By: Dr E.W. Gordon
It’s November and the earliest snowfall for twenty years lays heavily on the ground. I’m busying myself with humdrum. I hate humdrum, digging the car out knowing full well it will be stuck within ten minutes, and as for defrosting cars…
I take a moment, lean on the shovel, and look around. The sky is crystal clear save for the odd gull braving the bite of the sub zero temperatures. I love it when the thermometer reading is prefixed with a minus sign, the whole world seems to fall into a beautiful silence as if even time itself has a freezing point. Looking around, I take in the scene as I slowly draw the cold crisp air into my lungs. There are some tracks darting across the garden, two lines of holes in the snow; at a glance you’d think nothing of them but my curiosity is roused. What could have made them? Some sort of biped, surely, but what?
I follow them a little, the snow is much shallower near the shelter of the house. Looking closely I can see a footprint similar to a dog. I’ve given up any pretence of humdrum, now I’m on the hunt. Nearing the wall there is an interesting indentation behind another clear icy print, I suspect this is the hind leg as it coiled down to propel my quarry onto the wall. Atop the wall there is one blurred print, perhaps it slipped, but more telling is the almost brush like sweep accompanying it. Is this where a bushy tail touched? Fresh snow is awesome; without moving I can follow the trail as it winds across the front of my neighbours house and down to the gate. Back in the public domain I can pick up my trail. There is more interference here, people have walked, cars have rolled, but worse than anything there have been dogs! As I stand, trying to make sense of it all, I can count al least six conflicting prints flowing in all directions. One set is clearly a dog as I can see the urine stains at every vertical object. Two others are far too big for my friend but that leaves at least three possibilities, I’ve not been tracking long and I’m by no means an expert – I am, however, persistent and observant, did I mention lucky too? I’m stood at the last known track, my eyes seemingly spinning round, as I scan, more in hope than expectation. Besides, town folk look at you funny if you stand around too long. I’m contemplating a brew when I spot a hopeful sign in the garden across the road. Virgin snow has exposed the much needed direction. Following these boreholes I begin to piece together an idea of the creature’s movements, it seems there is a definite route through the urban sprawl, using low walls for access, egress and cover. My own garden being the only exception to this fastidious need to always skirt the edges, perhaps I spooked it as I opened the door. Was this why it slipped? After all, the wall is only a foot high. I’ll never know the answer, but with each slip of data the chase is accelerated.
I set off down the lane. I have a hunch as to the destination now and it’s hard resisting the urge to charge off; after all, the thrill of this really is in the chase. Footprint here, a dusting of snow there, and of course that unerring need to skirt the edge of everything. The irony of a country being skirting not just walls and paths but of civilisation is not lost on me as I tread a very angular and circuitous route towards some land long abandoned and reclaimed by nature. At the lane end, clinging to a battered telegraph pole, two or three distinct hairs are snagged in a splinter, fuelling the suspicion that I’m tracking a wily foe.
This is trail end. The slushy mess is incomprehensible, there is nothing but puddles and murky ice. I’m disappointed. I really wanted a climax, not just a conclusion, but never the less it’s a nice day to be out and every hunt, no matter how stunted, helps hone my skill. The beach is only a short walk away so I meander towards it. The ground is crisp under foot as I wonder what the state of the tide is. Normally if it’s out you can smell seaweed on the air but today all aroma seems stunted in the face of the cold.
As I stroll along there’s a movement in the shadows, then from the alley like a dart my friend appears. He charges straight out, I don’t know who startled who. However I do know who was much more delicate on his toes. In my haste to turn around I’m scrabbling for grip as he sits on the pavement opposite and I swear he grins, goading me, baying me to play ‘catch me if you can’. It’s tricky moving slowly on ice and my progress towards him is laboured. I can get to within five feet of him but no closer, for every step I take he mirrors me to maintain the gap. Never once taking his eyes from me he dances upon the glacial surface with shifty, deliberate, bouncy steps, with such adroit movement I can’t help but smile as I struggle to stay up right. His front and back feet land cleanly in to the same tread hole which accounts for the distinctly biped tracks in my garden.
We stand looking at each other. In our own ways we both marvel at each other; he views me with suspicion, I simply with awe, for those few moments I lost all track of time, and only his heightened senses stopped our little foxtrot. A movement behind me has his ears pricked then three effortless bounds and he’s once more hidden in the shadows. I stand still just on the off chance and I’m rewarded, mere seconds later an inquisitive little head is peeping round the corner. It’s a fleeting glance and he’s gone again. He’s not the only wily fox on this sleepy lane though. I shuffle my feet, and deliberately brush across a hedge as I move back a distance. Next to the hedge a clean, un-snow-kissed snippet of tarmac affords me some silence as I press into the bushes. Willing my body to take on the shape of the hedge, I wait in silence. The clocks have stopped, my breathing slows and I gently direct my steamy breath into my jacket. I need total concealment. I wait until my limbs are aching in the cold, without movement and a steady flow of condensation down my front this takes scant minutes but this small discomfort is rewarded. With his head down on some scent or another foxy comes springing by. With the wind on his bushy tail he’s on me before he realises and has to adjust his footing past my boots, I even feel the delicate breeze in his wake across my cold nipped legs. He only just passes before he stops, eagerly nosing the air he looks around – his face full of surprise as he spots me, his coat flickers as he winces with the shock – but all too soon his senses are recovered and, as he charges up the lane, I like to think that on some level he for once was admiring me.