I heard tell the 1947 Appleby Fair was likely to be the best of our lifetime; this cos the farmers are dooming the horse trade, and those tarmacadamed roads are threading across our green fields, and more and more motors are rolling up – this we all know, and this will change everything. This is just the start – the best of fairs.
I’ve brung cigarettes for me da and a little choc for the chavvies but it didn’t feel right to be found so soon, so I creep me way in the crowds, keeping with the mumpers, a beady eye out for the Romanies. It’s getting late in the morn but what has to be spoken can wait. The fair this year is pleasing me, they are showing the horses right now and all around I am hearing the chatter of traders at their bikking, and the jostling children playing amongst satin flanks, and the flies that zip like bombers at your sweat trickles, and above us all the June sun is out in force for a proper cushti day.
A galloping thunder starts when shirtless riders pound their trade up the field, coloured horses flashing past the throng, close enough for folks to smell the fear. I’m taken to watching the dangerous display, mindful of stray hooves and corded whips. Cheers and gasps and animal discord! I feel I might go deaf, these joyful noises stuff my ears, so! And I laugh with the rest of ‘em, when that pony topples his braggart master, I surely bend me back with mirth. Ah, the buzz of the happy people; they are all lively, alive! Heat and yellow dust rise and coat the crowd the same colour. I greet the smiling faces, even the red-haired Irish tinkers and a palmful of surly gorgio youths. I weave me way past gaudy dukkerers, nod at the blank-faced uniformed gavvers, and cuff the raggedy boy whose hand has snuck in me pocket, all the while ambling, in me own slow way, towards where I see the camp sprawled on the hill above town.
Then, a conker brown face splits the crowd. For a sudden I’m afeared it’s me da, but Ezra is an old travelling friend, I heard tell he may be a great-uncle but there’s no one living to remember the truth of it. Surprise blooms across his hatched cheeks when he sees me standing there, me cap twisted nervous-like in me hands. – Ken, says his gummy grin, and he folds me in wiry arms. For shame, the waters surge in me eyes. – Now, mush, he nods, cupping me cheek, what’s this? Tha’s been in the war? He stands one head shorter than me but I still feel the smaller man. – I came back, I say in a stronger voice. Ezra crinkles his black eyes. The two-shilling pieces he has stitched for button on his green waistcoat wink cheerily at me. – So, tha’rt back to the family, he beams, and treads softly away, leaving me uncomfortably heavied with a load of foreboding.
The hatchintan on the hillside is a mess of vardos and modern motor wagons. Every scrap of brittle scrub is churned up by wheels, hooves, and paws, and I spy a gaggle of barefoot chavvies chasing bantams and stacking crates of pigeons and rabbits, dodging piles of dung and stirring clouds of last night’s cold, grey ash. The Romany racklis shout and laugh over newly built wood fires, cooking pots spouting meaty steam into the late air. I’ve left it till near dusk to search the camping place for me kin, and I need peer into the gathering naphtha glows to find the faces I know, but it’s the vardo I see first and get a twitch of longing for a night under one of my ma’s knitted blankets, squeezed next to me brothers, the shifty Les or the snoring Vernon. I run me hand over the painted panels, faded black with red and yellow stripes, the hardy wood scratched and gouged from the knock of boughs on a narrow lane. The cratch is laden with ma’s soot blacken’d pots and ladles, and when I knock them together the noise of our travelling sounds loud in me ears. I come up the front but there’s no cause to peep inside, it won’t’ve changed since I left anyway, ‘cept there’ll be more room under the eaves for me ma’s ornamental china and me tiny sister’s candlewick spreads. I catch a gust of cedar wood and I am taken to thinking I am a mere boy again, sat high on the locker chest being liced or slapped or, on the odd occasion, scrubbed till I was raw pink and screaming.
Then I see her. Ma, stoking the flickering yog, crouched over the heat like a proud goddess bathed in flames. Her lined, soft face and tangle of hair is what I missed the most. Ma, who would throw me the last scrap of stringy meat, and who rummaged for bindweed when I was troubled by the worm, and who fended me when da’s temper crashed around us, me ma, she is what I reckon I had to fight for, all that long time, over the water. I’ve got half a feeling to slip away, shy-like, but her ears jangle and her feet turn quick and the smell of cotton jams me nose holes, and she is pinching me arm and rubbing me hair, clapping loud and laughing. – Mi chal, mi chal has returned to me, she croons, and I sigh most wonderfully and give her many kisses, flimsy tokens of our time apart. – Ma, where is da? I whisper, but her mood turns as quick as a wink and she bats me away and mutters herself back to the bauro yog. I tread up to the light. – Ma? I say again, I need to see da, I need to talk with him. She nods; she is stiff now. – Dordi, dordi, is all she will say. A deeper shadow fills the black sky over her shoulder. He can glare through some dark, can me da. His grunt is all I need to follow. – Kushto raati, I send me ma this lowly blessing, and forge after him.
The night has gathered apace but the gypsies chase it away, sparking torches and setting them so, giant fairy rings of dancing, whirling, raucous chanting. Da heads fast for the square by the crumbly church, crammed with revellers still giddy from the evening’s trotting races, the ponies tethered triumphantly to winning hands. – Everything’s changing, da, I cry through the clamour, but I may as well be ten mile away, for all he can hear me. – I got money, it comes out a squeak, this secret of mine, as I hurry after his broad, woollen shoulders, knocking into waving arms and heaving bodies, pushing through the merry crowding. – I got a bit o’ cash, and I want it to buy me a house, I am almost whispering this, it is so shameful to say in loudish tones, but this he hears as clear as a bell and the moment I know it is when he swings and stops dead, people around him crashing past and swerving through our stony silence. I almost cannot look at him, but I have seen things no man has any need to see, so I do. In that looking I understand something, all of a sudden. This is an old man, skin weathered like a wrinkled apple, coat patched and stained, hair matted and greyed by time. I do not want to be this man when I am old. I want to be safe under a roof and me wife at the stove, the children around me. This feeling I have, it swells so strong in me now, I’m sure da can see it in my eyes, and I blink and blink till the tears have vanished inside.
We drink together, him and me. We watch the high-stepping dance and clap the drunken boshomengro, we sit and nod to the accordion player, we drink and drink and still they all sing. – This is life, my da mutters, the words as always clot in his throat, made bold by cheap beer. – This is truth, a friendship with all the world: earth, sweet air, sky, sun, wind, rain… all as God made them. I had never heard him say so much. – This is to live, he says, you would stop living? I set me tankard down and breathe in the hot and smoky air. – I am alive, I drop the words before us. I do not say that I had feared never to live again. The throng seems to grow out of the night as more and more reeling dancers pour out from the taverns. I feel a slipping away. – Tha’ll never find us more, my proud gypsy father utters without a quiver. I stand, knowing the time here for me is gone. I pull the crumply cigarettes from me trouser pocket and leave them where I sat. – Pariktuti, da, are the words I send to him as I go through the happy mass, and leave him, and them all, under a lowering mist, like a fisher’s net, from the night.