The summer I learned to lie

At dusk, I observed a fox moving beneath my window. Almost every night, she would slink along my street on her way to the Old Finsbury Town Hall.

During the lockdown in the evenings, the pleasant area of pubs and eateries from St. John Street to King’s Cross Road was usually free of Londoners, as they had likely taken their hour’s walk in the afternoon, when it was warmer. By nightfall, the foxes had the streets to themselves.

I was a newcomer to London, not very familiar with foxes, when I encountered an aged one. It was tough to tell her exact age, but I could tell by the salt and pepper fur that mixed the bright orange on her back, from her tail to the top of her head.

It didn’t seem like mange; the last streaks of orange on her back were brighter than those of younger foxes, like the fading of dusk. Additionally, her gait was slower than the others of her species, not as sure-footed.

She did not appear to be bothered by me trailing behind her. I kept a distance of about fourteen feet as she strolled around the town hall, then took a turn back to the vacant Skinner Street and sauntered by the Co-op that had closed early for sanitization and stocking.

I followed her to Spa Fields park, where I was certain I’d lose her; she had unconsciously hastened her pace when crossing the street. When she came to the park’s shut gate, she stopped, then inhaled the aroma of a blooming bush.

The park was barred at sundown, the barrier too tall for me to jump. And seeing as the police were now more vigilant of anyone roaming around at night, it seemed best to cease my pursuit of her here. If they caught me, what would be my explanation?

My confusion about the British fixation on foxes has always befuddled me. Many rural Tories are passionate about fox hunting, and even city dwellers appear to be wary of them. When I first transferred to London, in the chill of January, I stayed in a momentary flat near the Royal Courts of Justice in Westminster, close to a bar called the Seven Stars.

One night, as I strolled around the deserted grounds of the London School of Economics, a fox followed me, likely captivated by the smell of the warm chicken in my reusable Waitrose bag.He kept a respectable distance, staying on the opposite sidewalk.

I pondered if it would be safe to give him food. I had just arrived from New York and was feeling the effects of jet lag. Anything seemed feasible in my new home, even having dinner with a wild creature on the steps of the Royal Courts. When we passed the Seven Stars, where some men were drinking, they almost dropped their drinks as they shouted and waved their arms. I recoiled, believing I had done something wrong. One man shook his head to show me I wasn’t their target and pointed to the fox.

By then, he had managed to slip through the fence surrounding the Courts.At Spa Fields, my friend was waiting for me, perched patiently, when I fell behind. I quickly crossed the street to join her.

She got up, a bit unsteadily, and we headed down a side street, towards one of my favorite areas of the neighborhood. The sky had become a deep, golden-pinkish blue, and the streetlights had flickered on.

As of late, the air has been the purest I’ve experienced in any place I’ve lived; reports confirm it’s almost as good as Alpine air, with so few cars, planes, and ships inhabiting London. This fills me with a bit of sadness since it is a gloomy reminder of how pleasant our world is without human interference. A disheartening victory, indeed.

The fox chose a side street instead of the park and I trailed behind, pondering her ideas about the lockdown. It seemed to me that the animals could only recognize danger, and the difference between this spring and other springs was not the lack of people but instead the lack of harm.

We weren’t gone, since the fox had seen me, but most of what we did had stopped. The massive, bustling city had suddenly become quiet, a brief reprieve from the usual threats of speeding vehicles, intoxicated pub-goers, and foxhunters.

This must have caused her sense of time to shift, as it had for us humans. In the first days of lockdown, I tried to organize my day into distinct pieces, but soon it all blurred together. In the meantime, thousands of people were dying outside of the lockdown.

The only thing that remained clear was the contrast between those on ventilators and those who were not.She paused at my preferred residence. At first sight, it was similar to the others on the same block close to Spa Fields, with appealing white walls, a painted door, and a tree in the garden.

But what draws me is the side of the house, which faces a narrow alley. Two concrete steps ascend to the vivid green door, which is set into an alcove. On the ground floor, there is only one window, with three gaps in the wall where other windows could have been–one on the left and two on the right.

When I pass the house in the night, most of its side is veiled in darkness, except for the bright green door, illuminated by the faint glimmer of a nearby streetlamp. The fox looked up at the house and made a noise. I had never heard a fox’s voice before–thin and high-pitched, more like a mouse than a small dog.

I pondered if it was waiting for someone to give it food.The house brings to mind Rene Magritte’s late paintings, Empire of Light (1945-1967), in which a street lamp illuminates a single front door in the Belgian suburbs and the sky is blue, with huge fluffy clouds.

The point of these works seems to be that linear time is an illusion, and day and night exist side-by-side. Magritte is showing us that everyday objects–apples, hats, pipes, and houses–can become estranged from the reality we accept.

This house, however, is different; its strangeness increases the longer you look at it, although it is not as obvious as Magritte’s other Surrealism. Whenever I look at my favorite house in Islington, behind Spa Fields, I reflect on this painting and what it implies about perspective and space-time.

At the onset of the coronavirus, people shared images of couples kissing while wearing masks, a reference to the iconic painting The Lovers (1928) by Magritte. This became a sign of ill-advised “creativity” during a time of crisis, as an already heavily-utilized painting saw its use dwindle to a new low.

Couples in lockdown found themselves in a situation where the primary difficulty of the crisis was not merely the restricted romantic contact, but rather a disruption to the timeline and an inability to be connected.

We are told we are “behind Italy,” but “ahead of Canada,” yet it is not The Lovers that speaks to the pandemic’s sense of isolation, distance and world-wide anxiety, but rather The Empire of Light.

The reputation of foxes as sly and cunning was not what I experienced with the one I followed. I have never been part of a legend that involved being outsmarted on a quest to a castle or an old forest. Perhaps it was because I had no real destination that I was of little interest to her.

Our walk was just like a Magritte painting, as we strolled around the same route in the area. Day and night changed, yet the world kept spinning and stayed static.She placed her paws against the walls of the house and meowed up towards the sky. No one in the window responded by throwing her bacon or a chicken leg.

She seemed used to this experience and when the window didn’t open, she gazed at me expectantly, as if to ask What are you doing? Is there nothing you can do? It was already late and all the nearby groceries had closed; furthermore, the lights in the house were off, suggesting the residents had left the area.

By the time I had the chance to take her photo with my phone, she was already gone. Perhaps she had worked out that I wasn’t useful as a walking companion if I couldn’t even announce her presence.

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