If you don’t want to lose your eyes, grab them by the veins sticking out of their behinds and wind those together into a bunch. (They’re as pliable as pipe cleaners. They stay put).
As for milk teeth, keep those with spare buttons in a Fosters Mints tin. Shake them when you feel cranky. See how their little lives rattling about in there can calm you so much better than any shop-bought stress-ball.
When it comes to hair bands, keep one on each door handle, in case.
With needles, stick them into the kitchen notice board.
And as for tampons and shotgun cartridges, keep them in the sewing box with the Fosters Mints tin. That way you’ll always be sure of finding one when you’re desperate.
By eyes, I mean glass ones. They’re sold like that, by the dozen, in a bouquet. Ours came from a shop in Chester Rows, not far from Lowe’s, where all the family’s engagement rings came from. Green eyes with a devil-red spark in the pupils. We had ten eyes left after someone in the family made Foxy.
All families have secret boxes, right? For things you’re not quite ready to throw out but can’t bear to have around you either. And an odd uncle who causes embarrassment in back bars and midnight masses. And unwanted, scary heirlooms. It’s part of being in a family, isn’t it? Clutter accumulates.
We had Mam’s sewing box. It was meant to be a tool box, metal blue, cold, and it folded out like an upside-down iron bridge with gaps and nooks and slots for bits and bobs and a huge space at the bottom. Magic. Mam hadn’t done any sewing since the summer we came back from Normandy and she tried making a section of the Bayeux Tapestry by hand. A yard of sea crossing. Her fingertips and her patience wore away by the time she got to the decorative shields along the side of the ship, so the box became a resting place for odds and ends.
There was a scrap of paper with hooks in it: I never knew for sure if they were for sewing or fishing. Buttons from my first dress: one tortoise shape, one hare. Patches for play-trousers that outlived the clothes they’d been on. One cufflink: Dad had ‘Guilty’ and ‘Not Guilty’ but lost one. ‘Guilty’ lay about in the sewing box, waiting. When ‘Not Guilty’ was found, it was put somewhere else too-safe, and every time one surfaced, the other didn’t. But we knew they weren’t truly lost. They were in the house, somewhere, safe, still ours. And once I found a dark thingamabob in there, smaller than a marble, bigger than rats’ droppings. I could just about press a nail into it, leaving a half-moon impression. Dad confiscated it. He said Foxy wasn’t allowed into the house again.
One thing that constantly surfaced: the eye bouquet. Everything tangled in it like an anchor scraping the sea-floor and surfacing with weed and relics. Nobody thought to throw it out. It had been there too long. I would rummage on fidgety days: no homework, rain, power cuts, days for searching cupboards and finding new old things to ask questions about. I’d fish out an object; ask ‘What’s this?’, ‘What was this?’
The orange cartridges in the box were for everyday shooting: pheasants, fox, ducks, magpies that ate hens’ eggs. Nothing exciting. They were crammed with pellets and surprisingly heavy. But the one green cartridge, that was different. It was from the Home Guard. A single slug in it, for a twelve bore. ‘Highly illegal,’ Dad said. And they used cartridges like it in Africa for elephants. Ours was for a future deer. One Day dad would chance on seeing one. He’d also happen to have his gun and cartridge belt.
I loved it, that cartridge, mostly for being illegal. But I liked it being there. I hoped dad would never have it with him and see a deer all at once. So, cartridges rolled about in the bottom of the box with rogue buttons and teeth, wound up in webs of bobbin thread, sequins, and a hint of machine oil, as if the box still craved the life it should have had.
‘They’re Foxy’s spare eyes,’ an old aunt said when I found the bouquet, ‘in case.’ It was Christmas. Almost everyone was invited. We weren’t allowed to open the presents yet: carrots, parsnips, potato peeling first, and crossing the sprouts. Dad was in front of the damp teacloths on the cooker door, moving to Elton John. Even lawyers dance. He looked at the eyes in my hand as though I’d never be allowed to open a single present again.
I have two Foxys in my life. One was a fox, now stuffed in running motion. In his teeth, he has a pheasant, his jaws splattered with ox-blood paint, one drop never quite heavy enough to fall. At his paws, lopsided birds peck for worms in heather almost dried to dust. And in his head, glass eyes. A taxidermist’s chef d’oeuvre. Death and survival in a mahogany and glass case, shoved onto the landing windowsill. It had to go somewhere.
I remember that staircase; not the house. Remember staying there, going to bed below the dripping blood. That’s what did it for me. I’d seen plenty of dead foxes, and in worse shape, but that static blood. It scared me more than the real stuff.
I guess he didn’t count as furniture despite his frame being oak. Certain pieces of furniture had been around so long they seemed to evaporate into the room and be forgotten. Not Foxy. He didn’t count as Art either. He was a reminder of death in the family, one that nobody wanted to deal with. He was too valuable to throw out; too frightening to keep. Eventually, he was taken to Dad’s office, and placed in a room with all the archived files.
Dad and his brother were brought up in that same house, knowing that if they needed a wee badly enough at night, they’d have to tip-toe under Foxy and see the moon sharpen his teeth. They went to the same stone school and rattled about at the bottom of the Berwyn Mountains until they were old enough to decide what to do with themselves. They were both given the same things to eat. They developed like two mountain sheep, knowing their terrain. Wind, storms, frostbite, nettle stings – nothing could shift them from their landscape. But it was Uncle Huw, not Dad, who became the second Foxy. Everyone calls him that, Foxy, even the judge.
Losing his left eye came about because of a pole vault stick in 1962, he told me. We were at a family party at the White Lion, the one where he tried to free the Gwyniad fish which were pickled and on show there. Sitting on a bar stool he calmly said that he had felt rapture and rage, back then, when the pole vault had him in the eye, and the pain, he said, was fantastic. He showed me how he could look at everyone at once now that one eye was glass. Dad had beer in his moustache, a boy outside had dropped his ice cream, there was a red car, a blue one, a silver one; and while he could see all of that, he was looking at me with a still eye.
I pulled my tongue at him. ‘But you’re not really looking at me,’ I said. He couldn’t see me, of course. I did it again. I saw myself in the reflection of his lifeless eye. He made me feel cherished, adored, even if I knew he didn’t mean to be so attentive. He couldn’t help it, gazing at me like that. And I told him I hated sports.
They don’t do pole vaulting in school sports now. No wonder. And his dead eye, when they took it out, was like a Gwyniad in a jam jar, he said: slippery, covered in entrails. Dead and alive all at once. Not for public display. That’s when I lost him. He set about freeing the fish, leap-frogging the bar and smashing beer glasses with his heels. The barmen restrained him by the armpits and everyone stared at me.
‘Did you say anything to him?’ Dad said. He wiped his moustache and kept his hand over his mouth. I knew why. He always covers the half of his face that’s shaped like his brother; from the cheeks down, they’re related.
This was in 1988. By then, Uncle Huw Foxy had over a dozen files in Dad’s office: yellow foolscap ones for Loitering, other stuff. His first crime was burning down a three-story Georgian building. He did it by tossing a piece of tasteless dried meat into the fireplace and going for a pint. By the time he came back six hours later, there were no three stories. The crime was carelessness. He said it was an accident. The landlord said Foxy had it in for him. Where can you go from there? But it was a beginning. He was nineteen.
By the eighties, he’d really become Huw Foxy, by deed poll, to amuse himself and to put two big fat fingers up at everyone.
‘For when I sign cheques,’ he said. But it wasn’t as if he had to pay for anything. Margaret Thatcher did that, he said.
‘He doesn’t own a cheque book,’ Dad said, and did the work anyway, providing a red sealed document, proof that he and Foxy no longer shared a surname. That file was the slimmest. It almost got lost among the others, all cheek to cheek either side of Foxy’s glass case in the back room.
I adored Uncle Huw Foxy when I got to big school. He was the sweet smuggler at break time. He’d take orders, go to Harold’s, charge 10 per cent, and teach us to move the decimal point so we knew how much we owed him without calculators. I had liquorish sherbets on Fridays. Then he disappeared for three years and I became less popular. I found it when I was doing filing work for extra pocket money: it was a big folder, two-inches thick. He’d been charging sixth formers 25 per cent (they had better maths), delivering cocaine, not sherbet. Made quite a profit. He got Possession only, not Intent to Supply, since orders were down that lucky day.
When he returned, he got by. By now the headmaster had retired to run a B&B half way up the Berwyn. On Christmas Eve, Uncle Huw Foxy spent all night cutting up any wire, cable or pipe that led to that B&B. He got done for Damage to Public Property and chuckled when he told me.
He fixed electrics for cash when he was around, and gave vegetables as presents long before organic was respectable. By then, I wasn’t so fond of his big hands and his need to dance every time I saw him in the high street. He was embarrassing. But he danced anyway, jumping from the bench outside the Milk Bar, kicking his mug and spilling tea over the pavement.
He acted up again in August 2001 and created his thirtieth file. This file was in fact two. It bulged at the sides, split open in the filing cabinet and pushed the others out. It became the whole F drawer. Uncle Foxy started writing long defence letters on newspaper margins, which means that now we can see that when Labour won the election that year, Foxy was into using green ink and phrases like ‘crime of passion’.
He got it into his head that he could stop the old headmaster from reaching his B&B by placing boulders in the road. He says he was strong enough. In fact, they found Tyddyn’s JCB in the field, and John Tyddyn said he’d never left it there, so… Uncle Foxy must have had human help as well, but unless the headmaster came to, there was no way of proving it. Someone in a bar in town with scraped hands would know more. Uncle Foxy sat in the police station, blaming no one. He explained how he’d uprooted the elephantine stone-age rocks from their sockets, single-handedly. How he’d placed them, one by one, blocking the road access. The headmaster ended up with a crow-bar dent in his head and a tyre mark bruise over his belly. He waved like a young tree in a gale, Foxy said, and puked up his guts. Dad said that nothing but Foxy’s hair was out of place; he wasn’t even sweating. And it took a team of policemen to rearrange the boulders.
Mam said, ‘Where does he get his ideas from?’
The phone rang, so Dad was able to avoid answering. It had to be hospital or the police. Hospital. Dad looked at himself in the hall mirror and held his head, covering his eyes and forehead. After a while like that, he got out a pen.
But I can’t get into all of that now: telling Huw Foxy’s life would use up all of mine, and it’s taking most of Dad’s. So, that will have to be that on his story. What’s really on my mind is that fox. The one who poked his red head out of the heather to run one day, without a care for farmers in oilskins, carrying shotguns. That he ran without a thought for crimes of passion or the taste of paint. A fox who just wanted a bite of pheasant. So, he wasn’t on his guard when he rose to the purple face of the mountain, his berry-coat rising into the wide, ash sky and went for it, eyes set on a flash of pheasant tail, over there. Intent on killing it. Not expecting anything except the scrape of heather and bilberry on his shins, cold air making puddles in his ears, food. Knowing nothing of everlasting life or glass eyes.
And now, he’s stuck in a filing system with an inch of dust for sky. We come here to rifle through old files, to find out what year it was again when Huw Foxy got himself into a bloody broil with the butcher’s son over the price of bacon, to wonder if there’s a ghost here, or if it’s Foxy. We quarrel at the door, ‘You go,’ ‘No, you,’ and go in together, always unsure if it’s the long dead or the still air that disturbs us.
Hold on a second. Press against the glass case and look into those solid eyes until you’re snub-nosed and damp-breathed, skin growing colder, hairs standing on end at the nape of your neck. Foxy is running. Wind splits on him. The world tumbles away from his damp nose and down the swirling hills of the Berwyn towards Llandderfel and Llangynog.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
Taliesin. Her novel Y Trydydd Peth won the 2009 National Eisteddfod Literature Medal. She has published many anthologies in Wales & abroad. In 2010 she won a Translators’ House-HALMA award.