First published in Great Britain by HarperCollins Children’s Books in 2018
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Text copyright © Michael Morpurgo 2018
Jacket photographs © Maria Castellanos/Shutterstock (flying flamingos); Stefano Garau/Shutterstock (front cover flamingo); Ondrej Prosicky/Shutterstock (flying flamingos at sunrise); blickwinkel/Alamy Stock Photo (bull); Christian Hütter/Alamy Stock Photo (flamingo frieze); Pixelheld/Shutterstock (dunes); gyn9037/Shutterstock (dark clouds); bepsy/Shutterstock (swamp); saranya33/Shutterstock (sunset); Sergey Uryadnikov/Shutterstock (Camargue horses); Nataliya Hora/Shutterstock (carousel); Stephen Mulcahey/Arcangel (boy)
Jacket design © HarperCollinsPublishers 2018
Cover image of Flamingo Boy written by Michael Morpurgo
Michael Morpurgo asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
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Source ISBN: 9780008134631
Ebook Edition © 2018 ISBN: 9780008134662
For Alan, for Lorens, and their mum and dad
With thanks to Anne-Sophie Deville who first introduced us to her flamingos and to the beauty and mystery of her beloved Camargue
I read it in a book once, when I was a boy. I don’t remember what book it was from, but the story I have never forgotten. An old traveller is sitting on the steps of his gypsy caravan, drinking a mug of tea in the sunshine. He’s stopped for a while, right in the middle of a roundabout, his tethered piebald horse grazing the grass verge nearby.
A police car pulls up. “You can’t stop here,” the policeman says.
“Morning, son,” says the traveller. “You want some tea? Got plenty to spare.” The policeman is rather nonplussed by this. No one has called him “son” for a very long time, and he rather likes it.
“No time to stop for tea,” he says. “Thanks all the same. Where are you going, you and your horse?”
“Not sure,” says the traveller. “The old horse and me, we just follow the bend in the road, go wherever it takes us.”
“Nice horse,” the policeman says, his tone softening all the time.
“And where might you be off to, son, this fine day?” the old traveller asks him.
“Maybe I’ll do what you do,” replies the policeman. “Maybe I’ll just follow the bend in the road. Sounds like a good idea.” And off he goes, knowing full well he should have moved the old traveller on, but glad he hadn’t.
I don’t know why, but I have never forgotten that story. I am older these days, a lot older – over fifty now. And, when I think about it, I suppose that in my own way I was trying to do just what the old traveller had done, what that policeman said he would like to do. I was following the bend in the road. That’s what I was setting out to do, in the summer of 1982, which was a long time ago now, but I remember it all, as if it were yesterday. It’s another story I don’t forget. You don’t forget the stories and the people who change your life.
It began with a picture, a painting, two paintings really. In Art class at my primary school, Miss Weatherby – who was the best teacher I ever had – told us one day to “paint a story”. So I painted a picture of that same old traveller sitting on the steps of his gypsy caravan, his piebald horse grazing the grass nearby, and there was a police car in the painting too. I gave it a title, wrote it at the top: “Following the Bend in the Road”. Miss Weatherby said it was the best painting I had ever done – she said that a lot, but she meant it every time. I took it home. My mother also said it was brilliant, so brilliant that I should sign it, and she would hang it up on the wall in my bedroom, in pride of place, next to my boat picture.
Now, that other picture, the boat picture, is very important in the story, because my name is Vincent, Vincent Montague. Only my mother called me Vincent. My friends at school always called me “Monty”, or “Vince”, neither of which I have ever liked. I always liked to be known as Vincent. So, of course, I signed my picture “Vincent”.
My mother had it framed – she liked it that much – and hung it, as she said she would, on the wall above my bed. “There is only one place for this,” I remember her saying, as she stood back, head on one side, and admired it. “It looks perfect up there, doesn’t it? That’s just where it belongs.”
So there it was, my picture of the old traveller, hanging right beside my boat picture, the one that had always been there above my bed, that I had always loved: a painting of four boats on a beach, with the sea and sky behind. Strangely, it was also signed by “Vincent”, which was, of course, I am sure, one of the reasons why I had always loved it so much. But I hadn’t painted that one. Someone else had, someone else called Vincent.
My mother used to joke about it sometimes. “I like that boat picture, Vincent,” she would laugh, “but I prefer yours.” I loved her saying that, of course, but for years I never understood why it was that funny. I just thought she had a rather strange sense of humour, which was true. Anyway, both of these pictures became part of the landscape of my life as I grew up, from a carefree primary-school kid who loved cycling and camping, into a sixth-form student who loved poetry and dreaming – and still camping – and was looking forward impatiently to whatever was coming next.
Gazing out of the window, which I so often did whilst I was supposed to be studying for my exams, down into the tiny walled garden of our suburban house in Watford, I might be absorbed for minutes on end watching a thrush cracking open a snail on the top of the wall. Everything and anything was more interesting to me than getting on with my work, even the washing line that was strung from the drainpipe on the garage across the garden to the weathervane on the shed, with pyjamas and shirts flapping in the wind; or perhaps my mother would be home after work, chatting over the wall to Mrs Donaldson next door, both of them out for a crafty smoke.
I was locked into interminable revision for my exams, dreading the day they would come, but longing to have them done and dusted, longing to have a life. I loved home, loved my mother, but I knew it was a small world I was living in, and I yearned to be gone, to be away from Watford, and off on my travels, to be following the bend in the road, like the old traveller in the story.
In these idling moments, which were many, I kept finding myself turning again and again to look at the two pictures above my bed. I was trying so hard not to become distracted, but I never tried hard enough. Sooner or later, I always found I could no longer resist the temptation. I had to look.
There they were, my small gypsy caravan painting, my best painting ever, according to Miss Weatherby – the story behind it still echoing in my mind – and beside it the other “Vincent” picture. This was a much larger one in a heavy wooden frame, of four boats drawn up on the beach, and four more out at sea beyond – fishing boats by the look of them, but like no other boats I had ever seen. And both pictures painted by “Vincent”. I am sure that my mother must have told me who this other Vincent was at some time or another in all these years; but, if she had, I hadn’t been listening, or I wasn’t interested, or I had long since forgotten.
It wasn’t just the coincidence of the name that I loved. I loved the boat picture above any other paintings I had ever seen. They were graceful-looking boats, flamboyantly coloured, in reds and blues and yellows and greens like the gypsy caravan in my own painting. The empty beach behind them stretched away to the horizon, waves rolling up on to the sand, and a wide, wide sky above was filled with scudding clouds. One of the boats was called Amitié – I could see it quite clearly painted on the prow.
The truth is that if I had not been so busy procrastinating that day, during my revision, I might have never discovered what that word meant at all. It was all part of my dreamy disinclination to get on and revise. I decided to look it up. It was a French word apparently, which I thought it might be – though I had never come across it in my French lessons. It meant friendship or love. So I surmised these boats must very likely have been drawn up on a French beach, but where, on what coast, I had no idea.
At about the same time as I was making this discovery, I happened to come across – in a second-hand bookstall in town – another painting signed by this Vincent, of sunflowers. It was on the cover of a book, and it was a picture I knew at once. The signature was definitely the same, the bright and vibrant colours of the painting instantly recognisable too. I was sure it had to be painted by the same Vincent who had signed my boat picture. I still don’t know what took me so long to get around to making the connection. I have to say I felt rather ignorant and stupid, because this Vincent was, of course, rather famous; in fact, he was amongst the most famous artists the world has ever known. I bought the book for £1.50, took it home and read it from cover to cover.
Vincent van Gogh, a Dutch artist, had signed his pictures “Vincent”, just as I had signed my gypsy caravan painting. I might have recognised his famous sunflower picture, but I had never before paid any attention to the signature, nor really taken on board who it was that had painted these amazing sunflowers. And I certainly did not know he had painted fishing boats as well. But there it was on the wall above my bed, my boat picture, and painted by the famous Vincent van Gogh.
He had spent some time in the south of France, I discovered, towards the end of his life. Whilst living there, he had painted hundreds of pictures, some landscapes, some of the people who lived and worked there. A few of them – including mine – he had painted down by the sea, just a few miles from where he was living, in a town called Arles. It was in his room in Arles, in a state of deep depression, that he had cut off his own ear. Mental illness had forced him to spend time in a nearby hospital, but he never really recovered. In the end, he had been driven to suicide.
The more I read about him, the more I wanted to find out about him, to see as many of his pictures as I could, to go where he had gone, to stand on the beach where he had painted his boats. Such diversion and reveries, of course, did not help me to focus on revision for my Geography and English Literature exams, and even less on my Biology, which I especially loathed.
But it wasn’t just my belated discovery of who this Vincent was that made me want to go where he had gone, to find the beach where he had painted my picture of the fishing boats on the sand. There were other pictures from the book I particularly liked: one of a little bridge over a canal, and the one of a café bathed in yellow light in a cobbled street under a starry evening sky. I wanted to go to all these places, be where he had been. It wasn’t because he was famous that made me want to go, and it wasn’t just because we happened to share the same name either. It was because that boat picture of his above my bed very nearly killed me.
I was in my bedroom, at my desk by the window, pretending to be deep into my revision. Moments before, I had been lying on my bed, trying to summon up the willpower to get on with my work. I was only at my desk at all because I had heard my mother coming up the stairs and did not want her to catch me lazing about again. So there I was, hunched over my Biology textbook, looking as studious as I could, and waiting for the inevitable knock on my door. That was when it happened, my near-death experience. No crashing, no splintering of glass. The boat painting – I remind you, it was a large and very heavy picture – simply fell off the wall and landed with a great thud on my pillow, exactly where my head had been less than a minute before.
One look behind the picture told me that the string had broken, and that same look told me something else I had never known. There was a piece of paper taped to the back of the frame, covered in faded writing. I picked the picture up, and carried it over to the light of the window so I could read it.
To little Vincent from his grandma and grandpa, on your first birthday, 27th January 1964.
A long time ago, we went to this beach in the Camargue region in the south of France, where Vincent van Gogh had gone when he painted this picture. The boats were not there, of course, but the beach and the sea and the sky were just as he painted them. It was windy that day, and you can almost feel the wind in his picture. We bought it at a local shop and had it hanging in our bedroom for years and years. It is our favourite picture in all the world. So we thought you might love it too, as much as we have. And, you never know, one day you might go to the Camargue, and stand on the beach where we once stood, in the wind, where another Vincent, Vincent van Gogh, painted these lovely boats.
With our love always,
G and G
Had that picture not fallen off the wall, none of the rest of this story would have happened at all, a story that in the end would turn out to have very little to do with Vincent van Gogh. But without him and his boat painting that nearly killed me that day, and without Grandma and Grandpa I suppose, I would never have chosen to go on my travels, after my exams were over, down to the south of France where Vincent van Gogh had once gone.
I went on my wanderings by train and bus, and on foot, camping out, always following the bend in the road, a road that I hoped might lead me eventually down towards the sea, and maybe even to the beach where Vincent van Gogh had painted those fishing boats all those years before. It was a road that would take me instead into another world, into another time and another place altogether.
So it was that I found myself that first summer of freedom wandering my way through the strange and mysterious landscape of the Camargue in the south of France, marvelling at the windswept wildness of the marshes around me, at the shallow pink lakes and the canals, at the ancient stone farmhouses, and, everywhere, flocks of flamingos. Every sighting of them lifted my spirits for, beautiful though this place was, it was desolate too and inhospitable, especially when the wind howled and roared, which it did sometimes for days on end. All I could do then was huddle in my tent, and hope against hope that it would not blow me away.
When at last the wind did die down, the mosquitoes would be there in their millions – every one of them, it seemed to me, homing in on my tent, seeking me out. Sleep was impossible. Cursing them, flailing at them, did not help – it made things worse if anything. I covered my face and neck and arms and hands with the insect repellent my mother had made me take in my rucksack, along with pills for just about every illness I might encounter on my travels. But, as it turned out, none of the medicines she had given me was of much help when I most needed it.
I don’t know whether it was the water I had drunk that made me ill, or something I had eaten, or some kind of infection from the mosquito bites I had been scratching. I do know that one evening, walking down a long, straight road to nowhere, as it seemed to me, a causeway with pink lakes on both sides, and not a bend in sight, I began to feel strange, as if I were no longer part of myself. My head was full of a throbbing pain that weighed heavy on my forehead. I kept having bouts of dizziness that brought me near to losing my balance, to fainting. Sometimes it felt as if my legs were not my own, that they were stumbling on by themselves, and not under my control at all.
I remember there were flamingos nearby, strolling languidly through the shallows, lifting their heads between feeding and peering at me quizzically as I passed by. The mosquitoes were gone and I was thankful for that, but then I felt the dreaded wind coming in again, in vicious gusts, trying to blow me off the causeway into the lake. I shouted at the wind to go away, and the flamingos took off in a flurry of beating wings and honking, leaving me alone on the road.
“Not you!” I cried to them. “I didn’t mean you. Come back! Please come back!” But they did not. Now I had only the cruel wind for company.
I knew I needed help, but there was no one about, not a house in sight, and the road behind and ahead of me went on forever, as far as I could see, into the gathering gloom of the evening, daylight lingering now only in distant streaks of sunset. The lakes on either side of me were no longer pink but blood-red. But then, to my great relief, the flamingos returned. They came flying over my head, floating in on wide black wings to land nearby, in their hundreds, honking happily at me, telling me, I thought, to keep going. So I did, somehow. They seemed to be walking along with me, through the shallows, escorting me, on either side of the road.
I marvelled at the elegance of these creatures, at the oddness of their balletic gait, and their absurd, outsize curved bills, at the incongruity of their startling pinkness. Their stick-like legs seemed to be wading backwards through the water, and yet, impossibly, they were moving forward. There was no logic to their knee joints. Their bills were fishing backwards too. How did they do that? They could stand one-legged in this wild wind and not fall over. They ran on water to take off and land. How did they do that?
My legs were giving way under me, becoming weaker now with every step. I knew they must collapse at any moment. My senses were reeling, my head swirling, my knees buckling. The flamingos nearby were looking at me in astonishment, honking to me, calling to me. I felt myself blacking out, falling, and there was nothing I could do about it.
There is a time between sleeping and waking when dreams are at their most intense and real, so much so that you cannot be sure that the dreamtime has ended or the waking has begun. Dream or not, there was an evening sky above me, and I was lying awkwardly, uncomfortably, on my back, on stony ground. A dog was snuffling at my ear. I was sure it was a dog, because it smelled like dog, and its nose was cold and wet on my ear. The honking of the flamingos echoed through my dream, calling me awake.
Gentle fingers were opening my eyelids, stroking my hair and touching my cheek. An urgent voice was calling to me, but not with any words I could understand. I was still desperately trying to remain cocooned in my dream, unable or unwilling to wake. I was being lifted then. I could hear grunting, heavy breathing, stumbling footsteps. I knew I was being carried, but whether this was all happening in my dream or not I still had no idea, and neither did I care.
I heard the howling of the wind, felt the cold of it on my cheek. Only then did I really begin to believe that I might be coming out of my dream. I felt strong arms around me. I was being carried. Whoever it was who had rescued me was struggling to keep going, groaning and staggering with the effort of it. But still I could make no proper sense of what was going on around me. My rescuer seemed sometimes to be speaking to me with the gentle honking voice of a flamingo, but then out of the honking came strange and unintelligible words: “Renzo Renzo.” He kept repeating these same words over and over again. I gave up trying to understand what he was saying, what was happening to me, and soon slipped back into the comforting world of oblivion.
I was warm through when I finally woke. I found myself lying on some kind of a couch, by a crackling fire, with logs blazing, a dog lying at my feet, his nose close to the burning embers. Sitting opposite me at a small table was a woman, a flowery shawl around her shoulders, her hair gathered into a silvery bun. I could not see her face, because her head was bent. She was intent on writing in a notebook, and did not look up. I never saw hair so silver.
The dog stirred and scratched vigorously, which was when she did look up, and noticed I was awake. She spoke in French, which puzzled me at first. I was still muddle-headed, I suppose, not knowing quite where I was nor how I had got here. For some moments, in my confused state, I just stared at her, until my memories gathered themselves, and fell more into place. I could remember now the walk along the long road to nowhere, the flamingos on either side of me, the pink lakes, my throbbing head, the man carrying me who seemed to be honking like a flamingo.
The woman was speaking English to me now as she put down her writing book and leaned forward. She had a heavy accent, but her English was quite understandable.
“You prefer that I speak English? I hope you will forgive me, but I looked in your bag to find out who you were,” she said. “And I found this, your passport.” She picked it up from the table beside her, to show me, and opened it. “You are Vincent Montague. Yes? A British passport, so you are a British flamingo, non?” She could see I was bewildered at this, and smiled. “Lorenzo, he will be so pleased he found you. Usually, he brings back a French flamingo, or an egret maybe, or a frog or a rabbit, or a terrapin, but they are always French. You are the first British flamingo he has ever brought home!”
I must still have been looking puzzled. She went on to explain. “Lorenzo – Renzo he calls himself – is the one who found you half dead on the road. He likes always to keep an eye out for his flamingos. He loves his flamingos. In spring, he likes to be sure no one is out there stealing their eggs. Very few do these days, but he likes to keep watch, just in case. And now, in summer, there are always fledglings, who sometimes become separated from their mothers, and are too weak to survive. So he is on the lookout for them too. He is out there on the marshes, patrolling most nights. He told me it was the dog who found you – Ami, we call him – which means Friend in English, but I expect you know this. You speak a little French, perhaps?” I shook my head. I knew some French from school, but had never dared to speak it, and I did not want to have to start now.
“It does not matter,” she went on. “You are English – I did not expect anything else. Lorenzo tells me he carried you home. A long way, he said, and you were heavy too, but he is strong. Years of work on the farm, it makes you strong. I have made you soup, and I have some cheese also. And you must drink water, lots of water. Water is the great healer.”
She got up then, and put her notebook down on the table beside her. “I will tell Renzo you are awake.” She came and laid the back of her hand against my forehead. “You are better, but still too hot. Water,” she went on, picking up a glass on the table beside me. “It is empty. You will need more water. Renzo will bring some for you. He is the doctor. You are his patient. I am just the nurse.” She walked away then, calling for him. “Renzo! Renzo!”
I was left alone with Ami, who was a very large brown dog. He sat by my knee now, gazing up at me.
“So it was you who found me,” I said, reaching out rather nervously and patting the top of his head. He was shaggy all over, his dark eyes glinting at me from deep inside his matted fur. “Thank you for finding me,” I said to him. “Merci.”
“Merci merci,” came an echoing voice from the door. The man who stood there filled the doorway. He was holding a glass of water, but he did not seem to want to come into the room, and kept repeating “merci” over and over again. The dog got up and walked over to him, tail high and waving. But he paid it no attention. The man’s eyes were fixed on me, unwavering, unblinking. There was nothing alarming about his gaze. It was steady, not staring. He was scrutinising me, I felt, much in the same way as I was examining him.
Everything about him was long and tall. His arms hung loose at his sides. He had sloping shoulders under his blue jacket, and huge hands, I noticed. There was light in the room only from the flickering fire and from the oil lamp on the table where the woman had been writing, so I could not see his face that well. He did not seem to want to talk, but simply stood there, considering me. I said nothing, because I could not think of anything to say. I turned to gaze into the fire.
The woman with the silver hair came in a while later, carrying a tray. “This is Lorenzo,” she said. “He does not say much. He speaks more with his eyes, don’t you, Renzo?”
“Renzo,” he said, coming slowly towards me. “Renzo Renzo.” He was tapping the side of his head as he spoke; and then, breaking into a sudden loud laugh of delight, he bent down and picked up my hand, but not to shake as I supposed. He lifted it to his nose. He was smelling my hand. His face was close to mine then, his nose almost touching my hair. He was smelling that too, then stroking it, and smelling his own hand afterwards.
“You must not worry. It is how he gets to know people,” the woman explained. “You will find he is friendly to everyone who is kind. And he is never friendly to those who are not. He thinks you are kind, so you must be. Lorenzo is never wrong about people.
“Oh, pardonnez-moi – I am so sorry. I am being most impolite,” she went on. “I am Kezia, Kezia Charbonneau. Lorenzo and I, we are like brother and sister, you could almost say. But we are best friends. Meilleurs amis. We grew up together, and now we look after each other, and the farm, and the flamingos, don’t we? N’est-ce pas, Renzo?”
But this Lorenzo was not listening. He was still occupied totally with examining me, bending over me, his eyes peering deep into mine. I never saw eyes kinder nor more intense than his. He seemed to be seeking out my soul. It was troubling to me at first – no one had ever looked at me like this before. I was unsettled also by the hugeness of his presence so close to me, but there was an overwhelming sense of tenderness about him that banished all fear. He was no threat to me, but he was strange. He seemed like a middle-aged man, but had the open face of a boy.
Kezia set the tray down on the table beside me. The soup smelled wonderful, and there was bread and cheese beside it.
“Eat, Vincent, eat,” she told me. “Mangez.”
“Mangez mangez,” Lorenzo echoed, and lifted his arms slowly, making great wings of them, and then he was honking just like a flamingo.
“This he always does when he is happy,” Kezia said, smiling. I noticed her earrings then, like golden crescent moons they were, shining in the light of the fire. “Sometimes I think he is half Lorenzo, half flamingo,” she went on. “He can walk like them too, talk like them. You will see.”
“Flam flam!” Lorenzo was saying, clapping his hands excitedly. “Flam flam!” And then suddenly he was waving at me, saying goodbye. He turned away, opened the front door and left.
“Before he goes to bed, he has to see his beloved flamingos,” Kezia went on, “the ones he has rescued, mostly young ones, chicks, fledglings. He looks after them in his shed, feeds them. There are other animals in there too. It is like a hospital. He likes to spend a little time there in the evenings with them, to say goodnight. Now, you must eat your soup, Vincent, before it gets cold.”
She sat down again in her chair, watching me and smiling approvingly when she saw how much I was enjoying the soup. It was warming me from the roots of my hair down to my toes.
“You will stay with us until you are strong, Vincent,” she said. “Lorenzo and me, we shall look after you, make you better. To him, you are like one of his lost fledgling flamingos, and to me you are a welcome guest. We shall not put you in his hospital shed, I promise you. He keeps it as clean as he can, but the creatures he looks after in there, they do smell, and you would not like it. You shall stay here in the house, by the fire. Between Lorenzo and me, we shall make you well again, you will see.”
She smiled at me. “Vincent. It is a good name,” she went on. “Français aussi, vous savez. It is a French name also.”
“Where am I?” I asked her, looking about me.
“On a farm,” she told me. “On a farm far out in the marshes, in the middle of nowhere, you could say, a few kilometres down the road, along the canal from a little town called Aigues-Mortes. Do you know this place? Have you been there?”
I shook my head. I was still bewildered, my head full of so many questions. “How come you speak English so well?” I asked her.
“Ah ça, c’est une histoire. That is a story, Vincent, a long story, one that I might tell you when I know you better. First, we have to make you well again. You must have lots of sleep, and peace and quiet. You will stay here with us for a few days and rest.” She reached out and felt my forehead again. “You have a fever still. We shall have you better again, but it will take time. You cannot hurry a fever. No more questions. Sleep well. Dormez bien.”
I don’t think I had ever been properly ill before this in all my life. I had had a day or two off school with coughs and colds, but mostly with invented illnesses to avoid some lesson or test I didn’t want to have to face. This was different. This was the real thing. My head ached, my legs ached, every part of me ached. I seemed one moment to be shivering uncontrollably with cold, and the next I was pouring with sweat – often both together. Night and day, I hovered on the cusp of sleep. In and out of my dreams, the wind seemed always to be blowing, whistling down the chimney, rattling the windows and shaking the shutters. And whenever I woke it always took some time for me to remember where I was now, what had happened, how I had got here. I still had little idea where I was.
But each day, whenever I woke, the faces I saw around me were becoming more familiar, more reassuring. One of them, either Kezia or Lorenzo, was always nearby, somewhere in the room, keeping an eye on me, waiting for me to wake. And, more often than not, Ami would be lying there by the fire, or would be sitting right by me, eyeing me through his fur. Kezia might be sitting in her chair opposite, mending clothes or writing in her notebook. When Lorenzo was there, he would be close to me, his hand resting often on my hair, his eyes closed. Sometimes I would wake up and find him blowing gently on my forehead, humming softly to me. When he noticed I was awake, or saw my eyes open, he would at once spring to his feet, clapping his hands with delight, calling to Kezia to come. Often, all three were there, waiting for me to wake, and I could feel them willing me well again.
All around me, on the walls, there were photographs. From where I lay, I thought I could recognise Kezia and Lorenzo in some of them, as children. There were other people in the photographs I did not know, other family, I supposed. But many of the photographs were of animals: herds of black bulls and white horses, some sheep too. Most though were of flamingos, large and small, and these were all in colour: flamingos flying across the sky in great flocks, or landing on the water, or standing alone and majestic in the marshes, or sitting on nests, or feeding in the shallows. I longed to be able to get up and look more closely. But I was still too weak to do it on my own. Even going to the toilet, I still needed one of them to steady me, to help me walk across the room.
But I could already feel myself getting better. I did not shiver any more, nor break into cold sweats. I slept less and my energy was beginning to return. I was feeling stronger with every day that passed. I wanted to test my legs, my balance, get myself moving. I was beginning to wander about the room, peer out of the windows, look at the photographs close up, all the while trying to make more sense of my surroundings. The room where I had been lying night and day on my couch was cavernous, with a high, heavily beamed ceiling. It was living room, kitchen, eating room all in one, and sparsely furnished – just my couch, a few chairs, a small table, a blanket for Ami by the fire. Everything was huddled close around the open fireplace, which was the glowing, crackling heart of the room.
There was a small kitchen in one corner, where Kezia was often busy over the stove, or the sink, and beyond the kitchen was the door to the bathroom, the only other room I’d been into. A staircase in the darkest corner of the room led upstairs to where Kezia and Lorenzo went each night, leaving Ami and me to the flickering warmth of the fire. There was no electricity in the house, so far as I could see. The house smelled of oil lamps and burning wood, and of whatever Kezia happened to be cooking on the stove. She made the best soups I had ever tasted, mostly vegetable soups, with potatoes or rice, and there was always bread, crusty, chewy, not at all like the bread at home. I loved it.
Outside, the wind often raged and roared about the house, and, when it did, it was continuous, unrelenting, for a week or more sometimes, and with such ferocity that the house shook. So loud was this wind, this mistral, as Kezia called it, that it was difficult to think straight at all, and sometimes impossible to hear what Kezia was saying in her still, small voice. Lorenzo I could hear better, despite the mistral, because he would often repeat the same word louder and louder for me. But understanding him was difficult. If ever I looked perplexed – and I was often perplexed – he would act out what he meant, which I could see he loved to do. But, even then, much of what he was trying to tell me was beyond my comprehension.
“Flam flam” was one of the things he said that needed no explanation. He spoke it more than any other, and it sometimes provoked in him an extraordinary metamorphosis. “Flam flam,” he would say, and, on the spur of the moment, he would become a flamingo, a living, breathing flamingo, stepping out in long, slow, stiff strides across the room, leaning forward, his neck stretched out, bending to feed, scooping through the shallows, just as I had seen them out on the lakes in the marshes. Then his arms would suddenly open up and become wings, and he would be flying, soaring around the room. Whenever he did this, I would marvel at how such a large man, often so awkward in his mannerisms and movements, could glide about the room with such balletic grace, honking happily, a complete flamingo.
But there were so many other words he kept saying that I could not yet understand at all. He seemed to think that by repeating them louder, his face closer to mine, it might help me understand. I could sense his frustration and disappointment when I did not. So sometimes I would resort to pretending that I knew what he was talking about. But I don’t think I ever fooled him. And anyway I sensed that he did not like me pretending. When she was there, Kezia would often see my difficulty and come to my rescue, interpreting for me. But she was not always around. So the meaning of many of his words remained a mystery to me.
“Rousel”, “grette”, “Capo”, “Val”, “Lot Lot” – these were just some of the words that he used, many of them quite often, words he clearly longed for me to understand. I could see he liked it when I repeated the words back to him. That was what made him happy. So that’s what I did. He liked me to be an echo. And I also learned early on with Lorenzo that he liked truth, that for him pretending between people, unless it was for fun, was not truthful, and that upset him.
It took a while for me to begin to understand this strange, awkward man, who seemed to live so much of every day in a world of his own. He was like no one I had ever encountered before. He joined our world – the real world as we like to think of it – and left it as and when he felt like it. Everything he did was both spontaneous and meant. His words and his ways were his own. I was getting used to his language, his moaning, or groaning, or humming, to his sudden shrieks and shouts of exuberance, his bursts of laughter and clapping. I noticed that Ami, if he could, would follow Lorenzo everywhere he went, walking at his heels. Unlike me, he seemed to understand every word Lorenzo spoke, every gesture and grunt. Kezia too, I could see, understood him instinctively. I envied the closeness between the three of them, the complete understanding and trust. I felt an outsider sometimes, but they never treated me as such.
Lorenzo had his own way of ending the day. He would be gone for an hour or so out on the farm, saying goodnight to the animals in his hospital, I presumed, or patrolling the marshes, looking for waifs and strays. When he came in, he rarely sat down at all, even to eat, but liked to stay in the room with us while we did. He would stand, watching the fire in silence, usually nibbling on a piece of sausage – he ate almost nothing else but sausage. When the moment came that he decided to go to bed, it always took me by surprise, even though I was expecting it. He would turn away from us, stop to crouch down for a while over Ami, touch him on his head, give him the last of his sausage, then, with a wave of his hand, walk very deliberately towards the stairs. As he went, he would lift his arms, make wide beating wings of them, and make his way upstairs, honking his farewell.
Kezia and I would sit and talk by the fire, or sit together for a while in comfortable silence. I was by now much less tired than I had been.
There was so much I wanted to ask her, about Lorenzo especially, but also about the photographs on the walls too, who everyone in them was, how the two of them had come to be living here together. I had asked her once about how she had learned to speak English, but still she had not told me. I was longing to find out. I was intrigued about everything, and I knew that time was short. Now I was up and about a bit more – though I was not yet allowed outside in that wind – I would soon have to think about leaving. I did not want to have to say goodbye before finding answers to all the whys and wherefores in my head.
I had asked her more than once as well about the photographs on the walls, who everyone was, but Kezia simply said they were family, and would say nothing else. I felt that to ask again might be to intrude and upset her, and, after all she and Lorenzo had done for me, I did not want to do that.
As it turned out, I never had to ask her at all. One evening, as we were sitting there by the fire, just after Lorenzo had gone up to bed, Kezia started asking me questions. “Alors, Vincent. You must tell me something about yourself,” she said suddenly, quite unexpectedly. “In England, en Angleterre, where do you live? Have you any brothers or sisters at home? I know nothing about you. What have you been studying, Vincent? And what were you doing, by the way, wandering through the Camargue in the middle of the night? This I have always wanted to know.”
I kept it short, told her only the essentials. I told her about home, about the boat picture on the wall in my bedroom, about how it had fallen off and nearly killed me, and the letter from my grandparents I had discovered on the back, about Vincent van Gogh and the Camargue, about my horrible exams, about how, once they were over, I had said goodbye to my mother, walked out of the door, rucksack on my back, free as a bird, and found my way down to the Camargue.
Her eyes, I noticed, lit up when I told her that. “Bravo! I see you have the Roma spirit in you,” she said. “You are a wanderer, a traveller. I like that. And now that you have answered my questions, and I feel I know you a little better, maybe it is time for me to answer your question.”
I did not know which question she meant. There were so many I wanted to ask by now. I must have looked rather blank.
“Vincent, you do not remember? You asked me how I learned to speak English so well. Maybe you do not wish to know?”
“No, no, please, I want to hear,” I told her.
She sat back in her chair, hitched her shawl up around her shoulders, and looked across at me. “So much of everything that happens to us, Vincent, that makes our lives what they are, is just pure chance – le hasard, as we say in French. The families and times we are born into, the places we live. All chance. Think of it. Think of what happened to you. Because a picture falls off a wall, you find yourself wandering down a dark road to nowhere through the marshes of the Camargue, and you get sick, and Lorenzo happens to be out there with Ami on one of his evening patrols, looking for any abandoned fledgling flamingos, and they find you half dead on the road, and bring you here. So here you are, and here I am, with Ami, and Lorenzo. C’est le hasard, Vincent, just chance.
“You know what they called Lorenzo when he was little, when I was little too, when I first knew him? Flamingo Boy. En fait, some people still do. You can understand why, I think. Lorenzo and me, we grew up here on this farm, together. We have known each other for almost all our lives. We were best friends from the day we met. And there was a very good reason for that. Lorenzo was different. I was different. It is not easy growing up different, not then, not now.”
“I was wondering about that,” I said. “I mean about Lorenzo’s … well, about Lorenzo’s difference.”
“Listen, Vincent.” She was reprimanding me now, with a frown and a wagging finger. “If you go on interrupting, I shall never even begin my story, let alone finish it, or I shall fall asleep telling it. You want to know everything, about Lorenzo, about us, about this farm. I understand that. You told me your story, which was quite short, but very interesting. So I shall tell you ours – that is only fair. But we are much older than you, both of us, and therefore it will take longer. I know from your passport you are just eighteen. Lorenzo and I, as I told you, we are the wrong side of fifty. So mine will be a longer story. Alors, Vincent, no more questions. Let me just tell you how it was, how we were, why I speak English, and why you find us together in this place.
“It is a little cold tonight. It is uncomfortable weather. Too hot in the day, and cold at night. Put a log or two on the fire, Vincent, and then just lie back, be quiet and listen. No more interruptions, agreed? D’accord?”
I did as I was told. Ami settled down to listen beside me, his eyes, and mine, never leaving Kezia, as she looked into the fire and began.
“Renzo, Lorenzo Sully, was born upstairs, here in this farmhouse in the summer of 1932, on May the twenty-eighth. I remember this date rather well because I was born on the very same day, but not here. I was born thirty kilometres away, down by the sea. I am not sure exactly where, because being Roma people, travelling people – gypsies they call us in English, I think – my family was always on the move. So I was not to be part of Lorenzo’s story until a few years later. We were not to meet until we were nine years old. Until then, I was travelling here, there and everywhere, with Maman and Papa, in our caravan, setting up our carousel whenever and wherever they wanted us, on saints’ days and holidays, at fairs and festivals in villages and towns all over the Camargue. That was our life.
Meanwhile, Lorenzo was growing up here on the farm with Nancy and Henri Sully, his maman and papa. They bred white horses, and black bulls, and kept some sheep too, for their wool and their meat and their cheese. They had speckled hens for their eggs. They gathered herbs from the countryside all around, and they fished in the lakes and streams and canals. And there were frogs there too. They had bees for honey. They grew some rice, potatoes and beans, and also corn to feed the black bulls through the winter. It is only a small farm, about fifty hectares, and they did all the work themselves.
As you will hear, Nancy was later to become like an aunt to me – or more like a fairy godmother, I sometimes think. She told me often that, when Lorenzo was born, it was the greatest joy of their lives. He seemed a healthy child, always cheerful and loving. But then, when he was about two or three, they began to notice that he did not seem to want to get up and walk like other children, but sat there, watching the world go by. He was often bewildered and agitated, inconsolable sometimes, and for no reason they could understand. Neither was he learning to talk as other children did. Whenever they went into town, to Aigues-Mortes, which they did every week to set up their stall to sell their produce, other stallholders and customers would begin to comment on their beloved Lorenzo. They were not being deliberately unkind, but from time to time they did say that Lorenzo did not seem to be like other children.
Becoming more and more anxious about him as the years passed, and upset by some talk in the town that was not so kindly meant, Nancy took him at last to the town doctor who examined him. He told her that Lorenzo was not developing as a normal child should, and informed her that there was an institution, in nearby Arles, for children like Lorenzo, where he could be cared for. When Nancy cried, the doctor simply said that these things happen, and that an institution was what would be best for the child. “Such strange and unnatural children,” the doctor told her – and she never forgot his words – “do not belong amongst normal people in normal society.”
These words, Nancy always said, stopped her tears. Anger stopped her tears. She told the doctor: “This is my child, our child, and he belongs with us.” She never went to see that doctor again.
At home, on the farm, Lorenzo grew up strong and happy, in his own way, at his own speed. He learned to walk – though he was never as coordinated as other children. His legs and arms always seemed too long for him to manage, and he found it hard to run, but grow he did. He grew and he grew.
“He shot up as fast as a sunflower,” Nancy told me once, “and just as beautiful too!”
Speech he also found difficult. But he loved to play with words, repeat them endlessly, rhythmically, whole sentences sometimes too, and he loved to sing, hum songs – words seemed to come easier to him when he sang them. Nancy and Henri soon realised he had a genius, a real genius, for imitating the sounds and movements of animals and birds, especially flamingos.
He loved above all else to be outside with Nancy and Henri on the farm. He was strong, so always happy to fetch and carry. He liked to feel useful. He would bring fodder and water to the animals, and loved to stay close to them, crouching down to watch them as they fed. Everyone noticed that horses, bulls, sheep, hens were always calm around him. The wildest of black bulls, the fiercest of the white stallions needed only to hear him humming, to feel his touch on their neck, his breath in their nostrils, and they were as gentle as lambs.
But it was the flamingos he loved to be with best of all. “Flam flam”, Nancy always said, were the first words he ever spoke. He would sit down for hours on end, in his favourite place – on an upturned rowing boat by the side of a lake – looking out over the island, just to be with them. His great treat as a little boy was to be rowed by his papa out to the island to be near the little flamingo chicks, watching them finding their legs, trying their wings. He would call to them and they would come to him. He knew instinctively how to tread softly, move slowly, be still amongst them, and become one of them. He loved them, and they trusted him.
Whenever he came back in the boat, Nancy always told me, he would run about the farm like a flamingo, honking as they did, imitating their run through the shallows before take-off, the spread of their great wide wings, the stretching of their necks in flight and then their elegant landing, his timing as perfect as theirs. Nancy told me once that when Lorenzo was being a flamingo he was at his happiest, that he became who he really was, his natural self.
And Lorenzo loved to ride. It was often the best way to get around the farm anyway, to move the bulls or see the brood mares, or to gather in the sheep, and, of course, to see the flamingos in the lakes all around. So whenever one of them went out on the horse – usually it was Henri – Lorenzo always had to go with him, whatever the weather, whatever the time of day. He loved to be up on that horse – Cheval, Lorenzo always called him – clinging on behind Henri, laughing and singing. Sometimes Nancy would be there too, all three of them riding together, with Lorenzo in the middle – rising and rocking to the rhythm of the ride.
But they could never let him go riding on his own. He wanted to, longed to, but they dared not let him – he could not balance well enough. He had tried, often, but had always fallen off. It angered him and frustrated him, and when he was like that he would start to shout, to hit his head with his hands, and storm about the place, in a fit of rage, sometimes for hours on end before he calmed down.
There was one horse, though, that he discovered he could ride. This is where I come into the story, and how I first met Lorenzo.”
“Lorenzo and I first saw one another on a spring morning forty years ago. It was market day in the town square in Aigues-Mortes, and holiday time for the children in town. Maman and Papa and I, we had spent all the day before setting up our beautiful carousel, the carousel that Papa had made with his own hands. He had carved all the animal rides himself, and Maman had painted them in bright colours, all the colours of the rainbow. Papa was very proud of it, so was she, and so was I, and so were all our Roma family.
We always caused quite a stir wherever and whenever we arrived, our carousel in bits and pieces, piled up into carts behind us. Family and friends would all come along to help put it up. It is what we always did during the spring and summer months, Vincent. We travelled the countryside with our carousel. We would set up in a village maybe, or in a field on the edge of a town, anywhere they would let us. We were quite a tradition, I can tell you. Remember, Vincent, this was a very long time ago. There was no television, of course, no films either, or very rarely. Just the Charbonneau Carousel. We were the big attraction.
But this was the first time we had ever brought the carousel to Aigues-Mortes. It was Papa’s idea. It was the biggest town around, he said. Business would be good there, with plenty of customers, lots of children, who might come again and again to have a ride on the carousel. We could stay for a while maybe. Maman liked the idea, as he knew she would. Roma families like us, travelling families, generally we like to keep moving on. But Maman always wanted to stay in a place longer than Papa. We Roma, Vincent, we have a saying. We like to follow the bend in the road, to be free to go where we want.”
My heart leaped. I hadn’t told her my story of the old traveller and the policeman, and I so wanted her to know it now, that in a way it was following the bend in the road that had brought me here. But I did not dare interrupt her again. I would tell her later.
“So that’s why we came to Aigues. We found a place for our caravan in a field down by the canal, just across the water from the town walls, where the horse had grass to graze, and water to drink. Honey, our horse was called. Unfortunately, I was the one who had to look after her, see she was fed and watered, pick out her hooves, groom her. Honey was not at all sweet. Badly named she was. Très méchant, ce cheval! She had a wicked temper. I never liked her and she never liked me. But for pulling the caravan she was the best horse we ever had.
They let us set up our carousel in the square, under the shade of a great plane tree, close to the church and the cafés and the shops, right in the heart of the town. It was a perfect pitch for the Charbonneau Carousel. The town was busy, the people seemed friendly, and, as Papa had said, there were lots of children about, so the rides on the carousel were almost always full. On fine days, when the wind was not blowing, and the rain was not driving in, we did good business.
We stayed there in Aigues-Mortes, of course, to earn money – everyone has to do that, Vincent, as I am sure you know. But there was another reason why Maman in particular was happy to stay put in one place much longer than usual, as I was soon to discover. Now that I was older – Maman broke the news to me soon after we arrived in Aigues – she told me we would be staying in the town long enough for me to be able to go to school for a while, to learn to read and write. And Aigues, she said, seemed the perfect place for me to start school. I never liked the idea at all. But Maman was very determined. So on weekdays I found myself, like it or not, going off to school, along with all the other children in town. But more of school later.
After school, and at the weekends, I was still where I most wanted to be, working on the carousel in the town square with Maman and Papa. Papa turned the handle to make it go round. He was as strong as an ox, shoulders and arms as hard as wood. Maman took the money and played the barrel organ, and I helped the children up, and looked after them once the carousel was turning, making sure they did not fall off nor try to jump off while it was turning. But, best of all, I was the one who had to bring in the customers, tempt them in, and I had my own special way of doing it.
I always chose Horse to ride, because he was the most popular. I would jump up on to his back, and, with the carousel turning, I would shout it out all over the square. “Roll up, roll up for the Charbonneau Carousel! Come along, come along! Have the ride of your life: on Lion, or Tiger, on Elephant, or Dragon, or Bull, or on Horse, this lovely white horse from the Camargue! Roll up, roll up!”
Then Maman would play her barrel organ for a while to entice everyone in, and I would go on with my shouting. I would hang on to the pole, one-handed, swinging myself out, as Papa turned the carousel round and round. I would leap from ride to ride, whooping with joy, showing the whole town how much fun it was. I loved to show off. I could put on quite a performance, Vincent – you should have seen me! We were a good team, Maman, Papa and me. Some days it could be slow, but most days, especially on market days and weekends, we would soon have children queuing up for a ride, all of them impatient to have their turn, to be off.
In the darkening summer evenings, the carousel would be a blaze of colour and lights – providing that Papa’s generator worked. Sometimes it did; sometimes it didn’t. It was – how do you say this? – a bit temperamental, that machine. Everyone in the town loved hearing Maman’s barrel organ and watching the carousel going round. In the spring and summer of every year, the Charbonneau family carousel was the heart and soul of Aigues-Mortes, and that made me very proud.
But, much as the townspeople might have loved the bright lights and music and the fun of our carousel, there were a few who did not like us, who shunned us in the street. I was still young, and I could not understand why. It upset me greatly, and made me angry too. Maman told me to pay no attention, that this was just how some people were, and that I would have to get used to it, that there were kind people in this world, and nasty people. That was just how it was. But I never really understood any of this properly, not until I went to school.”
“I never wore shoes in the summer, as all the other children did. And the clothes that Maman had made for me – the long red skirt I always wore – did not look like anything they wore. And I had long, straggly dark hair down to my shoulders. My hair did not look like their hair. Some of them would sneer at me, and say how poor I must be to live in a caravan and not in a proper house. Soon enough, though, I realised there was more to it than that. There were other reasons, deeper reasons, I discovered, for their hostility. I was Roma, a “gypsy”, to them. I was “gyppo girl”. I looked different. I had darker skin than most of them – and that was true, of course – but they said I was dirty, which I was not. It was also because I could not read or write as they could – which was true as well. That, after all, was why Maman had sent me to school.
Some of them just avoided me, looked the other way, or walked off. I could tell also that they were nervous of me, and I did not understand why they should be. I mean it was true that if someone taunted me, if someone picked a fight – boy or girl – I always fought back and I always won. I was good at fighting. Winning was my way to survive in that school, whether in fights or in races. I found I could run faster, jump further, stand on my hands for longer than anyone else, do somersaults and backflips better than any of them. But none of that helped me to make friends.
There were some children – and a few teachers too, sad to say – who made it quite clear they did not like having me in their school, or even in their town. When I told Papa and Maman about all this, both of them told me to be proud and ignore them. But it was hard for me to realise that so many of those children who loved riding on our carousel, whom I had often helped climb up on to Tiger or Horse or Elephant, had in fact despised me all along, and not just me, but Maman and Papa too, all Roma people like us.
I was glad we lived away from them, in our caravan outside the town walls, on the other side of the canal. But I never minded at all being in the town square, working on the carousel. I was so proud of it, of Maman and Papa, and anyway I loved the bustle of the place. I did miss my Roma friends and family, though. I was away from my cousins, who were really my only friends, with whom we so often travelled during the rest of the year. Until the day I met Lorenzo, I had no one in that town I could really call a friend.
As I said, it was on a market day in spring in the school holidays that Lorenzo first came into my life. The carousel was turning, the music was playing, the rides were full of laughing children, all enjoying themselves. I was enjoying myself – everyone was. I noticed then a boy jumping up and down on the far side of the square. Even far away, I could see he was in a state of high excitement, waving his arms and clapping with joy at the sight of the carousel. Then he was taking his mother’s hand and dragging her towards us. I was used to seeing children come skipping up to the carousel, begging to be allowed to have a ride. The music drew them in – like moths to a flame, Papa always said – and I could see that this particular moth, this clapping boy, was fluttering with frantic excitement. The next time I came round on the carousel, he was still standing there, watching as the ride slowed down, calmer now, waiting, waiting, as children often did for their favourite animal ride to come by.
But, when the carousel came to a stop, I could see he was not looking at all at Elephant or Dragon, or Bull or Horse; instead, he was gazing higher up, mouth open in wonder, at the dozens of flying pink flamingos that Papa had carved, and Maman had painted, which made up the frieze that crowned our carousel.
“Flam flam! Flam flam!” he cried, pointing up at the flamingos, clapping his hands and bouncing up and down, quite unable to contain his excitement. Some people were laughing at him, but he didn’t notice. He had eyes only for the flamingos. Other children were already climbing up on the carousel by now, choosing their animal for the next ride, and I was helping them up one by one, looking after them as best I could, telling them as usual to hold on tight, not to get off while the carousel was turning.
By the time I had finished doing all that, I could see this boy was becoming quite agitated. His mother was trying to encourage him to go for a ride on Horse, but he kept shaking his head and pulling away. “I can’t understand it,” the mother was calling up to me. “Lorenzo wants to get on – I know he does. He loves horses, but he loves those flamingos up there more.”
The boy was looking at me now and – don’t ask me how – I knew at once what he was thinking. I said to him: “Flamingos need to fly free, don’t they? You can’t ride them. They would not like it. But you could ride Horse. He would love you to ride him.” I was standing right beside Horse, patting the saddle, inviting him up. “He’s a kind horse, never bites or kicks, I promise. We could ride him together, if you like.”
He was unsure. He was still thinking about it. I held out my hand. After some moments of hesitation, and a nervous look back at his mother for reassurance, he reached up and took my hand. I helped him up, and settled him on Horse, showed him how to hold on to the pole in front of him with both hands. I mounted up behind him, and put my hands on his shoulders. By now, he was bouncing up and down in the saddle, longing to get going.
“He won’t fall off, will he?” his mother asked me. “You will look after him?”
“I will stay with him,” I told her. He turned to me then and gave me such an open-hearted smile, a smile of complete trust. I have never forgotten the warmth of that first smile.
“Renzo,” he said, tapping his head. “Renzo.”
Then he tapped mine. “Kezia,” I told him.
“Zia Zia,” he said. And that is what he has called me ever since.
I waved my hand high in the air, the signal for Maman and Papa to begin the ride, that everyone was settled and ready to go. She started up the music on the barrel organ – the first tune was always “Sur le Pont d’Avignon” – and then we were moving, turning.
I had one hand on Renzo’s arm now to reassure him. I felt his whole body tense, heard a sharp intake of breath, saw the white of his knuckles as he gripped the pole with both hands. He was letting out loud shrieks of alarm and excitement. After just one turn of the carousel, these shrieks had turned to peals of ecstatic laughter, screeches of joy. Within a few minutes, he was daring to hold on to the pole with only one hand, and was waving to his mother. He was not just sitting on Horse now, he was riding him, rising to the movement, and loving every moment of it. His mother was too. Every time we passed by her, she seemed to be enjoying it as much as he was, laughing with him.
“Val Val!” he called out to her.
“Val Val!” she echoed. I had no idea what they were saying. They had their own language, those two.
Then, all too soon, it was over and they were walking away under the trees, back towards the market stalls. He kept looking over his shoulder at me, skipping along beside his mother, hopping with happiness. I hoped that he would be back, that at last I might have made a real friend in this place. But then he was lost in the crowd around the market stalls and was gone. I looked for him day after day, after that first meeting on the carousel, but he did not come back.”
“I was never more miserable than in the days that followed. At school, our teacher, Monsieur Bonnet – I still hate the sound of his name – was picking on me and punishing me continuously. He kept telling me in front of the whole class that I was an ignorant child, a stupid gypsy child, a wicked heathen child. In the playground, some of the children in my class – Joseph and Bernadette were always the ringleaders – began to gang up on me. They told me to my face that they had decided from now on that no one would speak to me, because I was a “gyppo girl”, who dressed in rags, they said, who couldn’t even read. They did not speak to “dirty gyppos”, they said. Joseph would grab at my skirt, and Bernadette would pull my hair!
There was only one teacher I liked, Madame Salomon. She would come over and talk to me sometimes when no one else would. She wasn’t my class teacher, but I wished she was. But then one day Monsieur Bonnet told us that Madame Salomon had left the school and would not be coming back. “A good thing too,” he said. “We don’t need her kind here.” I had no idea what he meant. Not then.
I ended every day at that school feeling I was utterly alone in the world. I begged Maman and Papa to let me stay home with them, to help them every day on the carousel, like I did in the evenings and at the weekends, but they were adamant. They had never learned to read or write, or to do their sums, they said, but the world was changing. Everyone needed school these days. The old ways were going, like it or not. Roma children had to learn just like other children, or else everyone would think we were ignorant. I had to go to school: that was all there was to it. I argued, I cried, I threw tantrums. Nothing would change their minds.
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