Short Fiction by Miranda Glass
Before my ex dumped me, I kissed a dead fox.
I was walking home from the pub, full of the itchiness you get when you know your life is a bit wrong and about to get a bit wronger. We had argued on the phone for the fifth consecutive night and I could see the end was on its way, I just didn’t want it yet. You know the feeling when you can’t bring yourself to leave bed for the toilet. My relationship was like that – a full bladder that needed to be emptied.
Merlot had been on special in the Crown. As a result, I was less-than-usually committed to road safety on the short walk to my flat; crossing not at the zebra but downwind, at the fox. I lifted my boot off the curb in preparation but instead of the plain black tarmac I expected to see, there it was, ginger fur now red and matted, its jaws wide open like it was laughing. I could see the fox’s paw was twisted, reaching towards the pavement in hope.
Before my boot mashed through the animal’s guts like it was potato, I thrust myself forward, landed palms-down in the road and rolled over. I found myself looking straight into the black of the fox’s eyes. Perhaps it was hypnosis or maybe the Merlot, but it came to me – maybe this fox was not yet dead, but saving its energy – lying mute, muscles slack, conserving every last drop of life until someone like me would walk by, someone who would notice it, someone who could save it.
I padded over to the fox on all fours. I lowered my fingers, pale as bones under the street light one-by-one onto the fox. I moved them through claggy fur to feel the still-warm body. Its eyes watched as if trying to place my face, like when you meet an old friend by chance on the Tube. It’s me. I told it. Yes. It’s me.
I leaned forward, put my ear to its mouth to listen for snatched breaths. Nothing. I listened some more, in case it was shy. There was no noise. Only the huh-huh of my chest as I started to weep. I cradled the limp skull, suddenly all too lifeless to me. It looked so helpless, so lost, I lowered my face and put my lips against its cheek. The rough fur scratched deep into my wine-stained lips.
Only a few hours later, my bruises singing and a head that felt like wood-shavings, I braved the February wind. Like every Saturday, I had to get the slow bus to Zone 4 to tutor a seventeen year-old in German, at her pristine home in Walthamstow. After the lesson, my boyfriend had informed me via text, we were going to talk.
Now, I was no expert in German myself, having last studied it over ten years beforehand, but back then I was so broke I would have said I could speak in tongues for twenty pounds an hour. I had a suspicion the girl knew I was incompetent, but I gave her an easy ride so she kept quiet. That said, she definitely wasn’t improving, and her mother was certainly not impressed. After every lesson she would grill me on how better to inspire her daughter.
As I perched on the edge of an expensive-looking and uncomfortable kitchen chair, she leaned across. She was very glamorous, highlights, tan skin. I think she was a lawyer. She argued like one, at any rate.
“If she doesn’t love the subject; she’ll never be any good,” she said, flicking her blow-dry over one shoulder.
Using all my power not to vomit, I repeated the lines they drilled into me in tutor training; learning a language is like learning to dance, at first it feels like you can hardly put one foot in front of the other, but if you keep listening to the music, one day, you stop thinking about the steps and just dance.
The mother didn’t get it. “Really though. You need to make her love the subject – make her love you.”
I said I would try, though I thought that true love was perhaps a little more nuanced than that, and if I was honest, the tactic wasn’t working on my boyfriend. The mother laughed but it was with her mouth closed. That was the last German lesson, as it turned out.
I departed, to meet my very-soon-to-be ex. In the cold open wilds of Finsbury Park, we sat on a bench and he asked me how I thought things were going between us.
“I kissed a dead fox.”
He looked at me like the mother had done – with confusion and mild disgust.
“Are you ok? You’re shivering.”
He really was very sweet about it.
“I just don’t think this is making either of us happy,” he said.
He gave me a tissue, and we sat in silence until I remembered how to work my feet and I limped home.
Time passed. The fox was long gone, as if evaporated but probably swept into a grey bucket by the Council. I couldn‘t forget the rough fur against my lips, the smell that lingered on my hands for days. Now and then, passing the crossing, I would catch a flash of orange in the corner of my eye but when I turned my head there was nothing.
Spring came, and summer and soon it was autumn. I dyed my hair the colour of dried leaves, rust and dead foxes and with flaming locks burned into the arms of anyone I fell at. Winter gave me sweaty basement-clubs and boys called Rich and Grant and Will and Ben who I clung to, not wanting to walk back alone. One night Will or was it Ben let me go and I crumpled into the road, right where the fox had been. When we got home, I bit him.
The new year brought new men. I met one guy between Stoke Newington and Dalston, no-man’s land, then populated by kebab shops and bankrupt haberdashers. There had been two parties but I’d gone in the wrong order. At the first there was an Irish lad with eyes like Gü puddings and arms you could cut your chin on, but he was talking to someone else when I left and I didn’t get his number. The second party never took off and by midnight it was over; I was unsatisfied, restless.
I stopped at the off-licence for the drink-that-comes-after-the-last and, emerging from the fluorescent light, I clocked a new man and his friend arguing. This stranger looked like all the others – quiff and Barbour jacket, somewhere-near-London accent and off-his-face drunk. We got talking. His friend took a call. I walked on, the man and his Barbour caught up. Asked me questions, made me laugh, made me think that when he pinned me up against the grey shutters of Nationwide, he was a good guy. Good enough to walk me home, at least.
“Come back to mine,” he said. “Come back to mine.”
I didn’t know his name, said I wasn’t going anywhere.
He told me his name. Asked me to go back to his again.
We’d walked from the main road, into the residential streets and up to the crossing near my house with the conversation going in circles. I took a swig from the can in the paper bag and though I didn’t dare turn my head, I felt the gaze of black eyes, pleading and feral from a few metres down the road. I could never look at that particular part of curb at this time of night. A taxi approached and I flagged it down.
“You’re paying the fare,” I said, like I meant business.
We hardly spoke in the cab. I memorised the route back to mine for the upcoming Walk of Shame, while he slurred his words in a way I hadn’t previously noticed.
“What was that?”
“I’m bad. A bad man. You don’t even know.”
He looked like a primary school teacher, in training. Still, there was metal in his voice. I am. A bad man.
By the time we got to his house I was starting to question whether my ‘consolation prize’ could console anything. But when he opened the door to a cosy, clean-smelling terrace, my only thought was that I might not have to sleep alone.
“We have to be quiet for my house mates.” He stage-whispered, locking the door behind us.
I didn’t get the tour. He ushered me towards the bedroom, and left me while he went to brush his teeth. I did the usual scan of the bookshelves (decent stock, classics and so on), bed (red sheets, should I be worried) and posters (shit, should I be worried?) – there, hanging above the bed – a wide open snout, bulging black eyes, matted fur… but it was a cat, snarling as though possessed.
“The Cat from Master and Margarita,” he snuck up behind me. “My favourite book.”
“You sleep with this staring at you every night?”
He didn’t reply, instead took off his trousers, removed his shirt and boxers to show himself, drooping. Full of beer but compensating with lust. He nudged me onto the bed. I rolled down my tights, he ripped them off and pushed my pink dress up over my stomach. I counted the days since the last bikini wax and found it to be too many, but at this stage he was unlikely to reconsider. I held his arms, strong, muscled. Surprisingly strong.
He growled as he rolled his fingers over my thighs, hips and under the waistband of my lucky polka-dot pants. I growled back. He let out a snarl as he pulled the polka-dots down and over my toes. Then, he pressed my legs apart and pinned me there for an instant, before lowering down, his tongue wet and poised. His technique was what you might use at the end of an ice-cream cone – flickering and desperate. I wriggled upwards on the bed. He held my legs softly, preventing me from moving, and brought his head down again, but this time with pursed lips like a tuba player. He pressed his lips against me and then blew out.
I told him it tickled.
“Turn around.” He said. I refused, but politely.
“Go on,” he said, crawled onto the bed, leaned over me.
I said no.
He pushed my shoulder. “Go on.”
I’m a bad man. What did that mean?
And I sat up, looked him in the eye, and barked “NO.” I did it again. “No.” And again. Then I sat up and pushed him away.
“That’s not what I wanted. I never asked for that.”
The haze that had been oozing around the room lifted and he came into focus. We looked each other straight in the eyes, in the dim light his looked black, endless, fox-like.
“OK,” he said. “Sorry.”
He rolled into the bed and got under the covers, perhaps expecting me to join him. I sprang up. Grabbed my pants, my dress, my shoes.
“Wait. Are you leaving?”
His head poked from the duvet. I explained I was. He said nothing for a second, and then, he started to cry.
“At least stay the night!”
I told him that would not work for me, sorry. He pulled the covers back over his head. I took my chance, closing the bedroom door behind me and reaching at the stained glass before I remembered I was double-locked in. I tiptoed back along the corridor and coaxed open the door, holding my breath. His was head was just visible from under the covers, hair clumped in spikes over the red pillow. He was out cold. I looked back to the desk; no sign of the keys. I inched over to the pile of clothes at the foot of the bed, tapped down the pockets. Nothing.
It was late and the bed was wide, soft-looking. It occurred to me that I could just lie down for a minute, for an hour or two. What difference would it make? By the following weekend I’d be in someone else’s bed, or they in mine. The following week I might barely remember. On it would go, until…
The man sighed in his sleep. A deep sigh like he wanted to suck up all the air in the room. I looked over and saw, on the nightstand, his wallet and adjacent, a bunch of keys.
I swung back up onto my feet, padded over to the side of the bed. The keys jingled sweetly as I lifted them, and I caught them, but he didn’t stir. Close-up I could see he was sleeping on his arm, his hand reaching out to the space next to him. As if in hope. I leant over him, keys in hand. Now so still, so peaceful.
I put my lips on the skin between his eyes and beard, leaving behind a red imprint from my lipstick as I pulled away.
The letter box snapped as I posted the keys. The birds were waking, the sun was nearly up. The sky was clear and I could smell the tang of green in the air.
I set off, head high. After twenty minutes I was back at the crossing. There, I stopped walking. I looked at the spot where the fox had been, but there was nothing special about it. And it occurred to me, for the first time; I couldn’t have saved that fox.
I took off my shoes. I didn’t want to walk anymore; so I danced home.