Spending a week with Ralph in his country cottage had been a chance to escape the many stresses that had come into my life in London. Top of these was dealing with my fiancé, Rachel, having second thoughts — with the wedding three weeks away. Then there was the very real prospect of being fired at any moment following an expensive cock-up that was largely my fault. It may not have been work I particularly enjoyed, but the pay was far better than I would ever find elsewhere.
Ralph picked me up at the local station and drove me back to his place through dense woodlands that evoked pleasing memories of family camping trips. I’d known him since university, over ten years ago, and while career success and the single lifestyle had kept him lean and easygoing, I had gained weight and started to lose hair.
Later, sat in the kitchen eating a late breakfast and browsing newspapers, Ralph blurted out, “We’ve got one of those in the wood just outside the village. I bet you’d find them all over the place if you bothered to look.”
He then explained he was reading an article about feral street children in Brazil, and ‘one of those’ was a boy of about four who’d appeared mysteriously three months ago. He called himself Joel and was quite well spoken, apparently. When I asked how he survived on his own in the untamed Dorset countryside, Ralph put down his paper and said: “He’s made himself a den with twigs. Also, I think someone’s given him a sleeping bag. He seems comfortable.”
“And food?” I asked, warming to his little game.
“He eats berries and apples. Plus the neighbours have a rota for taking him sandwiches and stuff.” Ralph yawned, seemingly tiring of the joke, and muttered something about checking work emails as he flicked on his tablet.
“But why has no one said anything to the authorities?”
“By authorities I presume you mean people who have been arbitrarily chosen by an arbitrary system of government to apply an arbitrary set of rules. He likes being by himself in the woods. So who are we to deny him the rare opportunity of a unique existence in this bland, plastic world? After lunch I’ll take you to meet him, then you’ll understand.”
“Oh dear,” he then exclaimed, looking wide-eyed at the tablet. “Rachel’s just updated her status to single. How embarrassing. Perhaps you should go back to London this afternoon.”
“No,” I sighed, “it’s too late. I think the woods is a much better idea.”
I saw something appear, low down, from behind a tree, then dart under a dome of moss-covered branches. A moment later, Ralph and I were stood outside the crude shelter.
“Hi, anyone in?” I called.
“Hello,” replied a soft, disembodied voice.
“Is this your home?”
“Where’s mummy and daddy?”
“Gone. So all alone now.”
Shock. Denial. Disgust. I grabbed Ralph’s arm, but just as I was going to shout something at him about smug middle-class bastards, Joel’s little mud-smeared face appeared at the shelter’s entrance.
“Please don’t worry,” he said cheerfully in his high child’s voice. “I’m very happy here.”
I looked down into his clear blue eyes, bright with the sunshine that was dappling his face. And suddenly I did understand.
“He’s freer now than I’ll ever be,” I said to Ralph, who just nodded and smiled.
The next day I went on my own to visit Joel. We talked all afternoon about life in the woods, and how it seemed a lot more fun than living in the city. I even told him about my problems with Rachel and work.
As I left, I impulsively offered him a £5 note. “No thanks,” he said, smiling as ever. “There’s no shops here.”
Back at the cottage I found the email from my employer I’d been dreading. I would be demoted and have my salary reduced rather than being sacked. The company also expected me to compensate it for the considerable losses resulting from my negligence, or face legal action. Workplace humiliation and years of indentured servitude beckoned.
The following morning I took my new friend a milk carton and rolls. As I handed them to him, two men, both with straggly beards and wearing worn denim jackets, walked up.
“Who are you?” shouted one of them. “What you doin’ talking to Joel? You some kind of pedo?”
“Course he is,” snarled the other, then both men moved towards me, fists clenched.
“No!” Joel shouted. “Leave him alone. He’s been kind to me.”
“All right boy,” said the bigger of the two men. “But he’d better get lost if he knows what’s healthy for him.”
After Joel had assured me he knew the two men, I went back to the cottage and told Ralph what had happened.
“Getting dumped really has messed your head,” he said. “Couldn’t you see this was all just a bloody joke? He belongs to travellers at the other end of the woods. They may let him run off when he wants, but he’s not abandoned.”
Embarrassment. Anger. Shame. I shoved past Ralph and out of the cottage, spending the next hour wandering round feeling sorry for myself and not knowing quite what to do next. Eventually, I found myself back at Joel’s den. He wasn’t there anymore, but he’d left the food I’d brought earlier. Before I knew it I’d crawled inside the little shelter and was munching on a cheese roll, with no interest in going anywhere else.
Two days later Ralph came to see me.
“I thought you’d gone home,” he said. “Then I guessed you were here.”
He returned in the evening with tins and a camping stove, plus my clothes from the cottage. He said very little except that the travellers had moved on. But I could tell by the way he looked at me, now he also understood.
Peter Jump has had a varied career that includes freelance journalist, asparagus picker, dispatch rider and mathematics tutor. He also edited the monthly travel magazine Motorcycle Voyager and is the author of Stupid Factor, a guide to setting up a new business. He recently completed his first novel, Cry-O-Baby Inc., a science fiction story.