Monday, 21 December 2020

Annie Whitehead's Story... On The Road - Inspired by a Song


Read the Story
Guess the Song - here's a clue



The ground was wet from overnight rain, but the sun was already strong and it promised to be one of those spring days that banishes all memory of winter.
     Da and I loaded the cart, hefting the chairs, boxes and baskets into the back while our horse stood patiently, head down. Some called our community the forest-dwellers, but I always felt that we spent as much time on the roads and paths, travelling to villages and to markets to sell our wares. Indeed, to me the road, not the woodland, was my home. Mam said it was because I was born out there. Over the spring and the summer months we lived with the carts, using our ragged tents to keep off the rain and, as the season wore on, if it had been a good one, there’d be room for the little ones in the cart.

“One more chair sold and you’ll sleep up high tonight,” Da would say to the younger children. It spurred everyone to sell as much as we could. And when I looked back on my childhood, it was the recollection of cosy nights spent sleeping in the covered cart that brought a smile to my face, not the memories of our house in the woods.

Cousin Marared stowed her bundle of brightly coloured gowns which, though not for sale, would bring in an income. Gryff packed his hurdy gurdy into its special wool-lined case. My brother would cradle the instrument all the way to our first stop. It was more precious to him than a sweetheart. If the weather came bad, he’d tuck it inside the cart, wedging it so that nothing would slide or bang into it. As we rode towards our first stop of the season, he and Mam talked about which songs he would play for her to dance to. And Marared? Well, she’d do what she always did.

I knew exactly where we’d go; it was the same every year: northeast from our dwellings in what the English call the Forest of Dean to Worcester, calling at all the small settlements along the way. We’d stay for a while in a little place we knew near there, before making our return journey to arrive back in the forest before the equinox. So as the long line of carts, riders on horseback - some leading other horses which would be sold - and children who thought they’d have the energy to dance and skip alongside, moved out of the woods, I had no reason to think anything would be different this year.

We had been travelling for less than a morning when Da brought our cart to a halt. I’d settled down, knowing that it would be midday before we reached our first stop and was brought out of my reverie when the steady rhythm of the horse’s feet ceased and the cart lurched to a standstill.

Ydych chi'n mynd i'r gogledd?”

I stared. Rudely, I’m sure. The words had come from a boy not much older than me. Well, perhaps he was twenty or so. His Welsh was good but his accent was poor, yet I instantly found myself longing for him to speak again. His voice was warm, and soft, and though my whole life my Grandmother had talked about smiling eyes, I’d never known what she meant until I looked into his. My insides whooshed and I looked away, noticing that my heart was beating far too fast. What on earth was wrong with me?

Da, if he was even aware of my discomfort, ignored me. “Yes, we are going north,” he said in his much better English, “but only as far as Worcester.”

The boy smiled and looked a little relieved at not having to think too carefully about his response now he knew my father spoke his language. “I only need to go to Cinderford. May I ride with you? Safer in a group and all that.”

My parents exchanged glances. I’ve no idea what emboldened me to speak but I said, “Of course you may ride with us. But, we are Welsh.”

He turned to look at me and his lips moved with a funny little pucker, and then he smiled. I flushed hot from my face to my toes. “I know that you are.”

Well then he’d know that the English were happy enough to buy our goods, listen to our tales and our music, but they did not like us. They never had.

He sat next to me on the bench of the cart and I could feel the warmth of his arm through our clothing. How strange that such a heat should make my heart beat faster, but I swear it did. With every bump in the road, he seemed to lean in closer and I cannot say I found it unpleasant. When I could be sure that no one was looking, I swivelled my eyeballs till they ached and stole glances of his jaw, the curved edge of his lips, the outline of his nose.

We stopped to make camp that evening and he jumped off the cart and held his hand out to help me down. I needed no assistance, but took it anyway, feeling the strength in his arm as he lifted me.

Hoffech chi gerdded gyda mi?” he whispered in his imperfect Welsh as he set me down on the ground.

Would I like to walk with him? Oh yes, even though I knew I shouldn’t. Even though I knew I should be helping to bring the covers over the wagons to make our shelters.

“Mam, I’m off for firewood,” I said, surprised but delighted how easily the lie tripped off my tongue.

 


The next day he hopped off the cart at the crossroads but not before whispering that he’d see me at Worcester, for he’d head there after his business was finished in Cinderford and I knew then that I was in love. Summer was coming, the weather was fair, I was sixteen and the world could not have been more perfect.
    We were not welcomed in Drybrook, our next stop, and though Gryff played like the ‘bards’ of old, and Mam danced exquisitely, the locals jeered and shouted names. They called us sweaty and swarthy, because of our dark hair. They shouted that we Welsh were not to be trusted, that there were even laws against our being there. But when the fires had burned down to a glow, and enough of Da’s potent apple brew had been drunk, my cousin Marared stepped forward and took the hand of the loudest drunk and led him away to her tent. The other Englishmen yelled and whooped and suddenly we weren’t so filthy, not in that way, anyway. 


Every night it was the same. Wherever we stopped during the day, we’d sell a few items. Folks weren’t fussy when they needed a new chair, or even a new spindle for the back of an old one. Mainly it was the women who came, and while they weren’t what you might call friendly, at least they kept a civil tongue in their head. Not so at night, when we pitched our camp and lit our fires. Then the men would come, for Da’s apple wine, and for Mam’s dancing, and always, always, for Marared. And one night, for me, too.
    It was nearly the end of the summer and the harvest was in. The shortening days saw us set up our camp earlier in the evenings, in the gloaming hour when the change was as much in the temperature as it was in the fading light, and an odour, ever so slightly damp, told of Autumn rolling in. Two men, so alike they must have been brothers, came up to where Marared and I were sitting by the fire. I was watching grey flakes curling up from the flames and dancing away into the dusk. Marared picked one of the men and it seemed like the other man expected me to go with him. I pleaded illness and moved away from the fire, going to sit with my back against one of the cart wheels. It was no lie; I had been feeling ill for days, often spewing my morning bread and cheese back up before the tents were even packed away. The next day we would be at Worcester, I would see my boy again, and I’d have to tell him what I now knew to be the truth.



My daughter was born on the road the following spring, just as I had been. I gave birth in the back of the cart, just like my mother had with me. I never saw my smiling-eyed boy again and I learned my lesson well. I was like the broken chairs that we took home to the forest; damaged wares.
    These days, when we stop off at the English villages along our summer route, we sell our chairs and wooden boxes by day, and Gryff plays by night while Da sells his apple wine and Mam dances, even though she’s old now and the stiffness in her joints pains her. And I? I join Marared when the men come and throw their silver pennies at our feet. 


Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves
Cher

About Annie


Annie has written three novels set in Anglo-Saxon England. To Be A Queen tells the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. Alvar the Kingmaker is set in the turbulent tenth century where deaths of kings and civil war dictated politics, while Cometh the Hour tells the story of Penda, the pagan king of Mercia. All have received IndieBRAG Gold Medallions and Chill with a Book awards. To Be A Queen was longlisted for HNS Indie Book of the Year and was an IAN Finalist. Alvar the Kingmaker was Chill Books Book of the Month while Cometh the Hour was a Discovering Diamonds Book of the Month

As well as being involved in 1066 Turned Upside Down, Annie has also had two nonfiction books published. Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom (Amberley Books) will be published in paperback edition on October 15th, 2020, while her most recent release, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England (Pen & Sword Books) is available in hardback and e-book.

Annie was the inaugural winner of the Dorothy Dunnett/HWA Short Story Competition 2017.


        




18 comments:

  1. I enjoyed this moving short story, Annie. Thank you.

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  2. Great story, Annie, beautifully interpreted. And I got the song!! Later than I should have because the clues were all there, but I thought I'd spotted Bonnie Raitt's 'The Road's My Middle Name' and was hung up on that. But it brought back memories from the early 70s as well as from the Forest of Denan where my daughter lived for a few years in Coleford

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    1. Thanks so much Richard - I've always felt that the song had a really strong story so I didn't want to stray too far from it but I'm glad it wasn't too obvious. The Forest of Dean is beautiful and I love the 'borderlands' :)

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  3. I bought the record - I think my first non-Beatles one!

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    1. I've always loved the song - and have had it going round my head for months now!

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    2. yes - it's a definite ear worm!

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  4. From Marina Osipova: "What a chill down my spine story! I'm shaken. Touched. Saddened by the fate of the Gipsy women. Very emotional. And as the crowning - Cher singing. Loved the story."

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    1. Thanks so much to Marina - what lovely comments :-)

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  5. Imagine how often through history this must have happened:moments of lust interpreted as love by the young and hopeful nd then... *sniff* Most enjoyable, although my gut twisted a bit at teh silver pennies at the end.

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    1. Thanks so much Anna - I stuck very closely to the lyrics of the song for this one and for me it packs such a poignant punch every time I listen to it.

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  6. A fascinating glimpse into the past...as always I'm so impressed with your storytelling, Annie!

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  7. Loved the story, Annie, so beautiful - and I guessed the song, one of my favourite teenage tracks! In fact, anyone remember that you could phone a line in the seventies (was it by the BBC?) for the "song of the day". I must have dialed this one 20 times!

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    1. Thanks so much Elizabeth! I don't recall 'song for the day' but we didn't get back to the UK until '74 and then I was at boarding school for a few years. No unscheduled phone calls allowed there!

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    2. I think it was called Dial-a-Disc and you called 160 on a standard landline!! it actually featured in a recent programme where they take a modern family and 'send them back' to live in a different era!!

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    3. hahaha thanks for that Richard! (and you're right!)

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