Gypsy Memories

 

The ginger-haired boy positioned his freckled face above the school gate, “Hey you, white nigger.”

I gulped a lungful of air and screamed back defiantly, “Go roll with your pigs, farm yard scum.”

He slammed the gate shut, and screeched back, “Rather live in a dung heap than a filthy tent! Tinky vermin, your mother can’t knit, your father kicked a policeman and is lying in the nick (jail).”

I flew at him with fanned fingers and grabbed bunches of red hair. Like tail tied wildcats we scratched, punched and rolled in the dirt and chuck gravel. I knitted my legs around his heaving chest and hissed, “My daddy says your father spends more time on the hillside with the sheep than he does with your ugly mother!”

Teeth clenched, he retorted, “Your mother’s a witch; you’re a goblin, so there!’

Fueled temper blotted all memory of the battle, except for the teacher shouting as he cast me aside like a rag doll, “Bloody uncivilised tinker, go home. You too, boy.”

I limped home from school that day sporting two bruised shins; he was such a big boy with hard capped boots. Layers of pink flesh under my nails and red hair between my swollen fingers proved I managed to hold my own.  

“Mammy,” I cried, “why does every school have a nasty boy who hates us and what’s a nigger and when did we live in tents?”

The previous month, my beautiful raven-haired mother had given birth to her eighth daughter. Her back was still weak and painfully sore as she bent over a metal bath scrubbing nappies (diapers). Rising slowly, she straitened her spine, inhaled and rested two soapy fists on slender hips. I rushed over and circled her thighs. “Oh mammy. Why is life so awful?”

“Oh dear, not another fight.” She blew onto my tear-sodden eyes and kissed my knuckles.   

“Empty headed boy, he’ll never live as rich a life as you.  All that waits for him is moaning about the price of cattle food.”

She lifted my chin and smiled. “You share the world with all God’s creatures and strong, powerful warriors from Africa are called niggers but only by ignorant people who don’t know better. Now remember I told you about grandma and grandpa living in tents most of their lives. Tree bark peeling, hazelnut gathering, snaring rabbits and selling the skins put food in our bellies just like you going berry picking in summer and potato lifting in the autumn. I was raised walking behind the horses’ hooves, as was your father. If the tent was erected properly, it was cozy and kept out the worst snow and gales.”

She turned me around to face our mobile home and said, “But isn’t it better sleeping in a proper bed rather than the ground?”

I handed her a flannel to dry her hands. Together we walked into our “home”—a converted bus; a mansion on wheels.  From a cradle of wicker weave lined with eiderdown, my baby sister cried. I snuggled between a feather-filled cushion and Mammy to watch the sucking motion of baby’s cheeks as she filled her belly with milk au natural and wondered if somewhere in Africa a six years old girl was watching her mother do exactly the same thing; two niggers—one black the other white, who’d spend a lifetime defending their identity against racism.    

That was 1954, only nine years since the end of WW2; rebuilding opportunities were in every city. I had four older sisters. They didn’t have the same respect for their ancestral roots as I, and constantly nagged our parents to find a proper home, a house with a bath and bedrooms.   

Sadly, Mammy was becoming increasingly tired with the road so she, too, added her persuasive powers at Daddy, my bus driver and their breadwinner. He didn’t wish to sever ties and end his roving days.  Like his rootless daughter, he held fast his love of bridle paths, wild moorland and the simple love of freedom to roam.

For ten years, while my sisters grew ever distant to their culture, my parents and I shared fantastic memories of a land very few people get the chance to explore.

By the time I reached my fifteenth birthday, the bus was a mechanical wreck yet the urge to travel further was still strong. Sadly, although Dad’s health was causing problems, nevertheless, for my sake, he purchased a caravan and for another two years we continued to move from forest track to fruit fields, west coast beaches, skirts at the feet of mountains tipped by winter snow and clothed in purple heather.

Time passed and with it my sisters found partners who’d provide their own stone mansions. Daddy’s ill- health was a timely reminder he had to settle, near a doctor.

I alone continued to travel but at seventeen, when I met a handsome young man and fell head over heels, my wanderlust abruptly came to an end.

He wasn’t a Traveller, had no desire to be the husband of a wild rover so he imprisoned me in a stone walled house. Soon we shared two sons and a curly-headed daughter. My cultural shock would remain until the chicks flew off to build their own nests.

As I looked forward to a future of mountain climbing with my beloved jailer, something fantastic happened. I began to regress to my mansion on wheels, wandering roots and the nasty boy. I don’t know why, but something was pulling me towards writing down those memories. Leaving the mountains aside, I applied every sensible available hour and before I knew it the past was alive in five published books*. My ancestors roam again….

Awaiting birth is a massive literary giant that encapsulates the entire Gypsy/traveller culture plus two novels.

Sometimes, when I go wandering across the mountain tracks near my hillside cottage, I think of the ginger-haired boy with bad attitude and wonder who had the bigger problem?

We were only six years old yet already at war. It’s in man’s make-up and to date no wise mind has changed that genetic flaw. Animals don’t suffer from it, people do. Reasons are readily on tap: class, religious division, skin colour and, in my case, Gypsy roots.  

So every now and then I remind myself of the little six-year-old white nigger girl with painful shin bones rocking her baby sister to sleep among a field of trumpeting daffodils and smelling yellow blossomed broom and thinking, “ time to kiss Mother Nature! My hills are alive...”

 

 

Author's Note: For centuries Scottish gypsies were known as tinkers or tinsmiths. It refers to a time when they were skilled in the art of blacksmithing or forging tin and made their living this way. They lived in tents, caves, moorlands and mountains were secretive and seldom mixed with the settled population. My lineage is rooted to this culture which is the whole subject of my books. Research has dated them as being brought to Britain  by Roman conquers over two thousand years ago. It is believed they were Egyptian weapon forgers who had perfected a superior sword to that of Rome. Facing a wild and savage northern warrior (picts) those ancient weapons would have been needed in abundance. When Rome recalled her fighting forces many slaves were left behind-and here our story begins. To learn more about me and what drives my pen, visit www.jesssmith.co.uk

photo by ericcommando89 

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