Joe’s parents were both very busy people. They had no time to stop and think, talk or love. They had too much going on in their lives, they didn’t even have time for their son Joe.
Joe on the other hand felt like he had all the time in the world. He would often entertain himself for hours in the fields behind their home, fashioning animals and people out of old pieces of wood with his small carving knife. When he wasn’t busy making his little creations or repairing his den, Joe would spread out a patchwork blanket that had belonged to his grandmother on the ground. He would lie on his back staring at the clouds and listening to the sounds of the world around him. Unlike his parents, the world fascinated Joe and never failed to teach him something. He knew 23 different bird calls, could name 58 different plants and had once managed to stay so still that a fox had eaten right out of his hand. He had practiced sitting really still and eventually the fox became comfortable and had even brought her cubs to visit once or twice. Joe knew that she would never be truly belong to him but he always enjoyed the feel of her fur and the roughness of her tongue as he fed her.
‘One day i’ll have my own animals’ thought Joe as he walked back to his parents house to a dinner that had been made with neither love or care. Food like everything else for Joe’s parents was something that served a function, not something to get excited about.
He would line up all his little carved creatures on his bedroom window sill in the moonlight and would lie in bed at night creating colourful stories about their little adventures. Next to them he kept his box with all things he had collected from the fields. Leaves and flowers carefully preserved, packets of seeds and berries that he dreamed one day of planting and harvesting. All sorts of magical things. At least they were magical to Joe.
In the morning, he would carefully pack away his carved creatures into his box to keep them safe then would try to tell his mom about the stories he had thought up. As with everything else she would brush off these stories as fantasies. Joe tried to show his dad the things he found but Joes dad would laugh and often make fun of Joe. He would then look Joe in the eye and say with his most serious voice
‘Now Joe don’t be getting no ideas about working in those fields. No boy of mine is going to do a dirty job like that. You will come and work with me as a Bookkeeper and I’ll have nothing else said of it!’
When summer came, which was Joe’s favorite time of year, he would spend the long days learning from the trees and woodland animals about how life really was, rather than the stuff he learnt at school. Not that Joe thought school was useless, it was just that he was so at home outside, surrounded by nature.
One summer’s day when Joe had just turned 11, he asked his parents if he could go on a long walk through the woods. He had been planning this adventure all winter. Joe had gone to the library and found an old map of the woods, in fact the map was so old that the woods looked more like a forest. To Joe it looked like his house and the little village down the road had been swallowed up by the trees. Of course he knew really that the village hadn’t been built when the map was drawn, but it was fun to imagine the trees marching up to the village and his parents house and burying their thick roots into the buildings until they were just rubble. This picture made Joe laugh out loud. The librarian had to remind him of the library rules.
Upon his request his parents didn’t even listen and as usual just ushered him on to entertain himself. He hurriedly packed a small canvas bag with his copy of the ancient map, a banana, some oats, a drink, some of his carvings and his little knife. He would stop off at his den to collect the few things he kept there, particularly his cherished blanket.
Before you could say ‘Bob’s your uncle’ he was off on a trip that would change his life forever.
Stopping off at the den to collect his extra things and to check if the fox had been for the food he had left out Joe then walked till around lunchtime, at least the sun was high in the sky and he was so hungry he felt a little faint. Joe had followed his map carefully and had found the expected clearing to sit, eat and have a drink.
He unfurled his blanket, unlaced his boots and lay down. He polished off his banana in two bites and downed the bottle of water in four big gulps. It was ok though as he had seen a stream just before the clearing that he was sure was safe to drink and he still had his bag of oats. Not the nicest to eat raw but he knew they would keep him going for hours.
He carefully unfolded the old map and looked closely at where he had walked. Joe calculated that he had walked about 3 miles.
‘I should probably set off back’, he said to himself but the sun was so hot and he was so tired that he ended up falling asleep, dreaming of his wooden animals and their stories. He dreamt of a horse he had made called Agnes, she was a beautiful working horse. She had an amazing mane with a large white fleck through it. All day she pulled a large trailer filled with people’s unwanted objects. Joe could hear the sound of her as she walked down the road.
Joe woke with a start, he could really hear a horse coming towards the clearing, there was an old dirt track just through the trees on the other side of the clearing. He ran to see the horse that was coming. It was Agnes! Joe couldn’t believe it, she was exactly as he had dreamt, the fleck in her mane and attached at the back the trailer filled with lots of objects. Walking at the side was a man who wore a black hat and a red neckerchief.
Joe was nervous to say hello so just watched as they walked past and settled at the side of the road. At this point, the man undid Agnes’ tack and gave her a good pat. Then he spoke words that were alien to Joe but sounded like voices he had heard in his dreams.
‘Sar sin mandi’s grai?’ (Hows you my horse?)
What it meant, Joe did not know, but somehow he knew that one day this would be his tongue as well. By the time Joe realised what was going on, hours had passed with him watching the man and his horse. Joe rushed home in the twilight, worried his parents would be searching for him. Not to his surprise, they were sat in front of their work and didn’t blink an eyelid when he arrived home out of breathe and bathed in sweat. That night, Joe’s dreams were vivid to say the least.
For the next couple of weeks, whenever he got the chance, Joe walked the long, hot three miles into the forest and watched the man and his Grai from his hiding spot. He listened to the man speak the strange language to his horse that was frightening but full of mystery and wonder to Joe’s young and inquisitive ears. On one day he had got closer and closer to the man and his Grai but tripped on a large root and fell out the bushes with a thud. He gave the man an awful fright.
Before Joe had time to think the man grabbed Joe roughly by the scruff of the neck and accused him of spying on him
‘Tuti been dikkin on mandi?’ (You been looking on me), he growled angrily in his deep voice, heavy with the strange and magical accent of the road. Joe didn’t know what to to say in reply as he didn’t understand him.
‘Pppplease sir, is your horse called Agnes?’ Joe stammered.
‘Yes mandi’s chav’(yes my boy)
Joe and the man, whose name surprisingly was also Joe, spent the next month learning from each other and built a beautiful friendship. Eating together everyday Romany Joe, as they decided to call the elder of the two, would cook them an early evening meal of whatever he had to offer and in exchange Little Joe would tell him stories of his carved animals. They would laugh and joke and slowly Little Joe began to pick up words from what he now knew was the language of the Romanies.
The food usually consisted of meat, if Romany joe could get his hands on some, which he was very good at, lots of fresh vegetables and some greens which he would forage. He taught Little Joe what was good to eat and what was poisonous and taught him the words for each flower, root and leaf they found. Little Joe impressed the older man with his knowledge of the woods and was soon trusted to forage all by himself. The horse would be fed on lovely oats that little Joe would bring and stand and listen to them talk away till twilight. Each night when the time came Little Joe would run back to his parents house, sometimes getting in well after dark. His parents never noticed that he was home late and covered in dirt from the forest floor. He would lie awake practicing his new found language and imagining a life on the back of the cart, eating from the land and making a living from the unwanted scrap of the people who lived in bricks.
August came and went like a thief in the night and before Little Joe knew it, it was nearly time to go back to school. On the first day of September, Romany Joe told little Joe he must leave and go to warmer climates as Agnes didn’t like the cold. Little Joe couldn’t believe his friend was leaving and ran home crying. He was inconsolable and as usual his parents didn’t notice. Joe packed all his carved friend into his wooden magic box and got in bed clutching it tightly. He cried himself to sleep. He knew what he had to do but despite how much he disliked his parents he felt scared like he had never felt in his young life.
Joe awoke the next morning to find his box was gone from under his arm and the sound of his his mom speaking to someone in the curt tones she usually used when speaking to door to door salesmen or the tradespeople that came and went.
‘We need to get rid of it! Our boy will never grow up if we keep it and all it’s contents.’
‘Kushti (good), that’ll do handsome back in mandi’s vardo (my caravan)’ said Joe, his voice full of gravel and something else that was lost on Little Joe’s mother. She was too caught up, as usual, in her own small world to notice the look on the stranger’s face as he recognized the contents of his little friends magic box.
Little Joe knew that voice and couldn’t contain his excitement, letting out a little screech. It was his best friend but what was his mom doing with his precious box? How dare she. It wasn’t hers to give away even if it was to his best friend. He quickly threw on his clothes, grabbed his small canvas bag and ran down the stairs, taking them three at a time, and out of the back door, letting it slam noisily behind him.
‘Did you hear something?’ Said Little Joe’s mom.
‘Not mandi, maybe it was mandi’s Grai’, growled the Gypsy, a strange smile on his face and glint in his deep blue eyes.
‘What have you got to smile about? Now stop talking gibberish, be gone with you and make sure you take that box of rubbish with you!’ said Joe’s mom as she scowled at the Gypsy and tried to push the door shut. The door wouldn’t close as Romany Joe had his boot firmly between the door and the frame.
‘You mark mandis lavior (words) gorgie (female non Gypsy), you will regret this divvus for the rest of your divvus’. What was yours is now mandis and mandi will take more care of it than you ever did. Saulohaul (curse) you and your bloody bricks’ spat Romany Joe as he turned his back and laughed all the way down the garden path.
He placed the wooden box carefully on his wagon and rolled off down the road to his usual atchin tan (stopping place). Not much to his surprise Little Joe jumped out on Romany Joe his face red with anger.
‘I don’t want to stay here’ said Little Joe, tears welling up in his bright, young eyes, his body quaking with emotion.
‘They don’t care about me, she even gave you my box. How dare she! Can I come with you? Can I live on the road and look after agnes for you?’
Romany Joe laughed a deep, booming laugh and grabbed Little Joe, this time around his waist and not by the scruff of the neck. He hugged him closer than Little Joe had ever been hugged before.
‘Of course tuti (you) can mi chav. Mandi aint leaving tuti here with them. We will be pralas (brothers) on the drom and we will make our bok (luck or fortune) be it large or small.’
They sat in the autumn sunlight and ate an unctuous bean stew that Romany Joe had taught the chavvi to cook. Before they left, Joe had something he had to do. He told Romany Joe to wait for him and walked back to his small den.
Waiting for him, as if she knew, was the vesh jukkel as he now called her in Romanes. It was the fox.
‘I wish you could come too’ cried joe as she licked the salty tears from his cheeks, her rough tongue making him laugh through his tears.
He was sad to leave her, but was excited about the kushti drom (good way) ahead. He smiled and gave her one final farewell stroke and she turned from him and was gone into the woods. Joe quickly grabbed his last few things from the floor of his den and pulled the shelter down. He wouldn’t be needing it anymore. His home was now the road.
Little Joe made his way back to the clearing, pulled his grandmothers blanket around his shoulders, jumped up onto the wagon and stashed his magic box safely at his feet.
‘Ready mandi’s chav?’ asked the Gypsy with a warm smile and all the gravel gone from his voice.
With a nod of his head Little Joe rode off into the sunset with Agnes leading the way along the happy road.
Romany Joes bacon and bean stew (serves 4)
2lts chicken stock
500g smoked bacon diced
2 sticks celery diced
2 carrots diced
2 white onion diced
200 g dried fava or broad beans soaked overnight
2 sprigs rosemary
2 sprigs thyme
2 bay leaves
1/2 Savoy cabbage finely sliced
3 fennel tops
10 sprigs wood sorrel
Drain and cook your soaked beans until slightly underdone in water.
In a large frying pan or pot, fry off the smoked lardons, add your vegetables and herbs and cook out for 10 minutes.
Then add stock and season with some salt and pepper, continue to bring to a slow simmer.
Now add beans and cook for a further 20 minutes.
Add Savoy cabbage 5 minutes before serving.
Garnish with wood sorrel and fennel tops. As always enjoy with a big hunk of bread and some good company.