PART ONE: MOUSE-BABY AND THE METAL-HAIRED MAN
According to what she’s gathered from watching television, Poppy is a person. She’s got two arms, two legs and the right number of things on her face, all arranged correctly. But Poppy’s not convinced. Nothing on this side of the TV screen is as it should be. For one thing, the curtains are all shredded from sun damage and hang down in front of the grubby apartment windows like brownish seaweed. Television windows sparkle and have things like slatted blinds on them, or wafting drapes that filter the light. And then there’s the carpet. On this side of the TV screen the carpet is filthy, and there are piles and piles of things crowding the edges of it. Jason keeps picking things up and bringing them home, saying I’m definitely going to need that one day but he never does, and there’s a perpetual congregation of stuff creeping in to block the path that Poppy has carved between the TV, the kitchen and the bathroom. The seaweed has been hanging in the windows since they moved in. Poppy can’t remember what the windows were like in the place they stayed before, or the place before that, but she knows that they were no closer to the ones in television homes than this one is.
Outside the front door there’s a bleak hallway with other doors on it leading to other flats which aren’t up to much. Some of the people living behind the doors are nice to Poppy, and a few give her things to eat when she asks. Other doors she dashes past as fast as she can. Down the main stairs is the street, which isn’t very convincing either. It just seems to have more long dirty buildings with more corridors and more doors in them, or small scruffy houses falling to bits. Nothing is as it should be, on this side of the screen. Poppy watches the television from right up close. That way, she can look into the real world with its bright colours and neatly arranged furniture and not have to think about the dirt, or Jason smoking and looking at magazines while sitting on the stained toilet with the bathroom door open, or her mother sprawled out on the couch. Her mother, Yolande, hasn’t woken up yet today. She smells of cigarette smoke and sweat and something sharp and chemical. Poppy doesn’t need to turn around to know that her mother’s mouth is slack, and her bad teeth are showing between her chapped lips with the sores on the corners. Television mothers have white straight teeth with no brown bits and nobody flinches at the smell of their breath. Nothing on this side of the screen is as it should be.
Poppy doesn’t know how long she and her mother have been living in the seaweed-curtain place, but it feels like a long time. Maybe that’s because at the place they stayed before, there was a yard outside that Poppy could go to when Yolande wasn’t waking up, or was awake, but shouting. The yard had old bits of car in it, and a stained mattress leaning up against the concrete wall, and the ground was always covered in lines of ants that would bite the tender skin at the top of her legs if she sat down on it too long, but there were places to hide. Sometimes Poppy would pretend that she was a giant walking through a city like she saw on TV one time, and all the bits of junk lying around were buildings with tiny people in them, screaming their heads off when they saw her coming. The day after Poppy gets her first wobbly tooth, she goes out into the corridor because her mother and Jason are talking too loudly as they wave their brown bottles of beer around, and she knows that that means there will soon be fighting.
The corridor is the best she can do in the absence of a yard, even though it smells of garbage and wee and other people’s cooking. At the food smell, Poppy’s stomach gives a growl so loud that she’s not surprised when one of the doors opens. It’s the door with a ‘7’ on it. Jason’s has a ‘9’. Poppy knows numbers because she watches the TV show with puppets that teach you things. ‘Oh, hello there,’ the number-7-woman says when she pokes her head out of the door. Her hair is grey and tied up on top of her head in a knot. ‘Hello.’ Poppy sees that the number-7-woman is carrying a plastic bag also tied at the top with a knot. ‘Were you going to take that to the bins?’ Sometimes, Poppy goes to where the dustbins are outside on the pavement and waits to see if anyone throws anything interesting-looking away. ‘Good guess. You’re a sharp one, aren’t you?’ ‘I can take it for you, if you want.’ Poppy eyes the packet. Could there be something to eat in there? The knot doesn’t look too tight. ‘Oh that’s very sweet of you.’ The number-7-woman smiles and her cheeks wrinkle up and almost cover her eyes, which are brown. ‘What a dear. Give me a moment, I think I’ve got just the thing to say thank you.’ The number-7-woman disappears back behind her door, taking the top-knot packet with her. After a few moments, she’s back. ‘See this little fellow?’ The number-7-woman waves a small stuffed dog in Poppy’s direction. ‘It came free with a promotional pack of loo paper. I was keeping it for my youngest grandchild, Suzy, but I think it’s getting lonely from having to wait too long.’ The stuffed dog is tiny and clean and is the colour of oats. It has a little red scarf sewn on around its neck.
Poppy can barely breathe because it’s so beautiful. ‘Come on, dear, take it if you want it. Consider it payment for taking out my rubbish.’ The number-7-woman holds out her other hand with the top-knot bag in it. ‘Thank you.’ Poppy rushes forward to grab the dog and the bag and then dashes down the corridor towards the steps and the street before the woman can change her mind. Poppy calls the dog Wombo. She hides him under her T-shirt when she goes back to the apartment later that evening. Then, she changes into her other pair of shorts. They were once pink. They’re now a sort of brown, but they have big pockets, which means that she can have Wombo with her all the time. Two weeks later, Poppy hears loud crying and shouting outside the seaweed-curtain apartment. When she peeks out and sees that it’s the number-7-woman weeping, her stomach goes fluttery. The number-7-woman’s top knot is coming all unravelled and strings of grey hair hang in her face and catch in her mouth as she cries. There’s a man with her who keeps saying, ‘Come, Ma, come in. Stop now, Ma.’ And eventually he manages to get her back behind the number 7 door. Poppy never gets to find out if the number-7-woman is OK, or why she was crying so much, because three days after that, Yolande makes them move out of the seaweed-curtain place. She and Jason shouted at one another all night and when Yolande shuffles into the kitchen in the morning, her eyes have a flat look. Poppy knows it well.
‘Put that down, Poppy. We’re leaving.’ Poppy gives the cereal bowl another swill under the tap before climbing down from the chair that she’s been standing on to reach the sink. She rummages for a cleanish plastic supermarket bag in the cupboard and then moves through the apartment, selecting the few things she thinks of as hers. She takes her one pair of tackies, even though they’re too small and squash her toes, her socks and T-shirts and jeans that haven’t been washed in weeks. She takes the bowl she’s just rinsed, and checks three times to make sure that Wombo is in her pocket. When she goes back to the bedroom, Yolande is standing in the centre of it with an armful of clothes and a hopeless look on her face. ‘Ma?’ Poppy whispers. ‘Here’s a packet to put your stuff in.’ ‘Stop nagging at me, for Christ’s sake.’ ‘You said we were going.’ ‘Listen to you. Anyone would think we had a nice hotel or something waiting for us or some such shit. You do know we’ve got nowhere else to go, right?’ ‘You always find someplace.’ Maybe the next one will have an outside yard. ‘That’s true.’ Poppy’s mother jerks to life again. ‘I do. Don’t I?’ She gives Poppy a jagged grin, and jams Jason’s favourite sweater into a suitcase along with her motley collection of things. Poppy’s pretty sure the suitcase is Jason’s as well. They’d better move fast or there’s going to be trouble.
When they’re ready to leave, the afternoon sun is burning through the seaweed curtains, and the ghost shapes of the original pattern suddenly reveal themselves in the sharp light. After months of thinking that the fabric was just dirty, Poppy can make out what looks like bunches of roses. Or she thinks she can. In some spots, the floral motifs morph into grimacing clown faces. ‘Move it, Poppy.’ Yolande shifts the suitcase from one hand to the other. ‘Or do you want me to leave you here?’ Poppy spins around, but her mother is wearing an almost smile. She was teasing, not serious. Relief jellies Poppy’s knees. ‘No, Ma. I’m coming with you.’ ‘Well, come then.’ Poppy walks over to the television and switches it off. The real world gives a flicker and then goes dark. The next place they stay in is not as full of stuff as the one with Jason was, but it doesn’t even have curtains on the windows, seaweedy or otherwise. Instead, there are long decaying paper-like strips all joined together at the tops and bottoms with bathplug chain. Office blinds, Karel calls them. He swells with pride each time he says it, as if having such items in his apartment automatically gives him the air of someone rising through the corporate ranks. Poppy doubts Karel’s ever worked in an office. The television people who work in offices walk fast through corridors in shiny shoes and do important-looking things on gleaming laptops. Karel wears sandals made out of bits of old tyre, and whenever he’s in possession of a laptop he sells it almost at once. He steals computers, along with cameras and cell phones and expensive sunglasses, so that he and Yolande can sell them and buy their medicine.
After a successful trip to the chemist, they sit in the lounge with the office blinds closed and smoke their medicine through the broken necks of glass Coke bottles. Poppy sits even closer to the TV when they’re doing this. The smell on her empty stomach makes her nauseous. The yard she was so glad about when they moved in is useless. There’s a dog out there with a big fat head and a booming bark. Poppy doesn’t know whose it is. It seems to own the whole street. No one called it off when it jumped on her and knocked her down the first time and last time she went outside alone.
One evening, Karel sells the TV. He and Yolande already owe too much to the Nigerians for their medicine and they’re itching. Itching is what Yolande screams at Karel after stomping across their shared mattress on the floor and kicking him in the ribs to wake him up. ‘I know you’ve had the last bit without me, you asshole.’ ‘What d’you want me to do?’ He is bleary, blinking, rubbing his kicked ribs. ‘We’ve got nothing, and nothing to sell.’ ‘Make a bloody plan!’ Yolande hisses. Her breath is so rank that Poppy can smell it from all the way across the room. Karel marches to the TV, yanks the cord from the socket, and heaves the dead black rectangle up in his arms. When he carries it away, Poppy cries for the first time since she can remember. She stops when Yolande smacks her in the mouth, but then the sobs start all over again when her mother’s stony expression crumbles. ‘Sorry,’ Yolande whispers, and pulls Poppy in to a hard, uncomfortable hug. Poppy doesn’t know whether it will be one of the OK-hugs, or a scary one, so she stands, frozen, her upper lip wet with snot. ‘It’ll be OK, Poppy,’ Yolande says. ‘Once Ma gets her medicine everything will be fine.’ But Poppy knows that it won’t.
‘I know who’ll lend us some bucks,’ Yolande says two days later when the TV money is all smoked up. ‘Let me guess, you’re going to get a loan from the bank?’ Karel’s laugh sounds like something between a bark and a retch. Poppy, sitting in the far corner holding Wombo, is careful not to look up. When Karel’s in a laughing mood he keeps looking for ‘funny’ things. Lately, this seems to involve Poppy in some way. He likes to make her dance, sing, or act out scenes from TV commercials, like some ridiculous marionette. When he makes her do ‘bits’ on command, Poppy wishes that the walls would melt and the floor catch fire, and the whole place blow apart like the explosions she’s seen on television. It never happens though. Nothing on this side of the screen is as it should be. ‘Not the bank, you fool. I know some guys.’ ‘What guys?’ ‘Money-lender guys.’ ‘Well why didn’t you say anything earlier?’ ‘’Cause I already owe them a lot from before.’ ‘Like how much?’ Yolande shrugs. Her shoulders look like shards of broken glass covered in grey skin. ‘So I’ll meet with them, then. You can wait around the corner or something. They don’t need to know you’re in the picture.’ ‘They’ll know. Money-lender guys know everything.’ ‘Think they won’t lend us anything then?’ ‘They might, but they’ll make us piss blood to pay for it, you can bet on that.’
‘So what? Aren’t you itching?’ ‘I’m itching.’ Yolande glances at Poppy, which she hardly ever does, and Poppy shrinks from the changing weather that flickers inside her mother’s eyes. First sorry then angry then sorry again, and finally settling on hard and made of glass. ‘I’m itching bad.’ Karel stands up. As always, there’s too much leg sticking out of the bottom of his shorts, skinny and white and covered with little frizzes of black hair. Poppy wishes he would wear longer shorts. Trousers would be even better. ‘Come, bitch,’ he says to Yolande, and Poppy feels cool relief when her mother’s gaze moves off her and back on to Karel. ‘Let’s go make a deal.’ Poppy is alone in the locked apartment for a very long time after that. With no real world to plug in to, she reluctantly picks up the stolen Nintendo Game Boy that Karel gave her a few days ago to stop her goddam whining about her goddam tooth. Poppy’s sure she’s never whined, unless the word means something that she doesn’t understand. She hardly ever talks at all about anything, tooth included, but Karel seems to go off about her whining every time he sees her mouth. Ag, leave the kid alone, Yolande sometimes says, but never loud enough to make it stick. The tooth got chipped when Poppy slipped scrambling to pull her pants up when Karel barged into the bathroom while she was on the loo. It’s the third time he’s done that in the last few weeks. There used to be a key for the bathroom, but Karel lost it. Poppy presses a few buttons on the game, but without new batteries, the device gives a sad little moan and blinks into blackness. She shakes it a few times, holding it up to her ear to listen for life, and then, thinking she’s broken it, with panic whirling in the pit of her empty belly, she hides it under the decrepit sofa, pushing it as far as she can reach into the embrace of the dust bunnies. Hopefully, if he doesn’t see it, Karel will forget about it, and won’t find out that she killed it. For a while, she walks up and down the length of the window, brushing the ‘office blinds’ with one hand so that they all sway in unison, like a chorus of dancers on a bright stage.
Poppy’s stomach hurts. She goes to the kitchen and eats the sweet-salty red goo out of a small sachet of tomato sauce that once came with a takeaway meal that she finds in the cupboard. There’s a little plastic envelope of vinegar, too, but she reels back when she bites it open, eyes burning from the acid fumes. She pushes a chair up to the sink and pours the contents down the plughole, watching the trail the clear liquid leaves in the scum at the bottom of the sink. She turns on the tap and drinks and drinks, trying to fill up her insides, but it just makes her feel strange and sloshy when she climbs down from the chair. When it gets dark, Poppy carries a few cushions to the cupboard, makes a nest in the bottom, curls up on them, and sleeps until it is light. When she wakes, she lies on her side for hours, finding faces in the knotholes in the pine cupboard walls. Much later, Poppy is sitting in the empty bathtub playing with Wombo when she finally hears the front door open. She freezes, her fingers tight on the dog’s greying plush body. Yolande’s laugh stabs through the quiet, followed by the sound of falling, more laughing, Karel’s voice.
Poppy doesn’t know whether to get out of the bath or not. Its solid walls make her feel safe, like she’s in a little box. But then, people are buried in boxes, and Poppy can’t shake the image of lumps of earth raining down on her from someone’s shovel above, just like she saw happen on the TV one time. Poppy scrambles out of the bath, pockets Wombo, and creeps out to see if, by any chance, Yolande and Karel have brought some food home with them. When Yolande, who is slumped down into the corner of the sofa with a dull look on her face, sees Poppy, she opens her mouth very wide, stretching her lips back over her gums like a baboon from a nature documentary. Yolande holds the expression far too long for it to be a yawn, and no sound comes out so she’s not planning on saying anything. The menace in the gesture is riveting. Poppy stares at the raw red hole, unable to move or look away. At last, Yolande closes her mouth. She pulls a bent cigarette out of the pocket of her jeans and places it between her lips. ‘You wouldn’t mind being sold, now, would you?’ Yolande asks. The lighter in her hand hisses up its flame, and she leans forward to suck her cigarette to life before looking back at Poppy. ‘You must be dying to get away from me, hey? Just think. Maybe end up in the lap of luxury.’ Poppy is silent. She covers the lump in her pocket that is Wombo with one hand and gives him a squeeze. ‘More likely, you’d end up in the lap of some sick old fucker, though, wouldn’t you? Because life is just like that for ugly little girls with snot on their faces.’ Yolande pulls hard on her cigarette and Poppy can see her eye-weather changing from black frost to something wet and dripping and filled with sadness. It only lasts a moment before the wind blows the hardness back in. Ice chips and stone. ‘Just remember, even if you do manage to get rid of me, Poppy, I’ll always find you. You can bet on that.’ Yolande gives a strange, thin smile, eyes squinting against a wreath of smoke. ‘Hey, then I could sell you again. Twice the profit.’ Poppy squeezes Wombo so tightly that her fingers are shaking. ‘Although second time around I’d have to lower the cost for damaged goods.’ A cough-laugh, and at last, her mother looks away, releasing Poppy from her terrible trance. ‘Stop staring at me, for God’s sake. I don’t know why you always have to fucking stare like that. Go out and play. Go on. Out.’
Bone Meal For Roses is published by Jonathan Ball. Extract reproduced by permission.