Growing up in a 1950s mining village in the English midlands is hard for someone like Joey, who’s known he was different since he was a kid. All he wants to do is run wild on the hills, watching nature and indulging his love of art. All his parents want is for him to settle down: marriage, a home of his own, a steady job down the mine, and not so much as a whiff of art college. But none of that appeals to him.
Everything changes the summer he turns eighteen, when the travellers come to town. They’re here for the local farmer’s beet harvest, but the villagers resent them and Joe’s mam won’t even let him speak to them. Dirty, lazy, good-for-nothing layabouts, she calls them. But when Joe meets Billy on the hill behind the village, the man isn’t dirty at all, just good-looking, good-humoured and surprisingly kind. Best of all, Billy shares his love of the natural world.
Unbeknown to his family the two become friends, and then more than friends. But when the farmer’s barn burns down and Joe’s brother Rob puts the blame on Billy, Joe must decide whether to stay loyal to his family, or grow up fast and risk everything he’s familiar with to help the man he’s come to love.
The afternoon sun was hot again and he scurried for the shade under a huge old beech tree in the corner of the field. Flies buzzed and a breeze stirred the grass stems, shaking the delicate seed-heads in a never-ending dance, and his head sank lower and lower as the warmth lulled him to sleep. Until something kicked his outstretched leg and jolted him awake. At first he could see nothing, his eyes still glazed with sleep, but slowly a man’s figure revealed itself, black trousers and white shirt half hidden against the black-on-white fretwork of branches against the mid-afternoon sky. Heavy boots, dusty turn-ups, an embroidered waistcoat and a scarlet neckerchief added to the picture and his heart lurched. A gypsy! And not just any gypsy, but the very one he’d seen at the pub earlier, large as life and twice as handsome close up.
Mam’s warning still echoed in his ears but face to face it was even harder to believe. The man didn’t look lazy or like a layabout, and he didn’t look dirty at all. Dark-haired, brooding, surly, perhaps, but never dirty. Then the vision grinned, white teeth gleaming, sparks dancing in the deep blue eyes, and the surliness disappeared. Joe took one look and was lost.
“Sorry about that -- didn’t see you squatting there like a leveret.” The man’s brogue was soft but unmistakable. “Looks nice and cool in the shade. Mind if I join you?”
He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t even think. His mouth hung open, no doubt making him look like an imbecile. He could almost hear Rob joshing him about it now. Close your mouth, our Joey, you’ll catch flies. But to think this man, this handsome, laughing man, might want to sit with him was more than his brain could handle.
If he looked daft, at least the gypsy didn’t seem to notice. Taking silence for approval, the man hunkered down right next to him, using the neckerchief to wipe his face. “I thought it would be better up here than in the valley but I swear it’s hotter than Hades. Good job there’s no work today. What’s the matter with you, anyway? Cat got your tongue? Can’t even tell if you're human, crouched down there, all eyes and hair.”
He knew the man was teasing him but he didn’t mind, not like he’d minded the taunts from the kids at school. The stranger’s smile was kind, and those wonderful eyes twinkled mischief at him, and he found his tongue at last. “Have you got a painted wagon? With steps that let down at the front?”
It had seemed like the most important question to him, but the gypsy stared at him for a second. Then he grinned. “Yeah. Want to come and see it sometime?”
“Oh, yes please.” He’d heard the tales, and seen the wagons in the distance in previous years, and couldn’t imagine anything more romantic. The thought of living in something as impermanent as that, of being free to go wherever you chose, whenever you chose, sounded like heaven compared to the family’s squashed little house. “That would be amazing.”
The gypsy’s grin faded, although his eyes still twinkled. He leant forwards and brushed one finger down Joe’s cheek. The tip was work-roughened and caught against his new beard-growth, sending a wild thrill through his nerves that he didn’t yet understand. “We could go now if you like.”
“Really?” He must be dreaming. He must have dozed off under the tree and be dreaming all this, because he, Joe Cooper, didn’t make handsome men look twice at him, let alone invite him to see their painted wagons. He wasn’t that interesting. He wasn’t that sort of chap. Except that the gypsy had stood up and was holding out a hand, and when he took it, it felt real enough. And the smirk and those dancing eyes would be hard to dream up.
“Yes, really. If you’ve got nothing better to do, that is.”
He’d had nothing better to do since he left school, which seemed like ages ago. Springing up, he smiled shyly at his new friend. “Is it far?”
“Only to the meadow next to the river. I parked my van a bit away from the others. Less noses poking in.”
That sounded as though it was important, somehow, although he wasn’t sure why. It made sense, though. “Don’t you like people much either?”
“People are fine. I just ... I suppose I don’t like to be crowded all the time.”
“I know what you mean.”
His tone must have been more emphatic than he’d realised because the gypsy looked sharply at him, then looked away. “You remind me of a ki -- someone I used to know. And don’t worry. You’re safe with me. I won’t try to crowd you, either.”
He stared, and felt himself blush. People didn’t usually consider his feelings that much. His family treated him with a kind of bemused resignation most of the time. Everyone else reacted like he was an idiot. He found he was still holding the gypsy’s hand -- a minor miracle in itself -- and gave it a grateful squeeze. “Thanks.”
“Any time.” The squeeze was returned, briefly, then the man turned to lead the way down the hill.
But before he could take two steps at his new friend’s side, a shrill girl’s voice wavered up the hillside. And it was calling his name.