It was the only way of life she knew. A hard life, but she was wild and vivacious and she took the knocks and gave out a few of her own. Marla had never been to school. She didn't know what new books smelled like and she wouldn't know an alphabet from an elephant's arse, but there wasn't a horse bred that Marla couldn't break. Horses were her talent and her first love.
Marla Lowther was an Irish Gypsy; not a traveller, a potter, a tinker or a gypo. She was a gypsy from true Romany stock, thirty-second generation and as proud of her heritage as the Queen of England. Though if there was one thing that Marla hated it was that she had true Gypsy-Rosa-Lee looks. How she longed for short blonde hair and an English accent. What she had instead was her mother's raven black hair. It fell in a thick, shining curtain of unruly curls down her back and her eyes were as green as the mossy waters of the river Shannon in spring. Shoes felt heavy and cumbersome on Marla's small feet. She liked to feel the earth beneath her toes and could walk on the roughest chippings barefoot without so much as a wince. To the chagrin of her family she was also blessed with a typical Irish temper. Darcy Lowther, her father, would laugh until he cried as she flew into one of her rages. "Oim not a stereotype," she'd be heard to yell. "Just because I don't look like one of them fancy women doesn't mean that I can't be posh loik one. You see, oim going to be a la-dee in a fine house." She separated the word lady into two distinct syllables and spoke the word with whispered reverence.
The band of eight families who were currently travelling together never stayed for long in any one camp. Previous travellers had soured the way before them. Whispers that the gypos's were back in town soon spread to the local inhabitants and before very long either the police would be moving them on or they would feel unwelcome and move of their own accord. Darcy Lowther was the leader of the band. Rumours abounded that he was a gypsy king, but if this was the case then his crown and his title meant little in the changing world. What he was though was a proud man. True enough he'd never paid a day's taxation in his life. He firmly believed that the country belonged to all men and therefore he should be free to travel it and stay where he liked without having to pay a king's ransom.
They lived their life the old way. Moving from place to place with only their antique trailers and horses to pull them. Their caravans weren't these modern outrageous forty-foot long with double glazing and sky television. They were small domed caravans in the old style. Each individually decorated with the family's personal designs. They had no running water or piped gas. They washed from streams and used candlelight to illuminate their homes when the sun went down. Darcy Lowther believed in a man being worthy of his hire. He was prepared to do an honest day's work for an honest day's pay. He had no gold sovereigns or hooped earrings. He had cegs and calluses from building barns and tending machinery as he travelled. The women didn't sell lucky charms by using veiled threats or scabby children. They worked the land alongside their menfolk or cooked the harvest suppers. Many times the word 'Thief' had rung in their ears; yet Darcy would have boxed the ears of any child, or laid cold any man, or horsewhipped any woman, who ever took anything that didn't rightfully belong to them. It was a simple life, a good life. But it was a hard way of life and one that had to be worked.
Appleby Fair was the main event in the Gypsy calendar. Not only was it the best horse fair the country had to offer, but it was also a social occasion where the old families met up and showed off their new band members. Butt-naked children ran amongst horse's feet, never fearing to be trampled or hurt. They ate fresh fruit and crusty bread and cheese and their faces glowed chubby and red as the sun browned their skin and made them wholesome.
Marla loved the fair because it put her amongst the horses. It mattered not that they belonged to other people. To her all horses were fundamentally free. She never forgot a horse and often years later a horse previously for sale at the fair came up again and Marla would know him and pet him in the enclosure, calming him before he took his turn in the bidding ring. She spent her days riding out the horses down the lane showing off one after another for their owners, urging them on to do their best. Marla rode easy. She had a natural stance that was born to her and never taught. When she rode it was difficult to determine where the horse stopped and she began. She had a grace and poise that made the motion fluid and the horse proud, though she had never sat in a saddle in her life. Her lower leg was long from stretching her calf to mould the horse. Her spine erect but supple cushioning the trot, absorbing the canter and surging with the gallop and she cradled her torso over the horses ears and tucked her pubic bone under her seat to streamline herself to her mount. Her six annual days at the fair passed in a blur of horse sweat and the sweet smell of hay. These were the happiest days of her life.
He couldn't take his eyes off her. Marla was used to male attention. All the men watched her, but she didn't care. She made no effort to hold their gaze as her bronzed thighs gripped tightly to the horses withers and her skirt flew in gossamer exhaust behind her. She had no time for lusty men, only for her horses.
"I'll bid ye to take ye filthy mind back to ye childbearing missus and let her be dealin` with yer." She'd yell with a switch of her riding whip at the men loosed and empowered by ale. They all knew that Marla was as yet untouchable, a virgin, but all at one time or another fancied their chances with the feral woman who was more of a girl.
She hadn't seen this one before. He had straw-blonde hair and denim-blue eyes and a shy smile that made the woman in her pout her lips wantonly as she rode past him. She had ridden the same horse, a strong blanket appaloosa, up and down the lane five times. He was throwing his hind left, and the seller and potential buyer were arguing about weakness in the hind leg. They bartered price until finally a deal was struck, hands were spat on and then pressed together to seal the agreement and Bill gave Marla the nod to bring the horse in. She came down the lane at a soft canter and wheeled the horse effortlessly into the clearing where she was going to dismount. He, the blonde lad, was holding a hand up to her.
"Please let me help you."
Marla's eyes flashed with fiery temper. "Now Oim askin` you here, am I lookin` loike the type of woman who can't be getting` myself down off a horses back? Am I?"
She swung her leg over the blonde man's head exposing the full length of her naked thigh and landed lightly on her feet, almost knocking him off balance in the soft earth. She grabbed two handfuls of loose straw from the ground and began to briskly rub down the lathered horse. Her rounded vowels softened slightly as the temper left her voice. "I'll have to be walkin` him to cool him down, you can come too if you like."
And so their friendship was forged. Tom and Marla spent most of the next few days together. He was a nice lad, only nineteen and alone to fend for himself in the world. Eventually in bits and pieces he told Marla some of his life story. He'd been born to a mother who liked a drink and a father who liked ten. He became a ward of the court from the age of five and had lived in foster homes most of his life. He told Marla of his desire to settle down and have a home of his own. She in turn told him of her dreams and desires. And at night she danced for him and sang sweet melodies in the moonlight. All that disturbed them was the occasional whickering of a restless horse.
It was on the last night that Tommy told her he loved her. He wanted to be sure before he said anything, though he had known it from the first moment she had ridden boldly into his life. He wanted to know if she felt the same for him. She turned away from him slightly and distractedly played with a length of her hair twisting it round and round her fingers.
"Aww Tommy man, you know I'm fond of you something fierce, but I'm going to be a la-dee. I'm going to be somebody Tommy. I'm going to cut my hair and dye it white and by the love of Mary I'm going to have all the fine things that life has denied me. There's no place in my plans for you Tommy. You're a good lad and you'll make a fine man, but you'll never be anybody special Tommy. You'll never be able to give me what I want and without it, I'd grow to hate you."
"Give me a chance to make you happy Marla that's all I ask. I'll do anything to make you happy. I can't live without you Marla, please don't let it go without ever giving it a chance to work."
Marla turned to him, her eyes rimmed with tears about to fall. She kissed him lightly on the cheek and got up and walked away from him down the lane.
She walked back to the vans slowly. Her heart was heavy and she hummed a song as she walked. About half way along the path she heard rustling in the trees to the left-hand side of her. Hands reached out and grabbed her and one of them big and strong clamped firmly over her mouth so that she couldn't scream. She could fight though and she fought like a wildcat kicking out and flailing her arms. The man was too much for her, and soon had her overpowered and lying spent in the fallen leaves at the side of the track. It was dark here, the moonlight hidden by black clouds and dappled trees. She couldn't see who he was. And her first thought was that it was Tommy intent on revenge.
The man pinned her down and grunted in his lust. He was strong enough to force her arms over her head with one hand while he kept her quiet with his left knee. Her mouth was battered and broken by the knee forcing its way between her teeth and her scream was silenced as she felt him releasing his manhood into her. He thrust and grunted like a pig as he forced himself upon her and her squirming and writhing only served to aid his purpose not hers. Finally she lay still and closed her eyes. He ripped at her top until her breasts were freed and bit savagely down on first one then the other. She winced, but made no attempt to scream out anymore. When his seed exploded into her a single tear rolled down her cheek and inside Marla Lowther seethed with a hatred the like of which she'd never known.
When he was spent and finished he just walked away leaving her lying on her back in the silent woods. The whole attack had taken less than five minutes, but every brutal second of it was etched into her memory and she knew that as long as she lived she would rewind the experience every time she closed her eyes.
Marla was calm as she limped the rest of the way to the camp. She walked past the site where the vans were parked and groups of people sang and danced by firelight. Marla was lost in her thoughts and only her beloved horses could give her comfort.
From that night on she would always be tainted. She could never be a fine person now, living in a grand house, how could she? Everyone would know what she was. What she had done. What had been done to her. She was alive with a burning hatred against all humanity.
Hundreds of horses stood in the paddocks, gathering under the sheltering bough of weeping trees. Marla went round them all whispering to each one in turn. Hours later at the same moment, the horses went mad, driven into a frenzy by some unknown force. They stampeded breaking through the camps and trampling people in their beds underfoot. Children and adults alike were killed or maimed. Horses fell broken and terrified, but still the others moved on, jumping over them. Every one of those hundreds of horses turned loco. Much later when people were sorting through the debris and trying to find loved ones and make sense of what had happened, a young girl Found Marla Lowther's body hanging from a tree in the paddocks.
The next day Tommy made his way back up to the fair ground. He had to see Marla, had to make her see sense. She had hurt him badly the previous night, but he knew that she was all he ever wanted and he had to have another go at making her see that if they loved each other they could be happy. He wanted to love and protect her forever. He knew he could be a good provider. She may not have everything that she wanted, but he knew that he'd never let anybody hurt her.
As he walked along the lane towards the ground he knew there was something wrong; it was too quiet. Eerily quiet, he rounded the last bend and was met by a wide-open space with nothing at all on it. Today was the last day of the fair. The day when the most business was conducted, where was everyone? He saw an old man some way up the lane picking blackberries and putting them one by one into a wicker basket.
"Excuse me please. Where is everyone? Where's the fair."
"Hah you've missed it lad, the last day was yesterday. Everybody's been and long gone by now. Only me and the swallows here today."
"But, today was supposed to be the last day of the fair."
"Nay lad, the fair hasn't run over six days for neigh on a hundred years. There's a tale runs round these parts about the gypsy girl's ghost, been on the telly and everything it has. Marla Lowther they called her. On the last night of the fair over a hundred years ago now, she was raped you see. It drove her mad and she possessed all the horses and made them loco. And then when all her friends and family were dead, killed by them mad horses, she killed herself. Just over there it was. The trees long since been chopped down, but that's where it happened right enough."
"What do you mean? What are you talking about? I was here yesterday. She was here, the horses." He trailed off confused. His head beginning to spin.
"Aye lad it's a sad tale, but do you know for years round here there were strange whispers heard in the paddock on the last night and the horses would go wild. They had to call the sixth day off in the end. Everybody rushes to be away before dark fall on fifth night. Some say they've even seen her, wild eyes and face all cut and battered. Some say there's men gone as loco as the horses when they'd seen her. She whispers to them see. Foul words calling them on. Mind, I've been here since I were a lad and I've never seen owt."
The old man carried on talking but Tommy turned in a daze. He fingered the bite marks on his knee and limped back the way he had come.