I was sixteen and I was hungry. For two days I had lived only on bread and water and fruit filched from orchards. This was the flip side of hitchhiking through Europe and running low on funds apart from an emergency stash to get me to friends in Paris.
Dutch lad Wouter and I had met at a youth hostel the day before and agreed to travel together. We had got a lift in a truck just outside Grenoble and the driver had taken us about a hundred km north before dropping us off at an intersection a couple of km from a large village. We spent a long time hoping for another lift but nothing came our way. Looking back hitchhiking seems an idiotic way to travel and see places – I am left with distinct memories of hours hanging about by the roadside but only a hazy recollection of the sights I had set out to visit. At the time, however, it was a great adventure. Eventually we decided to walk into the village, keeping an eye out for fruit trees on the way.
Wouter, who was a bit older than me, was as broke as I was but generously shared his last bar of chocolate with me.
I remember it was a beautiful sunny September day and we walked through flat but agreeable countryside.
We spotted an object lying on the grass verge beside the road. As we approached it turned out to be a hit-and-run victim- a fox- newly dead as rigor mortis had not yet set in. At once I realised that our hunger problems were solved. No, not what you think. Even on an empty stomach, barbecued fox sounded singularly unappetising – not to mention utterly yukky.
I told Wouter that in England the authorities were dealing with a plague of foxes and were offering good money – about five pounds I believe – to anyone bringing in a dead fox. I was confident that there must be a similar program in France. All we needed to do was to take the fox into the village, find the local gendarmerie and collect our reward. Wouter was happy to go along with the plan.
In my hungry imagination a plate of steak and frites loomed tantalizingly close, followed perhaps by a creme caramel or one of those delicious raspberry ices the French were doing fifty years before anyone else.
We had to work out how we were going to transport the fox. We decided on an act of vandalism (such a relief to be able to confess after all these years). We broke down a sapling growing beside the road and stripped off its branches. This was how we were going to carry the fox. There was a further technical problem to overcome. How to attach the fox to our new pole? Wouter had a brain wave. Tie it on by the feet. No rope! Solution – use our shoe laces, one lace from one of his shoes and one from one of mine.
I must say we did a pretty good job with the fox upside down and front and back legs tethered to the pole. This we carried on our shoulders, one leading, the other following, just, we thought, like a couple of coolies (not a politically incorrect term at the time).
There was one downside to this arrangement – the fox was bleeding from the nostrils, leaving a trail of blood as we proceeded towards the village. Other than that the fox was in perfect condition – apart from being dead.
When we eventually arrived we stopped by a small bar. We were still shouldering our burden of dripping fox. Some old men were sitting in the sun outside and I must concede that, with the benefit of hindsight, we must have looked weird, to say the least. This was especially so as we both had a pronounced limp due to each lacking a shoelace. Asked what we thought we were doing, we asked the way to the gendarmerie.
“Why?” they demanded. With great self-confidence and bad French we explained we were going to claim our bounty for turning in the fox. At this the old men burst out laughing and one said something like”Sacre bleu. Ces etrangers sont absolument fous. Nous n’avons pas besoin de ces imbeciles dans notre village” (Trans: Oh dear, silly boys). “Allez vous en – fiche le camp” (Trans: Bugger off).
We were then advised not to go anywhere near the police station as the gendarmes were likely to run us in as vagabonds. Nobody paid a bounty for dead foxes in these parts.
One kindly old man did say that when he was a boy (must have been over seventy years previously) his folks would have skinned and eaten the fox but they didn’t do it nowadays. I still do not know if this was true or he just said the first thing that came into his head to soften our disappointment.
So off we trekked through the village with our sad cargo, which we dumped in the corner of a field.
And Oh! The luxury of having both shoes firmly laced once more.