Shakes ignores me. He’s watching Champion, waiting for a word.
Gibby now gurgles his last. My first fox-on-fox kill since… Two shrieks come from overhead, and I look up — it’s the hawk, on his sky-stilts, between pockets of glare.
‘Well?’ says Shakes.
The Champ, who has been involved with some buttercups, raises his head. I notice that he’s wearing a light spray of fox-blood. ‘Magic fungus, gap in the brambles,’ he says.
Then he looks at Shakes, nods toward the wheatfield.
‘Find him and finish it.’
‘Now look what you’ve gone and done.’
‘What, Cocky?’ Champion’s sniffing and blinking into the afternoon, the usual display of rabbity nescience. Something’s changed though. A glimmer about him. The faintest veneer of… irony? Surely not. From the wheatfield we hear blunderings, tearings, the squawking of the fox Maurice as Shakes the badger gets after him.
‘Nicking my lines like that,’ I grumble. ‘Pronouncing death sentences. Thumbs down for Maurice! Why’d you do that anyway? It’s not strategic.’
‘Northside scum must die.’
‘Well yeah but… Wow.’ I give my head a quick rattle. Sometimes he really nails it, the Champ. Sometimes he’ll say something as clean and curative as the smell of cow parsley. Northside scum must die. They must die like Gibby here, who lies sans vitamins or electricity, teeth feebly bared, lost in the secret world of death. I killed him, but death owns him. Poor Northsider, poor doomed snout. It was me or you. It was me and you. Now let the maggots commence their rites.
‘Okay,’ I say. ‘Okay. But — what are we going to do about this fucking badger? I mean clearly he thinks you’re some kind of talisman or great spirit. He’s probably going to want to hang around with us now.’
‘Big badger, Cocky,’ suggests Champion.
‘I don’t like him.’
‘Don’t like him?’
‘I dunno. Too badger-ish. Badgers are weird.’
‘Rumpy’s a badger.’
‘Rumpy’s weird too. Rumpy’s Rumpy. You saw what Rumpy’s like. Fucker won’t come out of his hole… Listen, seriously — why don’t we just bugger off? Quick, now, before he gets back. Let’s go!’
Reluctant as I am to spend any more time with him, I’ll give Shakes credit for one thing: the bastard knocked some sense into me! That headbutt of his, in its offhanded vehemence, its blunt badger-power… Two minutes ago Champion and I were on a New Age bender. We coursed with enlightenments; we babbled to each other of a golden land. I think I was on the point of becoming a vegetarian. But then Shakes landed that headbutt on me, and sense arrived. Sense, which lives outside the skull, buzzing in mid-air like a family of hummingbirds or a mathematical proof. I saw it. I saw sense.
Right now, for instance, I perceive with unwonted clarity that the thing for us to do is scram, vamoose, blow this joint. Shakes might have helped us out of a tight spot, but he’s no friend to Cocky and Champion. We don’t want him on our bandwagon. A goon in the country is worth two in the town. Who said that? Whoever it was, he’s wrong. A goon is a goon is a goon — and Shakes is a goon, notwithstanding his freakish pieties towards the rabbit. I’d see him off but, truth be told, I’m not sure I can handle him one-on-one. It’s not just the weight difference — badgers have an elemental advantage over foxes. They draw strength from the ground. It’s like getting attacked by an oak tree.
‘Come on!’ I say. ‘Quick!’ And then, ‘What?’ because Champion is bunching, bracing himself, hunkering back into his haunches. He’s made his mind up about something.
Sheer intransigence in those pink eyes!
‘Oh no,’ I say. ‘Don’t tell me. Killer badgers think you’re legendary, and you love it! You like the attention. You want more!’
The Champ makes no reply — he never does, when we’re having these little showdowns — but only densens his field of oppugnance, fur in chunks, ungroomed rabbit-claws gripping the ground like he might fall off.
‘Unbelievable! It’s all ego with you, isn’t it? Me, me, me.’
He won’t move. And I, oddly, am out of ideas. There’s a new bottom to Champion out here. What am I going to do, fight him? I could grab him by the scruff, but… Sunlight thrums blandly off the wheat. From deep in the twittering crops, Maurice the fox gives his death-yodel. Shakes has got his man.
‘Well, there we are,’ I say. ‘Another fine mess, and so on.’
Cocky frowns. Champion frowns.
A combine harvester corners at the edge of a distant field, changing the pitch of its noise.
‘AND… SCENE!’ says a nasty voice from above. Wings, thick syllables of downdraft: Champion’s ears flatten. I leap, tail crackling, to his side. Shadows collide about us and I just have time to mutter Oh-you-are-fucking-joking before — with an oily clatter of pinions, with derisive snorts — the Du Noir brothers touch down.
Both of them! Weasel Paul and I once discussed the possibility that Randall and Corvin Du Noir were really two halves of the same raven — no one had ever seen them together, after all. A split personality kind of deal, we conjectured: the sane part and the loony part. But here they both are. Randall, sleek as a butler, and the bulkier Corvin in his cloud of psychic cinders. How keenly I miss the Weez right now!
‘Lovely, everyone, lovely,’ drawls Randall. And then, looking up: ‘Thank you, Hatchet-Face!’ The hawk overhead cries out, banks, and pinpricks away into the curve of the afternoon. ‘What are you doing?’
‘Guts,’ says Corvin, who has begun to poke at the corpse of Gibby. He’s pushing at the muzzle with his beak, seeking to widen the rip in the throat. ‘The money shot.’
‘That’s not the money shot, you turd. The money shot is the blood on the rabbit.’
‘Eh?’ Their movements have a weird organic dissonance, these two, as they strut about. Tweaks and jolts and tugs of energy — it’s like watching a nervous system in freefall. ‘Keep cool,’ I whisper . Next to me the Champ is clenched so tight he may never shit again.
‘The crimson droplets on the white, laced there delicately. That says it all. That’s your money shot.’
Corvin rotates his gun-turret head, zeroes in on Champion.
‘Nah,’ he says. ‘Too arty.’
‘It’s exquisite,’ says Randall. ‘How many times have we had this conversation?’
Corvin has a think. ‘More blood, then,’ he says, and noisily dunks his beak inside poor opened-up Gibby. ‘Get some more blood on there. Punch it home.’
Randall sighs, and levels his scorched gaze at me, appealing as if to a fellow auteur, a brother in sensibility. Fucking hell!
‘If you must,’ he sighs.
Well, this is looking very bad indeed, isn’t it? I mean this is looking terrible. Corvin advances upon us with clockwork steps, with dripping beak, intent apparently on daubing the Champ with fresh gore. It’s a desecration, an offence in about fourteen different categories. My high-rev growling and the deep drone of terror inside Champion have combined into a single scandalized chord.
But Corvin’s head suddenly clicks to the side. Randall, too, has hopped about to face something. Badgers! Three of them — Shakes plus two — doing that quaintly constrained, don’t-look-at-me-I-know-I’m-fat badger-canter towards us along the edge of the field. The ravens are airborne, instantly, without a word, as if sucked up a chute.
‘Did they touch him?’ Shakes is breathing hard from his little run. And also no doubt from the slight effort of murdering Maurice, whose last mortal spurtings are all over the black-and-white visor of his face.
‘No they didn’t touch him,’ I say with some irritation. Champion, by the way, has fainted.
‘And who the fuck are these two, anyway? They’re even uglier than you are.’
‘Piece of town shit,’ says one of the badgers (a male).
‘Raven-licker,’ says the other (a female).
Where are those ravens? Oh yeah… Half a mile away now, with strains of mockery fluttering in their wake like black tinsel. Amazing how they seem to hobble in mid-air.
‘This is Brutus,’ says Shakes. ‘And this is Brunelle. And they’re gonna keep us company. We’re going into bandit country.’
Keep us company, I think, or hold us hostage?
‘Rabbit’s dead,’ says Brutus. ‘Look at him.’
Champion opens his eyes.
‘Say something,’ says Brunelle.
‘Killer badgers think I’m legendary,’ says Champion.
‘See?’ says Shakes. ‘This is the one. Now let’s move out.’
Dusk, the dusk of Albion, and this convoy’s in a mood.
We’re travelling under the sign of the badger: silence, a rusty antagonism. Big Brutus skulks and rumbles up ahead, setting the pace. Alongside us is Shakes, non-verbal mostly and heavy in the breath. And to the rear, dumpily, Brunelle.
Light drains to the west. In a thistle-bristling paddock, spicy with the piss of vanished horses, a stoat pops up on his hindies and surveys us like a small furry periscope. Thin-voiced he hails us: ‘Where are they taking you, Cocky the fox?’
‘Dunno!’ I call back, grateful for the contact. ‘Some fucking thing with the rabbit!’ Champion, riding on my back, sniffs loudly.
‘Need a hand there?’ He’s bounced in for a closer look. ‘I rip up badgers, me.’
Ballsy little chap. Shakes, who is ignoring us, could abolish this stoat and his family tree in about three seconds.
‘You’re a sportsman,’ I tell him. ‘And I appreciate it, but I’ll pass.’
‘Black Pond badgers are weirdos, eh?’
‘Too right mate.’ Excellent fellow. ‘Now how is it that you know me?’
‘His Majesty Marcus Viles says howdy.’ He about-turns, with a ninja-flip, and begins to make off.
‘Wait — you’re with Mackie?’
‘With the Stoatness!’ he returns cheerfully, unseen now in the grass. ‘You’re in his kingdom!’
Well I never. ‘Hear that, Champ?’ I say. ‘That was one of Mackie’s!’
‘Mackie who! Mackie Viles! Lovely little geezer from the Borough. A face, a character, a gentleman of the old school.’ I let out a sigh. ‘Moved away right after Bob died…’
Marcus Viles, a good friend of Holiday Bob’s, was a swanking, pot-bellied ermine who wouldn’t stop calling himself ‘King Of The Stoats’. It was performance art, really: a matter of entitlements, proclamations, regal motions, largesse. He had no authority at all. But a sense of occasion always accompanied Mackie Viles, slightly crackers though he was, and we humoured him. We honoured him. Once, finding me with my face in a packet of Tip-Tops, he told me with astounding seriousness that I was ‘poaching the king’s biscuits’. I backed off, smirking.
‘Got himself some troops out here, apparently,’ I say. ‘Just shows you what a bit of self-belief can do.’
The season’s on the turn. Blackberries gleam, deep in the bramble, and against an empty sky the starlings are testing their long-haul formations. Now and again some tree will present an oracular shape, bare elbows of decrepitude, and we’ll moan a bit and shrug. All beasts become fatalists in these months.
‘Now I wonder,’ I say, slow and loud, ‘can anyone tell me the difference between a weasel and a stoat?’
The Champ stops breathing, and his draped forepaws tighten against my neck.
‘It’s something I’ve never quite been clear on,’ I say. ‘You know, which is the weasel, and which is the stoat. They’re so very similar, I just can’t seem to distinguish between them. Can anybody help me?’
‘Uh…’ says Champion.
‘The weasel,’ he says, with gratifying deliberateness, ‘is weasily wecognized,’
Shakes is looking over — he can’t help himself. I give him a big showbiz wink.
‘And…?’ I say.
‘And the stoat — is stoatally different,’ says Champion.
A snort of laughter escapes the badger, and he dips his head quickly.
You see how I’m working my psychology here. Shakes is no cosmopolitan, but he does seem different from the other two — less rooty and badgerish, a touch more fox-friendly in his thinking. Which is why they sent him after us, I suppose: from what I can gather, from the various sullen scraps of badger-to-badger utterance upon which I’ve eavesdropped — and when these badgers talk to one another, I’m telling you, it’s like they’re grumbling in their sleep — he was despatched by the Black Pond elders to pick us up, the fox and the rabbit, and bring us in. He bumps into that Northside patrol, he offers his services as a scout (figuring it’ll speed up the fox-and-rabbit-location process — quite canny of him really) and as soon as he finds us he turns on the Northsiders, summons Brutus and Brunelle on the badger-frequency, and here we all are.
‘Shakes,’ I say under my breath, sliding into step with him. ‘Shakes, dear shadow, old bodyguard. What’s it all about?’
He growls. He growls in his jowls.
‘Not talkun to you,’ he says.
‘But you are though. So what is it, you lot badgering us through the country like this, taking us back to your Black Pond. Eh? Veneration of the rabbit, of his sagacious properties? I’m not buying it, Shakes. No sir. No sir.’
I move in closer — our flanks are almost brushing. He smells like hot metal, this badger.
‘I mean listen, you won’t find a bigger fan of Champion than me. The rabbit’s got heart. Commitment. He’s come with me all the way from the Borough! But a fount of wisdom? A leader of beasts? Even with all your dark country bullshit, no way. I’m sorry, Shakes, but no. You’re going to have to do better than that.’
And there — having prodded him in his badger-broodings — I leave it. I withdraw, I step back.
‘A fount of what, Cocky?’ asks Champion from between my ears.
Over gloomy pasture the starling-flock coalesces momentarily in the form of a huge fingerprint. Autumn’s sad garlands are in the hedgerow: pale spurs of Boxbright, and drooping Widow’s Wrist. Brutus has turned back, a mass in the crepuscule, and hustles upon us with matronly hips. Uh oh. Shakes tenses, a two-stone grimace. Now check out the badger-speak (all lines delivered in gruff monotone, low volume, without eye contact.)
Brutus: What you been sayun to this fuckun fox.
Shakes: I’ve not said nothun.
Brutus: Well you keep your fuckun mouth shut. This fuckun fox is rubbish. The ditch wants his bones.
Shakes: Steve Bruce said bring’em both or have you fuckun forgottun. Can’t have the white without the red he said.
Brutus: Fuckun Shakes. Where’s your badger.
Fascinating, eh? Where’s your badger, I’ve learned, is what a badger says to another badger when he finds his behaviour insufficiently badger-ish. It’s considered quite the withering putdown.
What are they on about though? The red and the white — is that me and Champion? I’m reddish, he’s whiteish. But wherefore this portage unto the Black Pond? They’ll trek us through the night and then, in liquescent dawn, we’ll put up under a stump in some stifling sett, under a grille of ancient roots, with badgers shuffling up and down its tunnels like boiler brushes…
I spit, mew a little.
‘Alright, Cocky?’ asks Champion above me.
‘Yeah yeah. No worries.’
‘They depress me, these badgers.’
‘Badgers are badgers.’
I raise an eyebrow, trot on.
We’re halfway across a moonlit field, with trees massed up ahead and their foliage in lacy silhouette, and Shakes and Champion are chatting. Well, I say ‘chatting’ — the gaps are like Time’s finger on the ‘pause’ button.
‘Wot’s it like over in the Borough then,’ says Shakes, his backside going broadly and rhythmically before us.
‘You know. Home.’
A heavy caesura.
‘Home,’ says Champion from between my ears. ‘Home is in the hutch with Cocky. Fun fighting rats, talking to Otto.’
‘Who’s Otto then. Friend of yours’
‘Big dog next door who wants to eat me.’
A harrowing hiatus. My nerves are shot anyway. How long have we been travelling like this? Four days? Five? Safehouse to safehouse, snatching fitful zizz by day in the dark sett, oppressed with badger-farts and the somniloquies of Champion — which are increasingly Tolkienesque, by the way (‘Tindriel,’ he said yesterday. ‘Frolf? Faralarn!’); to be shoved awake unrested, gasping; and then out again into cooling air, to trudge in liturgical silence to the next wood, the next den of bad-mood badgers, the moon above us with her dry lakes and CAT scan shadows…
‘Well yeah I do see meself leavun the Black Pond sometime,’ volunteers Shakes, out of nowhere. ‘Yeah. Not stayun there forever no thanks. Wide world innit.’
‘Wide world,’ says Champion.
‘Badgers keep to badgers but I’ve got curiosity. Born with it.’
‘Cocky’s a great fighter.’
‘Is he yeah. Just rats like or other foxes.’
‘Weasel Paul put him on his back.’
‘Weasels eh. Hard to beat.’
Is this how me and the Champ became friends? Him saying nothing, or nothing of consequence, but moving those ears, and me just blabbing — like Shakes, after his fashion, is blabbing? Now I’m remembering the hutch, our pre-dawn times, the groping brightness along the garden fence. Night’s pressure off, night’s laws repealed. With smoking eye-sockets watching the day come up. And I would talk and talk, of griefs that didn’t know they were griefs. The stuff I used to say! Should have been saying it to Nora, of course, my vixen, back at the den — but the den in those days smelled of dryness and quelled rage. Me and her, the grand conspiracy of us, foiled. But by who? By what? Fuck! And I wonder: What’s Nora doing right now?
‘French Edward is a cat,’ says Champion.
‘Not many cats out here.’
‘A dead ca – ’
We halt. Or rather: Shakes halts, and I rear-end him so violently as to almost unseat the Champ, who flumps forward over my eyes and his claws pinch my snout.
‘Damn it!’ I say.
‘Sorry, Cocky,’ says Champion, scrambling back.
‘Sssh,’ says Shakes. His head has sunk into his shoulders. Brutus and Brunelle are crouched here too, watching. From a small dent or hollow in front of us a pair of long ears, flame-shaped and tipped with sprouts of black, is sticking up.
Brunelle nods at Brutus, who nods at Shakes.
The ears wobble, nonsensically tall — who has such ears? — and a tittering sound is heard. Tee hee hee.
‘We can fuckun see you you daft hare,’ says Brunelle.
‘And this is…?’ I say, sotto voce.
‘The name of this one,’ murmurs Shakes, ‘is Barely There. Gone fuckun moon-mental from the looks of it. No suddun moves eh. Scratches like a bastard.’
‘Wot is it Barely,’ says Brutus.
The hare rises out of the grass, and I hop back a bit. I can’t help it — that kangaroo face, those Big Bang eyeballs… Only the third or fourth hare I’ve seen in my life. And clear, horribly clear, right to the roots of his whiskers. This frigging moonlight. Like someone left the fridge door of the universe open.
‘Boo!’ he say mildly. The badgers shuffle and grumble.
‘Going home, badgers, yes?’ says Barely There. ‘Heavy earthbound beasts, with your cargo? Better hurry. Hump those fat arses!’ His voice is nibbling, sinuous. ‘By the time you get to the Black Pond there’ll be no one left.’
Something shivers the badgers here, some bass-string thickly plucked way down in their badgerness, and they vibrate.
‘Yes, lummoxes, yes.’ The teeth gnaw vacantly. ‘Oh yes, you gassy badgers. For he has struck again! Woooooooh! The pain, the pain!’
Undergrunt of displeasure from Shakes. ‘Don’t you talk like that Barely,’ he says. ‘Don’t you talk about Jackpot like that.’
‘Or what, obesity? What are you going to do, burp on me? Hee hee.’ The hare begins to croon, rocking. ‘He feels for the pain inside a beast. He opens a beast, spreads a beast, lets the pain out. Lets it float free. Like… MOONLIGHT.’
‘Cocky, who is this?’ says Champion. ‘He’s rude to Shakes. Why are his ears so long?’
‘That’s a good question,’ I say. ‘Listen, Moonraker, we’ve had a long night, so if you wouldn’t mind just fucking off out the way — ’
Pwong! He springs vertically and I catch for a second the lunar disproportion of his back legs, the mad heels made for kicking up moon-dust, pedalling in air before he hits the ground and tears off on a wild circuit, around us and around us and around us again. How fast? I dunno.We’re in a hare-warp or something, immobilized — can’t blink or fidget — his energy-trails looping us as lazily as smoke-rings. When he comes to a stop, in the same spot, he’s not even panting.
‘WHAT DOES JACKPOT LOVE TO EAT?’
And look at this — the badgers are literally spellbound. Grudging, as if under a compulsion, they’re all muttering something in response.
‘Louder, please!’ says Barely There. ‘WHAT DOES JACKPOT LOVE TO EAT?’
‘Rabbit’s feet, rabbit’s feet,’ chant the badgers gloomily. An awful sound.
‘Indeed! And what is the colour of his delight?’
‘Creamy white, creamy white.’
The hare closes his eyes and elevates his nostrils. ‘And who brings the rabbit?’
‘The fox-face friend.’
‘The one he’ll follow…?’
‘Until the end.’
‘Very good,’ says Barely There, pleased. ‘Quite right. Now don’t let me keep you.’ And, with a paradiddle of hare-heels, he’s gone — accelerating into the next field, the next county, the next world.
Something hoots up in the wood. The badgers, released now from hare-time, are stirring, yawning, scratching. A high delirious scent, like jet fuel, hangs about us.
‘Fox-face friend?’ I say.
‘Rabbit’s feet?’ says Champ.
Brutus looks at Brunelle, then they both look at Shakes.
Can Champion overhear what I’m thinking? Can he tune in sometimes to the fox-mind? He does have sort of an opera-box vantage over my cerebrations, riding up there with his chin on the flat of my skull… Just now for example he said, in his musing way, ‘Happy meal.’ Which would be fairly standard Champ-speak — meals, happiness, these are his themes — were it not that the phrase ‘sacrificial happy meal’ has been blinking and buzzing in my head for the last half hour, on/off, on/off…
‘Shakes,’ I whisper. ‘Shakes you fucker, you’d better talk to me. A certain someone’s getting offered up, is that it? Is that what’s going on here?’
Actually I already know what’s going on here. That’s the thing about nursery rhymes, isn’t it? They’re not hard to follow. So Cocky’s got a grip on the situation. But I’ll continue to hassle Shakes — it’s psychological.
‘Offered up, Cocky?’ says Champion.
‘Never mind, pal. Just badger business. Dirty badger business.’
‘You’d better ask Shakes.’
‘Hear that, Shakes? Your new friend Champion is asking you a question.’
Answer comes there none, of course. The badgers, humping along heads down, are in a profound unanimous sulk, but Shakes is bumming out with special ferocity. He seems nearly ashamed. All’s changed since we had our hare’s warning. The moon’s dropped, and they’ve tightened formation around us — Brutus only a pace or two ahead, with Shakes and Brunelle grimly and girthily flanking. This convoy is heading for another sett, another stopover, but that’s not the big picture. The big picture is this: We’re being taken to the Black Pond, where the rabbit with the creamy white feet will be fed ceremonially to a ripper, a slasher, to some kind of mon-sterrrr… I see it all. It’s a death march. First chance we get, high-risk or whatever, we’re breaking out.
‘Ooooooh.’ A small private moan from Champion, like he’s nauseated from the ride.
‘What is it?’
‘Someone just… Someone just died, Cocky. A badger.’
‘I heard him.’
‘In the wood.’
‘Pull up pull up,’ says Brutus, stopping. ‘Smell it.’
Sound of three badgers, a fox and a rabbit all huffing the night air. And there it is, carrying downwind from the wood: a faint taint of carnage.
‘That’ll be Fieldy wunnit,’ says Brunelle. ‘Fieldy’s mob.’
‘Yeah that’s them,’ says Brutus.
‘More badgers?’ I say. ‘Goody!’
‘Sett’s blown then,’ says Shakes.
‘Go round,’ says Brunelle.
‘Too late they’ll smell us in a minute,’ says Shakes.
‘Shakes to the right,’ says Brutus. ‘Into the hedge there. Brunelle you go left round the the wood but stayun this side of the wind. I’ll wait a bit then I’m takun these two across the field. We’ll drawum out like.’
‘Love you killer,’ growls Brunelle.
‘My queen uv damage,’ returns her chevalier Brutus. Romance, squeezed from their badger-glands by the imminence of battle!
Off they huffle, anyway, Shakes and Brunelle, in preparation for ye olde pincer move. Quite impressive, these badgers, the way they deploy. A ten-second huddle to sort their tactics and now it’s just me and the Champ waiting here with Brutus, who as usual sounds like he’s snoring.
‘Walking into an ambush, are we, Brutus?’
‘Not if we ambush first.’ A minute of silence. ‘Right then. Lets go then. Slowly now.’
We move up the field. Death-stink steals across from the banked darkness of the wood. Three or four fresh carcasses in there, two of them at least giving off what I now recognize as the Black Pond odour: sumpy, sedimentary, grudge-bearing.
‘Do some of your fancy talkun,’ says Brutus.
‘Drop dead.’ Champion’s teeth are chattering, which is rattling my whole cranium.
Then brambles tear, low branches break, and a mind-bendingly heavy badger ambles out towards us. Seriously — a big, big fuck-off badger.
‘Brutus,’ he says without menace.
‘Fieldy,’ says Brutus.
‘You should uv brought more support mate.’
‘Whys that then,’ says Brutus. ‘All friends here aren’t we.’
‘Not quite Brutus no not quite,’ says Fieldy. ‘Weve killed your lot in there and Ive lost one of mine and now were gonna be killun you Im afraid AND the fox AND takun the rabbit.’
‘Wot for Fieldy.’
‘Well its obvious innit.’ Two more badgers are behind him now, bulking out of the shadows. ‘So Jackpot dont get his rabbits feet not just yet anyway. Keep him hungry like. Hes been rippun up you Black Ponders nicely.’
Here dialogue ends. Me, if I’d been scripting it, this scene would have bantered on a bit longer, another half a page, more threats and boastings, battle-warmed adumbrations of motive and design. I’m a big fan of pre-fight repartee: builds tension, plus you can get some good exposition in there… But badgers don’t care about that, do they? With a brief ululation Brutus charges Fieldy, who charges right back, and then they’re at it, in it, flatfooting around each other with weird delicacy, outraged mutual deterrence, with clashings and worryings and windy claw-swipes and snappings of teeth until — wallop! — they connect full-on in the high-intensity grumbles and choked-off roarings of badger-battle.
Meanwhile Fieldy’s two goons are closing matter-of-factly on me and Champion, nothing but foxicide on their minds. Fuck this. ‘Off, Champ!’ I cry, and saltating skyward do a bronco spasm that dumps the terrified rabbit in the grass. Then I give it serious toes towards the hedge. Over my shoulder I see Goon Number One following at a gallop, Goon Number Two staying with Champion — if I heard Fieldy right, he won’t touch him.
A fox can always outpace a badger in a flat race — always! — but I’m slowing down, throwing fake soppy looks back at the Champ, as if in guilt at leaving him behind, and so I let Number One gain on me, gain on me, come on you fat bastard, your breath is hot in my ear… Right on cue, and with a war-cry like a set of bagpipes eating itself, Shakes surges from the hedge. ‘Urf,’ says Number One, nonplussed. I skid, roll, and reverse. Shakes has already used his headbutt and now he’s biting, digging in, looking for that pain-hold: I come over the top of him Pimpernel-style with slashings and swearwords. As a double-act — unrehearsed! — I have to say: we are frigging lethal. My foxy refinements, his blastings of badger-bass… Number One is beaten: I’ve got him by the ear and Shakes is gobbling passionately at the side of his head. He screams, writhes clear, paddles off in a panic. And there’s Brunelle actually airborne, pale belly-flash in the dimness, leaping at the mammoth Fieldy who seems to have flattened her Brutus — can’t see him anywhere. Punching well above his weight in that contest, wasn’t he?
Goon Number Two, not sure of his orders, has started uncertainly in our direction — I wait ’til he’s halfway between me and Champion and then streak around him with a hiss, ducking the clawed scoop of his outflung paw. Behind me Shakes barrels in. And now: a gamble. ‘Up, Champ!’ The rabbit’s face looms white and withered by fear, but as I flatten out in my stride he hooks his teeth into my scruff and swings up onto my back — with nimbleness, almost! We’re off. We’re away. Champion-sur-Cocky is not the speediest of arrangements, but the badgers are busy pounding on each other and each step takes us deeper into the fields of liberty. And I’ve begun to think about the quiet ditch, the medieval orchard full of drunk wasps, the nice non-combative place that will be our next stop when I hear Shakes calling out behind us.
I put the brakes on.
‘Cocky!’ He sounds smothered and desperate and ever so slightly totally fucked.
‘Bollocks,’ I say. ‘Shite. Bollocks. Shite. Have a look back there, will you?’
‘Shakes is… fighting. He’s losing!’ says Champion, peering rearwards. ‘What are you going to do, Cocky? He’s really losing.’
I could just stand here, cooling off, and in a minute or two it’d all be over.
I could, couldn’t I?
‘What are you going to do, Cocky?’
There he goes again. In lisping rainfall, the bare flanks of dawn beginning to show. So that’s three times that Shakes – having never seen fit to use it before, the ill-bred bugger – has called out the name of Cocky in supplication. He’s taking a proper beating on the other side of the field, nearing his last throes perhaps — his growls have changed key, from high martial come-on-ness to a deeper, sadder stoicism.
To help, or not to help, a badger?
‘So, Cocky?’ says Champion, roosting there whitely behind my ears like an ancillary and totally useless brain.
‘Climb down, would you, pal?
‘Quickly now. Dismount. Deplane. There’s a good chap. Wait for me here, yes?’
And I’m away, freed of rabbity cumbrance and covering the ground at a gallop, mouth wide, tongue flying like a flag. Champion honks something from the rear — encouragement, no doubt, an exhortation to do damage! And badger-eyes widen, nostrils fastidiously flare as I steam in across the grass.
‘Rah…’ says Goon Number Two, pausing in his work. ‘Filthy fuckun FOX.’
The turf is churned all around, quite a tussle they’ve been having. Shakes is getting the worst of it for sure, on his back, wriggling and blocking desperately, his teeth bared in the weak leer of the defeated — of the dead, actually. I last saw this expression on the face of Gibby the Northsider, two minutes after I’d pulled his pipes out. Hate to see it in a living beast.
‘Shakes!’ I yodel. ‘Dude! Where’s your badger?’ And at full stretch I launch at Number Two and half-Cockinate him, reverse-leaping over his head with a passing tooth-rip to the face that sets him back startled on his haunches and gives Shakes enough leverage, I hope devoutly, to heave himself up into the fight. And I’m landing, toes spread, and wheeling around for another pass when I hear him grunt more cheerfully — ‘Ever hear of a right-hander skinny bollocks’ — as he piledrives a chunky forepaw into the chops of Number Two.
Skinny bollocks? This goon is one of the most menacingly obese badgers I’ve ever seen! And he’s not going down either. Rocks a bit, jellies up the impact, and then starts shoving and wrestling his wedge head behind Shakes’ guard, with great oofs of effort and smoke from his ears. Badgers battling, bloody hell — this is so none-of-my-business. But whirring with aggro I rush in low and get a good bite on Number Two’s hip. He stamps in anger, loses his balance and Shakes is all over him, jaws seeking the killer hold. There’s a rain coming down now and we’re slipping about, very intimate, the air thick with outrage and violent puffings. Shakes finds his mark at last. Discreet gust of expiration from Number Two.
Victoire! But Shakes is snuffling, his face covered with a guilty paw. What is this? Is it possible that he is crying?
‘The fuck?’ I say. ‘Badger tears?’
‘But Cocky,’ he blubs. ‘But Cocky you don’t get it mate. It wuz all for the rabbit to get eatun. I mean eatun by JACKPOT.’
‘Well I know that, don’t I? Come, come. This is disgraceful. Let’s go and get Champion.’
‘Poor Champion,’ he sniffs. ‘Poor poor Champion.’
‘Come along, he’s on his own over there…’
Trotting toward the spot where I set down the Champ, anticipating his splodge of whiteness, his familiar goofy shimmer in the murk of the half-dawn, I see… what do I see? I see bugger all.
Trampled wet grass. Rain shining and shuffling in the hawthorn bushes. And look here: a little frightened circle of rabbit droppings, a code, a mini-Stonehenge. What?
‘Champ! Frank Champard! Where are you?’
We’re standing in cool air. The hedges are breathing — but there’s a crowding and a crackling in my thoughts. Someone’s tweaked the pain dial again.
I skid in mad circles, yelling, while Shakes watches and bleeds.
‘Do something!’ I shout at him. ‘Say something! Be something! Oh! Why did I save your fat arse?’
Brunelle lies close by, deader than dead. But where’s…?
‘Brutus,’ says Shakes.
‘Where is he? Where is he?’ I feel a bit green all of a sudden. ‘We… urgh. Bleffff. Pzzzz…. We need to —’
‘Easy there Cocky.’
But something’s backing up on me. My whole life perhaps.This long and tatty annal of near-misses, skippings-away, of showdowns dodged and reckonings evaded. The endless postponements of Cocky-ness, the undigested experience of moi, itching and slithering in my gorge!
‘We…Wuh…VLLAAAAAARGG!! ACK! ACK!!!’
‘Throwing up aren’t you,’ observes Shakes. ‘From the anxiety like.’
‘ACK! RAZM!! Yes.’
‘Better out than in eh.’ Then he says ‘Blimey’ and turns away sharply. Fox-puke is pure brimstone. I threw up in the corner of the hutch once, after a really big night, and by the time I woke up it had eaten a hole in the floor. Peered through the hole and saw scorched grass below.
‘Okay! Okay…’ I’m panting now, but I am collecting myself. ‘Let’s think this through.’
‘Rabbits safe for the time bean,’ says Shakes.
‘The time bean?’
‘Yeah. For the time bean hes safe. Brutus wont hurt him. Wants him in one piece all the way to the Black Pond.’
‘So what are we waiting for? Let’s —’
‘LOOK OUT,’ yells Shakes, as something huge and wounded comes at me from the side — a great mass of brokenness at the end of its run, a last gasp from beyond the stars. It’s Fieldy, the bastard, gravely bitten by Brunelle and extravagantly bloody but still breathing. I scoot away, he flumps on his face with an earth-shudder, rumbles ‘Go on, my son’ and attempts to lift himself onto his elbows before collapsing. ‘Wossa,’ he breathes. ‘Ya faaaaa….’ Shakes jumps onto his back and bites down until Fieldy is still.
‘Finished?’ I say.
‘Let’s go then.’
He looks at me. ‘What DO you smell like Cocky.’
I smell like bile and fireworks.
‘Never mind that,’ I say. ‘Lead the way.’
‘Orright.’ And he does.
So Shakes, as we hustle along in our pursuit, has been bringing me up to speed on the whole Jackpot thing. Some sort of diluvial splatterer with seven legs, apparently, or seven eyes or seven heads, who comes flapping and wittering out of the old pond by night in search of victims. Whom he rips to bits most thoroughly — the way Shakes tells it, there’s almost a pathos in these eviscerations, in the frantic rummagings of the monster Jackpot. My theory: he’s just a big mad otter. But rather aged, clearly. Years and years this character has been the sleeping curse of the Black Pond, an underwater legend dormant for generations of badgers but whispered of, hissed of, deliciously feared. It was said that his mutterings rose to the surface in balls of green pond-gas and became actually audible as they popped open, if you listened oh-so-closely. Young badgers attuned to this event claimed to have heard an indecipherable toad-like voice announcing stuff, threatening, or simply groaning.
‘Youve got to THINK about the pond,’ says Shakes. ‘Before you go there. Its more than a place like. Its. Its.’
And he can’t phrase it.
But I know what he’s saying.
The pond is a zone in my brain. Implosion, gravitational collapse — I see it in the middle of a rotted ash grove, perhaps, the grove all fallen in on itself and into this dark depth where slow impossible acids are digesting it for millennia. No light, no oxygen. A willow doing its time-lapse headbang at one end, while other trees that have toppled or slid without hope into the water now look like they’re growing out of it. Boughs and elbows trapped in arcane gesture. Unmoving scum mocked by the cruising dragonfly. Deep silt, dead leaves making a terrible sort of layered pie at the margins. Shafts of light bending tragically towards its core. This old place infesting itself.
‘So — what? Somebody woke Jackpot up, is that it?’ I say. ‘Broke his slumber of a hundred years?’
‘Not a badger. Badgers wuz always careful around the pond. But some say there was laughter by night. And big splashes and branches breakun downward like somethun was been dropped in there.’
‘What do you mean, dropped in there?’
‘From above like. From the sky.’
‘And what about that nasty little rhyme then?’ I say. ‘The one about the rabbit’s feet and the fox-face friend. Where’d that come from?’
‘Younguns been sayun it for a while.’
‘Month or two. Now we all say it.’
Can you see where my suspicions are tending here? I think I know who put that doggerel in a young badger’s ear, in the summertime. I see a beak opening and closing, grinding out the rhymes, and the vicious poking pistil-like tongue. And I think I know who woke the bog amphibian from his sleep of ages, just for the buzz. Just for the why-not. Just for the fuck of it. This part of the story has ravens, ravens, ravens written all over it…..
Big smells around here. We’ve snooped in off the nettled verges, Shakes and I, and come to a small plain of concrete, and a hangar with haybales in it. Metal barns watch us through their enormous open doors. There’s a tractor here somewhere, or a fuel tank — the soporific dusty hay-vibes are flavoured with rich diesel stink. I love a bit of diesel, me. If I was a country fox I’d roll in diesel and then rush through the woods like a pungent goblin, trailing fumes and curses.
‘Shush,’ says Shakes. Our claws snitter over the cement.
‘What? I didn’t say anything.’
‘Yeah well. Just shush.’
‘What are we doing here anyway?’
Grey headache of an afternoon, dull light edged with a mean clarity. A tiny breeze rips and tilts across this yard, and there’s another smell too. Sort of toffee-like… Shakes, for the first time in our acquaintance, appears truly nervous, huffling forward and then freezing, flattening. A badger on concrete cuts a desolate figure. Something booms in one of the barns – a voice? a falling object? – and he goes six inches straight up, twanging with apprehension.
‘Bloody hell, Shakes,’ I say. Now I’m nervous.
‘Keep movun,’ he says. ‘No joke no joke.’
‘But what —’ He’s stopped again. That noise from the barn has become a kind of rumour, moving around, coming at us off the metal sheeting. It’s getting louder. Here’s what it is — we’re being barked at. And now: percussion of incoming paws. The caramel smell thickens.
‘Oh no,’ says Shakes.
‘What? Jackpot? Is it Jackpot?!’
‘RUN!’ I’m already running. I’m running so fast I barely heard Shakes telling me to run. I’m across the yard, I do bouncing skids round the corner of a building and yes, there’s my big snub-nosed tractor, parked and empty. I fly up over the cartoon back tyres with their dinosaur treads and into the driver’s cab, whence I peer, in a cringe, though the side-window. I see Shakes, I see him scrabbling for cover with indecent badgery haste, and then I see some kind of golden-brown fuzzball just exploding off him. He’s down, he’s being mauled, he’s being… licked?
‘Big Boy!’ cries Shakes, in a tone of remonstration. ‘Rargh. Groff. Big Boy! Fuckun fuck off will you!’
But this animal — a Golden Retriever, as I now see, ears whirled by its own ardency — is all over him, clubbing and clamouring. ‘Ah Shakes Shakes Shakes!’ it barks. ‘Adorable Shakes! Edible! Let me lick you until you disappear!’
‘Bollocks.’ Shakes regains his feet and brushes the drool off him. ‘Fuckun rubbish. Why are you such a nutter then.’
‘Pounding, pounding joy!’ exults the dog, running in circles.
‘Can I come out now?’ I ask through the little window. I’m keen to come out. The smell in this tractor-cab is one man’s biography. Scratch’n’sniff.
Big Boy turns toward me, delighted. His tongue flourishes wildly, his tail swipes the air. ‘A new friend?’ he says. ‘I’m overwhelmed! Embrace me!’ And he dashes at the tractor.
‘Easy there, lovebug,’ I say, bristling. ‘Stay back. No one embraces this fox without a damned good reason.’
He jolts to a stop, in burnt-sugar odor, and looks at me with expanding eyes. ‘I don’t know who you are,’ he says. His sincerity is profound and dizzying. ‘But I… love you.’
‘But can you feel that? You must feel it! Does it elevate you?’
‘Shakes,’ I protest. ‘Shakes, can’t you..?’ I wave a limp paw. ‘I mean…?’ This is all so unspeakably naff.
‘Lissun Big Boy,” says Shakes. ‘Seen a badger along here have you.’
‘With a rabbit like. A white rabbit.’
A splash of dog-drool hits the cement. Big Boy’s mouth is open so wide I fear it will unhinge. ‘White rabbit?’ he says, nearly choking with lust.
‘Dint see um eh. Right then. Come on Cocky.’
‘Not staying?’ Big Boy looks stricken now, like he might burst into howls and sobs.‘But … But where are you going?’
‘We’re going,’ I tell him. ‘We’re going away.’
‘Take me! Take me! I’ll follow you to the ends of the earth!’ But of course he can’t. As we debouch off the yard and into old countryside again he’s stuck on that concrete apron — runs to the edge, hits the electric limit of his domesticity and bounces back with sounds of rue in his throat.
‘Knew it,’ says Shakes, head down. He seems pleased. ‘Brutus is never takun the rabbit that close to Big Boy. Were in front of um now.’
‘Grotesque, the dog,’ I say. ‘No excuse for that, is there?’ I’m remembering with a shiver my own moment of lowbrow lovey-doveyness, all-embracingness, when I was addled from eating fungus. I was very confused. I thought I was prophetic. Whoever you were, I loved you: no quality control. And it was the brute Shakes who cured me!
‘Dead strong he is Big Boy.’
‘Fuckun right. Hes laid out badgers with that love of his.’
Drizzle comes down on us, and my mood descends. Autumn’s genius has briefly burned and gone: the fuse of the land is doused. Across ploughed fields there’s a sort of brooding raspberry tone to the woods. Fog-creatures slither around in basins and hollows.
‘Look at that shit,’ I say. Away to our left, at the edge of a simmering copse, a deer is watching us. Regarding us, considering us – with one hoof lifted, impossibly demure.
‘Wots his problem then,’ says Shakes.
‘Champion!’ I begin with some passion, ‘My Champion, with feet so white and long!
I could not teach you right from left, but only right from wrong.
We trod the turf, we tripped through traffic, you and I together —’
Shakes grunts negatively. He disgrunts.
‘Yes?’ I say. ‘You have an opinion you’d like to express?’
‘Fuckun awful that,’ he says.
‘Fuckun awful poetry. Diabolical.’
‘What would you know about it, you great thick badger? Poetry up your arse. When I try to imagine your soul I see a thing like a Swedish meatball.’
‘Never understood the two of you anyway. You and him. A fox and a rabbit like. Wots the deal.’
‘Listen, you lump, when you’ve been around a bit like I have, when you’ve seen the world, lived a little… A beast does things he never thought he’d end up doing. That’s the truth. And the rabbit was there when –’ I cough, pause. My voice, to my alarm, goes rather high. ‘When everyone else was against me.’
‘Thats why your friends.’
‘Yes,’ I squeak.
‘Hmph. Makes sense that does I spose.’
I say nothing.
‘And I want to see the world,’ grumbles Shakes. ‘Thats what I want to do really.’
Mud up top and mud below. Mud in the toe-clefts, mud spiking the shoulder-fur. We’re almost amphibious treading the turned chunks of this field in the dark. We just found Brutus, sitting in a hedge.
‘Quite surprised I can still talk actually,’ he said. Bracken propped him up. ‘Jackpots got most of me. Wearun me like a fuckun necklace I think.’
‘Where’s Champion?’ I said.
‘Ah your right on time mate. Hes waitun for you.’
‘Out in the field. Waitun for his fox face friend like. Hur hur.’
‘I’ll kill you when I get back, badger.’
‘Go on then. That ull be twice Ive got killed tonight.’
There’s a sound in the ploughland like two winos having a fight – frothings, meows, nursed resentments and dear old grievances. It’s getting closer.
‘Jackpot,’ says Shakes.
‘You look for Champion,’ I say. ‘I’m going in.’
Wind bellies above me and the earth, all this earth, sways in the wet. I twinge across it with ticking joints, abhorring the suck of the clay. And then I stop. The fox confronts the night, and growls so hard he almost pops a rib.
Jackpot has eyeshine as he approaches — there must be light coming out of me.
What is Jackpot? Ottery slickness, badgery bulk. A mutant. And vengeful like you wouldn’t believe. Innards trail from the mouth, and at the first concussion — a sort of flubbed frontal charge, with me banging off sideways — the following data is exchanged: I, Cocky, am terrified; he, Jackpot, is insane. Nothing recognizable in there at all, nothing to get a grip on, just slime and red eyes and the hugest pit of hate. And the reek…! I yak, I bleat with nausea: the smell has flippers. He comes at me again, waffling and chattering through the dark, rocking side-to-side. Serrated crash to the side of my head and now I know what he wants, what he’s been hunting for in these late rip-ups of his — he wants the the trigger, the button, the magic pink buried-deep nubbin. He wants to find the life-switch and flip it back, turn it off.
Stewed in the mere for how long, this character? Cooked there, ruined there? The isolation of his mind is awful. Big as he is you could almost step over him and not even see him, like a hank of wet sacking or a pool of bilge. I slash, I dab, I’m terribly squeamish: don’t let too much of him get on me. There’s black gunk in his blows, and I seem to be encountering more than one row of teeth — I’ve already got cuts here, here and here. I’m weakening, I’m going backwards. I’m losing this one. The night is closing over my head. Should I fight to the last belch of life, releasing it upward in a tree of silver bubbles? Or should I just..?
Watch your oxygen, Cocky, Holiday Bob would say when we were sparring. Keep your lungs full. Take sips of air, little top-ups — leave the other beast ranting in the shreds of his breath. And I’m remembering too my Aunt Patsy, how she rasped at me, scoffed at me, putting me through my paces near her shanty in Safeway Wood. ‘Chump!’ she cried, a wreck revitalized by scorn, as I pounced at a beetle and landed wrong. ‘Fiasco! Screwup! Blot upon the Borough!’
‘I hate you,’ I said. I was green with sweat.
‘Hate yourself, loser. Hate the self you’re dragging along with you. D’you know what it’s for, the self?’
‘No. Tell me.’
‘It’s so you’ve got something to GIVE UP! Something to surrender, when the woods ask for it.’
‘You old handbag. You’ve gone senile at last.’
‘Sure, sure. You cling to the self, Cocky, but you must shed it. Shed the self! That’s how you win the big battles.’
Ah, crazy, crazy Aunt Patsy. How her agedness offended my eye! How she withered my whiskers with her horror-breath! And yet, how right she may have been, eh? Possibly? Is that what the woods are asking of me now — my self?
So I give it a shot. So I inhale, forget everything, float in with empty eyes.
Jackpot roars. And look. Look at this. Skipping, dancing over the mudscape, and calling a name: a chorus line of angels is coming to meet me.
Jackpot took my eye, my right one. My world of sight is halved. He smashed up my back leg too, my left one. I’ll limp forever, says the old girl down here in the sett. She’s been treating me with heavy badger-medicine: a lot of droning over my proneness, deep oaths, and plants waved under my nose. And then, as I strengthen, the inevitable grumbles of reproof. Friggun fox wastun my time, and so on. They’re all the same, these Black Ponders.
I feel not too bad actually, I must say. Lying here, listening to the badgers wuffling obscurely in their tunnels… I’ve come to appreciate their discretion, their decent low-keyness. Their home-stink lines my throat and sinuses like insulation. And other beasts helped me in the ploughland, didn’t they? Who preserved my red arse out there? Stoats, that’s who. Stoats! Mackie Viles and his Royal Guard. Theirs were the spritely advancing forms I saw, as I sashayed in for my final attack — eight or nine stoats, lined out fizzing and glowing, each weighing no more than a banana. I had my teeth somewhere in Jackpot, some part of him, which end I couldn’t tell you, and I wasn’t letting go. He was howling and shaking me to pieces but I was clamped unbreakably, just a brainless set of jaws by now. There was a quite fascinating pain in me, like a second body — it had a head, legs… So complete I could ignore it completely. And Mackie’s fighting ermines leapfrogged in, crying for blood, and — well, I’ve told you about weasels and stoats. How they move, how they fly. How they twist into the air to find its unsuspected pockets of pure violence. You could almost feel sorry for Jackpot. They sent the old abomination shambling back to his pond with bits falling off. At daybreak he was face-down on the surface like an afterthought.
My torn eye? No clue. Never felt it. One of Jackpot’s edges must have caught me. It’s calmed Cocky down, is the strange thing. Sedative badger-medicine has had its effect too, no doubt, but this fresh continent of nothing on my right side has set my mind exploring like Marco Polo. In its darkness I’ve been thinking. Images, long submerged in my gorgeous personality, have begun to rise and float against the earthen sett-walls. I’ve been remembering. Like, remember that night me and Champion were on the towpath, on our way to Patsy’s wood… I had dined on — what? Two tubes of Aquafresh and a shoelace. I was ragged anyway, steaming, and ready to push the rabbit into the canal for his slowness and truculence. And then up ahead, cruising and ghostly, I saw the swans. Eye-masks, cathedral angles. Two of them. Ready for us, too — as we stumbled closer they were winding up for combat, wings spread, great gusts of fluster animating them from below. ‘Come here, drowner,’ called the first one: Ramona, absolute queen bitch of the canal. ‘I’ll dunk you like I dunked that other one.’ Her neck was drawn back like a bowstring. She wanted, she needed to get her orange beak on my foxy pommel and shove me under, down there with the boots and the bedsprings. ‘You’ve got monster feet,’ I said, and they both hissed nastily. Swans hate to think about their ugly feet. We flattened ourselves against the wall, anyway, went around them as their heads jabbed and struck at us from the water. And I thought no more about it, almost forgot it. Only that slight searing of swan-hate stayed on my brain, like a lesion.
But… that other one? Swan-chatter. Bob was out there on the towpath for a meeting with Blandley, wasn’t he? He told me about it a couple of days before. Blandley wanted to talk to him, he said. A private matter. You could say this was Bob’s weakness as a boss — his passion for knowing everything. Gossip, wheeling and dealing, hushed confidences, backroom stuff: any wanker could get his ear if he thought they might have a titbit for him. So he goes out there for Blandley — without a guard, without Rumpy or me — and the next day they scoop him out with a net, in the callous dazzle of the afternoon…
Frost on the ground as I hobble out of the sett. White fields, ice mathematics in the grass. With the first breath of fresh air, my first for days, I can feel its crystals forming and then melting in my lungs. Come on, universe — see me whole, damn it. Not in slivers, slices, not in the shitty fox-fragments. See me like a lover! Shakes is waiting for me at the entrance, sentinel-like, a great umbrageous lump filling my blind side.
‘Lost your eye there Cocky,’ he says.
‘Noticed that, did you?’
‘And your legs done in too I see.’
‘Will you shut your face? Bloody hell!’
Sigh. ‘No, it’s okay. It’s okay.’
‘Well.’ He coughs. ‘Wanted to say. Ive got my work cut out now havunt I. Because anything coming at you from this side…’ I can hear him flapping his paws. ‘THIS side. Anything coming from this side you dont worry about. Because old Shakes ull be here.’
‘My right hand man, eh?’ I turn my head to look at him. ‘Where’s Champion?’
‘In his fuckun glory. Come and see.’
The day’s rising now, and the frost withdraws to the shadows. We find the Champ on the other side of the wood, sitting on the dais of a felled beech-tree and attended to by a clump of enraptured young badgers and badgerettes.
I totter forward, on the point of hailing him when Shakes puts a paw on my shoulder. ‘Lissun a minute.’
So I listen. Champion, using his most dramatic intonations, is telling them a story.
‘…And when I smelled the RATS,’ he’s saying. ‘I thought it was the Friendship Club, and then Cocky said NO, Champion, this isn’t the Friendship Club, this is the BRG!’
‘BRG?’ asks someone.
‘The Big Red Gentlemen! One rat, two rats, three rats, four, BRG knocking on your DOOR!’
‘Cor!’ say the badgers, thrilled.
Look at these gathered beings, oohing and aahing, with the breath-smoke twisting above them. Pouring life and heat into the great emptiness. Which receives it… emptily? Much to learn, Cocky, much to learn.
‘What happund with Jackpot then,’ pipes up a high-voiced badgereen. ‘Tell us that.’
‘I waited there for Cocky,’ says Champion.
‘But like,’ says another badger, ‘Jackpot wasnt rippin you…?’
‘Well we were talking,’ says Champion. ‘He was talking. He was breathing and looking at me with his red eyes. Saying things. It was like talking to Cocky at the hutch in the morning.’
Next to me Shakes gives a snort of mirth.
‘Shite,’ I say. ‘Time to break this up, I think.’
Champion spots us. ‘Look,’ he says. ‘Here come Cocky and Shakes!’ And I note with pleasure the tiny shockwave of foxy celebrity that runs through his audience. Heads turn, eyes widen… I made a name for myself around here, didn’t I? Then Shakes wades in and scatters the crowd with a few well-placed swats. ‘Bugger off,’ he grunts. ‘Go on. Shoo.’
‘Alright pal?’ I say to Champion. ‘Having some fun?’
‘They like our stories, Cocky.’
‘Of course they do. Our stories are magnificent.’
‘Are you better now?’
‘All better now, yeah.’
‘Why are you winking at me? Is there a joke going on?’
‘Er, no, that’s… This wink is permanent, old man.’
‘So it’s not really a wink anymore.’
He stares, waits, nose working, ears fixed. I might as well face it: after all this time, all we’ve seen, all we’ve been through, this rabbit is a complete fucking mystery to me.
‘So listen — we should be thinking about getting back, you know.’
‘What do you mean, back where? Back to the Borough. Back home!’
Champion is silent.
‘Our work here is done.’
‘You want to go home, don’t you?’
‘Cocky,’ he says heavily. ‘My friend Cocky.’
‘Cocky, I want to stay here. With the badgers. They listen to me.’
Now. You’ll say, perhaps, that I should have been ready for this. That I should have seen it coming. Champion at the Black Pond, after all, is a changed rabbit. A risen rabbit. No longer the abject hutch-dweller of his Borough days, misprized by rats and squirted with water-pistols, keeping company with a toxic fox and so on, here he has status, and mythic glamour. In the cold morning, set up on that tree-stump like a slightly mad sundial… Those young badgers were hanging on his every word! Country life is good for him, too — the exercise, the nutrients. And to risk the long trip back, with who knows what waiting for us? Well.
But still I am astonished. I am gobsmacked, frankly. I’m —
‘What?’ I say. ‘Don’t I listen to you?’ I lean on Shakes. There’s a great blurt of misery inflating in my lungs like a whoopee cushion.
Champion scratches his head. Now what does that mean?
‘Black Ponders ull take care of him, Cocky,’ murmurs Shakes in my ear. ‘They think hes magic like. Or magnetic or something.’
‘Like I dunno. Like he drew you here so you could kill Jackpot.’
‘But I didn’t kill Jackpot,’ I say weakly. ‘That was the stoats.’
‘Cocky. Only one saw them stoats was you.’
‘Seriously. Badgers found you half-dead and a Jackpot trail back to the Pond. No stoats nowhere. And no tracks.’
‘But I don’t — Mackie Viles sent them. His Stoatness… ’
‘Mackie Viles aint known to the Black Pond. In other words we never heard of your Mackie Viles.’
I’ve gone all floppy now. I seem to have rushed my convalescence somewhat — surely I should still be on my back in the dark…
‘Cocky.’ That’s Champion’s voice. He’s talking to me. ‘Cocky. Say goodbye!’
Oh, bleakness. Late afternoon bleakness! Winter’s yolk has burst over the woods, into pale puddles of sunset – the light that is not light. And here we are, me and the Champ, saying goodbye. Saying goodbye to each other, but I feel like I’m saying goodbye to everything: to the cold squelch of the fields, to the hawthorn’s sharpness, to the sound of a tractor distantly toiling and the trees making their shatter-patterns against the sky. Oh!
‘This is it then,’ I say. ‘The parting of the ways.’
‘Sad, Cocky?’ says Champion. Two badgers bulk behind him in silent formality — an honour guard that has seen us to the borders of the Black Pond.
‘Just a bit,’ I say. ‘What am I going to do without you?’
He gives me one of his opaque pink-eyed looks. ‘You’ll be Cocky. Cocky with your vixen, with your cubs.’
‘Yeah? I mean — I s’pose.’
‘Be Cocky in the Borough. Be Cocky!’
‘I am Cocky though.’
‘Want to get on dont we,’ mutters Shakes in my right ear. ‘Want to get there before dark.’
And indeed I do feel the urge to slope off now. To leave the moment unconsecrated, and retire to a ditch somewhere to lick my griefs, same old Cocky. But no longer!
‘Hold your horses,’ I tell Shakes. ‘Uno fucking momento. I have to rise to this occasion.’
‘Speech, Cocky?’ says Champion.
‘That’s right, pal. Ahem. Badgers of the Black Pond!’ They all grunt and straighten. ‘Cherish this rabbit. For he is wise beyond his ears. Arf! Arf! Anyway… Protect him, I say, revere him. Cherish Champion! Cherish too your memory of me, Cocky the fox, handsome and elegant, the great destroyer of Jackpot, who was for generations your biological nightmare. Defend the Black Pond. You will always have friends in the Borough. Be decent with each other, eat well, and don’t take no guff. Champion, my friend?’
‘You look after yourself. Now on we go.’
‘Wait!’ says Champion. ‘Wait! I’m crying!’
Shakes, on my blind side, is a spire of shadow as we turn our backs.
Well, Cocky’s done it now, hasn’t he? One eye, three legs and a broken heart. I appear to have temporarily mislaid a dimension too – the dimension of depth. The sky is a flattened scroll and Shakes, crossing the ploughland ahead of me, has become an inkblot. Cold as a vixen’s tit out here: ice-streaks in the furrows catch the last dabs of day. Are those trees we see before us? They look like wires. Back there on the grassy headland we heard laughter underground. Laughter! I snarled and sniffed at a mound of earth and who should come jack-in-a-boxing out of it but a mole, a cheeky mole, enviably plush, hacking and chortling, clattering his claws and waving his large nude hands… ‘Clown of a fox!’ he gargled. I jumped six feet. I hate moles. Moles have no faces.
‘Just gunna go marchin in are you,’ says Shakes over his shoulder, in a dragon-twist of steam.
‘Why not? They’ll talk to me. They have to.’
‘Listen, are you with me or aren’t you?’
‘I’m with you, I’m with you. And we’ve arrived as it happens. This is the place.’
‘This…? OK. Wait for me here.’
‘Dont like it.’
‘Orright then I will.’
Still I hesitate, forepaw dangling, muzzle hoisted, at the edge of the dead wood. I smell refrigerated cardboard. ‘Ruff!” I say, testing the vacancy around me. The sound pancakes back, no reverb at all. Fucking hell.
In the Borough there’s a white van with no wheels, and inside it a tangy cache of empty tuna-tins, heaped up long ago by some seafood-loving fox. We call it the Tuna Barn. One night of sorrow found me installed there, wrecked, and maundering to Hughes of all people: this wasn’t working, that wasn’t working, Nora didn’t love me, why oh why etc. I went on and on like this until Hughes stopped me, sharp-eyed.
‘You’ve got that feeling, haven’t you?’ he said. ‘That feeling that you know too much, but you don’t know enough. Am I right?’
‘Yes!’ I said. ‘That’s it! What is that?’
‘It’s called being a fox. Now grow up, you cunt.’
Weak and unstoppable, I advance.
Scene: A conspicuously artificial wood, with assorted litter of bones and a sign saying WET PAINT. Tall trees to left and right arch towards each other over the centre of the stage, giving the effect of a proscenium, or a crashed spaceship, or the abdomen of a huge dead insect. A naked lightbulb hangs down, buzzing.
In a tree apparently made of used matches sit our two ravens: RANDALL DU NOIR and his twin brother CORVIN. Their talk is accompanied by coughs, squawks, burps, clacks of the beak, spittings, skeptical head-tiltings, side-to-side shuffles, sudden booming wingflaps and inflations of the feather-ruff. These phenomena not strictly expressive: they manifest more in the manner of neurological symptoms.
Enter COCKY, a fox with one eye, limping. Despite the limp he moves purposefully and aggressively at first but then seems overwhelmed by the raven-vibe.
Seeing COCKY, the ravens rattle their pinions.
RANDALL (disapproving): What’s this?
CORVIN: What’s all this then?
RANDALL: Don’t know about this. As a scene I mean.
CORVIN: I agree. As a scene it seems off to me.
RANDALL: Sure you should be here, Cocky?
CORVIN: Breaking the old fourth wall a bit aren’t you?
RANDALL: Characters talking to authors and all that. Could get tricky.
CORVIN: Could get tricky, Cocky.
COCKY (looking around dazedly, as if he’s forgotten why he came): What… What is this place anyway?
RANDALL: Barbecue Towers? Think of it as a creative space.
CORVIN: Our little workshop.
COCKY (coming back to himself, slowly): I know what you’ve been doing. I’m onto you now. I’m not a character!
RANDALL: Oh you’re a character alright.
CORVIN: You’re quite a character, Cocky.
COCKY: But I know what you’ve been doing!
RANDALL: Us? We do almost nothing.
CORVIN: Very little.
RANDALL: Drop a carcass or two in the Black Pond. Wake up a monster. So what.
CORVIN: Give a rhyme to the baby badgers. Big deal.
COCKY: What about Bob? What about Holiday Bob? He was meeting Blandley on the towpath, before he died. Did you set that up?
CORVIN: Set it up? Nah.
RANDALL: Not our style.
CORVIN: Not how we do things, Cocky.
RANDALL: Blandley is one of ours though.
CORVIN: He doesn’t know he’s one of ours.
RANDALL: That’s what makes him one of ours.
COCKY (fearfully, as the thought occurs to him): Am… Am I one of yours?
RANDALL (to CORVIN): What did he just say? No!
CORVIN (to RANDALL): He doesn’t get it. What? No!
RANDALL (turning back to COCKY): That’s why you’re fun for us!
CORVIN: Good old Cocky! Good for a laugh!
COCKY (quietly, almost inaudibly): Carnage.
CORVIN: You what, Cocky?
COCKY (louder): Carnage! That’s what you’re into, isn’t it? Pure carnage. That’s what you’re all about. That’s the point of all this.
RANDALL: Carnage? I’d say carrion.
CORVIN: More like carrion than carnage, Cocky.
RANDALL: The thing about us is, we don’t do the killing.
CORVIN: We like to watch.
RANDALL: We eat the dead. Once they’re dead.
CORVIN: Once somebody else has made them dead.
RANDALL: But we do like to watch.
CORVIN: Big badgers ripping.
RANDALL: A nice Borough fox putting the kill on a Northsider. Mmmm.
CORVIN: Dead rats in a garden.
RANDALL: Dead cats in a garden.
CORVIN: And pain. Mental pain. Yum yum.
CORVIN: That’s entertainment, Cocky.
RANDALL: That’s entertainment!
CORVIN (to RANDALL): Its’s good to see him though, I must say.
RANDALL (to CORVIN): He’s a dear old friend.
CORVIN: We’ve been in your head, Cocky.
RANDALL: Not very nice in there, is it? Bit hot, bit cramped.
CORVIN: You might have heard us rattling around.
COCKY: What do you mean?
CORVIN: Some of those voices. You know. We do them.
COCKY: What voices?
RANDALL: This voice. [Does coarse but accurate Cocky impression.] “Go on then have some more who cares.” That’s us.
CORVIN And this one. “Bastards I’ll take ’em all on.” That’s us too.
RANDALL: “No one understands me. I’m alone.”
CORVIN: “I’m going bonkers.” That’s our favourite!
RANDALL: Quite amusing, you and the rabbit. The wily one and the dopey one. A double-act not unknown to the great storytellers.
COCKY: Champion’s my friend. Nothing amusing about that.
RANDALL: Flopping along, the pair of you! Your scornful comments! His ears! Ha ha!
CORVIN: “Bloody rabbit!” Ha ha ha!
COCKY: We’ve come a long way together. We’ve known hardship, danger.
RANDALL: Oh dear. Has the ride been too bumpy for you?
CORVIN: Too many lumps and bumps, Cocky?
RANDALL: Making you jump?
CORVIN: Sending you into slumps?
RANDALL: Poor little fox! What a trial!
CORVIN: The scenery’s been good though, you must admit.
RANDALL: You’ll admit that, Cocky. Some very imaginative backdrops.
COCKY: I can’t stop you, can I?
CORVIN: You can’t, Cocky. We can’t be stopped.
RANDALL: I wish we could, sometimes. Do you have any idea how old we are?
CORVIN: You can’t stop us. (Shrugs.) What can you do?
COCKY: I can do this. I can tell you the name of the story.
Moment of astonishment. The ravens beaks fall open and then shut with a clack.
CORVIN (to RANDALL): What?
RANDALL (to CORVIN): He said what?
CORVIN: What did you say, Cocky?
RANDALL: The name of the what?
COCKY (starting to strut): Yes. Yes! Are you listening? Pay attention, the pair of you. Are you sitting comfortably? The name of this story is —
RANDALL: No! Shut it! Don’t say it!
CORVIN: Shut that cakehole, Cocky!
COCKY: The name of this story is The Return of Cocky the Fox. Once upon a time there was a fox… (Ravens flap, shuffle, exhibit great discomfiture.) And he was a mess! And he left his home! But then he went BACK —
COCKY: Do you see? Are you getting the point? No more wandering hither and thither, bouncing off things. No more floundering, sorrowing, wanking about.
RANDALL: But — the hither and thither?
CORVIN: The wanking about?
RANDALL: We simply adore all that!
COCKY: I don’t care.
RANDALL and CORVIN: But —
COCKY: No buts! I’m digging in. There’ll be killings, yes. There’ll be killings and there’ll be carrion. You’ll get your ration, don’t worry about that. But I’m running the show. Do you understand me? This isn’t your story anymore. This is my story. And if you meddle in it, if you muck me about, I’ll know. Because I’ve paid you a visit, haven’t I?
RANDALL: No you haven’t!
COCKY: I’ve spoken to you now.
CORVIN: Not likely!
COCKY: I’ve had a word.
RANDALL (enraged): Telling us what to do? Think again!
CORVIN (similarly enraged): Come at it from another angle, Cocky!
RANDALL: You’re onto us? We’re onto you.
CORVIN: The lies of you! The hoax of you! Someone’s got you sussed.
RANDALL: You’ve been clocked, Cocky. Remember that for the rest of your life.
CORVIN: Which will be shorter than you think.
RANDALL: And we’ll be watching. We’ll stay tuned.
RANDALL and CORVIN (screaming): Now fuck… the fuck… OFF!
COCKY stares. The ravens stare back. Exit COCKY.
Fug… Raaaar… Urruuuuurhhh… JACKPOT! Isn’t it Jackpot? Coming for me with, uh, with shotgun nostrils? His mouth smokes, a grille of acid drool… And now there’s yelling, lots of yelling at Cocky. Applause? Complaints? My organs jolt and I open my one eye, whereupon my thoughts pop feebly into the sky like a toy rocket.
‘Who killed me?’ I say.
Fresh clouds, fresh colours. I’m on my back. A squad of geese is honking along, spearhead formation, through the first rinsings of dawn.
‘No one killed you.’ Here’s old Shakes, sitting by me in the frosted clods. ‘Your not dead.’ Shakes the boar badger, big-pawed, broad-nosed, dark eyes solemnly separated by a seam of white. There is ice in his fur.
‘What happened then?’
‘Dunno really,’ he says. ‘First your in there for hours. Like all night. Couldnt hear a thing. Then you come crashun out yellin about your the king of the woods, your the king of the woods, la la la.’
‘Then you run around a bit. Then you fall over.’
I hoist myself onto one elbow. ‘King of the woods.’
‘Swot you said.’
‘Shite… I feel awful. Actually no I don’t. I feel fantastic.’
‘Cant tell eh.’
‘I feel comme çi comme ça.’
‘Ravens innit. Up you get now. Nice and slow.’
He nudges me to my feet — what’s left of them. I erect myself creakily. I exhale rhetorically.
‘Phew! You’re a good man, Shakes. Yes you are. You’re a good old moody old badger. You know we’re heading into the thick of it, right?’
‘Yurp.’ The fur along his body is ridged like scales.
‘And look at me.’ I display for him afresh the scrunched eye-socket, the crooked leg. ‘My fighting days are over. But there’s fighting to be done, isn’t there? Wrongs to be righted and slags to be scourged. We’ll have friends, but not many. Are you ready to do some serious damage?’
He snorts, lets out a chuff of badger-smoke. ‘Me? Cocky I’m made for it.’
‘Attaboy.’ One-eyed I examine the milky sunrise, the trees, the fields — these things not exploding or flying away, but held superbly in place. ‘Attaboy, you big fat bugger, you. Now look lively, and tuck in on my right side here. We’re going home.’
Frost has made a bell of the air. The air rings. So I howl it, clangingly, for the living to hear and the dead too. My departed darlings.
‘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.
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.’
Ice and dead grass in the mouth of the wind, the wind out of the country. It rattles the ear, it tightens the mind — behind the eye, drawing fibre to fibre. You can get up to some serious mischief in a wind like this.
‘What now then, Cocky? Eh?’
Weasel Paul is regarding me, weasel-faced and wind-ruffled. The look he’s giving me contains a space for me to step into. A hole, knowing the Weez — a conversational pitfall. Ah, I’ve missed him!
‘Well, I’d like your assessment,’ I say.
‘My assessment? The last time I gave you my assessment, as I recall, it failed to hold your attention.’
‘Come on, Weez. Don’t be bitchy.’
‘Yeah, Weez,’ says Chester. ‘Don’t be a little bitch!’
‘Shakes,’ I say, and Shakes smacks Chester, who yelps.
‘Apologise to Mr Paul.’
‘Sorry Mr Paul.’
‘Very well,’ says Paul. ‘My assessment. With this crew —’ (he indicates Shakes and Chester) ‘— even with my help, you’re not going to be able to take Billy out. He’s got Robo at his side constantly, Hughes and Hayes, this horrendous Northsider called Duncey, and don’t forget Blandley and his crew.’
‘How did Billy get a Northsider?’ I ask.
‘If he’s good.’
‘Duncey’s good. Billy fought him. Over a pack of wine gums, I believe. Beat him soundly. Humiliated him, thus earning his devotion. You’re acquainted with the lowness of Northside psychology.’
‘Brilliant. Another lump to deal with. And Billy himself of course.’
‘Well, Billy’s fatter now, and slower, and somewhat corrupted in his faculties. But still a killer fox. Too much for me, certainly too much for you. I wouldn’t even bet on your badger.’
‘Would you bet on me?’ says a voice behind us.
She stands at the top of the bank, head high, a thing of pure nerve, with the winter sky boiling frigidly behind her. I almost tip over. Her eye illumined, the heat in her auburn breast. Instant dryness of the throat: this splendour has evaporated my fluids.
‘My vixen…’ I croak.
‘Mum!’ says Chester.
‘Fierce,’ says Shakes.
‘The fox is bold indeed,’ murmurs the Weez, ‘who tangles with Bloody Nora.’
She steps down, delicate and furious. Is it possible that she is wearing warpaint? Her face seems vitally enhanced, coloured up with battle-readiness. Deep darkness beneath the eyes, and a reddening of the brow.
‘Shakes to the left of me, Chester to the right,’ she says.
‘Ive got to stay with Cocky,’ protests Shakes. ‘My job.’
‘It’s alright Shakes,’ I say. ‘Me and the Weez will bring up the rear. He’ll cover me.’
‘On the right, mum?’ says Chester.
‘That’s it, son,’ she says. ‘You’re ready.’
‘I’m beginning to feel rhythmic again,’ says Paul, tweaking his paws and making loose pelvic motions. ‘The sauce returns to my my veins.’
‘Look out you fieldmice!’ I say.
‘Look out you foxes,’ says the weasel. ‘Oh, look out, you low fucking foxes.’
Night doesn’t fall. Night climbs, mooing and clanking, out of the town and right into the bucket of the sky. We trot inward, a convoy, through sifting layers of car exhaust. Weasel-gait, badger-gait. Past the garage forecourts, around the sad behinds of buildings. Pale vaults of window-light, marmite gobs of shadow. Here’s the bakery, in its spore-cloud, and the metal bins with their bounty. A quick macaroon or two? A sourdough roll? No time, no time.
‘Remember the time I beat Hughes and Hayes out here?’ I say. ‘Ugh. What a pair.’
‘Did you, Dad?’ asks Chester eagerly.
‘Hey Chester,’ says Weasel Paul. ‘Ask your dad if he remembers the time he got thrashed by a weasel. He might have forgotten, because it only took a couple of seconds.’
‘Why are you so rude to him?’
‘Easy son,’ I say. ‘It’s the warrior’s way. A bit of chaffing before combat. Besides, the weasel did beat me. Once.’
From Otto’s kennel, the cello-like snores, and now we’re in Champion’s garden. There’s the hutch. The old home. My eyes sting a bit as we approach. Emotion? No. The place stinks of rats.
Sharp-clawed scuffling inside, and two sets of splintered red peer through the crooked hutch-wire. Rats in the hutch — their shitty little spirits!
‘What are you doing in there?’ I bark. ‘Fuck off out of it before I bite your heads off.’
‘This is a Horde observation post,’ wheedles one of them. ‘You will step away from the hutch. You will disperse.’
Shakes at this point flings his bulk against the back of the hutch, making an enormous noise and causing the rats to spew out in terror. ‘One for me and one for you, Chester,’ says Weasel Paul, attaching himself to the spine of the first rat and appearing to gorge upon its life-force. Two spasms and this rat is dead. But the second one, Chester’s, is a problem. Cornered? He couldn’t care less. He’s a veteran, heavily marked and death-happy. A real chewed-down stump of rat-ness. Having dodged Chester’s initial rush, he’s mincing and sneering and giving the kid a lot of rat-chat, which is psychologically dangerous.
‘Amateur,’ he says. His overbite glistens with contempt. ‘Neophyte. Child. Where’s your mum?’
‘I’m here,’ says Nora. ‘And I’m very proud.’
‘Shut up, mum!’ Chester makes a sweaty hop at the rat, easily evaded. I surmise that this is his first piece of solo rat-work.
‘Can you taste this bitter blood, you poor cub?’ says the rat. ‘Break these nasty bones? You don’t want it, not really. You think you do but you don’t. The little softy in you says no.’
‘Dont listen to him Chester,’ urges Shakes.
‘Oh no no no!’ sings the rat, in the voice of Chester’s inner softy. ‘Take me back to the tit! Don’t make me hurt anyone!’
‘Grrrrrrrr!’ says Chester.
‘You’ve got a bright future in botched kills, young man.’
‘Missed strikes, empty bites. Chip a tooth, I’ll be there.’
Nora is pawing the ground anxiously, and I’m on the point of stepping in. I’ve seen good young foxes ruined by this sort of thing. But now, just as I begin to fear for Chester’s mentality, the rat overdoes it.
‘Shame they killed that old crackpot up in Safeway Wood,’ he says. ‘She could have trained you.’
Chester arcs with indignation. ‘You neckless bastard! That was my great-aunt Patsy!’ He pops up, fakes to the right, and when the rat dips left he goes in very low and fast to meet him, jaws ajar. Crunch.
‘Very nice,’ says Shakes.
‘Congratulations,’ offers Weasel Paul.
‘Not bad, eh Cocky?’ says Nora.
But I am peering silently into the hutch. Under the rat-stink, a maturer redolence. Old fug of fox and rabbit, their traces companionably mingled, that the vagrant pissings of these rodents cannot destroy. Smell of my days. I breathe it, and I feel him at my side: empty-faced, agog, his long ears moving. And the revelation breaks upon me, the thought bursts its membrane, that I have been saved by the heart of a rabbit.
An albino rabbit.
Nora my vixen, sure, sure, I desire her. I need her, even. My genes do the dance when she saunters by. But where was Nora at my hour of peril? Coiled in wrath against me! She too was a believer in my uselessness, a peddler of the great calumny!
‘How could you?’ I snarl, surprising her considerably.
‘Betrayer! I was your fox! You should have kept me strong!’ And I lunge at her, teeth bared. Only an enormous sideways buffet from Shakes, a heave of his waist that sends me bicycling halfway up the garden, prevents me from getting a good bite in.
‘Steady Cocky,’ he says.
Nora is nettled. Nottled, if you like. ‘You mad fucker! What’s your problem now?’
Being winded, I say nothing, but continue to brood upon injustice. The word was out against me in those days, the great calumny spreading. Only the rabbit resisted it. You will say it was his obtuseness, but I know better. For here is friendship: to maintain in your mind an image of your friend at his brightest and boldest. To hold it there while every abuse and vileness bounces off it. An idée fixe, defying the world, defying your friend himself if necessary. Here is friendship, here is love, and thus it was with Champion and I: the fox preserved the rabbit’s heart, and while the whole Borough deplored me, in his pink eyes I beheld myself looking not too terrible. I felt my edges, my outline, silhouetted against the white moon of his idiocy. Noble Cocky, Cocky the resourceful. Cocky the fighter. His regard for me, don’t ask me why, was bottomless: I wallowed in it!
‘Hnnnnn…’ I wheeze.
‘Lost your puff,’ says Shakes. ‘Steady.’
Drunk in the hutch day after day. And how the ravens picked at me, pecked at me. That afternoon I woke up and recognized nothing. Not Champion, not the hutch-wire, not my own front paw. Surely their shadow was upon me then, surely I was under the cold vertex of ravenry. I trembled! But the rabbit nudged me with his face and mouthed a highly annoying question, and soon enough my trembling ceased.
I have my breath back now. ‘Champion!’ I cry, head raised. A fox’s cry, sharp and bare and dreadfully forlorn, like Mother Earth being stabbed with a giant icicle.
‘Let it all out,’ says Shakes. ‘Thats it. And again.’
Weasel Paul, eyes closed, begins to sway and versify:
‘Entering the blankness of a rabbit’s mind,
he takes the form of a fox…’
‘Has everyone gone mental?’ says Nora. Chester stands next to her, big-eyed, the dead rat limp in his mouth, tail hanging.
‘Bin a long ride,’ says Shakes. ‘Give him a minute.’
A long ride? I should say so. I have felt the weight of badgers, seen the hare’s eyeball split by madness. I have written my story with a burnt stick, with ravens watching, and then awakened defenceless on the skin of dawn. I have been altered. The things I could tell them!
But what I say is this: ‘I’ll be alright… I’m OK. I’m alright.’ And I sit back, panting. The garden presses in, discreetly, like a listener. The town around us is an electric smudge, funnelling its din into the sky. I look at my vixen, whom I no longer wish to attack and bite. I look at my son.
‘Chester,’ I say.
‘Yes?’ The rat falls to the ground.
‘Are you ready to go and fuck up some foxes?’
We hit the Yard at a gallop, spit flying, Nora, Shakes and Chester swarming with cries out of the hole under the corrugated iron sheeting, Weasel Paul and I going in through the front gate. Foxes everywhere, but no readiness, no order: this the parlous state of the Borough. They’re leaned against tyre-stacks or splayed across car-hoods as if centrifugally dislodged from their own lives. Then they scatter. I see Robo’s fat head jerk up inside the ruined Volvo — is Billy in there too? A shriek: Shakes has brought down the fox Hayes, cretin partner of Hughes. Poetry in that, I suppose, or a decent rhyme at least — it was Rumpy whose terrible badger-blows made a casualty of Hayes, whose violence halved his fox-hood, and now Shakes is finishing the job. A young snout screams ‘Bloody Nora!’ and pedals desperately over a pile of sooty mufflers. Nora gets him by the brush, bites down on it and grinning rakes claws across his thighs. From my right, from my blind side, an underworld sourness assaults my nose. Fox-heat against me, and I duck and twist my head in time to see Weasel Paul flying at the throat of a huge shaggy Northsider: this must be the new recruit Duncey. ‘Yin him, Paul!’ I cry, rolling aside. (Standard encouragement for the smaller creature: Yin him! Yin that big bastard right in his yang!) Robo, larger and darker-haired than I remember him, springs from the Volvo rear window and lands heavily but neatly on Chester. Chester squeals, goes into a defensive curl. ‘Shakes!’ I yell, and start pegging it towards them at a rickety canter. The badger looks up, his face a palette of fox-gore. ‘Help Chester!’ Robo, murderously humpbacked, has Chester pinned between his forelegs and is bearing down with his teeth. I see the brutal curve of his shoulders, the spiked collar of his hackles, and almost puke with anxiety — I’m too late! But then an obliterating charge from Shakes, and Robo is sliding down the side of the Volvo.
Chester has a small hole in his neck. ‘Am I dying?’ he asks.
‘Your not dyin,’ says Shakes.
Duncey scoots out through the in-hole. Paul is muttering and spitting fox-fur. Hayes is dead. Nora is preening: the snout who tangled with her has vanished, minus some of his tail. Robo groans, and Shakes batters him freshly against the car-door.
‘Well alright then, Cocky,’ slurs Tony Volpe, the disgraced watchdog, from beneath an empty crate. ‘Alright then, Boss.’
When Billy and Blandley come back across Twat’s Bridge, back from the Northside and empty-handed as Weasel Paul said they would be, we’re waiting for them. Popjoy spotted them crossing over, you see, from his perch in the trees of Patsonia.
‘That’s Billy looking to muscle up,’ said the Weez, expertly. ‘Boost his cause with a few Northside snouts. But don’t you worry, Cocky. Lost Johnny’s staying out of this fight. He’s a strategist. He’ll have received that message you sent. If Billy survives, more chaos in the Borough. If you take over, he knows you’ll respect the Northside. Either way Johnny wins.’
’S’pose you’re right,’ I said.
‘We’re agreed then.’
‘Billy dies tonight.’
Billy comes slouching over the crown of the bridge, head low, with Blandley trotting worriedly at his side. He gives no sign of having seen us, just the tiniest check in his stride, disguised with a roll of his big sullen shoulders.
‘Let me handul this,’ says Shakes, testing his claws.
‘Wait.’ I step out onto the bridge. ‘Billy!’
Immediate torrent of chat from Blandley — surely you wouldn’t, Cocky… a thing like this… to our mutual advantage… let’s not allow… — until Billy shuts him up with a growl.
‘See what I’ve had to deal with, Cock?’
‘You’re telling me mate. I’ve been doing politics like you used to do aftershave. What a fucking disaster.’
‘You were a soldier,’ says Weasel Paul. ‘Not a boss.’
Billy grunts. ‘Well you can have it, Cocky. You and your weasel and your badger and your vixen and — is that little Chester? You’re welcome to it, all of you. Me and Machiavelli here will be on our way.’
Nobody moves. Seconds dilate between us. Then Billy stiffens. Then Billy relaxes. Always game, my cousin.
‘I see,’ he says. ‘On Twat’s fucking Bridge.’ He looks at Shakes. ‘Shall we?’
But it’s Nora who goes in first. From out of my blind side — a streaking, shrieking shape that hits Billy behind the ribs and spins him around, slack-lipped, in a helix of fight-drool. The big fox is off-balance, but she’s overcommitted herself, silly goose: she’s showing him her back. Billy curves and rears. ‘Bloody Nora my ARSE!’ he barks, fastening his teeth at the base of her skull and springing with his hindquarters — his full weight, momentarily perpendicular, bearing down on the bite. Nora’s legs go in four different directions. My poor vixen! I mis-time my rescue charge — will I ever get used to being crocked? — and end up pointed the wrong way as Billy lands balletically between my shoulders, pestling my face into the ground. Ouch! Grit up my nose! Nora’s stumbling, snoozing, bleeding, out of action. ‘Shakes!’ I manage, and the badger launches — a huge belly-flop, paws spread, that lands him smack on top of Billy with me splayed beneath. Once again I feel the weight of badgers! Then Shakes grips and rolls: for a second he has Billy struggling in a reverse badger-embrace. ‘DO IT COCKY!’ he roars. I pick myself up, turn, squint, and go for the throat — where Billy, after all, is just as soft as everybody else.
‘Dad!’ shouts Chester. Blandley has leaped onto the brick wall of the bridge — pauses there for a sculptural moment — Weasel Paul flies at him but his teeth click in emptiness. Detonation on the congealed surface of the canal. The fox has dived in.
‘Fuck me,’ says Chester, peering over.
‘Foxes can swim can they,’ says Shakes, next to him.
Blandley is indeed striking out elegantly, ears back and muzzle up, with light from the Northside yards shattering off the churned water in his wake.
‘We’ll shadow him along the towpath,’ says Weasel Paul. ‘Me and Shakes. He’ll get tired soon. We’ll finish him easy.’
‘No need,’ I say.
A hundred yards beyond Blandley, up by the black gates of a lock, two pale shapes have detached themselves from the half-darkness. They drift towards him, mysteriously propelled.
‘Swans,’ breathes Shakes.
Blandley’s glistening, striving head seems to change course. More fuss and brokenness in the water around him, and then we hear the hissing. Hostility at high pressure.
‘Fuck ME,’ says Chester.
They’re on top of him now. The necks uncurl, the white wings swat the air in huge gestures of erasure, a shot with the beak and Blandley bobs once and goes under — to be pedalled back and forth, back and forth, between twin sets of monster feet. Acrid laughter from the swans.
‘They’ll keep him down there for hours,’ says Weasel Paul. ‘This is fun to them.’
‘Cocky,’ Behind us Billy is dying. I ripped him deeply, dreadfully. ‘Cocky…’
‘What is it, Bill?’ I lean in, blinking his blood out of my good eye.
‘Closer,’ he says.
‘What is it?
‘Listen, listen…’ The last fires of his breath woof and crackle in my ear.
‘Listen. Why are you such a cunt? I love you Cocky.’ And he sighs, and his eye chills over.
His bulk stretched out.
Death’s sudden intimacy.
And there on the bridge, between the Borough, my home, and the cold cages of the Northside, I give the fox cry: the pitch-shifted croak.
No one but me, it says. No one but me.
With the Yard taken and Billy dead, the opposition — such as it was — rolled over. One more night and my father had complete control. Squirrels carried it down the nerves of the Borough, the information, bouncing off branch-ends and skidding along fence-tops: A new boss.
The truth was that beasts had been dying for order. Tough as Billy was, no one ever believed he was truly in charge; he was too self-interested fundamentally, too much of a wide boy, chasing vixens and throwing his weight around. Poorly counselled by Blandley, he never understood that the Borough is not a place but an idea: something for beasts to think about when they’re cold and hungry. Under him beasts fretted and sniped at each other, and there were the inevitable encroachments from the Northside. The food chain was disrupted: foxes were forced further afield, risking runovers, shootings, beatings, poisonings, dog-maulings. Numbers dropped. So our modest show of force at the Yard, and then later that night at Twat’s Bridge, had a large impact. There was also, I believe, a buried respect for Cocky from the old pre-aftershave days, when he ran with Holiday Bob: older beasts dimly recalled his enterprise and savagery, younger heads lapped up the legends of his time in exile — the slaying of Jackpot, the visit to Barbecue Towers and so on.
Naturally we had some mopping-up to do. I’ve since discovered that there’s always some mopping-up to do. The night after we took the Yard, Cocky put me in charge of a mission to, in his words, “suppress the Horde.” He had been particularly offended, I think, by the presence of rats in Champion’s hutch, although rat-ness as a whole seemed to have a private significance for him: long after the Horde had been broken up he would still darken when the subject of vermin arose. (His secret phobia, of course, never mentioned, was moles.) At any rate, I was ordered by my father to “demoralize” the local rat population, with further instructions from Weasel Paul to leave it “politically disabled”. I was a young fox at the time, fresh from my first rat-kill but desperate to impress, and this was all something of a bewilderment. I was sweating, afraid to ask questions. My stomach jumped. How grateful I was taken to be aside by the perspicacious Shakes, who told me in a low voice to just kill as many rats as I could!
Cocky assigned me the dubious escort of Robo and Duncey, both of whom had “flipped” overnight and were now working for us. I asked my father: Could I trust them? “Muscle does what its told,” he said. Robo would go on to have a difficult time in our crew — my mother despised him, and few opportunities were missed to confound and humiliate the big fox, who in my opinion was preserved from nervous collapse only by his own deep stupidity. Duncey, on the other hand, grew close to my father, who prized him for his “Northside brain-patterns”, as well as an apocryphal fighting move known as The Rarefactor. (I never saw it.)
As a Northsider, Duncey was more in tune with rat life than Robo or I, and as we approached the Horde’s building-site lair he briefed us on background. Mother Mercury, my father’s rodent nemesis, had been assassinated the week before – torn to pieces by her own courtiers — and a huge black long-tailer by the name of Mr Phillips now sat on her throne. “Discipline’s gone,” observed Duncey. The sentry rats did seem remarkably unfazed by the appearance of three foxes on their perimeter. Even after Robo had bitten one of them in half, they continued to spit and hee-haw and regale us with insults, and no warning was given to those below ground. I made a rush for the mouth of the lair, but was knocked aside by Duncey — at this stage, he was twice my size. “Block it!” he shouted over his shoulder. So I stationed Robo by the hole, and went in search of other exits. I found one beneath a pallet of bricks, and as Duncey penetrated the great Chamber below, needling stinks of rat-fear came out of it, followed in bursts by the rats themselves. Within minutes I was a seasoned rat-killer. Duncey would later claim to have “smeared” Mr Phillips down there in the earth, but I saw a large, smirking black rat slither his way past Robo and strike out for the darkness and slime of the canal.
After that it was open season on rats. Cats and dogs had a go, even fox cubs, and within a week or so the Horde had become a sort of mobile pariah state. The rats themselves didn’t seem too put out: this is how a rat expects to have it in the world.
I’ve lingered too long perhaps over this small episode of rat-cleansing. But it was the first mission I undertook for my father, and when I returned, heated and metallic with rat-blood, I sensed his pride. In the months that followed I did a lot of work with Robo and Duncey, inside the Borough (enforcement, menaces) and then — when Cocky identified a threat from the Ramble-Ons — out in the fields. That winter war with the Ramble-Ons was bloody but brief: supplied with a steady stream of talent from Aunt Patsy’s Finishing School, where Popjoy and Rumpy were turning the young belligerents of the Borough into cool-headed battlers, we were the superior force.
My mother quietened down considerably after her bout with Billy on the bridge. It’s fair to say that it took something out of her, that fight: at any rate we would see no more of Bloody Nora. As Popjoy grew too frail, and Rumpy’s great energy faded, she took over the running of the Finishing School: my brothers Fester and Lester assisted her there. My father never again took up residence at the family den. Instead he dossed down in the Yard, which he renamed the Velvet Lodge, alongside Shakes and Weasel Paul and whichever young foxes formed the goon squad of the hour. He spoke often and wistfully of his time in the country, and the talk between him and Shakes achieved the density almost of a private language. To a fox in his position plenty of vixens were available but he seemed to have no interest.
One summer evening my father summoned me to the Lodge. I was not a regular visitor there: the atmosphere was not particularly to my taste, and I preferred to stay busy with the small crew I had assembled. There was always work to be done on the edges of the Borough. My father on the evening in question was in a state of strange excitement; his single eye glowed, and his ears were pricked and trembling. Shakes meanwhile, most uncharacteristically, appeared to have groomed himself, and was shining with a vulgar sleekness.
“It’s like this, boy,” said Cocky. “We’re off.”
I asked where they were going.
“Out. Away. It’s your show now. You run it.”
“Bin runnun it anyway more or less,” said Shakes. “Good lad. Serious.”
I requested more information.
“We’ll need an escort as far as the Barrow,” said Cocky. “Couple of game foxes who know the terrain. After that you won’t have to worry about us.”
At this point I understood. I said: “You’re going back to the Black Pond, aren’t you?”
Cocky and Shakes looked at each other.
“Old friend of ours needs assistance,” said Shakes.
“Those stories?” I said. “Come on.” After the fight with the Ramble-Ons, foxes had returned from the fields telling tales of distant wars: of a badger-world, ruled by a white rabbit, that had divided against itself.
“Bit of travel,” said Cocky. “Do us good.”
“You don’t know what’s out there,” I said.
“Nor you dont neither,” said Shakes.
“Any problems or queries, ask the weasel,” said Cocky. “Now let’s get organized.”
We set off that same night. Duncey and I, Cocky and Shakes. Beasts were restless, along the towpath and into the woods, scenting change, but we were just ahead of the mood: my father had made no announcement and kept his goodbyes to a minimum. The journey was trouble-free. Duncey killed a cat, rather unnecessarily: I think he was feeling anxious. Cocky and Shakes on the other hand were genial and complacent. By dawn we had reached the Barrow — untenanted, as far as we knew, since the departure of Popjoy and Rumpy. Climbing towards it in the changing light we heard the shout of a raven — friendless, premonitory, a black ricochet. Duncey froze, but Cocky laughed.
“This ull do,” said Shakes. “Go on from here ourselves.”
Still chuckling, my father stumped briskly up the rise. “Come on, Shakes!” he called over his shoulder.
“Comin,” said Shakes, and followed.
Will there be more?
There might be more —
with this character, you never know.
NOTE TO THE READER: Herewith an extract from the memory tables of Cocky the Fox, erstwhile and eventual Prince of the Borough, presented as an addition to the canon in full cognizance of the likelihood that events recounted here may appear pseudepigraphical, apocryphal, or paradoxical with respect to the golden thread of The Ballad of Cocky the Fox as such. Such are the wiles of the vulpine Mnemosyne — may they yield hours of joyous toil for generations of cockologists, cockographers, and cocktometrists to come. — Eds.
I was born across the tracks, a twenty-minute trot (by night) from Champion’s garden. We lived in one of those wiry railside greeneries, under coiled bramble and wobbling terraces of hogweed, and the passing trains disturbed us not a bit. Rubbish cascades improved our environment: we had a toilet seat in there, old photocopier parts, some spoons, an atmospheric medley. In summer there’d be purple tusks of buddliea poking out, magnets for the dizzy butterflies. Nice, deep vegetation, and in the heart of it, palisaded by nettles, a brief grassy space — a glade, if you will — where we young ’uns would sport and tussle while our parents spat at each other.
Mother and father. Dear oh dear. They were Nature’s little joke, those two: I’m sure they kept Her endlessly amused. Richmond had been at the gingery peak of his fox-powers when he woo’d and won the costly Gloria, at his unrepeatable cock-swinging zenith, and thereafter it was all downhill. Because my mother was a luxury vixen, wasn’t she, requiring great feats punctually. You were supposed to wake up every evening and blow her away with dash and twang. Blood mollified her: a good wound on Richmond, honourably sustained, could keep her quiet for about ten minutes. Then it was back to the comments, the snortings, the flying eyebrows. Verbally he was no match for her, but he became a wily ironist in his behaviours — his exits and entrances were beautifully timed, as I remember. This side of him I think I might have inherited.
Anyway, we were all outside the den one midge-y midsummer evening — my siblings and I nipping and jesting, Gloria grooming herself and Richmond arranged on his favourite hummock in a posture intended to suggest Deep Thought, when the nettles parted and there was Holiday Bob. Small and seductive, with a fox at each elbow: I’d never seen him before but this was Holiday Bob, no question. The night before he’d told a notorious local predator — in words already legendary around the Borough — It’s over. First and last warning. And the notorious local predator had buggered off! The other two foxes I knew: to Bob’s left was Jim-Jim, a sly racketeer, and to his right a lump of breathless loyalty called Robo. The three of them had come up on us from downwind, like slinky ambushers, but the body language as they sauntered into our little glade was ultra-relaxed. Light chat, a strolling party vibe, en route so it appeared to some more elegant assignation. We were frozen, of course. I must say I felt for Richmond here. The Borough’s freshest gangster had just come mincing and muscling right into the middle of into his den, and what was he going to do about it?! His vixen and cubs were watching. Muffled lightnings of incomprehension in my old man’s face. It was classic Bob, as I realised later.
And suddenly the interlopers were looking around them with mild professional curiosity, and Bob was saying in a louder voice ‘Yes, this is a nice place, Richmond. Airy, convenient… I quite see the appeal. Yes, yes. You clearly have an eye for location!’
‘Nice biodiversity,’ added Jim-Jim.
Richmond in response sort of glugged and shuffled a paw. We’d had some rain earlier and Bob was darkened and bony-looking from coming through the wet undergrowth. He ponged, too: an effete funerary scent, like rotten flowers.
‘Well, well,’ said Gloria. ‘The great Holiday Bob.’
‘Oh, we’re hardly here, dear lady,’ he answered, and I noted the thrill that passed through her. Tautened undercarriage, coquettish tail-twitch. My tart of a mother! ‘Please don’t don’t be disarranged.’
‘Your feet don’t touch the ground, eh?’ she said, and Bob threw back his head in the silent white-throated laugh. His vulnerability was magnificent.
‘Can’t stop,’ said Jim-Jim.
‘Got a job on tonight,’ clarified Robo.
‘A job!’ exclaimed my mother. ‘Hear that, Richmond? Foxes on a job.’
That put a little pffft! of connubial brimstone on the air. Richmond’s inadequacy in the planning department: she was always on at him to set up some nightwork for us, put us through our paces. He actually did try to take me housebreaking one time but all the windows were shut. ‘It’s getting harder and harder for foxes,’ was his comment.
‘Gloria…’ said Richmond now in an attempt at sternness, and her answering What? was so filled with immediate scorn that his eyes went red, there were glottal sounds of fury in his throat, and he launched himself wildly and hopelessly at the goon Robo. Who snorted, parried, and dumped him on his arse.
Can you wonder, given all this, that when Holiday Bob (who hadn’t looked at me once) said cheerfully over his shoulder Come on then, Cocky… Can you wonder that I got up and followed without a blink or a thought? Trotted after those slightly limping hindquarters as if it had been my plan all along?
‘They’re taking him, Richmond,’ said my mother in an odd voice. ‘Our number one cub.’
‘Cocky!’ I heard my dad say.
I half-turned: ‘Wot?’
Through a veil of toiling midges, I saw my mother suffused with… pride? Grief? I dunno. And my dad breathing hard.
‘Be careful, son,’ he said.
I’d left home. I was Bob’s.
And then it was a canter across the Borough, through dusk and into moonless celebratory night, slipstreaming behind Bob and Jim-Jim while the heavy-winded Robo intermittently barged across me. Out and about with Holiday Bob’s crew: flash company, a near-delirium for Cocky. By the Yard Billy joined us, winking at me, keeping pace, all of us sliding merrily along until Robo said something not-too-bright, I can’t remember what, and Bob pulled us up. Everybody quiet. Quiet. And when we were quiet: I want to hear the wind whistling between Robo’s ears…Ah. Lovely. How we roared! Arf, arf! And cantered on unstoppably, with Robo grumbling and laden in his stride.
And then, having burst through a thick hedge, we paused and softly panted.
We were at the edge of a football pitch. Tatty grass, white lines, an acre or two of scuffed sward glimmering with vacancy under the murky clouds. Sideways breeze. No streetlight. Goal at each end of the field. Beyond one, a distant swingset. This was the Rec — the Recreation Ground.
‘Over here,’ said Bob, directing us toward a marooned lawn roller. We gathered behind it in a conspiratorial odor of rust and clorophyll.
‘Now then young Cocky,’ he said, bouncing up onto the roller. ‘You’ve got pace, yes? Billy says so.’
‘You have, haven’t you Cock?’ said Billy.
‘Look at you, you’re absolutely vibrating with pace,’ said Bob. ‘Ever hear of Peg the Lurcher?’
Who hadn’t heard of Peg the Lurcher? ‘She’s — a dog.’
‘She’s very much a dog. She’s one of the doggiest dogs you’ll ever deal with. And tonight we’re going to be a playing a lovely sort of friendly little fun trick on her, aren’t we lads? Ah?’
Chucklings all round, flexings of claws. Robo was no longer sulking.
‘Here’s the plan, Cocky,’ Bob continued. ‘Broad strokes. Peg chases you, you run away, you lead her to us, we jump on Peg. All clear?
‘Now Peg is fast. Very fast dog. Long legs, yes? Exceptionally strong. She’s nailed a fair few foxes in her day, as I’m sure you’re aware. Game foxes too. What is her record, Robo?’
‘Nine for nine, boss.’
‘Nine for nine. So you see, no one’s got away from her yet. Hence our need for an impact runner.’
‘Carry on, Jim-Jim.’
‘We’ve got about thirty seconds,’ said Jim-Jim, staring evenly across the pitch at the asphalt parking area by the Rec entrance. A car had just pulled in and turned off its headlights. ‘Alright. No twitching when you’re out there, you. You keep it nice and casual. Move around. Wait for the lamp to find you.’
‘Been lamped before, Cocky?’ asked Robo.
‘Don’t be dense, Robo,’ said Jim-Jim. ‘Look at his eyes. Look! See, that’s what we want — that fear, that freshness.’ To me: ‘Piss yourself if you feel like it.’
‘Fuck’s sake, Jim-Jim,’ protested Billy.
‘What? It’ll get her excited. Now listen carefully. When the lamp’s on you, and Peg’s coming for you, you don’t break. Very important. You dither about, you act dizzy, you go this way, you go that way, until she’s right up close. Understand? You’ll hear her, you’ll feel her, and you’ll want to break, but you don’t. We need her right on your arse. So you wait. You wait until you can smell her, and then you break.’
‘Got that, Cocky?’ Billy again. ‘When you smell her, you break.’
‘And then you give it toes,’ said Jim-Jim.
‘Serious toes,’ said Robo.
‘You run like fuck, Cocky.’
‘Shut up Billy! Where do I run?’
‘There,’ said Jim-Jim, pointing with his head. ‘At the goal.’
‘And then, what, around it?’
‘Straight into it mate,’ says Robo. ‘Into the net. Right down the middle. Score! Heh heh heh.’
‘But I’ll get stuck, won’t I?’
Robo chortled. ‘Stuck, he says!’.
‘There’s a hole in the netting, Cocky,’ explained Bob from his perch on the roller. ‘It should be just big enough for you to slip through. You did make it big enough, didn’t you, Jim-Jim?’
Tin miaow of a car boot opening, a man’s low voice, some rustling and scrabbling, and then the crump of closure. These sounds crossed the field with a perforating clarity.
‘Showtime,’ said Jim-Jim. ‘Out you go.’
‘Middle of the net, Cocky,’ said Billy. ‘That’s where the hole is. Middle of the net.’
I didn’t move. I couldn’t, apparently.
‘Cocky?’ said Bob. ‘Now listen to me Cocky. Do you know what this is?’
He made me wait. ‘Your shining moment.’
Arf! Arf! went the lads. That did it. I hissed and swore and set off towards the middle of the field.
My father survived a lamping the year before I was born. Kept his head, stayed on course, outran the dog — not Peg, obviously. I’d imagined the scene. The lamp’s beam discovering him, his cringe of primal guilt. The lurcher galloping out of a cone of halogen. How did it feel, Richmond? What was it like? ‘Put it this way,’ he said one day, after a gap so long I thought he’d fallen asleep. ‘If it happened again, I’d let the dog catch me.’
‘Thanks, Dad!’ I muttered now. ‘Thanks a bundle, Richmond!’ And how about Billy, my own cousin, setting me up for this? How could he —
Click of a switch. Cancellation of friendly darkness. Two quick sweeps of the park and then the lamp was on me. Although now strictly speaking there was no me — just a shivering x-ray fox running in circles and cascading piss. There was a man back there, wielding this cosh of dazzle, and a bestial silhouette enlarging itself. Percussion of paws on the earth. Which way, which way? To zig or to zag? The Peg-smell hit: blankets and bone marrow. Her body blocked the light for a second and then I was getting tumbled, once, twice, thumpety-thumped in the flail of her lurcher’s limbs. Then grounded, and her hairy grey face was over mine, eyes churning with appetite. ‘PRETTY!’ she rasped, lavishly.
My mind returned to me. ‘Erg…Get FUCKED…’
Did she let me go then, wanting a chase? Or did I squirm clear? Whatever — two seconds later I was streaking arselessly across the field with Peg whooping and snapping at my horizontal brush. The dim portal of the goalmouth loomed. Thirty feet… Twenty… The lamps’ beam had lost us. Grunts of command from the man. I risked a backward look: was she close enough? She was close enough. Peg was going full tilt, unscrewed grin, tongue tossing ropes of drool. ‘PRETTY! PRETTY!’
‘Down the middle, Cocky!’ shouted Billy from the hedge behind the goal. The crew had hidden themselves in there.
I crossed the goal-line with yelps, tore into the loose mesh. ‘Where’s the hole? THE HOLE!’ Black filaments of madness, whizzing, clutching! I scratched and pedalled and then something gave and I zipped through as the net behind me bellied violently with the tobogganing mass of Peg. Fox voices around me: You made it, Cocky, you made it… Nice one, stop fighting now… ‘RAH!’ said Peg, thrashing, head and one leg through, the ripped netting around her like a snare. She was stuck.
Loud barks of alarm from the lurcher.
Three foxes moved past me towards her, greasy-jawed and vengeful.
‘Well fuck me,’ said Holiday Bob, from the rear. ‘It worked.’
I’ll tell you about my first balls-up, shall I? My first balls-up as a blooded member of Bob’s crew.
I was supposed to give a warning.
Not a warning-with-menaces — he would have used Rumpy the badger for that, or Robo — just a verbal, the party in question being a Ramble-On by the name of Gumma. Gumma was a country fox, a rough bugger who’d come tumbling into the Borough in late September with his large extended family: vixen, cubs, siblings, in-laws, plus camp followers and hangers-on. Quite a mob, and no sooner had they established themselves (in a derelict house round the back of the graveyard) than Gumma was digging into the rackets. He offered protection, he took food taxes, he had his rowdies muscling the local beasts, etc., all in the minor modes and none of it a threat to Bob economically — or politically, really, these rustics lacking any ambition beyond their little patch — but he felt himself flouted, or the field of his authority perturbed, and so dispatched me one night to Gumma’s house.
Autumn around the Borough: great drabness with a kernel of fire. In and out, Bob had said. In and out. To which the growling Rumpy had added No pissing about. But something told me as I trotted through the leaf-crackling graveyard that this would be no in-and-outer. Oh no no no. In the keenness of the night air I sensed imminent pissing about. Fox-talk, low and clannish, came from the brick building ahead of me. Unnatural odors circulated. Then the sound of glass breaking, and a bark of crude laughter. A burly thick-coated fox came crashing out of a chew-hole at the foot of the boarded-up door, and shouted back into the house I FUCKING WILL… YOU WATCH ME!… EH?! Then he chuckled. Were there actual fumes curling in his wake? Spotting me, he raised his eyebrows and swayed off crepe-ily through the leaf-heaps.
So I stuck my head through that hole, apprehending immediately that the scene thus revealed had been in progress for days, perhaps weeks: the fug, the vibe, the seven sets of fox-eyes appraising me from floor-level and cordially unconvinced of my reality. The Ramble-Ons were propped in corners, sprawled against walls, dogs and vixens, as if thrown there by some unstable gyre or centrifuge. I coughed, and Gumma, who was poking in a heap of bottles, looked up with no surprise at all. His eyes were wide apart and weirdly lit, but alert.
‘Message from Holiday Bob,’ I said. ‘He says to pack up your rackets, take it back to the country.’
Gumma’s gaze traveled slowly around his circle of revelers, arrived again at me. ‘Can’t go back to the country mate,’ he said. ‘They built a fucking house on top of our den didn’t they?’
‘Well,’ I sniffed, ‘that’s the message.’
He squinted at me. ‘Cocky, right? Isn’t it Cocky?
‘Come through, come through.’ He beckoned with a broad paw. ‘Come on now. Come through. Just had a delivery here. We’re getting stuck in.’
‘Er, I’m not supposed to fraternize.’
‘What’s that then, Borough for “enjoy yourself”? Hargh hargh. Eh lads?’ (Rumbles of mirth from various quarters.) ‘Hargh hargh. Fraternize?’ He wagged one of the bottles at me. ‘This is Calvin Klein mate. ETERNITY. Here y’are, get your jawbox around that.’
‘Yeah fraternize that mate,’ said a hoarse vixen. Not unsexy. ‘Hargh hargh.’
‘Well —’ I did feel a bit of a prat with just my head through the hole, so I stepped into the room. And then I did feel a bit of a prat just standing there, so… ‘Go on then. Give us a taste.’
At the first glug I retched and gasped. Blak! Zurgh! Clang! My eyes crossed, and the red clapper of my epiglottis swung violently in its belfry. Then — some kind of blossoming behind the ribs. Such a friendly feeling! What was it? Absolution of fox-fear, a reprieve from all lurkings? Right then I believed it completely. And as I drank again I seemed to meet my destiny as a geezer, a roisterer, a laugh… Blak! Zurgh! One more glug and I was a veteran.
Eh?’ said Gumma, urgent and gleeful, right in my face. ‘EH?’
‘Not bad,’ I managed.
And so, wet-eyed and brimming with fellowship, Cocky made that scene. Lots of hargh-harghing, chest-buffeting, face-bumping. Great stories, country stories, mad tales of beagle-baiting and chicken-lifting. The high habits of the Borough were alluded to, its preciosities, and there was an amount of good-natured ribbing. The rough-voiced vixen was candidly sexual in her remarks, to the merriment of the company. Mix it with her Cocky! Make some little Bramble-Ons! And then it was you-know-what-I-should-be-getting-back time.
‘All right mate on you go,’ said Gumma. ‘And you tell your boss,’ — confidingly — ‘you tell your old gaffer not to worry. Plenty for everyone in this Borough. This is a top patch here. Bob’s a sport, right?’
‘Oh,’ I assented eagerly, ‘he definitely is. Haha. Sometimes, you know, he —’
‘He’s a sport. You’re a sport. We’re all sports. Plenty for everyone! Now on you go.’
‘Cheers Cocky!’ they all shouted.
Having taken what I thought would be an emergency nap under a mulberry bush on the way home, I came round nine hours later with Bob and Jim-Jim standing over me, horribly defined against the colorless sky.
‘Delivered that message did you Cocky?’ said Holiday Bob.
‘Erm, yup, I did.’ One of my eyes wouldn’t open.
‘And he, uh, he got it. He got the message.’
A week later, Holiday Bob emitted a rhetorical sigh. ‘Shame about Gumma,’ he said.
‘What’s that boss?’
We were all in the Yard, idling heavily, and Bob hadn’t spoken for about ten minutes.
‘Mm? Oh, I was just thinking aloud really.’ He was presenting us with his profile, his face yearning philosophically upward. ‘Yes, about Gumma. I mean there was a fox for you, ah? Industry, initiative… Likeability, too, I was told. Wasn’t he likeable, Jim-Jim?’
‘And he was a family man. I could have used a fox like that. Great shame, great shame.’ He shook his head, passed a paw over his face, appeared momentarily to be beyond all consolation. Then he said: ‘Oh well! Dinner time, yes? What’s on the menu?’ And went brightly to busy himself among the night’s deliveries.
Rumpy was already up and waddling for the exit. He exchanged glances with Billy, who slipped off the bonnet of the old Volvo with a doubled thump, a foxy grace note, and padded to his side.
‘Not Billy,’ said Bob over his shoulder. ‘Take Cocky.’
Rumpy reverberated. ‘Come on then. Twat.’
‘What’d you call me a twat for?’ I said when we were on our way.
‘Because you are a twat.’
‘Are we going to see Gumma? Are we going to run him off?’
At the graveyard a shallow mist was fingering the stones. We found Gumma and two of his boys wrestling in front of the house. ‘Cocky!’ he said, pleased to see me. ‘Back for another dose?’ But then the movement of Rumpy behind me caused his face to fall, and his two rowdies to scoot off in different directions. Gumma scrabbled, slipped, and Rumpy was on him, clamped and biting down with a dreadful fixity, head and neck trembling with the effort. Gumma’s body jerked and then relaxed.
Rumpy was wiping his muzzle in the grass.
‘If you’d done what you were told,’ he said, ‘I wouldn’t have had to do that.’
And then he roared: ‘TWAT!’