This is a story spelled out in broken seashells at the edge of the evening tide…A cold wind came inshore the sunset that the Lord-by-the-Sea came for his next story. He strode in, clad in furs, with a plump red-faced merchant at his side. The carter’s boy brought in a second chair and small table. A servant girl followed with a bottle and two silver-gilt goblets.
The girl poured out rich red wine as the merchant and Lord-by-the-Sea sat down. The Lord leaned forward with his chin on his gloved hand, his eyes on the Pilgrim Woman.
‘Don’t you wish you had wealthy friends like mine – not artists and other wastrels?’
He tilted his head towards the merchant. The feathers in his hat nodded like white ferns.
‘I want a tale for him.’
The girl finished pouring and withdrew towards the door. A chilly draught slipped over the threshold and ruffled her skirts. The Pilgrim Woman held out her hand and halted the girl.
‘A favour for a favour,’ she said to the men. ‘The girl can stay – next to the carter’s boy.’
The merchant nodded, the girl found a place to perch – and the tale began:
‘This how the Inn of the Golden Windows got its name.
Once a poor boy lived in a valley between the Northern Fells. He worked on his parents’ small farm on the shadowy side of the dale. It was his task to shut the poultry away each night, safe from foxes and other thieves.
He was thorough and careful, but like most of his work it did not fill his mind. He would often look across at the grand houses on the other side of the valley. He saw how their large clean windows shone gold at sunset.
As he guided the scruffy chickens into their makeshift shed, he wondered what it would be like to share such glories. As he checked the water for the squawking birds, he imagined the beautiful music inside the tall rooms. What kind of people lived there, and what did they talk about amongst such luxury?
He was a smart, hard-working lad. He took every chance to improve the little farm. He bought cheap stock, treated them well and walked over the fells to get a good price. He never had time for music or dance or chatter. When his parents died, the young man sold up and left the dale.
Wherever he went, he never forgot his vision of those houses with their golden windows, The farms he bought and sold grew larger. He took on ranches and set managers to work. His money grew like rhubarb on muck and the circles he moved in grew wider and richer.
At last, in his fifth decade, he decided to settle. His wealth allowed him the pick of the properties: baronial, castellated, turreted – he could have them all. Estate agents tumbled over each other like puppies from a basket trying to please. The height and the peaks of the Northern Lands were his to choose from. He had no taste for flatter, easier prospects.
On his travels, he came to a small dale with humble small-holdings and tumbledown farms on either side of a broad easy river. No large house stood on either rise. It was ideal. He would build his dream house with golden windows – but where exactly?
A nameless country inn had a halfway decent room he could stay in for a while. The innkeeper and his wife were friendly. They suggested a particularly flat spot high up along an old lane that might suit. He couldn’t wait. His dream would come true.
He clambered up the steep track they pointed out. He puffed and scrabbled, scooped up peaty water from the rushing beck, rested to catch his breath in the shade. It took him longer than he’d expected and he reached the field as the sun was setting.
He swept his gaze along the beautiful green dale with its drystone walls. A faint sound of dance music rose from the inn and the smell of wood-smoke. He sniffed.
Blow it – golden windows shone on the other side of the valley. A white post marked an entrance. He must have missed spotting the building amongst the trees. So he was not the first. Someone else had had his dream.
Despite his weariness, he ran down the track and crossed the river. There was something familiar about its chuckling. He did not stop to talk to the locals drinking ale by the bridge but charged up the other side of the valley. His feet knew the way.
He stopped at a white painted post beside a hen-house. The windows were dark now – but he knew every stone. He knew the latch on the coop and the way you had to fasten it just so to keep the foxes and other thieves out.
He had come home.
The man wept and laughed at himself. Then he went back to the inn, and joined the drinkers enjoying the last of the summer light.
And that is the story of the Golden Windows.’
A noise came in through the casements – applause from outside on the dunes. Listeners from the village surrounded the old chapel, hunkered down in whatever shelter they could find. Marram grass, old sheep hurdles, upended herring boxes.
The frown on Lord-by-the-Sea’s face was so deep it made fissures across his skin. His lips squeezed together, holding some angry comment in.
‘You cannot own a story,’ the Pilgrim Woman said, ‘the telling of it is how I pay my rent. A tale, like friendship, is not lessened by however many you share it with.’
The merchant patted his friend’s arm. ‘She has you there.’