The night Archie was bitten by the fox, he and Albie were camping out in the back garden. The tent had been a bit of a find, an unexpected treasure prised from the bellows of the house.
Looking for Albie under the stairs, Archie found Dad’s old Vango instead; faded blue, mouldy --it was perfect. He hauled it outside and unfolded the canvas from its bag, like a scientist prising a geriatric butterfly from a cocoon. Setting it up, he forgot about Albie for a while.
But, before long, like a moth drawn to the light, Albie sloped outside.
“What’s thisth?" he lisped, tongue slipping into the gaps where new teeth were waiting to grow.
“Dad’s old tent."
Albie sat down heavily inside and picked at a scab on his knee. “It thinks."
Stinks. Archie smiled. “Not too bad. I quite like it. And don’t moan. I’m going to ask if we can sleep out." Albie shrugged, but reached out to stroke the rough, frayed canvas softly, making circles with his fingers.
Mum was at the kitchen table, staring at a clutch of thin, yellowing papers. A woman sang from the Bose CD player on the side in a reedy, disgruntled voice and Mum held a wine glass to her chest. Archie stood in the doorway.
“Can we sleep out tonight?"
Mum didn’ t look up. “In what?"
“I found Dad’s old tent."
“Oh." She wiped her eyes. Archie watched, frustrated. Outside, a blackbird chirruped, a brazenly cheerful sound that ripped through the stale air in the kitchen.
Mum’s flesh on her breasts and neck sagged as she leaned forwards over her ancient letter. She folded over the table like a shrivelled balloon, empty of air.
“What? Oh, yeah. Just don’ t make a noise. And if you’re out, you’re out. I don’t want to leave the back door open all night, in case you change your mind." Her eyes did not stray from her papers.
Archie turned back to the garden and found Albie now lying in the tent, curled up at the back, singing softly. When distracted, Albie looked a lot like Mum. He hummed to himself, the same little tune over and over.
“Are you boys sleeping in that?" a high-pitched voice trembled out behind them.
It was Mrs Price, their neighbour.
“Yes," Archie said, walking over to the hedge. “We’ll be quiet, don’t worry."
Mrs Price extended a bent, blotched finger, poking towards Albie’s crumpled form, just in sight.
“Will Jason be all right? With his . . . you know."
Archie sighed. “He’s called Albie, Mrs Price, remember? And he doesn’t have nightmares so much now."
“Mmm," and Mrs Price pursed up her thin lips so they became bloodless lines and lost all colour. “Well, Gary, just make sure he knows where to find you. Don’t leave him on his own."
“I’m Archie. You know that, Mrs Price."
Mrs Price shook her head. “Damn silly names for boys your age. You sound like you should own an allotment." She was about to turn away, back to her begonias, when she stopped. “And watch out for the foxes."
Mrs Price made a tutting noise. “Had your eyes closed all summer? There’s a den at the end of my garden. I think there’s a mother and at least two cubs. Haven’t they been into your bins?"
“Mum puts the bins out on Saturdays. We’ve been spending the weekends with my dad." Archie looked away.
Mrs Price nodded. “Of course. But you’ re not there this weekend though? Just be careful tonight. Foxes can turn vicious if they think someone’s invading their space."
Albie sat up when Archie knelt down in the entrance to the tent. His hair was peaked in sweaty clumps and Archie leaned over, smoothing it down.
“Did she thay yeth?" Albie squinted over towards the house, sniffing. A line of yellow pot plants had been pushed up against the wall beneath the kitchen window, and their scent was strong. Hayfever plagued him and he detested the flowers in the garden. Sometimes he deliberately aimed his football at the tulips and purple fuchsias circling the lawn.
“Yes." Archie looked at his brother carefully. “Will you be all right? You won’t be scared?"
Albie stuck out his chin. “I’ll be fine!" Then, a little timidly, “you’ll be sleeping out as well, won’t you?"
Archie smiled. “Course."
They spent the next few hours before bedtime making the tent comfortable. Archie fetched pillows and blankets from their room, and Albie’s nightlight and a pile of books. They read together, Albie tracing over the words with dirty fingers. Once finished, Albie stood the books on their sides around the entrance, making a little circle that they had to step over. He’d developed the habit at the start of the summer. Sometimes he pushed his toy cars underneath, turning the books into tunnels, but mostly he sat in the middle, surrounding by the bent stories.
Later, when Mum had drifted into the lounge and the kitchen was empty, Archie made them milk and sandwiches. He pushed the empty wine bottle to the side whilst buttering bread and opening the ham. They ate in the tent, munching quietly.
Mum came out briefly as darkness fell, tottering around her plants, splashing water into the pots. She had re-potted some during the week and liked to check them regularly. She waved over at the boys. “I’m going to bed now. I’ll leave the
back door unlocked but I don’t want you running in and out all night."
“All right." Archie watched her weave her way back inside. She closed the door noisily and the boys were in shadow.
Archie switched on the nightlight and they were hugged by the comforting yellow glow. Noises from the street wafted into the garden; a glass breaking, a slurry of early drinkers leaving the pub, the roar of a car. Suddenly small, Albie crept closer to Archie and found his hand under the blankets. They locked fingers and Archie squeezed his reassurance. They listened to the street sounds fade away and then Albie’s grip eased. For the first time in weeks, sleep had come easily for him, and without the twitch of nightmares. He leaned against his brother, his mouth open,limbs relaxing into heaviness. The steady calm of his breath seeped out like a tide, a rhythmic lull that tugged and loosened the knot under Archie’s heart.
Loosened, only. All day, at the frontiers of his thinking, at the tapered edges of the picture memories making up his consciousness, Archie had been aware of his father; now, as he sat in his father’s tent, thick with the mustiness of age and teenage adventures, Archie’s senses became overwhelmed. His dad seemed to sit beside him, around him, on him. The tent was a pyramid of memory, a Sphinx of the past; Archie could smell the cheap Marks and Spencer’s aftershave Dad used
after showering, the coffee and cigarettes on his breath, the talcum powder he used on his dry, narrow feet. To Archie, these were sad, lonely smells, confined to the outside, no longer part of the house. Instead, the vinegary whiff of old wine and the odour of beds slept in too long dominated his home and his father’s smells, the manly stains Dad carried through the air, were held only in fabric and canvas.
Last week, at Dad’s new flat, Dad called Archie by the name of his new girlfriend’s son. Zack. Strange, the power contained in one word. It was a mistake, a simple thing said when Dad needed him to pass the butter; but the pain Archie
felt at that moment was sharp and brilliant. It pierced through the day, through the ordinariness of eating breakfast, and blinded him with sorrow and boyish tears. He hadn’t wanted to visit this weekend. But, torturous as it was, Archie now welcomed the clarity of the sting; the memory of Dad’s stumble was a life raft, a floating marker in the wide sea ofMum’s silence and unspoken resentment. Archie held on to it when Mum’s distance became unbearable.
Blinking, he helped slide Albie down onto the blankets. The night air was cold, so he drew the covers over his brother’s leaden form. And then, at the side of the tent, Archie heard the soft pad of feet.
He looked around nervously. The back door was still closed and he could see the light on in Mum’s room. A ridiculous and tiny voice squeaked in his mind that it might be Dad, come to join them. But then he heard licking and crunching, and a red, pointed nose appeared at the tent opening.
Bright, black eyes squinted in -- it was a fox. Archie held his breath and body as still as possible. The fox was lean and poised, sleek fur pressed down against its body. A crust of bread hung from its jaws.
Behind, two more shapes appeared, smaller than the first. They stood on shaking legs, their hair standing up. One inched closer to the fox at the entrance to, snapping at the crust and swallowing it quickly. The biggest turned, licking down the fur of the cub.
Archie exhaled softly. Mrs Price’s foxes. They must have been drawn by the smell of the ham from the sandwiches, left on the grass. Archie had never seen a real one before, only pictures in the books Albie liked to read. The foxes stared at him intently, their muscles trembling on the edge of flight. They drew together, the smaller ones tucked into the sides of the mother and, in the gloom of the evening,
they looked to Archie like one unit, one animal.
Archie threaded his hand under the blanket to touch Albie’s foot. He wasn’t sure if he felt afraid but needed to reach his brother. The second he did so, though, Archie knew he had made a mistake. Albie moved, disturbed, and then his eyes opened. For a second or two, he didn’ t seem to see the foxes, and instead stared glassily out into the night. Then, with a gasp, he sat up.
“Hush!" Archie breathed. The mother fox had crept forward and was baring its teeth. A soft growl rumbled in its throat. Beside it, one of the cubs stumbled forward. “Don’t move."
But Albie paid no attention. Bright-eyed now and flush with excitement, he surged forwards on his knees. He held out a hand towards the smallest animal. “You’re a fox!"
As though watching from bottom of a deep pool, Archie saw the mother fox open its mouth wide and make for Albie’s fingers, which were curled out to stroke her cub’s fur. Quickly, as quickly as he could, Archie grabbed Albie’s arm and pulled him away, away from the red ball of hair he was so desperate to touch. Then he felt a set of blades around his own arm and he was shaken, shaken, shaken like a doll. He screamed, realising the mother fox had leapt forward, knocking her cub out of the way, and that she had bitten him. He stared down and screamed again, as the fox bit harder, her eyes wide and furious.
And then Albie shrieked, his childish shout high and fearful, and the boy stumbled from the tent onto the grass. Through tears, through his pain, Archie saw him stand in the middle of the lawn and heard him shout for their father -- over and over -- for him to come and save them.
But he can’t hear you, Archie thought. Dad lives with Zack now, he’s too far away.
At that moment he felt the fox loosen its grip, and the connection -- excruciating as it was - between animal and boy was broken. Archie looked down at his arm and saw the blood.
He heard Albie scream again and the smash of pot plants as he tried to rouse their mother. Mrs Price’s bedroom light went on next door. Then, mercifully, thankfully, Archie sank into a deep sea, lashed to a life raft by a bleeding, ravaged arm.