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By Amanda Prowse
Head of Zeus LtdCopyright © 2011 Amanda Prowse
All rights reserved.
The major yanked first at one cuff and then the other, ensuring three-eighths of an inch was visible beneath his tunic sleeves. With his thumb and forefinger he circled his lips, finishing with a small cough, designed to clear the throat. He nodded in the direction of the door, indicating to the accompanying sergeant that he could proceed. He was ready.
'Coming!' Poppy cast the sing-song word over her shoulder in the direction of the hallway, once again making a mental note to fix the front door bell as the internal mechanism grated against the loose, metal cover. The intensely irritating sound had become part of the rhythm of the flat. She co-habited with an orchestra of architectural ailments, the stars of which were the creaking hinge of the bedroom door, the dripping bathroom tap and the whirring extractor fan that now extracted very little.
Poppy smiled and looped her hair behind her ears. It was probably Jenna, who would often nip over during her lunch break. Theirs was a comfortable camaraderie, arrived at after many years of friendship; no need to wash up cups, hide laundry or even get dressed, they interacted without inhibition or pretence. Poppy prepped the bread and counted the fish fingers under the grill, working out how to make two sandwiches instead of one, an easy calculation. She felt a swell of happiness.
The front door bell droned again, 'All right! All right!' Poppy licked stray blobs of tomato ketchup from the pads of her thumbs and laughed at the impatient digit that jabbed once more at the plastic circle on the outside wall.
Tossing the checked tea towel onto the work surface, she stepped into the hallway and looked through the safety glass at the top of the door, opaque through design and a lack of domesticity. Poppy slowed down until almost stationary, squinting at the scene in front of her, as though by altering her viewpoint, she could change the sight that greeted her. Her heart fluttered in an irregular beat. Placing a flattened palm against her breastbone, she tried to bring calm to her flustered pulse. The surge of happiness disappeared, forming a ball of ice that sank down into the base of her stomach, filling her bowels with a cold dread. Poppy wasn't looking at the silhouette of her friend; not a ponytail in sight. Instead, there were two shapes, two men, two soldiers.
She couldn't decide whether to turn and switch off the grill or continue to the front door and let them in. The indecision rendered her useless. She concentrated on staying present, feeling at any point she might succumb to the maelstrom within her mind. The whirling confusion threatened to make her faint. She shook her head, trying to order her thoughts. It worked.
She wondered how long they would be, how long it would all take. There were fish fingers to eat and she was due back at the salon in half an hour with a shampoo and set arriving in forty minutes. Poppy thought it strange how an ordinary day could be made so very extraordinary. She knew the small details of every action, usually forgotten after one sleep, would stay with her forever; each minute aspect indelibly etching itself on her memory. The way her toes flexed and stiffened inside her soft, red socks, the pop and sizzle of her lunch under the grill and the way the TV was suddenly far too loud.
She considered the hazy outlines of her as yet unseen visitors and her thoughts turned to the fact that her home wasn't tidy. She wished she wasn't cooking fish. It would only become curious in hindsight that she had been worried about minutiae when the reason for their visit was so much more important than a cooking aroma and a concern that some cushions might have been improperly plumped.
Columbo was on TV. She hadn't been watching; it was instead a comforting background noise. She had done that a lot since Martin went away, switching on either the TV or radio as soon as she stepped through the door; anything other than endure the silence of a life lived alone. She hated that.
Poppy looked again to confirm that there were two of them; thus reinforcing what she thought she already knew. It is a well-known code; a letter for good news, telephone call for minor incident, a visit from one soldier for quite bad, two for the very worst.
She noted the shapes that stood the other side of her door. One was a regular soldier, identifiable by his hat; the other was a bloke of rank, an officer. She didn't recognise either of their outlines, strangers. She knew what they were going to say before they spoke, before one single word had been uttered; their stance was awkward and unnatural.
Her mind flew to the cardboard box hidden under the bed. In it was underwear, lacy, tarty pieces that Martin had chosen. She would throw them away; there would be no need for them any more, no more anniversaries, birthdays or special Sunday mornings when the world was reduced to a square of mattress, a corner of duvet and the skin of the man she loved.
Poppy wasn't sure how long she took to reach for the handle, but had the strangest feeling that with each step taken, the door moved slightly further away.
She slid the chain with a steady hand; it hadn't been given a reason to shake, not yet. Opening the door wide, it banged against the inside wall. The tarnished handle found its regular groove in the plasterwork. Ordinarily, she would only have opened it a fraction, enough to peek out and see who was there, but this was no ordinary situation and with two soldiers on the doorstep, what harm could she come to? Poppy stared at them. They were pale, twitchy. She looked past them, over the concrete, third-floor walkway and up at the sky, knowing that these were the last few seconds that her life would be intact. She wanted to enjoy the feeling, confident that once they had spoken, everything would be broken. She gazed at the perfect blue, daubed with the merest wisp of cloud. It was beautiful, really beautiful.
The two men appraised her as she stared over their heads into the middle distance. It was the first few seconds in which they would form their opinion. One of them noted her wrinkled, freckled nose, her clear, open expression. The other considered the grey slabs amid which she stood and registered the fraying cuff of her long-sleeved T-shirt.
Their training told them to expect a number of varied responses; from fainting or rage to extreme distress, each had a prescribed treatment and procedure. This was their worst scenario, the disengaged, silent recipient with delayed reactions, much harder for them to predict.
Poppy thought about the night before her husband left for Afghanistan, wishing that she could go back to then and do it differently. She had watched his mechanical actions, saw him smooth the plastic-wrapped, mud-coloured, Boy Scout paraphernalia that was destined for its sandy desert home. A place she couldn't picture, in a life that she was barred from. She didn't notice how his fingertips lingered on the embroidered roses of their duvet cover, the last touch to a thing of feminine beauty that for him meant home, meant Poppy.
Martin was packing his rucksack which was propped open on their bed when he started to whistle. Poppy didn't recognise the tune. She stared at his smiling, whistling face as he folded his clothes and wash kit into the voluminous, khaki cavern. He paused to push his non-existent fringe out of his eyes. Like the man that's lost a finger, but still rubs the gap to relieve the cold, so Martin raked hair that was now shorn.
Poppy couldn't decipher his smile, but it was enough to release the torrent that had been gathering behind her tongue. Any casual observer might have surmised that he was going on holiday with the boys, not off to a war zone.
'Are you happy, Mart? In fact, ignore me, that's a silly question, of course you are because this is what you wanted isn't it? Leaving me, your mates and everything else behind for half a year while you play with guns.'
Poppy didn't know what she expected him to say, but she'd hoped he would say something. She wanted him to pull her close, tell her that this was the last thing he wanted to do and that he didn't want to leave her, or at the very least that he wished he could take her with him. Something, anything that would make things feel better. Instead, he said nothing, did nothing.
'Did you hear me, Mart? I was asking if you were finally happy now your plan is coming together, the big fantastic future that you've been dreaming of.'
'Poppy please ...'
'Don't you dare "Poppy please", don't ask me for anything or expect me to understand because I don't! This is what you signed up for; this is what it means, Mart, you pissing off to some godforsaken bit of desert, leaving me stuck here. This is what I've been trying to tell you since you walked through the door in your bloody suit with your secret little mission complete!'
'It won't be forever.' His voice was small; his eyes fixed on the floor.
Poppy noted his blank expression, as if it was the first time it had occurred to him that she might need him too. This only made her angrier because it might have only just occurred to him, but she had been thinking of nothing else.
'I don't care how long it's for. Don't you get it? Whether it's for one night or one year, it's too long. You are leaving me here with the junkies on the stairs and the boring bloody winter nights. All I've got to look forward to is sitting with my bonkers nan. So you go, Mart, and get this little adventure out of your system, prove whatever it is that you need to prove. Don't worry about me. I can look after myself, but you know that, right?'
She didn't want to argue, preferring instead to clamp her arms around his neck and hang on. She wanted to press her lips really hard onto his and kiss him, storing those kisses away for the times when she would miss him the most. Her ache had grown so physical that she shook; the tremors fed a growing anger.
In the aftermath of Martin's departure, Poppy felt some small relief that he had gone. The dread of his imminent exodus disappeared, replaced with the reality of his absence which, initially, was somehow easier to bear. She replayed the words of their argument, considered their actions ... She did that, knowing the only person that suffered because of her obsessional recalling of the details was her.
Martin called it sulking, but for her the silent musings were a way of trying to figure out what happened and why, looking for an answer or at least some kind of rational explanation. Sometimes of course there wasn't one, a row just happens because of tiredness, an irritation or a million other inconsequential things.
Their fight couldn't be attributed to anything so transparent. He hadn't failed to hoover the carpet properly, left the loo seat up or not put the milk back in the fridge. It was much more than that. They were frightened, yet too scared to admit to that fear.
It would be difficult to put in order the many things that they were afraid of. Being parted for such a ridiculous length of time was right up there, the possible lack of communication and the loneliness; these were all contenders for the top spot. There was also the unspeakable fear that Martin might get hurt or killed. It was too awful a scenario to share or say out loud, but think about it they did, separately and secretly with faces averted on dented pillows.
Poppy had wanted to tell him that if he got injured, think loss of limb or blindness, that it wouldn't make any difference to her. She knew that it would be tough, but she also knew that she would not have loved him any less, confident that they would find a way through it; that they could find a way through anything. At least that's what she believed.
One of her many 'if-only' scenarios, saw her telling Martin over a glass of wine that he was the one thing that had made her life worth living for so many years. The only constant that she could rely on and she would never regret a single second. She wanted him to know that she would rather have had him for a shortened length of time, than fifty years of average. She hoped he knew that she would miss him every second of every day, that she would never let another man touch her. It was only him, always him, the very thought of anything else made her feel sick. She would be content to grow old alone with her memories; the biggest sadness, of course, would have been that she never got her baby.
After brooding unhindered for a few days, Poppy was then swamped with guilt. How dare she have fought with him, not given him physical comfort when he was now so far away, facing an enemy in a hostile environment, devoid of love, affection and human touch?
When these sharpened emotions blunted through the passing of time, she was left with the dull ache of loneliness. Half a year, one hundred and eighty days, it didn't matter how many times she pictured an event six months previously and thought how quickly that time had passed; it still felt like an eternity, a sentence.
The officer coughed into his sideways bunched fist, drawing her into the now. She waited for him to speak, not wanting to prompt; there was no hurry. Similarly, she didn't want to make it easy, hoping he might feel a little bit of the pain that she was starting to feel. Poppy stood rigid, imagining what came next. She heard his unspoken words in her head, wondering which phrase he had chosen, rehearsed. 'Martin is dead'; 'Martin was injured and now he is dead'; 'something dreadful has happened, Poppy, Martin is dead'; 'Mrs Cricket, we have some terrible news. Are you alone?'
She'd always imagined what this visit would be like. Try to find an army wife, husband, mother or father that hasn't played out this scenario. You won't be able to because this is how they live. Every time there is a lull in contact or a late night when a promise to call is broken, pulses quicken, car keys are mentally located. Muscles tense as if on starting blocks, in readiness to get to wherever they might be needed with the first waves of grief lapping at their heels. Each unexpected knock at the door, or post-nine p.m. telephone call, causes palms to break sweat until the moment passes and breath returns in a deep sigh. The various salesmen mistake the euphoria for buying signals and not simply the relief of those left behind to watch the clock and tick off the days. For the loved ones of these warriors, it is a sweet relief that it's not their turn, not today.
Poppy used to practise her reaction in her head. She pictured herself sinking to her knees with fingers shoved into her scalp, 'Oh no, not Mart! Please tell me it's not true!' She thought her practised reaction was very convincing, having once performed it in front of the mirror in the salon. Some might question the need to rehearse, but Poppy worried that if and when it came to it, they might not know how devastated she was, figuring it was best to have this pre-prepared reaction in reserve. She didn't need it.
In his early forties, the officer was the younger by a couple of years, but his position gave him confidence over and above his colleague's experience. He removed his hat as he stepped forward.
'Mrs Cricket?' his tone was confident, without any hint of nerves. Poppy noted tiny beads of perspiration peppering his top lip; he might have mastered the neutral voice, but would have to work on that sweat thing if he was to be totally convincing.
'May we come in?' he spoke as he entered the hallway, turning the question into a statement.
'I am Major Anthony Helm, this is Sergeant Gisby.' He put his hand out in the direction of the soldier stood behind him. Poppy stepped forward and placed her limp fingers against his palm – she wasn't used to this shaking hands lark. It made her feel awkward.
In a controlling role reversal, the officer filled her home with his presence, making Poppy feel confused and slightly angry. He guided her by the elbow. She didn't like the stranger touching her. She felt queasy and embarrassed.
He led her into the lounge. The other man walked over to the TV and turned it off. Columbo had been in the middle of his big summing up speech, raincoat flapping, a cigar clamped between his teeth.
She sat on the edge of the sofa and cast a fleeting eye around the room, the walls needed more pictures and the dried flower arrangement held a latticework of cobwebs. A minute spider was suspended on invisible thread. A tiny abseiler, his destination the ring-stained wood of a pine shelf. She closed her eyes and wished she could go home, only therein laid her dilemma.
The officer perched on the chair opposite, his colleague stood rigidly by the door. In order to prevent her escape or to facilitate his, she wasn't sure. Poppy could hear the blood pulsing in her ears with a drumlike beat. Her hands felt cold and clammy, they had finally found their tremor.
She exhaled loudly and deeply like an athlete preparing to perform, flexing her fingers and nodding, her gestures screamed, go on then, tell me now!
'Are you alone, Mrs Cricket?'
'Yes.' Her voice was a cracked whisper, strained, the voice she sometimes had when speaking for the first time after a deep sleep.
The major nodded. He was a plain, flat-faced man, made all the more unattractive by his confident stance. There was the hint of a north-east accent that he tried desperately hard to erase, concentrating on delivering neutral vowels and the right pitch. Anthony Helm was a good soldier, respected by those who served under him and relied upon by those he reported to. His reputation was for straight talking, a man that tenaciously did it by the book and did it well. Ironically, the traits that enabled him to climb the ranks with ease did not necessarily equip him for a carefree existence in the civilian world. The vagaries of modern life were hard for a practical man like Anthony Helm to negotiate; when the structure and rules of his regime were removed, he was somewhat adrift.
Excerpted from Poppy Day by Amanda Prowse. Copyright © 2011 Amanda Prowse. Excerpted by permission of Head of Zeus Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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