Poppy Fields    Marianne Elder

It would have been better if Rosie had died. Maybe then he could have moved forward, but instead she'd left him. Stuck, in a thick mud of grief. Some days it pulled him in so hard, that he was certain he would sink. Like a boggy marsh, it sucked at his feet, beckoning him under, compelling him to submit. On other days he managed to keep his head just above the surface. From there, if he stretched his arms out as far as they would reach, he could almost touch the fringes of life.

 

It was almost two years before Robert found interest in anything other than longing for her. It was an otherwise ordinary morning in early May and he sat, as he did everyday, in his weathered armchair, with a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth and a broadsheet laid open upon his lap. Every so often a sprinkling of ash dropped down from his cigarette and landed upon the arm of the chair. When enough had fallen so that a small, grey mound had formed, Robert moved his hand down from his chin and flicked the embers with his finger. They cascaded down, like snowflakes, onto the carpet below. All the while he kept his eyes fixed fast upon the newspaper. His pupils darted, back and forth, scanning the headlines, absorbing their words.

There was something about that particular morning that pulled Robert away from his sorrow. Perhaps it was the square of hot sun that fell, brazenly, through the window. Perhaps it was the call of the soft, spring wind as it whistled over the fields outside. Or maybe, it was just that time, at last, had begun to knit the jagged edges of his wound back together. The warm rays caressed his cheek and lured him upwards, out of his chair and onto the balls of his feet. He looked through the window and the glare of the sun forced his eyes into a sliver. Outside, red poppies shivered in the spring breeze. Across the field, the church spire broke the bold blue sky in two. He recalled the hot sticky hand of his son at a Summer Fete years before. That day his face had glistened with crystallised sugar. Clouds of pink candy floss had stuck fast to his nose and his little tongue had swirled up and around and down and up again, to savour all the sweetness.

As he looked across the meadow, he felt a budding warmth within himself. Just a fraction of feeling in a place which had stood empty for so long. He was desperate to capture it, to make it last and so he pulled a long, slow string of air up through his nostrils, absorbing the crisp smell of flowers. Their fragrance dampened the hunger which had been gnawing away at his insides since he'd woken that morning.

He pulled the cigarette away from his lips and stamped its head into the windowsill, turning his attention back to the room where he stood. His eyes wandered over to the bookcase. It had once belonged to his grandfather. How strange, it seemed, that this simple wooden structure had seen more of life than he had. Its wide oak shelves had felt the touch of a thousand hands; soft hands that brimmed with slender femininity, old hands with papery skin and young hands with peachy flesh and sweaty palms.

The yellow sun tapped him on the shoulder and tugged at him again. This time it enticed him outside. The light gushed in and reached its fingers into every crevice of the room. Again, he felt the warmth within his chest. It enlivened him and compelled him to walk out of the door, which clipped shut behind him and on through the sea of red flowers. He walked and walked until his hips ached and his mouth was parched.


 

By the time he reached the church, it was well past two o'clock. In the distance the sky had paled to a soft lemon-white and its edges faded into a deep blue. The poppies twisted their necks up to catch the last of the rays before the earth turned away from the day. Robert walked through the church doors and felt the heat lift from his skin. He sat down upon a cold, wooden pew. Rows of empty seats rolled out in front of him, each one stamped with a book of hymns, their edges weathered by the hands of the Sunday congregation. He tilted his head back and examined the shape of two figurines that had been carved into the ceiling above him. A child's cheek squashed into his mother's shoulder as she carried him in her arms.

The muscles of his neck began to ache and he moved his head back down to its resting place. It was then that he noticed the woman sitting a dozen rows in front of him. Her body was wedged in the corner of a bench and her neck was bent right over so that her chin touched the skin of her breasts. A woven cloth hung loosely over her shoulders, hiding her shape. Her back heaved up and down and her shoulders jerked. Her breath rasped as she sucked on the air, wrenching it deep into her lungs and, on its release, she let out a gentle moan; a whimper that echoed through the air. A mourner’s song. For a while he sat, silent and watching, as she cried in waves that crescendoed then crashed with a shudder of her spine. Then he pushed his feet into the floor and stood up from his seat. Apprehension made him falter a moment, but then he was walking, through narrow aisles and dusty prayer mats, until he stood almost above her. She didn't look up, but her body became still. He sat down next to her, leaving a small strip of shiny wood between them. The solid pine pressed his thigh muscles flat so that they seemed enormous compared to hers. Then he pulled a handkerchief from under his sleeve and pressed it into her palm. Her fingers folded around it and she padded it over her swollen face. Black streams of mascara came away with the damp. She sniffed hard, taking a stream of tears inside herself. Robert spoke. 'I don't think I've ever seen those Poppies look as pretty as they do today.'

 

She pulled the shawl down over her arms, wrapping it tight around herself, so that only her hands could be seen. He noticed her nails. The varnish shimmered as it caught the light from the naked bulb that dangled above their heads. She remained silent.

'I was just on my way to the tea room. Would you like to come along? We can get some coffee.'

This time she lifted her eyes and looked straight at him. Still she didn't speak, but she moved her head, up and down, up and down. A few wisps of hair fell in front of her eyes as she nodded. The corners of her mouth rose upwards into a timid smile then she stretched her legs out and stood, abruptly. For a moment she towered above him. He sensed an eagerness within her, a desperation to leave the austerity of the church as if she suddenly felt burdened by its magnitude. As if the very stone bore into her bones, compressing them and oppressing her. Robert saw her shape then; fragile and slender. And then he stood too, walked down the centre aisle and pushed open the heavy doors which led out to the road. She followed, just a small step behind. As they crossed the road, he glanced sideways at her and saw her eyes flicker up towards the field of poppies.

They sat down in the tea room, one opposite the other, their hands wrapped around mugs of coffee. Robert turned his eyes to the window and watched a droplet of water meander down the glass until it joined it's companions in a soggy puddle along the windowsill. He saw in her a reflection of himself and he felt a restful sympathy. He felt they were connected by a long string of sorrow, one that could be stretched right out and still would never break. He wondered whether she felt it too and whether it comforted her.

Eventually she spoke. She told Robert that she lunched here everyday. She'd lost her daughter, ten years before. Today was the anniversary and she always cried. It had never got easier, not really. She and her husband had been wrenched apart by their grief. Once their lives had been intertwined, now they were adjacent, parallel. 'But I'll be ok', she said, 'It's just a difficult time of year.'

 

That night Robert's mind would not settle. A treadmill of recycled thoughts churned around inside of him until he was quite fraught. He clicked his eyes open and looked hard at the wooden beam on the ceiling. Its' spidery grooves swirled round and round all along it's length, until they joined into a black hole and got sucked away for ever. He lay, staring straight upwards, for sometime. His feet perspired in the tangled bed sheets which fought him like an encircling snake. He kicked them away and then lay naked with the cool air stroking his skin. He felt a calmness begin to encroach upon him, it swirled about his ankles and then rose upwards until it enveloped him in it's cloak. His eyes ached with fatigue. A great weight compelled them to close and when he succumbed he saw Rosie, as always, imprinted on the inside of his eyelids. Usually her image caused his heart to curl up into a twisted ball, it's pace would quicken and he'd feel it pounding, violently beneath his ribcage. Tonight, his heart pulsated rhythmically, a steady drum-beat in the dark. He looked at Rosie and felt a gentle fondness.

As he lay in the darkness, he thought back to their conversation in in the coffee shop. Once she had finished talking, she had tipped her coffee cup right into the air until every last drop had fallen into her mouth, as if she was afraid to leave some behind. Robert recalled the look of her lips as they parted wide to let the coffee drip inside. Thank you, she'd said, with a gentle smile. And then, I must be on my way. Robert had felt the heat rise into his cheeks as they turned from pale to pink. A string of incoherent sounds had escaped his lips. At last he had said, when his voice had stopped stammering, No problem, can we meet again tomorrow? She'd nodded quickly and then turned and walked away.

And now, as he lay beckoning sleep, he was no longer agitated by Rosie, but by this stranger whose name he didn't know. His body writhed around in the darkness. His arms, twisted this way and that, unable to find their rightful place. Eventually his mind became tangled in that fog that looms between sleep and wakefulness, where reality is warped but dreams have not yet prevailed.

 

He woke as the first dribbles of light made their way through the gap in his curtains forming a stripe of yellow across his body. He felt it's warmth upon his cheek and his eyes opened, instantly wide. He sensed that things had altered but a haze of amnesia surrounded his slumber and so it took a few moments before he remembered her. He tried to form a picture in his mind. He had all the parts but he couldn't piece them together. He remembered her skinny arms and the bony fingers that had held the coffee cup so neatly. And her eyes, they were almost colourless, an insipid grey perhaps. When she'd looked at him, he'd felt their intensity. They were not intimidating though, just analytical and perceptive. He hadn't told her about Rosie but he felt, somehow, that she knew it anyway.

The clock on his bedside table read 07:04 as he swung his legs out of the bed and stretched his arms above his head, sending a shiver from his neck down through his spine. He reached over to his bedside table and took a cigarette from its packet, placed it between his lips and flicked the lighter with his thumb. He sucked in hard as he brought the flame up to its tip and then he stood and walked downstairs.

He ran his hand over the bookcase and a film of dust came away on his fingertips. Taking a cloth from the sink, he scrubbed the wood until his hand ached with cramp and he had to uncurl his fingers to ease the pain. The cloth turned from cream to dirty grey and he liked the look of the murky water as he rinsed it clean under the tap. Once he had rubbed the final corner, he stood back and looked at his masterpiece. He smoothed his fingers over the glossy oak and felt a deep satisfaction inside himself. He lined up all the books in a carefully ordered row then he walked over to his armchair and gathered the ash from the carpet into his hand. Once more he felt impelled to be outside. He yearned to see the landscape and to feel the sharp wind upon his skin. The lure of the sunshine pulled him through his front door and, once more, he found himself walking through the

field of poppies. Today a cloud of white strewn-out silk lay over the sun and the flowers wore a deep maroon instead of their usual vibrant red. He bent down and pinched the stem of a poppy between his fingertips, then he yanked hard and pulled the flower up out of the ground. He brought it up to the tip of his nose and inhaled its sweet fragrance. Then he felt a chill upon his skin and all the hairs on his arms rose up from their slumber. In an instant, all the colour drained out of the field and Robert looked up just in time to see a dense, murky cloud obscure the last fraction of the sunlight.

 

Back home he placed the flower in a pale blue vase and put it on the top shelf of his bookcase. Then he pulled on his raincoat and set out on his way to the coffee shop.

When he arrived at the teashop she was already there sitting in the same seat as she had the day before. This time she wore a neat black coat and she sat with her shoulders pulled back square. As he entered she looked straight at him and he sat down in the seat right next to her. She didn't talk of her daughter that day. Instead she spoke about herself. He found out that she loved to read. 'Without books,' he heard her say, 'the world would be ignorant. We would know only of our own lives. How miserable that would be!'

Her name was Lori, she painted pictures of the countryside and sold them at her husband's shop. He owned the store in town, 'you know the one that sells all kinds of bits and bobs, next door to the Bakery' she told the waiter.

She formed each word neatly as if she enjoyed the way they sounded. He liked the look of her narrow lips. Today she'd brushed them with a glossy pink. He had liked them better plain. She looked at him fondly, her head balanced softly to one side. Robert looked down at the thick, brown hair that covered his arms which seemed suddenly huge, like those of a giant. He moved them down from the table and onto his lap, out of sight.

 

As he listened to her speak Robert's mind wandered back to his childhood. That windy day on Southwold beach when his sister, dear Martha, had built him a sandcastle so big that he could fit inside. Still now he could remember the feel of the salty grains that had filled up every hole in his body as the castle walls fell in on him. Martha scooped him up in to her arms, and carried him over to where the sea crushed in foamy white onto the shore. She waded out until the water lapped her waist. And then she dunked him. Straight in. Only for a moment. And, as he felt all the sand fall away from his skin, he had thought of all the creatures that lay beneath, and shuddered. Afterwards they sat back on the beach and stuffed fat chips into their mouths.

'I can still remember how salty my fingers tasted that day, funny isn't it?'

 

*

Robert saw Lori everyday all through the Summer, except for weekends, when he would drive the four miles across town to pick up Harry from Rosie's house. His son stayed with him every Saturday and Robert spent each week waiting for the time to arrive when he could get in his car to collect him. Sometimes he took him to Chequer's Ice Cream Parlour and sometimes they just stayed in and ate Pizza until they were both sickly full.

 

It was a Wednesday morning and just over a month had passed since he had first met Lori. As he stood in front of the mirror in his bathroom, he realised that all morning he had thought only of her. But it was strange, for the feeling he had for Lori was not like that he had had for Rosie or other girlfriends. She was too fragile, too slender for Robert to think of her in that kind of way. She would never be a lover to him. But there was something about her that drew him to her. It was founded upon an understanding. He felt that she knew him, more than others could. That she understood what he had become. Their meetings had rescued him from himself. Like two soldiers, returned from battle, they had an attachment that had been formed through personal trauma.

 

As the Summer passed the poppies grew taller and taller. When July came, their stems were so long that the gusts of wind bent them right over and their petals almost touched the soil. Often the rain would fall as Robert made his way to the tea room. Some days it fell so softly that his skin could barely feel it. Other days it drenched his clothes so that they chaffed his skin and stuck to his back. Lori would always arrive unscathed and unflustered. Her clothes were never sodden and her hair was never damp.

Every week Robert picked a fresh Poppy and placed it in his vase. The petals came nearer and nearer to the ceiling until, one day, their edges brushed the white paint. When Robert took the vase down he noticed it had left a damp fingerprint on the ceiling. He liked the pattern it had drawn. As the weeks went by their meetings became less frequent. She was busy with work because the shop was struggling to make money. Instead of meeting everyday they met just once a week and that suited Robert for he had started his own project. He had bought himself a van and filled it with all his tools. On the side he had painted in bold blue writing, 'R. Wilson's Electrics,' and beneath it he had printed his telephone number. As he drove around people jotted it down and, when they needed something fixing, they would give him a call. At first the work had been slow, just one or two light fittings a week. But, as word got round, he found himself struggling to fit all his appointments in. He loved his work and he no longer thought of Rosie everyday. Not even once a week.

One morning towards the end of July Robert sat in his arm chair, recalling the words Lori had said that day. Me and Charlie are getting along much better, it's almost like it used to be. I think I have been blaming him all these years but it's not his fault, of course. I know that really.

    He stared at his paper but he wasn't absorbing the words. Instead his mind worked hard, trying to figure out what she had meant. She couldn't love Charlie, she must be confused. She loved Robert. Maybe she didn't realise it yet. Maybe she hadn't seen how happy he made her. A loud thwack sounded at the door. The sound bolted through him and made his heart jump. He didn't move at first, he just looked over to the door and kept still and silent. A long thread of ash clung onto his cigarette as he sucked on it quietly. It must be a salesman, he never had visitors. Then it came again, the stern rap of knuckles, louder this time. He stood slowly from his seat and walked over to the door. He flicked the catch with his thumb and, pulled the door, cautiously, towards him.

'Can you confirm your name for me sir?' A police officer stood on his doorstep, a fat drop of rain meandered across his forehead.

'Sir your name please?'

'Eh yes, officer, it's Robert, Robert Wilson.'

'I'm afraid to tell you we've had a complaint about you sir. I need you to come down to the station for questioning.'

'A complaint?'

'Yes, from a young lady. She claims you have been following her. Turning up where she lunches everyday.'

'I'm sorry officer, you've got the wrong person. You can ask anyone that knows me, they'll tell you I'm straight. I'm a decent man.' His voice rose up in panic.

'If you'd just come with me Mr. Wilson we can talk more about this at the Police Station.'

 

*

 

Robert whacked the hammer against the nail. Over and over, again and again, he pulled his arm back then thrust it forward, beating out a steady rhythm in time with the throbbing of his heart. The loud crack of metal upon metal resonated in the living room. The window panes shuddered and the bookcase teetered upon its four claws, rocking back and forth, back and forth. He watched as the nail disappeared into the wall until only the tip was visible, then he laid his tools down on the ground and stretched his arms out wide. He curled his fingers around the sides of the frame, gripping it tight so that his knuckles stuck out, then he levered it up, and hung the string upon the nail, right in the centre so that it was perfectly straight. He stood back and looked at the picture. She must have painted it in early spring. The Poppies were just blooming and the church spire was shrouded in a thick fog. The sky was black with thunder.


 

Marianne has been writing for about four years and as well as writing short stories is currently working on a novel.

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