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.’
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