HiLobrow is proud to present the twentieth and final installment of James Parker’s The Ballad of Cocky the Fox, 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 Nineteenth Cocky and his friends planned their takover of the Borough. Would they have the strength to wrest it from the control of Billy Nine Wives? Weasel Paul expressed his doubts: Billy’s crew was imposing, and Billy himself a fearsome adversary. But then Nora — Bloody Nora — declared herself ready to fight alongside Cocky, and suddenly all bets were off. The gang made its move. Passing through Champion’s garden, Cocky was disgusted to find a couple of rats living in the hutch: one of them became Chester’s first rat-kill. Our hero grew maudlin, remembering his days of dissipation alongside the rabbit. Then he pulled himself together, and the gang stormed the Yard — routing the opposition. Billy, however, was not there…
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.
Our thanks to this project’s backers.
READ MORE ORIGINAL FICTION on HiLobrow.com.