Story by Philip Lawder: Winner

16th December 2011

An entry into our 2011 Short Story Competition on the theme of Starlight

“Reckon it’s going to be clear tonight, Billy.”

We’d waited a week for this.

I looked across at Uncle Jake. He was peeping at me over his copy of Farmers Weekly, a deeply lined face under the striped bobble hat that never seemed to leave his head, indoors or out. I grinned back.

Through the farmhouse window, I could see the sun setting behind Lacock Hill. The sky around it was a rich, deep blue and the light scattered and bounced across the snow-covered fields, throwing around a casual kaleidoscope of colours. Bare trees stood proudly, their branches stretched and still, the deepest black against the sun’s final, defiant glow.

Even the last few damp, misty days had held for me a magic in their mystery. Uncle Jake called me ‘the little townie’ for good reason. The view from my bedroom window at home was of the Chinese restaurant opposite and a constant stream of traffic.

“So, what time are we setting out, Uncle Jake?” I liked ‘setting out’; it sounded like a real expedition.

“’Bout eight, I’d say. It’ll be good and dark by then, and we’ll have had time for a spot of tea first.”

My Aunt Mary’s idea of a spot of tea consisted of a large meat pie with at least three vegetables, piles of potatoes and a freshly made apple crumble to follow, all washed down by mugs of thick, sugary tea.

By seven, we were finished and cleared up. Time crawled by the way it does when you’re longing for something to start. Finally, the minute hand on the old wall clock shuddered towards the top of the hour.

This was going to be the highlight of my stay, a fox hunt, just the two of us. No torches, of course, just, the light of the full moon. Not that Uncle Jake was particularly bothered about foxes; he had no chickens, just cows, and foxes stayed clear of them. Hunting was a country tradition, though, and traditions mattered.

We had talked about it for years, at least the five years that I’d spent the school holidays with them, the five years since my Mum had died. ‘When you’re old enough, young Billy’ had been the constant refrain and now, this year, it was finally happening. I was twelve now, and had started to get that feeling that you’re part of something bigger, that there’s a lot of world out there. This would be a step into that world.

We wrapped up warm, scarf, gloves, extra socks, bobble hat for me too and layers of jumpers topped by a heavy coat. I could hardly move my arms but I knew how the cold, unstopped by buildings, could really cut through you. The last thing I wanted was to have to come home early because I was too cold. That would have been what children did.

Uncle Jake pulled down the long rifle from the wall. I’d been allowed to use it, shooting old cans and stones on the farmyard, but this was different; this was real. He tucked the gun under his arm and we set off.

“You look after him now, Jacob,” called Aunt Mary from the door.

“Don’t you worry, I’ll bring him back alive. That’s if the fox don’t get him,” and he gave me a big nudge with his elbow that nearly sent me flying into the flowerbed.

We walked out across the rutted farmyard and into the lane that wound down the valley towards the village. The moon was up and so bright that the trees cast blue-black shadows across the ground. The snow, too, had taken on a bluish glow that intensified in the dips to a cave-like darkness. After a few hundred yards, Uncle Jake guided me through a gate and into one of the meadows. The cows had long ago been brought indoors and there was a stillness as we crunched across the untrodden snow. Uncle Jake touched my arm.

“Stop, lad. Listen and look.”

I stood. There was no wind that night and I was aware of a silence that, as a townie, I had never known before, a silence like a deep well. I looked up. The sky was full of more stars than I had seen in my life. When Dad had told me that Mum had gone to heaven, I’d imagined her as one of the stars. I was able to look up at night and feel that she was still there. There were a lot of nights when I’d stood at my window when Dad thought I was already asleep. I’d choose which star was Mum and I’d chat to her, telling her about my day. But there were many, many more nights when the city’s bright lights and the clouds had hidden her from me. Those were the nights when I felt most alone.

Tonight, though, the sky was packed full. The stars swept across in great swathes; it was as if she’s brought all her friends along to watch my special night. There was one really bright star, off to the left and I decided that must be Mum.

I thought about Dad, stuck back in the bright lights. He was Uncle Jake’s younger brother and the farm could only go to the oldest, so Dad had dislocated to the city. He always seemed out of place somehow amid the traffic and the noise, like a plant that’s been put in the wrong soil. Whenever I got home, he needed every story I could tell about my visit, as if it were a kind of medicine to him. This would be the best story yet.

After a while Uncle Jake and I walked on, trudging up the hill, away from the village towards the woods. Then we heard it. The sharp bark of a fox, plaintive and challenging. Uncle Jake pointed towards the right and, without a word, we headed off that way. By the gate to the next field he paused, his hand on my shoulder. I looked up at him, saw him scanning the open space, those eyes, deep set below billowing eyebrows, almost like a predator. He nodded and started walking. We skirted the field to the left, staying close to the dry stone wall, me stumbling along to keep up with his stride.

Suddenly, he stopped, crouched down. I did the same and tried to follow his gaze out across the field. It took me a moment to see the dark shape that moved with a bouncing grace a few hundred yards from us. It was heading our way and the moon was at our backs, so gradually I was able to make out the features and even the colour. The field fell away from where were crouched, so the stars framed it as it walked, in command of its world, head up, unhurried.

Slowly, Uncle Jake passed me his gun.

“Here you go, lad, it’s loaded and ready,” he whispered, his voice as quiet as a rippling stream.

I took it from him, shook off my gloves and slowly eased the gun up to my shoulder. Still the fox came on, walking towards us, until it was only a few yards away.

I squinted down the sight. At that moment, it seemed to sense our presence. It stopped. The head came up even higher. I could see its eyes, gleaming with moonlight. My finger tightened on the cold trigger. Then, behind the fox, almost over its shoulder, the bright star, Mum’s star.

The fox didn’t move, just stared at me, challenging me, the intruder in its kingdom. I didn’t even breathe. Then, I eased my finger off the trigger and, slowly, I lowered the gun.

The fox’s head went down, it turned away and trotted off across its field. I handed the gun back to Uncle Jake.

“Sorry…” I muttered, staring down at my feet.

He gently took the gun away from me.

“Don’t worry about it, lad. To be honest, I reckon you’ve done good there. That was a young female, probably foraging for her family. Best to let her be, maybe.”

I knew he didn’t mean it but I was grateful.

The fox was close to the gate now. She turned, took one look back at me, then disappeared.

We walked home in silence, just the crunch of the snow beneath our boots, Uncle Jake’s companionable arm across my shoulders. The stars were even more intense now. Mum’s star seemed to pulse, as if sending me a silent message. As I watched it, I felt grow within me a great sense of success and fulfilment, something I had never felt before. I knew I had done the right thing and I knew why.

Some years later, I learned that this star was, in fact, Venus. To me, it’s always Mum.

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