Before the Rose, the Gypsy’s curse.
Chapters 1 and 2
Copyright © 2016 Soraya
All rights reserved.
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.”