It’s a sunny day when Johnnie H stabs Tony O with a rusty penknife. The whole incident is all over the school in five minutes flat. Like a wildfire.
No one is surprised because Johnnie H is a gypsy and everyone knows what gypsies do. They steal the clothes off your back. They even steal babies. And they smell bad, like old smoke and farts.
The village gypsies live in caravans down the back of the scythe works. Washing hanging on lines tied to sticks. Rusty old caravans with broken windows. Dogs too. They have lots of dogs. Scary ones with big teeth. Barking dogs. Chained-up dogs. Howling dogs.
There’s one caravan that’s different. It’s wooden and painted pretty colours and there are flowers on the step. Not that we go that far. My brother and I peer from a safe distance. Anyhow, gypsies are bad and Johnnie H has stabbed Tony O. Mind you, Tony O might have deserved it. Might have. I’m not saying. Neither of them are in my class. I’m not that old or that big, not yet.
After the incident, Johnnie H vanishes. I don’t think anyone goes looking for him. Anyhow it’s not as though Tony O is about to die or anything. I think he goes to the school nurse. Maybe he gets a jab. I don’t know.
The hubbub soon dies down. The school holidays come around. The nettles grow tall and the water in the pool recedes, leaving muddy edges. I get sick eating too many strawberries.
At the end of July my brother and I start looking for Johnnie H. We look for him at Hill Pool. Along the cinder track where the old rusted containers live. The rotten oak tree. The back of the New Inn. The cricket pavilion. We even walk as far as Pepper Wood.
I understand that the use of the word gypsy in this story is offensive. It is not a word we should use now. The word is used in the context of a story told through the eyes of a child in the 60s when the word was in common parlance. The offensive comments towards the traveler community were also, sadly, often used in the past, and were comments children would overhear. My intention in the later part of the story is to mourn the loss of that community, which was once a vibrant part of village life.
Bronwen Griffiths grew up in the West Midlands. She now lives on the East Sussex/Kent border. Her collection of stories Not Here Not Us, exploring the crisis in Syria, came out in 2017 – a result of working with refugees and Syria Solidarity UK. Bronwen’s debut novel A Bird in the House (set in an English country garden and war-torn Libya) was published in 2014. A new novel, Here Casts No Shadow, will be published by Matador in April 2018.