(Prequel to The Wooden Rose)
They say the sins of the fathers fall on the sons, but what of the sins of the mothers…
Mary always manages to get her own way. As a child, she is stubborn, determined, acts without thinking, and never considers the consequences of her actions. The old Mother tries to explain to her that what she says and does will come back to her three times over, good or bad. When she angers her common sense and control disappear, and then she worries about the old Mothers words.
When Mary helps her older sister Coralina to run away with the miller’s son, she is blamed for not telling her father. Johnny her childhood sweetheart has a calming influence on her, and later they marry and have a child, a beloved daughter Rosa. When Rosa is fourteen, her sweetheart Eddie, carves a piece of wood into the shape of a rose and gives it to Rosa as a token of his love. Later they marry at the Tinkers Heart, near Cairndow on the shores of Loch Fyne, and it’s a time of celebration for all.
Mary, a natural witch, practices healing, and casts simple, personal spells, but she often forgets the power of her words, her deeds, and her actions. She utters a vile curse, which haunts a family to this day, but it haunted Mary too, and her thoughtlessness repays her when she least expects it, in tragic and heartbreaking ways. This fascinating romantic suspense, set in and around Glasgow and Ayrshire will keep you hooked to the very end and leave you wanting more. This is a charming mysterious love story.
Copyright © 2016 Soraya
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Part 1 Coralina’s Story
Coralina Kelly sat on the padded bench beside the thick brown woollen curtain that closed off the sleeping area in the wagon, and she listened to her mother’s feeble cries. She was sitting on her hands, because she knew that if she didn’t keep them under her legs, she would have bitten her nails down until they bled. She rocked backwards and forward in her space; she was scared. She was the only child to have survived birthing, all the others had come away before their time, and she could remember when two boys had been born, but they were blue when they came out. She hadn’t seen them but she had heard the aunties talking. They would have been her brothers, and she was sad that they hadn’t lived. She was sad for her Mam too, because she cried whenever anyone in the camp birthed a new baby.
“Push, push, try harder lass,” she heard old Mither Morrison saying.
The men were outside leaving the women to look after things, and she was alone in the wagon, separated from the others only by the curtain. She wanted to pee so badly, but she was afraid to leave, not that she was any help, but still, she didn’t want to run through the dark to the toilet tent to relieve herself of her full bladder, just in case she was needed. Finally, when she could hold it no longer, she left the wagon at a run.
“Where ye goin’ lass?” her father John called as she scooted past him. He and the others were sitting around the campfire patiently, if worriedly, waiting for the birth of the next child, sharing a bottle of whisky, and silently praying that all would be well.
“Ah’m goin’ tae the dunny Da.”
“Straight back Coralina, mind now, straight back.”
The Gypsies’ camp was set in a clearing surrounded by trees near Glasgow Green and close to the River Clyde. There was a narrow road close by, but no one could see the camp from there, and that was fine because their privacy was important. Eight wagons were on this camp, nearly forty Gypsies in all, and they were relatives of each other by birth, marriage, or close kinship. This location gave them access to all the places that they would travel to, selling their wares or services, whether they were heading to the Ayrshire coast or to villages and towns further afield. The wagons were in a semi circle, with a campfire in the middle. Over the fire stood a Chitty Prop, a three legged cast iron frame for suspending a large kettle for boiling water. At meal times, the kettle would be replaced with a heavy iron pot for cooking soups and stews.
Off she ran to the space that had been prepared, which contained a large galvanised steel bin. A lid with a hole in the centre, forming a seat, had been fashioned out of wood so that anyone who needed to use it could sit without touching the cold hard steel. A canvas hap was fastened to the wooden frame of the dunny and gave some privacy when it was in use. Coralina hitched up her thick woollen skirt and dragged at her knickers, pulling them down as far as her thighs, and then she squatted over the seat. She sighed with relief as she emptied her bladder; she had held it in for so long that she thought she would never stop. She paused when she had finished, hoping the last drips had fallen before she hitched up her knickers, and hurried back to the wagon.
She could smell the wood smoke from the fire and as she came through the trees, the light from the fire guided her. She could see the shadows of the men sitting around the fire, wearing their thick jackets, caps, and scarves to keep themselves warm in the cold February air. She could hear their whispered conversations but couldn’t make out what they were saying. The heat from the fire warmed her face as she ran past it, and quietly crept back into the wagon. She was shivering now, and grabbing a blanket, she threw it over her shoulders. Once more, she took her place on the bench in the sitting area. She didn’t know what time it was but she knew that it had been hours and hours. It would be morning soon and still she sat.
Mither Morrison had been in and out several times demanding more hot water as she tried to help Mary Ellen, her daughter-in-law, deliver her baby. Coralina didn’t know what all the hot water was for, but Mither Morrison needed plenty of it. Just as the day was breaking she heard a funny little noise, a squeak almost, and then loud lusty cries. She knew, as her heart filled with joy and excitement, that the baby had come and it wasn’t blue, she didn’t think blue babies cried. She was excited and happy to have a new baby brother or sister, but as she listened, she realised that it had all gone very quiet, apart from the little noises the new baby was making.
Still she listened, and then Mither Morrison came out. At fifty-three, she was the oldest mother in their camp, and the ‘Mither’ in any camp was always shown the utmost respect and always had the best of things, partly because some of the residents would be her grown children, and partly because everyone in any camp made sure that the Mither had everything that she needed. She had been quite a character in her day, and even yet, as old as she was, for in those days being in your fifties was a good age, she still managed to bring a spark of light during heavy or hard times. She could make everyone laugh with the old stories she told, and when the occasion warranted it, she could dance a jig with the best of them, though her arthritic bones meant that her jig didn’t last very long. With a word or a look, the Mither could make a man feel ten feet tall or chastise him and reduce him to feeling that he was ten years old. She was held in such esteem that she seldom had to chastise, and was more likely to nod and say, “Well done lad, aye well done,” and the lad in question, though twenty-four or forty would puff up his chest proudly.
Mither Morrison’s hair, once red, was now as white as snow. She wore it partly covered by a colourful thick woollen chequered scarf that she had wrapped around the length of her hair at the back of her neck, and twisted and tied to one side. Her hair had receded back from her forehead a little, exposing a deep brow over watery eyes once as blue as the sky on a summers day. Though her skin was pale, her cheeks were rosy red from daily exposure to the fresh air and the elements. A thick brown woollen dress came down to her ankles, and over it was a sleeveless v-neck jumper hand knitted using many different colours of wool. Over one shoulder was a woollen blanket of reds, yellows, and blues, and the toes of chunky black boots peeped out from her ensemble. She wore heavy gold hoops in her ears and fine gold bangles dangled on her thin wrists as she moved. Her jewellery, and the bright colours that she wore, always drew attention wherever she went.
She was proud of her family too, her son George was married to Mary Ellen’s sister Isabella, and they had given her three fine granddaughters. The last one, a late baby, was little Daisy, not yet weaned onto solids, Nellie was five and Jennie was ten. Isabella had miscarried more than once, so she cherished her girls and she was a good mother.
Coralina looked up as Mither Morrison came through the thick dividing curtain. She realised that the Mither was carrying the tiny baby wrapped in the new white shawl that her mother had knitted. The Mither handed the baby to Coralina.
“Here, watch whit yer daein’, an’ take the bairn tae yer Auntie Isabella, she’ll see tae her. It’s a wee lassie.”
Coralina looked at the Mither and wondered why she had tears on her face. This was a happy time she thought, as she tenderly and carefully took the new baby in her arms. This tiny baby was her little sister and she was overjoyed. She looked back at the Mither and then suddenly felt confused. She wondered why she had to take the bairn to her Auntie Isabella. Coralina had a worried expression, her eyes were wide and her mouth gaped in surprise, but the Mither only said, “Tell yer Da tae come in on yer way oot.”
Coralina stepped into the doorway pausing above the wooden steps, and then made her way slowly down with the baby in her arms. All the men stood suddenly and stared at her. They looked at her anxiously first, and then, as one, they looked at her father as he yelled, “Mary Ellen, nooooo, nooooo!” He screamed for his wife. He groaned as though in agony, as he realised that this could only mean one thing. Coralina, frightened by this sudden change, watched as the men grabbed her father, and held him as he cried. She skirted around them and ran over to her Auntie Isabella’s.
Isabella, as well as everyone else in the camp, had been waiting and watching from her wagon as her sister struggled in the throes of childbirth.
“Come in hinny, I’ll take the bairn. Go and sit down.” Isabella did her best to hide her grief as she took the baby in her arms. Coralina climbed the steps and followed her aunt into her wagon, sat on the bench and watched as Isabella opened her top and fastened her little sister to her ample breast.
“She needs feedin,” she said by way of an explanation.
“How come you’re feedin her?”
“I’m sorry lass, ye’ll have tae wait till the Mither speaks tae ye.”
Coralina stood up to go back to her wagon. She was confused and frightened, and wanted to know why her aunt was feeding her baby sister and not her mother. She wanted to know what was wrong with her father.
“Sit doon lass, stay where ye are, Mither will come for ye when its time.”
Coralina was staring at her aunt and she could see that she was upset. Tears began to run down Coralina’s face. She didn’t know what or why but she knew that something was wrong. She watched her little sister suckle, and she watched as Isabella moved her from one breast to the other. When she was finished feeding, and the baby was content and sleeping, Isabella reached over and placed the baby in Coralina’s arms.
“She’ll be yours to look after noo Coralina.”
Not quite understanding the full implication of the words that her aunt had spoken, Coralina held the baby close, inhaling that new baby smell, and gazed into the child’s sleeping face. She was overwhelmed with a love that she hadn’t known existed.
“I’m yer big sister,” she whispered, and she kissed the baby on her soft cheek.
“Ah’ll aye look after ye,” she said, as she rocked back and forward lulling the new baby.
A short while later, Mither Morrison came into Isabella’s wagon, and the two women, the younger and the older, looked solemnly at each other as the Mither sat beside Coralina.
“Whit age are ye now hinny?” she asked, although she knew the answer to that question.
“Ah’m seven Mither, Ah’m nearly eight, Ah won’t drop her or onythin’, Ah’ll be careful Mither.”
“I, Ah ken ye will lass, Ah ken ye will, yer young yet but yer gonnae have to be strong for Ah have summat tae tell ye.”
“Is it ma Da?”
“No hinny it’s no’ yer Da, it’s yer Mam. She didnae make it. She gave her last breath tae yer wee sister.”
“Whit dae ye mean Mither.”
“She’s gone lass, she’s gone tae heaven tae be wi’ the angels, an’ ye’ll have tae look after wee Mary here. She’s your responsibility noo. Gie her tae me an’ away ye go across an’ say yer farewell tae yer Mam.”
Coralina’s eyes were wide with terror as she thought about what the Mither was saying. She let her take baby Mary in her arms and in a flash, she was out of the wagon, jumping down the steps, and there, amidst the wagons, was a trestle surrounded by other members of the camp, some were family, and some were friends. As she approached, they parted and she could see her mother lying on the trestle. Thick green glass jars containing lit candles were set around the trestle, but there was space enough for her to approach closely.
“Mam, Mam,” she cried as she ran over.
She knew the custom for laying out the dead; she had seen it before and she realised that her mother was gone. She reached over and stroked her mother’s cold face, the face that she loved so much, and then she touched her mother’s hands, folded over her chest. She stroked her mother’s raven hair and she tried to reach up to kiss her, but she was too small. She suddenly felt strong hands lift her up, she knew those hands; they were her father’s hands.
“Be strong lass,” he whispered to her as he her high enough to reach her mother’s lips.
As he put her down, she turned, leapt into his arms once more, and sobbed into his strong chest. Tears coursed down John Kelly’s face as he held his sobbing daughter in his arms. He could hear the quiet sobs of those who grieved with him.
The days following her mother’s funeral were a blur to Coralina. Her grief was such that she gave all her attention to her baby sister, and the only time that she was parted from her was when her aunt put Mary to her breast.
“Does that make you Mary’s Mam now that yer feedin’ her?” she asked one day.
Her aunt looked up and smiled kindly, for she was glad that Coralina had spoken at all.
“No lass, Ah’ll no’ be her Mam, but Ah’ll aye love her as though she was ma ain. She’s takin’ ma milk so there will aye be a part o’ me in her.”
“Ah love ye tae Auntie Isabella, and Ah’m glad ye had spare milk.”
Isabella smiled, “A mithers’ body’s a miracle for it gives as much milk as is needed, even if Ah had two suckling bairns Ah could still feed a third. Ah’m still makin’ milk for yer wee cousin Daisy, an’ ma body’ll make as much as Ah need.”
Coralina gazed at her aunt with admiration and love in her young eyes. She thought that she was beautiful with her smooth skin and her long straight brown hair cascading over one shoulder. Isabella looked down into Mary’s contented face as she fed her. Coralina thought that she looked like an angel, though she had never seen an angel, she was sure that if she had it would look just like her aunt. Thinking of angels made Coralina think of her Mam, and suddenly, the tears began to fall, and they wouldn’t stop. Soon she was sobbing; she cried and sobbed, and cried and sobbed some more. She wasn’t aware of Mither Morrison coming in, nor was she aware of her father picking her up. He carried her across to the Mithers wagon where they were staying temporarily, put her down on her bed, and covered her with a thick blanket. He sat with her stroking her hair, and he cried silent tears as he wished that things could have been different for his two girls. He knew the road ahead would be a hard one, but he promised himself that he would do his very best by his daughters. Finally, when Coralina was in a deep sleep he rose and left her to rest.
Much later, Coralina woke up her father sat on the edge of her bed.
“Sit up an’ take some soup hinny.”
She didn’t know why but for some reason she felt much lighter. She sat up and her father spoon-fed her from the thick earthenware bowl. Each time he put the spoon to her mouth she would raise her eyes, and look into his strong handsome face. He looked older and sad, and she wondered if she was sick and maybe she was going to go to heaven to be with the angels too.
“Ah’m Ah sick Da?” she asked between spoonfuls.
“No lass, yer no’ sick, yer just sad, dae ye feel sick?”
“No Da, Ah feel good.”
“Here, take the bowl an’ finish yer soup, and then go ower an’ help yer Auntie Isabella wi’ yer wee sister.” He handed her the bowl and stood up to leave the wagon and then he turned and looked down at her, “Yer a good lass hinny, and yer Mam would be proud o’ ye. Ah’ll be away for a few days hinny so ye’ll bide here wi’ Mither Morrison until Ah come back.”
John and other members of the camp had held a wake for Mary Ellen until it was time for her burial at Janefield Cemetery. Now that the funeral was over, as was the custom, John and some of the other men in the camp would take the wagon away and burn it. It was thought to be bad luck to live in a wagon in which someone had died. Those who could not afford to replace their home would sell it to a dealer and a new one purchased. The wagon with all the deceased person’s possessions was burnt, but there was one thing that John wouldn’t burn. Mary Ellen had often spoken to him about the pretty dress she had worn when they had married. She had wrapped it carefully in brown paper and put it away for safekeeping. Each year she took it out, aired it, and treasured the memories it evoked. She always said that one day a daughter might wear the dress on her wedding day.
John took the brown paper parcel across to Isabella’s wagon, “Ah’ve a favour tae ask ye? Ah’ve Mary Ellen’s weddin’ dress here. She aye said that someday her lassie might wear it an’ Ah cannae bear to burn it. Whit dae ye think. Dae ye think Ah should keep it?”
“Aye John, Ah think ye should ‘cause it was her wish, gie it here an’ Ah’ll take care o’ it.”
Wagon’s were always eye catching and beautifully decorated with the woodwork intricately carved, decorated with fancy scrollwork, and painted in bright colours. More often than not, they would be in a bow-topped style with a heavy canvas cover. John rode to a dealer in the Borders and he had found a wagon, built entirely of wood. It had a narrow floor with the sides sloping out and upwards towards a curved wooden roof. The trimmings were carved in fancy patterns and painted red and gold. Two small spoke wheels to the front and two large spoke wheels to the back attached to the undercarriage giving the frame a good strong foundation. The inside contained everything needed for a family. There was a narrow bed suspended from the roof, which gave access below it to the front of the wagon where Coralina could climb through the stable style doorway to sit by him as he led his horses during their travels. A wood burning ‘Queenie’ stove fitted against one side would keep them warm during the cold winters, and the flat plate on top of the stove would keep water hot in a small kettle. A bench seat fixed to the opposite wall gave them a place to sit, watch the flames, and chat about their day. There was a plump cushion covered in a fancy tapestry on the bench which when lifted out, revealed a hinged strip of wood that could be unfolded creating a bed, which was perfect for Coralina, and as Mary grew both girls would be able to share it. Tucked away to one side there was a folding table, with two stools in front of it. There was plenty of storage room below the wagon, and between the wheels, and John knew that he could store his small cart, and many other possessions there. Gypsies always enjoyed cooking their food outside on an open fire so there was no need for anything else in the wagon and he was sure that Coralina would be pleased and surprised with their new home.
John was away for more than a week and during that time Coralina watched for her father’s return. Isabella and Mither Morrison gave her lots of attention and love but she was understandably very sad.
Grief takes its time to pass and everyone grieves in their own way. Some find solace in tears and solitude, others find it in anger or in work, but Coralina found her solace in looking after little Mary. Sometimes when she looked at Mary, she could see a likeness to her mother and that too gave her comfort. She talked to Mary all the time, and Mary’s gaze seldom left Coralina’s face. Gradually, day by day, Coralina recovered from the trauma and sadness of losing the mother that she had loved so much.
Coralina heard the commotion before she saw what it was about and when she went to investigate, she saw a beautiful red and gold wagon approaching. Her father was at the reins leading two horses, which he had purchased with the wagon, and his own horse tethered on a rope behind the wagon. Everyone had come out to see and admire John’s purchase. Coralina had missed her father; she was excited by his return, but even more excited by the new wagon. Before long the horses were unhitched and led off to graze in a space adjacent to John’s other horses giving them time to get to know each other before they would graze together.
Coralina climbed into their new home and sat on the bench opposite the stove. Her eyes were wide as she drew her hands over the tapestry seating and surveyed her new surroundings. One by one, other’s came to call and give their best wishes for luck in their new home and each of them brought something useful for them to use. Linens for their beds, Tilly lamps to light their home on dark nights, pots pans or dishes and John was grateful for the support that he had received.
The weather was improving, summer was coming, and Coralina spent her days tidying the wagon, though there wasn’t much to tidy, and learning from her aunt how to look after baby Mary. Mentoring Coralina helped Isabella to take her mind off losing her sister. She was a patient teacher, and delighted in showing Coralina how to break Mary’s wind after her feed and how to change her. She taught Coralina how to clean the soiled nappies and care for Mary’s clothes. Coralina already knew how to care for things around the wagon because she had often helped her mother. Many of the things that she had helped with had become her responsibility now, but she didn’t disappoint anyone, and merely took these things in her stride.
When Mary wasn’t being fed, Coralina would hold her to her chest and then wrap a big shawl around her shoulders. She then wrapped the ends of the shawl around her tiny waist, crossing them over each other and tying them at the front underneath Mary to support her. For the first three months of Mary’s life, Coralina carried her like that everywhere she went. Mary grew fast with the love and care provided for her. As she grew heavier, Coralina began to carry her, still wrapped in the big shawl, but piggyback fashion, and baby Mary’s big brown eyes took in every detail over Coralina’s shoulders wherever Coralina went.
George Morrison, Isabella’s husband, had inherited his smithing skills from his late father, but smithing wasn’t his only skill and he enjoyed working with scraps of wood that he came across. He often saw Coralina struggling with Mary on her back, and with that in mind, he began to put together a cart out of an old wooden box. Gypsies wouldn’t discard anything that could be used again, and often found uses for things that home dwellers discarded. He added four small wheels to the box, fashioned a wooden handle, and then lined the box with a pillow stuffed with old clean rags that Isabella had washed and dried for him. He presented the cart to Coralina one day when Mary was about three months old. Coralina saw her Uncle George approaching with the cart. He had to stoop to push it because he had designed it so that it would fit Coralina’s height. She watched him and wondered.
“Whit’s that ye have there Uncle George?”
“Ye’ve been carryin’ Mary aboot a while hinny, she must be getting heavy. Ah’ve made this so that ye can shove her instead.”
“Uncle George! Ye didnae, did ye, is it really for wee Mary?”
There were tears in his eyes as he looked at Coralina’s excited face. He smiled proudly at her.
“Here, gie me the bairn, let’s see if she likes it.”
Carefully he took Mary from her arms and placed her in the little cart. “She likes it,” laughed Coralina as she looked at Mary who was kicking her heels on the soft pillow below her.
“Aye hinny, Ah think she does.”
“Whit’s that ye have there George,” laughed one of the women, “Ah could be daein’ wi’ wan o’ them.”
Coralina could prop Mary up or lay her down, and for a while, she amused herself and Mary by just practising these things, and by pushing her around the camp to show the aunties’ Mary’s new cart. On fine days, she would leave Mary sitting in the cart in the fresh summer air outside the wagon. At night, when chores were done and Mary was settled, Coralina would climb into her bed in the wagon and watch over Mary in her crib before she herself would drift into sleep, listening to the quiet chatter of the adults who were sitting around the campfire. Many of the adults preferred to sleep outside, especially those with bigger families. In fine weather, they would sleep under the stars but in foul weather, they would erect a bender, then dismantle it and stow it away in the morning. The bender was easily constructed using cut saplings that they carried with them stored under the wagon, or replaced fresh if required, and these were stuck into the ground and covered with a canvas
Each morning after changing Mary’s dirty nappy, Coralina would carry her to her aunt to be fed, and then she would run back to her wagon collecting hot water from the kettle to wipe surfaces and wash cups and plates. When all her tasks were done, Coralina would take Mary’s dirty nappies and drop the soils in into the dunny before leaving them to soak in a tin pail. Later Isabella would boil them in the large tinny set aside for the wives to boil their whites. Travelling women always wanted to have the whitest wash, and Heaven help those who hung out a white wash with stains showing; they were a very particular lot.
Coralina’s mother had taught her to wash her hands and face every morning, and once a week, her father would be bring out the big tin bath from under the wagon, and fill it with warm water to bathe in. Coralina loved sitting in the bath and now that she had Mary to look after, her father would hand the baby into the tinny, and Coralina would bathe and play with Mary while her father would look on proudly as his children laughed.
“Come on now,” he would say, “gie me the bairn and get yer self scrubbed, dried, and dressed.”
While John dried and dressed Mary, he would think sadly about Mary Ellen. Each time he looked at his children, he saw their resemblance to their mother. When she was finished, Coralina would reach for the towel and climb out of the bath.
“That’s it, into bed and face the wall,” he would say, before stripping down and climbing into the tinny for an all over scrub.
Every day, when chores were done, the girls in the camp would go and sit with Mither Morrison to listen to her stories. She taught the girls how to sew, knit, and crochet. She taught them how to unpick a knitted jumper and to rewind the wool so that it could be used several times. Arthritis prevented the Mither from doing many of these things with her own hands but it did not stop her from teaching the youngsters. Whilst the younger ones practiced their skills, the old Mither would talk to them, teach them about their history, and sing songs of old.
Coralina loved taking Mary across the camp to sit with the Mither. In the spring, summer, and autumn, the girls would walk in the woods and fields with her gathering wild herbs and flowers, and as they walked, she spoke to them, telling them the best way to dry herbs for use in the winter when the land rested and when things were scarce. She spoke to them about the medicinal uses of different leaves or roots that would make a tea or a poultice to treat wounds, boils, or stomach pains. Those who heard her words did not realise that they were learning valuable survival skills, but these words were remembered, and passed on. Often while the women went about their business, the children’s voices were heard through the trees as they learned the words of their songs. The Mither would recite the words and the children would repeat them, sometimes laughing as they did so.
Nettle stings when ye gang past
But grab it noo an’ grab it fast
Boil the water an’ make’ a tea
It builds guid bones n’ cleans yer pee.
Docken bides tae ease the sting
fae nettles prickly mood
and if ye faw n’ cut yirsel
wi’ docken bind the wound.
Borage pretty as it is
hides it’s face fae ye n’ me
but soak it well an’ make’ a tea
yer skin will clear for aw’ tae see.
Chamomile to ease yer tears
An’ wash awa’ yer night-time fears
Lavender tae clean yer cuts
An’ burns fae that camp fire’s spits
Mint will calm the worried heart
An’ ease yer stomach’s wind.
Sage abides tae clear yer mind
An’ make’ yer thinkin’ smart
An’ Thyme’s the wan ye need tae use
tae fight the germs that kill
an’ a’ these herbs are guid for ye
so use them as ye will.
Gypsy families had camped near Glasgow Green for as far back as anyone could remember. Being central, they could go from there to the Borders for tin; to Lanark for gathering and picking fruit or vegetables, to the Ayrshire coast for whelks that they picked from the shores. On their travels, they would buy flour and oats from the mills. Farm work was a good source of income for them too and the farmers appreciated the seasonal labour for root vegetables. The farmers that hired them during the seasons provided fresh fruit and vegetables and they could earn up to eight shillings a week. Money they earned would help them buy food if they ran out of supplies. Life was hard in those days and they spent every daylight hour working and taking advantage of the seasons, but at least travelling families had fresh air and fresh food. They feasted on fish caught in the streams, whelks picked off the shore between September and April, game between October and February and Hares caught for the pot in August after the breeding and nursing cycle was over. They purchased oats, grains, and flour from the mills; kept their own hens for a regular supply of eggs, and milk or cheese came from the nearest dairy farm.
Seasonal farm work was by far the hardest and the happiest of times for the travelling families, whether they were picking turnips, potatoes, or soft fruits. For children this meant meeting up with friends and families and helping their parents. During the picking season it was not uncommon for the families to work from six o’clock in the mornings until late in the evenings, but this was something that everyone looked forward to, adults and children alike, for they were well looked after and well paid by the farmers. If the farms were close by, travelling families would return to their own wagons at night, but if the farms were further afield, whole camps would just gather up their belongings and move to where the work was. Night times were the best of times, for the fine weather meant singing songs round the campfires and sleeping under the stars. There was always a bender to shelter under if the weather was foul. Sometimes a farmhand would arrive at a camp as early as five o’clock in the morning, and everyone would pile into the farmer’s cart happy and laughing, ready to go to work. The farmer’s wife would have prepared an urn full of tea, and piles of sandwiches, which they would enjoy before they began their shift. There was always enough to feed everyone. At weekends, a big breakfast of home cured bacon, fresh laid eggs, and homemade tattie scones was served. Bread would be thick, crusty, and still warm from the oven, and butter churned fresh would be as yellow as the summer sun. In those days, many farmers made the travellers part of the family, and it was a natural thing for Gypsy children to become friends with farmer’s children.
The beginning of June signalled the start of harvesting and everyone would pile into the fields and begin the days’ work. Farmers sold the crops they gathered at markets and fairs or to locals who would go direct to them for their produce. Everyone worked side by side with the exception of the teenagers, who liked to work in their own little group, but they worked hard while they talked and giggled. At night, everyone sat around and talked about the days’ work before retiring for a good sleep.
The women’s role was primarily to mind the home and the children, but they also earned a living by making lace doilies, bunches of Lucky White Heather, Mistletoe and Holly garlands, and Lavender posies. They sold handcrafted items from door to door in nearby towns or villages. Most of them followed the old religion and if they had the gift of second sight, they told housewives their fortunes. Isabella and George’s oldest daughters Jennie and Nellie had learned how to crochet little cotton circles for covering jam and honey pots and larger mats for women to set on their sideboards. They often sat of an evening doing this so that they could sell them when they went around doors with their mother.
During winter, the men would gather mistletoe to sell and while they were climbing trees to collect it, the women would be gathering sprigs, ripe with red berries, from the holly trees to make the Christmas decorations. Spring, summer, autumn, or winter, there was always something to do and no hands were ever idle. The young lads would go with their fathers, learning from an early age how to earn a living. Each family had a separate skill set that they were able to earn from, and they would chip in and share whatever they could if another family ran short. After the harsh realities of winter, they always looked forward to attending fairs in Scotland and England and this was a regular feature of life for them. They looked forward to buying goods, selling their crafts, trading horses, dogs, and ferrets, and meeting up with friends or family members who had moved with husbands or wives to live in other camps.
Sickness was rife for home dwellers especially those with children at school, as head lice, scabies, and ringworm, were common. Worse still were mumps, measles, tuberculosis, scarlet fever, whooping cough, and the many other, often fatal, illnesses that plagued them. Children and the elderly were most at risk, the life expectancy for that time was between forty-five and fifty for the poor and manual workers, and the infant mortality rate was very high. Understandably, travelling families tried to stay away from those who were sick, but their life style had penalties too, and they were often harassed for poaching, vagrancy, or trespassing; and if they were caught, harsh prison sentences were imposed on them. One travelling family that fell foul of the authorities was harassed to the point that they were warned that if they didn’t move into a permanent home they would have their children taken from them, and they would be put into the ‘poor house’. These words were spoken easily from the mouths of those who did not know what struggle was. Those who were in positions of power or authority did not care that finding a home was next to impossible, and for a travelling family, living in one would be like a prison to them.
Time passed and both girls were beautiful to look at with long jet-black curly hair and deep dark brown eyes. By the time Mary was four, Coralina, then almost twelve, noticed that Mary had something different about her. Sometimes Mary would stop in the middle of things and just stare off into the distance.
“C’mon Mary,” Coralina would urge her, “stop yer day dreamin’, help me wi’ things.”
Then Mary would look at Coralina as though she knew something that her big sister didn’t. Sometimes Mary would make an announcement like, “Tom’s got a sore leg.”
Much later, Tom would be seen limping. Coralina had heard the aunties talking about ‘The Sight’, and she had a vague idea what it meant, but she had never seen it happening before and it had never happened to her. She was a little afraid of it and a little worried.
This went on for some time before Coralina plucked up the courage to speak to Auntie Isabella.
“Dae ye know whit ‘The Sight’ is Auntie Isabella?”
“Aye, why dae ye ask hinny?”
“Is it bad for ye, can it hurt ye?”
“Why are ye askin’ me that hinny?”
“Whit does it mean Auntie Isabella?”
“Is there somethin’ ye should be telling me?” Isabella was looking at Coralina who was twisting her hands in agitation.
“Dae ye think ye have seen summat?”
“It’s no’ me Auntie Isabella, it’s our Mary.”
“Whit makes ye think she has the sight?”
“She says things.”
“Whit kind o’ things?”
“Jist stuff, and then it happens. Sometimes she goes quiet and looks,… Ah don’t know, jist different.”
“It’s a rare and precious gift, the gift o’ the sight Coralina, yer mother had it. She knew all sorts of things, an’ sometimes Ah think she knew way too much.”
“But whit does it mean Auntie Isabella?”
“Some people pretend tae have it tae earn a sixpence, some pretend tae have it tae show off an’ feel important, but there are some that can see whit’s gone afore an’ whit’s still tae come an’ often those that have it can make things happen.”
“Whit dae ye mean, like seein’ pictures in yer heed?”
“Summat like that, everybody can imagine pictures, but folk that have the sight dinnae imagine them, the pictures just come, an’ then the pictures come true.”
“Ah don’t ken whit tae dae, Ah’m supposed tae look oot for her.”
“Ye canny dae onythin’ hinny, but Ah’ll have a wee word wi’ Mither an’ we’ll see whit she says, dinnae worry yer self Coralina.”
The next day Isabella was chatting to her cousin Lizzie, who was married to Arthur Donnelly; he bought and sold pots, pans, stainless steel baths, wash basins, and jugs. They were standing by a fire where a galvi basin full of water was propped over the flames to boil their whites.
“Whit’s up wi’ ye the day Isabella, ye’ve a worried look aboot ye,” said the Mither as she approached them.
“Ah was jist telling Lizzie aboot a chat Ah had wi’ Coralina. She thinks oor Mary has the sight and she’s fair feart for her.”
“Aye, she has that. She has a power aboot her that Ah huvnae seen the like o’ for a while.”
“Whit are wi’ tae dae Mither?”
“Nuthin ye can dae, ‘cept teach her right from wrang and how tae mind her ain business.”
“Coralina says Mary sees things and tells her aboot them afore they happen,” said Isabella.
“Ah never mentioned afore,” said Lizzie, “but Ah’ve heard her an’ it’s a wee bit scary, she gets a look aboot her before she says summat, an’ Ah’m aye feart o’ whit she’s gonnae tell us.”
“Aye, it can be a curse or a blessin,” said the Mither, “Ah’ll keep an eye on her.”
Mary’s nature was changing; where Coralina was a sensible, obliging, child who always had a ready smile, Mary often displayed a mean side when she didn’t get her own way. Coralina did all that was expected of her, but often when she asked for help, Mary would just give her a look and walk away. Coralina lavished love and attention on Mary, as did everyone else, but gradually Mary was gaining a reputation of being selfish and spoiled. Mary was not slow about lifting her hand and striking another child, and no matter what Coralina said or did, Mary was a law unto herself. Coralina didn’t want to tell her father but as time passed Mary’s behaviour and attitude grew worse. Eventually Coralina spoke to her father.
“She cannae be trusted Da, if ye tell her tae dae summat she only does it if it suits her, and she’s got a vicious streak. She punched wee Daisy an’ bled her lip, an’ Auntie Isabella was ragin’. She tells lies an’ a’ when she gets caught daein’ summat she blames wan o’ the cousins.”
John sighed sadly, he too had noticed the changes in Mary, and he blamed himself for being too soft on her. He missed Mary Ellen more than ever and silently sent up a prayer to his wife for guidance.
“Dinnae worry Coralina, Ah’ll have a word wi’ her an’ see if she can mend her ways. We’ve an early start in the morn to head for the Dalgarven Mill. Ah’ll speak tae her the morra’. Ah’ve some horses tae shift an’ we’ll bring some flour an’ oats back.”
Coralina felt the better for having shared her worries about Mary with her father, and she went to sleep that night with hope in her heart, and a sense of excitement too, for she liked going to Dalgarven Mill better than anywhere. They had been going there regularly for as long as she could remember. For summer trips, they left the wagon at the camp and took a big cart and if it was a long trip, they camped beside it in benders. In colder months, they took the wagon and carried a small flat bed trailer, which was stowed under the wagon. They would re-assemble it, fill it with provisions, and tow it behind them as needed. Coralina loved sitting up in the front of the cart with the sun shining on them as they travelled. She would sing old songs and Mary would join in singing and laughing,
“Be baw babbity, babbity, babbity, be baw babbity, kiss the bonnie wee lassie.”
They stopped at various farms along the way and while her father attended to the business of selling and buying horses, they would be playing in the sun and singing their favourite songs. For Coralina, every trip to Ayrshire started with an eager anticipation because she had made friends with the miller’s son Robert, and she was always happy to see him when they reached Dalgarven Mill. Robert was a little bit taller than she was and had thick fair hair and blue eyes. She smiled to herself as she thought about the way his hair stuck up at the crown of his head, and how he always tried to flatten it. She liked the way it stuck up, but she knew that when she saw him coming towards the wagon the first thing he would do was put his hand up and flatten the unruly tuft. Sometimes Robert and she would wander down by the banks of the River Garnock and play for a while on the sandbank and then it would be back to the mill for a bite to eat before they began their journey home.
John Kelly always maintained about ten to twelve horses at a time. He had four for pulling the cart or the wagon. Just two horses pulled the cart on short journeys, but on longer trips, John would have two horses leading and two spare horses on guide ropes. From time to time on long journeys, he would swop the horses over to give them a rest from pulling a heavy load. He kept his other horses for breeding, trading at the horse fairs, or selling to farmers. John had a reputation for knowing all there was to know about breeding the best working horses, known as Vanners. Some would say he had an instinct for looking at a foal and knowing that she would be a great brood mare, or a colt, and knowing that he would sire the best horses for pulling wagons. This trip to Ayrshire was an important one because he already had orders for a few of his horses and he planned to keep his eyes open just in case he came across a fine filly or two to breed. He could make a pairing of filly and foal that would later produce a Vanner that was not only a good worker or breeder, but was also a thing of beauty to be admired and shown off at the horse fairs.
Gypsy Vanners were beautiful horses to look at with their long feathered manes that came almost half way down their bodies. They were a joy to observe when they were trotting or cantering, amusing themselves in the fields, or when they were being ridden fast by the young lads showing off at the various fairs. Thick tails, strong fetlocks, and beautifully coloured coats set them apart from other plainer breeds. Little did anyone know that much, much later, when the war would break out, that these colourful flashy horses would be spared being taken to the front line because of their bright colours.
One of his prime concerns was temperament, and he specialised in rearing horses that were not only powerful, but gentle natured. Even the smallest children were safe on a Vanner. Each day he would take the horses one by one, and exercise and groom them. He would brush their long manes and tails and generally handle them so that they were comfortable around people. He would whisper quietly to them and give them an occasional treat of a piece of carrot or turnip, and they loved him in return. They could sense when he was approaching, picking up their ears and then pointing them forward to welcome his approach. When he handed over his treat, a soft nicker would reward him. One by one, he would go round each horse in turn, running his hands down their legs, and feeling their muscles and tendons. Any sign of heat or swelling would mean that there was a strain or injury and that would need tending to immediately by applying a wrap of cabbage leaves or a mash of Chamomile to ease and reduce any inflammation.
John’s cousin and best friend Willie McGuigan had four sons. Three of them were always to be found by their fathers side no matter what he was doing, but his youngest son Johnny, who was two years older than Mary, loved being around the horses, and he was always hanging about his Uncle John. Whenever John went to feed and care for the horses young Johnny wasn’t far behind him with his father Willie’s words ringing in his ears.
“Don’t get under yer Uncle John’s feet mind.”
“Ah won’t Da,” would reply the youngster.
Since John had no sons, young Johnny’s presence was a delight to him, and he enjoyed explaining what he was doing with the horses, and teaching him how to look after and care for them.
Although she had no need to be jealous, Mary hated the attention that her father gave to young Johnny, and she was often spiteful towards him. Johnny was better natured though, he seldom let Mary’s nasty side bother him, and soon, when she realised that Johnny didn’t react to her jibes, she stopped bothering him. Before long, young Johnny became an extension to the family and, as on this occasion, John would have a word with Willie.
“Ah’m off in the morning to Ayrshire wi’ some horses and bringin’ back some provisions. Ah’ll take young Johnny if ye dinnae need him for onythin’?”
Willie laughed in response, “He’ll moan a’ day if Ah say he cannae go. Johnny loves bein’ wi’ his Uncle John an’ the horses.”
The next day, at the break of dawn, they were all up dressed, and making their way through Glasgow towards Ayrshire. They would travel about fifty or so miles on this journey, managing fifteen miles each day, with just a few short breaks to feed and rest the horses, and to have something to eat. They would be going to some Ayrshire farms to deliver horses ending up at Dalgarven Mill. Each night they would stop at a suitable place and while John unhitched and saw to the horses, Coralina would unload the tarpaulin and hazel poles so that her father could set up the bender where they would sleep. They always camped in the same places, near streams for fresh water for the horses and for cooking and washing.
John would loosely tether the horses allowing them to graze then he would begin putting the bender together. While he was busy with that, Mary and young Johnny fetched twigs to start the fire and Coralina would set some stones in a circle to contain it and then fetch the kettle to hang over the chitty prop. With the fire lit, and a good flame going, John would hang the kettle over so that they could brew some tea.
This became the pattern with John, Coralina, Mary, and young Johnny travelling around Ayrshire together. John was happy having young Johnny around because he seemed to have a calming influence on Mary. Over time, Mary stopped needling Johnny and then just watched him wherever he went. Her eyes followed him, and occasionally he would look up and smile at her, and she would just draw him a look and turn her back, but before long, she would be watching him again. Mary even began to chat to Johnny. At first it was just questions, ‘Why are you doing this or that or where are you going?’ Johnny was always polite and even-tempered, and soon Mary realised that she got more attention, nicer attention, when she was polite, than the attention she got, or lack of it, when she was being mean. The mean streak was still there but it did not show itself as much.
Often while Coralina and her father were sitting up at the front of the cart, she would glance across to him, and he would glance back at her and smile, as both knowingly acknowledged that Mary and Johnny were chatting in the back. It was nice to hear them talking, nicer still that Mary was being friendly rather than sullen. The motion of the wagon as it rolled over the uneven roads often lulled the youngsters to sleep but Coralina was too excited to sleep. She had other things on her mind. Coralina was twelve now nearly thirteen and she was beginning to feel quite grown up. Since she did everything that a grown woman did, this was really no surprise, but there was still innocence to her and that in itself was appealing to those who knew her.
Coralina began to think of the Millers of Dalgarven Mill, they were a lovely family and they always had a bite to eat ready for them whenever they arrived. They always made sure that they had something to eat before they left, often giving them a loaf of crusty bread and some cheese or scones to take away with them. Elsie and Mathew were their names, and typical of country folk, they rose early in the day and worked until late in the evening. Running a mill was hard responsible work, as they provided for the needs of everyone in the local area, nevertheless they made time for their visitors. Coralina began to think about Robert and she found herself wondering if he would kiss her, and then she was horrified at the thought. Her cheeks flushed with embarrassment as she realised what she was thinking.
“Are ye a’right lass? … Coralina! Ah’m speakin’ tae ye, are ye feelin a’right?”
Coralina jumped guiltily as she realised that her father was speaking to her. “Aye Da, Ah’m fine.”
“Ye look a bit flushed hinny, are ye sure yer ok?”
“Ah’m fine Da, honest.”
She knew her father would be furious if he thought she was thinking about things like that. She wondered where the thought had come from because she had never thought of anything like that before, but the more she tried to put it out of her mind the more it popped back in again.
These were happy days for all concerned but no one could possibly anticipate what was to come, except Mary that is. She was already seeing pictures in her mind and although she couldn’t fully understand them, she didn’t like them. She didn’t like them one little bit, and this of course altered her mood and her behaviour.
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