An Interview with Padgett Powell

Every night at dusk, I would observe a fox making its way past my window, heading off to Old Finsbury Town Hall.

During the lockdown, St. John Street to King’s Cross Road was usually absent of people, who had presumably taken their daily hour of exercise earlier when it was still warm. When the night came, the streets belonged to the foxes.

I wasn’t certain how old she was, being new to London and not experienced with foxes. Her orange back was a mix of bright colour and grey hairs, not the result of mange as far as I could tell.

The last orange tufts were a vivid contrast to the coats of younger foxes, appearing like dusk before the colour fades. Even more noticeable was her slow gait, not the same assured step I had seen in other foxes.I kept my distance from her, around fourteen feet, as she strolled around town hall, went back down Skinner Street and walked past the Co-op.

I trailed her to Spa Fields park, where I was sure to lose her, since she had picked up her pace while crossing the street. When she reached the locked gate, she stopped and smelled a flowering bush.

Since the park closed at dusk, the fence was too tall for me to climb, plus there were police officers on patrol, now suspicious of people outside at night, so I decided to surrender my pursuit. I couldn’t think of a valid reason to give if I were caught.

My inability to comprehend the UK’s preoccupation with foxes has always baffled me. It appears to be a favourite pastime among country Tories and even city dwellers seem to have a negative view of them.

When I relocated to London, I was living in a temporary flat near the Royal Courts of Justice and the Seven Stars pub. One night, while I was strolling around the London School of Economics, a fox followed me, likely attracted to the smell of cooked chicken in my Waitrose bag.

Maintaining his courteous distance, he remained on the far side of the sidewalk. I was curious if it would be alright to offer him something to eat. I had just arrived from New York, feeling somewhat disoriented.

In my new home, anything seemed possible, including dining with a wild animal on the steps of the Royal Courts. As we passed the Seven Stars, where a few men were drinking, they were so startled that they almost dropped their glasses.

Thinking I had made a mistake, I jumped back. One of the men shook his head to show that I was not the source of the commotion and pointed towards the fox. By then, he had already sneaked through the fence that encircled the Courts.

Once I had fallen behind, my friend waited for me at Spa Fields. Eventually, I joined her and we started walking down a side street, heading for one of my favourite parts of the neighbourhood. The evening sky had transformed from a golden, pinkish hue to a dark blue and the streetlights had been switched on.

It was the most breathable air I had ever experienced in any of the places I had lived in, almost as good as the Alps; this was due to the lack of cars, jets and freighters in London. This thought filled me with a great deal of sorrow, as it highlighted how much more beautiful the world is without us. A rather unhappy success.

The fox decided to pass on the park and take a side street instead, leaving me behind and pondering her ideas on the lockdown. It struck me that animal intelligence is judged by the amount of risk they perceive in their environment, and this spring was not as much about the absence of people as it was about the lack of danger.

Although she had seen me trailing after her, she must have known that we were still there, just that most of the activities we do were not. The bustling city, with its various ways of endangering her, had come to a halt and seemed more like a reprieve than anything else.

There were fewer trucks on the roads, no drunken pub goers and no foxhunters. Her sense of time must have changed accordingly, and for me, the long days at home became one jumbled mess. I had made an effort to separate the hours – working from home, reading, writing, sleeping, talking on the phone – but they ended up blending together.

On the other hand, many people outside of the lockdown are still dying – in NHS hospitals, Operation Nightingale tents, and so on. It’s almost unimaginable. The only thing that seemed to remain clear-cut was the difference between those with ventilators and those without.

She came to my favourite house. It was much like the other homes on the street behind Spa Fields, with white walls, a coloured door, and a tree in the small patch of grass. What really drew my eye was the side that looks onto a narrow alley. Two concrete steps lead up to a vibrant green door, which is embedded in an alcove.

On the ground floor, there is only one window, but three empty spaces where other windows might have been–one to the left and two to the right. When I pass by the house in the dark, most of it is cloaked in darkness, except for the green door illuminated by a faint glimmer of light from a nearby streetlamp.

At that moment, a fox glanced up at the house and made a noise. It was a sound I had never heard before–tiny and higher pitched, more like a mouse than a small canine. I couldn’t help but to wonder if the creature was waiting for someone to throw out scraps.

Rene Magritte’s Empire of Light (1945-1967) series of late paintings of dimly lit mansions come to my mind whenever I look at the house by Spa Fields. In the Belgian artist’s works, a streetlamp casts light on a single door in the suburb.

The sky is blue with big clouds, but whether it’s dusk or morning is not clear since time’s linearity is an optical illusion according to Magritte’s painting. All the familiar objects–apples, hats, pipes and houses–are in a state of disarray, suggesting our reality is merely an illusion.

As I look closer, the painting’s strangeness intensifies, just like Magritte’s other Surrealist works. It’s neither too strange nor too ordinary, and I can’t help but ponder it, especially when I look at my favourite house in Islington.

Early on in the coronavirus pandemic, images of people kissing while wearing face masks circulated online. These memes were an imitation of the infamous painting The Lovers (1928) by Magritte, where a couple with their heads wrapped in white cloth lock lips.

Such “creative” adaptations in times of crisis can be deemed unoriginal, and the use of The Lovers in this case was a new low. Couples in lockdown seemed to suggest that the problem of the crisis was merely a lack of physical contact, when the reality was much more dire and complex – the breaking of a timeline and the world’s anxiety.

If any of Magritte’s paintings were appropriate to the current state of isolation and disorientation, it would be The Empire of Light, not The Lovers.Foxes are often thought of as cunning and deceptive. My own experience with one did not reflect that notion.

It was almost as if I were living a fairytale; the fox outsmarting me on my journey to a castle, or through a deep wood. Perhaps that wasn’t the case because I had no real destination I was going to, and so was of little interest to her. We simply strolled in circles through the neighbourhood, like a painting by Magritte.

The day would come and go, and yet the world kept spinning, never really changing.The fox pressed its paws against the side of the building and let out a cry to the night sky. There was no response from the window, not even a glimpse of bacon or chicken.

It was clear that this had happened before, and when no one showed up, the fox turned to me with a look of hope. Was I of no help? The shops had been closed for some time, and the lights in the house were not even on, suggesting that the occupants had gone somewhere else.

I took out my phone’s camera and snapped a picture, even though it seemed to be too late; the fox had already disappeared. It must have concluded that a better meal could be had elsewhere, and since I hadn’t even tried to call out for food, it had no need of my company.

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