We call our mother “mother” because it annoys her. She would like us to address her as Sweet Divinity, the name she chose when she left home to join a commune. We found out years later she was called Mary Winifred O’Connell but we were used to mother by then and much as we would have liked to annoy her with Mary we could never remember it in time. We never really knew mother, just when we thought we understood what she was, she changed becoming more robust, or a little fragile, very political or like an earth mother. Her moods were like shifting sands, when other people were around she was always bright and shining like a beacon of hope. However when they left they snuffed out the spark of hope and we endured dark days, sometimes she didn’t cook for days or even get out of bed.
It was on one such deep black nadir, as long as we had known, lasting more than five days that we went in search of food and changed our lives forever. We could only count up to five and we had done that and eaten all the berries we could find. We weren’t sure about weeks but we knew it was autumn as the leaves were falling from trees, it was getting colder and both of us had put on shoes for the first time that year.
We dressed with care for the occasion of the big walk. Spirit was wearing orange corduroys with a yellow jumper that came down to her knees. Dance was wearing a dress that dragged along the ground made out of heavy crushed velvet. A dark blue matching cardigan two sizes too small finished her outfit.
We now know that we looked wild but back then it seemed natural to have our hair streaming down our back, unkempt with twig and leaf entwined. The clothes we wore were either too big or too small, all given by these transient caravanners as part payment for water and pitch. So on this particularly momentous day in our lives we thought we looked normal and set off down the road. We decided to walk down rather than up because when the people went for a walk in the evening they always went that way and came home cheery, loud and happy.
The first part we skipped as a new freedom descended on us, this slowly gave way to a slower pace until we were trudging. Our clothes were getting wet as rain dripped unnecessarily harshly, they hung down and got heavier and muddier as we marched our slow monotonous walk. The village started abruptly as we turned a bend, cottages on both sides gave way to terraces and eventually we saw a shop. We had brought money in mother’s purse. Although naïve about a lot of things we knew that mother gave money to get things and people sometimes gave money to her for staying with her. We pushed open the door and Dance spoke to the lady, well pointed at things; a packet of jam biscuits, a chocolate bar and bananas. Spirit opened the purse and gave it to the lady.
Honesty was thankfully well imbued in the shop lady and she only took out the £2.30 needed. We left and sat on a bench outside, each item came out of the bag, halved and stuffed unceremonially into our watering waiting mouths. We choked and spluttered our way through the food and with hiccups stood and went in search of something to quench our thirst.
As we turned a corner a group of children were coming the other way. We said hello to them but they laughed, encircling us, they pointed; at our hair, our faces now covered in chocolate and biscuit crumbs, our clothes, they said we smelled funny, we were dirty, and we were stupid. We cowered turning into each other, arm around protecting, not understanding why but aware of danger. The noise must have alerted some adults to investigate because suddenly the chanting stopped and we opened our eyes. A huge man stood over them asking who they were.
Spirit spoke, “I am Spirit. She is Dance.”
“Come on now girls, tell the truth. You have run away and stolen a lot of money. Mrs Hanrahan at the shop says you had more than fifty pounds in that purse. Tell the truth like good girls.”
Dance moved forward, facing him, she craned her neck until she could see his face, “We tell truth, me Dance and she is Spirit, we were hungry so we came for food.”
Spirit dragged her back to be with her and put her arms back around her.