My mother could do it from the Rorschach of tea-leaves, or from the metropolitan map of your palm, or from knots tied on a piece of string. She’d do it from the tiny flecks of colour on the edges of your iris, clamping you between her work-roughened hands and craning her head back, narrowing her eyes to peer long-sightedly into your soul. She’d do it from cards, if they were to hand, if she judged you the sort to be impressed by such props: ordinary playing cards. She favoured a yellowing pack she’d inherited from her grandmother that must’ve been printed some time in the early nineteenth century—greasy to the touch, fraying at the edges, kept wrapped when not in use in a dusty scrap of moth-eaten black silk—but I know for a fact she could do it from anything made of pasteboard and divided into suits, for I saw her do it once from a deck of “pneumatic” cards with an advert for P&O Ferries painted on the back, a souvenir from some distant relation’s visit abroad in 1912.
She did other things so we wouldn’t go hungry, too: hawking door-to-door, whether she was selling heather or lace or the pegs she carved the old way, from hazel, a notch hacked in the end, a small ribbon of tin cut from an old can pulled tight around the top. She told the Gadjé we made the lace ourselves, but actually acquired it by the yard from a little place in East Ham. She was too clumsy to make the wooden chrysanthemums her sisters made, or the paper flowers fashioned from toilet paper, privet and silver paint that her cousins churned out by the dozen: her pegs fell apart so rapidly that she could never return to the same place twice and the lace she shorted people on, two-feet six for a yard.
She was too proud to do like our Kennick relatives did, and clean floors and wash doorsteps, and besides, the Gadjé would never trust her inside their houses, afraid she’d chore the silver off the table or the babies out their cribs. What she could do, though, was dukker better than anyone, twisting the threads of your hopes and fears into a life-line that she’d anchor somewhere so solid in the future that you felt you could drag yourself towards it, hand-over-hand, dangling above the awful yawning chasm of the possible.
It was all lies, though. You’ve got to keep that in mind. Artifice and lies.
Summer we’d work the market gardens down south, then September hop picking down Kent, all of us in the fields, gathering the papery cones, fingers stained yellow from lupulin, snot the colour of goldenrod on our handkerchiefs when we sneezed. Winter we’d gel on up to Walworth, the men going out to scrounge work on the docks, the women out hawking.
It was in the winter—when the skies melted into the smoke from the campfires and the fallen leaves turned greasy along the edges of the roads—when the worried-seeming, well-to-do women would turn up, wives of the sort of men who’d not have my mother call at their doorsteps. They’d hitch up their New Look crinolines out of the mud, pull their shawls tighter around their shoulders and pick their way as daintily or haughtily as they could through the outskirts of the camp, seeking out the vardo with the yellow sign painted on it; they’d try not to notice the gangs of little chavvis and chavvos singing nasty rhymes in Romani chib. They’d hold themselves stiffly upright, unflinching even as the dogs reared up barking and snarling, snapping their chains taut.
Once inside the vardo, they’d sit very carefully on the edges of our chairs, their backs very straight, as if contact with the antimacassars would leave a mortal stain. They drank the tea my mother made for them watchfully, trying to hide their surprise at the age and fineness of the porcelain. I’d squeeze into the dusty gap between the chest of drawers and the vardo wall and peek out at them, through the dim light falling through the clerestories; they fell into two general types. Most evoked a mild bitterness: silly, frazzled women, bored by the ease their station in life imparted, looking to add a bit of colour to the drear confines of their social lives. A few evoked something like pity in me, for I believed they visited my mother to seek relief from a kind of long slow sadness that marked them as surely as if they struggled under a weight.
Most of the stuff they wanted to know about was quotidian: who’d get Mabel’s good China, whether Henry would recover from his cough, if our Johnny might finally get over his stammer and find love, where Auntie Violet’s keepsake had gone. Gossip, rumour, nothing that clawed the fabric of their lives.
One of them was different. She came through the needling rain and biting cold of a November night, and outside the trailer, all across the atchava, the dogs began to howl like a fox had got in to the camp. The grais got to whinnying and snorting, and my mother sat up straight in her chair and pulled her shawl tightly around her shoulders. She turned the wick down on the lamp and put her knitting aside, glanced across to where I pretended to sleep in my bunk, at the far end of the vardo. If my father had not been out coursing or drinking, he’d’ve sherrocked my mother for having a visitor so late, but here we were, alone. I screwed my eyes tighter while still keeping watch through the bars of my lashes. She stabbed her needles through the pile of yarn and stole to the door.
“Ah,” she said, standing aside to let someone in, “it’s you. Well, come in then.” From my vantage point, down under my blanket, even if I opened my eyes fully I couldn’t see who it was without raising my head, which would’ve given away that I was awake, so I kept still and listened. As my mother closed the door, the wind gusted cold, and a smell—not unpleasant, leaf mould and rot, a clearing in a forest, a stone, long untouched, turned over by a foot—followed it in.
“You know why I’m here,” said the visitor, in a voice full of needles, a voice like sleet, a voice that made the cold creep in my bones.
“Believe I do,” my mother said. “Well. Shall I put the kettle on? Something to warm your bones?”
“That won’t be necessary.”
“No, I suppose it won’t. Right.” I’d never believe my mother afraid of anything, not of Gadjés nor mulos nor gavvers nor Bengue, nor of my old man when he’d had a skinful (a terrifying enough prospect). Yet this night I could hear the catch in her throat, and it terrified me. I squeezed my eyes shut, willed my blood not to thump so in my veins. I heard my mother reach up to the shelf for her pack of cards, the whisper as the silk came off them.
“Won’t you sit?” she said. “It’ll make it quicker if I can concentrate.”
“Standing suits me,” said our visitor.
Silence, except the sound of my mother breathing, the whisper of the cards. At this remove, it’s worth asking myself the question: did the visitor not need to draw breath? I cannot tell you. I can only tell you that I never heard them breathe. Or maybe it was drowned by the rain pattering madly on the roof, or the way the dogs howled outside.
The cards flickered down, one by one. The smell of leaf-mould and damp stone seemed to intensify, growing stronger as if I’d plunged a spade into soil and freshly turned it over. I huddled beneath my blanket with my eyes scrunched shut, every nerve flaring, cusps of my back teeth straining against each other, a roaring in my ears I didn’t realise was my own blood.
“Have you tried . . . ” A pause, and I imagined my mother leaning down over the cards, scrutinising them, giving it a bit of showmanship for the punter. She exhaled, a long drawn-out sigh. “Go to a graveyard. Dig yourself a trench—”
A terrible croaking noise from our visitor, seemingly right by my ear. After a second I realised it was laughter, or the approximation of laughter, the nearest that this being could come to it. It sounded more like a terrible cough: mirthless, hacking, redolent of filth and disease.
“A trench in a graveyard?” they said, once they’d recovered from their bout of humour. “Madam, I sincerely hope you are not going to ask me to fill it with milk and honey, sprinkle it with barley, and then sacrifice a lamb over it?” Another coughing laugh. The trailer rocked in the wind, wood creaking like timbers of a ship balking in a squall. “You can use that stuff on the Gadjé, but it won’t work on me, Mrs Lee.”
My mother sniffed, as if investigating someone’s sideboard for dust. “Sometimes the old ways are best,” she said, carefully. “If you don’t like what the cards say, what am I to do?”
The other’s voice dropped.
“This is all you have for me, then? Jank? Fripperies? Old rubbish?”
“The cards say what they say. I told you—”
The other cut her off.
“Three days. I’ll give you three days, Mrs Lee. Every breath she takes is pain, and every second she dies a little more. Come up with something for me and mine, Mrs Lee, or I swear to you by Bengue and the Devel and all the mulos screaming lost and lorn—I swear to you even on your little chavvo earwigging under those blankets, I swear to you even as I stand here before you: you’ll go same as her.” Footsteps, stalking across the vardo floor. The door, hurled open, banging crazily against the outside of the trailer. The wind tearing in, hauling at the covers so that I had to grasp at them with fear-stiffened hands. The dogs, yowling so I could barely hear her words, as she took her leave.
“Of course, it’ll be much, much worse for you, Mrs Lee. Much, much worse.”
My old man kept me from school the next day, for he had to visit a mush down Hackney. Up at dawn: though the rain had stopped all the world was sodden from the night before, and all the light was brown and cold. I wanted to ask my mother about her visitor, about the things they’d said, but a tight scowl twisted her face out of true and when she went to clear the pans after breakfast I saw her stop of a sudden and grab the side of the vardo, her other hand clutching herself below the ribs as if she was in pain. Not that my father noticed; I still had half a butty left in my hand when he collared me. Him and his brothers were off to see a mush who he thought he could sell him a grai; my mother and propped herself on a chair next to the vardo’s stove, shivering though her shawl was wrapped tightly around her.
The mush had a small yard next to a dye-works, studded with a few crumbling sheds. I stood in the freezing drizzle, holding on to the grai as she shied and whickered. The air reeked of the astringent mordants from the works next door—boiling vinegar, tannins, ammonia, potash—and I think the smell got in the horse’s head.
I don’t know how long they were gone—it couldn’t have been more than an hour, at most—but what with the cold and the damp I was soon desperate for a piss. I could’ve just got my cory out in the yard and pissed where I stood, but I was trashed my old man or my uncles would come out from inside and find me with my cock in my hand and the reins in the other, and then they’d laugh at me all the long way back, and perhaps longer. So I wrapped the reins around a bit of fence post sticking up out of the mud like the last broken tooth in a jaw and picked my way down the side of a collapsing and dilapidated shed, through some failing weeds, where I could have a touch of privacy and still keep half an eye on the horse. I’d just unbuttoned myself when a smell came to me, a smell like backed-up drains tinged with a bitter alkaloid undercurrent, like something from the dye-works, as if a pipe had just broken open and disgorged its contents into the little yard.
Behind me, I heard the horse stamp and whinny, heard it strain against the rein, then go silent. Something huge and terrible parted the weeds behind me, then a low growl that seemed to rise up from caverns below the surface of the Earth, the likes of which I’d never heard a living thing make. I shrivelled in fear. Piss splashed down my legs. Fumbling myself back into my britches, I putched the Devel himself to look after me, and I turned around.
It was like a huge black dog, misshapen with muscle, foam flecking its muzzle and depending in great yellow ropes from its half-open maw. It reminded me something of a bully whippet I’d seen my uncle try to buy one day down in Essex, but taller, impossibly so, and long-legged, bigger even than the German boar-hound a certain squire had threatened to set on us if we didn’t move on off of his land. Its coat shone like black ink as it rippled across its huge shoulders; its eyes were green flame, and it slunk forward, placing one huge paw on the ground in front of it, and another, as if testing that the damp earth would hold its weight. It lowered its muzzle and stared up at me out of its impossible green eyes, immense body low to the ground.
Then it spoke my name. I pressed myself back against the wall of the shed, and it was only the wet cold brick digging into my shoulders that convinced me I was awake. The horse stood with the rein slack, stock-still as if its hooves were nailed down, staring straight ahead, shivering all over like it was freezing cold.
“Little chavvo,” said the great dog, voice hoarse and guttural. “I’ve come to bring you a message.” It stalked forward, belly low as if stalking prey, and I drowned in its impossible green eyes.
“It is a message for your mother, and you mark she receives it.” It closed the distance between us; carrion-rank breath scorched my skin. “D’you think you can do that, boy? Deliver this here message for me?”
I did my best to nod.
“Then mark my words. Tell your mother that the Choviar does want her answer. She must tell the things the cards tell her. She must tell the Choviar what she wants to know. She need not come with it, for the journey to the Choviar’s house is long and perilous; all she has to do is whisper it to the crow that sits atop your trailer, and the Choviar will hear of it. That’s all she has to do, then she will be free.”
It tilted its awful head on its shoulders, like a puppy being shown a trick for the first time. “Tell her not to bother with pattríensis like your mother might invent for the Gadjé, little chavvo, for none of her tricks will work. And tell her about me, and that should she deign not to answer I shall come in the night and gnaw her bones, and tell her that when I do crack them open and sup upon their marrow, it’ll be a blessed relief, compared with what the Choviar will to do to her.”
When we got home, I took myself out to play with the dogs and the horses, and when I looked up I tried not to stare at the shape atop the vardo, outlined against the setting sun, preening its feathers like a fastidious man preparing himself for an important meeting. That night my old man went out with my uncles—drinking, coursing or fighting. My mother moved stiffly around the vardo’s stove, throwing leftovers into the pot for Joey Grey. She moved slowly, seemed out of breath, kept her shawl wrapped tightly around her. I watched her hack at vegetables, throw in turmeric. The thing I had to tell her was a knot inside me, burning hot yet uncomfortably cold. It sat in me like I’d eaten something raw, it gnawed at me like a rat chewing off its own leg to get out of a trap.
In the uncertain lamplight and the twilight’s gleaning, were there more strands of grey in her black hair? Was she moving slower than she had that morning? Finally, as she ground cloves between two stones, I stood up, took a deep breath. The stone slipped. She swore. Blood flowed; the stone parted the skin down the side of her knuckle. Turning quickly away from where she was preparing the food, she crashed into me, coming up behind her.
I cringed back, but she just smiled tiredly, ran her fingers through my hair and said: “Don’t be afraid, little one. Whatever happens, don’t be afraid.”
Her blood felt warm and sticky on my face. I broke down howling, great heaving sobs wrenching their way out of me, and refused to be comforted even when she clasped me to her old apron. I made so much noise that my Aunt Kathy came over from the next vardo over, to see what the matter was.
She fussed around us both, though I said not a word. My mother retreated to her bed while Kathy finished off making the Joey Grey. I went out to play with the dogs or the horses. When I looked up, silhouetted against the stars, the crow spread its wings wide, wider, a greater darkness blotting out the constellations, a greater darkness that I thought might grow and spread until it encompassed the whole world; but then it shook itself, closed its pinions and shuffled on its perch, just a crow again.
My mother only ever rose from her bed once again.
The next morning, the air of our trailer was thick with a new smell. It reminded me of the dye-works: something caustic that caught in my throat, something you wouldn’t want touching your skin. The stove was cold, no lamp was lit. I fussed around, went and drew some water, gathered some kindling and piled it haphazardly in the grate. When my old man came back for his breakfast from feeding the horses he tried to rouse her, even joked about striking her if she didn’t drag her lazy arse out of bed.
“All right,” she said, her voice weak and brittle, “All right, I was just taking a nap,” but when she tried to rise her legs gave way underneath her and she fell out of bed, dragging the blankets with her, sheets wrapped around her legs, moving weakly with an invalid’s worm-like lack of grace.
He tried to pull her up, but her legs had deserted her. She fell back silently. My old man went down on his knees, cradled her head in his lap, more gently than I’d ever seen him touch her, more gently than I’d seen him touch anything.
I realised the smell was coming from her. Somehow, during the night, she’d lost weight: now I could see her cheekbones, stretching the skin of her face taut. Her hair had grown thinner, like steel wool and her skin was grey as ashes, with an unhealthy yellowish tinge. She coughed, and from the corner of her mouth leaked some sort of thin bile, clotted with greenish mucus.
“Run! Bring Kathy,” snarled my father, still cradling his wife in his lap. “Don’t just stand there, chavvo! Run!”
He roared at me again, then he was off his knees and across the floor, grabbing my ear and twisting it, and to this day I’m thankful for it, for if not for that swingeing pain I might be stood there now.
I tore outside, to find Aunt Kathy picking her way across the puddles towards our front steps. I flung my arms around her, buried my face in her familiar smell of Old Holborn, the soapy violet sweets she sucked to disguise the smell and the Daffy’s Elixir she nipped at frequently to take the edge off her cough. My voice shook as I told her my mother needed her.
I hung at the door of the trailer while, all morning, aunts and cousins and other, more distant relations arrived, not just from our camp, but from miles away, in gigs and carts and vardos. They fussed and worried around her bed, a swarm of aprons and kirby grips and brightly patterned scarves occasionally interrupted by my old man, who sat at the end of the trailer, by the stove, alternately slumped staring sullenly at her sleeping body and raging at the assembled relations:
“Why don’tcha do something? She’s wasting away! Why don’tcha do something? Call the drabengo mush, I’ll pay for it!”
“You don’t have no bloody insurance,” snapped Kathy, pausing as she hammered something that smelled of aniseed in a mortar and pestle. She looked at him—maybe she saw the tears brimming in his eyes, or maybe it was the stupid flexing and unflexing of his hands, or maybe it was how utterly unprepared his life of hardships and graft and fighting had left him for this—and her voice softened, her shoulders relaxed, the defensive posture she maintained around him slumped. She seemed smaller, of a sudden, and there was kindness in the way she touched his arm. “And even if you did, drabengo mush wouldn’t come out for your dependent, would he now?”
“Hush with that talk,” suggested my mother’s cousin, a fat lady named Emily, black curls done up as always in a red kerchief. “We shall be advising her tonight. This ain’t the sort of thing any Gadjé—not even a drabengo mush—is goin’ to help you with.”
Dizzy from the smells of the things my female relatives boiled in pots—smells that made the inside of my nose sting and my eyes water, smells that climbed down my throat and left a residue inside me, clotting my sinuses and salting the roof of my mouth—and stricken with guilt and fear every time I went to my mother’s side, I took myself outside. My cousins were all out working, tending or feeding the grais, gone hawking for a coin. Children played, women washed and fixed and made pegs, and above it all, from inside the trailer, I heard my relatives begin to chant and sing, soft and low. Then my mother begin to scream.
The crow sat all day atop our trailer, a black mark against the yellow roof. My mother’s relatives stayed with her all that night, and all the next day. They bled her. They prayed for her. They held an advisement; they did other things. Towards evening, they began to drift away, in ones or twos, some dabbing at tears, others with their heads up and proud; few looked me in the eye.
“Gonna go get some rest, chavvo,” said my Aunt Kathy, the last to leave. “Watch her, and come running if . . . if anything . . . ” She touched my cheek. “Well, you come running. And look after your old man, too.”
At some point he must have nodded off, there in the chair before the stove and I realised I’d been hearing his snoring as a sort of counterpoint to my mother’s laboured breath for some time. Fearfully, haltingly, I crept to her side, through the sour reek of her, rotting on her bones. She had withered; wrinkles overlapped themselves on her face, and the skin had shrunk upon her bones. Her hair, splayed out from its tight bun and across the pillow, was now a startling, tired white. I moved the blankets aside and grasped at the shrunken claw that was now her hand—crabbed as if by the sudden onset of arthritis—and gasped, for she was colder than the November wind and her skin was as if someone had clothed her bones in crepe. I watched the pulse wink along her eyelids, so thin now that I imagined she could see me without opening her eyes.
“Mum,” I said, leaning closer, and though I was crying and shaking, I still whispered, lest I wake my old man and he beat me for wasting her dwindling resources with nonsense, “Why won’tcha tell one of ‘em what’s going on, our Kathy, or Olive, or Emily, see if they could do something, if they know a way—”
Her head snapped back round, so fast it surprised me, and for a treacherous second I thought that she was rallying, that she was getting better, that maybe she was stronger than she appeared, but the effort sent her flopping once more, and the breath slowed and crawled in her throat.
I glanced at my old man, fearful that he should hear, but I was babbling, now, and nothing was going to stop me. It all came out: that I had heard her conversation with her visitor, that a beast had stalked me the day before, and that it had tasked me to deliver a message; I tried to describe it, its terrible voice, its hideous smell, those unbelievable eyes. I told her of the crow that waited even now atop our vardo.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry I didn’t tell, but I didn’t, I didn’t know—”
When I finished, her mouth set in a line. It was a look that I recognised, though I barely recognised the face that now wore it.
“Right then,” she said, and though she winced and gasped there was steel in her, still. “Get me one of the stones, the ones I use to grind spice with.”
I stared at her.
“And this will help? Help you?”
She paused, took a moment to gather herself. She was evidently in great pain.
“It will help all of us.”
I did as I was bid. I clawed around the stove until I found the stones. They were sticky with something my relations had left upon it, thick and resinous, so after taking one I wiped on it on my shirt before bringing it back to my mother’s side. She took it, weighed it in her hand, though she was now so frail I was surprised she could lift it.
“Now. Help me up.”
I shan’t tell you of the next part: how weak she was, the rank smell of rot that clung to her; how light she was, gone bird-like in her bones, so that I more than half-lifted her from the bed, our roles reversed, as if I were the parent and she the child; the piteous weakness of her, the way that the life was nearly gone from her, the way she slumped against the trailer’s wall.
I could do that. But I shall not.
Eventually, with me propping her up, we made our painful way outside, inching past my father’s snoring form, into the cold of the night. Above our trailer a huge moon shone down. The only sound was someone singing a song, sad and low, a voice that carried from a few trailers over, a song of loss; they sang haltingly, and were accompanied, softly, by a few notes on a mournful guitar.
My mother held herself up only by hanging upon me. Her shift was loose upon her bones. Her voice came in halting gasps. She shivered like a new-born foal, and her weight was as nothing upon me, as if I only held up her ghost.
Above us, the crow spread its wings on the roof of our vardo, deeper black against the sky. My mother, the stone clutched in one hand, stayed looking up at it, clinging to me, for what felt like a long time, though it could have been no more than a few minutes. Then, turning to me, she said:
“I . . . Have not the strength.” In the moonlight, she looked a thousand years old. She slumped against me.
“The strength? The strength for what, Mum?”
She whispered: “Take the stone.”
I did as I was bid, awkwardly holding her to keep her from the frozen ruts of the ground.
“Now. Wind—” Something twisted inside her, or threatened to give out. She drew a great, shuddering breath, through lungs that already seemed to have closed. “Wind your arm up my boy, my dear . . . Dear little chavvo, wind your arm back . . . ”
I felt her gasping breath at my ear.
“And put that . . . That . . . Grinding-stone . . . Right in that kaulo-chirillo’s beak.”
“What! What? But Mum—”
I turned to her, the stone falling from my grasp, held her up before me against the wheel of the trailer, hanging her almost upon the spokes.
“Do it. Do it . . . For me,” she said, struggling to be heard over the cold wind. “And . . . Promise . . . Promise me you won’t . . . tell the girls . . . ”
“Promise,” my mother breathed, the slightest draught. “Promise . . . on my grave.”
“You’re not in your grave!” This last a squeak, a yelp, spiked and bitter. The moon shone down, its light cold and distant.
“Not . . . yet . . . ” she said, and she smiled, despite it all, she smiled.
“Now . . . Promise.”
I took her frozen hand, and kissed her soft-paper cheek, and I picked up the stone, out of the frozen mud, and I promised her, I promised her that I’d never, ever tell a soul.
You tell me what I could’ve done?
My father heard me screaming, and it woke up a few others too, and they ran to my side, there holding the corpse of my mother on the cold damp ground. They wailed and they screamed, howling into the night until the dogs all joined in, and my father snatched me away from where she’d fallen, hatred blackening his face, screaming over and over to know why I had taken my mother outside. He struck me, just once, across the side of my head, so hard that it seemed that all my skin went numb and a great, subterranean bell tolled in my head. He’d’ve done worse, I’m sure, but my Aunt Kathy appeared and got between us, sheltering me with her body, soft with those comforting smells I remembered, Daffy’s and tobacco and violets. She cradled my head, and it was only then that the tears came, and through snot and salt and the great reverberating pain in my head and the icy air, I lied and I blubbered and I told them, one and all, that I had woken to find my mother halfway out of bed, and she had begged me to take her out, one last time, into the night, so that she could look upon the stars. My father fell silent, and never laid a hand on me again.
My mother never had any special powers, no magic. She didn’t have any “gift.” She took in lonely women, stupid women, desperate women, and she gave them a bit of comfort, a bit of hope, something to look forward to. She did this for a few more coins, so my old man had money to piss up the wall or waste on a dog or a horse. Shoes for my feet. A bit of good meat for the pot. She told me herself, many times.
Paper flowers and wooden flowers and fenced lace; heather that you tell them is lucky—“Lucky for us,” with a quick wink of one brown eye—and shitty pegs that always fell apart.
Lies. Artifice and lies.