Things My Mother Told Me

Nelson Stanley


I'm a Traveller boy. The first act of magic I knew was one of transformation: my old man packed us up when me and my sister were still kids, told us we weren't “fucking Gypsies”, and we went to live with his family. He turned us into Kennicks, house-dwellers. I can rokker a bit, still, but not as much as I'd like. I only started thinking about this the other day, at the funeral of my last uncle. Though I never really knew him, I always liked poor Manfri: youngest of seven, he saw each of his brothers and sisters in the ground. At least when his time came the family did it properly, piled all his worldly chattels into his trailer then burned it; and he'd have appreciated, I know for a fact, the hearse that took him to rest, pulled along as it was by four black horses stamping and snorting in the cold winter air, ebony ostrich plumes nodding as the traffic piled up behind them all down the A27 dual carriageway.

I have more cousins and they're more closely related to each other than you would believe. Unfortunately, I am not the sort of Romany you see on TV or in Hollywood films: no black silk curls or smooth olive skin. I am a skew-toothed flat-footed short-sighted balding Gyppo, the product of a gene pool kept deliberately shallow via twelve hundred years of custom, taboo, and by the kind of insularity and fuck-you attitude that being a nomadic race of mud people tends to give you. When you grow up in a closed community, or rather on the very edges of it, you are privy to the best and worst of it. The closeness, the mutual support, the love given. But you also see it for what it is, good and bad. You see the terrible things that can grow and flourish when you can't speak of them and cannot name them. Propriety protects, but it also harms.

My mother died when I was a barely a teenager. I remember her as a puzzled, strangely cheerless woman: heavy-bodied, dark-skin, dark eyes, fine black hair. She was trapped in a life she did not want, married to a man who, if he loved her, expressed it as often with the back of his hand as his heart, saddled with two loud, demanding children who were always getting sent home from school. She was something of a pariah amongst my father's relatives; they'd settled a few years before, one or two of them had even married Gadjés, and they spoke about her behind her back, looked down on her I'm sure. Cut off from her own family, her own life, she lost her rag with me and my sister more often than strictly fair, I suppose. I never told them at school what had happened to my teeth, or where I got those bruises.

But she told me lots of things. She used to tell me about doodlebugs, the V2 rockets the Nazis used to bomb London during the waning years of the Blitz: the noise they made, the terrible wailing with which they carved up the sky, the sound they made when they hit, not a bang but a flat crump. Streets magicked into rubble and dust. The smell of incendiaries, burning flesh.

She told me to never make a promise, because if you make a promise and break it then you'll wear the heart right out of you. The shards of the broken promise would literally catch in the gears of your heart and grind it to a halt. She had three brothers, and three sisters. Her eldest sister Betsy died in a car crash when my mother was fifteen. My mother was in the car at the time, along with two of her cousins; she was the only one wearing a seatbelt. She was the only one who walked away.

She told me: always wear a seatbelt.

The other brother, Billy, got sent to the war. He died clutching a rifle struggling up Omaha Beach. Poor little Vashti stepped in front of a Routemaster in 1974 and her remaining sister, Fiance, fell off a ladder while hanging bunting from her trailer to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee. By the time they found her, the rope of the bunting had strangled her to death.

My mother told me: fuck royalty and anyone that supports the concept. She wanted to attend the Royal Wedding in 1981, but only, she said, so that she could spit on the protagonists.

My mother's eldest brother, Durriken—Durri for short but Ken amongst the Gadjé—did not like my father. Mother and he had had Words about their marriage, my father's views, the attitude of his family, how he treated her, how he treated everyone.

My earliest memory, the only one I've really got from before we settled: long circuitous drive around the M25 to the atchen'tan where the trailer Durri shared with their youngest brother Manfri—dear sweet Manfri, big and kind and somewhat soft in the head—was parked. Inside a fug of Woodbine smoke and cheap stout, unwashed maleness melting into overheated Formica.

My mother and Durri argued while in the drizzle outside my uncle's dogs snarled as they tore at each other, thrashing through the puddles, black muzzles flecked with drool, lips pulled back over yellow teeth. Uncle Manfri tried to teach me and my sister some obscure game of cards, while eight feet and an aluminium wall away his only living siblings screamed in each other's faces, nose to nose, the caravan rocking on its suspension. I cried. My sister punched me, hard, on the arm.

Believe it or not, I remember every word of the argument: every screamed imprecation, every swearword, English and Romany. Yet I don't remember... I can't remember, the words of the curse she gave as she dragged me and my sister out the flimsy door of the caravan and into the rain. But I do remember the shape of it, the way it shredded the air, a howl eddying up into the winter sky. I think Durri would've come after us, God knows what he'd've done—I've never seen a man so angry—but his brother threw himself out of his seat and held him back. I remember tears streaming down poor sweet Manfri's face, brown eyes watering behind his smeared NHS glasses.

Uncle Durriken died of cancer a six-month after our last visit. Years later, at Manfri's funeral, a cousin told me Durri died in agony, that the doctors had never ever seen a man torn by such pain, that it had spread out of his lungs and filled his blood and eaten his spine and the bottom of his brain went with it, but not the thinking part or the feeling part, just the doing part that controlled his legs and his arms so that all he did was weep and rage, weep and rage, no matter how much morphine they pumped into him. They'd tried to operate; they'd tried chemo and radiotherapy. They tried a faith-healer. However much filth they cut out of him, more grew back. The doctors wanted to preserve his body for medical science, they said, as no human they'd ever seen had lived—if you can call it life—with so much of him roiling into a foul, self-immolating soup. In the end they had to move him out of the hospital, my cousin said, for he carried on so. We never went to Durri's funeral; we had moved away, after all, into a house down the country, into the bosom of my father's family. My mother never spoke of her eldest brother again.

My mother told me never to step on a crack. She told me the real reason why "every little bit helps". She told me never, ever to show her up in public. She told me not to draw attention to myself unduly, and never to trust a gavver because people in authority do not always have your best interests at heart. She did tell me, though, that you should always trust a doctor or a nurse, and respect them no matter what, but she always told me to remember that they were human, too, and that humans made mistakes. She was very particular about the correct way to address all the different types of nurses, and when my father was in hospital she astonished me by being able to tell, at a glance, whether or not she was talking to a Ward Sister or a Matron, and then address them by their title. Such knowledge is antiquated—useless—now, but twenty-five years ago I was impressed, and received a solid clip around the ear for not realising the difference between the two.

My mother told me she met the devil, once, the capital-D-Devil, Old Nick, Lucifer himself, in the flesh. Bengue, if you'll pardon my podjeri jib. When she was tiny, maybe three or four, she'd been playing with her brothers and sisters. They were throwing sticks for the dogs, and the family were stopped on a bit of waste ground where (I think) Richmond Leisure Centre is now. Down at the end of the waste ground was a small stream, just a trickle, and on the far side a tall hedge, and her father had gone out hawking while her mother was cooking over an open fire. Ragged children, all tight black curls and olive skin, ragged children who—in my mother's old photos—look suspiciously like the Hollywood Gypsies I was complaining about earlier, laughing, shouting, chasing balls and dogs. Everywhere dogs, big dogs, small dogs, yapping dogs, strangely silent and moping dogs. The sun bleeding out the day.

She threw the stick too far. It sailed over the hedge.

The dogs all stopped barking at once, and no matter how much the boys and girls cajoled them, threatened them, not one would go retrieve the stick. The children chased them towards the hedge; they whined, and flattened their ears to their heads, and stood around like sheep: stupid, will-less, beaten. They tucked their tails between their legs and cowered in the dying sunshine.

—Alice, said my uncle Manfri, —Alice, you're the littlest. Won't you go and fetch the stick?

So my mother went. She squeezed her way through, underneath the hedge, and on the other side, squatting upon the ground, was the Devil.

A quick aside: Khorakhane are faithful to the Qu'ran and refuse pork and wine, Tsiganoi recite the Jesus prayer whilst counting out the hundred beads, and there's Romany in Britain with that sort of tea-and-afternoon-cake, you-don't-have-to-believe-in-an-actual-God-really faith bequeathed from the (low) Anglican church. Cousin of mine even joined the Jehovah's Witnesses, bless her divvy dinlo soul. But below that, what we all share—and it's nowhere near formalised enough to call it a world-view—is an almost unacknowledged system regarding the true nature of the world. This resides beneath and supports the localised faith that we graft on over the top to stop people having even more excuses to set fire to us. Over time, one has bled into another, bits of each intermingle, and I don't think we can tell one from the other any more. Such are the perils of a secondary identity for public consumption.

Another act of transformation: live your life long enough, and you will become you, with all the horrors that entails.

My mother said that wherever she was after she scrambled underneath the hedge and met the Devil, there the sky was angry, black. She said that there, on the other side, the wind had got up, flapping at her skirt, tearing at her hair, and it was cold, bitter cold, so cold that she thought her teeth might chatter clean out of her head, though this sounds like set-dressing, something added later on. I don't know.

The Devil squatted there on the ground, huge and black and impossible and terrible. Something like a bull; something like a jackal; something like a winged snake. It uncoiled itself; tottered on surprisingly dainty hooves; shook peacock feathers made of iridescent darkness in the wind. It was hideous; it was magnificent. It was beautiful, and it was horrible. It was the thing we are all afraid of in the dark, when we are alone: the thing that frightens every child, that lurks outside every half-closed door, the thing that makes babies scream when away from the warmth of their mother's breast; it was the thing whose shadow we try to blot from our lives with drugs and alcohol, and love and art and careers; it shimmered like oil on a wet pavement, it gave off a bitter reek of regret and half-struck matches. It was madness and terror and it raised its dripping snout and sniffed the air, and then it spoke my mother's name.

—Alice Lee, said the Devil, in a voice made of honey and guile, —Alice, I know your heart. I can smell the wickedness in you, child. You'll be mine soon. I'll pull the soul right out of you before you're done.

She pissed herself, apparently.

—I'm only a little chavvi, dear sir, said my mother, remembering even now her mother's injunction to always be polite, even to the Gadjé, even to mulos, even to Bengue. —Only a little Romany chavvi, she went on, so what in all the world could you want with me?

—Don't sweet-talk me, I can smell the piss down your legs.

The Devil opened something in its face and extruded a long black tongue like a velvet whip, like a butterfly's proboscis. It lashed about and then darted towards her. She thought it would touch her, she said she'd never been more scared, not at meeting the Devil or hearing him say he was going to eat her heart, never more scared than at the prospect of that terrible tongue touching her face, of feeling it soft and hot against her skin. She told me that's what she woke up thinking about in the night, that forty years later she had to cling to the unconscious bulk of my father lying next to her snoring for the end of the world just to keep it away: that tongue, obscene, uncoiling under a dead sky, the smell of her own piss in her nostrils, a cold like she'd never felt clamping fingers into her bones. Said she'd have done anything, anything at all, to keep that wormy black member away from her skin.

So standing there on the brink of something, standing before the Devil himself, she offered him someone else.

—Leave me, she said. —Leave me be. I've lots of brothers, lots of sisters. Take any of them. I hate my brother Durriken. Take him, in my place? Take him, and leave me be.

Asked the Devil: —And why should I do that?

—Because he's cruel, sir. He beats the dogs. He tore the head off my doll. I've seen him touch himself, when no-one's looking. I've seen him put hands on Manfri and Vashti, when he thinks we're all asleep. He's more wicked than I am, more wicked than I shall ever be.

—I think, little chavvi, said the Devil, scratching a livid wound in the soft ground with one steaming hoof, —I think I shall take you.

—But I've done nothing! I've seen no-one. My life is so very small. Why not wait, and one day have Durri when he's old and he's fat and full of sin? He's wicked now, she wheedled, but just think how wicked and tasty he'll be once he's all growed up!

And the Devil, he put his unlikely head on one side, and whipped the air with that long sable tongue, and shivered his not-quite scales and his not-quite feathers, riffled his beautiful terrible wings so that faces, screaming in agony, could be glimpsed against the ebony sheen of his plumage the way you can see a panther's markings on its pelt in strong sunlight, and said:

—That's actually a good idea, little chavvi, a very good idea. But don't you try to cheat me now, Traveller; if you get to the end of your days and I don't have someone to sink my teeth into, then I'll come for you, I'll come for you and make you my mollisher, and when I do that I'll stick my corey up your minge and rip you inside out before I eat your soul. D'you hear me?

—I promise you, sir, hand on my heart, he's yours. One day, when he's wicked enough, you can come and take him, and he's yours.

—Good. Then it's settled. Him for you; his life for yours. One day, when he's good and fat. But because not even I trust a Gypsy, little chavvi—for I know you're allowed to lie to the Gadjé—I tell you this: every day you keep him from me, your life will be filled with pain, and woe. The things you love will disappoint you, and you will never, ever be happy in your heart.

And she nodded; and scrambled back under the hedge, and all the dogs refused to go near her and Durri slapped her so hard for losing the stick she had a welt on her arm in the shape of his hand for a week after.

I mean, that's what she told me.

I don't know which of the things that my mother told me are true. She did, after all, believe a lot of fucked-up shit. She told me never to eat paper because black men had touched it and you couldn't be sure they'd wiped their arses beforehand, then in nearly the same breath she told me to always be proud of who I was and where I came from and let other people be proud of who they are and where they come from too, because when you cut us open we all, Gadjé and Traveller, black and white, we all bleed the same colour.

She told me the stories distant relatives had told her, about the camps the Nazis made for people like us, about the ovens people were fed into, about the tattoos, the chavvis and chavvos stitched together to see when they'd stop breathing or whether, as if by magic, one being would sit up where there had previously been two. Like I said, she told me lots of things. All of this and more.