THE GYPSY WAS RIGHT!

How clearly I still remember cosy afternoons in that old Yorkshire kitchen of childhood days. Can it really be all of 60 years since I sat rocking to and fro in Mum’s comforting chair by the fire, while cinders fell plop into the ‘asnuk’ (ash—nook for those with no Sheffieldese). What better place for that timid small girl who couldn’t say boo to a goose?

And there was Mum, always with those tell-tale burn marks on her arms, the legacy of many a Sunday dinner pulled out of that downright dangerous hot oven. And when not ‘stoking up’ for the oven, she’d be doing it for the hot water instead – pulling the damper out, making flames shoot up the fire-back and shivers shoot up mine at the sight of this procedure, which usually meant bath night.

Since then, I’ve puzzled many a time over how she ever managed those Sunday dinners. Always Yorkshire pudding, whatever the meat. Served on its own, as a first course, and having had the oven all to itself (an unbreakable golden rule, this) the question was where were the joint and roast potatoes while this was going on? And how come everything was piping hot at the right moment? A mystery never to be solved, I fear.

But back to those favourite afternoons, and the fateful December one when our cosy world was shaken, never to be quite the same again.

Mum had just made jam tarts.There was I, in my own little paradise, rocking away and licking the spoon, when someone knocked on the door.This in itself gave us quite a fright, as hardly anyone ever came to the back because of all the steps, our house being on a hill, like most of the city.

Mum tut-tutted, wiping her hands on her apron in case it was anyone posh. In fact our caller was a gypsy woman (or ‘traveller’ as I should say), selling pegs.

“Not today thank you,” Mum said primly, trying to shut the door. She didn’t want either pegs or caller, and certainly not her fortune told, but she got that anyway when our caller turned back at the bottom of the steps, giving her a searching look. “You won’t eat your Christmas dinner in this house!” she said, and with that she was gone, and so was our happy afternoon.

Tight-lipped with annoyance, Mum jabbed away at the fire with the big poker. “Never heard such rubbish. Never been away for Christmas in my life. Not likely to start now.And it’s December already.What does she think can happen between now and Christmas, I’d like to know?”

A week later the bombs fell.

There we all sat in the cellar, wrapped in blankets and making believe to play beggar-my-neighbour as the bombs whined down. I must say it was an ideal house for the purpose. Built in the days of servants, it had one of those indicators in the kitchen to show which bell was ringing. More to the point it had three cellars. One of these was a cellar-kitchen complete with boiler, mangle and its own door to the back garden for the maid to hang out the clothes – or in our case for an extra escape route in case we got a direct hit.

As it was we emerged unscathed next morning to see the devastation that had been our road. A couple of houses had been chopped in half, and there were varying degrees of damage to all the others. All except ours, that was, where not a single window was broken. Mum couldn’t hide her relief, sorry though she was for the unlucky ones, especially considering that parting shot from the peg-lady. For all Mum’s pretending to think it was rubbish, I knew she’d been worrying about it ever since.

Not any more, though.You could hardly begrudge her a bit of smug satisfaction now that the threat was gone.“So much for that peg-lady!”she said.“Not as smart as she thought she was, that one.”

Just to prove the point, Mum then got out the fairy lights and said she’d put them up on Monday, even though it was really too soon. That was symbolic, somehow, for these weren’t any old lights, but special favourites, at least as old as I was, and a lot more interesting than those we see today.There were snowmen, Father Christmas, a cottage, a bunch of grapes and all the other favourites. You could almost believe that things might get back to normal.

Then it was Sunday, and Mum was cooking the dinner just as if nothing had happened when there was another knock at the door. At least it was the front door this time, but spooky all the same – too much like the other time, spoiling the special kitchen moment.

Dad opened the door to find a worried air raid warden outside.

“You’ve got to get out, Mister, Now. Unexploded bomb.”

Dad couldn’t take this in at first. He actually laughed, as ifit was ajoke,but this caller couldn’t stop to argue. At least a week, he said, and was off to knock next door.

So that was it. Nothing for it but to set off on foot for friends in the country, where we often stayed during the holidays. Mum put the half-cooked joint in her big bag, tin and all.“I’m not going to see that wasted,” she said.“It was three and six.We can eat it when we get there.”

Dad had a big bag, too, but he never said what was in it – he just kept winking at me behind Mum’s back, so I knew it must be something good. Sure enough, when we finally fell into our friends’ house, almost asleep on our feet, out from Dad’s bag came those fairy lights, and just the sight of them made everything better – well, for me anyway.

Next day our kind friends put up the lights over the mantelpiece.“Make it like home for you,” they said. Mum didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, torn between relief and astonishment to think that our peg-lady had been right all the time.

There again, what had she actually said? Only about where we wouldn’t spend Christmas, not whether we’d have a happy one or not.

Considering all that had happened, the wonder is that we managed to do just that.

We were the lucky ones.

Sheila Neal.