Friday, December 05, 2008

Family fortunes

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.

11 comments:

Deke Writin said...

In 2001, I found myself hitchhiking to Ballycastle on the west coast of Eire to attend a friend's wedding. At the time, my friend was teaching the local pikie children English. I later discovered why no-one would give me a lift on these tiny little roads where I had ample time to curse the vanishing cars; they thought I was a pikie. The same explanation was later proferred as an apology when I arrived in the village and thought I'd have a drink whilst waiting for my pal.

Apparently a week before, some pikies had the temerity to attempt have a drink in the same pub (Bridie Macs), whereupon the patrons rose up en-masse, chanting "PIKIES OUT!"

The villagers were pretty nasty to each other as well. Some time after I left, a friend of the bride and groom broke into their house, sh*t in the bath and trod the cheese from their fridge into the carpet. This, apparently, was intended as a humourous jape.

LottieP said...

I think the moral of your story is that you can't discriminate against "pikies" because the rest of us are just as bad. I think that's the moral of mine too. I still feel bad about that little red cheeked boy. I like to think, at least, that I don't tick any of the other sociopathic boxes...

Deke Writin said...

The moral of my story is that there is no better way for a honeymooning couple to feel glad they have returned home than to break into their house and void one's bowels into their bath. At least according to Emily Post.

LottieP said...

It's quite common in burglaries, apparently. I can't even begin to speculate why. Nerves + the irresistible urge to complete the desecration?

My student flat in Glasgow was broken into by opportunists who found a ladder in the close and used it to climb up the first floor and force open the back window. The burglars emptied the cupboards and laid all my clothes, including underwear, neatly on the bed. The fact that they also nicked what little I had of value didn't feel like half as much of a violation.

LottieP said...

Perhaps my burglars were following Emily Post's Etiquette for Burglars: "Arrange your host's clothes for them as a welcoming gesture for their return". They were laid out uncannily neatly.

Anonymous said...

Interesting stories but don't spoil them by using the term "pikey". It is just as insulting as "paki" and "nigger". as in "the patrons got up and chanted Niggers Out". Obviously as a quote it is OK but to write 'my friend was teaching the local pikie children' shows a bit of the old Daily Mail/BNP attitude to Travellers.

Claire said...

Ah, the gypsy caravan...or should I say Gypsy caravan. It retains almost as strong an affection for me as Iona. I don't remember it caving in on itself - okay, perhaps it was getting a bit scruffy, but it was pure malevolence to tow it away (the fact that it could be towed away seemed to indicate it wasn't in such a bad state) to the dump, to be set upon by opportunistic passersby, who stripped out anything of value. That whole episode feels like a violation to me. Especially as, like when Jim next door cut down the large laurels we used to climb and play in, it was done while we were on holiday.

Claire said...

Oops, I think I meant that I retain a strong affection for the caravan, and not vice versa!

LottieP said...

But the caravan speaks very highly of you...

The desecration of the laurels was a crime. I used to sit high in the laurel tree overlooking the road, completely invisible to passers by, with my ballet books. From this vantage point I witnessed Robin dashing across the road screaming after he put a hole in his own foot with a garden fork. The welly boot he was wearing sat in the porch for a while afterwards pour decourager les autres, holed through and through, like that long-ago public health advert about the kids at the beach engaging in ill-advised (and unspecified) highjinks which ended with a TERRIFYING shredded welly floating in a bloody pool.

All Jim did was walk round kicking car tires, listening to Jim Reeves, spraying paraquat about the place, scowling at us kids, and cutting things down with his chainsaw. Including our laurels. O, the perfidy of the adult world!

Anna MR said...

I love that label of yours which says "I know how this makes me look". I don't, however, think this particular story makes you look bad (if that's what your how implies) - merely inquisitive in the manner of children, and possibly innocently cruel (in the same manner).

I'll have to look up The Butcher Boy - it sounds like the sort of thing I'd like.

You've written a *lot* since my last visit, Lottie - I've got some catching up to do, it seems.

xxx

LottieP said...

Nice to see you here, Anna. Not quite a post a day, but more this year than any other. Something has inspired me.

I like that "I know how this makes me look" tag too. It's my way of getting my retaliation in first. I still feel guilty about pinching that little boy's cheek, which is why it's the clearest memory.