It’s late, past midnight, and I’m walking home full of good food, good chatter. Champagne has loosened my limbs, and I smile up at a star-strewn sky. Stevie has long since gone to bed, and I take out the dogs, bank up the fire. I slip into bed, press my cold feet to Stevie’s shins, sleep.
I’m woken barely two hours later, by a sound that catapults me instantly out of bed. I’m out of our room, down the stairs before my eyes are even open, and I fly through the house, wrench open the conservatory doors, run out into the night. I’m barefoot and wearing daisy-print knickers.
The hen house is twelve feet from the back door, and I see immediately that the fox is still in there. I run back inside, snatch on my wellies, shout the dogs. My black anorak is on a chair, and I yank it on as I get outside.
The noise is fearful: Whitey with her shrill alarm, Sandy smashing hopelessly against the wire mesh of the fence; terrified. The fox is a black blur within, panicking now, knowing I’m there and I’ve got dogs and a rage so murderous I could rip it apart with my bare hands. I’ve got to open the gate, got to. Sandy is most definitely still alive, and I can’t risk the fox going for her: this I rationalise after. In the moment, the mad, blood-crazed moment, I just want to get that fox.
Kill it – my voice comes from my boots; raw, guttural. Kill it. I smash open the gate, the dogs dive into the coop, the fox dives out. I strike it a glancing, pathetic blow with my welly, then Dora streaks between my feet, sets off in pursuit. Pants gets confused, and tries to grab a hen.
‘Leave it!’ I shout. ‘Bloody leave it-‘
He drops a bird, legs it after Dora. I leap out of the coop, senselessly clash the gate close, then I hold onto it because my legs are shaking so much. Whitey is a ghostly bundle of feathers in the corner; I can’t see Sandy anywhere. I press my face to the gate, and I’m sobbing, saying oh no, oh no. I’m sorry, so sorry; over and over. The guilt is like a hook around my guts.
I hadn’t shut their hatch.
Stevie comes out, with a stout stick and a torch. He pulls me into his arms, briefly. ‘Are they dead?’
They’re not; not yet, anyway. There are feathers everywhere. Sandy was badly injured last time the fox got in, on Christmas Eve. Then, it broke Josephine’s neck, flayed her back to the white of her spine. We had to kill her on Christmas morning. Sandy had had deep bite marks just above her saddle, but she survived.
We go to Whitey, huddled in a corner of the coop. The torch shows Sandy behind her, and both hens are covered in blood. I pick them up, put them in the laying box, one after the other. I can’t see if Sandy’s wounded, but she’s already in shock. Whitey has a very obvious injury; deep bites across her saddle, as Sandy had at Christmas. Neither bird puts up any resistance.
We barricade them in, wedging lengths of two-by-four across the nesting box, a brick and a pallet across the guillotine-door of the hatch. We work quietly, grimly, suddenly remembering our neighbours. The dogs are out running in the darkness; crazed by the night-scents.
Stevie runs the torch around the coop. We can’t see how it got in. The doubled-up mesh is secure, the tough nylon mesh that starts around five foot is un-holed. But then I see. ‘Look.’ The roof of the coop is covered in the same heavy-duty nylon mesh. It’s eight-foot from the ground. A large hole has been gnawed, almost in the middle. For a moment, we’re both silent. Stevie flicks the torch around the perimeter, but we’re right. It got in through the top net.
There’s no more that we can do now, not in the freezing dark, so we whistle the dogs. Stevie stands on the plinth by the French doors, and the light from the new kitchen illuminates him. For a moment I’m cheered: he’s wearing wellies, a wax jacket and has bare legs. He catches my eye. ‘In,’ he says.
I don’t go back to sleep. At first I prowl around the house, wrapped in a red dressing gown. I stare out of windows, my eyes burning with effort. I know it’s out there. I know it will come back. I fantasise about it climbing back in, through the torn net, landing lightly on the hen house, its claws barely clicking. Then it being trapped. There for me to find in the morning.
The sodium street light out the front of our house illuminates the chestnut tree, the chain-link fence bordering the cricket. That’s where he’s run to; I see fox poo often enough out there. Every filthy pile gives me bubbles of blackness: I hate that fox on a level within me that’s ancient, primeval.
I think about the fox’s right to hunt. He’s wild, conscienceless; he kills to eat. He’s innocent when tried in a court of morality.
I think all of these things, and rationally, agree. It was my fault for not doubly-protecting my birds. Birds that don’t even lay any more, and haven’t for over a year. No one could blame a fox for being a fox.
Except I know, that come morning, if that fox comes back, and becomes trapped in my coop, such thoughts won’t be in my head. I’ll have a garden fork in my hand; a spade, an axe, a damn butter knife if I have to.
And this time, it won’t get out of the gate. Not alive, anyway.
NB: Both hens are still alive. As for the fox: I can wait.