“Mum, can Wanda come and play after school tomorrow?”
Beth smiled indulgently as her daughter finished scraping the bowl, leaving a layer of cake mixture all round her mouth. “Who’s Wanda? Haven’t heard of her before.”
“She’s a new girl in my class. Nobody likes her, except me. I played with her at dinner time. She’s really nice. But all the others tease her. Some of them bully her, so she needs me there. Anyway, I really like her.”
“Oh Abi! You and your waifs and strays! Maybe we should stick a sign on the front gate saying, ‘Abigail’s home. All lonely people or broken animals stop here.’ What do you think? Look, do we really have to have her? Dad and I are going to that village meeting tomorrow evening, remember. We’re dropping you off at Grandma’s on the way.”
“Pleeeze Mum! She could come for a couple of hours and we could sample the cakes together. You know you like it when my friends eat your cakes. And Wanda’s not like that hedgehog I found, nor the baby rabbit with mixy.”
“Or the owl with the broken wing?”
But Beth was grinning. In truth she was delighted that her daughter was showing strong indications of compassion at such a young age and was keen to encourage her.
“Look, Abi. I’ll have to speak to Wanda’s mum, to make sure it’s all right with her. Can you find out her phone number for me? I’ll ring and a have a chat with her.”
“Thanks, Mum. You’re brilliant.” And Abigail flung triumphant arms around her mother, blissfully unaware of the stickiness of her fingers on Beth’s shirt. Beth laughed, gently disentangling herself.
“Come on, kiddo. Washing up time. Let’s get those hands into some soapy water. You wash, I’ll dry.”
Rose Washburn sounded nice on the phone, although Beth had a little difficulty understanding her unfamiliar soft, Irish burr. There weren’t many Irish in this tiny, South Norfolk village where most families had lived for generations, so it was a good thing, Beth reflected, to enrich the indigenous population.
Not that she herself had been born in Kirkby Thorpe. She and Brian were incomers who had moved from Norwich some five years ago, when Abigail was just three. Abigail had been an answer to prayer after ten childless years of marriage, but at least they had been able to save during those ten years, enabling them to buy one of the new, detached houses on the outskirts of the village.
It had been a bit tricky at first. Some of the village youngsters were unable to afford any property in the village and had been forced to move to the city, triggering resentment against the newcomers. But Brian and Beth were friendly and outgoing, attended the local church and joined in all village activities. And a year later when Abigail had started at the village school, all antipathy had finally vanished. Now, Beth felt, they really were accepted as part of the village.
Remembering her own loneliness during her early days in the village, Beth invited Rose to drop in for coffee one day. Rose sounded surprisingly grateful for the invitation, a gratitude which was repeated when Beth offered to pick the girls up after school next day and bring Wanda home for tea. She also offered to drop Wanda back in the early evening, but Rose refused, saying that she could easily collect her daughter at six o’clock. As Beth replaced the phone she found herself looking forward to meeting Rose Washburn.
Wanda was a pretty little thing, slighter than the more robust Abigail and as dark as Abigail was fair. Both girls wore their hair long and both had changed into jeans and T shirts after school. They were engrossed in a game involving books, sophisticated dolls and water, which Beth had laughingly insisted took place on the patio rather than in the lounge.
Beth had been struck by Wanda’s rather old-fashioned politeness, always addressing her as ‘Mrs Kitchener’ and remembering to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. It was a welcome change from most of Abigail’s school friends, who tended to be informal to the point of casualness, generally addressing Beth by her Christian name.
The two girls played well together and were no trouble. Beth was always pleased to receive Abigail’s playmates, believing that children without siblings needed plenty of friends around them. And there was something about Wanda which appealed to Beth. She seemed quieter than Abigail’s other friends and a little timid. As they had a school library book with them which Abigail was reading aloud to Wanda during the game, Beth wondered whether perhaps she was a slow learner with special needs. Beth made very sure to be especially gentle and welcoming.
Rose called for her daughter at exactly six o’clock. About ten years younger than Beth, she was very like her daughter with long black hair hanging nearly to her waist but tied back into a pony tail, which made her look even younger. Like Wanda, she was slight of build with her tiny figure encased in jeans, topped by a colourful shirt.
Beth liked her immediately. “You must be Rose! Do come in and see the girls at play, they really seem to have taken to each other. You have a lovely daughter, Rose. You must be so proud of her.”
Rose smiled shyly and followed her hostess. When Wanda spotted her, she ran to her mother’s side, but Abigail protested.
“Oh Mum! Does she have to go already? Can’t we have another ten minutes? It’s so early.”
“Now come on, Abi! You know what we agreed. And we don’t want to keep Wanda’s Mummy waiting. Wanda can come again another day.”
Abigail pouted. “It’s not fair! Just because you have a silly meeting - ”
“Abigail!” her mother said sharply, suddenly ashamed of her daughter beside her beautifully behaved friend.
Rose said pacifically, “We have to go. But perhaps you would like to come and play with Wanda one day?” and Beth smiled gratefully at her as Abigail immediately perked up and resorted to her usual sunny self.
“You will come for coffee now you know where we live, won’t you?” Beth urged Rose, as mother and daughter made their way to the car. “I can introduce you to the village and tell you all about the various village activities. I’m sure you’ll be happy here.”
“Thank you, I’d like that. And thank you for looking after Wanda. She doesn’t have many friends. I’m glad she’s met your daughter. You’re very kind.”
Since it was impossible to hurry Grandma under any circumstances, Beth and Brian were late for their meeting, squeezing into the back of the village hall just as proceedings started. Inevitably, the village hall was packed. Any issue to do with Travellers, as the politically correct District Council insisted on referring to the gypsies, raised strong passions. And Travellers illegally encamped on David and Jocelyn Raiment’s set-aside field, close to the village street, resulted in predictable fury.
The Raiments were well liked in Kirkby Thorpe. Beth and Brian had become firm friends with them over the years through church, where David was churchwarden and Brian treasurer. Beth and Jocelyn were both in the Mothers’ Union and often met for fund raising events, some of which were held in the Raiment’s sixteenth century farmhouse or on the farm. The set aside field was an especial bonus for the church. It was perfectly placed for the church fete and the strawberry teas, both of which had been written into the calendar since last year. So there was real disgruntlement amongst the church population over the illegal gypsy encampment.
The Parish Council Chairman introduced the platform party; two representatives from the District Council, two representatives from the police force and five Parish Councillors, all looking suitably serious. The Travellers had not been invited.
After a short introduction by the chairman, it was free for all. Emotion immediately began to rise.
A short, dark man with a bull neck and shaven head revealing a tattoo of a serpent on his neck, shot to his feet before anyone else had a chance to think. He waved his fist belligerently. “What’s the police doin’, I’d like to know? These people, they’re no better than animals. They’re filthy leeches, that what they are. Living off the backs of decent people.”
He sat down to loud cries of, “Hear, hear.”
“Thank you, Mr Braden,” the Chairman hastily intervened. “I think we all need to use temperate language when discussing this issue. Nothing is to be gained by emotive remarks without any foundation - ”
“ - you calling me a liar?” Benny Braden was back on his feet, his face a mottled red. “There’s houses been burgled and stuff nicked from sheds since them gyppos come. We all know who’s responsible. So what’s the police doin’ about it? ‘Cos if they don’t do nothing, we will!”
There was a rumble of agreement in the hall.
The Chairman said, “Please be careful, Mr Braden. I would not like to have you arrested because of racist remarks. We can at least show common courtesy to the Travellers. Perhaps we should invite Mr and Mrs Raiment to speak. The Travellers are camped on their land. And please remember, ladies and gentlemen, we can only deal with facts, not gossip or innuendo. Unless you have hard facts backing your case, there is nothing we can do.”
“Nothing?” Another, older man had stood. Beth recognised him as Henry Whitehouse, Head Teacher of the village Church of England Primary school which Abigail attended. “Illegal encampments pose a real problem for Traveller children. The Travellers are moved on from pillar to post, so these children never get a settled education. And it costs huge resources from our school budget to set up adequate support for the children as we are obliged by law to do, only to find that they move on in a week or so. Something must be done for the sake of the children and our school.”
A well-spoken woman clad in designer clothing chimed in, “Surely the police have a duty to keep the law? This encampment is illegal. What’s more, the Travellers pay no council tax, yet as we’ve just heard, they use public facilities like the rest of us. And after they leave, who foots the clean-up bill? I hear it’s usually massive.”
David Raiment stood up. Beth strained to hear, but the room fell quiet as he began to speak in measured tones. “I’m afraid we - Jocelyn and myself - pick up the bill and it may run into thousands. Because the Travellers are on private land, the owner of the land is responsible for all expenses. Nothing falls to the tax payer or the council. Naturally we have been down to the site and politely asked the Travellers to move on, but as yet they show no signs of doing so. These people don’t understand common courtesy. Our next action is to use bailiffs, but I hope it won’t come to that. Not only would that cost even more, but it might provoke violence. No, we would like this meeting to support us by calling on the District Council, the Parish Council and the police service to work together and use some muscle here. Why should it all be left to us? We didn’t invite the Travellers. It’s not fair.”
Beth felt herself growing hot with indignation. David was right. It was so unfair. These people were there illegally, were known to leave filth behind, paid nothing towards public services and coincidentally the crime rate, usually zero in Kirkby Thorpe, had already risen. She glanced at Brian, who was nodding vigorously at David’s words, his colour rising and a small vein in his temple throbbing. He was getting worked up, as was the whole room.
“Let’s go get them ourselves!” somebody yelled, to loud choruses of agreement.
The police sergeant stood. “I must remind you that any illegal action on your part will result in arrests. Please leave this to the council and the police. I can assure you that we have your best interests at heart.”
“Oh yeah?” jeered a voice from the crowd. “Since when? Only interests you have are them gyppos, Irish scum! Bend over backwards for them, but don’t never uphold the law for us.”
The mood of the crowd was growing ugly, with groups of men and women apparently quite prepared to attack the Travellers’ camp. Benny Braden produced a baseball bat seemingly from nowhere, and as if on signal, several more baseball bats and wooden sticks suddenly appeared. Beth realised that it had been set up beforehand, with the meeting just an excuse to wind people up, rallying support and an excuse for violence. She was conscious of fear at the pit of her belly.
Then all at once she made a connection. She didn’t know quite what triggered it, but she suddenly realised who Abigail’s new friend was. No wonder none of the other children would play with Wanda. Beth’s mind flipped to Rose Washburn, who had seemed so nice. But that long, black hair and that Irish accent! Clearly she was a gypsy.
Beth felt sick. She liked the woman and her child. She had invited them into her home. And now they could be in real danger from angry villagers. But there was nothing she could do. She, Beth, could hardly stand up against the whole village, and David and Jossy were her good friends. She was only at the meeting to support them. Anyway, what would Brian think? She didn’t want divorce in her family, thank you very much. Besides, the camp was illegal. There was no getting away from that fact. The Chairman had said they must deal in facts. Well, that was one. How could Beth in good conscience support anything illegal? Obviously she couldn’t, unless she wanted to throw away everything she and Brian had worked so hard to achieve in Kirkby Thorpe. And she had to think of Abigail. Kids can be cruel and some of those parents would make very sure that their children gave Abigail a vicious time if her mother stepped out of line. No, she’d best sit quiet and do nothing. After all, she didn’t have to join in with village hassle and she would never concur with violence. And if she did nothing, she couldn’t be held responsible. Could she?
Even as these thoughts raced through her mind, Beth knew that she was trying to convince herself. She also knew just what she stood to lose; five years of hard work in the village and some good friends, to say nothing of her own marriage. Beth gulped, fear filling her heart.
But almost without thinking, she found herself on her feet. She stood on a chair to be seen above the crowd. She saw Jocelyn watching her expectantly and knew regretfully that Jossy’s face would soon change. She heard herself say, “Now listen! If we go down there with baseball bats, it’s us who’ll be the animals. Please. Let’s think about this rationally. The Travellers are people. They’re families like us with children and grandchildren and they deserve a bit of compassion. How would any of you like to be hounded out, constantly pushed on by hostile villages? I know they’re parked illegally and that can’t be right, but isn’t there somewhere in the village where we could help make a proper site for them? After all, if they had a site which was properly managed, perhaps there wouldn’t be so much mess. What are they supposed to do with their rubbish without bins? Can’t we help them instead of hurting them?”
Then, as someone jeered, “She’s gone mad!” and someone else cried, “Traitor!” reaction set in and Beth’s legs began to tremble. What had she done? They’d have to leave Kirkby Thorpe for sure. But to her astonishment, she felt Brian climb onto a chair beside her and grab for her hand. “It’s a free country and we all have free speech. You may not agree with my wife, but I’m proud of her. She had the courage to stand up and be counted. And I have a suggestion. What about the old Maltings? It’s been empty for years, it’s rat infested, it’s an eye-sore and no-one can be found to buy it. How about the District Council putting its money where its mouth is and helping the Travellers to buy it? And if we’re really a Christian village, maybe some of us could help to clear it out and make it fit for human habitation.”
The crowd howled. They were so angry that Beth was afraid she and Brian might be lynched. She wasn’t quite sure how they stumbled out of the meeting, to the background of jeers and catcalls and with Jocelyn’s stricken face etched on her mind. She knew the next few weeks and months and probably years would be painfully hard, but although she was still afraid, that no longer mattered. She knew she had done the right thing and Brian had stood with her. Nothing else mattered.
“No wonder our daughter’s the way she is, looking after waifs and strays,” she reflected in the car on the way home. “Look at her parents! Always taking on lost causes and losing popularity to boot. But doesn’t it feel good inside?”
Beside her, Brian nodded. “We may not be able to do much and we certainly won’t get any thanks, but we’ll help the Travellers as best we can, you and I together against the world.”
Beth thought, ‘I may have lost some friends, but I’m pretty sure I’ll have made at least one new one.’
And she looked forward to getting to know Rose Washburn.