Down the meadow, across the lane, there was once was a boat, an old derelict barge, stranded in the middle of a field, with rusted portholes, foliage growing from every crevice, and inhabited by a family of gypsies.
Now, in the way I mention this fact you would think that I was already acquainted with this veritable wreck long ago, however nothing could be further from the truth. I have always been a city man, and although I enjoy riding through the grounds in the immediate vicinity of my manor, the thought of venturing further afield fills me with a rather queasy nausea. No, I much prefer the safe comforts of my books, my pipe, and perhaps a glass or two of whiskey.
The manner in which I did finally become embroiled in the foul matter of this boat was of no initiative of my own. Indeed I would have much rather never known about it at all, but it seems our dear lord God who on occasion seems to have such a devilish keen sense of humour, rather thrust this problem upon me.
It was in the year of 18–, the great flood of Norwich, which if you ask any white-bearded fellow down in the Turk’s Head on Canterbury Way, was the most awful flood in a series of disastrous deluges, when the rising water levels caused the aforementioned boat to be plucked from it’s cosy moorings, with the entire family cowering inside I should mention, and dragged it downhill a good two and a quarter miles, that is to say, right into the middle of my ornamental garden.
I was well asleep in my bed the next morning, having managed to sleep soundly though what could only be described as a near hurricane by the quavering staff, but had not even caused me to stir thanks no doubt in no small part to the fantastic tales of Dickens’ which do so stir the dreams, and perhaps also due to the three (or was it four?) glasses of Scotland’s finest that had I indulged in the night before. At that very moment, my mother-in-law, bless her soul, thank God she is passed from this plane, and please God let she not haunt me in the next, broke in to my chamber with a startled cry. “Gypsies,” she wailed, “there are Gypsies camping in our gardens.”
“My gardens,” I murmured, trying desperately to remain a grip upon my fascinating child-like dream of running across rooftops chasing villains (oh but if I could return to London once more!) and then added “send the gamekeeper out with a rifle to chase them off.”
“We have already tried that you oaf, do think me a complete fool, they will not budge!”
“And neither will you,” I thought grimly to myself, without giving voice to the words in my head.
There was nothing else for it, I had to go outside and confront them. I spent ages in front of my wardrobe trying to decide which outfit would create the best impression on this wild and wily people, known throughout the land for their cunning banditry and bewitching spells. Eventually I decided that doublet, chain, knee high boots and perhaps, yes, yes definitely, a fine hat would create the needed impression of the gallant gentlemen going out to face the invaders.
Unfortunately it did no go entirely according to plan. The first problem was one of their infant spawn, who ambushed me as I picked my way across what was left of my once beautiful hedge maze, now half washed away by the cruel flood. Can you believe that he had the insolence to lance clods of mud at me, lord of the manor, from behind a screen of foliage, giggling in his shrill voice like the savage creature he evidently was. The second problem was one of communication, for although the head of the gypsy family, a man of short stature and surly all-envopling bodily hair, ostensibly spoke the English of our fair land, I could understand not a single word. I had to finally resort to the assistance of the gamekeeper, being more familiar than myself with the many different creatures inhabiting these lands, wild animals and civilised humans and everything in between alike.
“He says that he would move if he could my lord,” translated the gamekeeper, “but unfortunately the boat is stuck fast and he has no means of moving it.”
I’m not one for confrontation, and I had rather been hoping the that problem would somehow miraculously take care of itself, as is often the case thankfully enough in my life. No such easy chemin was granted to me upon this occasion however.
“Now listen here,” I spoke, trying to use the assertive voice that we had been taught in speech and grammar courses all those years ago in blessed London, while the vile creature before me, lounging rudely while casually rolling a cigarette. “this just will not do. You will have to move you boat,” I finished.
“No dice,” replied the unwashed man, “it can’t a be doing, jingoes let boat ther’ yonder is stuck faster than…” followed by a string of explicatives and filthy vile sexual statements that I am unable to repeat to this day, and which turned my face a shade of pink I will tell you. He then threatened to have the dogs set on us, for in addition to the extended family living in the boat there appeared to be a pack of mongrel dogs, nearly as savage as their owners. He shortly made good on his threat; I ran headlong from the savage beasts, while the gamekeeper tried desperately to use his special whistle to bring them to heel. Snapping and snarling at my ankles they were, all the way back to the mansion, peals of laughter from the gypsies accompanying my undignified rout.
There was nothing else to be done about it. I decided that I would just have to leave them to it and hope that the problem would go away on it’s own. Besides which, there were myriad other tasks to attend to, the flood having washed away part of the stables (and some of the horse to boot), my gorgeous floral gardens wrecked, the basements and cellars still up to the knee in water, causing who knows what havoc to my collection of Bordeaux. (Although thankfully the finest bottles were safely locked away in my private liquor cabinet in my drawing room.)
It wouldn’t have been too difficult either, if the gypsies had had the good decency to just stay in their boat, but ho no, they had to roam across my lands, even stealing into the larder at night to steal cheese and bread. Couldn’t they even have the sense to cut a slice with a knife, did they have to gnaw at the hams like rats, leaving little teeth marks everywhere. It was almost too much to bear.
Now, in all honesty, I have perhaps been a little hard on the travelling folk, for I must admit that they did do me one gracious service for which I shall forever be truly thankful. One night as I was returning by late carriage from the metropolis, I was set upon by highwaymen not more than a few hundred yards from the entrance of my own estate. Bloodthirsty they were, slit the very throat of Jefferson, my favourite driver, such a great loss. They dragged me from the carriage and I feared for my very life, when who would you believe arrived upon the scene and drove them off with nothing but a hewn branch? It was the gypsy man, his eyes blazing in the light of the full moon. The robbers fled from his savage cries of wild days long forgotten by the rest of the human race. He saved my life, and even had the good decency to drive me home. From that time on I instructed the staff, much to their chagrin I must point out, to deliver fresh cheese, eggs, milk, bread, and wine to the gypsies every night. (This was an act of gratitude in principle, but the security of the larder had proved impossible to enforce and I was rather tiring of the teeth marks everywhere.)
As luck would have it, and indeed as I mentioned earlier on, luck often favours the procrastinators amongst us, another grave flood struck a few weeks later and carried the gypsies and their boat a bit further down hill, whence-forth I happily washed my hands of the nasty business and tucked into to another tome of Dickens with a hearty supply of single malt.