Poppy dangled her thin pale legs over the side of her little bed and stared into the palm of her hand studying the open locket that was looped onto a broken silver chain. The miniature picture inside the locket was so old and faded, that she could only just make out the face of a lady, although who it was she didn’t know. She just had this feeling that the locket was very special to her personally; something that someone close to her had given to her in the past. She always kept it with her wherever she went, but no one knew; it was her little secret. Then, as she often did, she started thinking again about her father. She was sure that she remembered something about him, but it was more the little teasing fragments of an aura rather than a clear image; the darkness of his hair, being carried in strong, warm arms; something to do with the country and the memory of mud on his heavy boots, and a little ginger kitten that maybe he had brought to show her. She remembered sitting on a stone step in the sunshine by some roses, holding that little ginger kitten. There was also the memory of the silhouette of a lady standing in front of a window, possibly in a kitchen, looking out onto a sunny field that rose to a ridge of grey rocks. It made her feel very sad that these memories were so vague and that there was nothing really to grasp onto.
Life with her mother had been a constant turmoil. You could never really be sure what the day would bring. One of Poppy’s first memories was of a long tiring journey with her mother in a car, of living in a small apartment where you had to climb lots of stairs on the outside of the building, where people didn’t speak English. She remembered feeling lonely and used to spend a long time sitting on the metal staircase outside, only moving when people wanted to go past. People did come to visit her mother, often men. She remembered trying to fill the lonely hours seeing how many steps she could jump down from onto the platform that divided each set of stairs, or else as she grew older, she was brave enough to go down the stairs to the little empty courtyard below and bounce a hollow red rubber ball against the wall, stepping back further and further away, setting herself the challenge of catching the ball without dropping it. There wasn’t much else to do.
But then there was the other journey, back to England, and then the long list of different places where they’d lived for a few weeks, or sometimes a few months, at a time. Finally they had settled in this terraced house, with its narrow dark hallway which opened out into a small kitchen and living room, and a creaky staircase leading to her mother’s fair-sized bedroom and her own tiny dingy little room that was her world.
As she stared at the locket, she realised that she wasn’t sure what she felt about her mother. Of course she should love her, but sometimes she didn’t. Her mother changed from hour to hour and Poppy often felt in the way. When the men came to the house, she would ask Poppy to be a good girl and go and play. Sometimes if Poppy did something wrong, no matter how small, her mother would fly into a rage, screaming banging doors, throwing things. But then in the morning she might be quite different.
Polly looked around her room. It was a sad room. The carpet looked worn and there was a band of dust which had settled around the edges and had never been vacuumed. One of the curtains had perished where the afternoon sunshine caught that side of the window. The paint on the woodwork was chipped and the window with its sash cords, like all the windows in the house, was stuck fast. The central heating vaguely worked, with lots of noise coming from the pipes, but there was not as much heat as all that bubbling might suggest. Someone said that the radiators needed bleeding, but what that was Poppy didn’t know.
Poppy was small for her age but she was a dainty, pretty, petite little girl. Her chestnut brown hair was combed neatly in a short pony tail which naturally turned up at the ends. She had the darkest most expressive brown eyes and it was such a shame that there hadn’t been more times when she was happy so that people could see those eyes. Mostly, what others saw was Poppy staring down at the floor because she felt sad or shy or awkward engaging with other people. Poppy was feeling especially sad today because she’d lost her front door key. It didn’t take much to annoy her mother and this was the second time that she had mislaid it. She had thought and thought, but just couldn’t remember where she had put it.
When she had lost the key before, her mother went so crazy that a neighbour called the police. Her mother was crying hysterically when they arrived and so the matter was referred to the social services and it was suggested that Polly should spend some time in foster care to give her mother time to rest and deal with the problems that she had in life. That time was like a bubble to Poppy and she existed inside it. The people were very nice, but they were a proper whole family, always chatting and busy and involved in each other’s lives. She was on the outside, just someone who was passing through. They said she was very quiet, but what was there to talk about. In Poppy’s mind she was the reason that her mother was ill. She had a father that she could barely remember, no other family that she knew about. No, she was Poppy in a bubble, locked away with her confusing thoughts.
That time had passed though, and now she was back with her mum and there they were, just the two of them. Her mother said that they would be moving on soon. The lady from social services called sometimes to see how things were going. She heard her ask her mother once if she received any money for Poppy from the father. Poppy’s mother had just laughed and said that he never had any money when she knew him, and she doubted he ever would, and added that she never wanted to see him again anyway.
Poppy reflected on that and when the lady had gone she thought she would be brave enough to ask her mother who and where her father was. Her mother was folding clothes from a laundry basket, and stacking them on the settee. She turned momentarily to Poppy with a look of absolute shock on her face and then looked back at the pile of clothes telling Poppy that her father was dead. But Poppy didn’t believe her. It didn’t match what she had said to the lady. Poppy often didn’t believe what her mother said.
Poppy sighed and her thoughts were sucked back into the present. The door opened and she bolted from the bed. Her mother was radiant. The first thing Poppy saw was her beautiful cherry red shiny shoes with high heels, tight black skirt, silk blouse and cherry red coat. She was wearing her hair up and it looked as though she had just been to the hairdresser. Poppy thought that she shone like a pebble from a clear freshwater stream. She said something about having to go out but she would be back later. Poppy was to make herself a sandwich if she was hungry. She blew a kiss and disappeared. After a few minutes Poppy ran downstairs and watched from the window as her mother clung to the arm of a man in a long dark coat, who gave her a kiss before helping her into his car.
She thought again about the lost key. She searched her coat, but all she found was a small hole in the lining. The key could be anywhere. School had ended for the Easter holidays yesterday and it had been her mother’s day off work, so she hadn’t needed to use it and she could have dropped it anywhere. So feeling fearful of what would happen when her mother found out, she climbed back up the stairs. Then something made her pause outside her mother’s bedroom as she caught sight of herself in the dressing table mirror. She studied herself for a moment and then that old nagging thought came back to her. Who was her father? She knew where her mother kept her personal papers, in a small black case in her wardrobe. Maybe she could just have a look to see if there were any clues.
At first it was just birthday cards, packets of photographs, old passports, but there were several envelopes that looked more formal. One by one Poppy slowly opened them and sitting on the bed she found herself lost in thought as she read each one from beginning to end. All the letters appeared to come from the same solicitor making reference to a Mr James Snowden of Ty Gwyn Farm, Penrhyn, North Wales, wanting to be granted access to his daughter. The enormity of this discovery overwhelmed her! The address on the envelopes was that of another solicitor who appeared to claim that he did not know where his client had now gone. He believed that the mother was living abroad with her daughter, wanting to start a new life. It was unlikely that they would be able to trace her whereabouts. In another brown envelope there was a birth certificate, which Polly put back carefully, for now.
A little fire had started to burn in Poppy’s mind. Maybe one day the fire would become so great that she would find the courage to find the truth.
That evening Polly’s mother returned. She’d been crying, her eye make-up was smudged and her hair was a mess where she had repeatedly rung her fingers through it. She threw the shoes into a corner and slumped at the table with her head in her hands. Poppy made a cup of tea as she always did at times like these.
The next day Poppy would rather forget. Her mother found out about the lost key and for most of the morning she lamented the problems that Poppy brought her! She raged at how stupid her daughter was, thoughtless, selfish, forgetful, immature; on and on went the list of all the usual negatives interspersed with the sound of some piece of crockery breaking in the kitchen; probably thrown against the door or the wall. The results of these frenzies were usually left for Polly to clear up. At last there was silence and the silence lasted for an hour or two. Poppy’s door opened and her mother stood there, staring down at her with a look of cold resentment on her face. She declared that she was going to a friend’s tomorrow. She needed a rest. She would be leaving early in the morning. As it was the weekend she presumed Polly would sleep in. She handed Poppy a £20 note and a shopping list so that she would have food in the house to eat. She would be back sometime tomorrow night, but didn’t know when. Could be quite late, but Poppy could always go and see a neighbour if she needed someone.
Later she brought Poppy a plate of sandwiches and a glass of water. Said that she didn’t really want to see her after the day she had and closed the door with a finality that made Poppy shake her head in disbelief.
Poppy had been thinking about the £20 note. Last Christmas, the neighbour, who Polly rarely saw, had given her a neatly folded £5 note. She kept the note and few other coins in a small plastic rabbit-shaped moneybox which she now emptied out onto the bed. This was going to be her chance she thought and she felt a sudden surge of courage. She had worked on the computer in the lunchtime at school and found that it would take her two hours to get to Llandudno and then there seemed to be a bus from there to Penrhyn and she probably would only have to pay half the fare, so she would have enough money for the trip. Her little bag had been ready for weeks and as she heard the front door close the following morning her heart leapt with joy that this adventure might lead her to the truth. Just before she left, she checked she had the money, went to her mother’s wardrobe, took out the birth certificate and put it safely in her bag inside a book to keep it flat.
The ticket collector at the train station wanted to know if she needed a single or a return ticket, which she hadn’t really thought about, so she asked for a single, thinking that it would be cheaper. On arriving at Llandudno station she had no idea how to find the bus to Penrhyn, but she was good at making up stories and there was a really helpful elderly lady who insisted on taking her to the exact bus stop that she needed and who asked the bus driver to make sure he told her when he had arrived in Penrhyn. After she had sat down, the bus driver called to Polly and asked where she wanted to go in Penrhyn and with her big brown eyes staring anxiously at him with a questioning sound in her voice, she timidly said, Ty Gwyn Farm, holding her breath in the hope that he might know it! Fortunately, Polly was truly blessed that day, because after a moment’s reflection he said that he did know it and he would tell her when they were there. And so, there she was, brave little Polly on a bus; just an hour away from certain joy or perhaps utter disillusionment.
The bus driver finally called cheerily to her that hers was the next stop and told her that if she walked a few yards further up, she would find the farm on the right. And so there she was at last looking up at the simple signpost hanging from a rusty but ornate iron bar on a high wooden post by an open farm gate. She followed the huge tracks newly pressed by tractor wheels in the damp mud until the farmhouse came into view. A ginger cat was dozing on a window ledge with his front paws tucked under him. The front door was raised above a large stone step with a red rambling rose which arched above it. The wisp of a memory fleetingly glanced across her mind but was dismissed as fanciful imagination and yet, there was something so right about the fit of so much of what she was encountering. She rang the bell but no one answered. A farmhand in a blue overall appeared from a small wooden barn. He rushed over to her, as if he was busy and just needed to deal with this small intrusion, wiping his hands on a rag as he approached her. Poppy explained that she had come to see Mr Snowdon; she was the daughter of a friend of the family she said. He ran his fingers through his thick dark curly hair and said that he wasn’t sure when Mr Snowdon would be back from the fields. Mrs Snowdon was away. Then with an awkward grin, saying that he must get on, he left her standing there. Like water rushing into a foundered ship, the realisation of the hopelessness of what she was doing came flooding in. She had never even considered that her father might have another wife! Maybe there were children too! She looked up at the open window and to her surprise saw the face of an old woman, who when Poppy caught sight of her, drew back into the darkness of the room.
A few moments later the door opened and there stood a slim elderly lady, with white hair drawn back from a fine-featured face, her blue grey eyes staring intently at Poppy. She began to speak to Poppy and said she must be tired and would she like to come in and rest for a while. Poppy couldn’t stop staring at her, but nothing was declared. She suddenly realised that she didn’t actually even know what she was going to say.
The kettle was vaguely whistling on an old black range and soon they each had a cup of hot tea. What should have been an awkward conversation turned out to be quite easy. The old lady asked Poppy very little about herself and for a while they chatted about general things, the bus journey from Llandudno, the nice tea, the pretty flowers on the table, when all the while what Poppy really wanted to talk about was what had brought her here. The old lady looked up at the clock and said that her son would be back soon.
And then unexpectedly, she started saying things that Poppy wanted so much to know and every fact that emerged over the next few minutes lodged itself piece by piece in her brain like shrapnel from an explosion. The old lady told Poppy that her son had been married before and they had had a child, a lovely little girl, but the mother had run away, unsatisfied by the life of a farmer’s wife on a poor farm in Wales. Her son had been very sad and had found it hard to carry on running the farm after that, and that was when she had come to live with him, to help out. Eventually he had met his second wife and things were a lot better now. It was just such a great shame because they weren’t able to have children themselves. There was a pause in conversation as she sipped her tea.
The calmness and comfort of the room, the fire crackling in the grate, and the hot tea had helped but Poppy was quickly losing her courage. She had learned a lot. But what she did now realise was that she had been wrong to come here. Time moves on. She would be in the way here too. If it was her father that lived here, he had his own life to lead. He didn’t need her. She would leave now. She’d been a fool and with a bit of luck no one would find out although she didn’t relish the prospect of making the return journey. Still, if she was late and her mother got back before her, it didn’t matter anymore. She was just forgetful immature Poppy with silly thoughts.
All the way on the journey there Poppy had carried the locket on the broken chain in the palm of her hand, looking at it from time to time. It was only when the old lady suggested that Poppy take her coat off whilst drinking her cup of tea that she put the locket on the table intending to pick it up when she left. But with so much on her mind, she forgot. When there was a pause in conversation she thanked the lady for the tea and said that she really ought to go now because she would need to get the bus. She grabbed her coat, the lady held the door open for her and trying to smile she said goodbye stepping down from the big stone step and making her way back down the path, past the ginger cat, tears welling in her eyes when she thought she was out of sight, tears of disappointment in the outcome and with herself. Suddenly she realised that the palm of her hand was empty and she felt a sense of real loss. She couldn’t believe that she’d left it behind on the table but neither could she return.
Back in the kitchen in the farmhouse, the old lady found the locket, opened it and gasped, pressing her hand to her mouth and closing her eyes tightly trying to hold back her tears. She had known it already, deep in her heart, but this really was Poppy, her little Poppy. How they had missed her. How her daughter-in-law could ever have left like that she couldn’t comprehend. But something needed to be done and she lifted the receiver of the telephone.
Polly walked in a dream back down the track and stood by the simple bus stop on the side of the country lane, surrounded by fields and long grass. She would probably have to wait hours for a bus, so she sat in this wilderness for a long time, thinking. Suddenly, above the ridge of the field in front of her she saw a green single deck bus slowly twisting its way towards her, like a caterpillar propelling itself across a leaf. It pulled into the lay by and she asked the driver how much it would cost to Llandudno. He told her and in her confused state she couldn’t find the right coins. The bus driver was becoming impatient, but just then she found an extra coin and the doors were about to close when something distracted the driver and he started talking to someone behind her. She heard someone calling her name. She knew that voice. She turned and she also realised that she knew that face and all the hurt, the loss, the loneliness, the regret and self doubt disappeared. He picked her up and carried her off the bus. This was her Dad. Big man that he was, he was crying, trying to wipe the tears of joy away with his cap. Poppy didn’t hear what he said to the driver, but suddenly she was standing on the grass verge by his side and the bus had gone.
Her Dad took her by the shoulders and held her at arm’s length with a look of immense pride. He kept repeating over and over that she was home. Then he looked into the palm of his hand and Poppy could see that he was holding her locket. He asked her if she remembered that he had given it to her and that since she’d been gone he had prayed every night that she had kept it. Polly told him how it had always been very special for her and made her feel happy when she was sad. Polly squeezed his arm as they walked back down to the farmhouse where the old lady, her very own grandma, was waiting with the ginger cat at her feet, and her dad said that the first thing they were going to do was to fix the broken chain!