It’s not Hatee-hatee-hatee-ho, not Jacha-chacha-chacha-chow. It’s a soft, shrill, wheezy cough, like a kitten hacking up a furball.
This week I stood in the bathtub and watched a young fox prowl around our garden, coughing delicately to itself. I’d just identified another of the background sounds of our little wilding corner of suburbia: a sound we’d attributed to birds and almost stopped noticing. Now we hear it many times a day; foxes are more vocal in winter, apparently. (‘It’s not a very manly noise,’ says Hapless. Oddly, it’s the exact pitch of the MOTAT Sunday steam train’s asthmatic toot, carried on the Westmere wind.)
The foxes are a daily sight now too, not just in the garden or stalking along the fencetops but strolling down the street: sleek, beautiful, fluffy-tailed flâneurs, somehow more feline than canine. We wonder if their increased boldness is also seasonal, or whether our neighbourhood skulk of fox cubs has grown up especially tame.
Not that it’s truly winter here. The daffodils and cherry blossom flower, the warmest jackets get carried everywhere and eventually left at home. After weeks of alarming mildness we welcome the occasional drop in temperature with something like relief. That’s what London’s supposed to feel like in December! One Saturday morning it snows for half an hour, thick white flakes drifting past the windows, but with ground temperatures above 10 degrees, not a fleck of it settles. By lunchtime we’re stripping off our woollens again.
It’s only marginally colder in Paris. We spend four days there over Christmas, introducing our sons to the cocktail of exhilaration, frustration, fascination, awkwardness and alternating culinary delight and disappointment – shot through with intermittent physical discomfort – that is foreign travel. It’s the boys’ first time in a non-English-speaking country, and it blows their minds.
The visit marks a first for me, too: it’s the only time I’ve ever set foot in France without at least one unwelcome sighting of a stranger’s penis. That honour is due this time to Number Two Son – not, in his case, courtesy of some exhibitionist masturbateur, but of a sozzled wino who drops his pants to his knees and urinates copiously in the Rue de Rivoli.
With kids in tow, the trip isn’t the restaurant-market-gallery-cathedral-boutique glory it might otherwise have been. Instead it’s a leisurely few days spent balancing our boys’ passions for café au lait, pâtisserie and any kind of underground train with their parents’ enthusiasm for exploring cities on foot. Along the way we glimpse the odd world-famous landmark, and have a marvellous time.
When we eventually step off the Eurostar at St Pancras, though, the boys are manic with relief.
“It’s so nice to be back in our own city,” says Number Two Son.
“I did like Paris, but it’s so great to be home,” says Firstborn.
And just like that, London is officially where we belong.
We spend the rest of our unprecedented two-week family break on a lazy, wallowing staycation. It’s the first January in three years we haven’t spent packing up a house, and we celebrate with sleep-ins of outrageous length and depth, whole mornings in our pyjamas, afternoon walks under low grey skies. We go to movies, the pub, the Hackney Empire Christmas panto. We play games and do crafts.
I float in a rose-tinted chemical bubble, luxuriating in my new extra emotional bandwidth. My children are miraculous and delightful. My husband is really a quite lovely man. It’s more than worth the intermittent side-effect headaches, indigestion and sudden sweats. My nights are progressions of vivid, lovely, strange dreams, unsettling and enjoyable. In them I cook, eat, paint, kayak, breastfeed, make friends with Te Radar, renovate a Freemans Bay villa, organise a Korean wedding and have a lot of lesbian sex. Really, they should put this stuff in the water supply.
But my uncharacteristic mellowness isn’t just pharmaceutical. Some time over the last couple of months our habitually antagonistic sons have begun to prefer each other’s company to ours. Bolstered by their common lack of social bonding at school, they’re suddenly capable of spending time together: playing cards and football games, stalking and Nerf-shooting and ‘nutsing’ each other, wrestling like fox cubs on the floor, the furniture, the footpath; even reading in companionable silence. In the rare hours when it’s neither dark nor raining they disappear down to the park to practise penalty shootouts. They return caked in mud and climb into the bath together, where they compare bodies – one enthrallingly pubescent and one still not – with much rudeness and hilarity.
Following the Christmas arrival of a Yamaha keyboard, together with Firstborn’s new audio equipment – funded by his modelling gig – they launch an astonishing musical collaboration. Their first recording is ‘The Howling Moonlight’, laying Number Two Son’s original lyrics (‘The howling moonlight’s chasing me/I can’t escape, it lives in me’) over a synthesised drum track and plenty of metal guitar.
Hapless and I shut as many doors as possible and leave them to it. We turn a deaf ear to the Beavis and Butthead humour, the filthy language, the shrieks and yells halfway between amity and aggression. We bask in the quiet (if you count, as we do, a muffled ambient soundtrack of thumps, howls and mike feedback as ‘quiet’). We get chores done. We converse. We read for whole hours without interruption. I have a tiny premonition of what our empty nest might feel like: delicious, with a tincture of melancholy.
On New Year’s Eve Hapless and I toast farewell to 2015 with four fingers of single malt and an early night. The end of our annus insanus, a year of flux and disturbance and newness, often exciting but not always fun. We look ahead to a year that strikes a better balance of adventure and comfort, wildness and contentment, both for us and our feral offspring. Wa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pow!