Foxes, angels, and a pandemic

There was a message from a neighbour on my phone late last night. She wanted me to know a fox had attacked her tabby in their back garden. 

‘Please spread it round the neighbourhood,’ she said. ‘With the lockdown in place, the foxes are getting bold and hungry.’ She sounded urgent. ‘You might want to keep your cats inside at night.’

What a message, first thing on Sunday morning. 

When I was a young woman during the first few weeks of meeting the man, who was to become my husband, we went one weekend to Mansfield and stayed in a shack on his uncle’s property, Emu Vale.

Shearers occupied the place during the wool clip. Otherwise, it was left empty and open. We were welcome to use it in the offseason.

I did not take my husband-to-be literally when he described the place as a hut. Instead, I imagined something rustic and poky, perhaps with charm. Certainly not the sheep dung filled, dirt floor without beds or wardrobes, without chairs or chest of drawers that it was.

In one room there was the wireframe of what was once a bed with a hole in the middle of the meshing. In the main area, a rough bench made of a carved-out tree trunk and a table covered in bird shit were the only pieces you could describe as furniture. 

My husband-to-be had told me we’d need sleeping bags.

Fair enough, they wouldn’t have blankets, but he said nothing about the absence of mattresses. So, we slept on the floor in front of the fire.

Too late, I realised my mistake in bringing clean clothes, makeup and flared trousers. I needed instead flat shoes and old clothes to match the decor. 

My husband-to-be had spent many months in his childhood at Emu Vale when his mother was in hospital for prolonged periods having her last child.

He knew the place with a childhood certainty, the certainty of small boys who recognise every inch of the land, every hidden gully, every fallen tree, every lone dugout. 

He knew where the foxes hung out and took me out early that first morning. He had a gun and a licence to shoot vermin. We were out to catch rabbits, but he warned me, we might even catch a fox.

The story has passed down the generations. The joke that I made too much noise stepping on twigs as we crept along.

‘Shh,’ my soon-to-be husband said as we tiptoed down a hill. ‘The rabbits will hear us coming.’ He was ahead, stopped and turned towards me. ‘Can’t you do something about those pants?’ He glared  with his shot gun titled skywards. ‘Hold onto them. Stop them squishing.’

There was a line of weather-beaten fox pelts on a barb wire fence nearby. They were grey with the weather, a mark of triumph for the farmer who had shot them and a tragedy for the fox families who’d lost a member. 

The layers of silk material in my flares refused to be silent, despite my best efforts. And I hung back fearful to go on. These were the first cross words my husband-to-be had ever uttered to me.

Not the last, but they stayed. A type of mismatch between his expectations and mine.

On future trips over the next few years, I dressed appropriately and never again saw a fox in Mansfield, though that day walking with my soon-to-be husband, his gun over his shoulder, I caught sight of an orange red flash. At twilight against the setting sun on our way home. 

‘Look over there,’ my against a husband-to-be said. 

At the base of the hill, near a wire fence that separated one enclosure from another, two eyes above the pointy snout and wide tail of a fox, looked up towards us, far enough in the distance to cause the fox no panic.

Almost as soon as it had appeared it was out of sight. 

I do not like to think there is a fox lurking in our back garden at night or that it might attack our cats. There is a good share of possums around. But possums live above the ground and out of reach. They are no substitute for our two elderly, short-sighted and hard of hearing cats.

To think there might be murder and mayhem in my back garden is a sobering thought first thing on a Sunday morning when the rest of the world still sleeps. 

I miss Mansfield. Its green slopes, my sense whenever we visit, that the man whom I married lived here for long periods as a small boy. That his ancestor, Big Red O’Brien from County Cork in Ireland worked on this land, tilled its soil, built a house in the place where Emu Vale now stands.

He fought off the wild blackberries that threatened to take over his vegetable crop if left too long unattended and killed many foxes.  

The sense of my husband’s ancestors, a haunting presence, filled me with quiet awe whenever we camped by the willows on the banks of the Delatite all those years ago when our children were babies and I no longer objected to sleeping rough on the hard ground under flimsy canvas tents. When the crisp cold mornings of the early spring or boiling hot days of summer fed a return to the land that once thrilled me.

The Delatite


I am happy now to re-imagine Mansfield, especially during lockdown, when trips to the country are out of the question.

I am not a traveller. I prefer the closeness of home, the certainty of my own bed and pillow, but when I leave home, usually on someone else’s urging or for a conference, or writing event that cannot be enjoyed close to home, I zing with the thrill of adventure like others who love to travel.

It’s an ancestral feel, as if the skies are full of the thick beating wings of all the angel ancestors who came before us to guide us on our journey to new places. To watch over us while we travel into new territories, to applaud us when we succeed and weep heavy tears when we fail.

I have loved this sense of my ancestors; in the same way I loved my guardian angel as a child. The one that stood behind me slightly to my right, behind my shoulder, hovering there and ready to steer me away from danger, or from sin, or from anything else that would have been too much to bear. My guardian angel was like a caring parent who looked after me exclusively in the absence of others. 

While those foxes out there in the world – even as I love them from Roald Dahl’s imagination; even though in my children’s stories, foxes are benign, apart from the one in a red jacket that threatens Jemima Puddle Duck, a sinister fox if ever there was one – those foxes in my back garden need to be flushed out and kept away from our domesticated animals, the ones we have tamed. 

We do not want wildlife in our safe spaces, otherwise heaven help us. Even in the quiet of a Covid lockdown. When the foxes take advantage of our absence on the streets at night. And sneak into our gardens to murder and eat our unsuspecting pets. And not only are our fellow humans at risk, but our protected spaces might go back to how they once were. And not a typical biosphere of native plants and animals but one taken over by those introduced species like foxes who do not belong here. 

Go away, I say to the foxes and to the virus. Go away and leave us alone. 

Next in line

10 August, 2014.

The last time I saw my mother, she was two hours dead. Already going cold and the waxen look of her skin, bloodless, as it pooled below.

She would have hated this. This absence of control over her physical appearance. She could no longer control the smile on her face or the gleam in her blue eyes. 

My mother had always prided herself on her skin and basked in compliments about her youthful appearance, even in her seventies, eighties and nineties. As if the absence of wrinkles from her cheeks, gave her something to hold onto in her otherwise crumbling life.

And this well after all the troubles of her children’s childhoods had ended and my mother entered the third phase of her life with a second husband and a happiness she forgot existed while married to my father.

The last time I saw my mother, I pleaded with her. ‘Wake up, Mum. You can’t stay asleep. Not now, not forever.’ I said to her and woke the small child within me, the one who could not bear to live in a world without my mother.

The adult in me was sanguine. I had long anticipated this moment. I planned to give her eulogy. I had told her as much. That I would like to speak at her funeral. 

What did she make of that? When I told her, I wanted to speak at her funeral. Did she sense my wish to have the last word? To catch up with her at last. She who was always thirty-three years ahead of me. She who believed she had found the true meaning of life in her religion and all my irreligiosity and delving into the world of the human psyche was a waste of time.

I should have stuck with God. She never told me as much. Not beyond those times when I first embarked on my psychoanalytical journey, and she accused me of giving up one religion for another, did we discuss my preferred perspective. 

For ever after, I chose not to inflict my ideas on my mother but marvelled at the way she could talk to me about her conversations with God, about her confidence in the power of prayer, as if I shared her beliefs. As if I knew what she was talking about because I shared those views.

Only I did not. She knew this, I suspect, but did not want to know.

The last time I saw my mother, I was alone with her, for a short time before my siblings began to arrive one after the other. And in those few moments alone with my mother I sensed something I had longed for all my childhood, to have my mother all to myself. 

As if it was ever possible. As if we ever get our mothers all to ourselves. And yet the desire sticks with me given the fact I spent so many years caught up with having to share.

The last time I saw my mother in Bethlehem, not in Jerusalem but in Melbourne Australia in a hospice for the dying, I felt the relief that comes at that final full stop placed on a person’s life. 

A sense it was over at last, and whatever was left of my mother existed only in memory or in the smell that lingered in her clothes as we loaded them from the cupboard in Park Glen where she had lived the final fifteen years of her life. 

The lingering smell of my mother still in the air as we cleared out the small room, she occupied most days until she fell ill, when they shipped her off to hospital. A few stray tissues around her wastepaper basket by her chair. 

In life, my mother’s hay fever gave her a chronically wet nose. I have developed this affliction in the past several years, much as she developed hay fever in her forties. A wet nose like a dog. And tissues on hand to stop the drips that take the place of tears. 

My mother rarely cried in my presence even in those final years, except one time after she had heard of her sister’s death in Holland. A sister six years younger. A sister she had long criticised because this sister lost her connection to God. 

This sister smoked cigarettes and drank Cinzano neat. This sister who my favourite aunt stayed behind in Holland when all her siblings deserted her parents for Australia or the Belgian Congo in search of future and a better life. My mother wept for this sister. And for her father and mother, as well as three of her brothers, also gone.

The last time I saw my mother, I knew my turn would be next.