Month: March 2014

Pages 95-100

As Gypsies Wander -  photo page 97

As Gypsies Wander - photo page 98

Having approached Epsom, Levi then turned back down the Dorking road and then went onwards towards Bookham. Finally he drove down Young Street and made approach to the river camp that way. Joe descended from the cart when it halted by the verge of the fields. Then, calling back to me that he would see me later by Emily’s vardo, he hurried away towards the rier in strange manner. However, for me, the ride had not ended there, the wildest stretch of the whole journey had yet to come. A second Gypsy left the cart and pulled down the barbed-wire fencing alongside the field facing the cart. Levi then once more cracked his whip, turned the horse’s head towards the river, and put the animal into a gallop over the rough, plough-rutted field. Then indeed did I have to seek the aid of the fair man.

I thought for sure that the cart would overturn on the plough-ridges, and often enough we progressed on but one wheel. Midway across the fields we hit a great stone and that came near to wrecking immediately the trolli (cart). The seven Gypsies riding on the cart shouted and cheered, and again Levi cracked his whip and gave then, in far-crying voice, the familiar call of the greisto-fairus: “Hi! Hi! Hi!” At the yelling of his voice and the explosions of the riding whip, a flock of crows, feeding amongst the wheat stubble, flighted in panic and came winging over the cart, beating the pearly air with their fringed jet wings. And then we were safely at the encampment.

At the halting the black horse was agleam with sweat, and the froth of his saliva was thick about the bit and lying like river-foam across his face and down his neck and even upon his sides where it had been blown by the speed-wind.

“A tatcho gry,” Levi said to me.

“Aye,” I replied.

 

 

Emily and Rachel were awaiting me by the riverside, and Joe was close by splitting pegs. He was splitting the cut sticks before their banding with the tin, a task which requires much deftness in order to prevent the cracking-open of the whole peg.

I gave to the sisters the clothes bundle that Florence had sent and my own dino of groceries and fruit, but they stayed not to look at them; they instead dragged me down on to the grass alongside them, telling me that they had something of importance to ask of me.

“Ask on miri kushti pens,” I replied

“Shoonta ke lokki (harken to her)!” exclaimed the sisters, and they embraced me.

The chief talker in the conversation that followed was Emily; though Rachel must have rehearsed previously, for she was able to follow well, and often joined Emily in words of agreement. Emily first took my hand into hers – and it was a union of two sun-brown, earth-roughened, chipped-nailed hands, for mine was the counterpart of the Gypsy’s, I doing much field work also.

“Tis this a-way,” Emily commenced in her low-pitched, vibrant voice. “Our Joe’s felled in love wi’ you, an’ is wantin’ to be wed wi’ you.”

I did not speak; and she continued: “Ever since you a-first cem to we, ‘e’s done nothin’ but sit at ‘ome ‘ere an’ talk o’ you. It ‘as been Julie, Julie, Julie, an’ nothin’ else. We loves you too, Rachel an’ me. If only you’d have Joe you could travel wi’ us allaways. You could bring ‘ere that gry o’ yourn, and Joe’d del (provide) a kushto vardo, and we could all travel the counties kateni (together), an’ you could ‘awk the fidas along o’ us. Oh, Julie, you tell ‘im avali (yes). Tell Joe avali.”

I turned towards Joe, His pegging knife went ‘slish-slash through the hazel lengths, and little amber flakes of wood gyrated to the ground. The Gypsy’s head was bent low and the black wings of his wonderful hair lay upon his yellow dicklo. I wished that I could have told Joe avali. To become Joe’s wife would have been easy escape for me from the net of life’s problems which had entangled me ever since I was a child. Away with Joe, travelling the country roads, there would be escape from further knowledge and thought of all the cruelties and injustices which blighted my life; the hanging of human beings, vivisection of animals, and the horror of slaughter-houses, the tyranny of the big-business magnates – especially the manufacturing chemists who adulterate and poison the world’s foods under the guise of improvement and hygiene and accumulate fortunes thereby; all of which I had vowed to fight. The travelling life would take me away from news of all such things, for Gypsies read not newspapers and they stand apart from politics. I would further end immediately the thraldom of my typewriter, a machine I never could tolerate, and would no longer have to keep company with a case-load of reference books. Away over the hills with Joe, and no work more arduous than the making of the little golden pegs, the keeping of one vardo, and the pleasurable bearing of Gypsy children. Such were they happy thoughts that passed through my mind. Like the golden and red leaves of the autumn trees, the pleasure thoughts whirled around me – and then swept by. The wind of life took them away and would not let them stay with me: because for the present I knew surely that there was no possibility of fulfillment. For certain there awaited me three more years of work before I could escape into Gypsy life, if I were not to suffer the long pains of a guilty conscience, resultant from labour uncompleted and thus worthless. Furthermore, on the morrow there was the commencement of my journey to Mexico, a visit which I foreknew would be of the utmost importance to my past and present work. Then finally I was aware that the Gypsy life in England was not a very good thing. The land was too crowded with houses and people, and there were too many petty laws and restrictions curtailing the freedom which is the true wine of Gypsy life. The wind on the heath no longer blew where it listed, and too often it smelt of factory fumes. Then, furthermore, I wanted to drink my wine of life in the sunlight and there was insufficient sun for me in the English skies. And above all I did not love Joe. He had been a most pleasant companion to me in the time that I had known him, and I would not forget him, but this was not the Gypsy fire of love which I knew was to be found on earth if one sought it, far and long enough. Yet nevertheless I felt sick at heart when the time came for me to say -”naw” instead of “avali” to the strange proposal. I had a powerful affection for the three Gypsies siting near me amongst the poppy swathes, their dark keen eyes concentrated upon my face.

I felt surely that never in my life would there come to me a sweeter proposal of marriage – than there by the River Mole in the company of the beautiful Gypsy women and the kindly Joe. The wind rustling through the poppies and the dying autumn grasses, the willows making their sighing music and the river prattling as it went onwards over its stony bed fringed with the shining lissom reeds; and Joe’s pegging knife too making its own endearing music. All was beguiling.

My eyes lowered in sadness and I could no longer meet the ardent gaze of the Gypsies. Rachel, keener of feeling and sight than Emily, as is often the way of the deaf, sensed that I was to reply unfavourably to Joe, and she wrung her thin brown hands dramatically, and cried shrilly to Emily Joe. “O she’s not agoin’ to stay wi’ us, oh dordi! (dear me) dordi!”

I then left Emily and Rachel and went to Joe’s side, and knelt amongst the litter of peg-chips, and thanked him for wanting me for his wife. I tried to explain to him why I had to leave England for Mexico. Joe continued with his pegging work, his knife slashing and he spoiling many pegs. His eyes revealed nothing to me of what he was thinking; so dark and mysterious they looked in his swart face. And close by him I was enamoured of his wonderful hair, the jet silk of it contrasting with the chrome of his neck-scarf.

Joe then told me. “If you loved me proper you’d atch (stay, camp) along o’ we, an’ not be away to Mexicy.”

I defended. “It’s not only for myself that I go, my work is for others.”

“Peg-makin’ an’ ‘awkin’ be sufficient work fer any rackli (girl),” Joe said firmly.

“Avali,” Emily and Rachel supported him.

I shook my head. “Later,” I said. “Good work for me later, but I’ve tasks to finish now in Mexicy an’ elsewhere.”

Joe put down his pegging knife and his eyes held mine. “I love you,” he exclaimed. “I would wed wi’ you. You’d best ‘atch along o’ we.”

Mean I felt, and worthless, when I could but say “I’ll be back in England soon enough, half a year in Mexico, no longer. I’ll never forget you, Joe, nor Emily and Rachel. I’ve been very happy with you all.”

“Look, Joe, ‘ow sad ‘er eyes be,” said Rachel. “Tatcho sad.” She was trying to take my part and also sooth her brothers feelings.

“Tatcho sad! Tatcho gry!” I thought, recalling my ride with Levi. How strange and how sweet a day it had been. I then said to the Gypsies, “I am very sad to leave you.” And they knew that I spoke in truth.

Soon after we were joined by a great company of Gypsies, Levi and Ephram, with all the men who had ridden with me on the cart, and many more. Most of the black sons of Selina Lee were there: strange and exciting company it was. The others had not the grave manner of Joe, they were laughing and flirting around me, so that for me it became like Appleby horse-fair again. There was an atmosphere of high revelry. Groups were step-dancing to music of the accordion; others sat upon the ground, playing cards or dice, all favourite pastimes of Gypsy men.

When dusk came I had to leave the camp, and I said my farewell to Joe and Emily and Rachel, and to Levi and Ephram also. Joe walked after me and put into my hand a clothes-peg.

“Keep this ‘ere fida,” he said, “an’ sometimes tek it in yer ‘and an’ think on poor Joe.”

“Parik tuti (thank you),” I replied. “This be a lucky peg I’m sure. I’ll keep your peg fer ever, Joe, that I swear. An kushto bokt (good luck) to you, my sweet friend, kushto bokt.”

“Kushto bokt,” he made answer.

Joe’s clothes-peg will stay with me always. I have had to write his name upon it, for in the many years since my parting with Joe I have had a score of clothes-pegs from Gypsies, given to me in friendship and love.

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Pages 90-95

“Aye,” retorted Joe. “But dicklos be Gypsy an’ git people a-starin’ at we; ‘tis better to dress like the rest when us be in the gav (town) places.”

“I feel like Emily,” I intervened. “Dickos are for Gypsies, and such lovely ones they  have, gay and proud things they are, like peacock feathers.”

Joe then stated that he must do a bit of work and get some fidas (pegs) made, and that as a man cannot work well without a fire to companion him, he had better get a kusto yog (good fire) going. He very soon proved himself to be a skilful fire-maker, for in the shortest time he had a great brushwood fire flaming brighter than the nearby corn-poppy swathes. As always in Gypsy camps, the lighting of the fire was the jota-cry for all to gather near. The children left their play by the river and lay upon their stomachs basking in the fire heat as the brown salamanders which the Spanish Gypsies declare live within their fires and can be heard singing amongst the burning olive roots. The dogs came, too, and basked; the great black deerhound, two lurchers of Gypsy breed, and four terriers. Even the horses drew in closer to the human and animal circle around Joe’s fire.

I kicked off my shoes and lowered the neck of my blouse and rew close to the wonderful leaping crimson fire, as close as I could bear without scorching my skin and my hair. The Gypsies laughed at me. “She’s motto (drunken) wi’ fire just as we is,” Joe declared.

Joe then announced that he was not going to make any fidas after all. For life was very sweet just resting and rockering (talking) by the yog, and he would for sure work hard on the ovavo divvus (morrow).

We all sat by the fire for hours, in deep happiness, the talk of us rising and falling like the fire flames: only it was difficult for Rachel, because of her deafness. But Joe shouted back the words for her. Emily told me concerning Joe, that he was very kind to her and Rachel, that he was the best of brothers-in-law. For his part Joe told me that he loved the company of Emily and Rachel, and that they were like two wives to him for kindness.

I stayed by the Gypsy fire until starlight, and then i had to hurry back over the fields to my hut on the island, for there was much work waiting to be done before I departed for Mexico.

“Kushto-raati Romany pen. (Good night Gypsy sister.)” Clear and sweet Gypsy voices called after me across the fields.

When I returned to the Gypsy camp on the morrow afternoon Joe was far into his peg-making. The same group was there as on the yesternoon, Emily, Rachel, and their children, with the dogs and horses. The husbands Levi and Ephram were away with the flat-cart – “trading”. A great fire burned, tossing its flowers of crimson and ocre into the grey noon air. It had been a night of heavy rain, and the November grass was steaming in its wetness, and all the petals of the poppies were bruised and flattened. But taking no heed of the wet the Gypsies sat on the earth, grouped around the peg-maker, Joe, and his fire. Rachel was occupied in threading a string of blue glass beads for Emily, and Emily was again suckling her dark babe, and also helping with the pegs.

Joe was hatless and wearing a canary-coloured dicklo, and the sisters laughing and tittering, told me behind their hands that the dicklo was “Joe’s best”, and was being worn that noon only for my benefit. So I told Joe that I liked well his dicklo, which was true enough, and when he, bending over his pegs, brought the black wings of his shimmering, wonderful hair down upon the canary cloth, then I beheld great beauty.

I watched carefully the interesting art of Gypsy peg-making, in which all then were helping, including the youngest of the children, though Joe as the wood shaver and splitter had the main task. Peg-making commences with the gathering and then the shaving of willow sticks, when the cut lengths are known as “feeders”, a word confusing with the romany name of fidas for the finished article, though the West Country Gypsies call the made pegs troosheni (from the word troashi – bundle) often enough, and sometimes eezaw koshti kova (clothes-stick thing). The shaving of the cut lengths is accomplished with the chiv – a special knife: that was one of Joe’s tasks. The children were employing themselves in the task of preparing the kuris koosis (tin bits), which is done merely by heating old tin cans in the hot embers to melt the solder, and then flattening them over a stone, using another flat stone for that purpose. Rachel’s task was cutting with clippers of the kuri into thin strips ready for the banding on to the pegs. Each kuri strip has to have a hole pierced into it to take the fine tack which fastens the strip around the wood of the peg, in a neat band – the burnt outside going against the wood, the bright side only being exposed. For that purpose there is the kuri-kosh, or tinning block, this being heavy block of wood fitted with a sharp piece of steel standing up from the wood rather like a dog’s fang. Through hammering over the fang a double hole is made in each tin band, and this being bound around the peg-stick, the tiny tack is then nailed into place. All that was Emily’s task, which she performed very adroitly. Joe, in addition to shaving the sticks, was also the splitter of the banded pieces. The pegs are split with several deft cuts of the special fidas-chiv, the operation requiring skill in order to prevent the wood from being much splintered, when it would not then hold the clothes well and would be over rough for fine materials. But Gypsies being highly skilled peg-makers, their articles are always excellent, and hold the clothes far better and last far onger than the machine-made product.

From his work with the chiv Joe was creating a great amber mound of peg shavings, which he fed in handfuls to the joyful, shouting fire. Oh, there was much sound there around the peg-makers’ fire! Other than the fire’s own sound there was the pouring of the near river swollen with the recent rains; the stir of the willow trees with their burdens of dead and dying leaves; the murmur of the low-pitched attractive voices of the two Gypsy women companioned by the shrill piping of the laughing chauvis (children), and the hammering of their stones upon the fired tins; and above all the slashing of Joe’s knife. I had taken over the threading of the blue beads to leave Rachel’s hands free for the peg work, but I was making little progress with my tasks, my eyes and my ears were so entranced by the peg-makers.

By duks the peg work was ended, and then we gave ourselves up to talk again. Emily showed me long-stretching scars upon her body where wheels of her fathers caravan had passed over her, during one of the many travelling accidents that befall the Gypsies. Emily’s own accident was romantic. One Fairus-divvus (fair-day) she had been wearing a new white dress, very long and wide of skirt. She had positioned herself above the caravan shafts, wanting to show off her fine dress as the caravan speeded to the fair. Then a wind blowing around the swiftly moving vehicle had lifted her skirts and caused her to unbalance and fall towards the ground. Her skirt had become entangled and the wheels had crushed her. She had been months in a sick-bed as the result of her injuries.

Many other GYpsies have shown me scars left from traveling accidents- falls from caravans and tilt carts and from horseback; also many scars from burning, especially prevalent on the children, and they fall into the camp-fire during play or their clothing catches alight. Many a Romany child has been burnt to death from the open outdoors’ fires; and yet without exception the Gypsies, man, woman, child, and dog, remain passionate fire-worshippers. I, in turn, told them of some of my own accidents, and showed them my scars from dog and horse bites, tearings by barbed wire, and marks from the many motor accidents that I have experienced.

Soon Levi and Ephram came to the fire. They both seemed very filled with drink and further talk was no more possible. So we continued to sit around the fire, and we sang songs, and Emily made a good Gypsy cake – Romani marikli. This she made from flour, water, egg, salt and some fat. She pounded the cake into a round mound, and then, making a hole in the heart of the fire, placed the cake there and covered all with ashes. Soon a most pleasing savoury smell began to arise from the fire. After some time Emily raked out her cake by means of the iron kettle crane, She then chivved off all of the burnt outside layer, and within was a fine golden cake. She broke up into portions with her hands, and handed a piece to everyone, and we ate the cake steaming hot. The outside shavings she fed to the dogs, and they ate all up in enjoyment. She said that her cake was so successful because there was much hazel wood on the fire, and that wood was the best for baking bread.

Again I had work to do in preparation for my near journey, and I could not stay the night long with the Gypsies: but sad I was to leave their company by the leaping fire. I promised to return on the morrow for what was to be my farewell visit. Sad we all are at the thought of the long parting, and I to be leaving my friends in the cold winter fields with the police ever pestering and hounding them. I was the more fortunate, for like the swallow I was flying towards the sun. The fire -the sun, the sun – the fire, like the true Gypsy I worshipped both.

I had saved my week’s rations of sugar and tea and fats as my parting dino for my Gypsy friends, and I filled up my baskets with more fruits form the orchard. Furthermore, Florence Mahon gave me a good bundle of clothes and boots which her family had outgrown. Gypsies never do object to wearing old clothing, they declaring that worn clothing is better luck than new, providing that the garments have come from good-natured people; they would want nothing on their bodies which may have been looked upon with the doosh-yok (evil eye). It is a similar thought to that met with in Gypsy horse-trading, when wept-over or shouted-over animals are rejected by Gypsies because of the ill luck they bring to the buyer.

My parting dino was heavy upon my arms, owing to the weight of the boots in the clothing bundle and the fat, red apples in my basket. It was therefore Gypsy good fortune that I had but stepped out of the gate on to the main road, when Levi came racing buy, driving a great black horse harnessed to his flat-cart. The cart was crowded with Romany men, most of them strangers to me, though amongst them I saw the dark faces of Joe and Isaac Cooper. Levi checked his horse violently and called me to take a ride with him. I said that I would be happy to have the ride and I hoped that later he would drive me to camp as I had some things for his wife and sister Rachel. Levi said that he would take me there, but that at the moment he was trying out a new gry.

Joe stretched out his hands to me and swung me up on to the cart. Levi then drove off on what was to be the wildest ride that I have experienced in my life, and I have had many experiences of trap and cart riding with the Romanies, and I have also owned my own pony trap, driving a part-broken excitable mare. Yet never before and never since anything like that ride with Levi!

Levi cracked his long whip and the horse reared, and we were off and away into the grey November mists ahead. The cart raced down the Dorking road and then turned left towards the by-pass for Epsom. The hooves hammered the roadway, the wheels made the furious sound of rocks avalanching, and the wind whistled around us; there was further the swish of scattered leaves and the slithering sound of the abruptly-halted hooves and wheels when other traffic came into the area of the frantic horse and cart. Levi’s long whip smote the air, cracking there like gorse-pods exploding in the sun, and the eight Gypsy men shouted their pleasure and excitement at the speed and fiery temperament of Levi’s new horse. And when he could spare moments from his driving, Levi would look back into the cart and call to me: “Tis a tatcho (true) gry! A tatcho gry!”

He knew that I was interested in horses, and he felt that there was rather a spirit of rivalry between us, as I had been praising up my own mare Greensleeves when in conversation with him.

“Aye!” was all the answer that I could give to his cries of tatcho gry. I did say to the other men that Lei’s new horse would not stay tatcho for long if he continued to drive it at such a pace on the slippery concrete road.

“Tis ‘is way,” said Joe, smiling.

Joe was having to hold me to prevent me from falling on to the roadway, as there is nothing on which to get any grip on a flat-cart, one’s place upon it is only kept by practiced balance and I was very unpracticed. I would have been flung upon the road if Joe had not taken hold of me.

A young fair-haired Gypsy on my other side asked if he could hold me too, and I answered that Joe was giving to me all the help that I needed! The fair ma then said, “E loves you,” and he indicated Joe. “Why don’t you both get swisht (married).”

Laughing at the Gypsy’s words, I turned to Joe, but Joe would not meet my eyes.

Pages 83-89

CHAPTER V

 

More Raggle-Taggle in Surrey

 

Two families of Gypsies hatched their vardos and tans in the river meadows beyond Leatherhead. They came four days before I was to leave England for Mexico; my Mexican journey coming within the three months foretold by the Gypsy Clara Lee.

The two families were Surrey Gypsies, Coopers and Kings. They were wild-looking, wild-wayed people, and very good company. Every hour that I spent with them was all pleasure for me. I first saw sign of their arrival in the presence of a tilt-cart and tall skewbald pony, driven by a slight fair-complexioned Gypsy man of wild appearance, pelting down the Dorking road at dangerous speed. Accompanying the man was a small dark-haired attractive boy, wearing a woman’s black beaver-felt hat, such as many of the Surrey Gypsy women elders possess. Also in the cart was a great shaggy, black hound of greyhound build, much resembling a pure-bred Scottish deerhound. The speeding horse and cart and the Gypsies made a picturesque group, further picture being given by a rain of autumn leaves descending upon the travellers from boughs of the beech trees overhanging the road; for it was the month of November. I wondered if perhaps the Gypsies were merely passing through the town bound for some more distant place.

The following morning was a Saturday, and amongst the shopping crowd – always filling the narrow leatherhead pavements – I beheld two Gypsy women, both of them carrying babes, swinging in shawls at their sides. The women were very beautiful. It was not merely the imagination of my own eyes, which always look in love upon the Romanichals, for I heard remarks from people in the street as they passed near the Gypsies. “Gypsies! Gypsies!” they whispered at each other. “Good-looking people aren’t they!” Good-looking! Oh, beautiful! Beautiful! Like two bright-plumed birds-of-paradise passing down the street.

The Gypsies were not out hawking, but were buying groceries and bread which they were piling into their deep square hawking baskets. That convinced me that they were hatching (camping or staying) in or near Leatherhead. I went up to them and greeted them in Romany and asked them where were their vans? They were very friendly and told me that they were staying for a few days in the fields by the river below Young Street. They asked me to visit them there.

“Tooti-aveli sig (You come soon)” they besought of me, laughing shrilly because we used Romany words together and our voices were loud, and the shoppers in the street stared and wondered at the strange language.

The two women were related by marriage, Emily Cooper was married to Rachel’s brother Levi; Rachel was married to Ephram King – the dun-coloured man with the boy and the black deerhound whom I had seen driving the flat-cart earlier in the week. Emily was the most beautiful English Romany woman I have seen. Her face was so golden and glowing it well resembled a bunch of kil-koori (buttercup) flowers. Her long almond-shaped eyes were of intense blue and were brilliant things in her golden face. Her face was full and rounded, very firm-fleshed, with regular and beauteous features. Her abundant hair, looped low over her strong neck, was of such darkness that it was truly purple of hue, like the “blackheart” berries (bilberries) which the Gypsy women and children gather on the moors and commons in summertime. She was wearing a blouse of sun-faded blue satin, in parts the color of her eyes, a long skirt of bracken-tan, very ragged and patched, over which was a black cotton apron, which was equipped on its innerside with the habitual mongerin’ pootsi (begging-pocket) – so she told me on my asking her. Her shoes were battered objects with down-trodden heals, all the polish long washed away by rains and mud. But she walked in her mean shoes with the abundant grace general to the puro Romany. Her body was well-built, heavy almost, but graceful of movement.

Rachel was most unlike Emily, beautiful also, but of a different, almost sinister, beauty. She was tall and straight as a pillar of ebony, and was dressed entirely in black, her only show of Gypsy colour being a men-weriga (necklace) of coral beads, which I could see were true coral. She was the darkest English Romany woman I have beheld, just as her brother Levi, Emily’s husband, was the darkest man. Later I was to meet with more of Rachel’s brothers, Abraham, Reuben, Isaac and Ezra, all of exceptional swarthiness, the family indeed being known to the other Gypsies as the Kawlo (black) Lees or Coopers, they inheriting their darkness from their mother Selina. Her face was brown-skinned, and flat; flat except for very prominent cheek-bones which were raised and sharp like rocks upon her face. Her hair was as purple-dark as Emily’s, and equally abundant, but worn straight, hanging down on to her small high breasts. Rachel’s clothes were yet more raggle-taggle than her sister-in-law’s, but she walked the Leatherhead pavement with the pride and carriage of a princess of Egypt. It was understandable that people should stay to stare after her. Unfortunately Rachel was very deaf, and could only understand speech shouted into her ear.

Other Surrey Gypsies have told me that Emily and Rachel are haughty and unfriendly, “keepin’ theysels to theysels o’er much”; but that I did not find. My impression was one of friendliness, sympathy, abundant humour, and also intelligence. Two of the finest women of any race whom I have known.

In the afternoon I went on my promised visit to the caravans, taking with me the traditional dino (gift), which is a part of Romany courtesy. It being apple and pear time, I loaded my baskets with those fruits, fragrant as Lady Autumn’s own breathing, and glowing like diminutive harvest moons piled there against the rush sides of the baskets. It was an autumn afternoon of radiant sunlight, with orchestra of robin song and the golden and the red-hued leaves blowing from the trees and piling upon the brown waiting earth in sunset swathes. High in the hedgerows trailed the flowers of travellers-joy like soiled snow, mingling with the ruby berries of wild rose and hawthorn. A perfect setting for the Gypsy vardos and the black tans and the grazing horses, the camp pitch being a strip of grass alongside the river, with behind the caravans wide fields stretching away to the blue hills of Surrey. The fields were all gilded from the stubble of the wheat which recently had been harvested there, and their borders flamed with corn-poppies.

The barking of the camp dogs told of my arrival and brought pleased, shouted greetings, from Emily and Rachel. Rachel came climbing up through the reeds and willow clumps at the river’s edge, she accompanied by her two young sons. She was still clad in the black clothing of the morning, but her corals were replaced with a dicklo the redness of the poppy flowers. She held a long willow-wand with string and hook attached, with which she had been fishing. Emily was seated on the grass by her caravan, suckling a black-haired babe. There were poppies swaing all around her, so that the Gypsy woman sat within a circle of crimson flowers. Her white-skinned breast, so heavy with her abundance of rich milk and most fairly patterned with the purple tracings of the milk veins, contrasted strangely with the sun darkened skin of the woman’s throat, face and hands. Her feet then were naked of any covering.

“Besh opre the chor (sit upon the grass),” Emily called to me, and with her free hand made the poppies lay flattened into a silken crimson cushion for my coming. I sat myself at the Gypsy’s side and placed the fruit gift at her bare feet. Rachel joined us, and to the sweet song of the sucking babe we talked together of the life that was past and the possibilities of the life ahead. Being Romany women there was much talk about love: and what better talk could there be.

Emily was happily wedded with her dark Levi, but Rachel at the time was in ill-humour with her light Ephram. “Hokki akei! Hokki akei! Miri, kuhti pen (Look here! my sweet sister),” Rachel warned me. “Ne’er should a dark wed wi’ a fair, ne’er do th two be well swisht (married, surrey Gypsy word). There allus do be warrin’ one agen t’other. Shoon! (listen to me) Shoon! Ke mandi, miri kushti pen.”

“Aavali! (yes) Aavali, Rachel,” I said. “Me shoon.”

The camp site was close by the public footpath, and it was being a Saturday afternoon there were many passers-by. Emily, sitting facing the path, continued to suckle her child, giving no attention to the stranger people, giving all her attention to me. Gypsy women are never self-conscious about the breastfeeding of their babes in public. The mares of the Gypsies suckle their foals in the fields, the lurcher bitches their whelps, why not the mothers their babes? This natural simplicity which for me is such an endearing and praiseworthy quality in the human, was likewise noticeable amongst the peasant people of the Arab countries and Mexico. I shall long remember at a village Catholic midnight mass on a Christmas eve in Mexico, the Indian women suckling their babes in the church as they sang their praises in commemoration of the birth of another babe who drank first of his mother’s milk when in a stable.

After a while the women’s husbands came to join us; they, well knowing that they had been figuring much in our conversation, looked therefore constrained of face, which ill-suited the proud stallion body of Emily’s Levi. Rachel’s husband, Ephram King, I had seen already in Leatherhead. He was not an attractive-looking man apart from the interest of his wild-seeming appearance. His face had a weasel cast, and the impression that he gave was one of poverty of body and mind. The rich Gypsy blood seemed to have been diluted in that man’s veins. His body was thin and undeveloped, and his colouring of hair and flesh a uniform dun. But who can judge well and fairly a human character from mere physical appearance? Doubtless the Gypsy had his share of worthiness; for I heard some years later that Rachel was well reconciled to her man and had borne him another son. I think that my admiration for Rachel would have prejudiced my eyes, for I was wanting no lesser man that an Gypsy price for the dark princess of Egypt.

Levi Cooper, Emily’s husband was a man of picturesque and unusual appearance and obvious power of character, a typical example of the famed family of the black Lees. Levi was wearing a cloth cap, from beneath which streamed long locks of his charcoal black hair. His lean brown face, notable as the face of Rachel for its flatness and the prominent cheekbones, was very baleno (hairy) with its growth of black beard and the long moustaches about his strong-lipped, fierce-looking mouth. He was without a shirt, and his ragged tweed jacket failed to meet over his great hairy chest, and was belted with the twisted cord of a driving-whip, such as George Nicholson had taught me to plait from a length of strong string. The legs of his trousers came no further than the calves of his long powerful legs. He wore great clumping boots caked with clay and horse-dung. In his hand was a long chookni (driving whip) the throng blowing in the autumn wind. I thought Emily well mated: in the arms of that man she would enjoy a wild storm of Gypsy love. No wonder that Emily’s beauty blossomed so greatly and her face was golden colour of kil-koori flowers.

Levi talked with me concerning horses. He was proud that he was not a mere trader in horses but also bred and broke them himself. He had trained horses for circuses. The group of us then discussed herbal medicine for equine ailments. Levi’s favourite remedy was the mallow plant, which he found of use for the relief of almost all general horse complaints with the exception of worms, for which he employed the tops of green broom – before flowering. He was scornful concerning the gawje way of breaking horses, and he told me how he and other Gypsy horsemen achieve this. The unbroken animal is merely roped to one fully broken, which is ridden by a Gypsy. The Gypsy will then leap from the broken horse on to the back of the roped divio and thereupon fight the animal to a standstill and thus into temporary submission. A few further days of such training and the animal will be fully broken.

When the two husbands had left us, they harnessing a showy skewbald to the flat-cart and driving away across the field at fierce speed – Levi was without doubt the maddest horseman with whom I have been acquainted – Emily, Rachel and I continued to talk about medicinal herbs. Emily sang the praises of those in general use with the Surrey Gypsies; mallow, plantain and dock, all for the healing of wounds and bruises; dandelion, hops and toadflax for the cure of liver ailments, coltsfoot for coughs, yarrow and sorrel for fevers, nettle cresses and meadowsweet for blood-cleansing, and then teas of flowers for good cheer, marigold, cowslip, elder-blossom, speedwell and wildrose.
I told the sisters concerning herbal love potions, marigold flowers and water-mint, bark strips of common ash, and berries of the rowan tree. Then there are also the dew gathered from the leaf cups of the teasel plant, pollen shaken from hazel catkins and collected from the pistils of the autumn crocuses, walnut kernels ground and mixed into little cakes of flour, samphire pulled fresh from the sea rocks, and seeds of the yellow horned-poppy. We were nearing the end of such talk when another Gypsy man approached us, he being Ruben, though he took the name of Joe or Joseph, brother to Levi and Rachel.

He was a Gypsy of short stature, noticeable in contrast to the unusual tallness of the rest of Selina’s children. He wore ordinary clothing, not Gypsy: brown felt hat of trilby shape, balanced on the back of his head; semi-clean collar and a crumpled magenta tie, brown suit which was not even ragged. Only his boots with their abundant covering of clay and their laces of old knotted string were not similar to the town man’s. His face, however, bore the stamp of the Romany, in its dark weathering and wind and sun patterning of wrinkles despite the man’s youthfulness – he not having more than twenty odd years. The brilliance of the black eyes was Gypsy too, and above all the hair. For the hat was but balanced on the thick crop of wonderful hair, the same black-purple, bilberry-fruits indeed, hue of Emily and Rachel, yet more magnificent, shining and glistening like starling wings in the sun, so that at times the very blackness appeared to contain with its depths all colours. I looked in fascination at the Gypsy’s hair, and he, sensing my admiration, removed his hat, throwing it down amongst the poppies.

“I don’t like to see our men a-wearin’ corlers an’ ties,” then said Emily of her brother-in-law. “It don’t be natteral-like. Dicklos (neck scarves) belongs to our men.”

Pages 75-82

CHAPTER IV

 

Raggle-Taggle Travellers in Surrey

 

I was again living the Gypsy life, now in Surrey, my house being a wooden hut on an island by the river Mole beyond Leatherhead. There was again the pleasant Gypsy toil of fetching and carrying water in pais, the preparing of meals out of doors, and the eating of them sitting upon the grass; the gathering and consuming of fruits sweet and sun-cooked direct from the trees and bushes; the washing of dishes in the surging spring water, and clothes also, the clothes put out to dry upon “the bushes-o”.

Again the renewed companionship with the earth so that it was for me as Keats wrote concerning the Gypsy Meg Merrilees:

 

Her brothers were the craggy hills,
Her sisters larchen trees,
Alone with her great family
She lived as she did please.

 

I was able to walk barefoot most of the day and wear my friendly raggle-taggle clothing. And if I wanted guests for my meals there were always the squirrels and the wood pigeons; and the swans could be called down from the river, and would come in their perfect beauty, blowing like white roses down the dark stretches of the willow-hung Mole; such pleased and eager guests all.

Enjoying the Gypsy life my thoughts were often with Gypsies, for I knew that very many families of them travelled Surrey: and I longed for them.

I had been less than one month by the Mole when good fortune and keen hearing brought me a meeting with a party of Hampshire Romanies of the name Lovel, passing through Leatherhead on their way to the hop fields. In the early evening there came across the river to the island familiar and beloved sounds; the knock of horses’ hooves upon the roadway and the melody of turning wheels. God bless them! Gypsy caravans for sure. Too many horses, too much wheel-sound for any horse traffic else.

It was a goodly distance from the island to the road, and I was fearful that the travellers might have passed beyond reach of my voice. That proved not to be so, for when I arrived at the gate which lead on to the main Dorking road, the last of the four vardos was quite close to me, and I was able to call out to the Gypsies asking them to stay. The caravans were being pulled by strong Shire-type horses, three blacks and one grey, and there were a following string of other horses, some being ridden, the others lead; amongst them a pair of fine piebalds, the breed of horse dearest to the Gypsy heart and thought by them to be very lucky: the hushto-bock greiaw. Also many lurcher dogs, running by the vardos.

“Stay! Stay, Romanichals!” I called. Immediately there was the halting of hooves and waggon wheels, and voices piping like blackbirds in inquiry. There is one sure thing about the Gypsies, they can always discern a friend; and when they saw me at the roadside, they knew that it was such who called to them.

Those Gypsy travellers were of the tribe of Lovell. Almost all of them were red-haired and not very Oriental of features; only their grey eyes were the deep things of the Romany. They told me that they were horse-traders, but at seasonable times worked in the boobi-poovaw (pea fields) and the levinormengris-poovaw (hop fields). They were very ragged, all of them, the most raggle-taggle Gypsies with whom I had yet met, their tattered clothing almost like foliage covering their bodies, the cloth was so rent and torn. The shoes and boots of those who wore them were all split and misshapen with wear and patterned with mut. And yet their horses were fine animals, and their dogs excellent also, and all looked well-fed. Some of the younger women wore ear-ings and necklets of glass beads shining upon their tawny throats. The juvels (wives) had bauro diklows (shawls) of cotton crossed over their breasts. The men all wore caps or billy-cock hats, blue and green; the Romany mush (man, gypsy slang) likes well his hat.

I told the Gypsies that I would bring them some hoben (food supplies) to help feed them on the road. I returned to the house and Florence Mahon, on whose land i was living, gave me all the loaves of bread that she had in her pantry, and cheese and dates, and I went into the vegetable garden and filled baskets with the big moon-headed cauliflowers and took apples from the trees which were in early ripeness that splendid summer of 1947. My heart was singing as I filled the baskets, for the Gypsies were back with me again.

The apples and the cauliflowers the Gypsies began to feast upon there at the roadside, reserving for their evening meal the other foods that I brought to them. They ate the raw vegetable produce with quick crunchings of their strong jaws and magnificent teeth, eating in the manner of ponies, biting large portions out of the crisp cauliflowers and consuming the big apples in but three or four bites. I too like to eat my food raw and without formality, and I was made glad in the watching of the Gypsies. I was caused to think of the gawjes, of the civilized, sitting away from the open air and the sun at their house or restaurant tables, eating prily their oven cooked foods with their unnatural steel implements: and I knew that the Gypsy way was the best.

As the Gypsies ate, they talked with me on the old subject about which Gypsies almost always gossip when meeting with friendly strangers: the life of the road, and the relentless persecution of the Romanies by the gawje, with the hated force of muskeros (police) acting on their behalf. One elderly woman with her grey-streaked hair hanging over her shoulders in two thick plaits braided with string, and wearing a purple cross-over scarf over a rent black satin blouse tucked into a blue skirt, sun-faded almost white, declared to me:
“The gawjes are a-tryin’ to drive we Romanies orf the drom (road) an orf the face o’ the earf. Pushin’ we there, a-drivin’ we orf’ere, plaguin’ we wiv hidentity cards an’ reshin’ books, but this I knows an’ all we travellers knows, there’s bin travellers since the beginnin’ of the world and there’ll still be travellers at th’ world endin’.” There was great force in the Gypsy’s voice and her grey eyes were wonderful in their expression, like maybe would look the eyes of an old eagle when man sought to drive the great bird from its eyrie. And the long, fierce nose of the woman was stiffened like a plunging beak. he spat from her mouth, savagely, a tough piece of cauliflower.

“There will always be travelers,” I said.

Soon the roadway was littered with apple scraps and white shreds of discarded hard strips of cauliflower. The feast was ended.

In that roadside meeting it was the women who did the talking; the children standing in silence, listening with interest to all that was spoken, and gazing at me steadfastly with their bright eyes, examining every detail of me. The men were busying themselves watering their horses with pailfuls of spring water taken from closeby where we were standing. This was the first time that I had been made away are the presence of a spring there. I did, though, know previously of the remarkable knowledge possessed by the Romanies concerning the long-forgotten water springs of the English countryside. Like the Arabs, the prize highly spring water, and they know well its remarkable powers in the curing of ailments, of their own families and their animals, especially disease of the eyes and skin. They always drink spring and brook water in preference to corporation tap water with its disgusting flavour of chlorine chemicals and its absolute lifelessness, the Gypsies declaring that such water causes sickness of the zee – the human heart.

One of the women elders then asked me to allow her to read my hand. That Gypsy proved to be one of those prophetic Romany fortune-tellers with whom one meets very seldom. She gave me her name as Clara, and said that she was a Lee by birth. She was certainly an accomplished palmist, and would have done well for herself financially if she had chosen to settle in a town kair (house) instead of travelling in the countryside. But the very nature of her clothes and the weathered appearance of her dark-skinned, wrinkled face, her mobile body, proved her to be a deep-hearted incurable traveller. Keeping her keen grey eyes concentrated upon my left hand, she spoke her palmistry pieces in quick mumble-jumble of trite remarks and expressions, but here and there they were lit by flashes of remarkable truth, as if coming from another higher section of her mind. She told me much of my past life, my many accidents and injuries, my several escapes from drowning, and the tragic and violent deaths of so many members of my family. As to the future, she saw one thing only with any certainty, a long journey overseas to a foreign country, a place of wild mountains. The journey was certain to take place within a three-three days, weeks, or months. I was convinced at the time that such was impossible. I had long planned a visit to Mexico, for study of herbal medicine, but there seemed no possibility at al of that being achieved in very many months. Therefore I asked:

“Years, Clara? Three years perhaps?”

“No! An’ will be very importan’ to you, that far trav’lin. Kushto bock mi rackli (good luck my girl).”

Thus by the roadside beyond Leatherhead I learnt of my visit to Mexico, which owing to many strange circumstances did come to happen within three months. Although in truth it was not until I was beholding the wild exciting mountains of Texas on my way there, that I thought again upon the Gypsy’s words. I promised myself then that when I should meet with her further, I would load her hands with silver in recognition of her true dukkerin (fortune-telling) talents.

Clara, after talking with me awhile concerning her traveling life, of its pleasures and its difficulties, invited me into her vardo. She wished to give me a lucky mannikin for my Mexican journey, or in Romany speech – a kushto fiz. In former times many fortune-tellers had kept supplies of diminutive wooden figures and lucky shapes to give to favoured persons, at the present day those fizaws are generally of plastic. There must be an enterprising merchant making good money from the selling of plastic charms to the Gypsy fortune-tellers. Clara gave me a minute pink plastic man, which I soon lost.

Her vardo was clean and orderly, and belied her own raggle-taggle appearance. It was planned in the traditional Gypsy pattern, with the bed at the rear, with wall racks, and wood-burning stove, fitted with Chimney pipe, standing by the door on the left side. The bed could be drawn out to fill the floor space and sleep the whole family, which she told me consisted of nine persons. There were two jackdaws in a wicker cage on the floor, with big bunches of chickweed and groundsel dangling within. The Gypsy said that both birds could talk many words, and that she had exhibited them at fair grounds; they could speak Romany lavaws also. The birds, however, remained obstinately silent whilst I was in the  caravan, though Clara fed them crumbs of cheese and shreds of raw rabbit to tempt them to perform.

As I am interested in Gypsy caravans, their construction and their carvings, the Gypsy invited me to look into the other three which made up the party. They proved to be all planned as her own, and were of similar age. The final two were dirty and untidy. In the third vardo there was a cupboard place built beneath the bed, which Clara told me was for the sleeping of chauvis (children). At that time it was occupied by a large brindled greyhound, suckling seven pups of her own attractive colouring. Her eyes were big and topaz-hued and shone brilliantly in the darkness of the bed-cupboard.

A red-haired boy of about nine years, then came into the vardo; he had been one of the interested child-audience gathered outside on the roadway. Clara said that he was her nephew, and the child told me that his name was Danny-boy. On my asking him if the greyhound puppies possessed names, he gave them to me in a way which made a little song:

 

Ruby an’ Brick an’ Queen,

Lark, Lassie an’ Dream;

-an’ lil Sorry.

 

“Why Sorry?” I questioned him. “That’s a strange name now to call a dog.”

“Well look at ‘im,” said Danny-boy. And he tugged one puppy away from the bitch’s teats, and held it in his brown hands so that I could look well upon it.

It was certainly the wreckling of the litter, miserably small.
“Sorry lil’ thing, ain’t ‘e, Miss. ‘Is mam’s sorry for it, I is, an’ us all is.”
“I too!” I said.

The Gypsy boy smiled. “Like a lil’ mouse-us (mouse) ain’t ‘e now.”

“Yes, Danny-boy,” I agreed.

What a charming lad he was, with his tousled red hair, falling in locks like a coronal of poppy flowers around his round brown face. His mouth was beautiful with its curved lips gleaming and brilliant as fresh-blucked cherries. He wore the delphinium blue dicklo knotted in correct Gypsy style round his stout young neck.

Observing my appraising eyes, cara then informed: “Danny plays the bosh (fiddle) then, he’s a reg’lar boshomengro.”

On hearing the woman’s words, the boy with despatch returned the greyhound puppy to the watchful bitch, and then clambered quickly on to the bed, and took down from a shelf a child’s-size fiddle, which I had not before noticed.
“Me dad made it,” he told me with pride. “This be orf a gry’s (horse’s) tail,” he further informed, pointing to the bow.

I paced a piece of silver on the fiddle, a Welsh Gypsy custom, meaning a blessing on the fiddler and his music. The chal knew the meaning, for he commenced to make music forthwith.

Clara seized my arm and indicated Danny-boy, she speaking in awe as if of a master musician. “Watch ‘ow ‘e trembles,” she bade me. The lad began to shake violently his sturdy body as he played.

“can the lady see me tremble?” he asked.
I nodded my head in affirmation.

It was not very accomplished playing but surprisingly loud for such a small instrument, and it brought most of the Gypsies of the party thronging around the caravan hatch-door. Soon they were all clapping their hands, slapping their thighs, and stamping their feet on the roadway, in accompaniment to the music. I did not recognize any of the tunes that the boy fiddler was paying, and when Clara indicated the farth to me, standing now at the door with the others I asked the man whether the tunes were Romany, as I knew them not. He said that they were not so, but pieces form the hopping fields.

All this had been taking place at the roadside of the main Leatherhead road to Dorking, with busses and cars hastening by. The waiting horses were becoming restive, and soon it was time for the Gypsies to continue on their journey. The men pulled leafy branches off the trees and paced them upon the water in the buckets, to prevent this from splashing out when they swayed beneath the vans. I brought more apples for the travellers, and Florence provided some picture-books for the children. I cut the finest rose in the garden, one of deepest crimson, and gave this to the young boshomengro to wear. I was sad at the departure of those warm-hearted vivid people.

Danny-boy stood at the vardo wooda (door) playing now a Romany tune, the popular “Jalling of the Drom” (taking to the road). This I have heard payed and whistled many a time by various families of Romanies, but never any words other than: “Jallin’ the drom, jallin’ the drom, we be jallin’ the drom”. Also again those were all the words that came shrilling back to me from the voices of the Gypsy children and some adults, chantering to the fiddle music. There was the other music, too, of horses’ hooves and turning wheels as the Gypsies travelled onwards to the hop fields.