It was Saturday morning. Alison stood by the back door of Priory House, fuming with anger, close to tears. In the middle of the lawn was a tangle of feathers, red and brown, pale down and long display plumage. There had been a commotion during the night: a brief squawk fighting for attention through the hooting of the tawny owls. Now the source was obvious and, stupid as it seemed, this could only be another sign of Beulah’s growing dissolution. The pheasant, much-loved and so tame it had come to feed from her hand, was gone. The pompous, idiotic creature, that had survived at least one shooting season and probably more, had been snatched in the darkness by a roaming wild animal. The ridiculous venom of her rage worked its way into a loop of self-defeating frenzy. The bird had become part of her personal landscape, funny, alive, individual. And now all that was left was a pile of scattered feathers and a few traces of bloody tissue.
Miles came to the back door, looking a touch worse for wear from the night before in the pub. “Oh dear,” he said kindly. “You were rather fond of that old thing, weren’t you?”
She felt like kicking something. “Shit! Why now? It’s all part of the sodding mess, isn’t it?”
He tried to smile. “I don’t think you can blame Marjorie Tyler for the loss of your pet pheasant, love. Lots else besides, but not that.”
“All the same…” She leaned her head against his shoulder and wondered whether Miles had a point. It was just a question of waiting. For whatever would make them right, make Beulah right too.
“Tell you what,” he said brightly. “We’ll deal with it. Let me go get cleaned up first and then we’re off.”
“Deal with it?”
“It’s just a fox. And you gave me a nice, tight shotgun that’s just the job for Mr Renard.”
She stared at her husband as if he were a stranger. “Miles, it’s a wild animal. I hate the damn thing, but it doesn’t mean I want it killed. It belongs here.”
“Now there, my dear, you are wrong. That scruffy little monster has been hanging round the village for three weeks. I saw it with Barnesey last week when we were out popping pigeons.”
“Clay pigeons?” she asked cautiously.
It was too early in the morning for this kind of revelation. “Miles, I bought you that gun because I thought you needed a hobby. I didn’t think you’d go around killing things with it.”
He patted her on the shoulder, with a measure of open condescension. “Oh God. You are so innocent sometimes. This is the country. Things get killed. Pests in particular.”
It seemed deeply odd to her. She had never once thought that Miles was capable of such an act. “Well let’s leave the pigeons to one side. This is a fox. Four legs. Big, bright bushy tail. I hate the bastard thing, but no.”
He shook his head. “It doesn’t belong here. We saw it. It’s downright mangy. It’s a town fox. All the tree-huggers in Camden catch the blasted beasts, refuse to kill them, and drop them on our doorstep instead. They spread disease and pass it on to our native foxes. They’re deeply bad news.”
“A town fox? Are you having me on, Miles?”
He looked instantly serious. “Not at all. I wouldn’t dream of joking about anything with you at the moment. This thing’s a pest. I should have done something about it before. I know exactly where it hangs out.”
She hesitated and realised, immediately, she was lost.
“Look,” he said, “we’ll track it. When we find it, you decide. If it isn’t the mangy, scruffy beast I say, then we’ll let it go. I don’t want to go killing local foxes. Not without good reason anyway.”
“Track it? When did you become the great white hunter?”
For some reason that seemed to offend him. “I don’t spend all the time in the pub. We’ve been shooting almost weekly ever since April. I picked up a lot.”
“Obviously,” she replied. “You promise? Only if I say so?”
“Scout’s honour,” he said, crossing himself.
Fifteen minutes later, with the Purdey High Deco broken beneath his arm, they were walking down the garden, towards the copse that marked the boundary between Priory House and the raw, bare scarp that fell steeply away to the plain behind.
She looked at the gun. “Do you like it, Miles?”
“Like it? It’s beautiful. You’ve no idea how…” He stopped, unhooked the thing from beneath his arm, took a shell from his jacket, popped it in the breach, snapped the barrel shut and held it out for her. “Take it.”
Alison looked at the weapon and remembered why she’d picked it. The Purdey was a work of deadly art. Not a big, bulky masculine prop at all. Gingerly, she took the weapon from him and wondered at its lightness in her arms.
“Point the barrel away from us at all times, it’s loaded. Aim over the trees, out down the hill. When you feel ready, just squeeze the trigger. Don’t pull.”
“Miles,” she said, “this is ridiculous.” But the gun had a life of its own. When it was in her hands it seemed to move naturally to her shoulder, the twin barrels rose of their own volition until they pointed above the line of hawthorns at the bottom of the garden.
“Squeeze,” he said.
“Is this going to hurt?”
“Not at all.”
“But what about the fox? He’ll hear us.”
“Let me worry about that. Squeeze.”
Her index finger wound its way around the finely sculpted trigger. She pulled gently against the measured weight of the mechanism, backward, backwards. Then the air was rent by a loud explosion, the barrels jumped skywards and Alison felt a sudden sharp pain in her shoulder.
Miles was beaming at her. “That was good. Really. You didn’t jerk it at all. Most people do.”
She lowered the gun and handed it back to him. “That hurt, Miles. You should’ve told me.”
“Then you wouldn’t have done it.”
That much was true. “All the same…”
“All the same nothing. You could be a natural shot, you know.”
She rubbed her shoulder. “Bullshit… And anyway, I couldn’t kill anything. I’m not like you men.”
He was still beaming. “Really? What if that mangy old fox walked in front of you now? Feathers on his chin?”
She kept on rubbing and said nothing.
“What,” Miles continued, “if those murdering toerags who killed Granny Jukes were standing there? Grinning all over their faces, knowing they’ll probably be out of the detention centre and back on the streets by Christmas?”
“Now that,” she said firmly, “is ridiculous. A mangy fox is one thing.”
“And murdering toerags something else.” He broke the gun, ejected the smoking shell and put it in his pocket. “I suppose so. Let’s get him, shall we?”
They climbed over the fence at a gap in the rambling hawthorn hedge. The field behind was plain pasture with scrawny grass. Sometimes sheep grazed there. She could hear their low, baaing grunts from the kitchen. Today it was empty, just meagre upland meadow on a steep bank that pointed south west, out towards Romney Marsh and the distant, ugly outline of the power station. Thanks to the constant, still weather, the view was hazy and thick with pollution. On a clear day the bright, sparkling waters of the Channel formed the distant horizon, with France beyond. Today there was nothing much to be seen beyond the sprawling shape of Ham Street, the railway line cutting through the middle.
“This could take ages,” she said, suddenly starting to think a fox hunt was not a great idea. “And what if there’s someone around?”
“Give it an hour and we’ll see. As I said, I think I know where he hangs out. I’ll watch for any people but there’s no public footpath here. I’ve never seen anyone walking the dog or suchlike.”
She thought of Mitch and Harry, and the way they wandered through anyone’s garden, peered through any window they liked. “Right. As if people in Beulah really need public footpaths to tell them where to go…”
Miles gave her a withering glance. “Think positive. Trust me.”
She followed him to a thicket of low, half-starved blackthorn and they parked themselves on the dry ground. A scattering of shrivelled sheep droppings betrayed its former role as a windbreak for the flock. Alison wrinkled her nose in distaste.
“Shush,” Miles cautioned. “We need to get close if we’re going to get him with the shotgun. A rifle would be much better for the job.”
“Now you tell me…”
And so they waited, for almost fifty minutes, not speaking, just listening to the faint breeze and the very occasional burst of bird song. It was the height of summer and there was only one word to describe this bare patch of ground on the Downs: bleak. It was an adjective she never expected to apply to anywhere close to Beulah.
Finally, when she was wondering whether to prod Miles and persuade him to go, his body became stiff with anticipation and his face fixed itself on a point where the hill gave way to sky, some ten yards distant. There, like the tip of a tattered paintbrush, stood something orange and erect, moving slowly, jogging across their vision.
Miles passed her the gun. She looked at him. And hesitated.
He lifted the barrel and laid it gently in the vee of the misshapen bush that hid them from sight.
“Wait until I say,” Miles whispered.
She mouthed, “No.” And didn’t move.
Ahead of them, through the branches of the bush, the fox emerged. It was, she saw instantly, an intruder. Its fur was matted and revealed dun patches of bare skin. It limped along, head hunched towards the ground, eyes half open, adopting a sickly, furtive gait. She’d watched foxes before, many a time, out on Vipers Hill, on her long walks beyond the Minnis. The native creatures were magnificent, a fiery orange colour, tripping across the fields, free, wild animals, facing the dangerous day, wondering whether they would hunt or be hunted. This thing seemed to belong to a different species, a mongrel, half-breed lesser fox, a kind of vermin that spoiled the natural order.
Around its muzzle was fine down, pale and soft, stained with blood. A longer, reddish feather clung to its cheek. She felt the weapon come automatically to her shoulder, the trigger fall beneath her finger.
Miles, by her side, stared into her eyes, and she wondered what he expected to see there. Hesitation? Fear? She felt none. The fox was mangy. It did not belong. This was not a question of revenge for the dead, much-loved bird in the garden. It was a matter of symmetry, of equilibrium.
He scanned the scene once, out from the bush towards the creature approaching on a diagonal path and said, in a low voice, “Now.”
The gun roared, made the same, familiar pain in her shoulder. Something squealed. The two of them shot to their feet. She had to look. The animal was a heap of fur and blood on the short, spent grass, its head half removed, its interior parts a tangle of flesh and sinew exposed to the air. Overhead a crow squawked, hungry.
And — this wasn’t a dream — the dead fox was screaming, in a woman’s voice, shrill and loud. The sound came straight out of the bloody hole that was once its neck.
Alison blinked twice. Miles said, “Oh shit.”
A large, angry figure appeared over the lip of the hill, waving its fist. What looked like tiny spots of blood dappled Marjorie Tyler’s flapping cheeks. The huge woman raced over to them, only stopping when Miles took one pace forward to check her. Alison held the gun guiltily and found it was impossible not to smile.
Marjorie was not hurt, not seriously anyway. The pepper shot must have carried over the hill, caught her as light, lead rain, barely pricking the skin. She was lucky it didn’t hit an eye.
“You could have fucking killed me,” she shrieked, her voice high with rage, hands feeling at the damage to her face. “He’ll have to pick these fucking pieces out one by one.”
“Sorry,” Alison said flatly.
“It was an accident, Marjorie,” Miles intervened. “We were after the fox. You can see that. We didn’t know you were there.”
“We thought no-one was supposed to be there,” Alison added. “It is private property, after all.”
Marjorie Tyler raised a big, muscular fist. Alison burst out laughing, she couldn’t help it.
“Oh dear,” Miles groaned, taking another step between the two women. “Marjorie,” he said, “you seem a little distraught. Would you like me to drive you down to the surgery? Get someone to take a look at that?”
The big woman glowered at him but there was defeat in her face. “I can drive myself, thank you,” she spat at him. “You haven’t heard the last of this.”
She barged past, headed back towards the fence and the boundary with the common, public ground of the Minnis where she must have entered the field. Alison glanced at the dead fox. Beulah was better without it, she believed. Then she looked at the receding figure of Marjorie Tyler, raised the empty shotgun to her shoulder, aimed and said in a quiet voice, “Kapow.”
“Bad girl,” Miles said. “Bad, bad girl.”
(c) David Hewson 2012