I don’t remember when the first wolf appeared in London. I saw my first pair trotting down Oxford Street during the January sales. Perhaps they were after a bargain or had grown as bold as the foxes patrolling post offices on the look-out for back-dated claims.
The wolves liked the salami halls and plush carpet of big department stores. The softness underfoot was like the snow which had been falling steadily on the equestrian statues since last April. The snow had continued through summer until London was crisp and powdery and chestnuts burned in braziers all day long.
The council was forced to salvage old gas lamps, dig out extra illuminations, turn London into a virtual forest of metal stems and flowering bulbs – stringing the trees with lanterns more garish than candied fruit. Even the rusted antlers of Regency chandeliers, once adorning the walkways of the old pleasure gardens, were wired up. Strangest of all was our acceptance of the dark. It nourished us. We made do and stuck candles in the brim of our hats, stamping our feet in the cold.
In the beginning we rejoiced in their company. A single breath of enchantment blew through the red and gold gates of the pleasure gardens. After centuries of sleep they creaked open and lithe grey bodies slipped through the railings.
The wolves taught us daring. Darkness and snow allowed us to risk things which we’d long since buried. I started an affair with a married woman while we were snowed in on the exit ramp of an underground car park. ‘I’ve never done this sort of thing before,’ she said, ‘have you?’ ‘I’m rather afraid I have.’ Bailiffs disappeared alongside charity muggers. Nuisance neighbours ran into unexpected blizzards and never found their way home. We thanked the wolves, leaving leftovers in the snow.
The wolves loped about us, crouching by the fire escape where smokers gathered, springing from among bolts of cloth on the ground floor of Peter Jones. We brushed against them on our doorstep and at the bus stop. They cringed respectfully when we approached, sulked like teenagers when policemen tried to move them on, mooching about on Friday nights around the bins of Kebab Machine. True there were less cats but things had improved for the better. Homeless people disappeared. The cold must have driven them underground.
One night, still dizzy from laughing gas, I strolled back along the river. The wolves were up ahead, worrying and twisting a stuffed bin liner in the moonlight. As I drew closer I saw that the bin liner had wriggling arms and legs before it tore in all different directions and the wolves darted up on to the Embankment and poured down the other side on to the frozen river. There was something thrilling in the spectacle and I snapped my jaws, forgetting my recent root canal work. The cold had sharpened my senses.
They snatched their first child in September. The mother had turned to order an almond croissant and the smiling wolf with its effortless low energy sprint, up until that moment bobbing companionably beside her, had grabbed the child from the pushchair and weaved through the traffic at a standstill on the King’s Road. We chased the wolf, a vigilante mob of shopkeepers and passers-by, but other wolves appeared in doorways. They nudged the twitching bundle back and forth, up and down the steps of public monuments, flattening themselves into the shadows when we sought them out and all the time their numbers were multiplying.
The danger brought us closer and we stomped about, bands of bearded men with bits of wood daubed with resin. Our torches, little flickers in the dark. But the wolves had this peculiar quality—their ability to untangle into skeins of grey wool and melt into darkness when cornered.
My married lover became insistent. She would leave her husband. ‘You have to admit that our affair has been magical. We’ve learnt so much. We have to thank the wolves for all our opportunities.’ I stifled a yawn in her curly hair. The wolves wouldn’t put up with this nonsense. I began to steer our late night walks towards the river, nodding at her plans for a shared future. We were followed by shapes slinking in and out of the shrubbery. I can still hear her tiny gasp at the first nip to the back of her legs and see her brown ringlets tumbling into an ornamental tub as they swarmed all over her. The shock as she realized she wasn’t one of them. It had been a magical year, she was right about that. The mass hysteria would soon be passing.
Later the authorities imposed a curfew and padlocked the gates of the pleasure gardens. A top psychiatrist said we were the wolves, the shadows were a trick of the light. We were still accountable for our actions. ‘What exactly is wolfishness?’ the lawyer asked during the summing up at my trial. Toothache made it hard to concentrate. Two of the jurors with well groomed hair and shiny grey suits grinned during the closing arguments and gave me the nod but I still went down. The authorities can legislate all they want against people congregating in packs (family outings remain a grey area) but will they hold a referendum into darkness? What can snow ploughs do in a war of shadows? Besides, if you climb up near the window and loll out your tongue, you can taste the snow falling further North.