There are times in our lives when we don’t know who we are any more. We leave behind who we thought we were and find ourselves wandering unknown, nameless roads, drifting aimlessly until we find somewhere to settle, someone else to be.Childhood is our first sancturary, a safe refuge from the storm of the grown up world that rages outside but then adolescence tears a hole in the roof and we’re cast out onto the road to walk the dangerous road to adulthood.
For me it happened at the age of 10 in my grandmother’s house. I was spending an enjoyable week alone with her, enjoying her excellent cooking, playing scrabble and reading the childhood books of another generation discovered among the dusty cardboard boxes that were dragged out each time the grandchildren came to visit. My grandmother sang as she took care of the house and her songbird voice kept me company as I played by myself. I tried in vain to make friends with her snobbish Siamese cats. I played football against imaginary opponents in her garden and did my best not to damage her flowers. The intermittent April showers sent me hurrying back into the house 5 times a day for a piece of cake a cup of tea. It was a happy week.
But I was caught out in the rain once too often and the last 2 days of my stay were spent in bed with a temperature and a runny nose. My grandmother took wonderful care of me, of course, and though she was perhaps relieved that her roses were now safe from my ball games, she brought me hot drinks every hour and sometimes say by my side as she knitted and sang gently to herself.
I read as much as my aching head would allow and then I’d look out of the window sadly as the sunny spells danced with the rain, the blades of grass glistening with droplets of water. I ran a light fever and the afternoons seemed eternal as time expanded and dragged, the hateful hands of the clock on the mantelpiece ticking like the heartbeat of the house. I passed in and out of sleep and wasn’t always sure if I was awake or half-asleep; both sides of reality seemed equally unreal to me.
Often I thought I awoke to the distant sound of drums and violins and, looking out of the window, for a few moments before i could rub my eyes to see, I imagined I had glimpses a gaggle of colourful people dancing barefoot in the sun up on the hill. They were dressed in bright, eccentric clothing: waistcoats and hats, flowing skirts and shawls, their hair trailing in the wind. When I mentioned them to my grandmother she frowned slightly and looking up from her knitting she said:
‘Gypsies, dear. You don’t want anything to do with them.’ Then she pulled the curtains to settle the matter.
Naturally a curtain couldn’t contain the curiosity of a child and each time I woke to the sound of music I sat u quicky to look out the window in search of the intriguing nomads partying it up on distant hilltops around their little red wagons. But then I’d blink and they’d be gone, leaving behind only the memory of their carefree faces.
Now I came from a good family. I was raised with the same manners and education my grandmother had imparted to her children. I wrote thank you letters for my birthday presents. When the family was gathered around the dinner table on special occasions I would ask for permission to leave the table.So when my grandmother told me to stay in bed that night no matter what strange sounds I heard or what strange dreams I might have, I promised to do as she said.
Looking back, I think she knew I would go. How could a bee promise to stay away from a flower, after all> How could a cloud promise not to rain? Maybe she was just trying to teach me a lesson about choice.
I awoke that night with the sound of horses charging straight towards me. I sat up in panic but could see nothing except the clock on the mantelpiece where the moonlight shone upon it, showing the hour of 3 and ticking as loud as my heart. I looked out of the window but the Gypsies were nowhere to be seen. The house seemed pregnant with expectation and I wondered if this was how it felt to be on the edge of an adventure. I slipped on my dressing gown and my slippers, dropped a couple of rock cakes into my pocket as I passed the kitchen and pushed open the front door. I walked out into the silent night, past the flower beds and pushed open the garden gate and stepped into the quiet suburban street. There was a waning crescent moon to the west and in the distance I could dogs barking. A chill breeze reminded me that I was hardly dressed for an adventure and I was wondering if I should turn back when I felt the ground begin to tremble.I wrapped my arms around myself for warmth and comfort and felt my heart beat like a drum. Moments later the first of the wagons rounded the corner pulled by 2 enormous, dark horses. They charged up the lane recklessly and as the moon came out from behind a cloud I saw they were being driven by the largest man I had ever seen; over 2 metres tall, wearing a great coat and a top hat, the driver steered the wagon up the road towards me and he seemed as large and intimidating as the horses he commanded. I couldn’t move a muscle as they bore down upon me and as the horses thundered past so close I could smell them, a giant hand reached down and grabbed me by the shoulder in a grip of steel. I was lifted up through the night air, I caught a brief glimpse of a pair of murderous eyes and an iron jaw before I was tossed into the back of the wagon like a bag of potatoes.
I thought I’d landed on a pile of soft cushions but immediately realised I’d landed on someone lying down asleep.
“Oi, watch out, can’t you?’
‘I’m sorry, did I hurt you?’ I cried.
‘Oh no you just tickled me under the chin with a feather dipped in honey.’
I couldn’t see the owner of the voice in the darkness but he was the only person to ask:
‘Am I really in the back of a gypsy wagon?’
‘Oh, Harmless Mick really picked up a genius this time! Did you think you were perhaps in a hot air balloon?’
As the wagon picked up speed I reached out an arm to steady myself on a shelf and succeed in bringing down a barrage of pots and pans on top of me. Raising myself to one knee I saw that we were hurtling down dark country roads and all that could be seen of our driver was the ghostly silhouette of his great shoulders.
‘Harmless Mick – is he the one who picked me up? Is he really harmless then?’
‘Did you hit your head on the way in or something? ‘
‘Oh no, you’ve had your three questions!Now try to get some sleep or I’ll ask Harmless Mick to read you a bedtime story.’
I lay back on a pile of cushions and blankets feeling excited and confused. Who the hell were these people? Where were we going? But there was no one I dared to ask and so I lay back and listened to the clatter of horse hooves and the rattle of pots and pans as they swung on their nails. Pretty soon I found myself drifting off and awoke to find myself lying in the dark in total silence. I climbed through to the front and hopped down to see we’d pulled up in a clearing in the forest, the wagons parked around the edges in a semi-circle and their gypsies crouched in the shadows.
‘Hello?’ I called, ‘Can anyone-‘ but then a large, meaty hand clapped around my mouth and I turned in fright to see Harmless Mick put a finger to his mouth dramatically. Then his eyes darted away and I looked over to see what he’d seen but the night was misty and moody, tingling with the magic of the imminent dawn.
‘Come, laddie, you’ll get a better view from over here,’ a gentle Scottish accent called and I felt a soft set of fingers enclose mine and lead me across to the edge of the clearing, stepping lightly so as not to break the twigs and sticks underfoot before we crouched down beneath a large tree. ‘Now try to look out of the corner of your eyes,’ my new friend suggested, ‘And don’t so much look out as let the world pour in.’
I did as she said and let my eyes relax and at once caught my breath as I saw something bright moving in the darkness; a glowing, flickering shape like the flame of a fire but ghostly white and glimmering as it floated through the air. It drifted through the clearing and was followed by other luminous wisps moving with the grace of falling feathers. Then I heard the quiet scrape of a bow drawn across strings from a tree a few meters away and a mournful violin melody seemed to wrap around us; indeed as I relaxed my eyes more I realised I could actually see the notes being played as they floated upwards in a steady stream of crotchets and quavers, minor scales and diminished chords. The glowing shapes seemed to be attracted by the music and as they drifted closer a clarinet began to play from the other side of the clearing, piping notes skipping through the air like a sheep dog herding the lights together. A concertina now joined in with rich, vibrant chords that filled the gaps and I watched with amazement as the music wove together in the air, forming a net that drew around their prey, closer and closer, until the music reached a crescendo as a pair of heavy hands beat out a commanding beat on a drum and a voice shouted: ‘Now!’ and a posse of sprightly gypsies leapt out from the shadows with cloth sacks in their hands and brought them down on top of the glowing shapes with cries of triumph and glee. The woods grew terribly dark until a fire was lit moments later and the scene was transformed into one of celebration and cheer as the gypsies lifted up their sacks in the air merrily, slapping each other on the back and started to dance to a new tune laid down by the musicians. A colourful bunch of vagabonds in motley dress, they swigged back on bottles of wine and bashed on tambourines, jumping over the fire.
‘Och, it’s a good life,’ the flames lit up the face of the gypsy who had led me here and I saw a woman in the late 30’s with bangles hanging down from her henna-stained hair and she was dressed in various layers of cloth that she might have stolen from several washing lines.
‘Excuse me, but who are you? And why have I been brought here? Have I been kidnapped?’ I asked, more excited than worried about the idea.
‘Kidnapped? What a thing to say! Bless you! No, darling, you came looking for us – how else would we have found you? We’re the Dream Gypsies and we’ve been wondering the Dreaming for as long as we can remember.’
‘Then this is just a dream?’
‘Just a dream! As if that would make it any the less! No, sweetie, this is the Dreaming – it’s where everyone comes when they dream! It’s full of forests and mountains and cities and beaches, och, all kinds of places! And there are castles and monsters and angels and memories of everyone you’ve ever known.’
‘But then…are we asleep right now?’
‘Well, you are love. The rest of us decided to never wake up again. If I never hear the sound of an alarm clock again it will be too soon, I can tell you that! When I think how I used to live – inside a box with walls and more walls and doors and locks, not knowing the names of my neighbours, always late, always tired, never enough time, never enough money, walking on concrete, the food wrapped in plastic, you couldn’t drink the water, you couldn’t breathe the air, rules and regulations and laws for everything everywhere, I lived in a box, drove to work in a box, where I saw in front of a box and clicked on boxes..tell me love, do you see a straight line anywhere here?’
I looked up at the forest which was coming to life now as the first lazy photons of the day stumbled across the tree tops which looped up towards the sky with anarchic, twisting trunks, the leaves of the trees and bushes curved to catch future rain, their surfaces cris-crossed with fractal veins, even the tents set up by the Dream Gypsies were sloping, billowing things that fitted in to the forest perfectly.
‘A Dream Gypsy wanders where she pleases. Makes her bed in forest glades, beside moonlit lakes, under snowy mountains. We dance our lives to the beat of our hearts, darling!
We are such stuff As dreams are made on; and our little life Is rounded with a sleep!
‘Come on, darling, let’s get you some breakfast. We’ve got big day ahead.’
‘Just one more question: what were those bright lights? And why did you want to catch them?’
‘They were Inspirations, love. We’ll be doing a bit of business with them later – you’ll see!’
I spent the morning walking around the camp trying not to get in everyone’s way while they set up impromptu market stands, taking plenty of coffee breaks and impromptu jams as they made music around their wagons. The gypsies seemed to be of every age and background: there were Caribbean sailors, refined 19th century aristocrats, Mississippi bluesmen, medieval prostitutes, flower power hippies and every other kind of wanderer, misfit and dreamer imaginable. They wore frills and laces, waistcoats and tights, feathers in their hair and bandanas around their heads; there were some with tattoos that began at their ears and ended at their toes, piercings that they could remove and use to open a bottle of wine.
But more than that each one of them had their own way of walking, talking, being. They each seemed like banished kings and queens living in rags and loving it. They relished each breath they took and each moment seemed to them a mystery, the world pregnant with magic and laughter. I slowly gathered that they were awaiting the arrival of the artists who would soon arrive in search of some inspiration. Well, it would cost them, that was for sure!
Around mid-afternoon the first of them showed up. A pianist who was stuck on a composition she was working on. A dreadlocked Jamaican man listened to her complaints and then pulled out a sack with a wriggling Inspiration inside it.
‘Oh, I see. And, um, how much would that be?’ the pianist stammered, brushing back her hair nervously as she eyed the bag with longing.
‘A dead cat!’
‘What? You can’t mean Topsy?’
‘I can and I do. If you want them to come out of the concert hall whistling your tunes you’ll give me your cat.’
‘Oh, I see…well, she won’t feel anything, will she?’
‘Lady, you’ll wake up and hear the screech of brakes outside. Topsy will be flat as a pancake before she knows it!’
Pretty soon the field was full of musicians, painters, sculptors, dancers, all haggling with the Dream Gypsies for a little muse. At least I think I did. If I can trust myself to tell the truth. Would you believe everything you had to say if you met yourself?
Because I don’t remember any of this. Not the market, the music, the Inspirations, the wagons and Harmless Mick. None of it. I did spend a week with my grandmother for a week when I was 10, I’m pretty much sure of that and I think I did get ill towards the end of the visit. Apparently I’d run quite a high fever and my grandmother had hardly left my bedside.
But I wouldn’t have thought of it again if it hasn’t been for a dream I had about 6 years ago now. I was working on a semi-autobiographical novel and the main problem I had with the script, the essential difficulty to be overcome was that it was crap. I was good with words, created interesting characters, I was even funny sometimes and I had no idea how to write a book. This fact stared me in the face each time I sat down to look through my manuscript and one afternoon I sank my head down on it in despair and fell asleep.
I found myself walking through a forest, picking paths between the trees and heading towards the distant sound of bells and violins. I stumbled out into a clearing with these little red wagons gathered around and there were these gypsies in fierce negotiation with their clients.
‘If you want to paint a picture seen by million you’ll have to give me your ear!’
‘You’ll change the way people play guitar forever but it’s an early grave for you sunshine. Dead at 27. Alright, 28 but that’s my final offer.’
Everyone seemed a bit busy and I wondered where I should queue. I’m English, after all. Then I saw this little boy who was the only one free and I tapped him on the shoulder and asked him what was for sale.
‘Inspirations, I think,’ he replied. His eyes were a dreamy blue and his hair curled in an oddly familiar way.
‘Well, I could for sure use some of that!’ I replied, ‘My novel is going nowhere and anyway, no one reads what I write. Publishers these days just-‘
‘What about something shorter?’ the boy asked me.
‘No one has read a short story since the 1950’s! I don’t think anyone has the attention span to read these days anyway.’
‘So why don’t you tell your stories?’
‘Yes! And you could make funny voices for the different characters!’
‘Well, i wouldn’t know where to start…what kind of stories?’
‘You could tell mine!’ he said excitedly, and told me how he’d got there. You’ve already heard the story.
I grew up in age of rolls of camera film that gave you 24 photos at a time. You had to wait a week before you got to see them. So in a box in my parents’ house I think there survive 20 or 30 photos of me as a kid. If you’re under 25 you probably have hours of yourself on video and know perfectly well what you were young. But even for you it would be a shock to meet yourself. See yourself a few meters in front of you, you as you used to be, you as you were and maybe still are in some corner of your mind. I wanted to tell myself so many things, things I’d learned and could have done with knowing as I grew up. Most of all I wanted to give myself a good hug.
But I woke up first.
I gave up on the novel and took a few acting classes to learn the basics of performance. I began to write short stories – with funny character voices – and perform them in cafes, parks, festivals. Then last year it happened that I was invited to tell stories at a little theatre in my grandmother’s town. She came along and I did my best to entertain the elderly crowd with tales of men who fell in love with the moon, and kings of chocolate, wandering magicians and characters who walked off the page; all replete with experiences and insights from a life on the road.
The applause was polite but I could see everyone was in a hurry to go and check their lottery numbers. My grandmother had brought me a box of the cakes I always used to like.
‘It was very nice, dear. But I did tell you to stay away from those Gypsies.’