by Jess Smith
Dear friends allow me to invite you on another Gypsy memory from my years traveling the country roads and glens of bonny Scotland in a blue single decked bus. I was the tender age of seven.
Spring with its bouncing lambs, yellowed valleys of blooming gorse bush and bluebell woods had given way to a warm sun kissed summer. Early spring rains had brought the fruit fields a mighty yield of raspberries as big as a man’s fist. The farmer on seeing his annual droves of Gypsies arrive at his family friendly campsite was rubbing his hands with glee.
My family of seven sisters, parents and our snappy terrier dog crowded down at the bottom of the field, signalling dad to reverse our bus home onto a nice flat piece of ground which was south-facing and secluded by a hedge of mayflower to meet a rising sun. I ran around laying marker sticks for our relatives who would soon join us. Aunt Maggie and Uncle Joe along with little Ed and his big brother Joey were the first to arrive. I swear to you, Joey was an all time excuse for a human being and I hated the ground he walked on. I had good reason to feel this way because he took a sadistic delight in torturing defenceless creatures like mice, birds and insects where as I gave them all the protection I could.
By late afternoon, Aunt Josephine and Uncle Sandy with their three kids arrived, followed by Aunt Jenny, uncle Toby and their brood of ten who erected a circus tent to accommodate them all for the duration of our fruit picking holiday. By sunset we were a big happy bunch of gypsy people circling a blazing campfire, sharing stories, singing songs and enjoying our cultural ties.
To complete the characters who make up this memory I must now introduce old bible Nell; the most formidable lady in the entire campsite. To the Gypsy people, Nell was a Priestess of high esteem. She wrote the rules on how everyone should behave and co-exist as gypsies. No drinking alcohol on the campsite, no flirting with another man’s wife or another woman’s husband. Dogs should not be allowed to run amok and babies should never be set out in the sun without a hat. Every child who didn’t want a slap from her bony hand or nurse a swollen backside after being caught by a flying wallop from her one-legged crutch stayed well away from her tent. Out of earshot, youngsters would call her a witch, older people with no respect said she was Lucifer reborn.
For the entire week, July sunshine saw every available berry picker up at the crack of dawn and home as the sun fanned a hazy horizon.
By the first Sunday we’d seen more than enough red berry dye and back weary basket piling to put us off berry picking for life, well until the next day at least.
Old Nell with a belly full of porridge stood sentry at her tent door surveying every single individual, loudly reminding us it was our Lord’s day of rest, so sit down, shut up—well, until after midday of course.
Suddenly old Nell screams abuse across at our corner of the site. Aunt Maggie had decided to ignore the Sabbath rule and do a washing. Always one for keeping her bedclothes clean, she’d already boiled a large metal bath on the open flames and was scrubbing away. All eyes watched as the soap suds bubbled around her curly black hair. Old Nell waddled over, keeping her clay pipe tightly positioned between the last two teeth in her head, poked at Maggie with her crutch and hissed, “mark my words woman, mark then well, before the clock strikes twelve, the wrath of God shall come upon your blasphemous work!”
My mother, who knew old Nell, and would have plenty to say if gossipers informed her that Maggie put her little boys into soiled bed sheets, spoke in defence, “Now come on Nell, the lass has been busy all week. Surely she needs some time to do her chores. My God would not have a problem with that.”
Old Nell leaned over, stretched her swan-like neck and answered, “Your God wears blinkers, mine sees all”
Everyone in the campsite went deathly quiet as Nell headed to her tent door, leaving Maggie frantically washing at break neck speed and mother tight-lipped.
Behind all this biblical upheaval and oblivious to Nell’s prediction, I and some girls played at ‘what’s and how’s’. This was a mind stretching game where one asks a question and others try to answer it.
It was my turn- ‘Why do aeroplanes stay up in the sky and why don’t ships sink.’ My companions diddled inwardly but no one knew the answers. Suddenly, before I could enlighten them, a crowd of boys appeared in our midst; it was Joey and his gang. He had that look on his face which read- ‘I’m going to annoy you, ha, ha, ha.’
It didn’t take long to send my fellow intellects scattering home, leaving me alone with the Devil’s son and his imps.
There was something afoot, trouble was brewing-- I just knew it. Joey turned his back to me which was a sure sign he was ready to torture a small creature of mother Earth. I cringed and wanted to run but inside a warrior was shouting, ‘stand your ground and go to the rescue.’ I waited with clenched fists. In a flash he whirled round, dropped his trousers and shouted, ‘see what I’ve got.’ The other boys fell around in fits, laughing their heads off.
I went daddy cool and ran my eyes from Joey’s breastbone to his belly button and then I saw it. ‘Oh my God in heaven,’ I went rigid. ‘He’s put a poor wee worm in his pocket, its wriggled free and burrowed under his skin. He’s not going to get it out. It will eat his belly and then chew its way through his lungs and heart.’
Stand still, you stupid boy, I’ll get it out.’ I lunged forward and began to tug at the worm which, as I could plainly see, had a narrow curved mouth and two bulbous eyes.
Joey’s cheeks went a shiny purple colour. He was staring skywards, mouth wide open.
This is shock,’ I thought, ‘He’s in a terrible state. I’d better use some more force.’ I was adamant not to lose control and although I loathed the boy, my instants were to save his wretched life and retrieve the wee worm. Stiffly I lifted my left foot and rammed my heel into his groin. With both hands circled around the worm’s neck, my heart suddenly sank as I felt the life drain from it. Joey screamed, the worm stiffened into life, opened its mouth and spurted a stream of water which landed on the freshly laundered sheets which back weary Aunt Maggie was positioning across a tree rope.
Old Nell heard the scream, rushed over with her pipe bobbing uncontrollably in her thin lipped mouth, pointed at the soiled sheet and shouted so that everyone in the green heard, ‘THAT MY FRIENDS IS ‘THE WRATH OF GOD.!’
Note- Being one of eight girls, no one told me that there was a difference between boys and girls. Oh yes we wore dresses and they had short hair cuts, so how was I to know?
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 fotologic
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