When I read The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe, I liked the first line so much that I memorised it: “When I was a young lad twenty or thirty or forty years ago I lived in a small town where they were all after me on account of what I done on Mrs. Nugent”.
There’s something about the rude vigour of it (and the book that follows) that reminds me of the gypsies who lived behind our house for a few months. We thought of them as gypsies, but called them “The Bussies” (and in my mind, somewhat unfairly, they were connected with a fantasy family that my sister and I used to tell stories about as we lay in bed at night, called “the Slummies”, living in a tenement and roughly based on The Broons); they called themselves “travellers”, and they moved in one day out of the blue, because another neighbour had been keeping an ancient, yellow, single-decker bus (“the Bus”) there with a view to selling it. The travellers wanted to buy it, or so they said, but ended up living there for a while with no money changing hands, with much hand-wringing around the neighbourhood but no one willing to do anything about it.
That site behind our house, next to the woodshed, ironically enough had once housed a real gypsy caravan in the ancient style with awnings and filigree and once-colourful paint; it belonged to another family friend (whose daughter had trapped her arm in one of those old-fashioned electric clothes wringers, a story that both horrified and fascinated me and which affected the way I viewed that caravan: in my mind’s eye there is, illogically, a clothes wringer inside it), and it gradually collapsed in on itself until it had to be towed away to the dump, to be replaced not long afterwards by the Bus.
We were fascinated and frightened by the travellers: there were about eight of them, including children, but their numbers seemed to be very fluid with new people arriving or departing regularly; they were obsessed with Elvis and within hours of arrival had bedecked the Bus with pennants and red and gold banners proclaiming He was King. When I went out the back with the wood basket, to collect wood for the fire, I was a bit scared of what the travellers might do to me. This must have been around 1978, when I was 10. I have the clearest memory of a girl a bit younger than me, with ruddy cheeks and long black hair and a stern expression, who spent her time pushing an equally ruddy-cheeked toddler around in a pushchair. One shameful day I followed them into “the dell”, a scoop in the hillside that the road passed through on its way to the village, with a stream at the bottom and trees all around; in the quiet, with no adults around, I pinched that little toddler’s cheek very hard, to see if he would cry (he didn’t) as the pair of them stared at me fiercely (and with good reason) but without a word being exchanged between us.
The travellers disappeared in the dead of night, after a furious row, and as soon as we were sure they were gone for good the neighbourhood kids swarmed all over the bus to see what they’d left. It was a mess of broken Elvis records, discarded pots and pans, and clothes; they’d broken a window, and the Bus had stopped working so it couldn’t be sold, so it too took its turn to be towed away to the dump.
It seems with hindsight quite a bizarre thing to have happened; but aside from the nasty little cheek-pincher (me) there was a remarkable tolerance (which could, have course, have been engendered by fear, but was more likely just bemusement) of their presence there. We accepted them as they were and everyone got on with it. I don’t even remember wondering where they might have come from or what might have happened to them after they’d gone: they were there, and then they were not, and they didn’t exist outside my solipsistic little world, except that we had some scratched Elvis records and other little souvenirs to remember them by.