A Children's Story
High buildings towered over her from every angle.
The only sliver of sky she could see between the jagged roof of the tumbledown cottages she struggled to call ‘home’ and the tops of the surrounding skyscrapers, all metal and concrete, was slate grey tinged with a brooding black.
A storm was brewing.
A jackdaw swooped down onto the small stone wall which separated the row of former steelworkers’ cottages, now swamped by modern office blocks and apartments.
Poppi loved birds. She loved all creatures.
Other children flapped in panic when the big, black birds swooped down in a flurry of frantic feathers and snapping, squawking beaks.
But Poppi welcomed ‘Jack’ – as she’d christened him – like a long lost friend. Her only ‘friend’.
“He’ll peck your eyeballs out and eat them for tea if you get too close.”
The voice old, croaky and menacingly aggressive came from the open sash-window above, rotting wood and peeling white paint framing the woman’s fearsome face.
It was Poppi’s aunt Edith, as evil an old woman as it was possible to imagine.
Edith snuffed out Poppi’s hope, suffocated her ambition, strangled her confidence to the point the young girl was within a whisker, within of a breath, of simply giving up on life itself.
Poppi’s plight seemed utterly, despairingly, hopeless.
Her parents were dead.
He aunt Edith was her only living relative.
Poppi had to run errands for her aunt, and was invariably scolded if she failed to get the correct shopping, beaten with a slipper, denied tea, and sent to her room.
Aged only 12, Poppi felt her own life was already over, before it had even begun.
‘Jack’ flew up into Poppi’s face, flapping, squawking, screeching, as he flew off down the street.
He’d been hit by a spray of stones.
“What’s wrong Poppi, your only friend flown away? Poor Poppi, the pathetic little girl next door. Ha. See ya.”
And with that Damien Woolfe slammed shut the window.
Aged 14, the dreaded Damien – Poppi’s next door neighbour – was as much the frail, young Poppi’s nemesis as her evil aunt. She wished them both dead.
With his pale white skin, straight coal-black hair, and piercing green eyes Damien loved nothing more than terrorising his young, weakling of a neighbour.
Poppi welled up. The last thing she wanted was for her wicked aunt or teenage tormentor to see her vulnerability. She dropped her head hoping her long curly red hair would disguise her face. But it was no mask for fast reddening cheeks which made her whole head look like it was on fire. She failed to fight back the flood of tears which followed, like sprinklers bursting out automatically to soothe the raging heat. Physically, mentally, spiritually, she was well and truly trapped. The game was up. Her fight was all spent. Poppi resigned herself to a life of misery. She sat, head bowed, and sobbed.
“Cheer up love, it might never happen.”
Walking up the path next door, on the other side of the small wall, on the opposite side of her aunt’s house to the dreaded Damien, was a middle aged man in white overalls, carrying wooden steps and a can of yellow paint.
Poppi looked at the van parked outside – “A.Woodsman, painter and decorator”.
Mr Woodsman came to the house next door every day for the next few weeks.
Too shy to speak at first – and wary of speaking to strangers – Poppi grew in confidence, little by little every day - happy to see Mr Woodsman walking down the path.
He always spoke, always passed the time of day.
With his wide smile, his cheery whistle, and his big hands carrying tins of paint, it was like he was carrying a big pot of sunshine into Poppi’s life.
Mr Woodsman always kept his distance, always stayed on his side of the fence. He didn’t want to frighten the young girl.
He witnessed how Poppi was treated by Edith and Damien.
When he saw Poppi’s shoulders slump, and sad face after yet another taunting and telling off, he could see all too clearly that a life, a light, was being snuffed out before it even had a chance to shine.
He couldn’t stand by and not take any action, whatever the neighbours would say.
He’d been on the receiving end of similar bullying himself as a young boy.
He’d never told anyone before.
But on one of his tea-breaks, talking over the fence, he opened up to Poppi that he’d beaten and battered by his own drunk of a father, often for nothing more than leaving the newspaper open on the wrong page – if it was found open on anything other than the Racing tips, the young Mr Woodsman knew he was in for a beating. The only surprise left in store was whether it was by slipper, belt, or shoe.
Finishing his own tale, before putting down his big mug of tea, and getting back to work, he said to Poppi. “Don’t you listen to them, young girl. You’ve got your own life to live. You can be anything, anyone, you want to be.”
One day Poppi noticed Mr Woodsman wasn’t interested in chatting on his tea break. Instead he was concentrating, staring at a board, and seemingly measuring something out with his fingers.
“What’s that you’re doing?” said Poppi.
“I’m painting,” came the reply, Mr Woodsman’s head not moving.
“I thought you painted walls and houses,” said Poppi.
“That’s my day job,” said Mr Woodsman. “That pays the mortgage. This is my real dream,” he said. “This is why I get out of bed every morning, because I want to be an artist. Always have. Ever since I was a young boy.”
Several days passed, and Poppi played quietly on the step, while Mr Woodsman worked away on the other side of the fence.
At the end of one day, Mr Woodsman turned the canvas so Poppi could see.
“Wow,” she said. “That’s amazing.”
Poppi’s eyes lit up.
It was a painting of the street. Her street. Yet although it seemed so familiar, strangely, nothing in the detail of the street was instantly recognisable to Poppi.
Where she saw darkness, he saw light.
Where she saw blacks and greys, he saw splashes of vibrant blues, pinks and greens, wildflowers dotted along the walls of the cottage gardens, vases of flowers in the windows, hanging baskets at the office entrances.
Where she saw only storms brewing beneath menacingly towering buildings leaning in on her as if they were about to squash the very life out of her, he saw towers leading triumphantly up to blue skies and cotton-wool clouds, and, of course, a big yellow sun – like ladders leading to a better place, a better world.
And in the corner of his painting he saw a young girl, with curly red hair, with a big smile on her face, playing with a jackdaw.
Poppi’s heart almost burst. She felt a warm glow in her stomach.
Now when Poppi looked around her, down the street, her world was transformed, as if by magic.
She looked on in wonder at a place she had never seen before, not in 12 and a half years.
A world full of colour and possibilities.
The next day Mr Woodsman packed up his pots and ladders and put them in the back of his van.
“My work is done here,” he said. “But I’d like you to have this,” he said to Poppi, handing over the painting, complete with a red bow, and a red tag which had red writing on it with the following words:
“Follow your dreams and you can achieve anything. Never let anyone take that spirit away from you. Never give up on your ambition. Believe in yourself, believe in your abilities, and you can be anyone you want to be.”
And with a smile for Poppi, Mr Woodsman walked down the path, got into his van and drove away, Poppi watching his van all the way down the street until with a flash of its indicator it turned right into the next road and out of her life forever.
Poppi suffered at the hands of evil aunt Edith and the dreadful Damien for another three-and-a-half years.
But on her sixteenth birthday, she packed her bags, walked out of the front door, across the stone step for the last time, and headed to the nearest train station.
She got herself a one-way ticket to Brighton, spread her wings, and flew out into the big, wide world.
Fast forward 16 years, and back in London, only a stone’s throw from where Poppi had spent the miserable first half of her life, high society was staging a world famous art exhibition.
Right at the far end of the room, beyond all the chatter and clink of champagne glasses from the invited guests, a portrait hung in the corner.
It had a red star next to it – and a note underneath denoting it was this year’s “Painters’ Choice” of the best portrait in the exhibition, next to its title which read:
“A portrait of a woodsman and a jackdaw,” by Poppi Red, aged 32.
Those who looked very carefully, who stepped right up close, and examined the brush strokes in their intricate detail, would notice beyond the woods, in the far corner of the painting, two stone slab headstones poking out of the undergrowth with the inscriptions:
“Edith Red, 1939-2015” and “Damien Woolfe, 1997-2015”.
"Six an' out – an' you gorra find the ball!"
"Aren't yiz gonna give us a 'and?"
Billy's voice altered subtly as he pleaded for help retrieving the cricket ball. He wasn't a whiner by nature, but his native Scouse adenoids combined with the injustice he felt at having to find the ball on his own made him sound like one.
"It's the only half-decent 'corkie' we've got!" Paul, the current Leader of the Usual Suspects reminded him. The two 'best' bats (and the missing ball) were all his personal property, and one of the pairs of pads. The wickets, keeper gloves, and two pair of pads were supplied by his cousin, Tom.
"Can't we use the spare ball, an' someone waiting to bat can look for it?"
Even as the words left his lips, Billy knew he was on a hiding to nothing. The "Six and you're out" rule had always been in their Rulebook, as sacred as anything in Wisden's Almanac. He sighed and began unstrapping his pads, reflecting that this seemed unfair, scant reward for the glorious boundary shot he'd just achieved, a full-blooded straight drive soaring over the bowler's head and onto the disused railway line.
"Come off it, Billy: y'know the other ball's got an egg in it!"
The spare ball, such as it was, had next to no seam left for the bowler to grip, and was badly out of shape. Billy made one last attempt to appeal to the Team Spirit.
"Yeah, alright: but it'd be quicker if yiz'd give us a hand!"
Tom nodded and joined Billy on his long, lonely trudge to the boundary.
"Thanks, Tom: you know I'd do the same for you, any time!"
Tom nodded, and pointed.
"I think it landed just by the tunnel. We oughta find it pretty easy."
It was still only mid-morning, but the sun was already cracking the flags and the temperature was likely to be off the scale by noon. The rest of the team took a swift drinks break and began tossing the spare ball around.
They scrambled down the steep grassy bank into the cutting which led to a tunnel. Cars, buses and other vehicles rumbled by on the main road from Liverpool to Prescot and St. Helens, the noise curiously muted as if coming from somewhere much further away. The singing of small songbirds, the drone of a solitary bee, even the flapping of a butterfly's wings seemed louder, somehow more real than the general white noise of traffic, so constant it barely registered on the conscious mind.
Luck, it seemed, was on their side. The errant cricket ball glistened cherry red, easy to spot in the centre of the ancient, rusty rails. The gravel and stone of the railbed had restricted the growth of grass and weeds. Tom and Billy grinned, pleased they'd been rewarded for volunteering. Billy took a deep breath to relay the good news to the rest of the team but choked off his victory yell when Tom touched his shoulder.
"Hang about: what's this?"
Just inside the tunnel entrance, not quite in the shadow cast by the bridge was an object which didn't belong amongst the weeds, long grasses and flowers growing profusely all around.
"Dunno, it just looks like something someone's dumped" Billy said "C'mon, let's get back t' the game …"
"Nah, wait a minute. Looks kinda - I dunno, like I recognise it but I can't quite figure out 'zackly what it is …"
"It" had a definite shape: something manufactured, mostly made of wood, but somehow incomplete. Tom didn't seem to be listening to Billy. He sauntered over and squatted on his haunches, running his hand over the shape, which was about three foot high and four or five feet in length. It stood on two slightly curved wooden rails …
"I know what it is – or was!" Billy said, as a random memory clicked into place. "My Dad bought our Clare one fer Crimbo a few years ago! It's a rockin' 'orse – look, y' can see where the 'ead useter be!"
Once Billy had put a name to it Tom realised he was right.
"Guess you're right 'bout it bein' dumped: not much good to anyone wi' no 'ead!" he muttered. Their inspection of the broken toy was interrupted by a holler from above.
"Come on, youse two: ain't yer found that ball yet?"
"Yes, we gorrit! But come down an' have a decko at this we found in the tunnel!"
Tom's excited shout brought fifteen assorted bodies (mostly dressed in what had been 'whites' when they left home that morning) tumbling down the steep slope: Tom's kid brother, Pete, had been left 'on Dixie', guarding their cricket equipment against any opportunist thief.
"What'ya found, Tom?"
"Jeez, that looks ancient!"
"Where's the 'ead? Have you looked round?"
"D'yer think we could fix it – if we found the head?"
"Oh, trust you, Gerry! OK, your Dad's a chippie, but I doubt even he could purrit back together!"
Tom still had his hand on the horse's shoulders. He wiggled a couple of fingers inside the torn, ragged opening where the head had once been. He brought out a handful of coarse rags and stuffing, then frowned and dug deeper.
"There's something more solid down here: hang about …"
His fingers closed around something. It cost him some effort to pull it out: his clenched fist and whatever he'd found made it more difficult to extract his hand from the horse's neck.
"If yer go much deeper yiz'll be in its belly: hope that's not horseshit yer pullin' out!" Paul cackled, inspiring a round of rude, lewd and ribald comments from the rest of the group.
"Or look on the ground, under its arse: yer might find rocking horse droppings. Me Mam says they're so rare, they're worth a fortune!"
Everyone crowded to see what Tom had pulled out of the horse's innards. Tom stood to one side, next to Paul, scrutinising whatever it was Tom had found. There was something indefinable about their stiff posture and total silence which quelled the boisterous, unruly crowd. Everyone gathered round in silence, holding their collective breaths.
Tom had a sturdy elastic band looped round his thumb. He'd taken it from a tight roll of brown-and-white pieces of paper, all the same size. These he flattened out, passing about half of them to Paul
"Bloody hell!" muttered Eddie "I've never soon so much moolah …!"
" … all in one place!" Norman added. The silence was becoming unbearable.
Paul's eyes met Tom's: words weren't necessary. They both removed their caps, placing the notes they'd already flattened out inside them and put them on the ground, weighted down with a stone. Tom took first turn at rummaging inside the wooden frame: as he withdrew his hand with another bundle of similar size and appearance, Paul was ready to try his luck.
"Norman, you go next: then shoot off an' bring our Pete. Give him a 'and carryin' the gear, I don't think we'll be playin' much more cricket today …!"
By the time the last shreds of stuffing had been completely removed from the horse, a total of nineteen rubber-banded tubes of notes lay in the cinder and gravel bedding between the long-defunct rails.
"They all look the same size, to me: I vote we just count 'ow much the one open pack comes to, 'stead o' unpacking the 'ole lot!"
"More t' the point, Tom: what we gonna do with it? For starters, it's not ours: an' ferra third-fourth-fifth, me Mam & Dad'll go batshit if I turn up with so much as a single tenner – even a fiver, she'd know it's more'n I ever 'ave in me pocket!"
"Paul's right: no way any of us would be able to bullshit our way outta this!" Pete added, bringing instant and unanimous agreement.
"Have you had a look round the rest o' the tunnel?" someone asked. Paul thought it might have been Eddie but the acoustics of the tunnel deadened and slightly distorted the speaker's voice. He couldn't be certain who'd spoken.
It didn't matter, for the moment: the suggestion caused general mobilisation without further discussion. Paul and Tom grabbed a couple of wickets from the bag and used them to prevent the unchecked surge from trampling the ground: who knew what might be concealed in the grass and weeds? In the tunnel's mouth alone there was a considerable amount of vegetation: the railway line had been disused since before any of them had been born, and even without the rubbish and scrap which had been dumped there over the years there was plenty of natural cover in which more Treasure Trove might be discovered.
"We should do this like the cops do on telly"
Paul was the oldest of them, by a whole three days, and as it was 'his' season while Cricket ruled supreme, nobody queried his right to assume command.
"We make a line across the tunnel. Use a bat, a wicket, or a stick o' some sort to poke the ground in front o' yiz before taking a step forwards."
Everyone had seen these scenes on CSI and other police dramas but this was for real . Now they'd find out if there was any merit in this forensic search technique, or if it was just something that 'looked good' on the small screen.
Inch by methodical inch they edged carefully into the tunnel. As the light faded from the entrance behind them they dropped to their knees to scrutinise the ground more closely. One or two curious items turned up. A few unidentifiable items were small enough to be pocketed for later inspection, but nothing was found which might prove to be valuable.
Heads down, concentrating, they weren't fully aware of the gradual improvement in the lighting until Tom happened to glance up.
"We're nearly there, y'know! The other end o' the tunnel, I mean!"
A muted cheer (not quite sarcastic in nature) greeted the news, and they applied themselves to completing their self-appointed task as carefully as they'd worked so far. As the light continued to improve they dragged themselves back to their feet and resumed their earlier methodology, testing the ground at their feet with sticks, wickets and bats.
They all sensed immediately that there was something different about the daylight as they emerged, scruffy, soiled and panting, from the tunnel. Automatically, Paul checked his wristwatch. Had they been so absorbed by the intensity of their fingertip searching that he'd lost all track of time? It was still unbelievably hot: his watch reassured him it wasn't yet noon, but his eyes told him a different tale.
The shadows were long and spidery and in a direction he hadn't expected. The sun was also much lower in the sky than it had any right to be: to his left as he stood and faced back the way they'd come, hanging like a blood-orange over the Mersey … in the West? Surely they hadn't been that long searching in the tunnel? Had his watch stopped? No, the figures on the dial pulsed steadily, granting each second its full (if brief) allotted moment of existence. Where had the day gone? The difference in the quality of the daylight was without doubt because somehow it was now early evening, a fact proved by the ever-lengthening shadows and the unexpected position of the sun in the sky. He spun on his heels to face the other way. The rest of the gang were still brushing themselves down, rubbing stiff knees, complaining and cursing as pins and needles heralded the return of circulation in their legs. Nobody else had given their surroundings a second glance.
"Er, guys: we might have a problem here!"
Tom was first to react, springing to his feel with a confused look in his eyes.
"Chuffin' Hell, where's Sainsbury's supermarket gone?"
Gwen had instantly become pivotal to my stay in Burgundy when we met at her open-air studio. As we talked at length I wondered how to approach her. In the event she asked me in for a meal. We arranged to meet the next day and I hoped I could ride the deep swell I was feeling.
She dressed carefully for our date. A broad - rimed straw hat set off her strawberry blonde hair and a flowing printed skirt flattered her maturing curves. Life burgeoning long after her children had left. I felt I pleased her as a companion. We sat drinking coffee beneath an old film poster of ‘La Dolce Vita’. Would champagne follow?
She had brought me to Avalon to see a commission she had recently installed. It is displayed in the ancient Romanesque church in the market square. It is an unflinchingly modern representation of Christ’s ascension to heaven placed up high. First you notice the wounded feet, expressive like a woman’s, then you see the elongated body formed by thin silver metal drawn out as if being pulled into a black hole. The neck and head of glass which is seen only as a bright outline entering another dimension, which of course is the point. The longer I looked the more I felt its power, and hers.
As I stood admiring her work Gwen herself was absorbed by several large notice boards linked together and covered with drawings by Sunday school children, young ones at that. The colourful depictions of their little world of smiling hopeful faces, angels and families were alike in simplicity and acceptance.
Gwen whispered, “Oh, how much is hoped for, how much is lost and yet how much can remain. Our worries seem timeless and unrelated to outcomes.”
“Life is surely independent of our worries.” I echoed, not realising, until later, the depths from which her feelings were welling up.
Gwen and I took the direct approach and fell easily into each other’s life. She told me about a particular virus she had but I had not thought it would kill her. In our short togetherness we were never apart, literally. This was largely because her house was in a small hamlet and there was simply nowhere to go beyond the garden and the small courtyard where she worked obsessively with mallet and chisel. Under the stars in the evening and the sun in the garden, over coffee and wine, over walks and over her shoulder as she added something of herself to stones she spoke to me of her life. In a beautiful unhurried meandering way she became as familiar to me as the moon. Which is to say a poetic feeling rather than actual knowledge.
When she died I met both her children and was looking forward to learning more about “my” Gwen. They arrived together a few days before the funeral but it was clear that the togetherness was unusual. Very soon the two girls started circling each other looking to impose differing views about their mother. Some of their words go come back to me at night:
Marine, the younger by three years: “Our childhood was full of freedom and wonder.”
Chantal: “For you maybe, you believed everything you were told. I had to wash and dry my clothes overnight and get myself up to walk to school.”
Marine : “ I remember bright holidays and money for treats.”
Chantal: “Mum drank and drank. All those artist ‘friends’ – it wasn’t freedom we had, it was neglect.”
Marine: “Mum showed us love, even when the marriage was breaking up but I agree, there was more love than stability.”
They both said that Gwen had been playful, fun and loved and respected by many. They were themselves developing artistic reputations and must have been aware that the three of them were shaped by some deep similarities.
They had known of my arrival but had not thought of asking my name, no doubt thinking I wouldn’t last. They hadn’t known of Gwen’s illness either and I was their only key to the last months of their mother’s life. She had spoken to me about her tumultuous life and about the fear that she had neglected Chantal and Marine to develop her art. She was afraid that her work would be found ‘lightweight’, that some of the artists she had known had treated her more as a model, even as a groupie, than as equally gifted. I knew, remembering her response to the Sunday school children’s drawings in the church that she was aware that nature is a lot deeper than individuals.
I told them what I knew. I told them that whatever they remembered of their childhood they had been loved by a force of nature, a great artist. And I drove them to Avalon and lead them to the church. I watched them standing beneath the achievement of their mother. This was art speaking to them beyond the facts. I sensed tears, both of them speechless.
Later outside in the sunlit square the spoke quietly together and then, turning to me said, “A mother is not the woman her children think she is.”