That morning, when I saw that an old caravan had somehow arrived in the clearing at the top of Burnside Wood, I must admit that I unlocked the gun cabinet and didn’t bother feeding the dogs.
Freda told me to take it slowly, and that upsetting myself was dangerous for the health. But what does she know? I was born on this estate. For the past 30 years I’ve kept every poacher, picnic’er, fly-tipper, land-grabber and self-righteous rambler out of the wood. Oh, and the gippos too.
There. I’ve said it. Not a nice word, and not popular with Freda and our Billy whenever I let it fly, but there we are. I’ll be buggered if I’m starting calling them ‘Travellers’ now. They don’t ‘travel’ so much as ‘land’, and when they do you’re hard-pressed to get a word of sense out of them, least of all get them shifted.
So that spring day I slipped a couple of cartridges into the gun’s breech and stuffed another handful into my jacket pocket. Bobby and Fly, my German Shepherds, strained on the leash as we walked up the track, past the bluebells and into the clearing. Whoever was up there would soon stop their antics when they saw the dogs.
About 20 feet away we stopped. Something wasn’t right. For a start, the caravan was too small and too old. A battered Elddis from the 1980s isn’t what today’s gypsies generally like to be seen claiming benefits from. Floral curtains, the pattern of which I haven’t seen since Freda and me honeymooned in Oban, fluttered out of an open window. And from inside the caravan came this voice.
Now, I find things hard to put into words, unless I’m talking grouse or guns or dogs. I’m not one for a lot of flannel. Freda knows that. So all I’m saying is that the dogs just sat down, there and then, right in the middle of the path. It was like they’d been charmed or something. They weren’t the only ones, either. I was rooted to the spot. I’d never heard anything like it; well, not since Susan Boyle came on the X-Factor. I don’t watch it usually, but Freda sometimes bullies me into it of a Saturday night. When Miss Boyle opened her trap the audience soon stopped laughing. And when I heard this voice, singing sweeter than any bird in Burnside Wood, I put the gun down and just listened.
When the singing stopped I tapped on the door, ever so quietly. I felt like I’d broken a spell.
"Oh," said the voice, embarrassed-sounding, "I’m sorry. I thought I was alone."
The door opened. The next shock was that she was about the same age as me. She had a small, hooky sort of a nose and eyes as watchful as a robin’s. Long dark hair streaked with grey. She smiled, waiting for me to say something.
"It’s not a caravan park," I said, struggling to get the words out. "It’s private land. The Fitzroyce estate. You’ll have to leave."
Even as I said it, I wasn’t sure I meant it. She seemed to sense it, too.
"What beautiful dogs! Here, let me give them a treat."
"Now hang on," I warned, "don’t do that, they’ll have your ha..."
But they did nothing. Not so much as a growl. She reached into her apron pocket, broke a couple of slabs from a biscuit and gently offered them, palm outstretched. Politely they accepted, squatting down as she patted their heads.
"It’s private property," I repeated. "You’ll have to go. There’ll be trouble otherwise. How did you get up here, anyhow?"
She looked at me blankly, then smiled again. "Wait a moment," she said, "I’ll fetch my hearing aid."
She went back into the van. I saw the inside was wood panelled and highly varnished, like an old fashion Romany job. Real craftsmanship. Someone had taken time and effort to hide the beige fibre-glass walls.
Her head appeared at the door again. "Now, what did you say?"
I repeated myself.
Her voice dropped to a whisper. "Don’t tell anyone," she said, "but I was towed. I don’t have a car. I rely on tows. Someone in the village recommended Burnside Wood. It’s a lovely place, don’t you think?"
"I do, but you’re not supposed to be..."
"Of course, it’s not my first visit."
"Oh no. I was here in, umm, 1976, 77 maybe. We were camping then. Such a gorgeous summer. Even the landowner’s son came down for a splash!"
I remembered. Lord William and a couple of naked hippies, frolicking in the Victorian bathing pool during the long, hot summer. That was a rarity, and no mistake. We were sworn to secrecy. His Lordship went bonkers when he found out. Too late by then, the hippies had gone. I will say this, they left no mess behind. Unlike Lord William. The drugs got him in the end, and his younger brother - the present Earl Fitzroyce - inherited. A chip off the old block, that one.
"It’s different now," I said. "You really won’t be welcome."
She tilted her head to one side. "Then if you don’t mind I’ll just have a cup of coffee and be on my way," she replied. "I can get a tow, I suppose, from you? Oh, but look, I’ve baked some cake. Will you stay awhile and have some?"
Well, she’d offered no resistance. And I’m not bad mannered. What was a lost ten minutes on a fine spring morning?
And so she told me of her life. Her name was Ruth. She’d taken to travelling (aye, that word!) in the early 70s, the hippy times. She’d met her husband-to-be at a festival and they were inseparable. People she knew eventually left the road, settled down in nice semis and had kids, but she and Fraser had just stayed on. Camping mainly, doing odd jobs, collecting benefits here and there. I can’t say I was impressed with this last bit, but I suppose you have to do what you have to do. Besides, I was in quiet admiration for the way she stuck to her beliefs.
"Fraser died two years ago," she said, for once not engaging me in eye contact. "Cancer. He didn’t want treatment. A voice in my head was saying, ‘come on now, Ruth, isn’t it time you went home?’ But where’s home? Not in a bloody retirement bungalow! Home is a clear winter’s night, the deer creeping silently past the van window as I look up at the stars. Home is watching sea trout leaping the ladder in the burn. Home is the middle of a bluebell wood in spring. Home is where I can sing and not feel....judged. I owe it to Fraser to stay on. It’s what we wanted."
There was a pause. I knew what she was waiting for. I should’ve been stronger. I wish I’d said ‘no’. But I didn’t. There was music in her voice, and it called me towards her.
"What can you do? I mean, what skills have you?"
She fairly rattled them off. "I can make charcoal, coppice, plant, harvest, look after animals, pick fruit, bake, sew, clean.."
She laughed. "You can have that for free. It’s not worth a penny. The rest....all I ask in return is a place to stop."
"For how long?"
"Three months, at the most. Don’t worry, my itchy feet regularly need a scratch, even at 66."
His Lordship was hardly ever around. Looking after his wealth in the British Virgin Islands, usually. There’d be a few whispers, but truth was, I needed some help. My lad, Billy, is a strapping boy but he’s a great dreadlocked thing more interested in building guitars than cutting down the trees needed to make them. Like I said, she was my age, but strong with it. I could make use of her. Freda would like the company too.
And so Ruth stayed. She was as good as her word. Right through that spring and summer she worked, as hard as any man I’ve ever employed, and twice as hard too. She never moaned or complained, and never once asked for anything. Mostly, she was content to sit in her van of an evening, just reading. Funny, for such a great singer we never heard a note of music come out of her door. We offered her an old cassette player but she refused. And yet when she did sing - usually outdoors - I swear the wood itself dropped into a hushed awe.
"There she goes again," Freda said one dinnertime, as she dried the pots. "She must be a quarter of a mile away, if she’s a foot. Do you think she’s trained?"
"Who knows? She tells us what she tells us, and no more. You feel like you can’t ask."
Freda nodded. "She’s no gossip in her, that’s for sure. You’d maybe ask Billy. I’ve seen him chatting to her a time or two."
Turns out he’d asked, but she just said she picked it up on her travels. No training involved. Back then, he was running a session at the Clachaig Inn, down in the village, and he asked her to sing a lament or an air or two, but she refused.
"Oh Billy," she said, "you’re very sweet, but I’m not up to all that. They’ll think me a daft old hippy. You young people are the ones. You must keep it going. Us oldies should just sit by and listen."
But she wouldn’t even do that.
I remember the day it happened like it was yesterday. A Thursday. Summer was on its way out, and across the hills the heather had bruised to a dark purple. Shadows were once again falling across the glen and even the midges were packing up. Autumn was our next visitor. Ruth hadn’t mentioned moving on and privately we’d decided she could stay up in the wood until next spring, when His Lordship was due home. If she could winter there, away from the worst of the weather, she’d be fine enough.
Over time, and like a wolf in those far-off days when man first discovered fire, she’d crept closer to our hearth. On Thursdays we made her tea and she watched TV with us. She never said much, but she’d chuckle quietly at Big Brother, or some other daft celebrity show Freda liked to watch. That evening, as we sat with the first of autumn’s log fires burning in the grate, Billy came through the door, a magazine in his hand. He looked right at Ruth, his eyes shining with the knowledge of a secret tightly furled.
He sat in the Suffolk chair by the fire and casually flicked open the magazine. A music publication. He read a little, then looked up.
"Well, Ruth," he said, "I always thought you were a mysterious one. But even I wouldn’ta guessed at this."
He held open the magazine and turned it towards us. One one side, a page of words. On the other, a huge black and white portrait of a young woman holding a guitar, long dark hair framing a bird-like face with eyes bright and inquisitive. The picture must have been 40 years old, but despite all the hardships of a life outdoors, she’d barely changed a bit.
Ruth stared at Billy, picked up her unfashionable carpet bag and made to get up. He put out his hand like an old-fashioned policeman directing traffic.
"Wait! "Don’t go. Wait til you’ve read it."
"Billy, what’s going on here?" Freda said. "You’re making Ruth uncomfortable. What’s all this about?"
Pausing for effect, he began to read. "In May 1974, just as her third album was about to be released, Ruth McKenna simply walked out of her life and was never heard of again. At the time, her prowess as a singer/songwriter was being compared to luminaries including Joni Mitchell and Carole King. She had the talent, the voice and the looks to take on the world. Instead, she left it for other, lesser mortals, to grab. And has time has gone on, the life and strange vanishing act of Ruth McKenna has turned her into a true folk music icon."
Billy put down the magazine and smiled broadly. "Ruth.....it’s you. It’s really you! They all think you’re dead. But you’re not. Oh my God, Ruth. You don’t know how popular you are. You should read this." He thrust the magazine into her hands. Biting her lip, she stared at the portrait.
"You're famous!" he gabbled, "you still are famous. The albums were reissued a decade ago. They’ve sold well. Look, read it! You’re comfortable. No more caravans or tents or chopping wood. You could buy a house. Go on a tour. Oh my God, this could be amazing! You need to get in touch with this magazine, Ruth. Or the tabloids. You could make a fortune!"
She turned over the page. Billy leaned forward, his hands clasped together. A log fell in the grate and bumped against the door of the wood-burner. The fire crackled momentarily, then settled down. Silently she read on. Occasionally her lips moved, but there was no sound. After five minutes she looked up.
"Well," she said, "thanks for having me over. I’ll take my leave now. I’m tired."
She handed the magazine to Billy and moved toward the door. He opened his mouth to speak. This time it was me who played the policeman, putting up my hand to silence him. "Let her be," I said. "She needs time to think."
The back door closed quietly behind her.
The following morning I got up early, an uneasy feeling gnawing at my stomach. Rain spat on to the cobbled yard, covering it with a grey, greasy sheen. Quietly I called for the dogs and set out toward the wood, reaching the van in what felt like seconds. As usual, the floral curtain flapped through the window. But now the door hung open and was banging hard against the side of the van in a gathering breeze that drove rain right into the vehicle. Where they would usually race up for their morning treat, Bobby and Fly cowered on the path, refusing to go any further. I waited for a sound - any sound. But no voice, animal or human, was singing in Burnside Wood. Time stood still. Then I patted the dogs, grabbed their collars and forcing them to their feet, headed towards the bathing pond.