I’m on an old-fashioned quest.
It all started in Angel. I was cycling home late one evening when I saw a fox on one of the narrow roads. He looked at me and then hurried off, leaving behind the image of his red-brown tail and a sense of iridescent magic transcending the urban greed.
Since then I’ve longed to catch another glimpse. Every time I crossed paths with a fox, or even spotted a bushy tail, it left me breathless. I grew up in the countryside without ever seeing one and here they are in the heart of the metropolis. But it wasn’t until I stood face to face with a fox in my back garden that I became fully obsessed. I bought the Untamed London map and visited woods and patches of wasteland where foxes had been spotted.
I didn’t have any luck. This was probably due to the fact that I didn’t feel like lying in the bushes just before sunset to wait for wild animals. When I realised that just being out and about wasn’t the way forward, I decided to set up a stake-out in my garden. First: a tent. Second: a schedule (4am to 6am and 8pm to 11pm), sleepovers (might as well have fun) and snacks (things a fox would like too).
It wasn’t as much fun as I had expected it to be. My back was aching from lying on the ground and I couldn’t sleep because of all the noise from the high street. Four hours into my first shift I called it quits, feeling rather cross with my lack of stamina.
The next day, however, I returned to the tent with new determination. I stayed up during dusk (no fox) and nid-nodded my way through dawn (again, no fox). It was in fact during lunch that I spotted the fox from my kitchen window. The next week I spent every free minute waiting for her. Most of the time it was just me, lying amidst the prickly nettles and the musty smell of rotting apples but every so often she showed up to take a nap in the sunshine, tolerating my presence.
And then, just as suddenly as she had entered my life, she left. For days I still sat in the garden, hoping to see the vixen again. I felt like a TV addict whose favourite show has been cancelled but who keeps watching the screen out of utter disbelief. Finally the realisation sunk in: she wasn’t coming back. I tried to forget about her. Friends started telling me about other foxes: a three-legged one on Lower Clapton Road, a tame one on Essex Road and, eventually, about a fox in Gray’s Inn Gardens.
That’s how I ended up here. Having got permission to enter The Walks, I open the gate with the large metal key. It creaks with age. These gardens have existed since 1597, when Francis Bacon planted the first trees on this very spot. I walk to one of the benches. The silence is like a blanket as I sit down. After a few minutes a lonely magpie lands on the grass in front of me and starts picking away at some crumbs left behind by residents.
The scene that follows is pure magic. This is the stuff that Disney films are made of. The garden comes to life with magpies, squirrels, crows, pigeons and gulls. Never before have I seen what the city looks like when there are no humans around.
Two hours pass before I notice how cold it’s got. I have finished my tea and have eaten all the food I brought along for the fox. I consider doing some jumping jacks or a perhaps quick sprint, but then I remember that this is an Inn of Court. Instead I decide to take a stroll along the main path. I remember a line from T.S. Eliot’s Quartets that I was reading earlier: “wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing”. I know what it means, but how am I supposed to do that?
As I am walking back I suddenly see what I came for: a fox lying under a rhododendron shrub. He’s spying on two magpies in front of him. I quickly step onto the grass and stop at a young tree, trying to hide behind a lamp post. Hoping I might be able to make it to the next tree without being spotted, I tiptoe over the lawn. The fox immediately picks up on my movement. Our eyes lock and for a moment we both freeze, unsure how to proceed.
I decide to get down on my hands and knees, hoping to convey that I don’t mean any harm. Slowly I start crawling towards him. At first he seems intrigued but then he gets up. Afraid that he might take off, I pause. Eventually he sits down. I can’t believe how majestic he is. He has an inquisitive look on his face, his long whiskers sniffing the air between us.
I get up on my knees, but make sure to keep my chin down. Then I notice that he has lowered his head too. Gently I raise mine and he mirrors me. It dawns on me that he is not afraid, that there is an unspoken bond between us. I straighten my back and he responds, as though we are shy dancers in a pas de deux. I brush away a tear rolling down my cheek as I get ready to leave and join the people hurrying through the streets who know nothing of the silent conversation between the girl and the fox.
© Mischa van den Brandhof 2012