On wintery days like this, we’d be indoors with the stove lit. Mam reading, sometimes knitting, and me listening for a knock on the caravan door. For Granda, pulling off wet boots, complaining about his shed, his mouldy old home, about what needed doing on the allotment, and the weather too ugly for anything. Then Mam saying, ‘Tea?’ And him, ‘Never thought you’d ask, and by the way there’s been a fox around.’ Other days it would be a crow, a raven he was convinced he’d seen, or signs of a badger; triggers to stories Mam knew, but always listened to, as though for the first time.
‘Tell you a story about fox?’
‘Right. Wouldn’t mind that tea, Jean.’
‘Kettle’s boiling. Don’t be impatient, Dad.’
He’d grin at me, grimace, pull a face.
Listen. Two friends set off to walk towards the dunes and the beach beyond and found themselves on the links staring at three boys bragging about a fox cub they’d caught. It was to be sold to a man in the village. Both friends knew that fox’s fate.
So they bartered and haggled; the boys leaving with money to squabble over, the friends with the cub. One friend said to the other,
‘How daft was that? You’ve not the money to waste on a fox cub.’
‘What? You know who they were talking about. Heart, liver and whatever else kept, bones to the dogs.’
And then the cub was gone, scampering across the links towards two foxes sitting at the edge of the dunes. The fox family sat for a moment looking towards the friends, then disappeared into the dunes.
‘Were they saying thank you?’
Now the man who’d bought the fox cub, worked hard, tried to make sure his family had enough, but they led a frugal life.
‘Made sure what little money they had would last.’
They were happy enough, although sometimes they could have done with a bit more.
‘That’s what you and Mam always say.’
They got by. And they had a beautiful daughter. But she fell ill and they couldn’t afford a doctor, and anyway hadn’t he spent their money rescuing the fox?
The daughter grew worse. In desperation they thought to seek advice from the old woman who lived in the dunes. Some villagers made sly accusations about her, but they knew she was no witch, wasn’t it all just gossip and nonsense? They’d helped her on occasion, given her food. So they went into the dunes, and found her outside her house.
‘How did she live in the dunes?’
‘Built a house out of driftwood and whatever she could find, when she was younger of course. In those days she was strong, quick tempered, kind when she wanted to be.’
‘How do you know?’
‘Part of the story, now let me get on.’
‘Don’t get annoyed.’
‘I’m not getting…where was I?’
‘Outside her house.’
It was a hot day. She offered them water, asked them to sit, and listened. Then took a small bag from her apron pocket, ‘Give her this for three days. She’ll live. And another thing, when she’s recovered, look under that stone outside your house; never know what you’ll find.’ Sure enough the daughter brightened. On the third morning, looking under the stone they found a purse with enough to keep them comfortable for a long time.
They went to thank the old woman. She smiled at the daughter, told them to look after her, then shooed them away. Hadn’t she enough to do without wasting time in idle gossip.
Glimpsing this winter landscape through a tracery of trees, crows stark against a snow-laden sky. Wrapped in the train’s hypnotic rhythm I listen, catch snatches of conversation, laughter. If I concentrate I can see you, hear your quiet voice, listen to words softly falling. If I concentrate I can still hear your stories.