The sharp bark of the dog cut through the music from my iPhone late one Autumn night. I tugged the earphones loose and listened to the yelping and scratching that came from the other side of the pub's walled garden. For a moment I thought the frantic pooch might be upset with me. I stopped just where the wall meets the pavement. Just beyond the the lamplight, I saw the bristling back of a waist-high creature sway to and fro as it walked toward me. The dog tore at the stone as if his claws were pickaxes.
A well-fed, ruddy fox stopped and stared at me. His front half spilled out into the light; his haunches remained safe in the darkness.
"Hello Fox," I said. Thus, to the fox I revealed one of my more eccentric secrets - the occasional chat with animals. "Lovely evening".
No, I did not expect a reply. I said I was eccentric, not bonkers. I developed this conversational tendency when as a boy I was left alone with a menagerie of family animals. Those few times I fed the horses, they seemed to appreciate a kind - or stern - word in the morning. Of course my mother spoke with the horses or the dogs when caring for or training them and it always seemed to make sense. When I visit the magnificent red deer at Knowle Park in Sevenoaks I often have a quick word. I think the deer would prefer a block of salt, but they usually can spare a moment to chat before rejoining the herd.
I have had little practise reading the expression of foxes, so I couldn't say if the creature looked at me quizzically, contemptuously or simply pleading for a scrap of food. Since the fox remained calm, I felt him to be more friend than foe. The yapping of the dog bothered us both.
"Loud dog, eh? Well, hope you find some delicious scraps tonight. Night". The fox moved on into the darkness and I continued along the pavement toward my flat which really wasn't too terribly far away. I suppose I could have invited the fox over for a cup of tea and a bit of pre-Christmas panatone (the Marks and Spencer variety I bought quite randomly the other day and which I dislike - the large sugar cubes on top more suitable for submerging in coffee than atop a cake), but I usually don't host foxes in my sitting room.
I turned around and found the fox walking only a few paces behind me. Despite my inexperience with vulpine expressions, I think he smiled. Or leered. Perhaps it was a brave face at being turned away.
"Very sorry, Fox, but you really can't come over tonight. I'm just coming back from a screening and need to get some things done before bed".
Things, eh? The fox was unimpressed, but not entirely surprised.
"If you cross the road - carefully, Fox - and turn the corner there, you'll find a restaurant's rubbish bin. Surely something yummy awaits? Good evening Fox, hope to see you again".
He crossed the road with me and then branched off in the direction I suggested. The dog at the pub finally relaxed and did something doggy and quiet on the other side of the rock wall. I slid the gold key (difficult to tell the difference between the gold and silver keys at night) into the lock of my door and thought I really should make the fox a cup of tea and leave out a generous portion of that panatone.
The next morning, as I rushed into the darkness of the Fleet Road at 7am, I walked past that restaurant and the charming fox from last night trotted from out of the doorway at number 103 to greet me. We stood about two feet from each other, I wished him a very good morning and continued on to catch my train from Hampstead Heath station.