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I’m stuffed: the new member of the Hovel is watching me, with its dead, cursed eyes

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out in London" column.

And now, there is yet another resident at the Hovel. He is looking at me reproachfully as I write. A stuffed fox cub, called Cuthbert, apparently. He sits on a plywood plinth, head bowed, his ears not the typically perky vulpine sensory organs but looking dishevelled and somehow contingent, as if they are some kind of afterthought. I suppose it isn’t easy to stuff ears. Also, as I discovered when taking him home on the bus, his tail keeps falling off.

I must say, I had been looking forward to more of a reaction from my fellow passengers when I took Cuthbert to his new home. I had certainly been expecting one, ever since my friend Z–, whose gift this was, had suggested that I might prefer to take a taxi back from her place rather than expose my present – she was at the time only giving me hints and riddles as to what it might be – to the outside world and its probable censure. (I’d pretty much worked out it was going to be something dead and stuffed from the animal world – Z– had said “it’s taxidermy for everyone this year” – I just didn’t know what.)

Fur fox sake

I have to say I wouldn’t blame the outside world for censuring me. I am not the kind of person who spits on women’s fur coats (I harbour a suspicion that the kind of people who do so are at least as interested in spitting on the woman as they are on the coat), and anyone who has looked after chickens looks upon the fox with a jaundiced and bitter eye, even if, like me, you think The Cunning Little Vixen is one of the greatest works of art, never mind operas, ever conceived – but there are sensibilities to be considered from time to time. Taxidermy is not to everyone’s taste.

Back in the Hovel, though, I notice something sinister at work. I would like to think that I am pretty robust about things that make others uneasy but I discover, to my great surprise, that the damned thing is freaking me out. For a start, it seems sentient. And it seems to shift position as I catch a glimpse of it from the corner of my eye.

This need not, on the whole, be a bad thing. I have run out of ideas about how to deal with Mousie (although one reader’s suggestion that I use peppermint oil might have some mileage in it, although I have no idea at all as to where I might buy such a product, assuming it exists and I’m not being toyed with – I mean, come on, peppermint oil, you’ll be trying to sell me Essence of Maynards Sours next) and for all I know, a stuffed fox might be just the thing to put the willies up him.

I put him on the floor of the kitchen yesterday evening and I have to report that Mouse Activity was considerably down on what it has been in recent weeks. Whether this is coincidence or down to Cuthbert I don’t know.

But I do wish he wouldn’t move about like that. I mean, either move or stay still. Don’t do that out-of-the-corner-of-my-eye thing. I am reminded, suddenly and horribly, of the W W Jacobs story “The Monkey’s Paw”, in which a stuffed simian hand grants its possessor three wishes but always at a horrible cost. I cast my mind back to see if I have been any making rash wishes recently. Well, Max Clifford was arrested but what is the possible downside to that? I see none.

That leaves me with two. However, I have, since Cuthbert’s acquisition, been struck down by infections in both the right lower jaw and the right lung. A cheque I have been waiting for very badly has not yet appeared, even though the relevant accounts department swear blind that they sent it. (I believe them, incidentally. After a quarter of a century in this game you get to know when Accounts Payable are telling the truth or not.) My parents’ cat is going to have to be put down, in the absence of any religious busybodies telling us that only the Almighty can determine the hour of her departure from this vale of tears.

Bit of an animist

And now this just in: my mother has fallen on an icy pavement and broken her arm and shoulder. These are not, I gather, trivial breaks, insofar as they can ever be. In fact, this last news is both so terrible and fresh that I am quite unable to digest it. Nor can I seriously attribute this to Cuthbert. Can I?

Like all supposedly rational people who go on about their rationality, I am, deep down, horribly prone to superstition and the worst kind of animism. I don’t know how one appeases the unquiet soul of a fox cub untimely dispatched but if anyone out there does, I would be keen to learn. Maybe peppermint oil might do the trick.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Brian Cox and Robin Ince guest edit