I button the skin down the front of my chest. I don’t think I have much to lose now, to be honest, but still I do it. Button myself in and run my palms over my breasts and buttocks, smoothing out creases.
If I decided not to bother then it would only confirm what everyone’s been saying. And someone would nab a quick photo on their phone and it’d be over – all the speculation, all the half-truths. But I’m scared. So I tuck the fur under the web of skin – I slide the little pearl buttons through the carefully stitched holes. I make sure it’s all neat and then I dress. It’s well-tailored. I’ve had to have three new suits made in the last year – it’s cost a small fortune – but the weight has been falling off and you don’t want things baggy.
It’s the stress, of course. The first whisperings ‘fur, brush… no, I swear… saw her with her muzzle out…’ started to come back to my ears months ago. And then there was that night. So now it’s getting silly, the effort I spend slipping skin over myself. And what they haven’t noticed yet, none of them, is not just that I’m a fox. It’s that I’m a dog fox. No fucking vixen, me.
I had to nudge it out of a pool of piss in Brill’s Lane. But I was ravenous and the little pat of meat was still warm – its scent lifting out of the stench of human urea that was hot with bacteria and alcohol. He’d have dropped it when he was fumbling about with clothes. They are messy animals. It’s the drugs that have them eating and eliminating all over the place. At the weekend I watch them down alleys – the little pills and nonsense. And the endless alcohol. They drink that from glass and it gets smashed all over. Cut paws, cubs sick from chewing on condoms, and, in amongst it all, food. Disgusting.
Brill’s Lane is always a good bet. My mother told me, the last time I saw her, that I was conceived in Brill’s Lane. So I take that as an omen and always check it out. It’s tucked back, just behind the coast road there, and it’s sheltered. It’s where they go to fuck too, of course, when they’re not dropping their food in their waste.
You might think that I’d have found a time before now to make things clear. But when you’re raised in human skin it’s not easy to identify the moment when you should slip out of it and declare your vulpine identity. If you do it too young you’re likely to find yourself shaved, parts removed, and a lifetime on drugs to keep things stable. If you leave it too late then you just get stuck in the pretence. And nothing makes a worse mess than a sudden revelation – someone catching you dragging the chicken carcass out of the bin with your teeth.
But here I am, really quite an old dog now, having to decide how to manage things. On the nights when I don’t go out I get woken by vixen cries in the darkness. I find myself following scents inappropriately, sniffing up behind someone in the bus queue. And the urge to bark, just bark, comes over me in staff meetings. I keep hoping it’ll wear off. Surely, if I’m come this far…
When I’d eaten I took the little alleys from East Street – jumping, sniffing, running. It’s so good. The dark wraps my body and I stretch out the cramps and aches of human life. There’s a forest of smells – a dark, dense world of scent. Small mammals move in the ivy on garden walls, birds are startled into the sky by my approach. My fox body is still strong. My instinct untouched by all that civilisation. And sometimes, some nights, I dance on the very edges of the human world and still feel free of it all. I watch the faces of people I know coming out of the cinema, slurring their way home from the pub, and if I feel any empathy it’s purely mammalian, nothing species-specific.
So that’s what shocked me tonight. I’d taken the underpass to the beach. The beach in the grey moments before the sun rises, it has tranquillity, it promises me that it will stay constant until I come back. I watch the gulls, I sit still and let the sea breeze ripple through my fur. There are sometimes people there but they are usually sleeping, or too drunk to notice me. I knew she wasn’t sleeping. I knew she wasn’t drunk – any more – though she had the smell of alcohol around her. There was the smell of vomit too. There was the smell of youth and sweat and the end of fear and some blood. And the smells were all fading as she cooled. I approached her from the side. I knew there was no life. I pushed my nose into her long hair and it smelled like shampoo – sweet and clean and chemical. And I yapped a little and I barked and I started to find sounds in my call that I didn’t know I had – never knew I had – and then some people coming down the steps saw me and they shouted and ran at me and I remembered they would just see a fox – a fox sniffing round a body. And I ran.
I wore a red jumper today – something in honour of my fur – and I stood far up the slope from the crematorium, in the trees. She was twenty. Misadventure. I think about her broken body and I imagine all the adventures she might have had. She was a human girl. She might have gone to the other side of the globe, sailed a ship, written a novel, lost her teeth in a fight in Bangkok. Anything. Life not lived hurts. It hurts us all. So I’m going to start leaving my skin unbuttoned at the neck. If you smell something different about me then I don’t care. I am snapping at my life now. I am letting the silk of my brush stroke around the legs of women on the bus. I am vulpes vulpes. Reynard. Kitsune. Mister Tod. I am a fox.