Glinting in bright winter sunlight, cobbles
reappear, wet, through cracked tarmac. A
Halal butcher, a strip joint and the
Office of the Diocese huddle against
Workshops whose sounds and smells have filled the air
Since obnailed boots scratched sparks along these lanes
And pithead gears auled ancient istory up
From underfoot to fuel forge fires at Firth’s.
Flexing furiously against the force
Of weir water and centuries of works’
dirt, silver scales shimmer. Soon they will be
at Salmon Pastures, proving that the past
Presses into the present as sure as
The rich cannot enter heaven.
Wordlife 10th Birthday Anthology – Out Now
"A celebration of the non-partisan, beating heart of poetry" - Jacob Sam La Rose
Available at Rare and Racy, Porter Books, Hagglers Corner, Rhyme and Reason, La Biblioteka, All Good Stuff and online at opusindependents.com/shop.
After The Fire
Birley Spa Woods, 1844
Nearly three years since I last visited her… somehow I always knew it would come to this. I move through the woods, the last of the sunlight chasing me. As I get nearer I can hear the bells of St Mary’s at Beighton – the final resting place of Lucretia, Queen of the Gypsies. Later, they’ll bury her bones under a cold slab of granite but I know that her spirit will still be roaming here. She was never one to be bound by convention, Gypsy or Gadjo.
There’s still honeysuckle in the hedgerows, its musk heavy in the air, but the trees are beginning to turn. It’ll soon be time to turn the pigs out for their acorns and to gather in more firewood. Time to turn within.
I pause at the edge of the clearing for breath, to straighten my cap and brush off my skirts. Lucretia never minded what I looked like. I was her friend, her gadjo daughter. She’d laugh, plucking grass from my hair and encourage me to come and warm myself by her fire. Then she’d sit, easing her old bones onto the step of her wagon and reveal a little more of her secrets.
Dusk is falling in the clearing as they set light to the pyre. There are hundreds of them: aunts, uncles, sons, daughters. She would smile sometimes, the creases of her face folding in upon themselves, and say proudly that her family stretched half way around the world.
I hover at the edge, not wanting to intrude, leaning against a young birch tree. I hear the snap of twigs before I see him.
I close my eyes at the sound of his voice. It’s as though no time has passed at all. I can feel his breath on my cheek.
He laughs quietly and I feel him move away the tiniest fraction. “I never believed in promises Jess. You should know that.”
I open one eye. His cap is pulled down low but the same dark eyes are before me, the scar from the fight at the horse fair running along his jaw. He grins, white teeth against the gathering dusk. The flames of the pyre are now licking at the canvas of Lucretia’s vardo so I push past him. This is something I need to witness.
The fire roars, the skeleton frame of Lucretia’s home spitting and crackling. It seems such a waste. While the others had still slept in benders, she and Robert had saved every penny to commission the building of the wagon before their wedding. It had been her pride and joy.
He sees me frowning.
“It’s the only way. We can’t keep her bound like this. Time to let her go.”
“I’d give my back teeth for a home like that. All that lovely oak and ash.”
He looks at me levelly, with the same frankness that I fell for those years before. “They’re just things. She has no use for them any more. Besides, you know it’s our way.”
I shrug, needing to get back to the cottage before dark. I’ve got jobs to do. The pigs need shutting away for the night, wood needs stacking before the rain sets in. I glance at the sky, a steely bruise settling over it from the south. The wind is picking up. I turn and leave. We were never much for words.
Once, I’d been afraid of the woods. Mother had always taught me to be fearful of them. ‘Not a place for a girl,’ she’d said, ‘You keep away, do you hear me? No good will come from going down there.’ She’d been right, of course. No good had come. But that was later, after I met him.
It was in the woods where I’d first met Lucretia, hanging washing on the crooked limbs of an oak, the smell of wood smoke and rabbit stew threading its way through the field maples as I collected kindling for the charcoal burners. She’d known I was watching but had bided her time. Mother had often warned to keep away from the Gypsies, said they’d steal me away, but this woman, with her hair like fireweed run to seed, all white and tufted, and her eyes as round and bright as the berries on the elder - she’d fascinated me. We’d slowly become friends. I would listen to her stories, rambling tales of places I’d never go to, and she would share some of her secrets, her drukerring; how to scry the weather from the bark of a tree, how to tell fortunes from pebbles in the brook.
I’m just climbing the track to Rose Cottage, nestled as it is behind the fancy new Spa, when I hear his footfall.
“She left something for you.” He holds out a pack of playing cards, tattered and worn. I recognise them instantly. Another one of her tools. I slip them into the pocket of my apron and he hesitates as the darkness envelops us. I can smell damp earth, leaf mould. I should say something but there are no words left, the places we would meet are all overgrown now, brambles and nettles creeping in where our body shapes once lay flattened in the grass. He smells of wood smoke from the pyre.
“We’re moving on tomorrow at first light. The villagers want us gone.” He gazes at me steadily for a good few minutes before he turns. There is no goodbye and I watch him absorbed back into the wood, into the darkness and fight the urge to cry.
Back at the cottage I find flint and set about making a small fire of my own. Behind the pig sheds I drop the playing cards one by one into the curling flames, fanning the heat with my raw hands. Tomorrow there’ll be ashes and soon enough the purple bloom of fireweed. I’ve no need for these cards now. Time to set myself free and make my own future.
Winner of the Off The Shelf Short Story Competition 2016.