It’s a fine morning for a cycle. In times like this, with only a once a day opportunity for outdoor exercise, any weather is fine. The rain has cleared. It’s cloudy but dry, with little or no wind. And just as the conditions are quiet, so the roads will be too.
There’s a long stretch that cars often use on the commute journey, but which will these days be much quieter. It should literally be the road less travelled. A chance then to see some alternative scenery.
I negotiate a couple of small hills, wondering why inclines still tax my lungs despite being a regular feature of all my outings, and go round a bend that leads to the straight that stretches unbroken for a mile or more. Uneven hedges line each side, shielding access to rough grazings, but with gaps for gates big enough for tractors. I can hear water as it percolates from the fields and runs into the ditch at the side of the road. There’s the sound of a thrush voicing its pleasure high above in the branches of a copse of trees, whose leaves rustle gently. It pleases me to be here, listening to these hubbubs of nature that normally are drowned out by the noise of cars and lorries. I settle into the regular rhythm of legs pushing pedals and the swish of tyres as they scythe through the occasional puddle. The road stretches empty and inviting and flat before me.
I half turn in my saddle. I’m used to being overtaken by fitter and, in my defence, younger cyclists, who glide up behind then accelerate past. I raise a hand to wave. But there’s no-one there.
It happens sometimes that I’m so engrossed in my own thoughts that I imagine that the voice in my head has come from outside. I shrug and turn my attention back to the road.
“Not speaking then?”
The voice is gruff, deep, and coming from somewhere below me. I’m reluctant to trust the evidence of my own ears, so continue to stare ahead.
“You’re not being very polite.”
I look down. A fox is padding alongside.
“Where did you spring from?” I can’t think of anything else to say.
“I don’t spring, as you put it. I leave that to others, like cats. Or deer. There are a few in these parts. Friendly, as well. I came through the hedge.” The fox gives a nod of the head. “Mind if I join you for a bit?”
I’m finding it difficult to concentrate, so I stop. My feet are planted on the road. The fox inspects my shoes.
“Don’t often get the chance for a chat. This road is usually very busy. A wrong move and you’re history. I avoid it. Until now.” He sniffs my leggings. “Lucky I heard you a moment ago, puffing up that wee hill.”
I stare at him, taking in the bushiness of his tail, the rusty red coat, the stripes on his shoulders, the diffuse patterns on his spine. I can see that the fur on his head and lower legs is denser than the fur on the rest of his body. And it dawns on me that, for all their ubiquity, I’ve never properly looked at a fox.
“Those are my thermal windows you’re admiring, the thick layer. Handy for keeping warm.” I sense the pride in his voice.
“I didn’t think foxes felt the cold.” I realise I’m being drawn into a conversation.
“Dogs do, so why not foxes? We’re much the same after all.”
My feet are back on the pedals, I’m starting to move. The fox shakes himself and keeps pace with me. He gets a bit close.
“Mind my pedals.”
He looks up at me with a hint of disdain. “When you’ve avoided strangely dressed men on horseback making weird noises and intent on grievous bodily harm, a bicycle wheel is neither here nor there.”
“Surely not. It’s illegal to go hunting you now, has been for years.”
The fox shakes his head. His tail sweeps sideways. “It still happens, make no mistake. Not so obviously I grant you. You think you’re safe, but I’ve lost family. You people don’t care.”
Maybe he’s right. I’m trying to remember what I know about foxes. Words like sly and cunning and scavenging come to mind. Where did I learn that?
I see a car coming towards us. I steer closer to the side of the road. The fox moves to and fro on the verge. As the car approaches, the driver’s face takes on a scowl, and then he raises a fist and brandishes it in our direction.
I shake my head. “Don’t worry about him. Motorists and cyclists are not always tolerant roadfellows.”
The fox is not convinced. “There’s a lot you don’t know. He wouldn’t have done that if I had been a dog.”
We move on, the fox with his snout close to the ground. I ask if he’s got the scent of something.
“No. I’m thinking. About the people that don’t like to see us foxes roaming free. They think of us as a chance to make money. It’s our fur.” He moves more quickly, tail up, head set at a defiant angle.
I’ve heard of fox farms. I once saw a programme on television about them. I don’t like to think about it.
“You know,” he says finally, “I wouldn’t mind having the life of a dog. I am after all a dog fox.”
“You mean, like as in being a pet?” He must have seen me shake my head.
“You don’t think that’s possible? You want us foxes to wander the streets looking for food while pet dogs lead a life of ease and plenty?”
His tail is moving in wide semi circles. For the first time since the start of this encounter I feel anxious. Maybe I should up the speed and get away.
“No,” I reassure him, “it’s not that. It’s just, you’d need to give up your, your way of life, you couldn’t wander the fields at will“.
“Give up a life of struggle to get food, of avoiding traffic, of escaping lethal pursuers, oh yes, I could cope with that.”
I add, hastily, “I have heard of foxes being pets.” I hope he doesn’t ask for examples. Instead, he barks. “I have as well. Virtue signalling is what we in the vulpine world call it. Hypocrisy, in other words. Something unknown to us, but rife in your society.”
“Can’t quarrel with that”, I reply.
We’re getting to the end of the long straight stretch. I wonder what the fox will do now. I ask him, “what name should I call you?”
“Why do you ask? Is it important? I don’t know who you are, and I’ve no intention of finding out. Our paths have crossed, and insofar as it goes it’s been an interesting exchange.”
I look down at him. “So this is the parting of the ways then? Well, thank you for your company. I’ll not forget you in a hurry.”
“Yes. Maybe. But it‘s what you remember that counts.”
And with a final swish of his tale he darts through the hedge and disappears.
I stop and stretch my back. It’s stiff from looking down and pedalling slowly. What did he mean, I wonder. It’s not every day you have a blether with a fox.
I turn into a narrow road and follow it until it joins another, which I know well. It takes me along the foot of a low range of hills, with woods on one side and fences on the other. The sun has come out, and I settle into a regular leg- friendly rhythm, taking in the peaceful countryside. My thoughts stray. When you’re on your own for long periods of time, it’s easy to live an inner life. When did I last have a real conversation? When I was in the garden and folk passed on the street on the other side of the wall? Desultory at best. Imagination fills in the gaps. Reality recedes. The mind plays tricks. Is that what this morning’s been all about?
It happens very suddenly. I have to brake sharply. Three deer have broken from the cover of the trees and lope across the road in front of me. In one soaring motion they vault over the fence on the far side and land gracefully in a field. I am about to continue when I see that they have stopped, and are coming back, as a group, towards the fence. I’m sure they’re looking at me. In fact, with an upward nod of the head, and a pawing motion with their limbs, they’re beckoning me to come towards them. Now they’re leaning over the fence and staring at me. One of them opens his mouth.
I maybe say it out loud, but the word echoes in my head. “No!”
I speed homeward, my feet never touching the ground. I sigh with relief as I park my bike. It’s only later, when I go to wash off the accumulated mud that I see the traces of rusty red furon the nearside pedal.
Aye, I see now. It’s what you remember.
(In Nature’s Realm is the title of a tone poem by the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak. It’s the first part of a trilogy subtitled Nature, Life and Love.)