Look out Look In
Jay Merill

Chaos is the nastiest thought of all time. It's a scavenger tearing at bits of flesh haphazardly. Mine. Strings of gut lie strewn across the road. And I'm somebody who needs to have everything around them neat and tidy. That isn't so easy to achieve when you're on the street; it's a challenge. Another torment is my fear of foxes. Avoiding them is not always easy either. This is what happened to me last week:

I'd been pulling the blanket this way and that, as usual, to get it straight. I love the word 'straight'. Out here, in the wild of night, it warms me. And warm is what you're always longing to be. Another word I'm fond of is 'order'. You wouldn't think just words could make you feel things but they do. I don't like sitting in a doorway on my own. Sal, my mate, was taking her time to get back and I felt sure there was someone standing by the café window but I was too afraid to look. Instead, I said the word to myself, to help me keep calm —  Order. I was a nurse once, believe it or not. Oh it's about a million years ago, in a different life, but I've never lost that crisp need for having things just right.

I was sitting there, a little bit tense, my back against the door, when at last along came Sal. Café was closed but there was still that burnt-fat smell and it made my nose crinkle up. We put up with that on account of the extra warmth in the café doorway. Sal had been through the bins along the Fulham Road as far as Parson's Green. Stuff she's brought back with her you wouldn't believe. Party food: Leftovers from a wedding; from a funeral. 'No, a christening,' says Sal. She can always tell by the snacks, the type of occasion they're for. To me they look every bit the same.

So here we are, munching away contentedly on our cocktail-sausages and mini-quiches when a shadowed form moves up close to us and makes me shout out. The form runs off a little way then returns and hovers. Of course we both know it is a fox. 'Well I expect he's pissed off I got to the bins before he did,' Sal laughs. 'Shall we share our haul? We don't want the animal hanging round our doorway all night, do we.' But I just can't speak — I am trembling too much for words. There's this desperate need in me to I straighten the sides of my blanket but I'm afraid to move my hand in case it alerts the fox; making it go for us. That can happen. I've heard stories. Fox is even closer now. Its eyes glow red.

'Please, let's get away from here.' At last I find my voice. Sal understands and starts packing everything up. She throws out a few tasty morsels past the hovering fox, hoping he'll be off after them. He scampers away but soon comes back. It is horribly clear his main interest is ourselves. I am almost convulsed with fear and can't stop shaking. At last we've packed up all our gear and are heading off down the road, in the direction of Fulham Broadway. I would have felt relieved about this if it weren't for the fact that foxy was coming along too. Either he'd already eaten, or had not been tempted by the bits Sal had thrown his way. But as I say, we are his main interest.

Get nearly as far as the corner, close to the tube, fox runs off, back the way we'd come. Thank God for that, I call out to Sal, and I really do feel like saying a prayer. Then all at once this posh car drives fast very close to us. Its windows are pulled down and three or four faces with tongues sticking out target us. 'Scum,' they scream out. 'Vermin, filth.'

I'm hurt by the malice; by the pain of what I'm hearing. But in front of me too is the thought I spend my life avoiding: I am what I fear.

Jay Merill lives in London. Her most recent book is GOD OF THE PIGEONS, a collection of stories.

Detail of painting on main page: "Homeless Woman, Soho," by Maureen Scott (1992; oil on board).

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