Thursday, 11 August 2011

Journey XV – Poppy

‘You can rest here awhile’ he says after we’ve been riding for a few days. I’m not used to it and my thighs ache. We follow the track down a steep slope under low beech boughs and ridged with their roots like rungs on a ladder. The caramel gold leaves spatter the ground and garland our shoulders and hats. Ahead I can see water and what appears to be a solid stone quay with a carved stone balustrade. Turning a bend in the road a substantial house comes into view to our right, built of the same grey stone as the quay and facing the water, which turns out to be a vast lake.
‘This is the mill’ says Marvin. ‘They’ll put you up here for a couple nights. I have some business to attend to. I may be a few days. Don’t panic. Just wait and I’ll see you in a while.’ I nod and he gallops off, back the way we came. I look around. Evening is moving in. Everything is dripping wet. On my left, on the lake’s rocky edge I see pines and rhododendrons leaning out over a shingle beach. The water laps fitfully – like a storm is coming. Leaning back in the saddle because of the incline, I descend the slope and the sheer size of the lake becomes apparent – accentuated by the lack of a horizon. It’s an inland sea. In the hazy distance I can see mountains and some of them already have snow on their peaks.
On the cobble road between the lake and the house I dismount and fuss my horse a little. I have a feeling we may be parting company here. I look at the view a bit longer and notice lights here and there along the shores. A voice behind me makes me swing around. There’s a woman in a doorway in a grey dress and white apron. ‘Gabriel?’ she says. I move closer to see if I recognise her. I don’t.
‘They said you would be arriving. Would you like to take him around the back?’ and she indicates a way around the side where presumably there are stables. I nod and lead the horse around. As I walk past the impressive frontage I look up at the windows and think that it’s how I imagined a hotel somewhere in central Europe might look, somewhere in the French Alps perhaps. There’s something distinctly Napoleonic about it. The first storey windows are floor to ceiling and all have matching white lace curtains and red geraniums.
Inside it is very warm and exactly as I imagined a continental guesthouse to be – all starched tablecloths and polished silverware, rich red carpets and oil paintings in gilt frames. I appear to be the only guest. It all strikes me suddenly as impossibly funny. This whole place makes no sense at all, and just then the lady of the house comes through to ask me if I would like the casserole or the fish. She doesn’t enquire as to what I might be grinning about.

Next morning, after a wonderfully deep sleep in a most voluptuously pillowed and quilted four-poster, and after a deep hot bath and excellent coffee and croissants I set out for a walk along the shore. I look down over the stone balustrades and see water crashing out from under the road and under the house presumably. I turn and look up at the crag behind the house and wonder where it’s all coming from and what it’s being used for, if anything. Turning back to the lake I look at the long grey view over the water, which is now quite choppy and I watch dark clouds passing across. Slanting lines of heavy rain are visible beneath them, even at this distance and I can hear the steady rush of heavy weather on its way. And there’s something else too. Something I’ve not heard in a very long time. Children. I can hear children’s voices.
Suddenly it seems very strange that I hadn’t missed them until now and surely they shouldn’t be here. This is what I was told long ago. There shouldn’t be any children in the afterlife. And then I spot them – quite a way away, jumping about among the rocks and tree roots further along the right-hand shore, among the trees, ten or twelve of them, brightly dressed and running in that unmistakable way children have. I wonder who they belong to or how they got here otherwise. I decide to explore the left bank.
That night at dinner I ask Colette, the mistress of the house, about them and she says vaguely that they come sometimes and maybe they belong to the people along the shore. She doesn’t know. I’m not sure why they disturb me so much. I learned to avoid children in life. It was safer that way – no misunderstandings. And yet here they are, unattended. Anything could be out there. I look out of my window long after dark that night and I can still hear them up in the woods on the promontory. They worry me.

Marvin doesn’t come the next day, nor the next. I’m worried about him too now, although Colette makes mollifying noises and yet more coffee and extraordinary cakes. It is raining heavily outside and the cobbles are adrift with fallen leaves from the maples above. I sit in the window and watch.
On the fourth day, the rain eases up and Marvin appears, clearly in a hurry, still needing more time and making apologies. He wants to check I’m ok and I say I am but that there are children here, unsupervised apparently.
‘Are you sure?’ he says, making time for at least one cup of coffee and a slice of cake. He looks troubled by this too. ‘I didn’t think that was possible’ he says into his cup. Two more cups and the better part of a walnut cake later he gets up suddenly and says ‘Gotta dash’. I see him to his horse.
‘I’ll ask about the kids ok?’ he shouts as he wheels around and heads back up the hill.
‘Ok’ I say and wonder who he will ask. It’s becoming apparent that there must be a whole invisible network of guides and their facilities working behind the scenes. I wonder who organises it. I go back in, out of the rain and find a book to read. Colette offers me more coffee but I ask if she’s got anything stronger and she reels off a long list of liqueurs and aperitifs. I ask for Calvados. I only had it once in life and this seems too good to miss.
By evening the cloud has broken and the sky is deep blue where it is visible among the black silhouette clouds. I take a short stroll along the quay. I can hear birds but no children. I wonder what happened to them.

Next morning I am awoken by the sound of the children under my window. I look down cautiously and there they are, five of them, playing right on the edge of the quay, balancing on the balustrade. It’s terrifying but I don’t know what to do. Go and find Colette is the obvious answer. I put a gown on, taking one last look out to check they’re still there. They are, but my eye is caught by one of them, a girl somewhat older than the rest, sitting, looking directly up at me. I feel like I should know who she is. I tear my gaze away and head downstairs. Colette attempts to interest me in the day’s breakfast menu but I insist she goes out and says something to the children.
‘Why mister Gabriel’ she says ‘Do not trouble yourself. They are often like this. They are quite safe. They have always been like this.’ and she looks enquiringly into my face as if I am very foolish. ‘It is normal. Now, if you put your clothes on I will make you eggs and ham, hmm?’ I force myself to calm down and nod. I will get dressed and have breakfast. On my way up I find I am trembling.

When I arrive for breakfast I look out the window and the children have gone again. I heard no splash, and no screams so I guess they have survived. I sit down and find I am ravenous.
After breakfast I am finishing my coffee, looking out the window when I notice the older girl sitting on the balustrade, swinging her legs. I have the sense she is waiting for me. She wears a neat black dress with a prim white collar and has long straight black hair and seems very slightly built for her height. As I watch she looks up and directly at me. My heart thumps.

I go out and sit on the balustrade facing the lake. She is sitting sideways facing toward me about twenty yards away but also looking out across the water. Every so often she picks a leaf up off the ground and throws it in the swirling water below. I want to say something but don’t dare.
Eventually she slides lazily from her seat and comes over. I pretend not to notice her, try to keep cool. ‘Can I sit here?’ she says eventually. I look at her. There is a slightly bored pissed-off look on her face – trying to pretend she doesn’t care either. She fidgets and sways, waiting for a reply. I say ‘Why not?’ desperately trying to appear mature.
‘What are you looking at?’ she says once seated.
‘The mountains’ I say.
‘Are you going there?’
‘I don’t know. My guide, Marvin should be back soon...’
‘I don’t have a guide’ she says, as if she is far too grown-up for such molly-coddling. We sit quietly for a short while. ‘I saw you watching us’ she says after a while. ‘It’s ok. We know what we’re doing.’
I look at her. She can’t be more than thirteen. She has unusually large dark eyes and pale skin.
‘Where are your parents?’ I say, expecting to be slapped down for being boring. Instead she tells me they’re dead. ‘But don’t worry’ she says ‘We can handle ourselves.’
I smile and say ‘I’m sure you can.’ And I am. I never had this kind of confidence at their age and I envied it so much at the time – still do. I look around and down at my hands – my thirty-something-year old hands. I’ve been a pensioner and a teenager and now I feel like a schoolboy trying to get the courage up to talk to the prettiest girl in the class. How ridiculous – after all I’ve been through. But making a twat of yourself to a twelve year old is much worse than making a twat of yourself to someone your own age. I turn and ask what her name is.
‘Oh, sorry’ she says and holds out her hand. ‘How rude of me. I’m Poppy, and you?’
I shake her hand. ‘Gabriel.’
‘Gabriel?’ she says frowning. ‘Why did your parents call you that?’
‘Well you can talk, Poppy’ I say, feeling a little more confident.
‘Poppy’s alright’ she says, clearly a little miffed. ‘Anyway, it’s not the name my parents gave me. I don’t remember what that was. I chose to call myself Poppy. It’s a flower.’
‘I know. I used to be a gardener.’
‘Did you have poppies?’
‘Sometimes. They were always turning up in unexpected places, seeding around. Poppy. It suits you. I like it.’
‘Gabriel was an angel’ she says.
‘That’s true, at the nativity.’
‘Was your family very religious?’
‘Not really. I think mum just liked the name.’ She nods and swivels around to look at the water a bit more. We sit quietly for a bit longer and then she says she has to go and ‘See you later.’ I watch her disappear up among the trees. I feel strangely uplifted by our chat and head in the opposite direction, up over the rocks, through the bracken to the ridge where I can see further along the left hand bank of the lake. I decide to spend the day exploring. Later on I spot some of the children in a boat with a make-shift sail far out on the water - clearly having a great time.

The following morning I get word that Marvin is on his way and will be here by nightfall. I look out the front door and Poppy is there again. ‘She likes you’ says Colette without a trace of suspicion. ‘They don’t very often speak to adults.’ I fetch my wet weather gear because it’s drizzling and go out to her.
‘Want to see our house?’ she says and without waiting for an answer, briskly heads for the steep eroded bank up under the rhododendrons where she disappeared the day before. She seems impressed that I can follow so easily. ‘Most adults can’t’ she observes haughtily. I tell her about the forests and crags where I’ve been, and the river where we all swam.
‘We swim here, in the summer. You should come’ she says. I follow her up over the grassy ridge among what look like overgrown garden shrubs rather than wild plants. Huge pines and redwoods rise out of the red, stony soil. Further out along the promontory we skid down through some wet bushes and find what looks like an abandoned quarry below. Half way along on the other side I can see a wooden shack, faded and slightly tilted but apparently sound. There seem to be logs for legs holding it level on the slope. Smoke is rising out of a metal flue in the roof. I go to take a closer look but she grips my sleeve and shakes her head. ‘You mustn’t tell anyone. Promise?’ I nod vigorously. ‘And you can’t go any closer’ she says. ‘It’s secret.’
‘Ok’ I whisper, and we watch. I can hear there’s a lot going on in there. ‘How many of you are there?’
‘Twenty?’ she shrugs.
‘Do any of you ever go missing?’
‘No. Never. We look out for each other.’
‘Good. I’m glad to hear it.’ And I think I believe her. It’s a terrific camp they’ve built, or, somebody’s built for them. I still can’t quite believe no one’s looking after them. I look around at Poppy. She’s looking intently at me. There’s something strangely familiar about her.
‘You’re scared of me aren’t you’ she says.
I say ‘Children make me nervous’ as lightly as I can.
‘We’re not really children you know’ she says, and suddenly I can see that. It’s very obvious.
‘How old were you?’ I say.
‘I don’t know. I can’t remember. Quite old.’
‘I was over sixty when I died’ I say.
‘Not that old’ she says grinning and punching me in the arm. ‘Maybe thirty. I had children of my own, I know that. Anyway, like I say. We can take care of ourselves’ and she turns to go and I follow.
Back at the pensione she reaches up and kisses me on the cheek and says goodbye. I go back in and get more coffee and some of the amazing Danish pastries they do. I think about them – the children all living together in the woods here. It makes perfect sense. How many of us I wonder would spend eternity as a child if we could?
Well not me as it happens, but I could see the appeal.

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A life backwards

It's in the nature of blogs of course that you come across the latest postings first (or you find yourself in the middle.) Normally it doesn't matter but if you want to read my novel in order, the first installment is as you'd expect, the oldest posting.
Thanks for your patience.