HiLobrow is proud to present the nineteenth (penultimate) installment of James Parker’s The Ballad of Cocky the Fox, a serial tale in twenty fits, with illustrations by Kristin Parker.
The story so far: Cocky the fox, a handsome specimen of Vulpes vulpes living on the edge of an English town, is in trouble. His mentor Holiday Bob, top fox in the Borough, is dead. His family life has collapsed, and he’s moved in with his friend Champion, a distressed albino rabbit. His enemies are everywhere. And he’s been drinking a lot of aftershave.
In Fit the Eighteenth, Cocky, Shakes and Weasel Paul took on a crew of Northside foxes in the free land of Patsonia. Paul got trapped beneath a bucket, Shakes was overrun, and as two Northsiders advanced upon him, things looked bleak for our hero — until an aerial bellowing was heard, and the ground shook with a badger-charge! Thus reprieved by Popjoy and Rumpy, Cocky informed the Northside of his new zero tolerance policy, and then went to visit his family at the old den. His estranged son Chester was rude to him, but his vixen Nora, scarred-up now from the battles she’d waged in his absence, was mellower than expected.
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.’
So Cocky’s taken the Yard — but where is Billy Nine Wives?
Will the new Boss be the same as the old Boss?
And can it be true that the next installment is the final fit of The Ballad of Cocky the Fox?!!
Find out on Thursday, February 17th.
Our thanks to this project’s backers.
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