Tuesday, 6 July 2010
I once spent an entire month smelling of dead fox.
There is a lot of wildlife around these parts. You see it if you drive out in the early morning while the mist is still hanging in wisps just above the ground and the air is dewy and cold. A whole other wild world exists outside of the harsh hurried day - foxes, rabbits, and badgers can all sometimes be observed going about their business in the fields and hedges that run alongside the long and windy road that leads out of my village and into the next town. Most often though, the badgers are dead. It's not uncommon to see more than one lying on the grassy verge in a heavy heap before the council workers come later in the morning to remove them. I suspect that the local farmers bait them and then dump the corpses by the side of the road in order to pass them off as road kill. They never appear injured, just curled up, dirty, deathly still, and always much much larger than you would imagine.
Of course lots of wildlife does tend to mean lots of road-kill too. The pheasants that come out during the day seem to be particularly susceptible to death by automobile. This is because they are extremely stupid and neurotic creatures with a gigantic death wish. I once had one walk straight in front of my car seemingly from nowhere, leaving me no time at all in which to stop, swerve, or even slow down. I remember feeling a dull thud and then seeing it roll in a perfect lightning ball of feathers to the side of the road. When I got home Mr S had asked me why I hadn't stopped and slung it in the boot to be brought home and plucked, drawn and eaten. "Well excuse me Mr Hugh Fearnley fucking Whittingstall if I don't much fancy stopping to investigate the 'of this world' status of a half dead and traumatised pheasant" I had said, annoyed. "Besides, the babies buggy is in the boot."
I live in a rural farming community and people here don't much like foxes. Entire evenings are spent by some down the pub comparing and contrasting the various methods for keeping them away from the chicken pens at night. There are "Fight prejudice, fight the hunting ban" posters and car stickers everywhere, and I have even seen a dead fox draped menacingly over a local road sign, its head dangling like some sort of medieval talismanic warning.
Consequently I did not pay too much attention when - a few years back - I saw a small fox lying dead on the road to town, it's body smashed and broken on the sticky tarmac. It was a hot hot day, I had my window wide open and I was driving to the mother and baby group where I volunteered as a breastfeeding peer supporter. My youngest was still a baby herself, cooing and dribbling and sucking on her tiny fist in her car seat next to me. Suddenly I felt a drop of something wet hit the top of my jaw just below my right ear. I looked up and saw that my rear view mirror also had a tiny splatter of pinkish red at its bottom corner. It was strange I suppose, but I didn't think much more of it untill gradually I began to become aware of an unfamiliar but distinctive smell that seemed to increase in intensity whenever I moved my head. Odd. And then - of course - I remembered the fox, lying directly in the line of my right sides wheels, blood and entrails spilling out like stuffing from its open belly.
The aroma of dead fox is hard to shake. I know because I tried. I washed and scrubbed and bathed and sprayed, but still the unmistakable smell lingered on, seeming eventually to envelope my entire being. Week after week I retraced the journey back to my mother and baby group and I can state with absolute conviction that there is nothing more guaranteed to make a new mother clutch her small baby tighter to her bosom and start to edge away into a corner than a breastfeeding supporter wailing "Sniff me, sniff me! Do I still smell of fox guts to you?" at the group facillitator.
Eventually of course the smell faded and went, but I can still now conjure up that salty musky tang if I concentrate hard enough - it will be indelibly stamped on my olfactory memory forever more. It reminds me of a time in summer in which my last baby was small. Of being so delighted to finally have a daughter. Of spending time with a group of women who are still my friends now, all of us with our new babies, going for picnics, for walks in the park, and for tea and cake at the local cafe. It is not an uncommon question to be asked what is, for you, an evocative smell and my answer of dead fox is not really a socially acceptable one I know.
But it is the truth nevertheless.