The Girl in the Painted Caravan

The Girl in the Painted Caravan

EVA PETULENGRO

with Claire Petulengro

PAN BOOKS

For Mummy, my brother Eddie, and Johnnie, the love of my life, who inspired and encouraged me to put pen to paper and finally tell my story

Contents

Prologue

1  
All You Need is Love

2  
Mischief and Mayhem

3  
Stick Fires and Happy Memories

4  
First Up, Best Dressed

5  
Life is a Roller coaster

6  
Talent Shows and Wedding Bells

7  
Secret Liaisons

8  
Cowboys in Dunkirk

9  
Who’s This Man I Call Daddy?

10  
Hunting for Hotchis and a Handful of Herbs

11  
Christmas at the Prison Camp

12  
Pennies from Heaven

13  
A Stranger Comes to Stay

14  
The Coldest Winter

15  
Up with the Turkey, Down with the Mirror

16  
Bombsites and Babies

17  
Cracked China and Broken Hearts

18  
A Fowl Idea

19  
A Tragic Accident

20  
My Brother the Hero

21  
Teddy Boys and Teddy Bears

22  
Coming of Age

23  
A Brand New Start

24  
Written in the Stars

25  
Meeting Johnnie

26  
Tears and Laughter

27  
Reading Palms and Falling in Love

28  
Wedding Daze

Epilogue

Acknowledgements

Prologue

I was born in a painted caravan in 1939, into a Romany family who had travelled the roads of Norfolk and the Lincolnshire fens for generations. It was a way of life we loved,
rooted in traditions that had given Romanies a strong sense of pride in ourselves and our unique culture for centuries, but which could not withstand the changes of the twentieth century. Although
its time was passing I was lucky to have experienced its old ways, to be lulled to sleep by the patter of rain on the caravan roof as I lay warm in bed, hearing my brothers and sister breathe
nearby. To have sat around the camp-fire laughing and talking as dinner cooked, the tang of woodsmoke mingling with the smell of the meat and herbs to make your tummy rumble with hunger.

What I miss most of all is waking up in a new town with new adventures to be had. We moved to Brighton and into bricks and mortar when I was twenty-one, forced off the roads as travelling became
too difficult. We told ourselves it was just for the season, that we would soon be moving on again. We never did. Fifty years later, I still live in Brighton. But even now, in my seventies, every
few years I wake up and know it’s time to move on, even if it’s just down the road. I need to find somewhere new to make my home. When you’re born a Romany, you will always remain
a Romany.

This is the story of my childhood and my heritage. It’s the story of a time when we could roam freely through the countryside; of love and laughter, excitement and disappointment,
innocence and mischief; and of the wonderful, and not so wonderful, people we met on our many travels.

The way we lived means that written records of our past are few and far between, so I relied solely on my memory and that of my relatives as I put pen to paper. Not a day goes by when I
don’t think back on my childhood with fondness, and I’ve laughed a lot and cried just as often as I’ve remembered the events that have made up my life so far. I hope the following
pages give you a glimpse into how we really lived as the last generation of true Romany gypsies. It is a way of life, now largely relegated to the pages of history, that I am very lucky to have
experienced.

ONE

All You Need is Love

‘Eva, gal, you look beautiful,’ Mummy says, her whole face lighting up with pride as she sees me all dressed up to the nines.

I’m wearing a shocking-pink georgette blouse, a pencil skirt and five-inch heels. My black hair is in its usual French plait and huge gold hoops hang from my ears. I look polished but
inside my stomach is doing somersaults of anticipation. It is 24 October 1964 and the Beatles are in town. They are playing tonight at the Brighton Hippodrome and the organisers have given me
permission to go backstage to meet them. Word on the street, though, is that no one is going to be allowed in and that it’s every man, or woman, for themselves. We’ll see about that, I
thought. I hoped my press pass and my ability to charm people would be enough to get me in.

‘Where’s that Nathan gone?’ my mother frets. ‘He should have been here by now.’

Nathan is my younger brother by three years, and he’s also my cameraman, bodyguard and best friend all rolled into one. Before we can start to debate what’s happened to him, the door
bursts open and a dead ringer for Tommy Steele walks in. Nathan has the same fair curly hair and cheeky smile and is dressed in a smart navy-blue suit, white shirt and winkle pickers. Around his
neck is a paisley dickler, a silk scarf which most Romany men choose over a tie for special occasions.

‘Are you ready, gal?’ he demands. ‘Let’s get a move on. It’s packed out there.’

I put on my black jacket with the mink collar and rush to the mirror, digging in my bag for my black eyeliner. With a practised hand, I go over the line I drew on earlier in the day – a
little more can never hurt. Finally ready, I make my way to the door.

‘See you later, alligator,’ I shout to Mummy.

‘In a while, crocodile,’ she smiles. Then she stands and cocks her head to one side. ‘Just a minute,’ she whispers. She rushes into the bedroom and returns very quickly
with something in her hand. As she empties the contents onto my palms, I look down. ‘No, Mummy,’ I gasp. ‘You can’t.’

‘Yes, I can,’ she says assertively and looks me squarely in the eyes. She has placed my grandmother Alice Eva’s gold charm bracelet in my hands. I know this means the world to
her. ‘Granny is as proud of you as I am. You’ve done good, Eva, and you need to know that. Here, it’s yours now.’

With this, she turns on her heels, walks back into the kitchen and starts singing along with Dean Martin on the radio. As I shut the door, I notice that she’s wiping a tear from her eye.
Mummy is not a woman who shows her feelings very easily and this makes me realise how far we’ve all come. I know that bracelet meant the world to Granny and to Mummy and now it’s mine.
As I join the clasp round my wrist, I feel more grown up than ever before. But Nathan brings me back down to earth with a bang. ‘Move it, rabbit’s arse.’ He grabs my arm and
we’re off, pounding down the stairs from our first-floor flat. By now I am feeding off his excitement.

We walk down West Street and turn onto the seafront. I love the smell of the sea, mixed with the vibe of Brighton, but tonight there is something especially surreal about the atmosphere, a sense
that the town is buzzing. As I look out at the waves crashing onto the beach, I wonder where my Johnnie is now, and if he’s thinking about me and missing me as much as I’m missing
him.

As we turn onto Ship Street, we see it is mobbed with the kind of crowd you get before a football match. People are pushing and shoving forward, trying to get to the Hippodrome, which is at the
other end of the road. But it seems much further than that now, from where we are standing. I’m determined the crowd is not going to stop us.

Nathan holds his camera bag in front of him and pushes his way through the screaming girls. This works and so I follow closely behind. We manage to get as far as a little alleyway called Ship
Street Gardens when Nathan turns round with a worried look on his face. ‘We can’t get down there, it’s absolutely choc-a-block.’ We are forcibly being pushed towards the
Heart in Hand pub as the crowd elbows past us desperately. ‘I need a pint. Come on, let’s get in here,’ he sighs with resignation.

Even this seems like an impossible challenge when we push open the door to the public house and realise how many other people had the same idea. It is heaving in there! Luckily for us, we know
the landlady. She recognises me and beckons me over, ignoring the people at the bar shoving notes her way in the hope of getting some more drinks down their throats.

She passes me a tomato juice and Nathan a pint and then, with a wink, she mouths the words ‘There’s some people in the back who will want to meet you’. This is not abnormal
when I come in here. The regulars know I’m a clairvoyant and often have the Dutch courage to pose questions they’d usually be too shy to ask. We push and shove our way through to the
back room, which is kept for the stars who are in town, or people from the theatre who want to relax and have a drink in peace.

As we walk in, I don’t recognise anyone. Nathan pulls at my shoulder. ‘Check out over there. It’s that band, Sounds Incorporated,’ he whispers. I don’t have a clue
who they are. Suddenly a young man appears by my side and puts his hand out. ‘It’s a bit hot in here, ain’t it?’

‘I was hoping to interview the Beatles, but we can’t get through,’ I blurt out, my disappointment clearly showing.

With a wry smile, he says, ‘Well, we’ve got to get through, because we’re supporting them!’ A rush of adrenalin shoots through my body. We’ve got an in, an
impossible in, I think to myself. ‘These guys are doing our security,’ he adds, nodding towards a group of well-built men. ‘They’ll get us through.’

We quickly down our drinks and, with a few hurried whispers and some winks and handshakes, the security guards daisy-chain around us and start moving us through the pub. ‘Security,
security,’ they shout, pushing the girls and guys in front of us out of the way. Part of me starts to feel slightly sorry for the array of faces around me, being shoved aside so determinedly,
but the thought that we might make it backstage to meet the Beatles pushes such worries to the back of my mind.

Nathan’s eyes lock with mine and we smile. ‘Fina,’ we both say at the same time, which in Romany means good. With that, we start laughing.

Out of the front door, we find ourselves moving up the street and, slowly but surely, we reach the stage door of the Hippodrome. The poor souls who have managed to make it this far are pushed
very firmly out of the way and we stand in their place, waiting for the doorman to vet us and see if we are one of the favoured few allowed to gain access to the band. They spot the lead singer of
Sounds Incorporated and the door widens. ‘Come on in, guys,’ they shout. They don’t need to ask us twice.

Once inside, we are faced with yet another crowd, this time made up of reporters and photographers. They turn around to see who we are. ‘They’re not seeing any press,’ says
someone I know from the
Daily Mail.
Then I spot Annie Nightingale, a local DJ and writer. She has obviously been waiting a long time and says, ‘You’re wasting your time, Eva.
They’re not seeing anybody!’

Oh
really,
I think. I love a good challenge. I’ve got this far and I’m not going to let anyone here stop me now. Imagine if I could get the boys to agree to a reading!
That’d wipe the smiles off of some of these faces.

A door opens and everyone stops talking and waits to see who will emerge. It is an official-looking man in his early thirties. Nathan and I know the Beatles have to be behind that door.
Shoulders back, head held high, I start walking confidently towards him. He turns in my direction with a quizzical look in his eye and cocks his head to one side. ‘What on earth does she
think she’s going to get from me?’ says the look on his face. ‘No interviews,’ he snaps.

I’m sure he has said this sentence a hundred times in the last hour, so I look him straight in the eyes. ‘I don’t want to interview them. I’ve come to read the
Beatles’ hands. I’m Eva Petulengro; I’m expected. Would you let them know I’m here, please?’

I say these words not so much as a question, but as a command. His eyes narrow but I hold his gaze. To my amazement, he turns on his heels and shuts the door on me. Now my heart really is
pounding. Where is Nathan? Suddenly I feel his camera bag dig into the small of my back.

‘What did you say, gal?’ he demands. ‘You didn’t blow it for us, did you?’

We wait for what seems like an eternity but must only be no more than two minutes. When the door starts to open, I take a step back. Had I done it? Had I talked my way into meeting the Fab
Four?

To my amazement, four heads simultaneously, one on top of the other, appear round the door. Paul, John, Ringo and George stare in my direction and look me up and down from top to toe, as an
inquisitive dog might. As quickly as they appeared, they disappear and the door is firmly shut behind them. Bewildered, I wonder what will happen next. My heart is beating so hard in anticipation
that it feels like it’s about to jump out of my chest. The same man that had looked so surprised a few moments earlier now comes out of the door and says to me, very respectfully,
‘Would you please follow me, Miss Petulengro’.