😀 After all that fun with narcissism (man I’m still trying to milk that topic!), let’s get serious again.
- Studio: Tomorrow we’ve got a house concert – first one of our strings ensemble.
- The Move: Nothing much doing, not today!
- Jipsy Jangles: I’m just so relieved last Saturday is over! It was tremendous fun but the run-up was pretty stressful.
Anyway here is your story.
“Before we go inside,” said Marge, cutting the engine, “what is your actual name?”
“I’m trusting you,” she insisted. “You can trust me too, Shadow.”
He shook his head.
“You’re making me think you’re a wanted criminal,” she pushed.
He laughed shortly. “And what makes you think I’m not?”
“There’s that egomania again.”
Shadow snorted angrily. “Trust me or don’t trust me, but you’re not getting my name. If Shadow is not good enough, then…”
Marge peered at the boy. There were actually tears glinting in his eyes. Lucy had been right – there was some or other nasty tragedy in his past, and as he had hinted, an awful flight from Europe, for whatever reason.
She had to make a call now. Either she took him in as he was, without conditions, and tried to make a difference to his life, or she let him go and carry on being the vagabond he was – and probably get himself killed within the month. The Barberton Four had been connected. One didn’t become such a high-profile gang by being alone. In any case – Europe was soft! All bureaucratic rules and Unicate policing. All Europeans ever did was stick to the law. He had no idea how this wild country worked. Today must have been his first taste of Southern Frisbean ‘justice’.
No. She couldn’t do it to the rescuer of Lucy and herself. Regardless that he needed a bath.
“That’s fine, Shadow. Come in. Shadow is plenty good enough.” She reached over and patted his shoulder – and watched in surprise how he shrank away reflexively. How long had this kid been on his own?
They entered the lounge through the spacious but ramshackle kitchen. The lounge was cosy but weird. Animal furs, some with the heads still attached and spooky glass eyes, decorated the walls. The furniture had log-frames and colourful seat- and back-cushions in oranges, browns and reds. Scatter cushions in neon-colours completely broke the otherwise warm and tasteful scheme. A fire crackled in a fireplace. Southern Frisbeans had no concept of real winter; at the slightest chill they seemed to want to heat.
“Mom, you didn’t!” A dismayed teenager jumped up from a computer where she had been playing a game. “You really did have to go and find that piece of drift-crap? And bring him into the house? Don’t you think he’ll steal us empty?”
“Lindsey!” exclaimed Marge. “You’ll apologize immediately!”
Beautiful green eyes stared defiantly at Shadow. The girl was gorgeous. Honey-blond locks curled over her shoulders and halfway down to her shapely front page. B-cup, more or less, determined the Tzigan before he stopped himself. Gracious, the thing was a gadchey! In his books, practically an untouchable. He returned his gaze to her fire-spitting eyes, and the small, pretty mouth that was pulled taught in disgust.
“I will not! … apologize, to that thing, ever!” snapped Lindsey. And she stomped off. “It’s rude to stare,” she shot at Shadow over her shoulder.
He saw to his surprise that Marge had flushed.
“I should discipline her,” she said. “Please forgive her rudeness, Shadow. But she’s missing her father.” She sighed. “We’ve all been through a tough time.”
He shrugged. “Guess I don’t smell so great after the criminal cages,” he said with a soft laugh that covered up the mixed pot of emotions that had just crawled out of various crevices. Staying here would be… complicated.
Lucy came hobbling into the room, her right ankle in bandages. She squealed in delight and flung herself at Shadow, and hugged him around his legs.
“Shadow! You came!”
His hand dropped into her lush, soft baby curls and ruffled them, and despite the stitched-up leg he went down on his haunches to give the little girl a proper hug.
“Of course I came!” The twins would have been six now. He was thankful for his floppy hat covering his face from Marge. “Would have come to find you anyway, Lucy,” he said, wiping over his eyes with his sleeve, packing those unexpected tears away. This was ridiculous. They were only a gadje family. He missed his own. He got up and straightened out. “Got to protect you, see?”
“That’s great, because my brother is away too. – Pooh, you smell!” She stared at him. “Why are you crying?”
Shadow laughed. “Just some allergies. I’m allergic to fluffy hair.” Marge was staring at him too. “Kids make me cry. Too much dirt, see?”
“Hey!” protested Lucy. “I already had a bath!”
“Okay,” Shadow challenged Marge. “Your husband…? and your son too? What happened?”
“My son is at university,” she said calmly. “Come.” She led him along the flag-stone floored passage to the inside of the house. He noted the plenty-colour woollen tapestries of naive art lining the walls, interlaced with children’s photos.
“Let’s get you cleaned up,” said Marge, showing him into a rustic bathroom in nature colours, tiled floor-to-ceiling with small round pebbles. The floor was done in larger pebbles, and two fluffy orange bath mats were spread, one in front of the bath tub and the other, below the sink. “Look, here’s the shower.” She glanced at him. “You don’t know how it works, do you?”
“I’ll cope,” laughed Shadow.
“But your bandages must not get wet,” she said. “Here, wait…” She disappeared. Shadow studied the bathroom, taking off his floppy hat and putting it down on the sink. Of course he knew how showers and bathtubs worked! He’d just spent four years escaping all across Europe, and the best places to clean up were the ablution blocks of caravan parks. Tourism really made things easy.
She was right about the bandages though. Dr Swarts would be pretty upset if they got doused, first thing. Shadow observed with fascination that a part of him actually cared whether these gadje were upset with him or not. It was not a part of the dark Animal. So it had to be a part of the good him. So that was alright.
Dr Swarts had ripped his jeans to get to the knife-cut. The jeans had been damaged before, by the knife itself; some stitching required. But now they really were broken. These gadje of Southern Free had no respect for other people’s stolen rags!
“Try this,” said Marge as she returned. She wrapped a whole lot of cling-wrap around the bandage on his arm and secured it with masking tape. “That’s waterproof now. Will you manage the one on the leg?”
“Shukar,” said Shadow brightly and accepted the roll of cling wrap, the scissors and the masking tape.
“Then I’ll go and make supper while you get yourself cleaned up,” she said and left, closing the bathroom door after herself. Shadow waited for the sound of a key in a lock, and when it didn’t come, laughed at himself for his reflexive paranoia.
It would be dead easy to escape this bathroom if he had to. He had spotted various handy items that self-assembled to a glass-cutting toolkit: Sponges, and a tooth laser that could be set – he fiddled with it – to focal heat, probably for zapping spots. Of which Lindsey sported a few on her forehead.
So the way to break the glass without shattering it and causing noise, would be to run the cold tap, soak the sponges and sponge the central window pane down with cold water. Then he’d set the laser to focal heat and draw a circle on the glass. It would crack neatly.
Because sawing with Lindsey’s nail file through the burglar bars in front of the windows that could open didn’t look like such an easy option. And he knew that even though Marge’s rings were lying on the side of the sink where she’d left them, probably when washing her hands, that using that large diamond to cut glass was not a good idea. It could easily shatter the diamond. He didn’t want to do that to Marge.
He glanced up. There was, even better, the trap door in the ceiling. If he vaulted up to the shower’s wall – he checked: It could be done by stepping on the taps, then the shower head – he could crawl into that without breaking anything at all, and exit to anywhere in the house, waiting for his moment when people left the kitchen door unlocked.
He had just established two good escape routes, in less than thirty seconds. But he didn’t have to escape. He smiled.
Marge had left a change of clothes outside the bathroom door for him. A black tracksuit pant that was so soft and floppy he had to consider hard not to put his torn and bloody jeans back on instead. But the track pant was warm. And a blue t-shirt with a rhino printed on it. Yes, Southern Free still had rhinos. They were all in game parks and on hunting farms. Jealously guarded by their owners and wardens, who shot poachers on sight. Nobody prosecuted them for killing the poachers. He had winkled this information out of a curio shop owner earlier this week.
Marge had also put down a fresh pair of socks, and a warm red jersey. The way they heated their front room to furnace heat, he was unlikely to need it, but he picked it up anyway. He put on the socks and got back into his mountaineering boots.
The family was waiting for him around the table in the dining room – a heavy yellowwood table with massive, turned legs. It was only Marge and her two daughters. Lindsey looked as though she’d just had a heated argument with her mother and was there against her will. She glared at Shadow, fuming silently.
Lucy had reserved the chair next to Shadow and was bouncing up and down in excitement.
“Have a seat, Shadow,” invited Marge as they all sat down around the lovely steaming meal of unfamiliar-looking food. “Please be very welcome in our home.”
He smiled. “Baie donkey.”
Lucy giggled. “Mommy, he said, ‘buy a donkey’!”
“Very funny,” commented Lindsey scathingly as she dug into her food. “You’ll never learn Afrikaans.”
Shadow raised an eyebrow at her. He spoke more European languages than she probably knew to exist.
“How do you say ‘thank you’ in your language?” asked Marge, trying to deflect her daughter’s sharp remark.
“Depends,” said Shadow with a bright grin. “Mulţumesc, that is Romanian. But in Romani…” he paused, glanced at her. “In gypsy, it’s ‘nais tuke’.”
“Nice tooka,” she echoed him. “It’s got a lovely sound. Won’t you tell us about your homeland?”
Lindsey kept her head down and ate her food. She didn’t want to hear this dirt-rag talk; but against her will she was pulled into the magical tale he spun, with that soft accent that became less offensive the more she listened, about sun-drenched mountain sides, and the cuckoo in the woods, and tracking the fox down to his hearth, and the deep dangerous ravines with steep waterfalls crashing down into dark rocks. The howling of feral wolves at night, and the snow flurries that whipped around your ears in winter. The bonfires and singing, dancing and music, colourful girls’ dresses flaring as they spun around.
“But that’s all over now,” said Shadow quietly. “The Tzigany are hunted people. They must stay invisible now.”
When she glanced up from her food, she noticed that his hair wasn’t stringy and tangled anymore but glossy and smooth. And he’d lost that dreadful hat. He lifted a falcon eyebrow at her, probably ridiculing her for not being disdainful for a moment. She pulled a face at him.
“Nice food,” he commented. “Thanks, Marge.”
“Nais tuke,” said Lucy, grinning.
If Shadow thought he was going to get away after supper, he was mistaken. Lucy grabbed his hand and dragged him to the lounge with the crackling fireplace.
“Will you read to me?” She made him sit down in one of the huge, deep log-frame chairs and went to a cabinet, opened it and pulled a book out between about two hundred dilapidated others. She came back and crawled onto the chair next to him, plonking the thick volume onto his lap. “There. The Big Brown Bear.”
Shadow opened the book uncertainly. There were bright illustrations and stories and rhymes – all in the one language he wasn’t quite as fluent in as a heap of other European tongues. He glanced at Lucy in desperation.
“Lucy,” said Marge with a hint of iron in her voice, “don’t crowd Shadow. I don’t think he can read…”
“I can read,” said Shadow scathingly. “And write. Give me a piece of paper!”
Marge pulled a face at her faux pas and retrieved some paper and a pen for him. He scribbled something down, fast and furious, and handed it to her. She squinted at the scrawl.
“Can’t read that,” she said. “It’s Russian.”
“Romanian,” corrected the young gypsy. “See, it says there, thank you for the lovely food. But that’s the way I can’t read English, see?” His voice had turned apologetic. He already felt bad about having flared at her. She was being so good to him.
“Don’t worry, Shadow,” said Lucy brightly, turning the pages to her favourite story. “We’ll learn together, okay? I can’t read English either.” Her little index finger traced the words of the story title. “The – Big – Brown – Bear – I can’t read the rest.”
Shadow smiled and took her hand, pointing her finger at the next word. “And,” he read, waiting for her to repeat it. “The,” and so he went through the words, one by one, spelling out ones that he didn’t understand. Marge pronounced them for him, sitting down opposite and watching this process in fascination.
It was an easy two hours later when he finally turned in, finding the room Marge had designated for him. He’d read to Lucy until her eyes had closed; then he’d chatted with Marge, but eventually she sent him to bed, reminding him that it had not been an easy day for him.
He opened the door to the guest room to take in the rustic-style furniture – a loose-standing wooden cupboard, bookshelves and a log-frame bed on top of which perched – Lindsey! She got up off the bed and came towards him, essentially blocking him from entering the room.
“So it’s true,” she said scathingly. “Mom plans to keep you here overnight! Can’t believe she can be so stupid, to take in a vagrant she’s never met before. Well, I for one am locking my room, so don’t you even dream that you can steal my stuff!”
Shadow smiled. She had no idea how easily he could pick any lock on any door. He could technically clear out her room, lock it behind himself, unlock it again, put everything back, and re-lock without ever a risk of waking her up. His nickname had actually not even been his own idea. It was his first mentor who had afforded him the name. Back in Romania.
By point of demonstration he held his closed fist out for her.
“I believe these are yours?” He opened his hand to return her earrings to her – that she had been wearing a moment back.
That this had been a tactical mistake, he realized a second later. Lindsey stared at him and screamed.
Marge was there in a flash.
“He’s just stolen my earrings right off my ears!” exclaimed Lindsey.
Marge scowled at Shadow, uncertain what to make of this.
“Was just demonstrating something,” said Shadow innocently.
“Yes! That he’s a bloody thief!”
“Lindsey, calm down! Shadow, return those!”
“What I was doing!”
“Lindsey, take your earrings, dammit, and then go to your room! You and me are going to have a chat!”
Lindsey cast another hate-filled glare at the young vagrant, grabbed her earrings out of his hand and stomped off to her room.
“She warned me not to steal anything,” said Shadow apologetically. “Was just teasing her! She’s far too serious. I don’t steal… from people I like!”
Marge heard the nuance and burst out laughing.
“You are a good-for-nothing, Shadow! I’d better keep you until I’ve taught you some better ways! Good night, my boy. Sleep tight.”
Shadow endured her hugging his shoulders briefly, and watched her move off towards Lindsey’s room.
“Don’t be too harsh with her please,” he said softly before closing his door.
“Southern Free” is a far prequel to the “Solar Wind” series in which Federi (“Shadow”), by then an adult, is the central character. “Southern Free” is not yet complete and therefore not yet published.