A Children's Story

Entry by: writerYNKGHTYLDE

7th August 2015
Poppi sat on the cold, grey, stone slab of a step outside the cramped terraced house in the middle of the city.
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”.