Mary the Tinker

She was known only as Mary the Tinker, and she came to my grandparent’s home twice a year, in summer and winter, in the years after the war.

She was probably in her late sixties, about the same age as Granny, but her weathered face showed signs of a hard life, much of it in the open air. Her attire seldom varied: a double-fringed shawl with black stripes worn over a man’s faded white collarless shirt, a hand-me-down loose fitting cardigan, which I’m sure had been one of Granny’s, and a long skirt down to her ankles, partly hiding buttoned-up cracked black boots. In every way she was the picture of a tinker.

And how could I forget the pram! The black, rickety deep vehicle with a tattered hood limped on rusty wheels and transported willow wands, used to repair damaged washing baskets and carpet beaters. The pram also carried one or two beaters for sale, along with clothes ropes and pegs for the washing green and usually a collection of cast-off clothing gathered earlier in the day. Carrying new washing baskets would have taken up too much room in the pram, though Mary made it known they were available to order.

At Christmas time she would have small flower baskets occasionally decorated with ribbons. Smaller baskets were ideal for trinkets, and Granny could not resist buying one the first time she saw them.

Mary’s visits to our part of the town always coincided with school holidays. She was a mistress of timely arrival. Squeals
from the pram’s wheels as it was trundled along the passage to the rear of the house heralded her approach, just as grandmother had put on the kettle for mid-morning tea. Or, more often, at lunchtime when she could expect to share the day’s fare seated on the steps to the back door.

As we got to know her, she told us that she and her husband lived in an old converted single-decker bus on campsites with other tinker families. While she carried out her visits her husband canvassed for odd jobs. Strange that he never came with her to our house. Perhaps he reckoned she did well enough with us on her own.

It was uncanny how she managed to call during dry weather. Even in winter, when conditions would be adverse, she avoided high winds and rain. She made every effort to be around in December and I reckon she even went out of her way to do it, for there was the expectancy of a gift or two besides any required repair wickerwork and perhaps a sale to boost income.

Granny always had something to give Mary, whether clothes or a household item no longer needed. The tinker showed her appreciation by carrying out perfect repairs and it was a joy to watch her at work. In her wrinkled hands the willow wands looked like they had a life of their own. Her dexterity was fascinating.

One day, when she was repairing the handles on Granny’s washing basket, she asked if I would like to help. Naturally, I struggled, finding the willow wands not as cooperative as they seemed in Mary’s hands. But she was a patient teacher and on future visits she’d let me have a shot.

It was a summer visit that has remained with me over the years. I was sitting on the top step at the back door with Mary below me near the bottom, where she always sat. Granny was seated just inside the door. We had finished our tea break and my grandmother rose to collect the mugs when Mary, regular as clockwork, offered to read her tea leaves.

Granny, as ever, laughed off the suggestion. Looking at me, Mary said, “How about the lad, then?” Seeing Granny’s hesitation she said, “It won’t do any harm.” Reading my silent plea, Granny agreed with a warning of no nonsense.

As my grandmother returned indoors, Mary lifted my mug and turned it upside down to remove any dregs. Turning the mug this way and that, she peered closely at the leaves and in her gravelly voice began telling me, pausing now and again, that I might be the school’s junior sports champion next year, that one day I would work with money and would sail or own a yacht – all of which came true.

I don’t know if Granny heard any of the fortune telling, but I noticed her slipping money to Mary along with some homemade tablet and a few apples from the garden, plus several items of clothing.

There were only two or three more years of Mary’s visits and then no more. There is no doubt she brightened my boyhood and I’ve never forgotten her.

Ian Rose, Wiesf Kilbride, Ayrshire