In wartime Britain, Mum found it a challenge to put a meal on the table every evening for me and my three younger sisters.
To supplement my father’s small income, Mum took up knitting for friends. They would provide the wool and pattern, and Mum would often be knitting far into the night to complete her orders.
Often she was permitted to keep the leftover bits of wool, and with these she knitted all our clothes, dresses, hats, coats and socks. Once she found she had heaps of different shades of green wool left over, and with this she knitted a striped dress for me.
I hated it immediately, even more so when my sisters shrieked with laughter, christening it the “caterpillar dress”. Desperately I tried to devise a way to get rid of it.
Then one day a gypsy turned up on our doorstep. Every summer the gypsies would set up camp in the fields nearby. We were warned never to go near them, as gypsies stole children, or so we were told. I know they helped themselves to the farmers’ eggs, and then came round and sold them to everyone at a cheaper price than we could buy in the shops. We were poor enough not to ask any questions.
This particular day, the gypsy had a little girl with her who was captivated by the caterpillar dress I was wearing. “Ooh, luvly!” she said over and over again. The gypsy offered to read Mum’s fortune for sixpence. No one ever said no to a gypsy, as that would bring bad luck. Funnily enough, she predicted Mum was going to live in a place filled with sunshine. (A few years later we immigrated to Australia.)
I wrapped the dress in newspaper and ran to the gypsy camp the next day. Leaning over the wall, I watched with envy the children playing around the brightly coloured horse-drawn caravans — no motorised vehicles in those days. The kids didn’t go to school, as the truant officer could never catch up with them.
I could see the gypsy cooking over a fire. When she looked up I waved the newspaper at her and called out, “For your little girl!” She took the parcel and, unwrapping it, called out: “Annabelle! Come and see what I’ve got!” The girl raced over and excitedly held the dress against herself, then raced off to put it on.
The gypsy gave me six eggs to take home, so I told Mum I’d met the gypsies at the end of the street. In my naivety, it never dawned on me that one day she might turn up on our doorstep again with the girl wearing that dress. Luckily that never happened.
That little girl would be about my age and sometimes I wonder if she remembers the green striped dress that gave her so much pleasure — and me such intense relief.
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