OPINION Gee Williams

NWR Issue 105

Who are the Welsh Kale and What do They Say?

How often do you get to solve a mystery that’s lived with you for decades?

It began with truanting, me and Patsy, a pair of nine-year-olds in the golden age before parents could be texted. For the first time ever we were going to present ourselves to the ferryman and demand to be taken across the River Dee at Saltney. We made it to the jetty. When Mr Manifold’s small wooden dinghy puttered up we scrambled in – as if on business – for a three-minute trip, rougher than expected.

This far bank was less populated even than home territory and in each direction vast flat fields of vegetables stretched with occasional lines of pickers. The sun grew intense and we grew bored. Finally we dawdled back to the ferry point discovering on the way that we both had mud-coloured potato prints of buttocks on our cotton dresses. A cat lay on the empty concrete steps with the boat tied up next to it. Mr Manifold had disappeared. ‘Bugger!’ Patsy said.

Only Ferry Lane, visible between overgrown hedges, was left to explore. The lane was featureless at first, then punctuated by field gates. It was beside one of these, half-concealed in a thicket of elder, that we came across the woman and her gypsy wagon. Empty shafts poked almost onto the tarmac… no horse. Such things are always described as ‘colourful’. Hers was green, and shabbiness completed the camouflage effect. Despite the heat, she had a fire going which she tended from an ordinary kitchen stool – but by now we had stopped in amazement. We were used to seasonal travellers appearing in modern caravans pulled by trucks. Door to door they gave away peg dolls in return for scrap metal. But we had never seen a Romany. She was old. Her silver plait was threaded with black and her skirt was figured by hand stitching. Her face was lined and tanned to brown paper. Come to a sudden stop in front of her, two guilty girls giggled and were silent. We were looked up and down: she knew we were illicit, out of place. She said… something. And here’s the rub. I know what I heard and I almost understood.

The history of the Welsh Roma (or Kale) is secret and fascinating...

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