1952 – West Sussex. England.
Mickey woke on his back with the stars shining brightly above him. The edge of the tree-line was quiet and he could smell the smoke of the all but extinguished fires drifting across him in the gentle breeze. Even without moving he knew his head was going to hurt. He remembered switching from the Romany ale to the Irish whiskey and he had a recollection of Flynn insisting he drank a toast with their poteen but he couldn’t remember much beyond that.
A hint of the dawn was just visible on the distant horizon as a thin sliver of lightening sky. With no cloud cover, the full moon lit the ground around him in a sterile, frozen glare. He peered down his body at the weight pressing on his chest and saw the familiar straight, black hair of Rosie as she slept with her head against his breast and her arm draped possessively across his body. Mickey took a long breath in and let it slowly escape again as he sighed and frowned sadly at the girl.
It wasn’t that he disliked the girl, they’d been friendly for their entire lives and it hadn’t surprised anyone when their parents had discussed joining the families together with their wedding.
Rosie was pretty; her large, dark eyes were the same shade of brown as his and she had a very classical look to her face. If not for the Romani colouring to her skin, her high cheek bones and straight, aquiline nose would suggest Greek or Italian parentage. She was five inches shorter than Mickey’s five foot ten frame and she curved in all the right places. At seventeen years old, it was late for her to not be married already but she was such a will-full, stubborn daughter her parents had been content to wait until she decided it was time before the families had been made aware an approach wouldn’t be refused outright.
Mickey’s father had haggled with Rosie’s Da through the night almost two years previous before the darro had been agreed. The two men were accomplished at pushing negotiations close to offence but never quite crossing the line; at the conclusion, both families were happy with the deal. Neither Rosie nor her family were happy with the delay that Mickey insisted on; a long engagement wasn’t unusual for the promised children but most times, the promise was made when the offspring were just entering their teen years. To keep Rosie from being a wife until she was beyond eighteen years had caused a little friction between the two fathers.
For her part, Rosie was taken to being the betrothed with an enthusiasm none had expected; she wanted nothing more than to be Mickey’s romni and bear his children. Though she’d often try to find time to sneak away to be by his side, most of her day was spent with her Gran or Mickey’s mother learning all she was expected to know.
With a pained expression on his face, Mickey gently freed himself from the gypsy girl’s sleeping embrace and sat up, leaving her still slumbering beside him on the damp grass. Glancing around from the wood beside their sleeping area, he looked toward the camp a hundred yards distant and spotted Rosie’s cousin almost immediately.
The fifteen year old was lit periodically as he drew on the pipe he held clutched in one hand; the glow of tobacco in the bowl cast an eerie orange glow to his face and it was easy to ascertain the youth was staring at Mickey. The youngster was leant against a solitary oak tree between the fighter and the camp and Mickey was impressed the boy had managed to stay awake through the night. He knew it was just as well as if Rosie’s Da had learned his watchman had fallen asleep the boy would have suffered a savage beating.
Mickey had always had a soft spot for Stefan, or Stevo as he’d always been known. Until he’d become promised to Rosie, Stevo had been the older boy’s shadow and despite the age difference, the two of them had been almost inseparable. It had been Mickey who had taught the youth how to fight and had they not fallen out over Rosie, Stevo would likely have developed into a strong fighter. The falling out had less to do with Rosie and more to do with the boy’s uncle. No sooner had the bottles been opened to toast the pair than Rosie’s Da had tasked Stefan with watching after her honour.
The irony was, if Mickey could be honest with himself, it would be Stefan that had more to worry about than Rosie.
Over the elapsed two years, the friendship between the two boys had crumbled into dust. Stefan had begun to both resent the lost time learning to punch and duck and also, he had grown angry that he had to spend his day watching the girl he was sweet on himself flirt and tease his former friend. He was bitter and jealous despite how much he tried not to be.
Raising a hand, Mickey acknowledged the youth and the only response back was a brighter glow from the pipe as Stefan drew harder on the stem. At least he knew Rosie hadn’t had her way with him while he was deep in his cups. There were fewer reasons for him to stall the wedding as the days and months passed but if she got her way, there’d be a rapid wedding with a shotgun behind him and her swelling with every moon.
Frowning and shaking his head, he knew eventually he’d run out of excuses and he’d become rom to her romni. There was no belief he would ever avoid becoming her husband but he was terrified of the night that would follow the day. There were some duties he didn’t know what he could do about. How could he become a Da himself when her curves and smile failed to rouse him? The fear ate at him daily.
Glancing back down at the girl he found himself smiling at the way she lay curled close to him. He did love her but he could never love her the way she wanted, not in the way she deserved. Rosie was his best friend, more than a sister and dearer to him than any other girl. Some when she was going to know his lie and he hated that he was going to hurt her.
A blanket lay pooled across his knees and he carefully shifted to the side, keeping the blanket from the damp grass and raising it above Rosie’s shoulders to keep her warm. The girl must have brought the blanket to him and wrapped them both in it but it had been a warm night and he’d slid it down their bodies as he slept. Now the morning carried a cool chill to it and covered her to keep her cosy.
Quietly Mickey rose to his feet and headed to a nearby tree to relieve himself. His head pounded and he had to rest a hand against the coarse bark to ensure his balance. Turning back and buttoning his fly he strolled back to the gypsy girl while keeping a watchful eye on Stevo as he silently watched back.
“Hey, Rosi-posie!” Mickey dropped back to his knees and gently shook the girls shoulder. “Rise and shine” he said, a gentle urging in his voice.
With her long hair tangled around her, the girl rolled over and arched her back, deliberately pushing her breasts upward while exaggerating her need to stretch. “So? Dosta! Me’s awake.” Mickey grinned at Rosie’s irritability and she grinned back. She reached up and wrapped a hand behind his head, pulling him down to meet her part way for a kiss. The boy managed to shift slightly so as to place a delicate kiss on her cheek and then he straightened up, forcing her to rise to a sitting position or to fight against him to pull him down. There was no doubt who’d win.
Subtly breaking free form her grip, Mickey offered his hand to help her rise but the young girl simply laid back on the ground and put her hand down to her skirts and as her fingers made walking motions on her thighs, she gathered the material in her hands and inch by inch, she slowly raised her hemline. Rosie’s bare feet were already exposed but as she tried to tease the fighter, she exposed her ankles, then her calves. As her knees came into view she asked if Mickey wanted to lie somewhere more comfortable.
Deliberately glancing in the direction of the camp, the boy mentioned Stevo’s presence and the girl’s face fell and she swore loudly, turning her head to glare in the direction of the young teenager.
“Khul!” Rosie hissed, letting her head fall back hard to the grass as she pouted petulantly. “Thee and Me need being wed!”
Without responding, Mickey again offered his hand and this time, after a momentary hesitation to stare at her promised, she acceded and let the muscled boxer haul her from her grass and dirt bed to her feet.
Mickey reached the ground and picked up the blanket, he folded it in half and wrapped it around the shoulders of the girl like a shawl and with his fingers, he gently straightened out the tangled tresses of hair that fell around her face.
With one hand, the girl reached up to cup his chin, she sidestepped him, circling him just enough that he had to shift his feet to keep his eyes on her. Once she had him positioned so the moon lit his face, Rosie began to inspect the damage the Irishman had caused to the face she loved.
An eye was closing as the swelling form the punches he’d taken took effect while he slept and the cut on his brow had scabbed over. He’d be sporting a black eye for the next few days and there was a good chance by the time they reached the camp and prepared to move out he’d not be able to see out of the eye but the damage was superficial. His other eye was unmarked but the cheek below it looked red and tender; the moon reflected in the black pupil as he looked ahead while she examined him. She gently stroked the cheek while she stared into his eyes, the brown iris looking as dark as the pupil in the half-light. She reached up on tiptoe and placed a soft kiss against his split lip; he neither pulled away nor encouraged her but he turned his eyes to look down on her, a smile lighting his face. Lowering herself back to her heels, Rosie briefly lay her head on his chest.
“My man! My rom” she whispered just loud enough for his ears to catch her words.
Taking a step back, Mickey put his hand to her shoulder and turned to break the contact she had with him. He looked over the ground they had been laying on and spotting three empty beer bottles, he gathered them up in one hand, gripping the neck between his fingers. With his free hand he reached out to take her hand in his and slowly, with Rosie pulling the blanket tight around her shoulders, they began to walk toward Stefan.
“Stevo!” Mickey called, “Give these back to ya puri daj.” He dropped the bottles at the feet of the young boy and walked on, not waiting to see if he picked them up. Rosie and Stevo’s grandmother wouldn’t be happy to find her bottles had been left behind and Stefan could be guaranteed to take them to her.
If their grandmother found out they had been left with Stevo and he’d not brought them back to her, he’d suffer for it. She might not beat him herself but she was a devious woman; all she had to do was to refuse a drink to one of the men in camp and say she had no bottles because Stevo had left them behind and he’d suffer at their hands instead.
Heading toward the Irish camp, Mickey grinned to himself as he heard the glass bottles clink together behind him as the lad did as he was told.
The camp of the Irish was quiet; the tents and caravans were in darkness aside from the light from the moon and stars but Mickey could see well enough. Heading for the fires where he’d had his fight, he kept his eyes open for any Romany he could, spotting a few sleeping in the dirt. He woke those he found and continued through the camp until he found his own Da.
Half under a caravan and propped against the wooden steps, Mickey’s father was snoring with an almost empty whiskey bottle gripped in his hand and held across his chest. Letting go of Rosie’s hand he knelt in the dirt and prodded his father until he responded by opening one eye.
The father and son exchanged no words but Jacky Ray managed to open his other eye and after a pause, he nodded once to his son who smiled back. His father was proud of him.
Standing again, Rosie’s hand pushed itself into his and the two of them continued through the Irish camp toward the road a hundred yards outside of the caravans. They avoided the tarmac and walked along the grass at the side of the road in bare feet and headed back to their camp. The news had probably gone ahead that Flynn Burn had lost the bout and Mickey was going to be lauded for a few days by those who’d won money on him. There wouldn’t be much celebrating today though, today the camp would pack everything away. A few of the men would head into the local village to see what they were owed was settled and then they would all move on to a new site.
Mickey was smiling as he walked but as Rosie squeezed his fingers, his smile faltered as he realised another day had passed and he was another day closer to being joined to her. Try as he might, he found it hard to be happy for it. There were worse people to be bound to but the lie pained him as much for her as for himself.