The Diddakoi | Chapter 6 of 15

Author: Rumer Godden | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 1037 Views | Add a Review

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Chapter One




Gypsy, gypsy joker, get a red hot poker

Rags an’ tags.

Clothes pegs. Who’ll buy my clothes-pegs?

– only they said ‘cloes-pegs’.

Who’ll buy my flowers?

– only they said ‘flahrs’.


‘If anyone,’ said the teacher, Mrs Blount, in the classroom, ‘any one,’ and her eyes looked sternly along the lines of tables filled with boys and girls, ‘teases or bullies or jeers at Kizzy Lovell, they will answer for it to me.’

Twenty-eight pairs of eyes looked back at Mrs Blount blandly and innocently: ‘As if we would,’ they seemed to say. The twenty-ninth pair, Kizzy’s, looked down at her table; she had a curious burning in her ears.

‘To me,’ said Mrs Blount. ‘We shall not have such behaviour in this school.’ But they would; silent and small, Kizzy knew that.

‘Kizzy must be short for something.’ Mrs Blount had asked her, ‘What is your real name, dear?’


Mrs Blount had touched a sore spot; in Kizzy’s family, as in some gypsy clans, a child is given three names: a secret one whispered by its mother the moment it is born and, when it is grown, whispered again into the child’s ear; a private or ‘wagon’ name which is used only by its own people, and a third open name by which it is known to the world. Kizzy seemed only to have one, but that was because she was what they called her, a ‘diddakoi’, not all gypsy. ‘We don’t say gypsies now. We say travellers,’ Mrs Blount told the children. Kizzy’s father, pure Rom, had married an Irish girl, but Kizzy looked gypsy to the children and they were half fascinated, half repelled by her brownness and the little gold rings in her ears – none of the other girls had golden earrings. There was one boy Kizzy liked, big Clem Oliver. ‘I thought gypsies had black eyes,’ said Clem Oliver. ‘Yours are dark dark brown. They’re nice – and these are pretty.’ He touched the gold rings and Kizzy glowed and, ‘My Gran has gold sov’reigns for her earrings,’ she told Clem.

‘Never seen sov’reigns,’ said Clem in awe. Clem made Kizzy feel bigger, not small and frightened, big an’ warm, thought Kizzy. Clem, though, was in an older class; she only saw him at break times, and the others teased. ‘More than teased,’ said Mrs Blount.

‘But, Mildred, if you forbid people to do something, doesn’t it usually make them want to do it even more?’ asked Miss Olivia Brooke. Pretty Mrs Blount – Mildred – and her husband, the young Welfare Officer, Mr Blount, who had brought Kizzy to school, were lodging with Miss Brooke in the village until their own new house was built and had told her about Kizzy. ‘Doesn’t it?’ asked Miss Brooke.

‘These are children.

‘Children are people, Mildred.’

‘Well, what would you have done?’ Mrs Blount’s voice was high; she did not like being told about children; after all, she was college-trained.

‘Could you, perhaps, have interested them in the little girl? Made her romantic. Gypsies—’

‘Travellers,’ corrected Mrs Blount.

‘I like the old name. Gypsies have a romantic side. If, perhaps, you had told them stories . . .’ but Mrs Blount said she preferred to use her own methods and, ‘I want you to give me your promise,’ she told the class, ‘that there will be no more teasing of Kizzy,’ and she even asked them, child by child, ‘Do you promise?’

‘Mary Jo, do you promise?’

‘Yes, Mrs Blount.’

‘Prudence Cuthbert, do you?’

‘Yes, Mrs Blount,’ said Prue.

‘Yes, Mrs Blount . . . Yes, Mrs Blount,’ the answers came back, glib and meek – what Mrs Blount did not know was that every girl said it with her fingers crossed. Kizzy saw that from her seat at the back of the room and knew, as soon as Mrs Blount was out of the way, it would start again. Tinker . . . diddakoi . . . gypsy joker . . . clothes pegs . . . old clothes . . .

Kizzy had come to school in new clothes, or thought she had. Unlike traveller men who often order fancy suits, traveller women seldom buy new clothes from shops; they make them or beg them or buy them at country jumble sales, but hers had looked to Kizzy brand new; she loved the tartan skirt and red jersey, the school blue blazer all of them wore, white socks, but, ‘Wearing Prue Cuthbert’s clothes,’ the girls jeered.

‘They’re mine,’ said Kizzy.

‘Now. They were Prue’s. Prue’s mum gave them for you.’ Prudence Cuthbert was the worst of the girls and that night Kizzy had put the clothes down a hollow in one of the old apple trees in the orchard, a hollow full of dead leaves and water. Her grandmother had lammed her but Kizzy did not care; no one could wear them after that, and next day she wore her own clothes for school. It had never occurred to her, or her Gran, that they were peculiar clothes, but they looked most peculiar in class: a limp strawberry-pink cotton dress too long for her – her vest showed at the top – a brown cardigan that had been a boy’s larger than Kizzy, but if she pushed the sleeves up it was not much too big; some of the buttons had come off but Gran had found two large safety-pins. Kizzy wore gumboots over bare legs – she had washed the boots, not her legs, but mud still clung to them. ‘Where’s your coat?’ asked Mrs Blount.

‘Don’t need a coat.’ Kizzy said it gruffly because she did not have a coat and was afraid someone would give her one. She spoiled the look of the school, ‘and those clothes smell,’ said Prudence, wrinkling up her pretty white nose. They did, but not of dirt. Gran washed them often, hanging them along the hedge, while Kizzy wrapped herself in a blanket; they smelled of the open air, of wood-smoke and a little of the old horse, Joe, because she often hugged him.

‘You live in a caravan?’ asked Prue and, for the first time, she sounded interested.

‘In a wagon,’ said Kizzy.

‘It’s a caravan. I seen it.’

‘A wagon,’ said Kizzy.

‘In Admiral Twiss’s orchard. He lets you but he’s barmy.’

‘He’s not,’ said Kizzy.

‘He is. Everybody knows it. Barmy. Nuts.’

Prudence doubled up. Kizzy’s hard small fist, hard as any boy’s, had hit her in the middle of her stomach.

He was Admiral Sir Archibald Cunningham Twiss but everyone called him Admiral Twiss – except his man, Peters, and Nat, the groom, who said ‘Admiral Sir’; Kizzy, in her own mind, called him ‘Sir Admiral’. He lived in the great house of the village, Amberhurst House, as all his family had before him. ‘But they kept a proper big house,’ said the villagers. ‘Servants and footmen, a coachman, grooms and gardeners.’ Now there were only Admiral Twiss’s man, Peters, who had been with him in the Navy, and Nat, the bow-legged groom. ‘Not a woman near the place,’ said the village.

‘Thanks be,’ said Peters. Neither he nor Nat held with women and the Admiral was shy of them, shy and wary. ‘Don’t trust ’em,’ said Admiral Twiss.

To see Amberhurst village from the Downs was like looking at a map. ‘Why are they called “downs” when they’re up?’ asked Kizzy. The hills ran green and chalky to the horizon, the valley wide below; the village did not nestle in it, but stood up clear and plain, its short street leading to the common where a jumble of cottages edged the green. Miss Brooke’s cottage was the last on the common. The Cuthberts’ new white house stood out at the top of the village street; then came the garage, a market garden, the post office–bakery shop. The Council estate, with the school on its far side, spread back almost to Amberhurst woods and the House park with its old chestnut trees. The church had once been part of the park but had its own plot and drive now. The House still crowned the knoll; its yew walk, the lawns and walled kitchen garden could be seen from the Downs with the stables behind; they had a cupola with a clock and, above the hayloft, a weathercock that, in sunshine, glinted for miles. An avenue of lime trees led to the tall gates where Nat lived alone in the lodge. Though the grass was creeping up to the huge stone house, ‘and the bell pull often comes off in your hand if you ring it,’ said Mrs Cuthbert, the Admiral still let the villagers play cricket in the grounds and the pitch was kept rolled and smooth, and there were still horses, high-bred yearlings and two-year-olds at grass in the paddocks. ‘Then they goes to be trained,’ said Nat.

Admiral Twiss was long and thin with fierce eyes and eyebrows and moustaches that seemed to the village children to bristle at them, but his hands, that were fine and thin too, were gentle – as any of his horses could have told – and deft. He made models, chiefly of ships, sometimes sail, sometimes steam; he never spoke to the village children, nor they to him – they were afraid of the eyebrows and moustaches – but he made a model church, big enough for a child to creep into, and every Christmas stood it at the House gates. The church was lit up so that its stained-glass windows shone, every tiny piece perfect, and from inside came music, carols that Kizzy liked to think were tiny people singing – Prudence would have told her at once it was a tape – and at midday and midnight, bells would ring a miniature carillon.

In the wagon Kizzy could hear them and knew it was Christmas. Admiral Twiss, too, always sent Kizzy’s Gran a cockerel for Christmas, some oranges and dates, and a bag of oats for Joe. Sometimes Kizzy thought the oranges and dates were for her; sometimes she thought the Admiral did not know that she existed.

He used to come down at sunset and stand looking at his horses just before Nat took them in; they came to the Admiral for sugar and Kizzy used to hide behind the wagon wheels to watch. If he saw Gran he would lift his tweed hat and say, ‘Good evening, Mrs Lovell.’ He never called her ‘Granny’,‘as some do,’ said Gran, and spat. ‘He has manners.’

He had put aside the orchard for the travellers and laid on water, a tap and a trough for them, though the village did not approve. ‘It’s my land,’ said Admiral Twiss. ‘They don’t do any harm,’ – in the orchard they kept his rule of no litter – ‘Besides, they like my horses.’ The paddocks ran along the back of the orchard where, on the other side of the hedge, the gypsies’ rough horses used to be tethered; they were gone now; the caravans were towed by cars or lorries or were mechanized themselves.

The only horse was Gran’s and Kizzy’s Joe, who was the last of the many horses who had once drawn the wagon, plodding along the roads to meadows and commons all over England, grazing on the road verges where, though even then there was plenty of traffic, the grass was still sweet, not so petrol-tainted and strewn with litter, and travellers could pull in to camp almost anywhere if the farmers and landowners were willing. ‘There was smoke in the lanes then,’ Gran used to say, from many a campfire. The horses spent the winter with the family in some site like the Admiral’s, coming close to the campfire that smelt of apple or cherry wood branches to get warm, and had, like most of the humans, a sack across their backs. Joe was the only one left now – most of the sites set apart for travellers would not let a horse in – but Joe still grazed close to his wagon, which was one of the few horse-caravans still lived in. Though its wheels were rotten and its axles rusty so that it could not be moved, its paint shabby, the brass was still bright, the lace curtains at its windows stiff with starch; it was gay with Gran’s good china and photographs, a bunch of plastic roses Kizzy had bought for her, saucepans and a frying pan. Kizzy had been born in the wagon.

‘Does your mother wash?’ they asked her at school. If she had said ‘Yes’, Kizzy knew they would say, ‘She’s a washerwoman’; if she answered ‘No’, they said, ‘Then she’s a dirty sow’, but Kizzy did not have to say either; her mother was dead, and her father. ‘Who d’you live with then?’

‘I live with my Gran.’

Gran was not Kizzy’s Gran but her Gran-Gran-Gran, her great-great-grandmother. If she had told that to the children at school, they might have been impressed, but Kizzy told nothing, not to Gran about school, nor at school about Gran who might have been a hundred. ‘Yes, perhaps a hundred years old,’ Mr Blount told his wife and Miss Brooke. ‘A true old-fashioned traveller.’ Gran smoked a clay pipe; her face was dark and wrinkled by wind and fire smoke, as were her clothes; she had long ago lost her teeth, ‘but it’s a fine proud face,’ said Mr Blount. ‘They say she’s lived there in Admiral Twiss’s orchard for the past twenty years, perhaps more.’

Living alone with her Gran, some of those hundred years had rubbed off on Kizzy, who seemed far older than her size. It was Kizzy who took the shabby bag to Rye, the small nearby town, for shopping, Kizzy who went to the corn merchants to beg the spillings out of the bins or sacks for Joe – even if Gran and Kizzy went short, the old horse had corn in his nosebag once a day and, if Gran could get beer, she gave half to him. In spring Gran warmed bunches of pussy willow at the fire to make the buds come out and Kizzy took them, not to the village but to Rye, and sold them from house to house: palm and the first sticky-buds. Gran made baskets of willow twigs that bend easily and planted the baskets with primrose roots in moss and Kizzy sold those too; they were so dainty people would buy them – and perhaps Kizzy’s brown eyes that Clem Oliver liked made a difference. In winter she sold mistletoe and holly.

Gran could not make holly wreaths now, her hands were too shaky Kizzy’s too small, but they lived happily in the orchard. Gran kept the caravan while Kizzy was away and went stick-gathering for the fire they lit and kept protected by a shelter of two sheets of corrugated iron, with sacks to keep out the wind. No one could build a fire like Gran; she sat on a bench, a plank across two piles of bricks; Kizzy had a fish-box that had McPhail and Son, Aberdeen stencilled on its side, but it was sturdy, the right size for Kizzy, and when it grew warm from the heat of the fire it gave out a sweet resin smell. They would eat their breakfast or supper there, sometimes a stew, but more often nowadays bread and butter, perhaps a spread of dripping. Kizzy’s grandfather and father would have snared rabbits, sometimes a hare, even a pheasant to put in the pot; she had a dim remembrance of eating hedgehog – ‘hotchi-witchi’ Gran called it – but they had to manage without such things now though sometimes they had pan cake – cake fried in the frying pan. The black kettle sang on its hook, Gran’s kittle-iron, and presently they would have a mug of strong tea, drinking it in the firelight, their backs protected with a sack and Joe tearing up grass, keeping as close to them as he could get.

Kizzy did not have toys, except an old skipping-rope that Gran had bought with some jumble – travellers are forever buying and selling things. Kizzy did not need toys when she had Joe. She combed him with an old curry-comb and brushed his mane and tail; she would sit beside him in the grass, giving him buttercups, of which he was fond; if she lay down beside him he would sometimes push her with his nose; the breath from his nostrils was warm, and now and again he would gently lick her face. A horse’s lick is clean to a traveller. ‘Well, they only drinks clean water,’ Gran said. ‘Not like dogs’ – travellers keep their dogs apart – ‘Not let come into the wagons like “they” lets ’em into rooms – covering everything in hair.’ To Gran, ‘they’ were ‘gorgios’, people who were not gypsy. Gran had no dog now, but Joe moved his big hairy feet carefully round the campfire, always coming to see what they had for supper, always getting a crust of bread. Sometimes Kizzy climbed on the fence and called him and got on his back; it was so broad she could lie down there too and feel him swaying, rippling his muscles as he moved, munching, across the grass. When the apples were ripe she would stand up on his back and reach him an apple; Admiral Twiss would not mind: he kept apples in his pockets for his own satin-skinned colts and fillies. They were beautiful, ‘Yet I wouldn’ change you,’ Kizzy whispered to Joe, ‘not ever.’ But there is never an ‘ever’; that February, getting off the bus, Kizzy had had two bunches of early palm and catkins left; Prudence Cuthbert’s house was near the bus stop and Kizzy had knocked at the back door. She only wanted to sell her bunches; she had not met Mrs Cuthbert then – nor Prue.

Mrs Cuthbert was a busy lady busy doing good to people, ‘whether they likes it or not,’ said the Admiral’s Peters. He knew Mrs Cuthbert well: ‘Always coming to the front door to ask for this or that: flowers for the altar, vegetables for the Women’s Institute stall. Would Sir Archibald open the gardens for the Horticultural Society Week?’‘Nothing to see,’ said Peters. ‘Will he lend the park for the Fête?’ ‘An’ upset the horses,’ said Nat, ‘and ruin the cricket pitch,’ said Peters. ‘The village would thank you for that.’ ‘Will you do this, do that, lend this, give that?’ mocked Peters. Mrs Cuthbert was a churchwarden and on the PCC (the Parochial Church Council). She was on the School Board, in the WI and the WVS. ‘Wouldn’t it be better, my dear,’ Mr Cuthbert, Prudence’s father, had once asked, ‘to – er – work for one thing at a time?’ Mrs Cuthbert managed to work for them all, and the NSPCC, and the RSPCA. ‘RIP. That’s what I wish,’ said Peters, which is usually said when people are dead. ‘Hush. She means well,’ said Admiral Twiss.

Mrs Cuthbert had opened the door to Kizzy and when Kizzy saw her white overall, her neatly-banded fair hair and the sparklingly clean kitchen beyond, she had nearly turned tail. She had half expected Mrs Cuthbert to say, as many people did, ‘No gypsies,’ but Mrs Cuthbert would never have said that; instead her blue eyes looked Kizzy over and, ‘You ought to be in school,’ she said.

Kizzy mutely held up her bunches but Mrs Cuthbert was not to be deflected. ‘Why are you not in school?’

‘Because I don’t go to school,’ but Kizzy did not say it. She said nothing, only offered her bunches.

Mrs Cuthbert had not bought one. She gave Kizzy a piece of delicious hot gingerbread – she was an excellent cook – but she had still asked questions.

‘How old are you? You must be six or seven.’

Kizzy did not know Gran always said such things were not important. ‘You’re as old as you are,’ said Gran, and that was the answer Kizzy innocently gave, ‘I’m as old as I am.’

To her surprise Mrs Cuthbert seemed to swell like a puff adder – Kizzy had seen adders. ‘You’re an impertinent little girl!’ she said with venom and shut the door.

She must have told about Kizzy; two days later Mr Blount had come to the orchard with a Schools Inspector and asked the same question – gorgios, Kizzy was to find, continuously asked questions. ‘But surely you know how old she is,’ the Inspector had said.

‘She must have been registered when she was born,’ said Mr Blount.

‘Don’t hold with such things,’ said Gran.

‘When’s your birthday, then?’ they asked Kizzy at school. Mrs Blount wrote the class birthdays down on the calendar; a boy had a buttonhole, a girl a wreath of flowers, and the others marched round them singing ‘Happy birthday to you,’ but there was another side to birthdays Mrs Blount did not know; the girls got you by your arms and legs and bumped you on the asphalt playground, once for every year, and they pulled your hair for the number of them with extra tugs ‘to make your hair grow,’ and ‘for luck’. Kizzy could not say when her birthday was because she did not know – it had never occurred to her and Gran that people had them. ‘Well, we’d better bump you every day in case we miss it,’ said Prue, but they did not like to touch her dirty boots so they tugged her hair instead, handfuls of her mop of dark curls. Kizzy had red patches on her scalp every day now and they ached at night: ‘Why didn’t you just say a day?’ said Clem Oliver.

‘I don’t know a day.’

‘Any day would do,’ suggested Clem. ‘You could pretend,’ but Kizzy did not know how to pretend. Since she had come to school, she sometimes thought she did not know anything. For instance, she was not used to sitting on a chair – there was a chair in the wagon but that was Gran’s – and the hours in the classroom seemed long and stuffy to her. Then there was the loo: ‘I’m not going to sit on that!’ Kizzy had cried when Mrs Blount showed it to her.

‘But Admiral Twiss built you a privy in the orchard,’ said Mrs Blount.

‘It hadn’t water.’ Kizzy had gasped when Mrs Blount pulled the plug with its terrifying gush, ‘And I didn’t like that either.’


‘I walked off,’ said Kizzy, which was a traveller’s way of saying she went apart and did it behind a bush.

Kizzy walked off at school, among the gooseberry bushes, and Prudence caught her.

Then Mrs Blount had to insist on Kizzy using the loo and Prudence, creeping up to spy – Kizzy had not realized she could lock the door – found her sitting face to the wall and called the other girls to look. ‘Think you’re sittin’ on a horse?’ they jeered.

When Kizzy could not bear it any more she ran home. There was a hole in the playground hedge; the hedge was holly and the prickles tore but Kizzy got through to save being seen going out of the gate; then, her dress more ragged than ever, her hot cheeks scratched, her curly hair full of holly leaves, she ran down the lane, her old boots splashing in the puddles, until she reached home, the wagon in the orchard and Gran: the wagon, Gran and Joe – Joe – Joe. Mrs Blount let her go but Kizzy always knew that in the morning she would have to go back.

‘Admiral Twiss sends his compliments and I have come for the little girl.’

It was a cold March afternoon with flurries of snow outside the window, but the classroom was warm and the children had been quietly, almost sleepily, painting in their places; every head jerked wide awake when Peters came stumping in.

Peters was so short and small he was like a barrel on short legs; neither he nor Nat, who had been a jockey and seemed to be made of wire covered with old parched leather, reached to the Admiral’s shoulder. ‘Twiss’s two gnomes,’ the Doctor and Vicar called them and, like gnomes, invisible for all the village saw of them, they tended him. No one would have guessed Peters had been in the Navy, except that he liked things ‘shipshape’ as he said; he was a dapper little man with a fresh rosy complexion and country blue eyes. He walked with a roll but that was because he had a bad leg. ‘Shot in a battle,’ the village boys liked to think but it had been crushed in a train accident; nor was he tattooed but not even Clem could say Peters was not a proper sailor.

The boys and girls gazed at Peters as he handed Mrs Blount a note. ‘Mr Fraser told me, Ma’am, to give you this.’ Mr Fraser was the headmaster. When she had read it Mrs Blount got up and came down through the tables to Kizzy Lovell, bent and put an arm round her. ‘Kizzy,’ she said gently, ‘you are to go with Mr Peters,’ and when Peters had taken Kizzy away, Mrs Blount told the children that Kizzy’s grandmother was dead.

Admiral Twiss had found her late that morning lying underneath the wagon and had guessed at once what had happened. Travellers are laid in the open air when they are dying; they do not like to die inside, not even in their wagons; and Gran was peaceful on the frozen grass with Joe quietly cropping tufts alongside. The Admiral had called Nat and they carried her into the wagon and laid her carefully on her bunk; then Nat had gone to find the Smiths and Does, travellers the Admiral knew were in a camp not far away – the Does were Gran’s cousins’ cousins. Admiral Twiss had stayed with Gran until the Does’ lorry and trailer came bumping in to the orchard; the Smiths were not far behind. They built a fire and made a strong brew of tea; he drank a cup with them, then walked up to the House with Lumas Doe to telephone the doctor and find a letter the Admiral had written long ago at Gran’s dictation and kept for her. ‘So they will know what to do,’ she had said. He gave the letter to Lumas. It was only then that they had thought of Kizzy.

When Peters led her out of school, a woman was waiting at the gate. Kizzy knew her, she was Mrs Doe. ‘Wouldn’t come in,’ said Peters. She took Kizzy’s hand and Peters drove them away in the Admiral’s ancient Rolls-Royce.

‘A Rolls-Royce!’ said Clem.

‘A very old Rolls,’ said Prue.


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