I first spotted the cub about a month ago. I know, I know, urban foxes are disease-carrying vermin (and they terrorize my cats), but it looked irresistibly dear, curled up into a glossy ball in the sunshine next to its scrawny Mum. They spent the afternoon dozing and nibbling fleas off each other, and I thought how sweet, and tried to work rather than watch.
Then it stood up. Or tried to. It's back legs were pitiable - two useless trailing stumps, from a birth defect, it looked like, or perhaps an early, fleeting, violent encounter with the wheel of a passing car. To watch the little thing try and walk broke my heart. It looked like a tiny wheelbarrow with no one to push it. I was so distraught I tweeted about it (a relatively rare event). I was certain that within days the cub would die or be killed, making horrible, handy carrion for big birds. Because London might be urban, but that makes it no less of a jungle for the wild animals that inhabit it. I consulted friends, mulled over cruel-to-be-kind issues and whether to call the RSPCA. In the end I did nothing.
But the cub and its Mum reappeared. And it had got the hang of walking! Somehow (those of you who are squeamish look away now) the trailing back legs had sort of... ardened into what I can only describe as 'support sticks'. Crucially, this meant that there was some balance and ballast for it to get around - wheelbarrow-style - very-nicely-thank-you. The pair took up daily residence on the back lawn. As time went by the cub's upper body strength grew visibly impressive, like the torso of a wheelchair user who lifts weights. The Mum remained scrawny (no hair on her tail - eek!) but was as attentive and protective as ever of her half-broken offspring. I got used to seeing them. I stopped worrying. I reported proudly to friends on the little creature's progress.
And then suddenly, a couple of days ago, they didn't come. A big burly fox was lying in their spot instead. It has been there ever since, lolling and snapping at flies, looking pleased with itself, looking like a bully. The sort of bully who would run a single mum and its handicapped offspring out of town. Or worse...
I know I'm I just a novelist, who makes up stories. And they are just foxes.
But then again, all lives are stories. Every existence, animal or human, has a beginning, a middle and an end. And in the process each creature will encounter tragedies, like mutilated legs, and joys, like sunshine and caring Mums.
The novelist's job is to notice and to write the stories down.