It was an unusual name; that’s why she noticed it. The clean cut of the black Arial font against the whiteness of the low grade headed paper made the letters of his surname stand out. Dissanayake, James, G. But what was his name doing in this letter, which was addressed to her and dropped through her door over 15 years later?
She had last seen James in the playground at St Dunstan’s School. It was summertime; the heat sweltering. Flying ants were sprawling between pavement slabs, emerging from eggs between the cracks, their novice wings crashing clumsily into glasses and nostrils, entangling themselves in human hair before being shaken off with disgust.
Boys were busy drenching each other with bottles of water whilst girls were preoccupied inventing new ways to tie their shirts and reveal their bellybutton piercings. Caroline was standing at the water fountain, letting it gush into her mouth, drip down her chin and saturate her training bra suggestively. She tilted her head to one side to drink in the metallic coolness from one corner so her eyes could capture the action of the voices around. Arcs of water flew across the playground; satisfying splashes sounded on the hot concrete.
That’s when she saw him, at the gate, alone and hunched in the shade of the covered walkway. Their eyes met, and in that instant she understood that he existed outside their sphere of sun and splashes. She would go to him with a stick of gum as an olive branch, then they could listen to her summer hits mixtape together in the shade.
Before she could offer up an earphone a shadow engulfed her. “Hurry up, I’ve got to fill this before Brendan gets back from the bogs.” The boy rattled a near-empty water bottle and she relinquished control of the spout. A flying ant, caught in the final swirl, circled the bowl with limbs flailing until it was sucked helplessly down the drain. When she looked up, James was gone.
After lunch, the chair in class he usually occupied was vacant. It stayed that way till the end of term. Come September, someone new had filled his place in the class.
Gypo. “He was a gypo” Hayley had revealed the Friday after his disappearance. Both girls were clad head to toe in sports labels wearing matching Adidas oatmeal jumpers. They watched Friends whilst passing a circular brush between them, combing their large fringes and discussing the dramas of the week.
“They live just near here. You know that big fence you see as you come into the estate yeah? Just behind that in the woods there’s this clearing with loadsa caravans. They’ve got a horse and everything. I’ve seen it. It’s a right dump. Mum says council’s trying get ‘em moved on, there was this petition going round the estate. They fuck up the area see, cut up the trees, burn shit, and made a bunch of mess. And the kids all shoplift, nick cars, joyride, keep dangerous dogs and shit. They’re bad for the community. See that new graffiti on your way here? That’s them that is.
Hayley paused to throw some Skips in her mouth and crunched them thoughtfully as she gazed longingly at David Schwimmer. “Oh and you know what else?” she continued “they get married and have babies at like ten years old and stuff. He probably got bored of Mrs Murphy’s maths lesson and went home to have sex with his wife! Don’t know what he was doing in our school anyway. They’ve probably just been told to fuck off by the government or someone and have moved on. That’s what gypos do.”
Despite the amount of drivel her friend came out with, Caroline knew what she was saying made a sort of sense, still she felt uncertainty in her gut. She recalled his hunched lonely figure in the playground and realised she needed to know for sure. So when she suggested they go have a look, to see if they were still there, it was not entirely to call Hayley’s bluff.
Typo? Or the curse of copy and paste? It must be. It was easily done. She’d done it countless times herself in mundane office jobs; use a similar letter as a template, accidentally leave a trace of the old on the new. That way the only way to explain why this letter had her name on the address bar but James Dissanayake’s details on the inside. They clearly went to the same clinic, the royal blue of the NHS header confirmed it. She was being treated for panic attacks but what was he being seen for, and why?
As she skimmed the page zealously for answers more words began to unstick themselves from the paper and lift upwards to her field of view: ‘psychiatric’, ‘assessment’, ‘report.’ closely followed by other morsels of his life story: divorce, depression, Citalopram, feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness but nowhere did she find the one word she was looking for: gypo. Of course it wouldn’t say ‘gypo’ she shook herself, trying to knock the stupidity out of her, Hayley’s teenage voice resounding round the room. Traveller. It would say traveller.
Hayley had insisted on waiting until Friends had finished before setting out, which meant it was properly dark by the time they snuck past the loose boards in the fence and into the forest. It wasn’t exactly a forest, more like an overgrown plot on the edge of the new builds the council had forgotten about for now. The other side was full of dumped rubbish, empty cans, condoms, washing machines, shopping trolleys, broken toys and bag upon bag of jumbled waste which they had to scramble over. But it wasn’t long till the detritus of the street petered out into purer woodland and the glow of the streetlamps was only a smudge on the night sky. Eventually they could even see the stars.
“You know in the olden days when they lived in Ireland, gypos were also called Tinkers, because they used to collect bits of metal” Hayley began. “They’d nick broken pots and spoons and shit from the nearby village and hang them around their camp off bits of string. That way if anyone who wasn’t a gypo came near they’d know. It was like an alarm system before alarm systems were invented. Listen, you can hear them chime.”
She’s chatting shit again, Caroline thought to herself, but there was a faint tinkle in the air. It was probably just a wind chime from a neighbouring garden but she didn’t interrupt Hayley’s fiction, it made the darkness around them less hostile.
“James even told me himself once that his Nan actually lives in one of those gypsy wagons with roses painted all over the sides. Apparently she’s really old, like a hundred and one or something and one of her eyes is completely white.”
“And I bet she has a crystal ball that she uses to read fortunes.”
“Listen yeah, I’m like half-Irish, don’t disrespect my family.” Hayley stormed off several paces ahead in an exaggerated huff, until she stopped still abruptly. “What the fuck is that? I just saw something move.”
“Yeah, yeah, sure you did.” There was nothing but forest ahead, no caravans, no fire, perhaps they really had moved on.
Hayley called “Hello?” nervously but got no response.
“Alright you can stop fucking around now” Caroline jibed but even she could make out a large dark mass moving between the trees. The mass separated into three dark shapes, which were thinner but getting larger by the second.
“Dogs? You said they kept dangerous dogs?” But these shapes were too large for dogs, too large for people and they were heading towards them at an alarming rate.
“Shit. Run” and they did, twigs scratching at their clothes, ground breaking underfoot.
Breathless, Hayley reached the scrapheap first and was clambering over the junk towards the gap in the fence when Caroline lost her footing and fell to the ground.
Three wild-looking horses galloped out from the trees. Their heads looming large above her with big black eyes and bulging nostrils, breathing heavily. She lay there motionless watching blue veins bulging through their grey necks, eyes regarding her unblinkingly.
Despite being petrified the scene was acutely beautiful, the woods, the horses and the stars, she envied James this life. She envied that she lived the other side of the shitheap full of things that broke and were thrown away, rather than those that were kept and cherished.
The intensity of the horses soon subsided as they became disinterested and began to chew at clods of grass, tossing their unkempt manes listlessly side to side. Caroline shuffled backwards towards her reality and the uneasiness within her began to subside. James would be better off here, with nature around him, rather than in the world she occupied, a world of pointless sitcoms, mindless prejudices and stupid brand labels. She removed her snagged Adidas jumper and decided to leave it behind, a flag atop the mound of junk.
It was an unusual name: Dissanayake, James G but it wasn’t an Irish one and it certainly wasn’t Romany. When Caroline finally read the section of the letter titled ‘Background History’ she understood how wrong they’d been. She’d imagined a fairytale life on the road for him, barefoot, with a set of pan pipes around his neck. No school. He’d live off his wits and his sleight of hand in the towns. Riding his horse by day, dancing around the campfire at night, drinking overproof moonshine until the sun rose.
But he wasn’t a traveller. James was just another kid from a difficult home who was taken into care. Except in James’s case the social workers found it necessary to remove him from school in the summer of ’96 when the other kids were having water fights and the air was thick with flying ants.