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Western Oz Words: A Remnant Of The Past

When the dark beady eyes of an old fox fur seemed to look at Margaret Dunn as she browsed in a charity shop, she was promptly carried away on an evocative trip down memory lane.

The other day I went into a charity shop that always has a great collection of books. There were the usual ‘airport‘ type books which languish in op shops everywhere – OK to pass the time on a boring flight but hardly ever kept to read again. Sometimes I find an old favourite, now out of print, or my eye catches a small book of delightful verse from a bygone age. But nothing tempted me on that wet afternoon. I made for the door, casting an eye on the junk piled on shelves – sometimes a decent plant pot is hiding there.

As I passed a counter full of dingy clothes, sad things, I spied a piece of reddish fur. Was this a second hand squirrel, or what! I pulled it gently and out came a very old fox fur. There were bald patches here and there, the silk lining was torn but the dark beady eyes seemed to look at me with a knowing glint. I stared back and felt myself slip into another time and place. I had known these eyes before – or at least those of its brethren.

The home of my childhood in a village near Glasgow was a small flat –one of five contained in what had been a large house on the banks of the River Clyde – a gentler, slower stage of the great river that produced such ships as the Queen Mary. My father worked in the local coal mine and our small flats had been a conversion for some of the workers there.

We had only two rooms to accommodate our family of four – mother, father my older sister, Nan, and myself. This type of dwelling in Scotland was called, simply, a room and kitchen. The large kitchen had that function: at the window was the black sink with draining board, a swan-neck cold water tap, always gleaming from the Brasso polish. But it also served as a dining room, living room and bedroom.

We had a table and chairs; there was a sideboard, small table for the wireless, and two comfy easy chairs. For cooking and heating we had a large open range which mother kept clean and gleaming with black lead. Being a miner’s family, we had a plentiful supply of coal and winters were always warm and cosy. In the wall opposite the fireplace was an alcove that held a double bed, with a curtain to keep it from view during the day.

The other room, which looked out on to the river, was the bedroom – equally large with a double bed, dressing table, a windup gramophone and a large mahogany wardrobe. It was the wardrobe I remembered now, as I held the gaze of the fox. Mother often left my sister to play with me in the bedroom as she washed the outside stairs or gossiped with the neighbours.

We would open the wardrobe door and rummage among the shoes and handbags to use them in our games. Then one day we found the fox fur, and what fun we had. It was normally hanging over a high rail but that day it had fallen down and we pounced on it – the reddish fur was live and soft, the tail a great brush with a white tip. And the eyes - so dark and glowing with a sly look, tempting us to play.

The linoleum on the floor was a floral green, highly polished. A rag rug covered the centre but the surrounding border was shiny and slippery. My sister sat me on the back of the fox, grabbed the tail and pulled me round the room at high speed. It was a great adventure. Then she would be the passenger as I struggled to pull her along – though I was six years younger, being only five then. We carefully put our animal back when we heard mother coming, but we had tasted the forbidden fruit and went back for more on other days.

One day we were laughing so much we didn’t hear her coming until she was there beside us. She was furious and chased us, though we ran in opposite directions. After a few smacks on legs, she calmed down and forbade us to ever touch the fox fur again. She took her prized garment and stroked its dishevelled fur before hanging it back in the wardrobe.

And here I was, stroking this mangy looking remnant of a once noble animal in a charity shop in Australia.

Thinking back on the other fox, Mother had probably acquired hers from the village secondhand shop which sold good quality castoffs. It was her greatest pleasure to go on a treasure hunt and come back with a smart frock or nice woolly cardigan for winter. Her philosophy in life being that godliness came after cleanliness, she would wash her nearly new prize thoroughly, with disinfectant in the water. But for her two girls, only new clothes were good enough.

The thrill of the quest must have stayed with me as I am still drawn to these mysterious collections of once loved possessions and will arrive home clutching my treasure – a well preserved copy of some old novel, an exquisite wine glass (the last of an exotic set), or a long playing record to recall my dancing days – even though I don’t have a turntable now.

I carefully tucked the fox under a faded blue silk scarf, leaving just its little pointed face uncovered. And I felt the black beady eyes watching me as I left the shop.


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