Don Bentley sprawled out under the spreading boughs of a stringybark gum. He had a bottle of Barking Owl shiraz and a ham and cheese sandwich and was seeking a quiet moment to himself on his day off from work: a spot of lunch and a few glasses of good red, the birds singing around him, spring in the air. It had been an impossibly hard week at the Chronicle newspaper and he needed to chill out.
Bentley didn’t even take a book or a newspaper up to the Waterworks Reserve in Hobart to read. He just wanted to sit there, looking at the trees bursting into spring flower. The golden wattles dripped with yellow blooms and honeyeaters buzzed around them. A golden whistler sang from the top of the stringybark where Bentley rested and he felt a euphoria that wasn’t entirely to do with the coming of spring, that time when people respond to strange impulses coursing through their bodies, a time when humans realise they are animals after all, lizards even, searching for sunny spots at the end of winter to warm their blood and bones.
In his days spent as a correspondent in South Africa, Bentley had been warned about sleeping under certain trees that were reputed to permeate the air with hallucinogenic substances. He looked up at the finger-like leaves of the stringybark, and its course bark, and sniffed the air for eucalyptus scent. The stringybark was not a tree to put someone on cloud nine, Bentley reasoned. It was just a eucalypt to lift the spirits at the start of spring, to make you feel glad to be alive.
The euphoria appeared to have another source and, after a second glass of Barking Owl, Bentley put his good spirits down to a fineshirazon an empty stomach because he had not yet munched into his fresh ham and cheese sandwich.
Bentley lay back in the grass, gazing up at the tangled green-blue leaves and very soon drifted into sleep.
* * * * *
Bentley awoke with a start. He had felt something pressed against his nose; wet, moist, tickly. A dark, round shape obscured his view. Bentley could feel his eyelids fluttering like butterflies; his eyes were watery and glazed from sleep, making it difficult to focus for a few seconds. Then the image before him took shape. Bentley recoiled in shock. There was the pointed, furry face of a fox, staring at Bentley right between the eyes. The fox had moved back momentarily as Bentley jerked his head in surprise but it now sat motionless, not a metre from Bentley’s nose. It fixed Bentley with a stare, not a menacing stare but the sort of countenance that has words, the stare that asks questions, a stare that says it wants to be your friend. Bentley was speechless. He wanted to say something, something silly like “here boy”, the sort of thing you say to a golden retriever or a poodle you meet on the street, but the words would not come.
Bentley didn’t need to be told it was a fox staring at him. He knew foxes from his youth growing up in Britain. They were common in rural Surrey and at night he would delight in picking them up in his headlights on country lanes when he was out and about as a cub reporter. Foxes never became roadkill, they were too smart for that.
When he first arrived to start a new life in Australia, Bentley had been horrified to discover that foxes had been introduced fromEuropeand were a pest, a scourge of farmland and bush.Tasmania, however, had remained fox free until a spate of recent sightings.
Bentley thought he knew all about foxes, their wariness, their cunning, their independence, and here was one, not a metre away, a beautiful red fox staring him straight in the eyes, with a look that said the fox was trying to speak to him.
“Fuck,” Bentley muttered softly. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. The fox appeared to cock its head to one side, then lowered its long snout so Bentley could see the glistening nose, the same moist nose that had been pressed into Bentley’s face as he slept.
“Fuck,” Bentley said again, louder now, trying to get some response from the fox. He wondered if anyone would ever believe him when he told the tale later. The fox cast its gaze round him, looking at the encircling eucalypts and then raised its head to look towards the distant Mount Wellington towering over the reserve at the point where Hobart’s suburbia meets bush. The fox then fixed Bentley with its alert, brown eyes again and to Bentley’s astonishment moved forward and lay at Bentley’s side, pushing its warm body against Bentley’s legs.
“Fuck,” Bentley said to himself, without uttering the words now. He slowly raised his hand and started to stroke the fox’s silky fur. The fox rolled over, raising its head so it rested on Bentley’s thigh. Bentley expected the fox to make a sound, a purr, a yelp, a bark but it just lay there without saying a fox word.
“Fuck”, Bentley sighed.
Bentley had always subscribed to the theory that individual foxes had arrived inTasmaniaon cargo boats, or had been deliberately released in the state by malcontents seeking another species to hunt. They represented a potentially catastrophic threat to Tasmanian wildlife, because the state was the last refuge for several species extinct on the mainland, extinct because of the predations of first dingoes and then introduced foxes and cats.
Bentley knew that a common and much-loved bird of the Waterworks Reserve where he spent so much time, the Tasmanian native-hen, could be the first ofTasmania’s unique creatures to go if the fox ever took hold in the island state. The native-hen was flightless and would be no match for the cunning fox which could swim and even climb trees. The fox, as Bentley often pointed out, was a hybrid combining the powers of a dog and cat.
So here was Bentley, a foe of the fox inAustralia, lying down with the creature called Reynard in European folklore and fable, sleeping with the enemy. The irony was not lost on Bentley. He should be reaching for a stout stick and whacking the sleeping fox across the head, but how could Bentley do that to a creature of the wild determined to be his friend?
As Bentley lay there, the silky fox felt warm against him and he could feel its body heave and subside with the rhythm of its gentle breathing. Bentley felt strangely at one with the fox, as though the fox was Bentley’s soul-mate. It was the feeling he got when a cat sat on his lap, purring with every stroke of the hand. Bentley loved cats but could never bring himself to own one because he also loved birds, and Bentley loved foxes but, growing up in the English countryside, always knew that any contact with Reynard would always have to be at arm’s length: until today.
The foxes of Australia might be labelled a cur and pest, vermin, but Bentley on this day could not feel any sense of dread or revulsion. Was the status of this fox, asleep by his side at the Waterworks Reserve, any different to that of Bentley; they were both foreigners in a strange land. The thought had never occurred to Bentley before but strange thoughts can come to you after a half bottle of Barking Owl shiraz drunk under the first warm sun of spring, with eucalyptus scent in the air, with a fox sleeping at your side.
Bentley was now thinking of the people who had gone before him, across the land what was now the Waterworks Reserve. The Nuenonne aborigines had walked this reserve and its surrounding hills for thousands of years before they were driven to extinction. What would the Nuenonne people have made of it all, of suburbia whose glass and concrete lapped at the foothills ofMountWellington, of the fox that had taken the place of a fellow hunter, the thylacine? As Bentley drifted into a deep sleep again, he was wondering whether the Nuenonne had had a sense of irony, or of the absurd. And did a thylacine ever lay down beside a sleeping aboriginal, and share an aboriginal dream?
* * * * *
Bentley awoke startled again. A Tasmanian native-hen was calling close to him, a loud rhythmic screech that Bentley always likened to a couple making love on a squeaking bed. He looked about him and the fox was not at his side. It had gone.
Bentley walked home slowly, slower than usual, taking in every sight and sound on the half-kilometre journey. Far off a fan-tailed cuckoo trilled in its descending song, the notes trickling through the wet forest on the north side of theWaterworksValley.
“So what do I tell the wife?” Bentley asked himself. The sense of euphoria was still with him, a curious excitement. What a story he had to tell, but who would believe him, certainly not Mrs Bentley who had seen him leave earlier with a bottle of shirazand a cheese and ham sandwich wrapped in brown paper tucked under his arm. At least he was not taking he car, she said as he left.
“Now listen carefully,” Bentley said to his wife when he got home. “Firstly, I’m not pissed.” And Bentley held up the bottle ofshirazand Susan Bentley could see it was still half full.
“Listen closely,’’ Bentley continued, “and you got to believe me when I tell you, but what do I tell everyone else?”
Bentley then recounted the story of the fox, and how it had pressed its wet nose against his, and how it had fallen asleep at his side.
“Fuck,” said Susan Bentley. She didn’t doubt Bentley for a minute, for it was not the sort of story Bentley would make up.
Bentley was now confronted with a dilemma. He might have been able to tell his wife of this improbable encounter but how could be possibly tell anyone else, especially his colleagues at the Chronicle who would no doubt accuse him of drinking too much down at the Waterworks Reserve. Worse, if they believed him, there would be a news story in it: the first fox sighting within theHobart municipal boundary. He would have to inform the state government fox eradication unit and they would take him down to the Waterworks Reserve so he could show them the exact spot where the fox appeared, and they would go looking for evidence. If Bentley went into the full details of what happened they would no doubt want his clothes for DNA evidence of fox fur. Bentley had already looked at his shirt and not found any hair. And then there was the question of eventually seeing the fox killed. Bentley was not sure now that he wanted that outcome. The fox had become his companion and friend after all, if only for a brief time at the Waterworks Reserve.
Just a few days previously Bentley would have been hot on the scent of the fox, advocating its demise, and now he was in emotional crisis, although commonsense, over his heart, ruled that the fox would have to be killed. It crossed Bentley’s mind to perhaps advocate the fox’s capture and its return toBritainfor release. Perhaps the powerful anti-hunting lobby inBritain, the people that had successfully campaigned to have fox hunting banned, would put up some money for the fox’s return, in a gesture of solidarity with the fox. Perhaps an airline like Qantas would give the fox free passage. Should Bentley mount a campaign? No, it would be ridiculous. Who would want to save a single fox. It was not as though the fox was an endangered species. It was better to divert such resources to saving tigers and cheetah, or even the golden marmoset.
Bentley left it for a day or two, to give himself time to make up his mind about what action to take. He also knew, although he would not admit it to himself, that a time lapse would enable the fox possibly to escape. Bentley had now convinced himself it was a lonesome and lonely fox without a mate, destined to die a lonely death inTasmaniaso there was no danger of it breeding. There was the reality, though, that a single fox would still take native-hens and other native bird and animal species and on that basis Bentley eventually decided to inform the authorities.
Bentley’s colleagues at the Chronicle saw the funny side, as he suspected they would. He was teased in the office and more than one person raised the possibility that Bentley might have had too much to drink on the day of the fox sighting. When Bentley entered the editorial floor of the Chronicle each day there were fox-hunting cries of “tallyho”. Bentley took it all in good heart which was more than could be said for the probing and questioning from officials of the fox eradication task force.
They took his clothing away to test for fox DNA evidence, without success. Bentley feared they might not believe him, suspect he had made up the story to obtain a newspaper scoop.
The attitude of the fox eradication officials suggested otherwise. He had let it slip that he had allowed a few days to pass before he informed them of the sighting and they were not impressed.
“Trail’s gone cold, and it’s down you. What’s with you Poms and foxes?” said the task force manager.
“Sorry,” Bentley said meekly in reply.
* * * * *
It was some weeks before Bentley returned to the Waterworks Reserve. He had been busy in his duties as a sub-editor on the Chronicle because it was holiday season and he had to work longer shifts to cover for colleagues on leave.
One morning, however, he made time for a time-out at the reserve, taking not only a bottle ofshirazand a cheese and tomato sandwich but a book, a collection of short stories by a South African writer, Herman Charles Bosman, he had discovered when he lived in Africa.
Bentley wanted to stay awake and not doze off. He secretly hoped the fox would re-appear and if that happened he would not report any further sightings. He had been ridiculed and accused of aiding and abetting a possible fox infestation of Tasmania and that was enough for him to maintain a silence about the fox in future and have a clear conscience.
Bentley spread out under his favourite stringybark, poured himself a glass of wine and opened his book. The sun was strong and hot again and Bentley felt himself drifting into sleep. He resisted at first, getting up to walk in a circle to clear his head. The wine soon took hold, however, and before long Bentley dozed off.
After a while he awoke with a start, and there at his feet lay the fox. Bentley remained motionless for a moment and then stretched out his arm to stroke the fox’s silky, rufous fur. The fox did not move. It was cold and rigid and Bentley leaned forward. He could now see two neat bullet holes in the fox’s head.