The year is 1959 and there’s someone knocking on the door. It’s 6.30 on Monday evening and I’ve been home from school for two hours. My mother is in the kitchen, she’s made a trifle, but without the sherry because I’m only eight years old. I hear the door knocker bang bang bang again and so call my mother.
She’s halfway through setting the table and asks why anyone would knock at this time of night. My father is away working nights and he left a few minutes ago to work in the chemical factory that turns him yellow every time he comes home, and will one day kill him just after he retires.
I open the door to find a gypsy holding a sprig of heather and with a rough canvas bag over her shoulder. She gives me a stare which makes me hold my breath as she points at my face. I’ve never seen anyone like her before, a long pointed nose, piercing eyes and untidy hair, as if she’s woken from a long sleep.
My mother is very superstitious. She’s the kind of woman that throws salt over her shoulder if she spills some, and avoids ladders, even if it means stepping onto a busy road. So rather than shut the door she listens to the gypsy offer her sales pitch.
She’s probably from the camp up near Nine Wells on the outskirts of Cambridge, our hometown. Nine Wells is the name of a group of fresh water springs that provided Cambridge with its water a few hundred years ago as it traveled down into town along channels that ran through the streets. There’s been a gypsy camp up there for the last three or four years. My father told me never to talk to gypsies yet here we are on our doorstep talking to one.
She looks at me and then up at my mother and back at me again. She seems to be trying to piece together words that are hiding just out of her awareness. She points at my face again and comments on my blue eyes. She looks back at my mother who is waiting in anticipation knowing there’s going to be some kind of spell or prophecy – hopefully not a curse.
“Is this your son my dear”? she says, my mother nods unable to speak. “One day”, she hesitates “he will be an important man.” Another pause and I notice that it’s starting to rain – a flash of lightning and heavy thunder in the distance. “He will be a lawyer, or a doctor… I think he will be a lawyer.” There’s another clap of thunder, louder this time, closer to the house. “You mark my word my dear, you must prepare him for this.”
I’m only eight years old and my life is my school friends, my family and my toys, but here on my doorstep, is a crazy woman, pointing her long dirty fingernail at my face and telling my mother that I will be someone important.
I realise I’ve slowly been backing away as she’s been talking. It’s those eyes and that pointing finger. Suddenly, as if on cue, she bursts into a cackling laugh, and without saying anything further, slowly reaches down into her grubby canvas bag.
Will she bring out a knife, I think to myself. Slowly and dramatically, she brings out a handful of wooden clothes pegs.
So my mother, maybe out of fear or appreciation, turns to the kitchen to get her purse and I’m left alone again with this woman as she strokes my cheek with her dirty hand. “You’re a very pretty boy my dear” she says. My mother returns and looks expectantly at the gypsy. “Half a crown my dear.” My mother pays and looks at me nervously.
It’s raining now as lightning fills the evening street. “You mark my word” she says again as she turns to leave pulling her paisley head scarf over her head. A huge clap of thunder shakes the windows of our small council house, and as we close the door I rush to the window and close the curtains. Through the gap I watch her leave our front garden without closing the gate, and float across the road and into the distance.
“If you don’t pay them they’ll curse you” my mother says. But this isn’t what’s on my mind. I’m thinking about her words and wondering what they mean.
I sleep deeply that night, and in the morning as I leave for school, there’s a yellow man at the door. We say nothing to my father about the gypsy. In fact it is never mentioned again until I am 55 years old and reminiscing about my life with my mother, the day before she dies, and she reminds me of the story.