Saturday, 27 June 2015

Sleeper

 



Mitch is not good. He's uncomfortable, his head hurts and the first thing he sees as he wrenches his eyes open is rain streaming horizontally along the window of the train. A train that he only vaguely remembers being bundled on to. He's too old for this.
'Where am I going?'
He's speaking to himself but notices a movement in his peripheral vision and turns his head.
A scrawny looking teenager is sat one row of seats away from him on the opposite side.
'What the fuck are you looking at, ginger?'
The boy turns away quickly and pretends to look out of the window. It's dark out there and all either of them can see is the rain pelting against the glass and their own sickly reflections under the light of the carriage.
'Where am I going?'
He's addressing the boy this time who turns, uncertain, and stares at a point just past Mitch's shoulder.
'Yeah, you,' Mitch clarifies.
'Scotland.'
The boy's voice is wobbly, like it's still breaking. He looks disjointed, a character from The Beano that's been thrown aside unfinished.
'Why the FUCK am I going to Scotland?'
Mitch is talking to himself again but the boy isn't quick minded.
'Because you're on the sleeper to Inverness.'
'The what?'
The boy just stares at him nervously.
Mitch pulls himself up and staggers down the carriage towards the toilets. He locks the door and takes a leak before examining himself in the mirror. There's a graze on his right cheek. He splashes some water on his face and uses the edge of his coat to dry himself. He fumbles around in his pockets, finds half a pack of B&H and a lighter. He smokes one in three deep drags before flushing the butt and staggering back down the carriage to his seat.
The kid's still there, cheap trainers resting on the seat opposite, hood pulled down over his face and arms tightly crossed.
The train pulls in to a station, dark and deserted. The digital display tells him he's in Stirling and it's 4.55am.
He should get off but he'd be soaked and where would he go? He sits back down and starts going through his pockets methodically.
Fags. Lighter. Ticket stub. Inverness. One way. Fuck. Eight twenty pound notes folded neatly in his breast pocket. Keys. No wallet. The latest in a long line of pay as you go disposable mobiles that feel like toys in his hands. In Mitch's line of work it didn't pay to have a contract phone. He binned and replaced every couple of weeks. Safer that way. He has a text message from Dave.
DONT CALL US WE LL CALL U. KEEP LOW. FEW DAYS. CASH IN TOP POKET. TWAT.
He checks his calls from yesterday. Two outgoing, Dave and John. One incoming. John.
He remembers those. Plans to meet at the pub at noon for an all day bender. John's call asking him where he was. He'd gone to the wrong pub, had a few there before heading to the right one in Euston. Eight of the boys had been there, all getting hammered for John's 43rd which no one thought the fucker would live to see. Mitch's brain slowly filters information. He'd been pissed when he showed up. He'd bought a round on his card. He'd had his wallet at the first pub. He'd lost it somewhere between the second and third. Mikey had started paying for his drinks. After that it's just pictures, moments, the odd word. A kebab. A kebab lying in the gutter and Mitch staring at it from a close vantage. Someone pushing his head in to the road. The sound of music muffled nearby. A girl shouting. Sirens. Then nothing. Then this.
He tries to call Dave anyway, finds he has no credit and the piece of shit phone is almost out of battery. He switches it off to save what remains and for want of anything better to do, curls up on his seat as best he can, and sleeps.
Dave is slapping him in the face.
'Mitch! Wake up! Sir!'
'Get off me you cunt!' Dave swings for him and nearly falls off his seat.
A ticket inspector is staring at him balefully.
'Last stop, sir.'
His accent makes the statement sound like an insult.
Mitch pulls himself up and glances out of the window. Inverness Station.
He glances over to the seats opposite but the kid is gone.
'Last stop -'
'Yeah. What's the time?'
'It's 8.41am, sir.'
'Oh. Not 8.42 am then? Or 8.39?'
The ticket inspector's nostrils flare slightly but he says nothing and Mitch, tired of being pissed off, stands and heads for the exit.
Outside the station entrance is a statue and he stands by the railing and lights a fag. It's still drizzling and the sky is grey. As a kid he'd always wanted to come to Scotland. He can't remember why. Probably because it was far away and one of the only things Mitch remembers about being a kid was wanting to be far away from where he was. An image of his dad rises in his memory and he pushes it down and lights a second fag off the burning embers of the first. The rain's getting heavier again and he glances about, sees a cafe open and heads for it.
He sits outside under the canopy at a plastic table with a plastic menu and waits. No one comes and after five minutes he turns and looks through the glass front at the counter. The woman's just stood there. He gets up and strolls in.
'Can I get a cup of tea?'
The woman nods.
'One pound sixty five please.'
He pulls a note out of his little stash and hands it to her.
'And a bacon sandwich.'
She nods again.
'Four pound seventy five please.'
He waits for a minute uncertain.
'I'll bring it out,' the woman says. 'Go and sit.'
He does as he's told and is in the process of lighting another fag when he sees the boy hanging around by the statue looking awkward. He's getting wet, his shoulders are hunched and despite the rain falling steadily he makes no move to find shelter.
There's a fucking bus stop right opposite you little bastard!
Clearly the kid isn't psychic.
The woman brings out his tea and sandwich and Mitch mumbles his thanks.
He starts eating but the kid is distracting him, putting him off. He sighs and puts down his buttie.
'Oi!'
The kid ignores him.
'OI! Shit for brains!'
The kid turns and sees him. Mitch beckons him over and the kid looks around to check that it's him being addressed. Mitch rolls his eyes.
'Yeah, you! No one else is stood in the rain like a muppet. Come here.'
The kid hesitates for a moment then walks over and stands shivering in front of him with his hands buried in his jean pockets.
'Got any money?'
The boy shrugs.
Mitch feels pity for the kid though he mistakes it for irritation.
'Sit down, you're doing my head in.'
The kid pulls out the plastic chair and stares at Mitch's sandwich.
Mitch pushes the plate towards him.
'D'you want that?'
'Noi'malright.'
'Suit yourself.'
'I'll have a cuppa though.'
'Cheeky little shit.' Mitch smiles for the first time that day.
He gets the kid a tea and offers him a fag.
'No thanks.'
'What are you doing up here?'
The kid shrugs and puts four sugars in his mug.
'If you shrug one more time I'm going to rip your fucking arms off.'
The kid freezes mid shrug and deliberately and slowly lowers his shoulders.
'How old are you?'
'Eighteen.'
'Bullshit. How old are you?'
'Sixteen.'
Mitch reckons he could easily shave another year off that but he doesn't care enough to press it.
'Won't your mum be wondering where you are?'
'No.'
There's a certainty in the boy's voice that Mitch knows all too well.
'So you just thought you'd hop on the overnight to Inverfuckingness then.'
A smile tugs at the boys mouth but never gets purchase.
'Wannaseetheloch,' he mumbles.
'Wanna what?'
'Wanna see the Loch.'
'What Loch?'
'Loch Ness.'
'Where the monster lives?'
He starting to think the kid is even younger than he'd guessed.
'Yeah.'
'Is that round here then?'
The boy nods.
'How far?'
'Dunno.'
Mitch sighs.
'Right, well good luck with that.'
He stands and the kid looks momentarily frightened.
'What?'
'Where are you going?'
'Paper shop to get some credit on my phone and some fags. Is that alright with you?'
The kid says nothing but continues to stare at Mitch.
'You can't come with me.'
Still the kid just stares.
'I can't be wandering around with a kid in tow. People will think I'm a nonce.'
'Or they'll think I'm your son.'
'Fuck that!'
Mitch starts walking off.
'Good luck looking for your monster.'
He doesn't look back though he feels the kid's eyes boring in to his skull.
Can't be taking responsibility for some fucking runaway. Christ knows what's on his heels. Nothing good. They're all lost causes those ones. Remember them from care. Rat like eyes, older than their years. Hunched and hunted. They get fucked up good and young and they're walking time bombs after that. He should know. You should know, Mitch.
He stops. Fuuuuuck. He turns and checks and sure enough the kid is sat there looking at him with huge pathetic eyes. Shit biscuit.
He inclines his head very slightly and the kid jumps like he's on springs and bounds after him.
They walk to the newsagents in silence and Mitch notices the kid has to hop slightly to keep up with him.
A man with a turban stands behind the counter smiling at him. Mitch buys a couple of packs of B&H, two cans of lager and some crisps.
'D'you want anything?'
'No I'm alright, thanks.'
Mitch nods and turns back to the shop owner.
'How do we get to Loch Ness?'
He feels the kid practically vibrating next to him.
'You need to get bus.'
The man points over the road.
'Number 19 for Fort William.'
'How long does it take?'
'About an hour,' the man shrugs.
'Cheers.'
'Bus stop number two.'
'Ta.'
They leave the shop and Mitch forces himself to look at the kid who is staring at him with something close to wonder.
'Do you ever fucking blink?'
The kid bites his lip.
'We going to Loch Ness then?'
His voice is quiet, like he daren't hope for good news.
'Why not,' Mitch says. 'Sod all else to do today.'
He watches the kid visibly relax and wonders what's going through his head.
He lights the last fag from his old pack and tosses the empty carton on to the street as they walk over to bus stop number two.
'So, you got a girlfriend?' Mitch knows the answer but he asks anyway.
'No.'
'Good luck getting one with that carrot top.'
'Piss off.'
Mitch laughs and the kid almost smirks.
'How old are you really?'
'Fifteen.'
'You're tall for your age aren't ya.'
'Yeah, I get mistaken for older.'
'You do the booze runs then yeah?'
'Booze, fags, weed.'
'Weed is it? When I was your age I was sniffing glue like any normal thug.'
The kid shrugs, rubs his nose.
'I deliver it.'
Oh yeah? Deliver it or sell it?'
'Nah, just run it.'
'That's your job is it?'
The kid nods.
'Pay well?'
'S'alright.'
The number 19 bus pulls up and they climb aboard.
'Two for Loch Ness,' Mitch says and feels a sudden urge to laugh.
'You'll be wanting two for Urquhart Castle,' the driver says.
'Will I?'
'It's a twenty minute walk from the ruins.'
'Fine.'
Mitch pays for the tickets and wanders to the back where the kid has claimed a window seat.
As he sits he realises he didn't get credit for his phone and finds he doesn't care. He's stuck here for now. Dave told him not to call and whatever he does have to tell him won't be good judging by his current situation. Sod it. He's having a day off. Mitch is taking a day off from the relentless shit storm that is his life. And he's doing it in the company of a scrawny ginger drug running teenager. He'd have preferred a brunette with a good rack but that's life for you. Ah well. Mitch has never had a holiday.
They sit looking out of the window as the town centre gives way to country and rolling mist covered hills in the distance. Neither one has seen a landscape like this close up before nor do they know that they share a longing, like home sickness, for a place that they've never been to before.
'Why Loch Ness?' Mitch asks tearing open the pack of crisps.
The kid says nothing for a minute, just looks at the mountains.
'I saw a picture in a book,' he says eventually.
'What, like a story book? Picture of big Nessie swimming about?'
The boy frowns like he's talking to an idiot.
'Nah. A picture. A photo.'
'Oh.'
'You seen that film, Highlander?'
Mitch thinks.
'The one with Sean Connery? There can be only one?'
'Yeah, that one. I wish I'd lived then.'
'That's a fucking old film. Why d'you watch that?'
'My granddad had it on one of them old tapes.'
'Video?'
'Yeah,' the kid nods. 'He was a right dinosaur. Didn't even know what a DVD was.'
Mitch snorts.
'When I stayed with him he'd put it on and give me a pack of chocolate biscuits and a bottle of coke and go to the pub.'
'How old were you?'
'Five. Six, maybe.'
Mitch thinks of his own dad throwing him across the room at the telly before fucking off to the pub.
'Nice to get biscuits and coke eh.'
'Yeah. I liked staying at his.'
'Dead is he?'
'Yeah.'
'What about your mum and dad?'
The kid says nothing and they spend the rest of the journey staring out of the window at the past.

They get off the bus and Mitch has barely gotten his fags out of the carrier bag before the kid is running full pelt towards the castle.
'It's like the one in Highlander!'
Mitch looks up and feels his chest tighten. It's stopped raining and as he stands there the clouds part and a ray of sunshine illuminates the ruins. For a moment the Loch is indistinguishable from the sky and the castle floats in mid air like a vision from a childhood dream. Not his childhood, nor the kid's. But some other child who wasn't the lottery loser of fate, bad genes and geography.
He lights his fag and walks slowly up to meet the kid who has now stopped running and is turning slowly on the spot, his face tilted up toward the sun, his red hair like fire in the light.
His chest is getting tighter and he vaguely wonders if he's having a heart attack. An image of the kebab lying in the gutter flashes in to his mind and he shakes his head to dispel it. The kid is watching him.
'What you staring at?'
'I'm not staring. I'm just seeing you.' He smiles, crooked and clear.
Mitch doesn't know what to say. He feels a sudden urge to cry. He hasn't done that since he was twelve.
'Shall we have a look around first?' The kid says.
Mitch nods, swallows and lets the kid take the lead.
They walk around the ruins dappled in the warm glow of the sun. The place feels alive and some corner of Mitch's brain, the clever bit he hides away, thinks that 'ruins' is the wrong word for this. He remembers a lyric “There's a crack, a crack in everything. That's where the light gets in.” It folds over and over in his head until it's just the image of light.
'What's that?' The kid asks pointing to a flowery shrub crawling around the wall.
'I don't know,' Mitch says. He wishes he knew its name more than anything. He wants to tell the kid what it is, where it's from, why it's here. It's too late for all that now.
'It all goes together really nice doesn't it.' The kid is staring at the view. Sky, water, grass, castle. 'It hums.'
Mitch feels a wave of fear. That's normal. He let's go of it like he should have let go of a thousand things in his life.
The kid's talking but Mitch can't concentrate. Something in him is shifting and his minds eye flitters between the beauty of the ruins around them and the horror of the ruins behind.
'I need to sit down, kid.'
'Alright.'
The kid leads him to a spot on the grass facing the Loch. Mitch pulls out the cans of beer and hands one to the kid before opening his own.
They stare at the view as Mitch sips and the kid waits. He can't look at him.
'I was at my mate's birthday drinks,' Mitch says. 'We'd been drinking all afternoon. Properly on it. We'd got kicked out of the first place and were getting pretty rowdy at the next pub when Mikey decides we all need to chill out a bit if we're going to make it through the evening. He calls his man and gives him the address of the pub. We do some more shots and forty five minutes later you rock up.'
He can feel him sat there nodding. He glances sideways, shyly almost. The kids red hair is haloed by the sun and he glows.
'Mikey only had cards on him, fucking idiot. So I paid you cash. Took the piss out of your hair then too didn't I. Yeah. Made you have a shot if I remember rightly? Yeah, that's it. So, you nicked my wallet. Got your own back. Didn't realise till well after you'd gone. Sneaky little...'
The kid laughs but it catches in his throat.
'We smoked some, got much more pissed. Moved on to the next place, then another. I didn't know what the fuck was going on by the time we got to that last place. Dave's holding me up and I'm talking shit. He says we need some food. Get something in us before the next leg. I mean, the man's a fucking alcoholic but he knows his shit.'
Mitch stops and puts his hand on his chest. It feels like a vice is being tightened with every breath he takes.
'Go on,' the kid says.
'So. So, I'm waiting outside with John and a couple of others, it's busy, big queue. And I look up and there's you. Coming out of the shop, bold as brass with a kebab in one hand and my fucking wallet in the other. Putting my change back in my wallet you cheeky little git.'
Mitch tries for a laugh but that's not what comes out.
'You didn't clock me coming till it was too late did you. You looked up and recognised me and then I had you by the throat.'
He nods to himself. Regret flitters past.
'I pulled you out of the doorway and your kebab went flying. And I punched you. Once. I only punched you once.'
'In the head.'
He puts his can down and locks his fingers together to stop them shaking.
'You went down like a sack of shit. Your head hit the curb.'
'The edge of the curb.'
'Yeah, the edge of the curb. And then blood was pouring out of you. So fast. You blinked at me. You had this look on your face.'
They sit in silence for a moment. The kid sniffs, the sound of snot and tears.
'Someone, Dave I think, gets me on the ground. Holds me down. He thought I was going to hit you again. I can't see you. Just your kebab lying in the gutter. The volume gets louder, a girl is screaming. Someone calls an ambulance. It's all noise. I couldn't see you. And then it went black.'
They look at the Loch, at the sky.
'You forgot a bit,' the kid says. 'About when we met.'
Mitch knows. He nods.
'I suppose I was passed out when Dave put me on the train eh. Sent me as far away as he could. Trying to be a mate I suppose. He knew that ambulance wasn't coming soon enough eh.'
'The bit about when we met, Mitch.'
Mitch swallows and nods.
'Yeah. I know. Jamie. It's Jamie.'
The boy wipes his face on his sleeve.
'Your name is Jamie and you lived for a while. Fuck. Not long enough. And you had a story to tell. A shit story with a bad start. But you were young enough to hope it would get better-'
'It was sad wasn't it.'
'-and I took it away.'
'Yeah.'
He forces himself to turn and look at him.
'I see you. You mattered.'
He turns away.
'I don't have the words.'
'Can I go now, Mitch?'
'Yeah. Course you can. Run along. I'll sit here for a bit, take in the view. I won't be far behind.'
He feels something like a sigh wrap itself around him and then, finally, let go.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

You Won't Have Time To Cook Lover

 


I thought Romany meant they were from Rome. I didn't really understand what was going on. For the first fifteen years of my life I am in Malta and then I'm somehow seventeen with a small child living on a gypsy encampment in Cambridge.'
'How did you end up there?'
Ah well. Your dad was in the navy. He had married me and brought me to England and we were living with his father. 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? 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 till 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 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.
You’ve got a little chavi,” they say.
I say, “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. 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 till 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. 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 hardly 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.
He would stay a month. Then he would be gone for three. 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.
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?”
They are gypsies,” I say. “They are making you welcome.”
If 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.
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 to cook lover.”
The way they do things. A chicken meant a lot.
We were so low on luck at that time that your father would go off walking for miles to find a farm and 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 dad, “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. 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 whilst he was on leave 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? Huge. Well, they are from your grandmother, from your dad's mum. She has had them shipped to us all the way from the Maldives. They wouldn't fit in the caravan. I open the first one and it is full, full to the brim with loose tea leaves! 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. 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.
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 dragged in to the caravan, shouting, it was horrible. When he drank. Then they would come out the next day, she with a black eye and they would be all happy, normal. She was so in love with him. She couldn't have children. She wanted one so much. So 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.
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, “It's how they are. That's how they let off 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 did some jobs with them. They took me along 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 “Sod 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.'
She 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!” 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 was raging with fear. 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 and nodded towards the underneath of the caravan. “I spot a little chavi,” he said. Chavi is Romany for boy.
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. 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 him 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.
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 palm. 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 it's 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. 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 the 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 yous. They never made a fuss. In and out. Your father was paralytic by the time they were finished with him.'
'What about Pat and the baby?'
'Oh, that was such a sad story.'