Thursday, 6 June 2013

The People who fed Foxes

Spring is here, 'Springwatch' is on TV, so here is a story for you all . . .

The People who fed Foxes

This is a story I heard from a friend of a friend.

There was once a man who had worked hard in the city all his life, looking forward to the day when he could retire. He hated the city, the noise and the crowds and the traffic. He dreamed of tranquility and green spaces and wild nature. But for years he worked and saved, and at the end of it all, when his pension came through, he and his wife at last had the chance to do the one thing they had always wanted - to buy themselves a cottage in the country.

They set about house-hunting, and eventually they found exactly what they had dreamed of, an exquisite little thatched cottage, sixteenth century but tastefully modernised, with a lovely flower-garden, its front windows looking out onto the most picturesque of greens in the prettiest village they had ever seen, surounded by green fields and dark woodland. It was perfect; it was everything they had ever wanted and seemed remarkably reasonably-priced, considering its quality. They couldn't believe their good luck!

One evening, a week or so after they moved in, the wife was drawing the curtains in the living-room when she looked out into the garden and saw a fox on the lawn. She called to her husband, they watched the fox sniffing around the garden, and they were absolutely delighted. From their old city flat they had never even seen urban foxes, so to see a wild country fox was a wonderful novelty. They loved the idea of wildlife coming into their garden; it was all part of their dream of country living after those city-bound years! So the next evening, they left some food out for the fox, hoping that it would come back. And it did. It came back the following night as well, and every evening from then on. They put out more food, and within a fortnight there were two or three foxes visiting their garden every night. Then some more came, then another half a dozen. The couple were putting out more and more food, and then a vixen brought her cubs, and before long the garden was full of foxes every single evening. They had no fear of humans, and if the couple were late putting out the food, they would scratch and whine at the back door, or would stand in a row beneath the window on the back path, gazing right into the living room with their clever yellow eyes.

The couple soon developed an evening ritual, lining up the plates of dog-food on the lawn at sunset, then sitting indoors to watch the foxes. Admittedly, it was beginning to cost them quite a lot of money, feeding all these very hungry foxes, and the animals soon wrecked the flowerbeds, overturned the dustbins, and left deposits on the path. It sometimes got a bit smelly out there as well. Nevertheless, the couple were delighted. They simply loved being visited by all these wild creatures! It was as though the foxes were honouring them. They invited their friends and relatives to come round and spend an evening fox-watching. They even managed to get on the local television news, as the novelty feature at the end of the teatime broadcast, and had a brief clip of video shown on 'Springwatch'. Nobody had ever seen so many foxes together at one time before.

Everything in that retired couple's life was idyllic, with one single hideous exception. In a run-down old house on the very edge of the village lived a disruptive family of notorious delinquents. The family had always been there, since about the time of the Black Death, so local rumour had it. They had an unbroken six hundred year tradition of mayhem which the present generation upheld with glee. They were atrocious! Their house was a wreck, with patched-up broken windows and missing roof-tiles. The garden was full of brambles, rusty cars, and a tangle of stolen supermarket-trolleys. None of the adults had ever knowingly done an honest day's work in their lives. In fact they rarely showed themselves in daytime unless it was to carry on their ancestral foul-mouthed feud with an upright elderly church-lady who had always disapproved of them. The children didn't bother to go to school but hung around the village green all day, smoking, drinking, vandalising the bus-shelter, letting off firworks, throwing eggs and taunting passers-by. They would even urinate behind the memorial bench, and the teenagers were known to take drugs in the churchyard when they weren't trying their hardest to get pregnant. They seemed to be doing everything they could to make the lives of the respectable residents miserable. And there was nothing much the law could do to help. These people looked on ASBOs as a badge of honour; they had already collected a drawerful of them. Although the entire clan were living on Social Security, they obviously had extra sources of less legal income, as cars regularly arrived at their house in the small hours, and clan member would bring out an assortment of computers, laptops and flat-screen TVs. No-one dared ask where all these things came from, but the insurance-premiums in the area were unusually high. Still, however many times the police visited them, they were never actually found to be in possession of any illicit electricals. They obviously had a talent for hiding things.

In short, this family was the respectable elderly couple's worst nightmare made flesh. They were everything the couple feared the most. Not that any of the clan caused any serious trouble to them. In fact, by their own standards, they were unusually polite. The children hadn't once vandalised their garden fence or let their tyres down, and they didn't yell obscenities at them as they walked past. There weren't many people who were afforded such respect. One of the men of the family had even approached the husband in the village shop and let him know that if he were ever in need of a nice nearly-new home cinema-system, he only had to say the word and he was sure they could come to a mutually-beneficial arrangement. But of course, the couple were used to living in nice safe middle-class communities in the city, and were so terrified they didn't notice that they were being given special treatment. They were constantly worrying about the presence of this family, and their worried fed on themselves and grew. As time passed, they became too scared to go out on their own, because the children on the village green looked so threateningly feral. It seemed too risky. But they were also afraid that if they left to cottage together, the children would notice and their property would immediately be burgled. So they took to staying at home all day. They shut themselves indoors and had all their shopping delivered. Pallets loaded with tins of dog-food for the foxes came in a wholesaler's van, and the supermarket brought them everything else. But their hopes of country walks, bird-watching trips and tranquil Sundays in the garden were dead. Their longed-for paradise of retirement dwindled to a life behind curtains, looking forward only to that magical time every evening when they could sit at their living-room window and watch the fox-cubs playing so delightfully on the lawn.. They celebrated when one of the vixens brought a new litter of cubs to the garden for the first time, and they worried when one of the older foxes came in limping, with a big cut on its shoulder. At times it seemed that these nightly outdoors dramas were the only things keeping them sane.

Then came an arson-attack on a church-warden's potting-shed, at which point the whole village grew sick of the behaviour of the delinquent family. The situation was no longer endurable. There were court proceedings and a multitude of injunctions and restraining-orders, all of which were happily ignored by the clan. Social workers and truant-officers went to their house, but were sworn-at, pelted with eggs, and chased away. The clan's Social Security payments were suspended, which resulted only in more night-time deliveries of expensive consumer durables. Nothing had any effect, and the police were afraid to tackle them.

Eventually the couple decided that they could stand things no longer. They decided it was time to do something about the delinquents. So they set up a petition to have the clan forcibly removed from the village. There was a lot of publicity about it in the local paper, and then one of the national tabloids picked up the story and started a campaign about it. Virtually every village resident signed the petition, and in front of the cameras of local and national television broadcasters, the elderly couple delivered it in person to the offices of the district council.

The next morning, there came a loud knock on the front door of the cottage, and when they opened it they saw one of the men from the delinquent family, the one who had offered the husband the home cinema-system, holding a copy of the tabloid newspaper that had supported them. On its front page was a big picture of the couple delivering the petition, a blurry security-camera photograph of children throwing stones, and a huge headline that said 'Time to Kick out the Neighbours from Hell'.

The couple shrank back, expecting physical violence, or al least some obscene language.

"What are you trying to do?" the man demanded. The couple thought he sounded more surprised than angry. "We thought you liked us! We thought you were our friends! After all, you've invited us round for a good dinner every single evening since you moved in! We've had great times in your garden! What have we done to upset you? You always looked like you enjoyed having us round!"

And he smiled at them, and suddenly his face looked longer than they'd realised, his long tongue curled and his teeth seemed too sharp . . . they hadn't noticed until then that his eyes were such an unusual colour, but they suddenly remembered where they'd seen that clever yellow gleam before . . .

The last I heard, the elderly couple had moved back to the safety of the big city, to a high-rise flat where they know they will never encounter trees or grass or wildlife ever again. They can no longer think of the countryside without shuddering. Meanwhile, back in the village, the clan of werefoxes have evaded all attempts to remove them, and are still merrily spreading mayhem. And no doubt they will continue to do so for a very long time yet.

Monday, 27 May 2013

The River Holds her Memories

This is the poem that I performed at yesterday's Worcestershire Literary Festival's riverside walk . . .

The River Holds her Memories

The river holds her memories
each one ephemeral as water,
but their chain is as enduring
as the river herself,
and she forgets nothing.

So in the river's memory
the centuries mingle, overlap,
every phase existing equally.
Memory does that if it lasts for long enough.
And in the river's dreaming,
the farmers watch their cows, hold festivals
to celebrate the summer sun and harvest
on the same cool meadows where the soldiers
forever fight their Civil War,
every day repeated in the memory of water.
And on the ornamental walk
the teatime lady's lacy ghost,
the sad drab couple with their ration books,
and the rattling thrills and leaps of skateboard kids
are equal phantoms
jostling through one another on the pathway.
As the river remembers, they are all still there.
The drought years and the flood years
are evened out
and bridges add and subtract themselves
all present at the same time
thronging with the forms of every person
who has ever crossed over them
with ox-carts, pack-beasts, carriages and cars
superimposed on the shapes of demolished tollhouses.
Swans cloud together with memory-swans,
sun shines through memories of rain
and daylight through darkness
the moon in all her phases
and the seasons all at once.
The cathedral shares its footings
with its Saxon counterpart
and the earlier enclosure where the first farmers
raised a solemn mound in the land
to mark the sacred centre of their lives.
Monastery and chapel-spires still rise
where monks and pagans merge with one another
as tourists snap cameras, children run
and an old man whiles away an afternoon
in a summertime drowse of cheap cider.
Dogs bark, thousands all at once,
to add to the cacophony
of boats and watermen,
trows and steamers
forever loading cargo on their spectral quays,
that endless cargo from the city,
the teacups and the fine kid gloves
for the hands of London ladies.
Everything is held at once
perpetual past and present
all things seen and being seen
preserved in her perfect memory;
allthe things the river knows
in place
and never lost.