Crown Infernal

A Romany Vardo 'Seven Days in the Life of Effie Gentle'

by Sue Mitchell

"Bloody gyppos!" Flora MacBain's Pa yelled. "Ye're not wanted here!"

We all looked towards the raggedy lady ushering a small child through the school gates. Mrs. MacDonald, the mistress, paused in summoning the children into class and swept regally towards him.

"You mind your tongue, Willie MacBain," she said sharply. "I'll no have language like that afore the ears of the bairns. You're no in the army now."

Turning to mother and child, Mrs. MacDonald welcomed them.

"Don't you pay him any mind, Mrs--?"


"Mrs. Gentle. He's nobbut a bully, soured by the Great War. Your bairn will do fine here. What's your name, child?"

"Euphemia, if you please, ma'am," the girl said, "but everyone calls me Effie."

"Then come along into the schoolroom with the others." She looked around and summoned me. "Moira will look after you and show you the ropes."

"Kushti bak," her ma said. I found out later this was Romany for 'Good luck!'

I thought Effie was about eight years old, but she said she was ten, same as me. She had an unkempt appearance with greasy ginger curls and grubby clothes, but they looked warm and she wore stout boots, so her mother did try. She'd also taught Effie her letters.

"Where d'ye live, Effie?" I began.

"In our vardo. That's a caravan. Ma has a bow-top," she said. "We travel around from place to place."

"Oh, that must be excit'n'," I said.

"Sometimes," she agreed, "Sometimes not at all and sometimes more than we would like..."

"Ye mean, like Mr. MacBain?"

"Och, that's noth'n'. Sometimes we ha' te flee for ooer lives."

"Really?" I squeaked. "Tha's terr'ble. Don't ye have a Pa? Or older brothers to protect ye?"

"I dinna have any brothers. Or sisters. Ma Dad died when I was just a wee girl..."

She looked sadly into the middle distance for a moment, then added, "But I've lots o' uncles and aunts and cousins. Our kumpa'nia all travel together - one big family."

"Oh," I said.

It was a lot to take in. But I liked Effie and stuck by her side the whole day. This was a good thing come playtime. Willie-beag came looking for her. Willie was Mr. MacBain's son and, at thirteen, was no so beag any more. Mrs. MacDonald said one day that he was growing like a mushroom, but he didn't look any different, just taller.

"You!" he yelled, striding across the small schoolyard. "Gyppo! You and your kind a'n't wanted here."

He reached out to grab her by the hair, but I pushed her behind me.

"You leave her alone," I yelled back, surprised at my own boldness. "Go an' pick on someone yer ain size."

I quailed as he made to box my ears, but the commotion had attracted Mrs. MacDonald's attention.

"Willie-beag. Inside. Now."

It was not an order he could ignore.

"I'll get you," he growled, stabbing a finger in her direction, then left.

I turned to Effie and saw tears standing on her lashes.

"Dinna cry, Effie. He's jest a bully, but he'll be leavin' school soon."

"It's nae that," she said, sniffing. "I'm used tae it. But this is the first time a Gaji's ever stood up for me."

The next day, Effie was missing. She didn't come back to school.

I won a scholarship to St. Andrews University, met the wonderful Donald Hamilton and graduated with honours in Scottish History nevertheless. We married in 1935 and honeymooned in New York. There, he met a university friend who worked for a law firm which was recruiting.

While Donald was interviewed, I joined a queue for autographs. A new film - a musical - was being premiered in New York and the cast had come over from Hollywood to promote it.

"Name?" the actress said. She was billed as Vivien la Fey.

"Moira," I said.

Maybe it was my Scottish accent but she looked up sharply.

"Moira MacCallan?"

"Well, it's Moira Hamilton now," I replied, surprised for a moment before the penny dropped. "Effie...?"

"Aye, shh," she murmured, lapsing back into the Scottish brogue. The greasy locks were now a burnished copper mane and the gypsy duckling had turned into a swan. She had me stay behind until the signing was finished, then took me out to dinner at the Ritz - a thank you to her Gaji friend.

She, her mother and new step-father, Tomás, had fled to America after a spectacularly disastrous Appleby Horse Fair, she told me over dessert. Discovering that he'd been cheated, Tomás had challenged the swindler.

"It turned into a riot, and the groiéngero was stabbed to death. Tomás wasn't guilty but, as a Romany, he didn't expected the Gajos to believe him."

They'd travelled around America doing casual work. Effie was 'spotted' by an agent when she was working in a bar, and singing to entertain the customers. This had been her first movie, and she was flying back to Hollywood in the morning to begin filming another.

"Kushti bak," I said, remembering the saying she'd taught me that day at school.

She gave a delighted smile.

"Kushti bak, te'sorthene - friend of my heart."

Donald was successful in his interview. We put down roots in New York and had a son, James. When war broke out in Europe, it didn't seem like it would affect us, but we were wrong. After Pearl Harbor, Government attitudes changed and we returned to Scotland.

Donald, having acquired a pilot's licence in the U.S., enlisted in the R.A.F. I left Jamie with my mother and joined the Queen Alexandra's Military Nursing Service. I went to Edinburgh Castle where hundreds of us were being enlisted and processed.

When I reached the desk, the woman sergeant said, "Name?"

"Moira Hamilton, ma'am."

The officer looked up and smiled. It was Effie.

"You know, we really have to stop meeting like this," she said.

That evening, I treated her to dinner. I felt it was my turn.

"What brought you back to Scotland?" I began.

"The Aquitania," she grinned.

"Be serious. You know what I mean."

"We heard that the police had caught the killer. Tomás was in the clear, so we came home."

"But what about your movie career?"

"Oh, that."

"Yes, that. I thought you were having a wonderful time."

"I was when I saw you. I loved acting - and singing and dancing."

"So?" I persisted.

"Just because I have Romany blood in my veins doesn't make me a slut. I wouldn't fall over backwards with my legs in the air so my second film was my last. I don't regret my decision. When war broke out, I joined up. Now, about you...?"

The following day, I was transferred to a field hospital at Peebles Hydro where nursing staff were mobilising for duty overseas. Shortly afterwards, we sailed for North Africa on the S.S. Strathallan, a huge passenger liner converted to a troopship. We got as far as the Mediterranean, then we were torpedoed... But that's another story.

The next time I met Effie was the second of June, 1953. Donald had sent me to London for the Coronation as a treat after The Years of Austerity. Ha! The gloomy weather didn't help.

I was crossing Piccadilly Circus, head down against the rain, when I ran into someone. It was Effie. The colour was fading from her hair and there was a hint of silver amongst the copper. My black hair was turning steely grey too, but we still recognized each other.

We went for a cup of tea in Lyons Corner House in Piccadilly. There, we caught up on the intervening eleven years - not that there was a great deal to catch up on. I'd stayed home and raised my family - two more children now, Peter and Louise. Effie had never married, just travelled the country with her kumpa'nia.

Oh, the Swingin' Sixties! You couldn't help getting caught up in the wonderful 'make love, not war' Flower Power movement. So in 1968, I went to the Isle of Wight Festival with Peter and Louise. Looking around all the beautiful people, I wondered how I'd let myself be talked into it, but age didn't seem to matter. Everyone was happy and loving, and Jimi Hendrix played a storm. The toilet facilities left a lot to be desired though...

While I was there, I was drawn to a tent advertising a gypsy fortune-teller.

"Cross me palm with silv-- Moira Hamilton! Well, I'll be... Sit down, ma te'sorthene, and I'll read you for free."

She told me I'd live to a ripe old age and have lots of bonnie grandchildren. I gave her an amused smile.

"It's true, Moira, every word, I swear. And I should know. I've been dukkering for most of my life."

"Hm, I wonder if there's something Jamie isn't telling me," I grinned and we both laughed.

Seven years, and six grandchildren later, my mother died and I went back home for her funeral. During my visit, I stopped in Màiri Mhor's Tea Shop for a little refreshment. I was hardly surprised when Effie came in. It seemed we were due for another reunion.

The copper was gone from her hair and she was looking old and care-worn. Guess I was too. She'd had tuberculosis which had necessitated her leaving her vardo and staying in one place.

"I just happened to be here at the time I took sick. But this place holds good memories for me," she smiled, "so it took the edge off the pain of parting from ma kumpa'nia - a little anyways."

The chemotherapy had caused bad side-effects and the combination of the disease and the treatment had taken over a year out of her life.

"By then I'd lost touch with my familia, so I got masel' a job here, thinking they'd be back for me. And they will. Sometime soon..."

Hope and hurt escaped in a wistful sigh.

"So what are you doing now?" I asked.

"Oh, still working."

"But-- you're the same age as me - er, I am. You should be retired."

"Huh," she snorted. "I don't exist as far as the Gajos are concerned. On the plus side, they don't know how old I really am. Would ye believe I'm charring at oer auld school?"

"Isn't there anyone else round here who knows you?"

"Well, there's Councillor MacBain..."

"Oh God! Has he given you any hassle?"

"No. But then, he doesn't recognize me, and 'am no stupid enough to remind him. I suspect he's behind the kumpa'nia not comin' back," she glowered.

In 1988, I moved back home to look after my younger sister who'd had a stroke. Douglas had died four years earlier, Jamie and his family were living in Australia, and Peter and Louise had their hands full with their children. When Jessie died two years later, I moved into an old people's home, being eighty years old by then and not wanting to be a burden to my children.

As I arrived, there was an ambulance parked outside. At the door, I stood aside to let the paramedics through. They were wheeling someone on a gurney.

"Okay - Effie, is it?" one said soothingly, "Just stay calm. You'll be fine now."

My heart thudded in my chest for a moment as I realized who it was. I grasped the hand of my gypsy friend as they were negotiating the doorsteps.

"Kushti bak, Effie," I said.

"Now, I'll be fine," she whispered, and smiled. Then she was gone.

The next day, I was told she'd had another heart attack and died. She was really gone. I walked into the day room, gently grieving.

"Good thing she's dead. Bloody gyppo. Her kind weren't wanted here. That goes for you, too-- Gyppo Friend."

I drew myself up to my shrunken height and looked down on the old curmudgeon in the corner.

"At least she had one friend left at the end," I said with prim hauteur, "which is one more than ye'll have, Willie-beag MacBain."

Added 5 APR 2005

Crown Infernal