Crying could be heard from upstairs as Rosa stepped into the front hallway, tucking her keys into her pocket. She was tired and she couldn’t smell any food cooking; her first reaction was a prickling irritation. It was Poppy’s turn to make dinner, the one day a week that Rosa could have off from standing in front of an oven and chopping countless onions, inevitably weeping all the while; and what was the girl doing instead? Watching that damned television. Miles had been right about not letting her have a tv upstairs; somehow the house had been divided by its presence. Still, she would never admit that to her ex-husband, and at least it had cheered Poppy up after the separation. But watching it when she should have been cooking for her hungry mother was too much to bear.
Rosa headed upstairs, her mouth set. But with each step her annoyance subsided a little, then a little further, every move towards the sound bringing with it stirrings of a new emotion; by the time Rosa had climbed the two flights of stairs her initial displeasure had been completely shelved by maternal worry. Clearly, the crying came from her daughter, not the television. She ran up the last few steps and pushed open the door of the smallest bedroom. Poppy’s room: buttercup yellow walls and wooden flooring, and the blue rug Miles had brought her back from his business trip to India; the rug from the trip that still caused a tight loop of bitterness to lace its way around Rosa’s bruised heart.
It was Poppy, however, who captured her attention now.
She was lying on her bed, panting.
‘Darling?’ said Rosa, remembering what various parent friends had said about these teen years and the best way to deal with such angst. Treat it as a real problem, she repeated to herself. And – whatever you do – don’t patronise.
And yet even as she constructed these thoughts she knew that they were irrelevant, that she was thinking them only because she hoped, urgently, that all that now ailed Poppy was an argument with her peers.
‘What’s the matter?’
The way Poppy tried to sit up, reaching out to her mother as though she had begun to believe that the presence of another was an impossible myth, a long-ago dream, and only the touch of her hand, frantically clinging, on Rosa’s forearm could dispel the delusion of that hope into reality; that scared Rosa more than anything she had ever seen. Here was her daughter: reliant, desperate, hurting, in need. And she was relying on, desperate for, in need of her, Rosa Stewart; and Rosa was terrified.
Poppy’s eyes, great and green, were flinching in pain.
‘There, there, lie back, lie down.’
Rosa’s voice suggested a soothing easy calm, the calm of the wise implacable shaman who knows that all will be well. It was a calm she had witnessed in Miles when Poppy had fallen from her bike on the side of a busy road, the calm that he had later told her was entirely feigned, adopted for Poppy’s comfort. It was a calm that concealed sheer urgent panic, and she heard it come from her with a distant interested wonder: I sound so in control, so relaxed … And yet it is all I can do not to shake her and force her to speak – tell me Poppy, tell me!
She breathed, deeply, trying to maintain that calm, and suddenly aware that Poppy’s own breathing was staccato, juttery.
Afraid that the least movement might send her daughter into some kind of breathing failure, Rosa seated herself gingerly on the side of the bed. Gently she supported Poppy, who was moaning with the effort of staying upright, and leant her back down. It cost Rosa a tension of resolute will and effort to keep her hands on Poppy’s shoulders and not run desperately to the telephone to claw the number of the ambulance and beg them, please, please, to do something for her daughter who had never before shown such anguish. Poppy’s forehead was glistening with sweat; her cries were intermitted with gasps. Rosa fought to keep panic and nausea and hideous primeval fear hidden.
‘OK, my darling, what is it? Can you tell me what it is?’
What if it was just period pains? But worse, what if it was not—surely she should just call an ambulance right now?
Poppy took a deep breath that seemed to sting her chest: her face reddened, she winced.
‘Mum,’ she whimpered, ‘my tummy really, really hurts.’
She looked at her mother with tears spilling out of her eyes and steadily trickling down her face, teetering on the edge of her nose and falling onto the bright childish bedcovers. Rosa wiped her face, lightly, slowly.
‘It’s not your period?’
‘I’ve had it, it’s finished.’ Poppy breathed in a shuddering breath that jolted her chest. ‘Mum, I tried calling you and it didn’t go through and’ – she had to breathe in another breath that shackled and wavered – ‘I’ve just been waiting.’ She was sobbing again; the cries seemed to push her into even more pain.
And Rosa, who had always consulted her husband in every decision to do with Poppy, who had turned to her friends after Miles had vanished the intimacy of the link between them, who feared the weighing responsibility of action that settled upon her now—now, in this moment where everything depended on her, Rosa snapped to a decision like she never had before. She smiled at her daughter, the most precious person in her life, and said that there was nothing to worry about but that she’d better call the doctor, just to be sure.
She phoned the ambulance services, fingers shaking as she dialled the three nines she had seen on television programs since childhood, always dwelling in a day dream on what it would be like to actually press them, nine nine nine. She had felt sure that she would chance upon some awful situation, assert control, saving the day with a balanced judgement; she would be congratulated by everybody, made famous by her exemplary actions. Yes, that was the way an eager Rosa had envisaged making her 999 call. Now, she finds herself automatically reciting her address, the phone almost slipping out of hands that are awash with sweat. She is desperate to drop the phone and dash back to her Poppy.
Poppy had a fist in her stomach that was clenching out her breath and her life.
It couldn’t be prevented.
Its fingers opened and closed and each time they closed they stifled out weeks, months, years of life’s living moments.
That wasn’t her heart; that was the fist, that had stolen all the stock of energies in her body and concentrated them only on opening and shutting, opening and shutting. Like crab claws, like pincers. Pump pump pump.
The diagnosis was softly and smilingly related to Poppy by her mother and a doctor. He was a middle-aged man who seemed to Poppy quite delightfully nervous and shifting, surely terrified, she decided, by the power contained in the words that were leaving his mouth. He was telling the tale of the pumping that was staunching the flow of her life and seemed quite repulsed by it. Mildly Poppy listened, absorbed by the movement of his mouth and the fidgets of his hands. Poor man, she thought; to be so disturbed by his job must be terrible for his nerves.
Her attention shifted as he spoke on. It was so very intriguing that she could have had this thing – whatever it was – inside her, for all of this time, weeks and weeks; and yet she had never known, never even suspected. It had had to be detected and divulged by strangers who had no need or business to be concerned with her body, her innards. And she, she who had every reason, had instead been preoccupied with studying for SATs exams, she had worried about friendships and broken alliances, she had snuggled up with her mum in the evenings and battled inside as to whether or not she was still too babyish. Abigail says that no one cuddles their parents anymore. Kisses good night aren’t done by teenagers! These had been her concerns, these and the problem of boys as she noticed them regard her daily at school and began to wonder whether or not she was attractive. And for all of that time there had been this bug growing inside her. Poppy thought that it was quite amazing, and berated herself for not having paid enough attention to her body to have realised.
Poppy’s thoughtfulness was plainly etched on her young face and it created an increasing unease in the still-speaking doctor. He was unnervingly bewildered by the child before him; more immediately, he felt sorry for the mother, because her daughter, who was nodding readily as he spoke, clearly did not understand what it was that he was telling her. Why was she asking questions, interested as though this was one of her school lessons? He disliked having to draw out the diagnosis for this morbid child in front of the parent, who evidently was struggling to hold herself together.
But Poppy wasn’t aware of what the doctor saw; no, in the mind of oblivious Poppy stayed simply circling the news of her oncoming death. What was going to happen now? So life on this earth was finished. It was a shame, because she had taken her exams and she wanted to know how she had done, particularly in art – she cherished a future in painting – and she wanted to fall wildly in love and have a passionate marriage, and three children. She wanted to build a home, and she wanted to be a brilliant mother, and raise children that she would love more than she loved herself. Naturally this was just the kind of love that would hurt, but it was a love that was worth hurting, she felt.
Without these things, what could be coming instead?
A few weeks later, these same thoughts were still whirling around in Poppy’s head, still answer-less. The young girl was sitting tucked in beneath the covers of her bed, knees up. Her physical pain was under control of medication now and quite bearable: a sort of dull ache that she frequently forgot about, sharpening only if she moved too quickly.
‘I expected that future. Now I will never have it.’ She spoke aloud. This was the only conclusion she could draw; it was the only fact.
The drawn curtains covering her open window stirred in the wind and the advent of daylight momentarily changed the dark room. Her eyesight was drawn by the sudden glint of the sunlight onto an antique handmirror. The mirror, which was lying on her desk, was a present from her grandmother, to whom she felt a strong bond, and a strange one, for they had never in her memory met. The story of their interaction was peculiar, peculiar enough for Poppy never to tire of hearing it; for her it had the irresistibility of a fairy-tale.
On the very day Rosa had discovered that she was pregnant – by, as Poppy’s parents had always put it, a cruel coincidence – Poppy’s grandmother had learnt of her own imminent death. A cancer had been growing inside her the way the pincers of the crab grew even now inside Poppy. Immediately she had become convinced that the two of them, grandmother and grand-daughter, were tied by fate in an obscure but nevertheless certain manner. When Poppy had been born, her grandmother had given her the mirror. It was, she decreed, something she wanted Poppy to grow up with and to love.
She had died when Poppy was just starting to toddle around, still shrouded in nappies, and Poppy remembered nothing of her. But she remembered the mirror from the beginnings of her memories. It was vivid in photographs; it was the one piece of furniture in Poppy’s bedroom that had remained constant. Beds, bed-covers, desks, bubble chairs: all had been and gone, scratched or worn beyond use, or simply so out-of-date as to be an embarrassment to Poppy whenever her friends came over. The mirror, though, weighty with its silver jewelled backing, had always remained.
Poppy used to look into it and delight in seeing the reflection of her bedroom deep inside it, the same but different, somehow intangible. Her favourite game – one that she still indulged in when she was sure that nobody was going to burst suddenly in – had always been to imagine the world that existed inside and beyond the mirror. There, everything was the same – there was a Poppy, with her parents, and school – but different – ah, there Poppy could fly, with great silver sprouted wings, and she was brilliant at algebra, and never embarrassed back to babyhood by her ignorance of the teenage world. The world in the mirror excited her. It was a world of the best changes conceivable. And of course her grandmother would be there too, smiling her joy and love and pride at her only grand-daughter.
Now, as Poppy surveyed the mirror, she felt surging strong her love for that unknown woman. She had accumulated in Poppy’s heart the status of a wise old fairy godmother. The family lore was that she had left Poppy the mirror in order that the two maintain their connection and nourish their bond for all life long. Poppy liked to think of that.
Carefully she folded back her bedclothes and bent her legs down, away from the bed, onto the floor. They felt tired and weak: over the past month she had not moved them much. People kept coming to visit her while she was in bed, so that she felt that she ought not to move; she had assumed that she would not be able to. Her mother had been with her even when she went to the toilet. This was her first movement without other eyes watching, other hands helping. She delicately shifted onto her legs and found that she could stand. Good; she didn’t need all of this coddled pressured babying! She was feeling so stifled in bed all day. Perhaps she would even be able to continue her normal physical activity, for now that the pain had lessened she felt fairly normal.
Then in an instant Poppy’s legs were shaking and she realised how much strength and energy she had lost. She truly was ill.
Nevertheless she kept her eyes fixed on the mirror and began to move towards it.
A minute or so later she was collapsed back in bed, feeling weak and worn out―but she had the mirror. She held it in her hands, marvelling at the coolness of its silver patterning. Turning it over, she felt the shape of its jewels and caressed the multitude of colours that composed its crown: an enormous eye shape. Poppy often changed her mind about what this eye was. Sometimes it seemed an iris, multicoloured and watching; other times, it was an evil eye, warding off ill fortune; occasionally it wasn’t an eye at all, but a great oxbow lake that swilled and swirled in colours that sparked dreams of dreams.
Today she could not decide. Perhaps it was mere abstract patterning. Perhaps it had been designed to recall the eye of her grandmother. Nobody knew where it had come from, after all; her father certainly didn’t remember seeing it around the house when he had been growing up. Perhaps it had been made specifically for her at her grandmother’s request.
She turned it back round and held it up to her face.
Poppy was unsure whether or not she was beautiful. It was a possibility. Had she more time, she thought, she might turn out to be a real beauty, one of those women that men stop for in the streets just to gaze on the perfection of her shape, her form; a form that men would wish to caress and women would stare at in troubled envy, unable to believe that anyone could have such serenity in their stance.
Her face, still so young. To think she had only worn make-up a few, special, times! Somebody’s wedding, a Christmas party: on both occasions she had felt uncomfortable with the make-up that she had begged her mum to apply because she felt it made her look even younger. She had wanted her pine-coloured hair tied in a high bun, like the beautiful actresses who win awards and collect them in long flowing dresses; but it hadn’t yet grown enough to allow those elegant twists.
Poppy surveyed it, lamenting that she would never have the chance to grow it to her bottom and dye it auburn and swan around with incredible soft hair that caught the light and the eye of the world.
She did like her eyes, though. They were dark green, so dark they were mistaken for brown, and powerful. Her eyes, she decided, admiring their oriental ellipsis shape, both hid her dreaminess and revealed it. People would stare at her, either assuming she was thinking of something profound, or dismissing her as a dippy dreamer.
And a lot of the time, she considered, I am dreaming; but what is the matter with a dream? My perception and notions can be fantasist, even childlike – but doesn’t that make me fortunate? Poppy had never understood the scorn some people held for dreams. She could only see that they were good things to have: they led you to live; they spurred you to hope and to imagine the best that things that could be. But she was sometimes troubled by the notion that a dream was in fact a selfish indulgence, something that could force you to stray from what was right or what was best. A dream could lead you to hurt people.
Like her father. She had watched him swing wildly back and forth between elation and depression, like a hammer in the hand of the strongest man in the world; he would flicker suddenly from buoyant ecstasy as he chatted with Poppy to stifled imploding bursts of emotion – of what she couldn't tell: anger or sadness, or resentment – when he spoke with her mum. She too, Poppy could see, carried great wells of bitterness inside her heart. Something had gone wrong for them. And she felt that her dad’s dream had simply been to escape, and she knew that he was happier now, because he had done it; but what had his decision cost their family?
And Poppy couldn’t, despite hours musing on it, hours talking to herself in the mirror, decide whether he had been right or wrong to leave.
I miss his constant presence, and yet I love the time I can spend with him now, now that he is actually happy again.
I miss doing things as us three, as one merged family, and yet mum and dad are both so much clearer, somehow cleaner, when apart.
As for her mum’s dream, Poppy wasn’t sure what that could be. She did not know what it was that her mum wanted, which made her suspect that Rosa herself had no idea. And that, in spite of what she feared about the danger of dreams and in spite of what they had done to her own family, made Poppy piercingly, sharply sad, as though a curved knife, perhaps a samurai, were slicing her, right in half, forever. She wanted her mum to want ... something.
Poppy didn’t know what it was that she wanted, though. She knew that everybody was terrified of death and that what was happening to her was a calamity; but she knew this like she knew that one number multiplied by another makes a third. A mere uninteresting fact that did not apply to anything in particular. She didn’t feel this fear. She would have liked to grow up because she wanted to see how she would have turned out. But not to grow up, to remain like this, was not bad. She liked herself. And she was pretty lucky: thirteen years, and she had been happy through all of them.
Poppy Poppy Poppy, she thought. It’s all changing.
Changing was the key word, she thought, as she wrote in her diary one night when she woke with a head so full that she just had to ease it a little. Changing, not ending. Her path was leading a different way from the one that she had always taken for granted. But something was remaining constant: her.
It was the afterlife.
Poppy had absolute certainty in it. She couldn’t explain why, and indeed wouldn’t; she was convinced, in her aloof way, that anyone who asked her what do you believe in that for? simply wouldn’t understand should she try to reason it out with them. Some things, she thought, just cannot be logically described. A pale and large man who had come to visit her mum after her dad had left had said something similar. He had contemplated Rosa’s tears with calm, taken her hand and asked her if she could explain how the water pouring down her face was produced. Poppy, nestling on her bean bag in the corner reading, had thought it such an odd question that she had put her book down and wandered over to listen. And she still remembered what he had said: the miracle of life’s existence was plain in the very fact of her being here, with no knowledge of how she had done it, no knowledge of the way that her body worked, nor of the million tiny intricate functions that were in process every moment of every day of the entire duration of her life, each without her noticing. The halting of even one would keep her body from continuing. By logic, Rosa, or for that matter, any person who claimed responsibility for their own existence, should not be alive, for they could not explain why and how it was that they had life. What proof more, the man had asked as Rosa wept, did one need that things work mysteriously?
This had been a complete revelation for Poppy. So God really does exist! Good, she was glad; God was such a lovely thought, like a gigantic parent who can bless his children, and also let them go.
She had already believed in God, in any case. And with that had come a firm belief in an afterlife, for if there was a something more, there also had to be a somewhere. Her view of the afterlife, like the workings of her body, could not be explained. But sometimes when she woke up and the sun was shining, and the mirror glinted its morning greeting, and the day seemed to stretch on ahead as an endless throne of opportunity, she did not see how people could possibly think that everything had just happened to fall into existence in these certain positions and situations. And she couldn’t see how life could ever, ever stop.
Because the thing she was unwaveringly certain of was that things did not just occur at random. And that meant God – and God meant an afterlife.
The news that her life was drastically foreshortened led Poppy to wonder what was coming next. Well, a big change, obviously. She wanted to ask her mum for her perspective of the prospects (which were, after all, plentiful) but she was also worried that if she mentioned anything, she would burden her mum even more. And to bring up the afterlife? Their family wasn’t religious, or spiritual, or new-agey. She didn’t want her mum to think her mad as well as dying.
Dying. Such a big word. She didn’t believe it, somehow. Death? It was too big to think of. It couldn’t be. Extinguished. Gone. Absence. Poppy pencilled each word in her diary, marvelling at how cavernous and unfulfilled the words themselves seemed to be, conveying the nothing they signified. And how could that be the case in Life? Negation? She grinned to herself, sure, and wrote. No. It just doesn’t make sense.