I’m sitting across from a woman in her mid fifties, whose hair is fine, bobbed, the colour of wet sand and whose face, a tightly drawn series of triangles, is straining at the fact that I’ve come to the defense of gypsies.
“How can you say that?” She shrieks, eyes wide and crazed. “They are utter monsters!”
Let’s rewind. I’m among the wide plains of Lincolnshire, in what looks like an old Elizabethan mansion, but which is actually a very good Victorian copy. Not for the first time, I am a long way from home, socially and geographically, teaching Business Studies, Geography and P.E. A-level to someone who wouldn’t need me if he could muster up the strength to open his files, turn each page of his copious notes and read what’s written on them.
The pupil, Harry, is currently in the cinema room, battling through a play station game and destroying some evil horde (possibly gypsies?) or creating a dream football team (gypsies excluded). But it is his mother, Mrs. Judy Studley-Rochford, frothing at the topic of gypsies, who seems more in need of help. She is very much alone in this shining beacon of a country house and ever terrified of traveling folk targeting her satinwood.
I arrived at the start of the week to find the house embroiled in the kind of security that would make a fitting challenge for a Mission Impossible scene. At the heavy front door, which was eyed by a camera and only opened after multiple bolts had been slid and locks had been turned, entry led into a vestibule, for which code had to be keyed electronically, before one could actually reach the house itself and do something dangerous like walk unhindered from room to room.
I was not the only visitor that week. As I sat down with Harry in the paneled dining room, reading through the physical process of hitting a tennis ball, I was aware of two men dressed in khaki overalls, gently removing vases from their stands and paintings from their hooks. When I had the chance, I asked Mrs. Studley-Rochford what they were up to.
“They’re DNA marking,” she said, as though it were obvious.
I stared blankly.
“So that if they come here and try to break in, anything they take will be traceable. We’ll get it back. They won’t be able to hide it anywhere,” she paused, a triumphant glint in her haunted eyes. “Not even in one of their pits!”
The men dutifully went through anything they could find in the house that wasn’t structural. When the day was over and night came, I witnessed the lockdown of Hawmsley House. Alarms were primed, sensors flashed, exterior doors were locked more than once, every window had to be bolted and no interior door could be left ajar.
“Is there anything else you need?” Mrs. Studley-Rochford asked before I turned in, “Only I’m setting the last alarm and you won’t be able to leave your room until morning now.”
I assured her that I was fine, said good night and thought that all I lacked in this multi-million pound palace was the freedom to get a glass of water after dark.
In between lessons I watched her. She stood sentry in the kitchen, alert to any arriving vehicle, whether housekeeper or gardener, never too busy she couldn’t leap at the first sound of tyres cracking up gravel. The country estate, in the manner of such, had large gates and a low fence, whose openness and accessibility harked back to a time when all within reach would bow to the gentry from the big house. There was never any need for barriers when the whole village was your vassal, and when each outlying cottage acted as first defense against strangers. But then the architects of the estate hadn’t bargained on unbridled capital and class war when they landscaped the all-too accessible grounds.
As we sat down to eat on the final evening, I asked whether she liked living in her home.
She looked uncertain. “Well of course it’s a lot safer than South Africa.”
That seemed like a positive start.
“It’s just that we’re so exposed,” she moaned. “You can see it from the roads, in all directions. They know exactly where we are.”
I asked her whether she had thought about planting trees.
She frowned, “Trees? I mean, seriously. Have you seen how long they take to grow?”
What about a very high fence?
She nodded, staring past me to the open prairie of a back garden and chewing a mouthful of sweet corn as if considering it.
“I’ve mentioned it to Hugo but of course he’s not here. He doesn’t see them…”
I learned that her husband worked for a giant bank and lived abroad in gypsy-free Shanghai, only returning for no more than 182 days in every tax year. Harry was away at school and his elder brother at university.
“So it’s just you living here?” I asked cheerfully.
“Well Parsons the gardener lives nearby. Oh and the dogs, of course. It’s fine, fine…” she drifted away, repeating that word in the way that only makes it sound less convincing the further it echoes.
As we continued eating I was aware that she stopped dead, frozen by an unshakeable fear, whenever a car appeared to slow down. It was unfortunate their house was bordered on three sides by roads, one of them fairly major, and by a couple of T-junctions. I realised I couldn’t avoid this subject now. The DNA marking, the locks, anxiety over impending vehicles – I had to find out, who exactly was she afraid of?
“The Gypsies,” she cried, relief at being able to voice that word erupting like magma. “The Thomson family!”
I asked whether she was frequently plagued by offers to sharpen knives and tarmac her graveled drive.
She set her face. “It’s not a joke. The Thomson family is infamous. They come for you in the night. They steal everything, everything.” Her voice was becoming more strained and yet at the same time almost joyful.
“They stole a tractor once, and every single garden tool from a shed and,” she leaned closer for emphasis. “They bury everything they take in pits.”
“Pits!” she barked.
I had vague memories of a story about some rural thieves who had pilfered silver from houses like this, but hadn’t they been charged and tried years back now?
“They have enormous families. They’re like thorns, you cut one head off and twelve more spring up. They’re around here now, I know they are. Watching. Waiting.”
The rant against one particular family segued effortlessly into a wider attack on gypsies in general and before finding myself an unwitting audience to racist brush strokes of an even broader nature, I suggested there were a lot of qualities to the nomadic life, and hadn’t our ancestors benefited from living with a much greater sense of freedom as they roamed across the land?
It was at this point that Mrs. Studley-Rochford’s eye actually swiveled. The left one blinked rapidly, but it was the right one that seemed to resemble a pinball that had been shot and had nowhere to go. That’s when she exploded and called all gypsies monsters.
Of course it’s awkward when the family that is paying you to come and live amongst them for a week suddenly goes mental. Mrs. Studley-Rochford’s double-barreled calm had been rocked by the sound of her own raised voice and social niceties breaking on the polished parquet. Even though she rose to suggest desert and her eyes had regained a semblance of stability, I could still see a vein on the side of her neck pulse. I knew curfew would come earlier tonight.
But it’s even more awkward to realise that people can spend the best part of their lives, locked into some awful, happiness-sucking anxiety about pig ugly pictures being nicked.
The terrible tragedy among the super rich is that although they have what the rest of us think we most want – the mansion, the yacht, the holidays, the jewellery – they live in abject fear lest any part of it gets stolen. The result of such long-nurtured fear is that their children grow up with an inherited psychosis, to the extent that Harry revealed in detail, on more than one occasion, what he would do should he find the phone in his bedroom disconnected and the house under attack by vigilante gypsy cat burglars. It’s little wonder that the moneyed classes, both new and old, reach so instinctively, so habitually, for guns.
It’s equally awful to think that a house that could bustle with the lives of dozens of people, perched on a 75 acre estate that could similarly offer homes to many, is kept intentionally isolated; home only to one terrified woman and a son whose sole ambition when it came to university was to get as far away from his gypsy-obsessed mother as possible.
It’s the language of fear that gives families like the Studley-Rochfords their DNA markers, panic rooms and highly complex alarm systems. But it’s a fear that makes them the biggest victims of their own wealth. Their mansions become prisons, their possessions change into objects of terror, and the world outside exists in never-ending menace.
I think of Judy Studley-Rochford as one of the reasons not to have obscene wealth inequality. I see her perched on a stool in her kitchen at night, alone, fiddling with the filigree on an impossibly expensive chain bracelet as her supper for one defrosts in the oven, reaching for her glass of chilled Pinot, eyeing the silent threat of car headlamps as they ache along the inky vista, trying not to shake.