On a cold windy midnight in a deserted railway station, Rachel, a gypsy woman is lighting a fire. Her colourful flounced skirts are grey and tired and she wears a red woollen shawl over her shoulders. A scarf hides her hair. She looks desperate and angry. In the station, a fierce, northern wind blows, made fiercer by the drafts whirling around the high walls and the open doors and passages.
She is preparing to spend the night there, as the next day she will be begging from the hurried travellers. She will try to sleep next to the fire on a mat. She is not allowed to light a fire but at that time no-one is around to forbid her or chase her away.
The wind howls, making the station a foreboding, frightening place. The fire starts to crackle. She bends and puts her hands to it. She remembers her young hands, her dancing feet, and her long raven black hair. She thinks of the days of old, when her parents and all her younger seven siblings lived in a brightly painted caravan that Raja, their old faithful horse, pulled along the narrow Irish roads, between the stone walls, up and down the green valleys. Raja was a powerful shire horse. Dark brown, he had wide hooves covered with long pale hair. He walked slowly but surely. Rachel loved the way he smelled, warm and a little acrid, after he had worked for several hours. She enjoyed rubbing his coat with folded straw to dry him and covering him with his blanket for the night. As she did this she would talk to him, confide in him sometimes, thank him for his friendship and then she would kiss him good night on his silky black nostrils. She had been so careless and happy.
In those days they could stop in a field, and the farmers would let them drink from the well. Her parents would repair their furniture; weaving new straw on the chair seats, carding old wool and stuffing the new wool into the mattresses. She enjoyed plucking the new wool with her fingers, smelling its oil as she helped them. After that, her hands would be moisturized and soft. Her father used to sharpen scissors and knives on his portable wheel. Her teeth were set on edge a little bit by the sound of the metal grinding against the fast wheel, but the sparks were like fireworks going in all directions and she always wondered why they never scorched anything.
As they passed through towns and villages, they would go into the streets and onto the square and her father would shout “Grinding knives, scissors”. Doors would open and the lady of the house would appear holding her knives. Her father would sit on the little stool he carried, and start spinning the wheel on his grinder by hand; Rachel would then collect the knives from the housewives, one lady after the other, and take them to her father. He would shout the price and Rachel would collect the money as she returned the sharpened implements. She kept the change in a small cloth purse hanging from her waist.
In the summers the whole family would be employed making hay. They then slept in the straw. She loved the smell, the comfort and the rustling of it. After work, they played the fiddle, accordion and tambourines and danced around the bonfire; many villagers came to watch them and the bolder and friendlier ones joined them. That’s how she had learnt to dance. At the gypsy yearly competition, she would win year after year.
But here in the station, gone are the fiddles and the tambourines, gone is her dancing and her happy skirts. The gypsies have been relentlessly ostracized and chased away. The family has scattered. She has lost her luscious hair; her face is now wrinkled by too much sun, too much cold and too much sorrow. All she can do is to wrap her head and shoulders in her shawl and dream of the past.