Gypsy Boy on the Run

My Escape from a Life Among the Romany Gypsies

Mikey Walsh

Thomas Dunne Books

GYPSY BOY ON THE RUN (CHAPTER 1)

The clouds burst and rain began to hammer against the windscreen as we hit the motorway.

Caleb's face was a mask of concentration as he gripped the steering wheel, pushing his little orange car to slice through the curtains of water at speeds it had never reached before.

Panic gripped me as I looked over my shoulder for the hundredth time.

The road was clear. But for how long?

Caleb reached for my hand. 'We'll be long gone when they find you're missing. I've got us a place to live, a long way from anyone who knows you. We'll be together.'

I tried to smile. 'Yeah, I know. I've been dreaming of this day for so long.'

And I had. I was going to be free, and I would be with Caleb. It was everything I wanted. So why was my heart so heavy with loss?

A tidal wave was falling from the sky. Could the combination of my father's anger and my mother's sadness have caused this rip in the heavens? They would have found my letter by now. I felt the crack of my mother's heart as I pictured her reading it. I ached for her, and for what I was leaving behind. My family, my home. But they would be better off without me. All I had ever brought them was shame.

I looked over at Caleb. I couldn't let him know what I was feeling. I was scared that he might try to convince me to change my mind and turn back. And I didn't want to do that.

I glanced behind us again and watched, heart thudding, as a truck in the distance came closer. For a terrible moment I thought ...

It wasn't his. I almost fainted with relief. But I knew it was just a matter of time. He would come looking for me. And when he did, I had to be somewhere he could never, ever find me.

I was fifteen years old and I was running away from everything I had ever known. I had grown up in the closed and secretive world of Romany gypsies, part of a culture and a way of life that had existed for centuries, alongside but never part of the rest of the world. We Romanies were proud, fierce, independent people and we held to our ways and customs despite the increasing encroachment of 'normal' society and the hostility of non-Romanies towards us.

My family lived a travelling life, moving from town to town, settling for weeks or months, as long as my father could find work locally, before moving on. Friends and family moved with us in a great convoy of trucks and trailers that wound its way from one place to the next. It was getting harder to find places to stop, free from prejudice and attack, out of the way enough to preserve our privacy and give us space to be together and live the way we had always lived. When we found a good site we would stay for as long as we could, but there always came a time when we had to move on - either because we were hounded out, or when our restless spirit drove us back to the open road.

I was my parents' first son. My father Frank and mother Bettie already had a daughter, my sister Frankie, born almost two years earlier. Soon after she arrived, my mother was diagnosed with a heart murmur and told that if she had another child it could be fatal. My father, thwarted in his hope of a son to take his name, gave it to my sister and tried to accept the hand that fate had dealt him. But my mother knew how much he longed for a son and put aside fears for her health to give her husband the one thing that would make him happier than anything else.

I was born, like so many Romany babies, in the Royal Berkshire hospital. My granny Ivy, a four-foot midget of a woman who, despite her tiny stature, had a temper that cowed grown men, had given birth to her four children there. She and my grandfather, Old Noah, were Gypsy elders whose status was akin to royalty, and as word spread of the excellent treatment she had received, Gypsy women from one end of the land to the other had flocked there to have their babies.

When I arrived, with the whole family present as was the custom, I was apparently so enormous that there was a collective gasp of disbelief. How my mother not only survived but went on to have three more children, I have no idea. It was Granny Ivy, cackling through her mouthful of gold teeth, who declared me to be 'a little pig boy'. After that the story became part of our family folklore, and as a child I endured endless hours listening to Gypsy women laugh and exclaim over the day Bettie Walsh gave birth to a pig.

As for my father, he was delighted with his bruiser of a son and as he placed a chain with a tiny pair of gold boxing gloves on it around my infant neck, my size only served to fuel his hope that I would be a fine specimen of Gypsy manhood and a prizefighter to make him proud.

My heritage was a noble one. My parents were both born into well-known and highly respected Gypsy fam ilies. My mother was the second eldest of six children. Her parents, Old Alfie and Granny Bettie, lived on their own piece of land in a couple of trailers and a clappedout rainbow-coloured double-decker bus they had bought the kids one Christmas. The whole family were dark-skinned and dark-haired, with Granny Bettie's hefty build - apart from my mother, who emerged pale-skinned and flame-haired and was, as a result, something of an embarrassment to her family. They couldn't understand where this strange-looking creature had come from. Some people even believed she had been cursed, but my mother was an independent spirit who didn't care what people thought and she grew up to be a svelte beauty who turned heads wherever she went.

My mother was close friends with my father's twin sister, Prissy. They met when they were all ten years old, and my mother always said that she fell in love with my father then and there. He fell for her too, but it was several years before he found the courage to ask her out, because when he wasn't talking with his fists, he was painfully tongue-tied and shy. He demonstrated his love by beating up any boy who came near her, but never said a word to her.

Eventually, it was my mother who broke this impasse, flouting Gypsy convention in the process, by marching up to him and demanding that he ask her out or else fuck off and leave her alone. He wisely chose to ask her out and a year or so later, when they were both eighteen, they married. My mother wore a Mary Poppins-style outfit with a parasol and a hat adorned with candy-coloured ribbons, but my father - much to my mother's disgust - was in the grubby old trousers and cardigan he had been wearing the previous day. His one concession to the event was to stick a rose in his breast pocket.

Despite the disappointing lack of effort for his nuptials, my father adored his pretty, red-haired bride, and she adored him. He loved her because she was different from most Gypsy women, not only in her looks but in temperament. She was calm, quiet and self-contained, preferring her own company to a group of gossiping girls. And she loved him for the sensitivity she saw beneath his rough exterior, and because she understood how tough it was for him, desperate to prove himself and always in the shadow of his older, better-looking and more successful brother.

After the wedding they moved into their own trailer, which my mother, like all Gypsy women, kept neat as a pin and sparkling clean. This was the late seventies, so the decor was wall-to-wall brown with splashes of orange in the curtains and bedding and numerous gilt-edged mirrors on the walls.

A year after the wedding Frankie came along and two years after that, in 1980, I arrived. My mother always said I didn't make a sound for the first six months of my life. She and my father were convinced I was a mute until the day she brought home a huge crab - her favourite weekly food treat - and put it on the floor in front of me. I was fascinated, and as I prodded and rolled this odd creature about, I began to gurgle and squeal with delight.

From as far back as I can remember I adored Frankie. With her near-black eyes and thick, curly dark hair, she was fearless, noisy and brave and I followed her around, worshipping her every move. She had our father's temperament and was a natural tomboy. As is the Gypsy custom, she was always dressed like a doll, in little dresses with diamond earrings and ringlets in her hair. She hated it. She would have been happier in the dungarees that I had to wear, but the rules dictate that Gypsy boys and girls live in different worlds. The girls follow their mothers, learning to be homemakers, while the boys are trained very early in the ways of the men, working and providing for their family.

But despite the different paths that we were on, Frankie and I were incredibly close. We played together for hours: dressing up, 'cooking' with mud and Play-Doh and creating imaginary shops in which we bought and sold Frankie's army of Cabbage Patch dolls.

Frankie was always in charge. Her favourite game was dressing me up as Aunt Sally from Worzel Gummidge. Neither of us could pronounce Sally, so we called her Aunt Sadly. I would put on one of Frankie's nightgowns and she would make us both up with lurid eye shadows she stole from Granny Bettie. Unfortunately, our father walked in one day and found me in my Aunt Sadly costume and that was the end of that. He was livid and banned me from ever dressing in girls' clothes again.

While my mother kept house, looked after us and visited her parents and her sisters, my father went out to work with the other men. He did a bit of this and that, collecting scrap metal, laying tarmac drives and doing odd jobs like cleaning gutters or fixing roofs. He would go from door to door offering his services, always hoping to strike lucky and find a 'grunter' - an old person who could be charged a lot of money for some trifling job. He would convince them that their roof was falling apart, or their drive needed resurfacing, and then fleece them of as much as he possibly could. He never felt guilty about this because he considered them to be fair game. My father would sometimes take me out to work with him, and I remember seeing elderly men and women crying and pleading with him, as he demanded an exorbitant payment for whatever it was he had 'fixed'. He was a brilliant conman with a golden tongue, but not a skilled workman; cutting corners was his speciality and the 'new' drives he laid were liable to dissolve into tarry puddles with the next shower of rain. But by then he would be long gone.

When he wasn't working, his favourite pastime was training me to be a fighter. Ours was a family of fighting men, and by the time I was four years old he was preparing me to follow in the renowned footsteps of generations of Walsh men.

Bare-knuckle fighting is a Gypsy tradition: in each country where there is a Romany community, there is an unofficial fighting crown that every Gypsy man worth his salt dreams of winning. My great-grandfather Mikey had won it - beating a host of other men to do so - and it had been in our family ever since.

During the Second World War, Mikey, broke and homeless, had moved to England from Eastern Europe, changing his name from Walowski to Walsh along the way. That war almost finished off the Gypsies, who were hated and persecuted by the Nazis. Over 200,000 died, many of them in concentration camps, and after the war many people believed that the Gypsies had been wiped out. But there were those who had survived and who went on to rebuild their communities, including my great-grandfather. He and his wife Ada arrived with five children, and scraped a living any way they could. Ada sold trinkets and charms and Mikey fought his way to prosperity - literally - by putting up his fists for anyone who would pay a few pounds, earning himself a reputation as a champion, and enough money to buy a piece of land to establish a camp for Gypsies.

The crown had passed to Mikey's son Noah, my grandfather. He brought up his own boys - Tory; my father, Frank, and the youngest brother, Joseph - to fight each other and everyone around them. 'Hit 'em so they'll never get back up. One. Good. Hit. Put out your man like a candle,' Noah would repeat. The Walsh boys were always looking for the next fight, picking on anyone who so much as looked at them the wrong way, and as a result they were feared by every other Gypsy man.

My father was a good fighter and he longed for the title, but it went to his older brother Tory, their father's favourite.

After that my father pinned his hopes on his own first son. By the time I was four he was 'training' me on a daily basis. I would stand in front of him, arms in the air, as he landed punches - modest at first, but increasingly hard - on my ribs. The idea was that I would learn how to take at least ten levels of punches without crying, weaving, bobbing or dodging. And I tried, so hard. But the punches hurt so much that after the first few I would be in tears and doubled over in agony, at which point my father would continue punching me - with real punches - while berating me for my cowardice.

As the training was stepped up I spent my days waiting, terrified, for the moment when he would turn to me and say, 'Ready, Mikey?' I was supposed to nod cheerfully and run to get my miniature boxing gloves on. Instead I screamed, kicked, sobbed and begged him not to make me fight - all to no avail. Every day he set out to train me, and every day I failed him. He even made me fight Frankie, in an attempt to humiliate me into succeeding. But Frankie beat me every time.

My mother would often step in to try to protect me. She took many beatings herself as he turned on her, furious at her intervention, throwing her across the room and on occasion even knocking her unconscious. She fought him bravely, and though she never won, she continued to intervene when she felt I had taken enough of a pounding. She never complained when he hurt her, and she never seemed to hold it against him either. She would get up and carry on, without a word, and the affection they had for one another appeared undimmed. He always kissed her when he came home, and in the evenings he would often take her on his lap, calling her his girl.

When I was six my mother gave birth to another son. Unlike me and Frankie, both of us olive-skinned and dark-haired, the new baby, Henry-Joe, took after our mother: pale-skinned with flaming-red hair. From the start my mother seemed determined to keep my father and his fighting family away from this child. She guarded him like a tigress and my father was forced to admit defeat, leaving his second son to my mother and her family. He carried on doing his best to shape me into the fighter I would never be, but feeling twice betrayed by sons who were incapable of carrying on his line, his ferocity seemed to increase in direct proportion to his disappointment.

As I grew older he forced me to fight other, mostly bigger, sometimes much bigger, boys. My uncle Tory owned a boxing club and I would be taken along there and put into the ring with some ugly great brute of a boy. I always lost and came home bruised and battered, with a bloody nose, only to face my father's scorn and derision. I was the world's most hopeless fighter. Every place we moved to would see me bullied and mocked for being such a poor comparison to my father. I was nothing but a disappointment to him. 'I've made you timid,' he'd say. 'Let you spend too much time around women.'

I worshipped my father and his shame and disappointment in me crushed my heart like a rock. I wanted so badly to please him, to see his face light up as it did when he saw Frankie. She could do no wrong in his eyes.

It wasn't until my youngest brother, Jimmy, was born, when I was eight, that my father finally got the heir he longed for. I knew, peering into Jimmy's cot, that this would be the son to make my father proud. His black eyes were just like my father's and none of us doubted that he would grow up to be a fighter.

While I burned with longing to be what my father wanted me to be and loved and hated him by turns, my relationship with my mother was far simpler. Although she could be distant and was never physically affectionate - cuddles and kisses for boys were considered 'mollycoddling' and were frowned upon - when I was small she was the centre of my world. Any time my father was out, or away working for weeks at a time as he sometimes was, my mother, Frankie and I would have fun and my mother would indulge her passion for music. She had an old stack music system and she would put on records while we all sang along, belting out hits by Michael Jackson or our mother's favourite, Barbra Streisand. Frankie and I spent many happy hours perfecting our zombie impersonations to 'Thriller' and singing along to Donna Summer and Barbra's 'Enough is Enough'.

We also spent many joyous hours watching re-runs of every movie Disney ever produced while scoffing cakes, toffee popcorn and the bowls of Angel Delight our mother would whip up on an almost daily basis. Our favourite film of all was The Wizard of Oz. For weeks at a time Frankie and I watched it every day before running outside to re-enact the best scenes. Frankie would always be the wicked witch, and I would be her faithful flying monkey.

My mother never said she loved me. No Gypsy ever said such things, especially to a boy. But I knew, from the way she looked at me and from the courage with which she fought to defend and protect me, that she did.

GYPSY BOY ON THE RUN. Copyright © 2011 by Mikey Walsh. All rights reserved.