The Man Who Fed The Foxes: free to read
I got older today. As a little gift to folks, below is my short story The Man Who Fed The Foxes for your enjoyment which can be found in my collection Broken on the Inside or here if you are in the US.
The man who fed the foxes
by Phil Sloman
Paul Wilson sat alert on the decking, peering into the gloom. Even if the sun had been high in the sky rather than cresting the horizon, as it currently was, there wouldn’t be much to see. An overgrown garden in need of an industrial lawnmower and a team of willing volunteers. At the end stood a broken greenhouse, barely five years old yet virtually forgotten, the glass fractured and smeared the colour of pond scum by a colony of algae. A couple of abandoned compost bins nestled beside it, like giant salt and pepper shakers, overflowing and surrounded by flowering weeds. His borders, which had been so immaculate in a former life, flourishing with begonias, tulips and carefully cultivated roses, were now clogged with bindweed, nettles and dandelions. His lawn had once been his pride and joy, manicured to the millimetre, but that was in the past when his friends used to joke you could have played crown green bowls on it. Not that his friends visited any more.
Paul was a mimicry of his garden; shabby, unkempt, in need of attention. A scarecrow man, broken and forgotten. His shirt, stained with last night’s dinner, was fraying at the seams, struggling to contain his middle aged spread, his jeans more holes than fabric, the denim pale and faded. His hair used to be a uniform short back and sides but now hung lankly in a mix of browns and greys against his shoulders, blending with his beard which claimed home to the yellowed, crusted yolk from that morning’s fried egg sandwich.
Not that any of it mattered much in the great scheme of things. If nature wanted to claim his garden then let her, it had been hers to begin with anyway. And as for his friends. Well, if they didn’t want him then he certainly didn’t want them and that suited him fine. Just fine. He had other things to occupy his time.
Paul dragged his blanket closer, warding off the chill as the summer air cooled around him, the tartan pattern ruffling as he struggled to get comfortable. Cheap plastic creaked and cracked in protest, the chair complaining beneath his weight, but it held, ready to see out another night.
On the lawn, less than ten feet away, a haze of flies were squabbling around the meat. They did so most nights. He always placed it there, never nearer, never further, carefully positioned as to be far enough from the decking but close enough to give him a clear view. The cloud of insects performed a little dance; fly, land, suck and twirl, fly, land, suck and twirl, repeated like a miniature troop of Morris men performing for the crowds. Except there was only Paul who watched on, struggling to keep track of their flights in the worsening light. The offering wasn’t for them but it didn’t matter. There was plenty more meat to be had.
Next to the meat was a bowl of milk, curdled in the heat of the day, a viscous skin crusting its surface. The letters D O G were embossed on the brown glazed ceramic, though it had been years since they had owned any pets. The bowl had belonged to Shandy, a canine substitute for the children they never had, not that they would have ever admitted such a thing to themselves. Shandy had been gone for nearly a decade - they never said dead, always gone - and Paul couldn’t bring himself to get a replacement. It seemed such a callous act of betrayal. She had asked Paul a hundred times to throw the bowl out and threatened on more than one occasion to do it herself. She had said that about a lot of things but he always ignored her, always loathe to throw anything away, a hoarder then and a hoarder still, but the one thing he hadn’t been able to keep hold of was her.
So now he sat here alone of an evening, every evening, watching and waiting for the foxes to come. But none came that night.
The last ‘friend’ to visit was Rachel Gladstone, all full of concern and nosiness. That had been six months ago, long before the foxes.
He jumped, it had been so long since anyone had rung his doorbell. Paul waited. Whoever it was might go away. He was comfortably cocooned in his living room, nursing a glass of cheap rioja, soothing the world away. He had sat in the exact same way for several weeks now, huddled into his armchair for hours on end. There was routine to his life, a routine he liked. Get up, wash (optional), throw on some clothes and face the trials and tribulations of the day all delivered through his television set. Now and again he might be as bold as to attempt a jigsaw. Something classic depicting battles from the Napoleonic era, officers in blood stained uniforms barking out orders whilst grand explosions ballooned in the background. He enjoyed the banality of it all. The simplicity. There were no grey areas, no ambiguity. Either the piece fitted or it did not. And when the last piece was down he could settle back with his wine for company.
Sit and wait them out. There was his answer. No one could be that concerned about him. Probably one of those Jehovah’s come to spread the good word. There had been enough good words from friends in the past months; not one of them changed anything, not one of them stopped the tears from soaking his pillow every night. He took another sip of wine, enjoying the numbing feeling creeping across his forehead. Out of the corner of his eye he saw something twitch. A silhouette at the window.
Bugger. He should have hidden. Perhaps slunk behind the sofa out of sight. Maybe they hadn’t seen him. It was dark in here and they could mistake him for a pile of dirty laundry abandoned for later.
Tap, tap, tap.
The sound of knuckles rapping against his windowpanes. And waving. There was waving now, definitely in his direction.
“Paul, Paul, yoo-hoo, it’s Rachel.” The words were muffled as they came through the glass, like someone shouting through a towel.
He inwardly shuddered. Rachel. Rachel Gladstone. Rachel bloody Gladstone.
A local snoop with nothing better in her life than to live through the lives of others. She reminded him of a parasite, a bloated leech which kept sucking and sucking until it eventually fell off. But she never did. This was the third time she had visited since Amelia had gone. He knew from past experience he would have to let her in. The tenacious bloody leech.
“My God, you look terrible.” Those were the first words from her mouth as he opened the door.
Rachel bloody Gladstone. As delicate as ever. He was inclined to slam the door in her puffy little face right there and then but he knew it would cause more aggravation in the long run. Get more people poking their nose in where it wasn’t wanted. He smiled sweetly and stood aside.
“How lovely to see you, Rachel,” (lie), “Won’t you come in?”
She didn’t wait for a second invitation, shoving her way past him, her sensible shoes trailing mud across the threshold from the soil beneath his front window. In her hand was a hessian bag, the word Waitrose emblazoned on the side to show the world what a good person she was, one who thought about the environment by not needlessly wasting plastic carriers. It sagged in the middle like its owner.
“Now, I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve brought you some…..oh.”
Paul knew what had stopped her mid-sentence, he could smell the snobbery wafting off her in waves. He could hear the sound of the cogs whirring in her elitist skull full of its airs and graces, judging the disarray which was his house. He shut the door and followed her into the living room.
“Some what, Rachel?” He kept his tone flat, not caring what she had brought with her. He wanted her in and out, and anything which sped that up was fine by him.
“Some, um,” she stepped over a pair of discarded pizza boxes and shuffled towards the armchair. That had been Amelia’s chair when she lived here. It wasn’t anymore. Now it housed a mountain of circulars, fallen through the letterbox and dumped there unopened, a nest of false promises to improve one’s life. One day Paul would get around to throwing them away. One day.
“Some…?” ventured Paul. He picked up his abandoned wine glass and filled it, disinclined to offer Rachel any.
“Some dinner.” She dipped into her bag, flourishing a Tupperware container filled with something which resembled a casserole or stew. Her gaze fell back to the pizza boxes. “Though I see you seem to be looking after yourself…,” she sucked at her teeth, searching for the right word, “…admirably.”
That wrinkle of the nose as she finished her sentence. He had forgotten about the wrinkle. God, how he hated the wrinkle. Paul sipped his wine, draining a third of the glass before it left his lips.
“Thank you, very kind. If you could leave it on the side.”
Oh God, she’s perching. She’s actually bloody perching.
The Tupperware disappeared back into the bag as she cleared a space on the arm of the sofa, sending an avalanche of junk mail crashing to the floor. She ignored this and carried on; after all, it wasn’t as if she was making the place anymore untidy then it already was.
Paul took another swig of his wine and topped up his glass.
“Paul, I’m worried about you. You haven’t been the same since, um, you know, since Amelia.”
How would you bloody well know what I was like in the first place? Stupid woman.
He simply stared.
“And, well, I said to myself, Rachel I said, you need to go round there and let that poor man know he’s not alone. Show him he has someone to talk to.”
Someone to leech off him, you mean.
Another sip. Just a small one.
“So, Paul, how long has it been since, since….Amelia and him?”
There it was. There was the rub. This was the blood money she wanted for her homemade casserole. To hear about him. Her. Them.
“I’d rather not talk about it.”
Him had been his one-time best friend, or so he had thought at the time. Rhys Davis. God, he wished to this day he had never set eyes on him. Paul had met Rhys at The Griffin’s pub quiz. Rhys, new to the area, had sauntered over, asking if he could join Paul and Amelia at their table.
“Room for one more?” was how he had phrased it with his oh so easy-going Welsh tones.
Paul hadn’t been keen but Amelia had insisted. To Paul’s surprise they had hit it off, especially when Rhys got the round in, and before long Rhys became a regular feature round their house, popping round to help with the DIY and Paul would return the favour, helping Rhys with his garden.
Amelia had welcomed the new friendship, saying it was good to see Paul smiling again. Things were good. Amelia was more ‘friendly’ than she had been in years, she had even stopped nagging him about his ‘ways’ as she called them, the hoarding and the clutter; unfinished puzzles covering any vacant surface in the house. Things were good indeed.
Paul had come home early one evening. He had been at the garden centre for more fertiliser to feed the tomatoes in the greenhouse. Last year’s batch had been a poor show and he was determined to give the current crop a fighting chance. He had caught Rhys and Amelia en flagrante; that was the term the foreigners used, wasn’t it. His best friend and his wife of thirty years playing ‘hide the proverbial sausage’ in their marital bed.
There had been words, plenty of words, though he couldn’t remember many of them. He had blacked out from the stress. He had always been bad at confrontations. Even as a child he would shy away from arguments, quick to anger and quick to flee, running away to hide in the corner until the red mist cleared and the bad words faded into the ether. When he came to with dried tears tracks streaked across his cheeks, there was no sign of the pair of them and Amelia’s clothes were gone. For the first few days he stayed at home, waiting patiently for Amelia to tell him she had made a mistake, for her to settle her slight frame down on the sofa and beg for his forgiveness (and he knew he would give it). He busied himself with the garden, potting on his tomatoes, keeping the lawn trim, even tidying away the clutter ready for her return. But she never came back. He tried phoning her mobile with no success. Always to voicemail. Then one day he received a text out of the blue saying to forget about her and that was that. Nothing more.
As word spread across the neighbourhood, he realised he had been the last to know about the affair. Those friends of his who dared to show their faces all used phrases like ‘I half suspected as much,’ or ‘it was inevitable in the end, really.’ So he hid away like he had in his childhood. Giving up on his garden and his friends. And no one came to visit him anymore, which he liked. Until today.
“I think you should, Paul. I think you should talk about it. It will be helpful, don’t you think?”
“No. No I don’t think it would.” He surprised himself by speaking out loud. If Rachel heard the anger in his words she ignored it.
“Paul,” she murmured, that tone of mock concern stretched over two syllables. The sofa arm creaked as she rose, reaching over to put her arm on his wrist, the touch of a leech sensing sustenance. “Paul, sit down and let’s talk about things.”
He flinched, flinging her arm away from him, sending an arc of Rioja flying across the room. Deep red seeped into the carpet, flourishing like the bastard child of Rorschach’s nightmares. Its twin was spawning over Rachel’s outfit, blossoming in her pastel ensemble.
“Now look what you’ve made me do,” he mumbled, turning from her anger. He grabbed for the bottle, desperate to refill his glass and find some small grain of solace from what was left of his afternoon. If he didn’t look at her perhaps she would leave.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing!” There it was. The veneer dropped, no more sympathy and concern; the monster revealed. He imagined Rachel’s face twisting in rage as she spouted behind him, the eyes scrunching into wrinkle encircled raisins, exaggerating her crow’s feet. He could hear her lipstick fracture as her lips thinned, the sound of a crème Brule’s crust cracking. He could imagine flakes of red Estee Lauder Pure Colour falling on to her collar mixed with spittle and rage.
The bottle felt comforting, the familiar feel of the thin neck in his hand, grabbed perhaps a little more tightly than normal. His glass, where was his glass? Dropped when she had touched him. Look for the glass, not at her, keep your eyes on the floor, away from the leech. Oh for some salt!
“I said, what the hell do you think you’re doing!”
A hand on his shoulder. Oh God, why did she have to put a hand on his shoulder? Surely she knew he didn’t want to be touched. Wasn’t that clear? He tensed up. His muscles tightened. His jaw pulsing as his teeth gritted. He gripped the bottle a little tighter still, his knuckles whitening as he spun to face the seething harridan.
Her face was as he imagined, all bile and hate, yet still the countenance of a victim as if it wasn’t her who had come to his house unbidden, nosing into his business. He knew there were going to be more words. Words he didn’t want to hear. He would do anything not to hear those words. He shifted his weight, readying himself for the onslaught.
And that was when the blackness took him.
When he came to, he was alone, face down like a murder victim in the centre of his wine stained carpet, the empty bottle lying by his side.
No one visited him again. Or no one human. He had become persona non grata which suited him fine.
He couldn’t remember exactly when the foxes started visiting or when he started to feed them for that matter. He was no stranger to the foxes, or their nocturnal sounds to be more precise, listening to their lust filled exertions, screeching like fire branded owls as they rutted into the small hours of the night. From time to time he would see a snout poking from the tangle of weeds, sniffing the air, slinking away as soon as they caught his scent. It was like that for months, an occasional sighting followed by a flash of orange and white before the tail disappeared from view. The last thing he expected was for one to brazenly present itself to him.
It had been another night spent in the embrace of his good friend Jack Daniels, waiting for the booze to drag him off to Never Neverland, or whatever place would have him; he was far too old to be a Lost Boy anymore. Caught halfway between sleep and consciousness, he half fancied he saw a flickering of activity in the long grass around his compost bins. Not that they had seen any use in the days since then. It had been his plan to make his own compost to feed his soon to be prize winning tomatoes; trips to buy fertiliser only carried bitter memories for him. But the plan never grew much beyond conception leaving the bins to stand as further testament to his failures in life as his tomatoes withered and died.
The movement flickered again, more definite this time, a parting of the grasses and nettles between the bins. It was the snout he saw first, a red furred cone sporting a shock of white on the underside and tipped with a shiny black button. His initial inclination had been to throw his empty bottle of Jack in its general direction. On a rarer, soberer night he might have made the effort. Maybe. But tonight was a familiar one where the ‘buzz’ had claimed him, easing him into the role of witness rather than participant.
Eyes, ears and a neck came next followed by a mangy body, the fur matted in patches against the thin frame, blackened in spots with faeces. Two more heads emerged from either side, squeezing into the space between the composters; Cerberus reborn.
Paul watched impotently as the trio stalked forth, leaving a trail of flattened grass in their wake. They paused momentarily amongst the sprawl of grasses, sniffing at a handful of pizza crusts he had thrown out for the birds into the centre of his lawn.
‘Scavengers,’ thought Paul, sighing internally ‘blooming scavengers. At least you’re more honest than some. Well, come take what you want, you’re welcome to whatever you can find.’
They ignored the off-casts, slinking onwards towards Paul. And then they stopped, dropping their rears and sitting upright. Three narrow heads staring back at him from barely six feet away.
For a while that was all they did. Sitting and staring, man and foxes, waiting as the moon rose higher. And then the world changed for Paul forever.
“We know what happened.” It was the middle fox who spoke first, the mange-ridden cur, not that the other two looked any healthier.
Paul stared at them, mouth open, waiting for his brain to catch up with the scene. Surely someone would remind him of his lines any time now. The bottle of Jack dropped from his hand, shattering against the floor, a sticky sea of molasses weeping across the patio, bleeding into the cracks, but he didn’t care. There was only one thing in his world right now.
“We want to help. We can bring her back,” said the one on the left.
“Who?” The word was stuttered, almost scared to be spoken in case the illusion were flung aside to reveal the Great Oz behind the curtain.
“Your bitch. The one you lost.” The right one now.
“You, you can’t. S-s-she left me…she’s gone.”
“We know.” Mangy turned to its brethren. Paul couldn’t tell if it was for reassurance or validation. “We will bring her back.”
“She’s gone,” Paul repeated, his voice close to cracking as he fought the madness seeping into his mind, trying to cling to the one thing he knew for certain. “She’s, she’s gone.”
“We will bring her back,” they said as a trio, yipping in unison.
And with that they were gone, turning with a flourish, leaving Paul to watch them weave their way beyond the greenhouse and out into the bushes framing the end of his garden. A final flash of white fur and then they were out of sight.
Clouds trailed lazily across the face of the moon as Paul tried to reconcile what had happened. It was the booze, it had to be the booze. Or a mental breakdown. He had been told it was possible after the experience he had been through. Those were the most plausible explanations. A good night’s sleep and things would be clearer in the morning. Hell, he might be asleep now. He pinched two ragged fingernails into his forearm.
“Shit,” said Paul to no one in particular, shaking the pain out of his arm, looking at the white crescents forming there. “Not asleep then.”
The chair groaned under his weight as he pushed himself out, ready to begin the trudge up to bed. He would clean up the broken bottle in the morning and get a ‘fresh’ one from his supply under the stairs. It was only as he was rising he noticed the gleam in the grass.
Paul lurched from his chair, a mixture of alcohol and tiredness, shambling his underwhelming physique across the patio as his blanket fell away. He let his legs guide him, only to fall down into the grass where the foxes had spoken. This was where he had seen it. A small rectangular trinket lying amongst the flattened stems, no bigger than a man’s palm, catching the broken beams of the full moon. Kneeling, he reached out, his hand trembling as his fingers curled around Amelia’s phone.
The foxes became regular, though unpredictable, visitors over the following months. One week they would come every day, other times Paul would sit outside, waiting for them, come rain or shine, only to be disappointed when they failed to appear. He was fairly sure they had built themselves an earth at the back of his garden, beyond the slanting shadow of the greenhouse. It was tempting to go exploring, to have a poke around in amongst the weeds to find their bolt hole except they had an unspoken agreement. A gentleman fox’s agreement as it were. The patio and the house behind it were his, the garden theirs. He provided them with food, good food, not scraps, and they provided Amelia.
When not waiting on the patio, he would occupy himself inside. He had a new hobby. A twist on an old favourite. He was building a jigsaw. A life-sized one in his living room. A two hundred and six piece construction. This one didn’t come in a box, or not one he was aware of. And the only picture he had to go from was stashed in the attic with his wedding photos.
So the foxes brought Paul his pieces. Sometimes the pieces were large, other times they were of such a size that Paul had to feel his way amongst the grass with his fingertips to find their offering.
If, in his more sober hours, he had broken his gentleman’s agreement he would have found the box, or rather boxes, the pieces came in, two flat topped pyramids at the end of his garden which some might say resembled salt and pepper shakers, bought to provide food for his precious tomatoes. But he didn’t and he flourished in his ignorance.
And if his neighbours were ever so inclined as to glance across in the dead of the night they might see a blanketed man crawling on all fours across his lawn. The Rachel Gladstones of this world might have seen such a man disappear into the darkness where the nettles and dandelions clustered around the greenhouse and the composters. None the wiser, they would see him crawl back to his chair, pausing to hide something in the grass, nibbling at the raw meat he had left out which you couldn’t find in any butchers local or otherwise, before slumping into his chair and passing out. The Rachel Gladstones of the world would have seen all that if Rachel Gladstone was anywhere to be found.
As it was, Paul Wilson sat night after night, feeding the foxes as they brought his Amelia back home to him.