A Fox Problem
And now for something a little different…. the problem with the pit…
‘Morning Mr Cartwright. You being bothered by foxes again? We heard two gunshots from over your way late last night.’
‘Did you now? Er, yes, that’s right, damn nuisance – nearly got at my poultry.’
‘But you look cheerful today. What can I do for you?’
‘I’ve just popped in to tell you that I won’t be collecting my mother-in-law’s pension any more.’
‘Oh, dear – she’s not…?
‘No, no. The wife’s inherited a fair bit of cash and she and her mother have left. They’re off looking to buy a place down south – somewhere like Eastbourne. “Something elegant and suitable for our new status” she reckons. Then they’re going on a cruise. I’ll send the pension book on when they’ve got a permanent address. She can manage easily without it now anyway.’
‘Oh, dear. I am sorry.’
‘Well, it’s all for the best really. What they call these days a ‘closure’ I believe. No, I’m not complaining. I’ve still got a fair bit left from when I sold the farm – she didn’t get her hands on everything.’
‘So you’re just on your own then? How will you manage?
‘Me? I’ll be alright, I’m well house trained, don’t worry.’
‘My sister would be glad to help, so she would. She’s always been fond of you, you know, since you were at school together.’
‘Aye, a fine woman she is, I have great respect for her, but we’ll be more than happy on our own, just me and old Bess here… It’ll be grand, won’t it Bess? Be like one long holiday at last. No more of that fancy muck – steak and kidney pud whenever we want it. And I’ll be able to smoke me pipe in the house and listen to me old jazz records, and take an interest in the garden again without being told what to do, and you can sleep in the bedroom like you used to in the old days. No, we’ll get along fine…’
* * *
‘What’s the matter Bess? You’re not missing them are you? Think of the peace you’ve got now, no more on and on about your breath and your farts. What did they expect? You’re fifteen, for heaven’s sake, for a collie that’s getting on a bit. What are you whining for? Do
you want to go out? We’ve just been down the pub – you should be alright… Something out there is there? Let’s see…’
It was a lowering autumn night but in the intermittent light of a tattered moon behind ragged scudding clouds he could see the garden fairly well.
There was the patio she had insisted on, and the decking under which doubtless lay lost god knows what that couldn’t be got at, and the over-ornamental pots, and the patch of expensive professionally sown and mown bowling green trim lawn with her mother’s twee bijou arbour in the corner. Beyond the lawn the garden degenerated into untended beds of overgrown perennials, his neglected vegetable patch, the small hen house, and rough grass ridden with weeds. Rusting old implements, broken plant pots, and remnants of abandoned machinery were piled up amongst the straggling trees and nettles against the ramshackle fence at one side and against the remaining bits of lichen stained loose stone wall on the other.
And squatting next to the old ivy clutched shed there was the bulging compost heap more like a midden. The ground at this end of the garden was sour, damp, poorly drained, and easy to dig. And in one place recently dug.
Even from behind the window, in the log fire warmth of the room, he shivered.
‘No, no, Bess. The garden’s empty. There’s nothing out there, just the wind. Settle down now.’
‘More whining tonight, eh? Bugger – you’re right. There is something out there, moving about down the bottom by the shed, right above my pit. Aye, right where I’ve buried that trash from the past. There must be foxes about– I’ll give them both barrels as well. No, you stay here. You can’t chase things like you used to – you know that, what with your arthritis. Good girl, just wait here.’
Lets see… Whatever it was has gone. Lots of disturbance though – where I dug the pit it’s all churned up. Best tidy it up tomorrow a bit sharpish. I’ll shovel the compost heap on top of it, aye that’s what I’ll do. Christ! What in hell’s that?’
A great black, solitary, crow, squatting on a branch right above his head, had suddenly shrieked. ‘Kaark!, Kaark!’ it mocked him, ‘Kaark! it went again.
‘Piss off, you shitehawk!’ shouted Cartwright. ‘Bloody know-all. Piss off!
* * *
‘What’s the matter tonight Bess? It’s only the wind, nothing else. Why are you so agitated girl? Don’t keep jumping up at the window, you’ll only hurt yourself… Alright, I’ll look – not much moonlight tonight… But you’re right – something is there again, down by the shed. Like a hump – no, two humps, moving about in the compost I heaped on the pit this morning. No, best stay here. Where’s my stick…? I’ll take the torch as well.’
Let’s see… Lots more disturbance. Could have been badgers I suppose. But I’ve never seen a sett in the wood. And there are no snuffle holes, no sign of digging for grubs or worms. Plenty of flies though, and all that slime on top of the turned compost. And the stench – I hate this, it’s almost as though the foul heap is alive… Don’t be a bloody fool, it can’t be. Anyway, I’m going to have to make a proper job of covering this place… Oh, my God…’
The edge of the heap had started to move.
Half rotted leaves stirred, seemed to twitch, and then rise a little before tumbling down at his feet. There was a rustling sound. Near the ground the heap began to bulge, there was an obscene swelling as layers of decayed peelings, discarded eggshells, and grub ridden grass cuttings rose… and then fell – all around where he stood.
And then the scabby rat emerged.
‘Bastard!’ shrieked Cartwright, slashing at the creature as it scuttled away, ‘You rotten little bastard!’
* * *
‘Harry? It’s Jim. Yeah, keeping well, pretty well. Nights a bit disturbed by old Bess’s whining. She’s unsettled, not yet used to it – just being the two of us I expect. Lonely? Good God no! Blessed peace now, and I can do what like. Listen, I’m taking up carpentry again – I‘m going to take down that old shed and build a proper sized workshop in its place. I’ll need to have a good solid base right across the bottom of the garden to keep the rats and anything else out. No, thanks, I can do it meself – I’ll get a lot of pleasure covering up that bit of ground with good thick concrete. I’ll need plenty of sand and cement and a fair bit of hard core… Yes, I’ll let you know how much when I’ve worked it out. Oh, and could I have a loan of one of your cement mixers? Ta, that’s great.
* * *
‘Your post, Jim. Have they got an address yet?’
‘Er, no, just staying at hotels. I’m sending stuff on until they’re somewhere permanent.’
‘Enjoying themselves, are they?’
‘No idea. I know I am.’
‘No business of mine, Jim, but it must be a bit painful for you – getting letters for your wife and mother-in-law still.’
‘Doesn’t bother me, I’m well shot of ‘em.’
‘Glad you can smile. Tell you what – I could bring you a redirection form…’
‘Look – I’ll get one when I need one, alright?’
‘Fair enough. Just trying to help – you look a bit peaky. Are you sleeping alright?’
‘Well, not too good as it happens. Going back over all the years y’know, all the wasted years. The truth’s an uncomfortable bedfellow, until you get used to it. And old Bess’s taking to whining – bloody nuisance just when you’ve just got off.’
‘What’s she barking at now?’
‘I expect she’ll be down by the compost heap again. Can’t seem to leave it alone. Badgers keep digging in it in the night I reckon. Best get her in…’
* * *
‘Now then Bess, let’s sort out these workshop plans… What? Someone coming to the door? Sod it! Can’t get a bit of peace – soon see them off…’
‘Oh my gawd! You! It can’t be…’
‘It bloody is. Not pleased to see me then Jim? Got a fancy woman in already, have you? ‘But you’re both…’
‘In Eastbourne? No we’re not. We’re alive and kicking back here. Don’t worry, I’ve not come back for nowt. What I needed I took with me. I told you to get shot of the rest and I meant it. Don’t expect you’ve got round to it yet though? Too much bother was it? Idle bugger, always was and always will be. No, this is just a flying visit to sort out some details with the bank. I’ll give that snooty manager a piece of my mind he won’t forget when I see him. Mother? She’s in the limo – we get chauffeur driven everywhere now. Raise a few eyebrows in this dump, that will, won’t it? Anyway, she’s fretting about her pension book. I tell her it’s not worth worrying about any more but she can’t abide the idea of you drawing her money, so there’d best be nothing missing. Well, look sharp – go and get it. Don’t just stand there gawping. Anyone would think you’d seen a ghost…’
Author of Dangerous Chimes, read more about Michael Macauley over here.