I was the type of child that adults liked. I was polite, timid, and entertained myself. ‘What a lovely young man,’ old women would coo over me, and ‘gosh, isn’t he well behaved,’ fathers would nod, holding back their own snarling boys.
At the school gates, at the end of the day, parents would arrive, ready to embrace their children, who were either exhausted or hyper, with no in-between. They’d drag the hands of their stroppy infants (my classmates) and take them out of the gates, back into their own care. I’d stand at my mother’s side and follow her through the oak trees out the front, awaiting the summer holidays, when I got to spend more time in the refuge of our home. The problem with being the type of child that parents liked, was that the other children didn’t like you that much.
I spent a lot of time with my mum. She always had the radio on, so I listened to Radio 4 with her: stories, readings and plays. I never took an interest in books until I was older. Then, I wanted to hear the tales, like secrets being told that would stay between my mother, the radio, and I. We occupied the kitchen together when my dad was in the study. I would lay, almost naked, in only my shorts—sticky from the heat, brown curly hair in clumps—and stare at the ceiling or out the window, listening to the chatter of adults. I didn’t always understand the stories, but my mum never switched the radio over to anything else because I was there. I heard the adult world, uncensored, even if I didn’t understand it. I heard Shakespeare plays, readings from authors, comedians, and celebrities. I heard chatter from women about their health problems, and men about their pressing dread. I gained a slow mode of human-perception, but I could not yet comprehend it. I heard monologues, dialogues, and debates. I got to know the faceless voices of those on the other side: of growing up, and of the safe walls of home.
Mum took me walking, up beyond the terrace houses of the estate, and into the Devon hills. Everything was an up or a down. Going up made my thin legs burn and going down made my knees weak. I soon got stronger and would run between the hills, animated and breathless. Mum would walk a distance behind, letting me hare through the wheat, as she didn’t want her bare legs getting stung by the nettles. She walked confidently along the lines made by tractor wheels, in her linen shorts and long tops during summer. She dressed me in shades of white, blue and green, then resented when I got mud and grass stains on my shorts.
The fields were long and endless, in the same way summers were long and endless. When I wasn’t walking with her, I used to occupy myself in the vast expanse of green. I used old planks of wood to build seesaws, collected rocks in piles, and made narratives about lost civilisations when I stumbled on oddities upon the grey earth. I found pieces of ceramics, half-visible, yellowing plastic, rusty nails and bolts, metallic netting and once, a long, thin syringe which I excitedly took home to my mum, presenting it as a trophy of my work. She told me that I should throw it away. I was thoroughly confused, but parted with the baton anyway, and sprinted back outside to search for more treasures, forgetting about it immediately.
Spring 2003 – I was seven. I took a rope that my father had bought for one of his miscellaneous DIY endeavours, and set about creating a project for the day. The air was fruitful and full, damp with the heavy moisture of weeks of no rain. It had been a hot, dry few weeks; but today, the sky was low with cloud.
My mum gave me a jam sandwich, wrapped in tin foil for ‘if I got hungry.’ I was excited to eat it, but I was more excited to build an adventure. She kissed me on the forehead and watched me sprint out of the house, armed with the rope and the sandwich. She looked weary, but smiled anyway, leaning sideways in the doorway, in her buttercup dress.
I blinked in the bright white light. The road lead out of the estate, through the matchbox houses, and reached the sudden vastness of the countryside beyond. The horizon was tickled with trees, and fields of gold, brown and green branched in every direction. It smelt of pine and earth. I ran as far as a I could, towards a cluster of conifers in the distance. I knew this word, conifers, because my mum would narrate our walks sometimes by pointing out the branches and leaves, telling me the difference between oaks and chestnuts.
I ran through the crops with urgency, darting between husks and gathering webs as I did. Slowing my speed, becoming breathless, I entered the patch of forest, and selected the right wooden plank for the job. I was going to build myself a tree swing. It took ten minutes, but eventually I chose a large, crisp plank which seemed relatively new-fallen. It had some moss on the underside, but this didn’t matter. I set about climbing a tree and tying my rope.
I was busy, and my head was clear. Something in those fields and forests meant I was safe. The edges of leaves were sharp and lucid, and I noted each movement and each whisper amongst the leaves with meditative knowing. I was aware of the ants that tickled my fingers, and aphids occasionally landing on me; yet I worked with them and was comfortable sharing.
When my rope-tying was done, and I was sure I wouldn’t fall, I dropped from the tree, with a calculated thud.
Upon impact, I heard a rustle.
To my left, was a fox, and her two cubs. My heart sunk.
I had seen the foxes, for weeks before this. Spending most of my time outside I would often catch a flash of orange running like fire through the wheat, or see mummy-fox, (as I had christened her in my head) dart after a rabbit. I marvelled at their busy work: at the way they were constantly on the move, and when they weren’t, they were resting from a day of fighting to live. They were the ruddy-orange bullets of being.
But when I had seen her and the cubs before, there were three cubs – not two. I told myself that the other baby was probably in the den, snug and asleep. She looked at me, mummy-fox, then surveyed the area. I stayed still, crouched in my landing spot from the tree. Her face was sharp and attuned. The slim, streamline convergence of her eyes told me she was running from something, or chasing something herself. Her snout was long and pointed. Her nose and ears twitched, scorning the presence of a boy in the woods.
I wondered what she saw, and what she smelt. I imagined the static detail with which she could read the world. I saw the molecular, particular zoom in which she thought. She could hear the calls of her young from miles away, and smell the scent of a potential-catch when the prey didn’t even know of her existence. To me (a child crouched in the dirt) she was untouchable. In an instant, she turned, and ran. Her cubs ran after her, through the undergrowth.
She was gone.
That afternoon, I played under the oil-paint sky. I swung triumphantly back and forth on the swing seat, happy in my own company—happy in my own head. I forgot about my jam sandwich entirely. When the sky eventually broke, loud and groaning, hurling white pellets of rain at the parched earth, I decided to go too. I knew my mum would want me back, and the rain made me restless. I started back up towards the house, in large, deliberate steps. I went the long way back home, so I didn’t have to run through the crops. From this angle, the path back was a myriad of arcs.
I walked for a few minutes, letting droplets pour down the bridge of my nose, humming to myself. I often liked to hum when I was alone with the trees. It was soft, and pure. The biscuit-brown gave way to a mirage of houses in the distance. The rain fell, smudging itself into the dirt. I walked these large strides until I saw it: a blot in the pathway. Between the wheat, and the damp earth, was a small, dark object blocking my way. I got closer and was frozen in youthful horror.
The panic of seeing things for the first time, as a child, is something that fades as you get older. You have seen enough, and become accustomed to the grotesqueness of the world, to the point that it doesn’t affect you in the same way. To recreate the disgust, you then have to increase the horror. My virgin eyes, unadjusted to the bright violence of the world, focussed on the dead fox cub before me. It lay on its back, mouth dropped open in a razor-toothed scream. It had little fur left, and instead was blackened and torn, playing host for a variety of other creatures. Maggots and bright white worms writhed where its eyes used to be. There was flesh, followed by intermittent skeleton. It was red, pink, black and grey. Flies gathered at its once-belly, flicking their bodies sideways, over and over. There was something restless about death.
Unable to look away, I stared at it for a minute.
When I could finally bring myself to break the stare, I ran home, skirting past its body and into the crops. I was quiet that evening, as my mum served soup with tiger bread on the side.
‘What’s up little one?’ She asked.
‘Nothing.’ I said.
I didn’t want to tell her what I had seen. I didn’t want her to think that I had been scared. I thought about that fox every night for weeks. I saw it when I went to sleep, illuminated behind my eyelids. I thought about mummy-fox, and her amber stare. I wondered whether she missed her baby, or if she had time to miss it.
When I next saw mummy-fox she was stalking around with her remaining cub: only one. I had understood something when I saw that baby fox, but I wasn’t sure what it was.
Outside, birds continued to crow, green shoots erupted from the earth, and spring pushed forward.