It was a high street of sorts. There was lamplight and the buzzing of neon signs in the windows of bars that had closed or just weren’t that popular. The street seemed to tail off into the distance and in the dark James could see not a single soul.
It had the feel of a lonely walk of shame about it. There air wasn’t cold though he could see his breath as he walked. His feet splashed on the pavement, yet his feet felt bone dry in his canvas shoes.
Above him James could make out a few stars. The night had a blue feel to it, where instead of the black the sky has a hue of deep purple about it. The pollution of the bright city centre had not driven the stars away this evening and he could see the belt of Orion as bright as headlights.
A rustling ahead made him pause in thought, but not in movement. There was a set of old fashioned steel bins on one of the street corners. It looked bizarre, almost like a snapshot of an old TV movie. Any second an out of date ford coupe would career round the corner and knock the bins flying without damaging the car or the playful repartee of the comically mismatched policemen inside.
But this time there was no excitement. For that they would have had to have been chasing something. And there wasn’t a sound of larceny, let alone a car chase in the air.
There were not just bins though. The usual mound of trash had appeared. The evening before pick up and the bins were simply an atoll in a sea of black plastic bags. The galvanised surface of the lids made a patchwork under the yellow street light and the ripped bags waved and rippled with the wind, spitting detritus occasionally along the pavement.
James paused at the bins and looked left and right along the intersection. Wondering about traffic and also the right way home. This was a problem, he didn’t seem to recognise either direction. To the left was a short street that led to a rather green square. The stumpy street lighting and park benches that lined the street next to the bus stop looked familiar, but it was not a place that he could put a finger on or a name to. To the right it was just as perplexing.
James didn’t turn around. He had known that someone was there, but had not expected it to talk.
“Yeah” James replied. Still looking ahead.
“There’s no point in heading up there.”
“Why’s that then?” James replied. He wondered if he should turn around and talk to his new acquaintance. They had had an exchange of words now and it would seem very rude indeed not to introduce himself.
“I’m James” he swivelled on his right foot and held out a hand.
There was no one there. James was taken aback, but a little less surprised than he thought he would be.
“Hello?” he said aloud to the street.
“Er hello?” the voice returned.
“Who am I talking to?” James asked.
“Me you idiot!”
“Who are you?”
“Do you know you are a complete idiot?”
That was hardly fair, thought James. He had after all been talking to someone who appeared not to be there in body.
“Now I don’t think that’s very fair” James began before he heard a loud and rather exasperated sigh.
James did and was rather taken aback.
“Hello” said the fox.
James was silent. Before him was a rather healthy, yet sleek auburn fox. A long bushy tail and a rather mischievous face, although foxes always seem to have a sense of mischief about them, the fox sat on its hind quarters and tilted its head to one side.
“You alright son?” the fox said.
“Now don’t start the silly er thing with me” the fox said, although he was annunciating every word it was hard not to notice a hint of a
accent in the fox’s voice.
“You have a bit of a problem here son” the fox continued. “A friendly gentleman of leisure has stopped you in the street to offer you directions and you’re completely speechless.” He turned quickly and chewed at his hip before returning to fix his gaze on James, the momentary preen took half a second.
“I think when they showed you that video in school about avoiding strangers they were talking about the nasty man with the white van and the mangy puppy” The fox took a step closer to James, James took a step back, the fox was only up to his knee, but it was still a little intimidating.
The fox took another step forward but this time James held his ground. This was rather ridiculous, but nevertheless the fox was correct. James was in need of directions. He had come to a juncture and had absolutely no idea which way to go. James steeled himself for the fox to run away and for this all to have been one big silly figment of his imagination. He knelt down.
“Sorry about that” James said, his Edinburgh drawl sounding a little out of place in the space that had until then been occupied solely by the voice of the black country. “I’m James McMillan” he held his hand out. The fox looked at it rather despondently.
“What am I supposed to do with that James?” the fox asked, “I can’t exactly give you a good hard city boy handshake with a paw the size of your thumb.”
“Oh, sorry” James stood up again, “I didn’t really think about that”
“That’s no problem James” The fox stood and stretched his legs, “my name’s Derrick.”
James immediately wondered at the name. “Strange name for a fox” he said out loud before he could stifle himself.
The fox’s ears pricked a little and then slackened.
“What was the last fox you met called?” he asked.
“I’ve never really spoken to a fox before” James stuttered, “but I thought Renard was always a good name for a fox”
“You realise that means fox?” Derrick had a quizzical look on his face, the long snout seemed to wrinkle a little and his eyes narrowed. “It would be like you calling yourself homme or something, a little bizarre don’t you think?”
“Yes, well I suppose so”
“So what are you doing on my street corner then James?” The fox interrupted.
“I suppose I’m kind of lost” James replied.
“Aha!” Derrick cried out, “so I was right, you are lost.”
The fox trotted, or rather padded around James’ legs.
“So where are you attempting to get to?” The fox asked, not looking at James but rather back where he had come from.
“I’m trying to get home” James replied, wondering why the fox had taken such an interest in the long and rather dark street.
“Anywhere nice?” The fox asked, slowly starting walk, head up back the way James had come.
“Well yes” James replied. “I’m up in the new town, I’m renting a flat with my girlfriend at the moment.
“New town you say” the fox moved on, trotting slowly allowing James to catch up with him and then moving on a little more.
“Yes” the hope sprang out of James’ mouth.
“Fraid I have no idea the fox said” he moved on a little more, “but I may know someone who does, come on, we can talk on the way”
James, despite himself, saw no reason not to and followed patiently behind the fox. His tail, unusually for the foxes that James had seen, was far more upright, usually foxes were slinky sullen creatures that scampered with a rather moribund sense of dread around the towns at night, slurping and picking what they could off the refuse that others had left behind. Derrick was a little different. He was positive, no, that was too weak a word. Derrick was buoyant; he was keen and most of all he could talk. James decided that he ought to broach the subject.
“Derrick” the fox had started to mutter to himself and didn’t respond.
“Derrick!” James called again, this time the fox stopped, turned and grinned. It was almost comical the way that his mouth curved and the joy in his eyes lit. But it was reassuring all the same.
“Yes fella” the fox replied
“Do you mind if I ask you a question?”
“Not at all” the fox said, “as long as it’s not the one about where babies come from”
“No” James didn’t really know what to make of the fox’s attempt at humour, but continued anyway. “It’s really” James tried to get the sentence out, “you see” he tried again. The fox had turned and continued walking.
“Go on James, I’m listening” James continued to stutter.
“Well it’s about this listening and talking thing really” James finally got it out, “and, well the fact is” he paused, “the fact is, I’ve never met a fox who could talk, or listen for that matter.”
“You’ve been deprived, haven’t you” Derrick said, “but come on, are you saying you’ve never met a fox?”
“Not one that can talk”
“But we all talk” Derrick said, stopping and turning to face his companion, “maybe you just weren’t listening?”
“But I don’t speak fox”
“We all speak English son” the fox continued at a brisker pace.
“This is part of the problem really” Derrick started to talk as if he had something important to say.
“What do you mean?”
“Well we never really get a good grasp on our meaning.” The fox continued, “if I’m say, trying it on with a vixen you know, and I’m turning on the charm I’m saying one thing, for example “would you like to come and spend some time on my street corner, or even have a look at the Badger set I’ve been crashing in recently” but what I’m really saying is that I would like to get said vixen in a series of compromising positions while whispering sweet nothings in her ear.” The fox paused and turned round to face James. “It’s language. The fact is that we just don’t use it well enough to communicate our desires. The chances are that if I expressed my honest desires to said vixen she might well say yes, of course and while we’re at it may I say what a lovely bush you have their Derrick. Well to be honest she’s more likely to give me a good slap or take a bite out of me arse, but there we go. Where was I? Yeah, language. I mean I’m not saying that what you don’t understand you pass over in silence, but the world is a big old place and there’s more than just you and me in it, so you need to figure out a way of communicating. Now this evening I said hello first and you immediately thought it was another bloke. You answered back and we started to communicate, albeit with a few ums and ers. I used to think that language was a precise thing, that you had to be very clear with the way you expressed yourself. But to be honest, today, I reckon if you give it a bit of effort, the right message gets out in the end.
“Er right” James said. Not really knowing what the fox had been talking about. They continued down the road.
“Hang on” Derrick stopped, James waited for another nugget of rapid fire wisdom from the diminutive creature. “we should be going right here”.
The road looked very much like the last road they had been on. The yellow lighting gave the wet road a sickly feel. Like a jaundiced skin the greens and yellows that bounced off the reflective surfaces of the roads and the windows created an oppressive atmosphere. James found it rather hard to walk and slowed his pace considerably.
“What was I yakking about” Derrick asked.
“Language” James replied.
“Oh yeah, don’t listen to me, I harp on all the time about that. I guess I’m just in favour of passion taking over precision. Now perspectives are my pet topic. Take us for example and your assumption about me. You thought I was a bloke and so were happy to engage me in conversation. There’s not many out there who have tried and for the most part when they have the fox who’s being talked to simply responds with a bit of a growl or a screech, usually the screech as they’re bloody terrified. Have you ever seen a fox hunt? Not pretty if you’re on the receiving end of one of those I can tell you. But you my friend, you are in a prime position to think very carefully about this quandary. You have been living a lie. All your life you thought, when it comes to foxes, they were animals. But, the cloud has been lifted. Your ability to reason had told you. Right James, now these things called foxes, their small, nasty, smell bad and they eat your rubbish, if I were you son I’d avoid them. But the truth of the matter is that your preconceptions, no hang on, your very conception of what is real and what is not real were all cocked.”
“So you’re saying my brain has been playing a trick on me?” James asked, “that all this time I’ve been thinking about foxes, my brain has been telling me things that weren’t true?”
“No” Derrick paused, a thoughtful fox he seemed to want to express himself clearly, despite his earlier protestations to the contrary. “I reckon your perception has been blighted by society, by your upbringing, by your education and by the very habits you’ve developed over the past however many years you’ve been around, how long do you monkeys live anyway?”
“Not long enough” James replied. “So you’re saying that it’s all been one big conspiracy?”
“Conspiracy?” the fox laughed out loud, “come on son, it’s hardly going to be in the planet’s best interests to keep you in the dark on the specifics of communication vis a vis the fox population of
Think of it more a problem of the human, and indeed the fox condition. We can
never know, I mean really know, if the world around us is real, if everything
is happening as we believe and perceive it to be, or not.”
“I don’t get it”
“Well James” the fox turned and stopped, they had passed through the rather sickly green of the street and taken another right onto an avenue lined with tall poplar trees and the kind of park benches you find in parks in
Greying wood and painted steel work. Derrick jumped onto one of the benches so
he could look James a little closer in the eye. “the point here is that you can
necver really know anything for certain. You can start with the whole how do I
know that I’m not dreaming thing and then you wake upand you’re not certain if
what you just experienced was a dream or what you are now experiencing is a
dream and so on and so on. I mean that wouldn’t work because you always end up
knowing if you’re in a dream. Don’t you?”
“I hadn’t thought of that.” James paused and Derrick bit him, “ow! What did you do that for?”
“Sorry” Derrick grinned, “you were about to ask if this was a dream.”
James shook his hand as if he had cramp.
“Fine” he stepped back from the fox, “I’m not dreaming”
“So the point was” Derrick paused again, “the point was, you can never really know if the choices you make are right or wrong, because the information you use to make those judgements is fundamentally flawed.”
“That’s a little pessimistic isn’t it?” James asked.
“Not at all” the fox replied, “it’s beautifully chaotic. I wouldn’t let it bother you too much though, you’ll end up waking at five every morning wondering if you’re dreaming or you really did move to Sweden.”
The pair walked on. The street was not one that James recognised and he hadn’t been able to see a street sign for a long time. The avenues were getting wider though and he recognised the Georgian architecture as quintessentially Scottish.
“So where are we going?”
“To see someone who should know how to get you home.” The fox replied. Although he does tend to go on a little bit. We may even get a bit of a feed out of this. Depends what mood he’s in.
They rounded a corner, the fox now moving at quite a pace. The smell then hit James’ nose.
“What is that?” he cried.
“You only just getting that?” Derrick seemed astonished, “I had that smell back at the bins.
It was a glorious sensation. James felt every piece of fried food he had ever tried float in front of his nose. The air was full of sausage and burgers, but there was more to it than that, he could smell chicken and venison, he could smell onions being fried and tea being brewed. It was the greatest burger van ever and yet he hadn’t even seen it yet.
“There we are” Derrick pointed with his nose to the distant stall. “
of the smartest bears I know, if he doesn’t know how to get you home, he’ll
know who will.”
“Excellent” said James, anxious to see more of the stall and it’s wares. “Just one thing though Derrick.”