It was a summer of sudden thunder. The first storm came one Wednesday in July. Hot! It was the sort of day when the earth cracks, dogs run mad and even friends are best avoided. The sky which only half an hour ago had been a dry blue, now thickened with dark clouds. Soon it was going to rain very hard and anyone caught far from shelter would be soaked to the skin.
The girl, sitting in the long grass at the foot of the statue, did not seem to notice. Her name was Poppy Brown, and she was a liar. It was the only remarkable thing about her. She was twelve years old, neither tall nor short, dark nor fair, fat nor thin, pretty nor plain. An ordinary child except for her lies.
These stood out in a crowd from being so much taller than anyone else's. Her mother was a trapeze artist, she'd claim, who'd fallen in a flash of spangles, missed the safety net, and was now in hospital with broken bones. Her father was a great hunter, away catching elephants for an Indian prince: she was going to join him in the holidays. These lies came from her lips like pretty soap bubbles, doomed to shatter helplessly on the first hard corner of fact. (Her mother was a cook and her father had died when she was three years old.)
"Why?" she'd be asked, "Why, Poppy? You must've known we'd find out - " and she'd shake her head, her blue eyes filling with tears, as sorrowful and puzzled as anyone.
There was a time when she'd tried to be helpful, not liking to see them so at a loss. "Mrs Martin says I've got too much imagination," she'd offer, or "Mrs Welsh says it's because I've been shopped around so much." She soon learned to keep quiet. They didn't like a child to be too knowing, and would say sharply that there were plenty of children far worse off than she was, who managed to tell the truth. She was one of the lucky ones. She had a mother to love her and make a home for her whenever possible. It was not her mother's fault that this was not possible more often. Mrs Brown was not strong...
When Poppy was five, her mother had gone into hospital for so long, that when at last Poppy was allowed to see her, she did not recognise her, and would have walked past the pale, gaunt woman in the bed, had not Foster-Mother Allen caught hold of her arm and told her to go and kiss her mother. She had sat uncomfortably on the chair, while her mother gazed at her pleadingly, as if she wanted something. But Poppy had already given her the flowers.
And when she had started to tell her mother about the school play, Mrs Brown had not seemed interested, and had, in fact, fallen asleep, so Poppy had been led away.
Since then her mother had been in and out of hospital so often that Poppy lost count. Mrs Brown had had to give up her job in the café in Camden Town; taking instead, when she was well enough, living-in jobs where she was not always able to have Poppy. She refused to go on the Welfare. Something seemed to drive her to work, as if she were trying to make up for all those long weeks lying down doing nothing in bed. She was not content just to look after Poppy.
"She wants to make a good home for you, dear," they told her, "You know that she loves you."
Yes, her mother loved her; she was a child of many mothers, real, House and Foster, and they all loved her. She knew this because they told her so. She was grateful - she knew better than to look a gift horse in the mouth, especially when it kept showing its teeth. But she had no high opinion of love. Love did not stop people from being angry with you and punishing you for your own good. Love was not blind to your faults, but sought them out - to grieve over. Love did not delight in your company but openly showed its relief when it was time for you to go - back to school or bed or merely the other side of the door. "Run along and play, dearie." Not stay and play, oh no! Remove yourself and be quick about it!
"I'd much rather just be liked." she told the statue. She often talked to the statue: it was a good listener. She told it everything, her hopes, her fears, confessions even, knowing it was quite safe. The statue would never tell. And at that moment she had no other friends.
It was very quiet in this forgotten part of the garden. Very still. The birds had all flown away to their trees, where they sat close together, wrapped in their wings. The small white butterflies no longer hung about the old lavender like agitated blossom. The sky grew darker. But the girl in the red dress, poppy in the long grass, did not look up. Her head drooped over her hands, so that her soft, mouse-coloured hair almost obscured her face. She was pulling the seeds off a head of grass, one by one, - yes ... no ... yes ... no ... yes. Whatever answer the grass gave her did not seem to please her for she flung the stalk away crossly.
"Never meet trouble half way." she advised the statue, "It may be going next door. Never cross your bridges before they're built. Besides, I may be run over by a bus tomorrow. Why spoil my last day?"
The statue remained silent and smiling, its pale eyes, hollow in the centre, fixed in their carved lids to gaze endlessly at the sky. It looked very beautiful in the stormy light.
"Did you ever hear of the lady of Devizes?" Poppy asked, fiddling now with her bracelet, "One of my mothers took me to Devizes once."
She had been quite small but she still remembered it. A pretty little country town with a market place. It wasn't market day and she'd been disappointed, having heard there would be calves and sheep in pens, and stalls of jumble and jewellery, fruit and flowers. Instead she had been taken by the hand across the bare cobbles and shown the monument in the middle of the square. In memory of a woman, long ago, who on being accused of giving short measure, had cried aloud in ringing tones, "May God strike me dead if I tell a lie!" He did. The townspeople had erected the monument to commemorate the event.
"See what I mean? Silly thing to say, wasn't it? God might not've got around to it for years if she'd kept her big mouth shut."
The sky grew darker. Leaves shuddered suddenly on the bushes and were still again. Insects hurried through the grass seeking shelter. An ant ran over Poppy's leg and she put out her hand to brush it off. Her bracelet slipped over her fingers and fell to the ground. It was too big. She picked it up and swung it idly to and fro.
"Isn't it pretty?" she asked the statue. "I made it myself." She noticed it had left a dirty mark on her wrist where she'd been sweating. And it was too big. "You have it, Belladonna," she said generously, and fastened it round one of the statue's ankles. It was made of an odd, greenish-black metal, part of some old chain she'd found in the cellar.
"Now you look like a slave, waiting to be set free."
The statue smiled, its calm and beautiful face white against the black sky - black sky at four in the afternoon! Poppy jumped to her feet as the first drop fell. She was half way across the overgrown lawn when the forked tongue of lightning sprang down from the clouds and licked towards her...
Flat on the ground, face buried in the grass, - thunder crashed about her ears and the sky fell -
She was not dead. She was not burned to a cinder. The rain falling heavily on her back did not sizzle. Cautiously she opened her eyes and raised her head. At the same moment, the statue, fallen from its pedestal onto the grass a few yards away, raised its head also and they stared at one another, both so white and motionless that it was difficult to tell which girl was made of stone.
They'll never believe this! - was the first thought that came into her head, as clear and plain as if written on white paper. Come to that, she didn't believe it herself. Poppy, dear girl, she told herself, shutting her eyes tight and beginning to tremble, you may be the biggest liar out of hell, but you're not so far round the bend that you can't see both ways. Belladonna's made of stone, and stones can't raise their heads and look where they please. You're dreaming, that's what it is, and the rain thumping on your back is because you left your window open; and the grass tickling your nose is a feather popped out of your pillow. Open your eyes and you'll find yourself tucked up snug in bed.
But she kept her eyes squeezed shut, for one thought follows another, and her bed wasn't under the window nor had her pillow a feather to fly with, being made of foam rubber and smooth as a gumboot.
Try again, Poppy. The lightning struck the bracelet, the stone cracked, the statue fell. Its head broke off and bounced up off the grass to look at you. Open your eyes and you'll see she's not lying propped up on her elbow staring at you, but scattered all around in bits and pieces.
Her eyelids flared scarlet and there was another crash of thunder. The rain seemed to be trying to push her into the ground. No good staying here to be drowned. She opened her eyes. True enough, the statue was no longer lying propped up on its elbow staring at her. It was now sitting bolt upright on the grass staring at her.
"Oh Lord above!" whispered Poppy.
The stone mouth opened and cracks ran from it like spiders over the pale cheeks.
"Your face..." whispered Poppy, but even as she spoke, the rain pouring over the marble cheeks seemed to wash the cracks away, leaving them as white and smooth as before. Then the statue made a low, groaning noise, quite horrible to hear, like a gramophone record put on at the wrong speed, as if it were trying to speak but hadn't quite got the hang of it.
"Go away!" cried Poppy.
She herself could not move. It was not so much that she was rooted to the ground as slowly sinking into it. Her legs and belly were made of mud by the feel of them, and useless for running.
Very slowly the statue got to its feet, moving its limbs with effort as if through deep water, and cracks running everywhere before they were smoothed out by the rain. It groaned again and began coming towards her, rocking slightly on stiff legs and sinking onto the wet grass at every step.
She pushed herself up onto her trembling legs. No good trying to hide in the mud like a worm. Face the facts, she told herself, face the facts: lightning struck statue, statue came to life. It's a mutation, that's what it is.
The word comforted her as she stood gaping: it sounded scientific. Men had once been apes, after all, and then for no reason she'd ever been told, suddenly put clothes on and decided to be men. So a statue had come to life - why not? Why be frightened? Anyway, she could outrun it at any time she chose, and would do too, if it came one step nearer.
The statue stopped, stood where it was, just out of arm's reach, the long grass up to its knees.
Lightning flickered behind its head, some way off, and the thunder lagged behind. Rain, which had been falling straight down as if guided by a ruler, now came sideways in untidy gusts, parting Poppy's hair at the back and blowing right into the statue's face. It gazed at her with its wet eyes and then - began to smile. The cracks came finer now, like on an old plate, and were soon washed away. It smiled, and very slowly began to move its right arm, forwards and up, - as if it wanted to shake hands!
Why, I do believe it's friendly, Poppy thought, amazed. Yet, why not? Who'd sat and talked to it for many an hour when it stood lonely on its pedestal? Befriended it and given it a pretty name? (Poppy knew that Belladonna was a flower. She did not know it was another name for Deadly Nightshade, against which she had been warned, for its berries are poisonous and can kill.) Who'd given it the bracelet, the chain that had helped bring it to life?
Why, it probably thinks you're God, Poppy Brown! Or its mother! How will it feel if you turn your back on it now and run off? Sick, cold, deserted that's how it will feel, with a sort of pain somewhere inside that will never quite go away. It's all alone, too, the only one of its kind in the whole world.
Poppy whispered, "You poor old thing," and smiled back at it. They stood smiling at each other while the rain blew about them.
"Well, it's no good standing here catching our deaths," Poppy said at last, "You'd better come along with me, my pretty. Though Lord knows what they'll make of you up at the house!"
Beckoning to it and looking often over her shoulder, she led the way from the little wilderness with the empty pedestal, through the dripping shrubbery and across the smooth lawns to the house. The statue, smiling and moaning, lumbered after her. Its feet cut deep holes in the old, pampered turf, which filling rapidly with water, shone like little ponds to mark the way they'd come. When it reached the edge of the lawn, it stopped.
Poppy, waiting on the flagged path, thought perhaps it was nervous, never having seen a house so close before, and said encouragingly,
"Come on, my own," - although of course it was not her own at all, but belonged to Mr Hunt, like the house and the grounds and the very bed Poppy slept in. It occurred to Poppy for the first time to wonder if her mother's employer would be pleased to have one of his statues come to life. He was not supposed to be overfond of company. Still, no good crying over spilt milk. What's done was done.
"No-one's going to believe in you," she said, "Still, seeing's believing. I suppose, as the prisoner said to blind Justice. Come on!"
Obediently the statue walked forward onto the path.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
The marble feet crashed against the paving stones with a noise far sharper than thunder.
"Stop!" Poppy cried in dismay, holding her hand up to halt it, "You'll bring Mr Hunt down on us. I'm not supposed to make a noise near the house. Couldn't you sort of slide your feet along like this..."
Scrape! Scrape! Scrape!
It was worse, if anything. And how muddy her feet were!
They reached a door in the side of the house, which Poppy opened.
"Here we are," she said, beckoning the statue forward, "There's a sink in here. We can make ourselves all spick and span before I take you to see Mother Brown. Mrs Brown, my real mother, that is. She doesn't like dirt. Mud on your feet and she wouldn't notice if you wore a halo. Sit on that chair, while I run the water."
It was a wooden chair and it stood no chance. The heavy statue crashed right through it with a tremendous clattering bang on to the floor. Three flower pots fell off a shelf and broke, scattering their earth. The statue's smile now looked like a grimace of pain. Or anger.
"Oh! Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't think..." Poppy rushed to its side. "You're not broken, are you? Chipped? Let me help you up!"
Its arm felt cold, like marble - and yet not quite like marble any more. But nothing, no, nothing like flesh and blood. Though she tugged with both hands, she could not shift it, and it seemed to make no effort to help itself.
"Oh, you're hurt! I'll fetch Mother Brown! She'll know what to do. I won't be long!"
The statue, left alone, slowly turned its head to look round the room. Its gaze became fixed. On the shelf, there was the marble head of a girl, on a black base. It stared at this for some time, and its hand moved stiffly to touch its own neck. When it looked back towards the door, the friendly innocence of its face was quite gone. It wore an expression of cold mistrust.
In the kitchen, the two women heard the crash. Too loud for thunder! Wrong sort of noise! Mrs Robbins turned from the sink and stared at Mrs Brown. Mrs Brown, her hands poised over a bowl of flour, stared back. Then, hearing footsteps thudding down the passage towards them they both turned to stare at the door. It burst open.
Poppy, leaning in the doorway, trying to recover her breath, thought how funny they looked, like dummies, each holding up her hands as if in amazement; one pair in pink rubber gloves and the other white with flour. Mrs Robbins's face relaxed when she saw who it was, as if she had expected a monster at least, but Mrs Brown looked as though she thought her daughter looked quite bad enough.
"What have you done now?" she asked, in a voice as sharp as her elbows.
"Noth - nothing! It's -"
"What was that 'orrible noise?" asked Mrs Robbins, "'Aven't 'urt yourself, 'ave you, love?"
"No. It's -"
"You're all wet," said Mrs Robbins, coming up and inspecting Poppy with round, brown eyes, "But it ain't blood. Oo's 'urt, then?" she asked hopefully, "Mr 'Unt fallen downstairs and broke 'is neck, 'as 'e?"
Mrs Robbins was a Londoner. After ten years in Charle, she still found country life a bit slow. She missed the bustle and excitement of London, with police cars and ambulances screaming through the night, while she was safe in bed. Not, of course, that she wished anybody any real harm!
But Poppy shook her head.
"It's Belladonna," she said. The women looked blank. "The statue - the one from the little shrubbery. It's fallen down! I can't lift it - it's so heavy! Please come! I think it's hurt."
"If you've broken something that costs a lot -" said her mother, her face turning nearly as white as the flour on her hands, "A statue - oh Lord! I told you to be careful! I told you! If you've cost me my job, I - I don't know what -"
She broke off as Mrs Robbins laid a pink, rubber-gloved hand on her arm.
"There, there, dearie! Don't take on. 'E won't give you your cards. 'Ow did it 'appen?" she asked, turning to Poppy.
"It wasn't me!" said Poppy, looking uneasily at her mother. "It was the lightning. I'm not responsible for lightning, am I? I'm not Jove or whoever it is up there! The lightning struck the statue and - and then -"
She couldn't say it. It was true but it wasn't going to sound that way. She could've told Mrs Robbins, but not with her mother standing there with that long-suffering look...
"Oh, lightning, was it?" said Mrs Robbins comfortably, "Act of God. Nothing to do with us. Out in the garden, you said. Not our job to clear it away, then. Mr Shepherd, 'e's in charge of the garden. Your ma and me, we're only the 'ouse."
"It's in the house now! Please come!" said Poppy urgently, seeing Mrs Robbins settle herself comfortably on a chair and begin to peel off her gloves, as if she'd lost all interest. "It's in that little room with the sink where we leave our gumboots -"
"It WALKED!" shouted Poppy, furious that the truth should sound so much less probable than even the wildest of her lies. Everything was going wrong. As usual. "Don't believe me! I'm not asking you to believe me!" she said, seeing her mother's face. "Just come and see for yourselves - that's all!"
"I've a good mind to wash your mouth out with soap," said her mother angrily.
"It's not the only thing what needs washing," said Mrs Robbins, winking at Poppy behind her mother's back. "Better get 'er out of them wet clothes and into an 'ot bath before you spank 'er, Mrs Brown, or we'll 'ave an invalid on our 'ands."
"Please come, Mother Brown," pleaded Poppy, taking hold of her mother's arm. It felt as hard as the statue's, only warmer and rougher.
"Don't call me Mother Brown," her mother muttered under her breath, "Just Mother is enough. Or Mum."
But Poppy was out of the kitchen. She could hear the two women following her down the passage, her mother muttering "If this is another of her lies..."
Poppy couldn't wait to see her face. Would she apologise for disbelieving her? Would she say - "Poppy, my dear love, I've misjudged you. Though you may tell the odd lie now and then, just to embroider a dull day, you can be trusted to tell the truth when it matters. I should've known!" Would she say that? Like hell! That'd be the day! Still, you never know! Perhaps -
She stopped short in the doorway, feeling the others crowding behind her. There was the chair in splintered pieces on the floor. There were the broken flower pots. The water, left running, had overflowed the sink and was joining the earth on the floor in rivers of mud. But - no statue!
"It's gone! Where's it gone!" wailed Poppy.
"Well," said Mrs Robbins, looking from the bewilderment on Poppy's face to the cold anger on her mother's. "Least said, soonest mended, I always say. Though that poor chair's 'ad it." She looked round with a practiced eye. "Fetch us a dustpan and brush, dearie. And them big bits can go straight in the bin. 'E'll never know they've gone."
Out in the passage, a door closed softly, but none of them noticed. They were all too busy: Mrs Robbins in clearing up the mess, Mrs Brown trying to control her anger and Poppy getting ready to dodge, should her mother fail in this.
Out of sight, the stone creature waited.
Poppy, sent to bed without any supper, sat at her dresing-table, brushing her damp hair. The unjust punishment did not trouble her. A book, entitled Proverbs, Saws and Sayings, once bought at a jumble sale for two pence, had prepared her for life. "A liar's truth sounds as crooked as his tongue." "A wise man cares not for what he cannot have." (Such as supper). Anyway, she wasn't hungry.
She studied her reflection earnestly. Why had the statue made off? Didn't it trust her? Did she really look - deceitful? Were her lies beginning to show in her face, as House- Mother Allen had warned her they would one day, after finding out that Poppy did not have a brother in Borstal nor a sister in Holloway Prison, but was an only child, trying to get sympathy under false pretences.
She leaned nearer, until, her nose resting on the cold glass, she saw the reflected eyes meet, touch corners and become one long eye - like a Cyclops. A monster! Was that how everyone saw her? She moved back hastily, and her reflected face resumed its normal shape.
And where had her poor monster gone? Into the house ... oh heck! Slap bang into the middle of Mr Hunt's treasures. For her mother's employer collected things, old things, - the house was like a museum. On every side, on every shelf, table, pedestal and chest, there were heads.
Marble heads, bronze heads, heads in alabaster and heads in terracotta - and every one of them cut off below the neck! For a moment she seemed to see it through the statue's eyes - a butcher's shop! A chamber of horrors. A stone abattoir into which Poppy had led it ... she must explain ... She must explain before it decided to remove her head from her shoulders, to keep on a mantleshelf between two brass candlesticks! And what about Mother Brown and Ma Robbins, who at any moment might blunder round a corner or open a cupboard ...
She ran to the door and opened it - and there was Mrs Robbins, smiling and winking, bringing a paper bag out of the bosom of her flowered overall.
"Brought you a bite of something to eat, you naughty girl," she whispered, "Only don't let your ma -"
"I can't stop!" cried Poppy, "I've got to find it before -"
"Lost something, dearie? Never mind, it'll turn up," said Mrs Robbins, pushing Poppy back int the room, "Better not let your ma catch you out of 'ere, 'ad you? Or she'll lock you up, next time and you won't like that."
"But - but -" stammered Poppy, trying to explain the danger waiting somewhere in this house, behind the next corner or the next ... But now a vast flowery bosom filled her vision, so like a cushion for a tired head and she longed to rest and be comforted. "It's frightened. It might - turn nasty." she said weakly.
It was no good. Mrs Robbins seemed to think she was talking about a dog. She wasn't listening properly, having no time just now for Poppy's stories. Poppy found herself sitting on the bed, the paper bag in her lap.
"You tuck into that, dearie, - and don't drop no crumbs what'll give me away."
"A bit of cold chicken, love, and a slice of yer ma's pie what's still 'ot -"
"No! That noise!"
"I can't 'ear nothing. Only the wind and the rain."
"Listen!" said Poppy, going very pale, "Something's coming upstairs!"
"'Ere, shove it under yer piller, quick!" Mrs Robbins grabbed the bag herself and pushed it out of sight just in time. The door opened and Mrs Brown came into the room, carrying a tray on which were a mug of milk and two Marie biscuits on a plate. Poppy was to be punished by missing her supper but not actually allowed to starve.
"I thought you'd gone home, Mrs Robbins," Mrs Brown said, for Mrs Robbins lived down in the village with her husband and her cat, and only 'helped out' during the day.
"Just going, dearie," Mrs Robbins said hastily, "Night, Poppy, love. Night, Mrs Brown."
"Goodnight!" Poppy called after her. "And Ma, - be careful! If you hear footsteps, don't look round, just run!
"Don't call her Ma," said her mother, when the door had closed, "She's not your mother. I am."
She came across the room and put the tray on the bedside table. Then she stood, as if waiting for something.
"Thanks," muttered Poppy.
Still her mother stood there. What did she want? Could she smell the pie? Was the paper bag showing? Uneasily she turned her head to look - just as her mother bent down to kiss her. The kiss landed awkwardly on her left ear.
Mrs Brown straightened up and walked quickly from the room, shutting the door behind her with a controlled slam.
That's torn it! thought Poppy. Now she thinks you've dodged her kiss on purpose. After she'd screwed herself up to it, too! You've been a disappointment again. Not only a liar, but unloving as well. Upsetting your poor mother. Making her ill. Why do you do everything wrong? Oh well, if she needs another rest from you, Poppy Brown, who cares? There's plenty more mothers where she came from! Real, House, or Foster, who cares? Rot 'em all!
She sat hugging herself as if she were cold, rocking backwards and forwards on her bed. Gradually her face, which had looked bleak, began to relax.
"Got to do something about Belladonna." she muttered.
For a long time she sat thinking. Then she grinned. Foster-mother Mears! Foster-Mother Mears had had a stall selling 'High Fashion Jewellery' in a street market off the Edgware Road. On Saturdays Poppy used to help. Now she remembered how Mother Mears always said, standing there with strings of beads dangling from her plump fingers, "Watch me, darling! It'll be an eddication. You gotta chat 'em up a bit, see? Put 'em in a good mood, crack a joke or two. Everyone loves a bit of glitter. Do it right and they'll be eating out of yer 'ands."
Taking a blanket from her bed, Poppy spread it out on the floor and placed in the middle: four strings of beads, one butterfly brooch, one Snoopy badge, five safety pins, two plastic bangles, and a poster of Laurel and Hardy, rolled up and fastened with an elastic band.
She sat back on her heels and considered the offering. It didn't glitter much but it would have to do. It's the thought that counts, she reminded herself, tying the corners of the blanket together.
She crept out into the passage. It was dim and shadowy, lit only by a narrow window at the end. The house was quiet. Her room was in the servants' wing, a long way from the dining-room below, where Mr Hunt would be eating his slice of meat pie in solitary state. A long way from the kitchen where her mother would be eating her slice, and diluting the gravy with her tears. The only sounds Poppy could hear were the rain at the window and the creaking of wooden boards (that might be only the old house settling on its foundations and not footsteps at all).
Please Heaven, let Belladonna believe the heads and busts were made that way and not the result of human brutality! Let her love a bit of glitter. Don't let her crack my head open before I have a chance to speak.