“Good looking vanner you got there.” The old man wearing ratty jeans and a thin blue jumper curls gnarled, swollen fingers through Gerry’s long black mane. “I might know someone who’d be interested.”
“Don’t want to sell but…” I shrug. “Me mam’s not well, we’re stoppin’ in the town for now. Not much need for a vanner and she’s another mouth to feed.”
“In’t that the truth.” He dips his head. “I’m Cam.”
I return the gesture. “Layla.”
Nobody shakes hands anymore.
He runs practised hands down Gerry’s legs, slides his fingers in the side of her mouth and checks her teeth. “Not exactly a young’un.”
“She’ll pull a fully loaded van, nay bother.”
Cam hitches an eyebrow. “What you lookin’ to barter?”
“I heard Miss Rosa’s the person to see for medicines.”
“She might be.”
“Where can I find her?”
“I’ll take you, but she drives a hard bargain.”
Following Cam through the crowds brings back memories of being a bairn – clinging on to Mam’s hand as bare-chested lads clattered through the streets astride fat black and white cobs, the meaty smell of hot dogs and burgers making my mouth water. There was a wild exciting energy everywhere, brightly dressed people trading jokes and insults as they touted their horses in the busy streets.
Now there’s just flat, grim determination. Thin, pale-faced men in drab threadbare clothes lead dull-coated, ribby horses through the crowds. Wide-eyed townsfolk try to hide their discomfort as they barter for the only form of transport available. The thin summer sun struggles to penetrate the soupy mist that shrouds the fairground.
I remember horses standing chest deep in the clear running waters of the River Eden, being washed down by laughing teenagers. Now, the river is a brown scummy trickle; unidentifiable lumps of rusted metal, plastic bags and an old bicycle lie abandoned on its murky bed. It stinks. We follow the bank for a couple of hundred yards until we reach a grassy area where a group of shabby wagons with faded paintwork and rotten shafts are parked. Junkyard-thin dogs range among the rubbish, nosing for scraps.
Cam nods to a big red and green wagon in the centre. “That’s Rosa’s.”
Handing Gerry’s reins to him, I knock on the door.
No answer. I knock again, louder.
A slow thud of heavy footsteps and the door opens. Rosa is tall and well built, her blue-black hair falls in thick waves around her ruddy face. She’s dressed in a red and gold skirt with a purple shawl around her shoulders. Her eyes slide over my shoulder towards my horse. It’s the only currency she’s interested in.
“Useful lookin’ cuddy,” she says. “You sellin’?”
“If the price is right.” I shrug, feigning nonchalance. This is a dance and the steps are intricate.
“Come.” She jerks her head towards the inside of the van.
The living space is old style traveller-bright. The bench seats lining the walls are draped with vividly coloured throws. A dark hardwood table at the north end bears the scars of long use but gleams with years of tender care.
Settling at the table, Rosa directs me to the chair opposite with a casual hand. A delicate blue china teapot and two cups and saucers sit on the table. She carefully pours the tea, adding three sugars to each. I’m stunned by her casual use of the sweetener, but hide my surprise behind a blank face. She pushes a cup towards me with a small smile and I thank her with a nod. She will open negotiations.
“You have a name?” she asks skimming me with deep brown eyes.
“Pretty name. And what can I do for you, Layla?”
“Medicine. Me mam’s sick.”
Rosa laughs. A great rolling barrel of sound that sets her jowls swinging. “Show me someone that’s healthy.”
“Heard tell you got antibiotics.”
She laughs again. “I got all sorts, but if your mam’s got the sickness, there’s nowt to be done.”
I glance at Cam who is hovering by the door “Cam, can you check on Gerry, she don’t take well to being tethered somewhere strange.”
He darts a glance at Rosa, she gives a curt nod and he scuttles down the steps.
Lifting my cup to my lips, I take a sip of the warm liquid, close my eyes and savour the sweetness.
Rosa stares at me, fingering the heavy gold chain around her neck. “Do I know you lass? You look familiar.”
I summon my best smile. “Long time no see Aunt Rosa.”
She slams her cup down on the table, brown liquid sloshing across the dark surface. “Jeez, you’re Dena’s bairn, as I live and breathe, little Layla Favell all grown up. You’ve got a look of your mam.” She bites her lip and gives her head a shake. “Did she send you here? Wanting forgiveness, after all these years. Well, nowts changed.” Her cheeks are flushed, one fist clenched, pale against the wooden table.
“I’m not here for forgiveness or for medication.” I rub a hand over my belly. “I need passage over the border.”
“You’re havin’ a laugh. The militia’s got patrols everywhere. If you want to try your luck over the hills – be my guest. It’s wild country, a young thing like you’ll not last five minutes.”
Leaning back in the chair, I rub my belly again. “I’ve got to try”
Rosa’s eyes fix on my stomach and she meets my gaze. “You’ve a bairn in there.”
“Aye. And I can’t stay south. If it’s immune, the militia will take it.” I shrug. “If it’s not it’ll not last the winter.”
“I heard tell last week they took three young lasses from Brampton who were with child.”
“Please, you’ve got to help us.”
“May I?” Rosa extends a hand and traces a finger over my belly. She murmurs some words in Romany. I don’t understand what she’s saying, but I do understand the light in her eyes and the smile on her lips. Nothing is more important to her than the bloodline.
“A Favell. Dear God, a wee lassie. I can feel it.” There are tears in her eyes.
“A girl? Are you sure? Mam said you’ve got the sight.” My eyes drift to the corner of the caravan where a crystal ball and a pack of Tarot cards lie side by side. Rosa is all Mam said she would be.
“Been blessed since I was born. Dena always was jealous of my gift.” Rosa pulls her hand away. “Who’s the daddy?”
“He’s gone. What matters is this one in here. Can you get us North?”
“You got the gene?”
I nod and roll up the sleeve of my denim jacket. “My skin’s clear. They tested me last year. Full immunity. I ran last week just before I was due to be zoned. They’re looking for me.”
“Seems your flash Gorga daddy was good for something besides bringing shame on our family.” She snorts and shakes her head. “Dena was a wild one but I never thought she’d marry an outsider – maybe she was lucky after all. I can get you North, my folk know the hills. Once you’re there you’ll be on your own but the Scots are fair and conditions are better there. You and the bairn will be safe.”
“Why do you stay?”
Sliding her shawl from her shoulder, she reveals deep red lesions on her upper arm. “They wouldn’t have me.”
“Too late for sorry.” Rosa walks to the side table, picks up the Tarot cards and hands them to me. “Would you mind? Just a final check, before I commit myself.”
I shuffle the pack and lay it on the table. She picks up the cards up and spreads them in a fan. “Choose two.”
With trembling fingers I pick the first card and lay it face up on the table.
The Ace of Wands.
Rosa draws a sharp breath as I choose a second and lay it next to the first.
The Page of Cups.
The Tarot equivalent of two pink lines.
Rosa squeezes my shoulder. “My sight may not be as strong as it was but the cards never lie.”
I smile. The cloth around my middle has been carefully bound, it gives me a nicely rounded form. I offer a prayer of thanks to my Gorga father, an old school card sharp who taught me all he knew, and a silent promise to Rosa, that one day, when I am safe in the North, I will meet someone and bear a child with the name of Favell.
The family line will continue.