Wednesday, 28 March 2012

The Gambler

'My Grandmother Janna came to live with us after my father died. My mother was only twenty, they were so in love, she went off her rocker really. She would write his name over and over again on the wall in the garden. I was three when he died and Janna came. If it wasn't for her we'd all be bloody rich.'

“She came to look after your mum?”

'No. She came because she had nowhere else to go. What happened was this; My Grandfather, Spiro Dione, was a PO in the Royal Navy. He was always away at sea. He and Janna were very well off. Rich. He used to ship furniture back, so everything in the house was bespoke. In Malta, if you were rich you had a marble house. I mean the outside, it would be all marble. They had one. Its still there. Carmen took me to see it when I last visited. I had no idea.
Janna had a lot of gold. Chains that went to her knees – another Malta way of showing.
Then – now, let me see, let me count.'

I can hear my mother's mind like an abacus down the phone line.

'Okay, Janna and Spiro Dione had seventeen children.'


'I know. Three girls and the rest boys. They never needed for anything. Then, one day Spiro Dione came home to retire. They retired young from the navy. Forty, sometimes up to forty six. When he got back he found there was no money in the bank. Half of the furniture he had been sending was also gone. He asked Janna what was going on, and eventually after she ran out of lies, she told him she had gambled it all away. The house too, would soon be taken. Her chains were gone, her gold. Everything. So he shot her.'


We sit on opposite ends of the phone line laughing with each other. Laughing with that illicit mirth that's particular to families only. Once we calm down mum continues.

'Yes, her leg or somewhere. Obviously she was running around as he took aim. She used to show me the bullet mark, “That's where your grandfather shot me Chettina! There!”

So she ended up living with us and Spiro Dione lived with Auntie Chetta, two doors down. We all lived on the same street, all of us. He would stand on the balcony and whenever Janna passed by underneath he would spit on her. They would have these big arguments – her in the street, him on the balcony. Just telling each other how much they hated the other. They lived for years on that hate. She would scream, “When you die I'll dance on your grave!” And he would reply, “And if you go first I'll dance on yours!”

He died first. She didn't dance on his grave. But she did spit on it.

I asked Carmen why with so many sons, all living, did none of them ever visit her, or care for her? And that's how Carmen came to tell me the story. Because everyone would have been rich when they died. All of us. But the boys, who had never had to work, now had to find trades. One became a greengrocer, another a butcher, this one a baker and so forth. They would all bring food around for her but the wouldn't speak to her again. And she, well she wouldn't speak to them either. Seventeen children and almost none of them speaking to her. How is that possible eh?

I loved her very much. When I was in trouble she would hide me under her skirt. She was a character. She had a stroke once and my mother put her to bed and she got over it herself! No doctor was called. She never had anything to do with doctors or priests. She hated priests and nuns – she spat at them too. And she would have a go at my mother you know. She would have a go because she would go away and leave us and not care for us. And my mother would chuck her out. It happened a few times. She had a room somewhere. A tiny room with only a bed in it. And she would go there until my mother would have her back.

I didn't have toys. The cousins used to tease me, showing off their toys but I didn't care. I had a shoebox and I collected pieces of coloured glass. Red was special. Red glass was the most precious thing I had. I would take the pieces out of the box and in my imagination they would become people and furniture and houses. Strange how you can do that as a child.

One time Janna went gambling and she came back, running up the street, Happy happy happy! She said, “I've won you a doll!” It was huge. My mother put it on top of the wardrobe and said I could play with it on sundays. Sundays were always special. No brooms came out, no floors to mop. A real day of relaxing. I used to look forward to playing with the bloody doll. I preferred my coloured glass but the doll was big and I could tease my cousins with it. One sunday I go to get it and its not there. My mother tells me she's sorry but she had to give it to one of my cousins. So that was the end of the bloody doll. Janna had a go at her. Mum threw her out of course.

In the end Janna only went to hospital once in her life. Bearing in mind she gave birth seventeen times that's quite an achievement. All born at home. When she was eighty or so she fell in the street and banged her head on the curb. She was taken to the hospital and she died there. Her last words were, “There are so many angel's around my bed.” It was her children that she saw, that she mistook for angels.

She lived and died a gambler though. Anything; Cards, horses, dogs, bingo, anything. She set up poker games on the street outside the house. My brother Joe is like her. He gambles. He's always gambled.

Everyone takes after someone don't they.'

Monday, 26 March 2012

Nothing sad about it.

'I was about six I think. I used to run the streets in knickers and a vest. Running around, free at all hours.
It was christmas and Auntie Chetta saw me sitting on a doorstep on my own. It was about midnight. She said, “Come on, you can come to midnight mass with me.”
I said, “Ok.” I had nothing else to do.
By the time mass started I was getting sleepy. The chairs in the church had these holes in them. Chetta was very religious obviously. Of course she was, this was Malta. I fell asleep and wee'd through the holes in the chair. Then Chetta woke me and said, “Come on, its time to take communion.” So we go up, the priest puts the wafer on my tongue and we go back to our seats. But I am falling asleep again and the wafer, it falls from my mouth and in to the wee! The priest was horrified. He starts putting barricades around the wafer. He says to Auntie Chetta,”Why did you bring her? She's supposed to be in bed!” Chetta starts crying.
As we are walking back, about one o'clock, we see Don Doffi – the priest – he's stood outside this door, looking around. He knocks quietly and a woman answers and he goes inside. She was one of those 'undesirable' women. A prostitute, but who only works from home. Auntie Chetta sees too and she says, “And he thinks he's holy.”
She takes me back to her house and gives me cake and some hot drinking chocolate. The following day she's talking to my mother about what happened. Mum is of course oblivious to the fact that I have been out all night and gone to mass.
In Malta they have the “Blessing of the House” once a year. It involves a big spring clean, everyone trying to make their homes look perfect and free from sin. You have to give them money for the blessing. Obviously. When the priest arrives at the door with the little boy - they always bring a little boy with a bag on a stick to collect your money – my mother goes to the door and says, “Why don't you go to number 40. She probably needs it after you've been in there.” That was more or less the story. When I told Ziu Joe about it a year later..well you know he turned it in to a big play. Then it became a television series. And then all those actors got death threats and had to move to Australia. And Ziu Joe had paint thrown at his door. He made the story so that the woman comes in to the church during mass and says to the priest “How will you redeem yourself of this sin?” whilst pointing at her pregnant stomach. It was very controversial.
I was always running the streets. My mother caught me one day and took me home. She said, “You're having a bath.”
I said, “What? No!”
She had already filled this big tin bath with water and she washes me. Then she puts me in this new dress. Its pink with a bow at the back and little flowers on it. She puts me in these white shoes – which I'd never had before.'
“You'd never had white shoes before?”
'No, I'd never had shoes before. I was always barefoot. Running the streets. Then she gives me a boiled egg. I was very surprised. I was thinking; where did she get that from? She was never at home to feed us. We ate at other people's houses. I would climb in their windows and they would feed me. I knew which houses would give me what. One house cake, another pasta. You know the president, Mintoff? Well, when he was a teenager I used to climb in his mother's window and she would feed me also. And try to brush my hair. He didn't like me.
Anyway, then my mother, she puts rouge on my cheeks.
Make up?”
What on earth for?”
'I was malnourished, very thin. She says to me, “I'm going to talk to you. I'm going to take you to a big house, a palace. You will live there with rich people. An when you grow up a knight on a white horse will come for you and you will be a princess. Would you like that?”
We got on the bus to Valetta and were met by a big man called Pullu. He said nothing. He walked ahead of us and we followed. We come to a blue door and he knocks on it and keeps walking. We wait. A small dark woman lets us in. Its a big house, huge staircase. She and my mother are whispering to each other and the woman gives her some money. Then, my mother, she went to go and I went to follow her. She says, “No. You live here now.”
The woman, Nana, says to me, “What's your name?”
“Well from now on your name will be Rhoda.”
“Because I had a baby girl called Rhoda and she died. So now I want you to be called Rhoda.”
“Ok.” It didn't make any difference to me what I was called.
Her husband, Ziu Joe, came back and she told me to hide behind the door. She wanted to surprise him. He came in and she said, “I have something to show you.” She pulled me from behind the door. Joe made this face – like a rabbit twitching its nose.
“Look what I got,” she said.
“What are we going to do with her?” He said.
“Bring her up.”
“Ok,” he said. And we sat down for lunch.
Her fourteen year old son came in and Nana says to him, “Look, you have a sister.”
William, that was his name, he got a jar off the shelf full of sweeties and offers them to me. I take a whole handful and Nana says, “No, No! You must only take one.”
“Because its polite.”
So I took only one. William laughed.
In the afternoon we sat in the lounge and Nana made me a nightgown on her sewing machine. Because I only had what I was standing in.'
I remember something Mum has told me before and interject, “Your mother must have missed you. She used to come and stand outside your school behind a tree and watch you in the playground didn't she?”
'Yes but Nana told me she was a witch and if she caught me she would kill me. So if I saw her I would run away.'
“That's not what I'm saying. She must have missed you though, to come.”
'I don't think so. She never seemed sad or bothered.'
“Maybe she just didn't want you to see her upset.”
'Maybe. I wasn't sad. Everything to me was a bloody adventure. I missed running the street though. But, you know, the comfort counterbalanced it. But...It was like putting someone in a cage. I missed the running.
You know, six years old is not too old to start a new life. I never liked Nana. Defying her, retaliating, that was my victory. I always did more of what I couldn't do. What I wasn't allowed to do. As much as I didn't like her I knew I had nowhere else to go. Children that ran away were put in homes then so I knew I had to bide my time. I was never a sad child though. There was nothing sad about it.'

Friday, 23 March 2012

Hello chico!

'I was fifteen when I ran away from Nana and Ziu Joe, the people my mother sold me to.  Nana went to America for seven months to visit her son so I was out and about!  Shopping, boys and beach.  Then she came back and everything was how it always had been with her. I ran home to my mother. We all ran home to her eventually.  I wanted to get my own back, I hated everybody then. So I took a job in a cocktail bar.  It wasn’t the done thing.  They all said it was wrong so I wanted to more. You know?
The bar was owned by three brothers; Frankie, Paul and Josie.  While I was working Ziu Joe had people chaperoning me from the opposite side of the street.  Sometimes him, sometimes some priest or other who was a friend of the family.  They took turns.  At two in the morning my uncle would come and collect me.  So that’s how it went. 
One of your father’s friends, a painter – a sailor but also a painter – asked the brothers if he could paint a Muriel across the bar wall.
“A mural,” I correct her.
‘Whatever.  The thing is I didn’t actually like working in the bar -I was just doing it out of spite. And this painter, Benny Forber his name was, he says to me, “When you smile I will paint you. You never smile.”
One day a bloke comes in and he looks at me and then at Benny and he says to him, “Yeah, you’re right.”  He comes up to the bar and he says, “Hello Chico.”  He was horrible looking, with this big beard. I said, “That’s not my name.” He asks for a blue – that’s a beer. Then he pays me in pennies! I have to count them out. He goes away and he is talking quietly with Benny and looking over to me. When he comes for another beer I say, “You’re talking about me. Why?” He tells me, “Benny came on to the ship one night and he says to me ‘Do you want to meet a miniature Sofia Loren?’ I’m a big fan of Sofia Loren so I came to meet you.”
I really didn’t like him. His beard was huge.  And he always paid with pennies. I complained to one of the brothers and he said “Don’t count them then, just stick them in the till.” He told me sailors don’t get paid much. 
Over the next three nights he came in, bought blue’s and sat in the corner watching me and getting paralytic.  At two in the morning the three brothers would put him outside.  The P.O’s would come in a van and pick up all the drunken sailors.  My mother came to pick me up and saw him slumped against the wall. “Don’t ever go out with him,” she said.
“As if I would.”
Several times he asked me to go out with him.
“I don’t like you.”
One day he says, “We’re sailing for Venice. I’ll bring you a present. Maybe you’ll go out with me then.”
“No I won’t,” I said.
He came back on my day off.  I was at home, lying on my stomach on the floor in cut off jeans and a shirt reading a comic. Suddenly behind me at the door I hear, “Hello Chico!”  I jumped.
“I’ve brought you a present,” he said. He was in his uniform carrying a big box.  It was a big doll. Very frilly. I glanced at it.
“I’m still not going out with you!”
My mother heard me, came out and said, “Who are you shouting at?”  Then she sees the doll. “ Ah! Nice boy. Come in! You want beer?”
I just lay back on my stomach and keep reading.
She comes out with beer and a bottle of whiskey.
“Oh that’s all he needs,” I say flicking a page over. “You’re always drunk.”
“No I’m not,” he says.
Then mum comes out with a huge steak on a plate.
“I am NOT going out with him!” I shout.
The following day he comes to the bar again.
“That was a lovely steak your mother made me.”
“It’s not special,” I say.  “She does that for everyone.”
He stays until nine, then leaves, sober.
This happened for a few nights until he asks me to walk him to the ship.
“Walk me to the ship?”
Benny stops painting for a moment. “Oh go on, for Christ’s sake, it’s only down the road!”
I sigh and frown. “Oh alright.”
Benny watches us from the door.  When we get to the ship he leans over and kisses me on the cheek. I hit him so hard across the face.
I storm back. “You see!” I say to Benny.
“Why did you hit him?” Benny asks bewildered.
“He kissed me!”
It’s impossible not to laugh and mum pauses whilst I recover myself.
‘One day he came in civvies. Grey flannel trousers, a blue striped shirt and a cravat.’
I’m moved that she remembers exactly what he wore.
‘He had shaved his beard off and I didn’t recognise him. Not at all.  I was thinking, he’s good looking. Who is he?  He said hello and ordered a beer and I’m all smiles. He keeps smiling back and winking at me.
I was very naive.
Then he pays in pennies. I say to Josie, “Not another one paying with pennies!”
Josie rolls his eyes, “It’s him. It’s Pete.”
“No it's not. This one looks like James Dean.”
Josie shakes his head, “It’s Pete. He shaved off his beard.”
Pete smiles, “It’s me Chico.”
All my friends would come in and say “Ooh doesn’t he look like James Dean!”
Pete asks me to go to the cinema with him. I’m not so sure. Josie leans over and whispers “They are playing Jailhouse Rock.”
“Okay, but I only want to see Jailhouse Rock.”
Pete nods very quickly. “Okay,okay.”
Anyway, the next thing I know I get a letter from his mother.
‘Yes. It says; my son is in love with you. I have never heard him talk about anyone the way he talks about you. I am looking forward to coming for the wedding.’
I can picture my Gran writing that letter and it makes me grin. She has such mischief in her.
‘I show the letter to my mother.
“You can’t marry, you’re not even sixteen.”
“Of course not,” I say.
The news spreads fast. All the aunts are saying ‘No No No’. And I’m agreeing with them.  I tell Pete, “I’m not marrying you. I’m marrying no one. Especially not you.”
He just looks at me and says, “But I want to marry you.”
We went on a few more dates and he kept crying.
“If you don’t I’ll jump ship. I’ll go to prison. I’m not going back to England without you.”
Then he shows up with a ring. Crying.
I said, “For Christ’s sake, you’re always crying! Okay, okay! I’ll marry you!”
Just like that.
Well.  Everything went berserk. Everyone is shouting, “No! You’re too young!”
Which of course meant I was absolutely going to do it.
Another letter comes from his mother. She is flying to Malta for the wedding.  I show it to Ziu Joe and he says to the family, “You know how stubborn she is.  She’s run away before. She will do it again. Let’s just deal with this.”  So he makes a search on the family. You know he worked for Reuters then? Yes. “If the family is no good we’ll lock her in a room until he leaves with the ship.”
He got good feedback. No ‘undesirables.’
So then they are all running around like headless chickens organising, planning, making things.  Auntie Chetta was crying. She cried a lot anyway but she was also saying, “ I have to make her dress, veil, two bridesmaids dresses and she won’t come in the house for a fitting!”  They got two people to catch me and hold me still so she could measure me.
All through this I think it’s hilarious.’
Mum says ‘heelarious.’ More than fifty years in this country and she’s still Maltese through and through.
‘I think it’s all a big joke.  Pete was taking it seriously.   He was twenty two.
I mean I was still going out on dates.  Everyone was so busy organising the wedding and I was gallivanting about on the beach with my boyfriends.
Two days later we go to the airport to collect his mother.  He always says ‘My mum’ when he talks about her. So when I meet her I say “Hello Mum.”
“Hello Chico,” she smiles. “I’ve been dying to meet you. You’re as beautiful as Patrick said you were.”
I’m thinking, who the fuck is Patrick?

We were married at six pm on Saturday afternoon the 27th of December 1959.
As I was walking out of my mother’s house the clock on the wall behind me said five to six. And my mother is behind me wailing, “ She has no interest in this! She can’t be bothered!”
She stopped me. She said, “Nothing matters. Everything can be cancelled.”
I said, “Are you stupid? I’m getting married!”
“But do you want to?”
“It’s a party!” I grin.
She sighs. “Okay.”
Your father looked so relieved when I showed up. So did the priest. He was rubbing your Dad’s back. Pincher Martin was his best man.
“Good name,” I say.
‘After the wedding we went to our new place in Floriana.  I went to the bathroom and put on my interlock nightie. Up to the neck, down to the toes.’
I am crying with laughter. “You can stop there mum.”
‘Bu the story isn’t finished.’
“I know what happens next.”
‘When I realised. Oh good god. I ran all the way back home in my nightie. My mum was stood waiting on the doorstep with her arms folded.
“I’m not married anymore”, I say. “I don’t like it.”
“Yeah, I know,” my mother says.
The uncles go over with a bottle of rum to explain things to your father. I went back but I ended up sleeping between the two drag queens that lived upstairs. That was my wedding night.’
“How long between meeting and marrying was it?”
‘We met in August and married in December. A month after my sixteenth birthday.’
“That’s the way to do it.”
‘Yes, that’s the problem with your genera –‘

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

You won't have time to cook lover.

‘I thought Romany meant they were from Rome.
They used to bicker amongst themselves about your brother, “He’s Roma!” “He’s French, look at him!” “He’s Italian, so dark.” “No. He’s Roma.”
“How did you end up there?” I ask, cradling the phone.
‘Ah well. Your father was in the navy. He had married me and brought me to England and we were living with his father in Cambridge. He had lodgers. A woman and her husband. And their boy who I think was autistic. She was lovely, Bridgette, glass eye.  I didn’t like it there. I wanted my own somewhere.  You know?’
I nod though she can’t see me.
‘He didn’t have a TV. We would listen to the radio by the fire. That was okay though.
He said to me one day, “You’re not happy here are you? Come with me.”
I didn’t know where we were going.  The only place we ever went was to his sister and she wouldn’t speak to me. Nor her husband. Nor her son. They didn’t like foreigners. I would have to sit there in silence ‘til it was time to go. Horrid woman. But, you know, it was his sister.
He walks me across the road to this campsite where the gypsies lived and he knocks on a door and an old woman, Nanny Annie, comes out all smiling and says, “Ah, you’re going to love your new home.”
I have no idea what is going on.  Granddad and her take me to this caravan.
“I bought it for you,” he says. “Do you like it?”
He paid forty pounds for it.
I move in and they all come, all of them, with presents and food. I don’t need any food but it’s their way.
“You’ve got a little chavi,” they said.
I said, “No. His name is Sean.”
The first night they sent four girls about my age. Seventeen, eighteen.
“We’ve come to keep you company cos it’s your first night and we don’t want you to be lonely.”
They brought biscuits and cakes. I made endless pots of tea. In those days we used loose tea you know. No teabags then.  We smoked ourselves stupid until three in the morning, talking. Telling me how they lived.  At the beginning I was more friends with the younger people.
A year I was there ‘til Albie knocked on the door. “They’re moving us on. They’re tearing the site down and building houses here.”
I didn’t understand.  This was my home.
“We’re gonna have to move. Don’t worry, we’ll tow you. Wrap your ornaments in blankets and put them in the cupboards.”
We moved up the hill to Fen road. There was a railway track, a river and a big empty site.  They parked the vans in a circle and put mine right by the tap, so I just had to open my door to get water. Yes, we had outdoor taps and gas bottles. We had these little gas lights, like cobwebs really. But when you lit them they were brighter than electricity.
So, then one night, late, one in the morning, I hear this tap tap at the door. And then scuffling. I call out, “Who’s there?”  I hear back, “Your husband.”
I open the door and four men in their boxers are holding your Dad. Arms pulled behind his back, head held back by his hair. He’s so red. He’s trying to punch them all but he can’t move.  Stood there in his navy uniform. He looked like James Dean, your father.
“Do you know him?” Kelly asked.
“Yes! He’s my husband.”
They let him go and pat him on the back.
“Okay, in you go. We’re going to bed.”
And off they go in nothing but their pants. It was a hot summer.
‘How long did he stay?’ I ask. I look over at the black and white photo I have of Dad, about twenty four, tattoo’d, uniform, beer in hand, handsome and moody.
Sometimes a month. Then he would be gone for three. He went mostly to Iceland.  One time he came back and your brother would have nothing to do with him. Kept pushing him away.
“He doesn’t know you,” I said. And your Dad, he said, “Okay, when I finish my ten years I won’t sign on anymore.  I won’t have my son growing up not knowing me.”
Six months later he finished his commission and that was that. I sometimes wish he’d stayed in the navy. Sean would have gotten older, understood, and looked forward to seeing him. And your Dad. He hated the building sites. There was more snow in the 60’s it seemed. No security and so cold.
Anyway. The next morning at six am, your father is sleeping, and the men come and bang on the door.  I open up and they march in and start shaking dad. They give him a bottle of rum, a bottle of whiskey, a bottle of this, a bottle of that.   Then they pull their hair at the front, even the ones without hair, it’s a greeting, a welcome.  And then they march out again.  Dad is lying there stunned. After a moment he shouts, “What the FUCK is going on?”
She laughs.  And she laughs.
‘They are gypsies, I say. They are making you welcome.
I f they’ve got something to give you they walk in and out. They don’t make themselves comfortable unless invited.
Dad went out to explore the site. I watched. They were all patting him on the back. He made friends there. You know he didn’t like people.  They’d reassure him that they were looking after me. 
We used to laugh. Dad did impressions of them. But he could never make that sound though, that ‘choos’.
They were always stealing of course.  But if the police or social services came to the gate – any official car – they’d let all the dogs loose.  They were so trained. They would go out and form a forward facing circle and wait.  Big Alsatians.  I used to tell your brother not to go near them but they never touched children.  They never would. Kelly, Pat’s husband, he said to me, “If one touched a child we would bury it alive.”
I never saw a cat. They didn’t find them interesting.
Zack and Albie roasted a chicken and brought it round. “Here, you won’t have time for cooking lover.”
The way they do things.
Well I didn’t understand it at the time, what they meant.
They called me lover.
I told you how I met your father?’

Monday, 19 March 2012

But they shared what they had.

'We were so low on luck at that time that your father would go off walking for miles and find a farm to steal a chicken. He would be crawling on his stomach trying to catch one and break its neck before the others started making a racket. He'd come back exhausted and dishevelled with one, sometimes two, chickens. I would quickly pluck them and boil them with whatever vegetables the gypsies had given us. I wrapped the feathers in newspaper and hid them in the bottom of the bin. Your brother was about two then, maybe three. He would sit round the big camp fire with them and eat hedgehog. I'd say to your father “He's eating Hedgehog!” And he would say “It's good. It'll do him no harm.” It didn't do him any harm.

We lived on that camp for three years. 1960 to '63 I think. Your father was away with the navy a lot and I was waiting for him in the caravan with your brother. At first the gypsies would share a little. They weren't sure of us yet. But they said at the beginning, the first time they saw me 'Ah, you're a Romany.' I didn't even know what a bloody Romany was. But I looked like one so...
So, we had nothing. The snow was up to here.'
Mum points to a place near her chest that on anyone else would be their waist.
'Your father had gone looking for work like he did every day. Walking, walking. I was playing with your brother when this delivery arrived. Two huge tea chests. You know how big a tea chest is?'
I nod, light a cigarette.
'Well, they are from your grandmother, from your dad's mum. She has had them shipped to us all the way from the Maldives. Huge. I open the first one and it is full, full to the brim with loose tea leaves! And I'm thinking What the bloody hell...? Then I read the note on the top. It says Search through the leaves. I start sifting through them. There are two rings for Dad and I, with that stone they have there, you know? It's black with engraving on it? Anyway. Silver bands. Lovely. And then I'm pulling out money. Loose notes. Notes! I couldn't believe it. I opened the second chest and this one is filled up, right up to the brim with tins. Tinned everything you can imagine. A whole chicken in a tin. Even tinned butter. A ham. Spam. I filled the cupboards. I cooked a proper meal. And that day your father came home and he had found some work. Doing night shifts in a bakery. When I showed him what his mother had sent he just sat down and cried.'

I go and make us some coffee and light another cigarette.

'There was another woman on the site who wasn't a gypsy. Pat. She didn't have their mentality. Her husband beat her up. She was so beautiful. I would see her pulled in to the caravan, shouting, it was horrible. When he drank you know. Then they would come out the next day, she with a black eye and they would be all happy, normal. She couldn't have children. She wanted one so much. He got another woman pregnant and gave her money so Pat could raise the child. Pat didn't mind that he did that. She was so happy. But it has a sad ending. I'll tell you later.'
'What was he like?' I ask.
'He was the loveliest man. Really lovely.'
'But he beat his wife up.'
'Yes, when he drank. It was terrible. Pat taught me a lot. She would explain what was going on. I was so young and so bewildered by everything in England. You should have seen their funerals. So elegant. Everyone in black. They would build this room where the body would lie for a week. So much money would be spent. Then they would get roaring drunk and fight and destroy each others caravans. I would lock myself in. The next day they would be out there helping each other to rebuild things, fix things. Everything fine again. I said to Pat, “Why do they do it?” She said, “Its how they are. That's how they let out steam.” It was the same with the weddings. They buy the couple a new caravan, all in cash, always cash, they fill it with everything they need. And the best. Crown Derby. Then after the wedding, when they had been drinking for hours around the fire Pat would say, “Time to lock yourself in.” And I'd watch through the window as they destroyed the new caravan, tore it apart. Broke everything. The next day, yes, a new caravan, new things. Everything fine again.'

I sit there picturing it. The immediacy of their lives. I notice a shaft of light falling over the red carpet.

'I did some jobs with them. They took me on some jobs to make a little money. One was billing. We'd have all these flyers to deliver door to door. Pat and I would travel somewhere quite far away and deliver to a few streets then Pat would shove the rest, huge piles of flyers in to a bin and say “Fuck this for a lark, let's go to the pub.” We had to deliver a few so some people would show up for the sales.'

Mum laughs, head thrown back.

'And tatering, that was the other job. Potato picking. The first time I went I left your brother with one of the gypsy women. They showed me how to hold the basket between my thighs and follow behind the tractor. As the potatoes were turned over and up out of the soil we would gather them. We would all end up with tater legs. You know? Bow legged from the basket. Afterwards we went to a supermarket and the people sneered at us. They whispered; “Bloody Gypo's”. I said “I'm not a bloody Gypo!” And Zack, he was funny, he would say “No! She's a Romany!” We would be covered in mud from the field. When we got back the woman told me your brother had run away. I grabbed her top, “What do you mean he's run away? He's three!” I saw the river, the train track, I was going mad. “You haven't been looking for him?” I raged. She was cowering. Zack, he used to make this sucking noise with his mouth, a lot of them did it, it meant “hey” or “yes” or “no”. He made this noise “choos” and nodded towards the underneath of the caravan. “I spot a little chavi,” he said. Chavi is Romany for boy.'

I think a bit about how we've appropriated that word and made it something bad. Chav. Chavs.

'Your brother had been hiding. I said to him, “Why? What happened?” He told me she had shouted at him. She probably shouted at all the kids but your brother wasn't used to that. You know he was a little king. I told Zack I wasn't going tatering again. I couldn't leave your brother. He said we could just take him with us. I wasn't sure, you know, with tractors and all, but he said it was fine. He said, “Pack him a bag of toys.” We made him an area by the van and Zack dug him some ground to play with. He had his little tractor and some spades, toy ones. At lunch we had sandwiches and a flask of tea. To your brother this was a big picnic. So much fun. They all loved him. One day the farmer asked if he could take your brother on the tractor with him. Oh, can you imagine. For a little boy it was so exciting. He sat on the farmers lap and held the wheel and believed he was driving. All the time he would say to me, “Mum. We goin' tatering' today?” He sounded like them too.'

The shaft of light through the window is bright now, making me squint, warming my face. I close my eyes and see an orange glow. I can feel this pressure I've been carrying around for weeks lift a little from my chest. 

'They had these ferocious dogs. Guard dogs really. They were terrifying. Your brother would curl up on the floor with them. Ha! Even the dogs bloody knew! One of the women used to come and see me for a coffee. She would always say “Got a little whiskey to put in it?” I usually had a baby bottle of something. I didn't really drink then. I'd pour it in. She'd say, “Just tell me if you don't have any, I can always bring some.” She would read my hand. I was so confused in those days. I would be watching her thinking How can she see anything in my hand? What is she doing? She would nod and mutter and one time she said, “Ah your chavi is going to be ill. But its okay, just a bad cold.” So of course then your brother gets flu. He was so unwell. They queued outside the caravan with baskets of fruit. Baskets! With beautiful ribbons tied around them. “He'll be okay,” they'd say.
Your father too, he got very ill with this flu and the men all came. So many men came through that caravan that day. All with a bottle of some concoction, brandy and whiskey and lemon and so forth. Your father was taken aback. They never stayed. They would just come and say, “Drink it. I want the bottle back.” It was their way of making sure he took his medicine. They never took thank you's. They never made a fuss. In and out. Your father was paralytic by the time they were finished with him.'
I watch mum light a cigarette and inhale, her head tilted to one side and up to the sky, lost in thought. 'What about Pat and the baby?' I ask.
'Oh that was such a sad story', she says.