The first time I saw a fox was a winter night in 2005, near my flat in Ladbroke Grove. Snow had just started to fall, frosting the tall hedges between the houses. The night had already acquired the muted stillness which is snow’s greatest gift to cities. It wasn’t long since I had moved to London; I remember being told there were thousands of foxes, but I thought it was some sort of urban myth. I crossed Portobello Road and continued south, towards Notting Hill Gate, when I saw a shape, silhouetted on the tobacco-coloured brick wall of the Colegio Espanol. It was blurred by the snow; at first glance I thought it was a dog. It turned into a side street; for an instant, the amber glow of a streetlight showed its gangly legs, its sharp muzzle. As quickly as it appeared, it was gone. I stood puzzled for a while. Foxes really lived in London.
It seemed like a paradox that foxes could live in a city of seven million people. London, however, is a city like no other; it is a city of commons and heaths, of parks as big as entire neighbourhoods. Foxes inhabit the grey area between wild and urban, between night and day. Present yet hidden, they show themselves in flashes. For years I did not see another fox. I felt them, though. Their presence, their traces were everywhere. I moved to Willesden Green, to a house with a small back garden. Their screams woke me up in the middle of the night. After the rain, I saw their tiny, rounded footprints in the mud. I put ribs of beef near the holes I believed were foxes’ dens. A few days later, I collected their chewed-up bones. I spent hours looking out the window, bored of my essays, determined I would see anther fox. All I saw were a pair of eyes near a hole in the back fence.
On the day I left London for good, I woke early. It was a chilly July morning, with a timid sun rising behind Victorian chimneys. Dawn slowly lit up my back garden; magpies scared flittering robins away, bumblebees danced around wilted daffodils. Three fox cubs entered carefully, tiptoeing along the back fence. Their fur was the colour of autumn. They had lost the fuzzy coat of when they are newly born, but their rounded jowls bore a faint trace of sharpness. Their paws were too big for their bodies; the cubs’ movements were still clumsy. They didn’t look stealthy and cunning, as I imagined a fox to be, but spoke of joy and bliss, of the light-heartedness of childhood.
I sat while my coffee got cold, my forehead pressed against the window. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I had tried to see a fox for years, and now three cubs played in the garden, wrestling one another, bounding, jumping; then falling over on a heap of leaves, tripping over fallen branches. A vixen sat behind the bushes, near a hole in the back fence; I could only see her big hazel eyes, a patch of cream-coloured fur around her mouth.
The foxes left when the city awoke. I went to catch my flight.