It is almost silent. No traffic noise out here, no murmur of conversation, no quiet footfall on the path. Only the gentle rustle of the leaves as their fading colour turns from red to brown and they fall, spinning slowly, to the red and brown carpet that covers the floor of the wood. From where I stand I can see the iron gate with its dark curling tendrils like the spiral foliage of a fern. The gate is old, corroded, as red as the falling leaves.
My past and future meet here in this wood. I have not been here since childhood, yet nothing has changed.
I tell myself the service has not killed those who were merely an inconvenience, at least, not since the Cold War. There was not even a hint that Yarrow should meet with a convenient accident. The suggestion was rather that he be put away in a safe house, and that was something I could easily arrange. At the time I was considering whether to sell the cottage or keep it for weekends in the country. Only guilt prevented a quick decision to sell, remembering the many times I had said to my mother on the phone, "I can't at the moment, there's too much work, maybe next weekend if we're not busy." But I was always too busy and it was years since I had last been to see her when my mother died. Her solicitor was at the funeral; he told me she had left the cottage to me. I decided to rent the cottage to Yarrow for a year, under his newly assumed name George Temple.
After meeting Yarrow at the cottage and handing over the keys, I bought a paper from the shop and went to the local for a pint. I met some acquaintances from my childhood days as well as some elderly friends of my parents. Of course they were all curious to hear everything I knew about my tenant. George Temple, I told them, was a writer who needed a quiet place to work, isolated from the temptations of London. He had seen my ad in a London paper and decided to rent my cottage for a year, while he was finishing a novel. I hoped this would give Yarrow an excuse to avoid spending too much time with the villagers.
Three months later I had forgotten Yarrow and so, I thought, had everyone else. Then I got a call from my mother's solicitor.
"This is probably nothing, but your tenant, Mr. Temple – has he been in touch with you? Say, in the last two weeks?"
"No, I don't hear from him, apart from the rent cheques. Why, what's he been up to? Or is he complaining?"
"Nothing like that, just the opposite. For the past two or three weeks, he hasn't been to the shop, or the pub or the library. No-one seems to have seen him at all! Not that he was ever very sociable, but he did sometimes like a whisky in the evening. He used to walk into the village most days, for one reason or another."
"Most probably he's just taking a couple of weeks holiday," I say, "but thanks for letting me know. If I don't get the rent next month I'll start to worry."
"He never said anything about going away! The postman looked in through the windows and he said it looked like he'd not been there for days."
"Well, he's from London, they don't always tell the neighbours the way we would. Could you let me know if he turns up? If I get a note from him you'll hear from me."
I was furious with Yarrow. What had made him leave the safety of the cottage? I had to go down there, see what I could find out. I knew he would be too careful to put anything in writing, but he might have found some other way to give me a hint about where he had gone. I considered using the department's resources to check the airport, but Yarrow had been missing for at least two weeks; if he had wanted to leave the country he would be well away by now. In the end, he had been missing for almost a month before I could get away for a day. By then the rent was overdue and this gave me the excuse I needed for a visit.
It was a pleasant day for November and if I hadn't been worried about Yarrow I would have welcomed the chance to get out of the office for a drive through the country. When I parked in front of the cottage I saw the old green car he had driven here from London. I would have to examine it later, after I had searched the cottage. I looked in through the front window at the narrow room where I, an only child, had spent much of my infancy. Everything seemed to be just as my mother had left it. After knocking twice in case Yarrow had somehow returned unnoticed, I unlocked the front door and went straight through to the kitchen. This was the place where my mother's presence lingered, and I had to force myself to ignore the rush of childhood memories that crowded into my mind and concentrate on what had become of Yarrow.
A newspaper lay unfolded on the table, it was the Telegraph for the 7th of October. That was good, it gave me a date when Yarrow was definitely here. The place was surprisingly tidy for the home of a man living alone, but then, what else did he have to do? He had washed a mug, a plate and a knife and left them on the draining board by the sink. Tea and toast for breakfast or a sandwich and lunchtime coffee? I noticed a calendar hanging on a nail, not the kind of thing my mother would have chosen, I thought, it must be Yarrow's. The face of a pale girl child with green eyes, heavy coils of red hair spiralling outward to the corners of the picture. Looking closely I could see that the hair was composed of hundreds of red oak leaves. I saw with surprise that the calendar was turned to the month of November, which seemed to contradict the evidence of the newspaper. Yarrow had made no notes of appointments for this month. I turned back through the calendar. Nothing was written on any of the pages.
I checked the telephone for messages. The solicitor had called and left a message asking George Temple to get in touch with him. I had phoned yesterday in my role as landlord to remind Mr. Temple that the rent was overdue. There were no other messages. I had told Yarrow to dispose of his mobile before leaving London; they were too easy to trace. I flicked through the pile of mail that I had brushed aside as I entered the cottage. I had arranged for George Temple to subscribe to two magazines and be on the mailing lists of three organisations that sent regular newsletters. The office arranged for the occasional letter in a plain brown envelope with a London postmark. There were no letters apart from these. The earliest postmark had the same date as the newspaper.
A search of the rest of the cottage told me nothing. It looked as if George Temple had got up on the 7th of October, had breakfast, bought a newspaper, walked out of the door and never come back. Of course Yarrow could not have brought his own car with him, the green car parked in front was one of ours and I had a key. Checking that no curious villagers had wandered out to the cottage, I quickly searched the car, again with no result. If Yarrow had planned his disappearance, he had been careful not to leave any clues.
I decided to call at the solicitor's office in a nearby small town, in my character as the indignant landlord. As I drove down a pleasant winding country road, familiar since childhood, I realised why the picture on the calendar had seemed significant. The face of the girl in the picture had an uncanny likeness to a playmate I had at the age of nine or ten. Jenny was a year older than me and had been the leader in our games, the games we had played in a place we called "the wild wood." The wood was fenced off from the cultivated fields and an ancient statute kept it from exploitation and development. The road I was on took me very near this wood, and I stopped the car by the footpath that went through it. I had a strong impulse to see again the place where Jenny and I had played happily so long ago. I got out of the car and followed the path as it climbed to the top of a small hill. From the top of this hill I saw the surrounding countryside spread out below me in a patchwork of brown fields.
Now I am here, gazing down at the wood in front of me, its flame-tinted foliage burning in the afternoon sun. I can hear the wind in the leaves, the sudden call of a bird as it flies between the trees. The path slopes down the hill and I follow it down. I can almost see the boy and the girl running down the path in front of me, hand in hand, I can almost hear their laughter. The iron gate creaks as I push it open and enter the enchanted world under the bright autumn canopy. I want to call her name. The path goes on in front of me. I know if I go on I will reach a place full of magic, a place the villagers feared to go after dark. A small clearing in the middle of the wood, named for a reason beyond the memory of the oldest, "the meeting circle". I remember the rhyme Jenny's mother taught her, and she in turn told to me.
"Under the branches streaked with blood, They enter through the iron gate A circle deep within the wood Where past and future meet and wait."
I cannot help feeling Jenny is here somewhere in this wood, hiding from me. The Jenny I imagine is eleven years old, though I know the real Jenny is a middle-aged woman. I remember overhearing a neighbour, a spiteful woman, talking to my mother. "You shouldn't let him play with the witch's daughter." A few weeks after Jenny ran away from home with her traveller boyfriend, her mother's tiny cottage caught fire and her mother died in the flames. I was at University at the time. Jenny never came back.
If she did come back I know she would be drawn, as I have been, to this wood, to where I stand now at the edge of a clearing, my feet on a path between two ancient oaks, two of many strong pillars holding up a grand high vaulted dome. As I take the final steps into the circle the twittering birdsong dies away. I stop and look up to see if I can glimpse the sky in the spaces emptied by the falling leaves. One last brown leaf drifts down as the wind drops and the murmur of rustling leaves stops. All is stillness and silence as I stand alone.
I know what happened to Yarrow. Bored with endless days spent waiting in my mother's quiet lonely cottage, he must have started to go out for walks by himself. I imagine him venturing further and further as the countryside grew more familiar. Nobody warned him not to go into the wood. He was never told about the meeting circle.
A bird starts to call; a brown leaf falls, then another. I turn and walk back along the path to the rusting iron gate.
Nothing has changed. The same sunny day, the same faint breeze rustling the autumn leaves. I don't turn round when I reach the top of the hill for a last look at the deserted wood. My steps speed up as I follow the path back to my car. Traffic noise displaces the silence in my mind as I drive towards the town.