Life’s hard on the streets of Brighton. It’s the constant uncertainty of getting enough to eat, and finding somewhere to sleep that’s both safe and reasonably dry and warm. I worry about Esme. She’s alone, she’s pregnant and she’s a fox.
I once heard a celebrity pet owner say the thing she loves about animals is that they don’t judge you. It’s not like that actually. At least it’s not with foxes. They’re actually judging you all of the time. Every moment you’re in range of one of their senses, they’re making tiny assessments. Like why are you offering food? Is it poisoned? Is it a trap? When those golden eyes lock on to yours they look for the slightest signs of aggression, hostility or deceit. Foxes live in a world of deceit, but then don’t we all?
It was all so different when I first met Esme. It was early last autumn, the start of my ecology degree. I went on a freshers’ pub crawl, wearing the same beer-company sponsored t-shirt as everyone else. And like everyone else I drank too much and ended up skinny dipping at 4 a.m. I’m not a person who likes to stand out from the crowd, so I did my best to blend in.
Esme has never felt the need to conform. She does exactly as she pleases. She doesn’t skulk or keep close to the walls and hedges. She’s bold and swaggering; sass personified. Her fur shines like burnished copper, her brush is full and ermine tipped. She’s the vixen queen and she knows it.
I tried to make friends with the other two girls I was flat-sharing with. I probably tried too hard. I thought I was lucky to get that room. The third girl in their group had decided to take a year out from her course, so there was a vacancy. Only then she changed her mind and returned, wanting her room back. She and her flatmates wanted me gone and stupidly I hadn’t insisted on any kind of contract. It meant I had to find somewhere else to live in the middle of term when there weren’t many vacancies and the few there were, were out of my price range.
I did find somewhere. I do have a roof over my head, even if the circumstances aren’t ideal. I suppose in that sense I’m better off than Esme. My beautiful Esme. The first time I saw her, I was walking home, slightly worse for wear, and she was a little way ahead of me. She must’ve heard my footsteps behind, as she turned and looked. Her gorgeous eyes met mine. She stood transfixed, just staring at me, as I looked back at her. And I felt something I can’t put it into words. This beautiful wild animal, with her tawny fur, sharply pricked ears and confident poise—it was love. From my side anyway.
I saw her again the next night. This time she was dragging the remains of a KFC box under a hedge. When I peered through the branches, I discovered a big, overgrown garden, a sort of mini wilderness. The house was a large detached one and it looked like it hadn’t been lived in for some time.
I can tell Esme by sight from any other fox. But I also know nearly all the foxes in this neighbourhood by sight now. They’re all subtly different—in colouring, face shape, and one has a nicked ear and another has a long scar on its chest. With Esme, the black smudges at the side of her nose reach almost up to her eyes, as if she is wearing mascara that has run in the rain.
I often spend hours crouched in the street, or in a shop doorway watching Esme. Some nights I stay out until dawn. It’s awkward now there’s the lockdown, but I’m as stealthy as a fox. I clamber through the hedge into the wild garden and there’s no one to notice me. That way I don’t see Tim, he’s the owner of the flat I’m staying in. He works at a DIY store and they’re open again now, thankfully.
When I first met Esme she would sometimes stand or sit with her head pointing at the sky, and screech. At first I thought something was wrong, that she might be in pain or some kind of anguish, but it’s actually a mating call. Fox sex is brutal – the male bites the back of the female’s neck and his penis is barbed and sticks inside her. She screams at every painful thrust. I’ve seen many foxes mating, though not Esme, I don’t think I could stomach it. Not with the way things are in my life.
Male or dog foxes tend to stay with their partner while the cubs are young, bringing them food. It’s a relationship built on raising young together. I’ve named Esme’s mate George. Sometimes she can be short tempered and nippy with him, but often, after a long night apart foraging in different locations, they greet each other excitably like dogs.
My parents live in Australia and I couldn’t afford to go there at the start of lockdown. I didn’t like to ask them to send me the airfare as I know their business is struggling at the moment. Now of course it’s too late anyway until normal flights resume. I’m stuck in this situation, even if it is one of my own making. And I can’t tell anyone about it, but Esme.
When I answered Tim’s advertisement, I knew what I was doing, and it seemed like no big deal. It meant the room was rent-free and he wasn’t repulsive or anything like that. In fact he seemed quite normal, and I suppose he is really. He said he’d only want sex a couple of times a week, and I thought that was fair enough, I could handle that. I’d had a few loveless encounters before, who hasn’t? I didn’t fancy him, but as I say he didn’t really turn me off or anything. But I hadn’t really thought about how it would make me feel. I hadn’t thought about that at all.
Tim isn’t rough, he doesn’t rape me, but it’s meaningless, it’s mechanical. I’m just an object to satisfy him. He has a girlfriend who’s teaching in India at the moment, and our arrangement is, he says, just a convenient way of getting what he needs in the meantime, without it being a relationship. But living like this is killing me. It’s creeping into my soul and eating it away day by day. It’s not I feel ashamed, used, dirty or worthless. It’s more that I feel as if I am no longer whole.
Now though I’m turning into a shadow. I’m learning invisibility. I’ve managed to avoid Tim seeing me at all for two weeks. I’ve been staying out all night with my fox. Perhaps I’m gaining some of Esme’s spirit. I’m becoming a wild creature. I trust no one. I show no one my vulnerabilities. If any human comes near I shrink back, muscles tightening, ready to fight or flee. Like Esme when under threat, my hackles rise. I bare my teeth.
Esme has had her cubs! There are four of them. Her den is under the decking in the overgrown garden. I think it must’ve been their first time popping up above ground. They’ve big blue eyes at this age and they’re into everything. One chased a grasshopper, another tried and failed to eat a worm; the living spaghetti curling around her muzzle.
Tim is having an illegal party tonight. He’s invited friends around despite the risk of Covid 19. He wants to introduce me to some of them. Actually what he wants to do is share me with them. He’s even offered me money. I said ‘yeah alright’ in a little meek voice, like the cunning ghost I’ve become. I took his stinking money. I nodded and forced a smile when he told me to ‘dress up for once, not those grungy jeans.’ The fridge was full of food ready for the bash: pizzas, burgers, sausages. He’d ordered it all in earlier. While he was in his bedroom getting ready, silent as Esme, I emptied it all into two big bags. My belongings were already stashed in a suitcase in the front garden. All I needed to do was slip out of the door.
Foxes cache their food to make it last. Esme will have enough to feed her cubs through their most vulnerable weeks. Me, I’ve been caching cash, and with the extra money Tim has given me in advance of tonight’s activities, I reckon I’ve enough to live on for a while. The first things I’ve bought are a sleeping bag, and a chisel to loosen the basement window of the empty house. I can live here. It’s far enough away from Esme to respect her family’s privacy, but near enough to keep each other company. She knows I mean her no harm. She knows I’ll provide for her whenever I can. Together, living on our wits, and what we can scrounge, I know we’ll both survive, wild and free.