I was a girl when the gypsies came, it had been drizzling all day and the rain seemed to hang in the air like a grey gossamer veil. At first they stayed well away from the house, deep in the thicket of the wood, I watched the hustle and bustle of setting up camp from behind a wide old oak. I remember guffawing to myself as they built a pyre out of damp wood, did they know nothing about lighting fires? There was an old lady in a brightly covered headscarf that kept glancing in my direction, but there was no way she could see me I told myself.
When it was clear beyond any doubt that they were planning to stay, and they had miraculously lit the fire with little trouble, I turned and started to creep back to the house to tell my mother, your grandmother, the news. I couldn’t escape the feeling that the old lady’s eyes were following me around trees even though I knew I was out of sight from the clearing where she had sat. Just as soon as I was sure I wouldn’t be heard, I broke into a frantic, panicked run.
The kitchen door was always open and your grandmother was always in there doing something. I slumped in the door way and noticed that miniscule beads of rain had settled on my woollen jumper as if they had been sown on. Your grandmother noticed my sullen look and ushered me to this very table to tell her what was going on.
She laughed when I described the invaders. ‘Not invaders…’ She smiled warmly ‘Guests!’ Irene paused, remembering, and then in a soft nostalgic voice she continued. She was the best person I’ve ever known, she was so kind, if I could have been more like her… anyway we made plans to bake bread to take to the visitors. The woods were full of rabbits, and some foul but mama had said that as dusk was already falling they may not have had chance to catch anything. The bread we made was in the shape of a plait, three long strips of dough braided together, they had always been my favourite to make.
As the last light was fading from the sky, we picked our way back to the encampment, the drizzle was ever persistent and so we had covered the basket of bread with an oilcloth, I was carrying it and I could feel the warmth against my leg. I was singing and swaying the basket back and forth, I was so preoccupied with my song that it seemed to me that all of a sudden we broke into the clearing and I was looking up at a wooden caravan, covered in strange and ornate symbols.
No-one seemed on edge about us being around, even if they thought we were there to tell them to clear off I suppose a mother and child weren’t too great a threat, and the smell of fresh bread clearly said ‘we come in peace.’ It seems like it was all a dream now, but soon I was playing with the children, all games seem wilder in the firelight and I felt wild too. Your grandmother sat on the ground and chatted to the old lady who, it was becoming apparent, was the matriarch of the group.
My mother called me over to say hello, and in a reciprocal gesture the old lady called over her grandson. We had been playing together, he was a few years older than me and the leader of our game. We stood in the flickering orange light, impatiently exchanging pleasantries with the grown ups. The two women smiled amused at our eagerness to be free and dismissed us, the boy ran back to the game screaming an order to one of the younger children, I followed, even then I was strangely drawn to him.
I slept so well that night, worn out, the smell of wood smoke clinging to my hair. My dreams were filled with flames but I felt more curious than scared. When I woke the following day and peeked out of my curtains I could see the same hubbub of setting up camp being repeated, but this time at the bottom of the garden, just beyond the root vegetables. I didn’t know at the time but my mother was something of a white witch and she had invited the travellers to settle closer to the house to make them feel welcome and also to share herb lore with the leader. She had told them to help themselves from the herb garden and from that night on we had no trouble with finding recipients for our fruit windfalls.
The old lady’s Grandson was called Septimus as it turns out… I gasped here, but my mother was staring into space, recalling and reliving her story …we became firm friends, I followed him everywhere and he always picked me first for games. The other children were quite put out that he should favour an outsider but his grandmother liked me and I soon learned that no-one dare challenge her. Occasionally she would call him away, I would stop playing and sit on my heels and watch with determined curiosity as Grandmother imparted wisdom to Grandson. They were usually engrossed in some task, wrapping herbs in paper parcels or bent over some boiling pot. I never got close enough to listen and learn anything, his Grandmother was just too formidable for me to try.
Early spring the next year, I woke and peeked out of my curtain, which had become my habit. What I saw made me feel as though my world was crashing to rubble around me, I rubbed my eyes hard in disbelief and anger until they were sore, I ran downstairs and implored ‘Why are they leaving?’ Our treasured guests and almost neighbours were packing countless rolled up sheets of canvas and supplies into their caravans, each face looked set on the task in hand.
‘They are travellers my petal,’ my mother said soothingly ‘They have places they must go to and places they must see.’ She saw my bottom lip begin to quiver and quickly added ‘I’ve told them they are welcome to return here in the winter.’
After many tears, and after I had emphatically and repeatedly declared that I wanted to be a traveller too, my mother managed to calm me and we went to wish our new friends farewell. The two women exchanged warm embraces and smiled at each other. My mother handed over a parcel of dried herbs that had only been taken down from the rack above the fire that morning. The pungent, earthy smell seeped out from the package and the finality of the parting gift struck me and my eyes began to fill up all over again.
Septimus’ Grandmother reached into a pocket deep in the folds of her coat and pulled out a drawstring bag to hand to my mother. I saw my mother gently unwrapping the parcel and caught a glimpse of a severe looking woman in a blue robe printed onto a card. Just at that moment Septimus caught my arm and swung me around. He was usually so roguish and wild that I was almost frightened to see him look serious. ‘I will see you again at the end of the summer’ he said and then sped off to continue packing up the caravans.
From that moment my heart never belonged to anyone else.