She had entered his world. When she walked to the station on Monday morning, his hot blast of musk enveloped her as she passed her front railings. The smell rose again at the new-builds at the end of her street, out on the main road, and at the fringe of the park. It hit her intermittently, as if she were passing through chambers of scent. The whole neighbourhood was his castle, all the roads and houses and gardens portions of some enormous floor plan to which she now held the key. How long had it been here, this invisible, pungent architecture? Had she simply failed to notice it ‒ or was the first time she saw him the day he moved into the area? Almost without looking, Mary spotted the signs of him, the tidy droppings by a lamppost. As she left the park and turned towards Haggerston station, a gang of crows dispersed over the rooftops with a sudden cawing, and she imagined him moving below them, his shoulders dropped and rolling, belly dusting the ground.
On Monday evening, the fox appeared in her garden five minutes after she got home, nudged at the corner of the blanket where she lay, then sat upright on the lawn a short way off. They eyed each other cautiously, as if they both understood that their relationship was entering a new phase. On Tuesday she left work half an hour earlier than Monday, and there he was again, strolling through the long grass. He sat a little closer this time, measuring his advances with exactitude. She watched his claws extending and retracting in the dry earth of the thinning lawn, toying with the invisible string that divided his space from hers.
And so the week went on. Without either of them needing to say, they settled into a routine: she would come outside, and he would appear. It made no difference what time she unlocked the back door. From the woods, he heard her footsteps, or caught her cologne. He seemed to know her movements, to have a superhuman sense of her whereabouts, no matter how she tested him with small variations to her timing, or how quietly she drew back the lock and tiptoed outside. The fox knew more about her comings and goings than her mother, her neighbours, and Dawn put together, and Dawn sat opposite her for eight hours a day (eight hours in theory). It said a great deal about how little people noticed Mary that she could slip out of the office unseen. Yet she found it impossible to re-enter her own home without being met.
On Wednesday, after he’d sprung his exit over her back wall, she left the blanket out in the garden. The sky had forgotten how to rain. And the fox was no longer a threat. He was encroaching on her life the way any new relationship encroaches, and she shifted over to make space for him. The blanket was an open invitation, their sofa in front of the telly, the place where they met and crashed at the end of the day. Well, it was the end of her day ‒ perhaps only the start of his. She knew he slept on the rug while she was at work, because it bristled with his smoky tang.
On Thursday, she arrived back from the office an hour earlier than Wednesday. The edges of the blanket curled upwards in the sun and this time when he walked down the lawn to meet her, he did not stop, but slipped his snout beneath a frayed corner. Her limbs stiffened. She was lying on her stomach, but she tilted fractionally to see the squares of plaid ruck and crumple into new shapes over his head. He knew she was watching, because he withdrew his muzzle from under the blanket and looked straight at her, purpose warming his amber eyes. A thread snapped as his paw snagged the rug. He was nosing on top of it now; his snout led him towards her. His ear tipped forward, spiking the edge of her vision. Mary froze. Would he stop sniffing, stop walking, when he reached her? But his legs folded beneath him right where he stood and they lay side by side on their bellies, looking at the trees, watching the shadow of a bee crawl across a low-hanging hazel leaf, trawling veins with its antennae. The hard part was done. They had got here, together at last. Now they could relax, lie in the sun and talk.
His tail thumped the hot fleece they lay on. Relax? If only! Whiskers flickered. Ears perked at the tangle of sounds. The human hummed and the great tits squeaked and fussed in the hazel, and a woodlouse drummed its din of iron feet along a fallen leaf. Poor attempt at discretion. He atomised some scent from the notch in his tail. A formality. They all knew he was there. The woodlouse clumped across the middle vein of its leaf and ‒ the leaf tipped. Woodlouse upside-down! Little legs waggling fascinatingly. Stretching, straining, leaning, this way, that way, this way …
His snout was swaying, watching something. It was not a thought she could share with any person she knew, but she believed, from the way his muzzle was bobbing in excitement, the happy beat of his tail on the blanket, that he enjoyed the sound of her voice. He was so easy to talk to. He seemed to know what she wanted. The thing was, she had stuck to her guns with Mark. But she’d never said, never decided, that she wanted to be on her own. It was his ultimatum, her decision. Technically, that meant she had dumped him, which served him right for being so controlling. But all she had held on to was the freedom not to have a baby. Now there was no one to have a baby with anyway. It was a pointless victory. And here was Mark again. Turned up just around the corner. Checking she was safe. Living somewhere near, but refusing to say where. ‘I bet you know,’ she said, turning to the fox. ‘Have you seen him? Is he living with someone else?’ If he knew Mark, if Mark lived within his territory, maybe he went through Mark’s bin. A bin was very revealing. She looked at the fox, the code that kept unlocking things. ‘What are you crunching on?’ she said. Thank God for the house. This house was all she had.
This nice den.
He looked around for another. Snappy things with a little chew inside. Not much effort to. Especially if they were in easy ‒
Her voice soothed him, she could see by the way he tucked his snout under the bushy hairs of his tail and his eyes shrank to a wet seam. But his ears never slept. She watched them, flickering and twitching as she chatted, their minute movements like an electronic readout of her tenor/base balance. Up, down, down, up. Or twisting right round when she heard the clatter of dinner things next door, then when Eric and George called again and again for their cat. ‘Tiggy! Tiggy Tig-Tig!’ They were large ears, and their size told a truth about him: he was an excellent listener. It occurred to her that – contrary to Mark’s evaluation – she might be an excellent communicator. All she had needed was the chance to be one.
Just once her fox stayed still for so long while she was talking, she thought he had fallen asleep. She coughed sharply, and the near ear turned frontally to face her. She saw the line of dark hair inside, a narrow black ovoid, as if his ears had pupils too, and through them he saw and heard her in unison. He resettled himself, folded his haunches into a crouch beneath his rump. Even lying down like this, his legs never looked fully relaxed, but already committed to their next move, whatever the next move might be. They pulsed with intention, the quickness of his instinct. And when it was time for him to go ‒ he decided this ‒ he stood in one fluid motion. Black legs steeped in stealth, he rippled his way to the far corner of the garden. She had begun to wonder if he had a secret transportation station tucked away in the tiny space between her shed and the neighbouring fence.
On Friday, Mary was filling the kettle, ready to wash down her first pill. The blast of water filled her ears and drowned all the words there. When she turned around, he was watching her. All four feet were inside, and the kitchen had shrunk. Her mouth opened, but the words were dry. Her stomach muscles tightened as she swallowed the jolt of surprise. Get a grip, she thought. This is the natural next step.
They had been getting to know each other for a few weeks now. Almost a month. Of course he’d want to see where she lived. How else was he going to find out more about her? Don’t be scared, she told herself. Sometimes taking control means surprising yourself, disobeying the familiar instincts, thwarting the same old you, the same old you’s perennial attraction to the same old you’s typical decisions. She had to learn to open up. It was like living in confinement, inside this head. She felt a fierce retaliation against the way her world had narrowed. Tonight she would not surrender to her lonely Monday night, Tuesday night, every-night lock-in. Tonight was going to be different.
‘OK,’ she said, stepping aside with a flourish. ‘Be my guest.’
It was so easy. One simple decision, and life was a new place.
He sniffed at his feet. He lifted his muzzle and dropped it again a few inches off. His nose dabbed the ground, trying to filter the right signals through the interference. The smells came so faint. An electric hum zigzagged from the floor, through his claws, up to his shins. He could feel it juddering his knee joints. Very mixed messages. He adjusted his paws. New ground. Take it one twitch at a time. Foxes all around. Small ones and big ones. Whole ones and parts of ones. Pairs of eyes. Flashes of white from patches of chest. He was reluctant to go further in. One ear inclined. The earth was humming, the strange calls of what? He slung his snout low and high, but not one of these foxes had scent. His own scent was the only fox scent. That was good. He pulled up his tail and released some more. Better. It was coming through strongly now. His claws curled into the floor, and the floor clung to his claw. To get rid of the stickiness, he lifted a leg and kept lifting it until the floor let go.
The floor was horrible. ‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘I’m planning to replace the lino.’ Then, seeing him hesitate, she gestured further into the house. ‘Come on, this way.’ He was in her world now. He was everywhere in this room. She could see him in the sheen of the bin, the silvery surround of the oven, the glint of the toaster and kettle. One by one, all those mirrors emptied themselves of him and darkened. He was on the move. His paws click-clacked warmly down the wooden floorboards of the hall towards the lounge. Mary felt as good as if she had let some second self out of the cage.