Do you prefer this introductory chapter or the Cat’s Eyes one?
Poppy’s Time by Margaret Evans-Kaufeler
I don’t want to visit Gran. I haven’t forgiven her yet.
‘But Poppy, tomorrow’s the 27th of July,’ Mum says between mouthfuls of Cornflakes.
‘So?’ I take a bite out of my marmaladed toast.
‘Don’t pretend you don’t know. Gran’s birthday. This time you have to come.’
‘But I promised I’d meet Sal.’
‘Gran’s not been well.’ Pause, but not for cereal this time.
My stomach tightens. ‘What’s wrong with her?’
Mum frowns. ‘Have lunch with us. You can see Sal afterwards.’
Gran’s house is greyer and smaller than I remember from three years ago.
The overgrown weeds clutch at our clothes as we walk up the path.
‘I cleared this only last week.’ Mum sighs. ‘How could it have got so out-of-hand already?’
The front door also looks neglected with its tarnished letter-box and peeling paint. Spiders’ webs lace their way across the entrance.
I cry out in surprise as Gran’s Persian cat Albert leaps onto my shoulder from his porch-roof hiding place. I drop the framed picture of flowers that I’d painted especially– Lobelias of course, after Gran’s name. Mum had nagged me to do it: ’You know how Gran appreciates your art work.’
‘Crash!’ The sound of shattering glass echoes around the front garden.
‘Shi-!’ I start to say.
‘Poppy!’ Mum interrupts.
Albert shoots off to the front gate to hiss angrily at a tabby cat who eyes him briefly then struts away. My skin prickles. What’s got into Albert? His tawny fur’s puffed out on his arched back, and his normal, haughty expression’s turned threatening.
‘Poppy, are you going to give me a hand here?’
We crouch down and clear up the mess. I humph: that picture took me hours to do. Albert brushes past our legs.
Mum rings the doorbell. ‘It’s only us,’ Mum calls through the letter box.
‘Poppy’s here too. A real treat.’
Still no reply.
When no-one answers, she uses her key. ‘I hope there’s nothing wrong,’ she says,’ it’s the first time Gran hasn’t met me here.’
‘Maybe she’s just taking a nap,’ I say.
But Mum’s lips are pinched like when she and Dad used to argue about money.
I leave the parcel of bits by the door to sort out later and we walk into Gran’s living room. She’s in her favourite chair: the one like a throne with its intricate flower and animal carvings on the wooden arms and legs. You wouldn’t think it was comfortable, but when you sit down you sink into the soft seat cushion and feel safe.
This chair has been a pirate ship, a fiery steed, a magic carpet. With Gran around, those games were so real.
But is this shrunken figure really her? When she visited us at Christmas, she’d been the lively and eccentric Gran who used to child mind me after school. She’d even made me smile a couple of times, in spite of myself. Now her boniness reminds me of the bird skeleton Albert once proudly laid at my feet.
Mum’s been struck dumb.
My stomach churns again but my voice works: ‘Hi Gran.’ I bend down to kiss her cheek. Her skin is papery and her clothes smell stale.
I can hardly hear her reply.
‘Hello … Poppy.’ She catches hold of my hand with her cold fingers. ‘It’s so good to see you, Dear.’
Smiling, she gently pats the chair next to her. ‘Come and sit next to me. We’ve missed you. Tell me all your news.’
But as I settle and open my mouth to speak, her smile disappears. She looks around at Albert, the grandfather clock, then back at me. She frowns: ‘There are more important things to discuss. It shouldn’t be your time yet … but we need you.’
She drops my hand and gazes into the distance.
The ticking of the grandfather clock fills the room.
Even though Gran now turns to face Mum, her eyes don’t focus on her: ‘Hello … Marion. Haven’t you brought Richard with you?’
Albert jumps onto her lap and distracts her so that she doesn’t see Mum and me exchange glances.
‘No. We’ve been divorced three years now. Remember?’
‘Oh … yes. You reminded me last time. I’m getting so forgetful, aren’t I Nick?’ She looks towards the grandfather clock in the corner as if expecting a reply. Mum and I turn automatically too, as if there’s some-one there. Of course there isn’t. Yet, I have a fleeting impression of a head over the clock face.
‘I’m missing something,’ Gran clasps and unclasps her hands repeatedly. ‘… locked away in my brain … important. About you, Poppy. Albert told me so.’
Albert rubs his head against her hands, stopping their agitation.
‘Danger.’ She points towards the window and again reflex makes me look. The hedge has grown high and ragged. I can almost make out shapes of people staring in. Large, shadowy shapes.
She jabs her finger towards me: ‘You see them, don’t you Poppy?’
I lean back and shiver.
‘Please stop, you’re frightening her,’ Mum says to Gran, ‘and worrying me too. Have you been taking your medicine?’
When Gran doesn’t reply Mum addresses me instead. ‘Poppy, why don’t you go and make us a cup of tea? And heat up the casserole while you’re there?’ She hands me the carrier bag containing our lunch.
My voice shakes: ‘Okay.’
I’m grateful the kitchen seems so normal. I turn on the oven and slot in the stew, stick the birthday cake in the fridge. I fill the kettle, set out the tea things and sit down at the small breakfast table to wait. That kettle has always been a slow boiler.
I glance up at the clock. I like this one. The manufacturer’s name curls upwards like a banana to make a smiley mouth. But the time it shows – only midday – means at least another two hours before I can meet Sal.
Albert springs up onto the table and swishes his bushy tail, inviting me to stroke him. I’m glad of the distraction. It must be a trick of the light, but he seems to have fewer grey hairs in his tawny fur than last time. How old is he? In all my fourteen years, I can’t remember a time when he’s not been around. But I don’t remember him being a kitten and I haven’t seen any photos.
He looks at me and holds my gaze like he’s working out a difficult maths problem. Then he jumps off and heads to the back door, glancing over his shoulder as if asking me to follow, before passing through the cat flap.
The kettle is still only making quiet pops and whistles: several minutes before it builds up to its grand finale. I unlock the back door and step outside.
Although the back garden is overgrown too, the area is more peaceful than out front and I feel my shoulders relax. The scent of the honeysuckle at the back door washes over me. Gardening sounds: lawn mowing, hedge trimming, are everyday and reassuring. I can even hear the gardener next door whistling away while he digs. Why am I making such a big thing about Gran? After all, elderly people are often frail and forgetful.
Albert has found a warm spot on the patio, near the holly bush and fence. I take my mobile from my pocket and bend down to stroke him while I text Sal: hi. wt film r we –
I stop to see who’s speaking and stand up for a better view. The voice is unfamiliar but pleasant: smooth, rich and male. Is it the gardener next door?
‘I’m down here!’ It’s coming from near my feet. I look at Albert.
‘Yes, it’s me.’
This time I see his lips move.
I shriek. My phone slips through my fingers and topples in slow motion, into the holly bush. Whoa! Not only am I seeing and hearing things, but now I’ve lost my mobile.
Suddenly a head pops up over the fence like a Jack-in-a-Box and makes me jump and scream again.
‘Sorry. Didn’t mean to shock you. Are you okay, Poppy?’ This time it’s the ‘Jack-in-a Box’ who’s speaking. I thought he was the gardener next door. But how come he knows my name? … Hang on, I recognise that lop-sided smile.
‘…Tom? I haven’t seen you since … ages.’ It’s been three years since Tom and me ended up going to different secondary schools. Three years since Gran didn’t need to child-mind me any more.
‘Yeah, it’s been a long time.’
He’s changed a lot. He must be half a metre taller than when we used to play together: making dens; creating obstacle courses; putting on shows for our long-suffering families. And he’s broader: his pecs fill his T-shirt well.
I swear Albert sniffs disapprovingly.
‘And how are you, Al?’
Albert raises his nose and turns his back at this casual use of his name.
‘I don’t think he’s ever forgiven me for spraying him with the garden hose, ‘Tom says, ‘even though it was an accident.’
We both laugh. Albert’s indignant expression at changing from a fluffy cat to a soggy rat had been priceless.
‘So … why the scream?’
‘Come off it, Tom. It was you messing about wasn’t it?’
‘Doing what?’ I could always tell when he was lying. He clearly doesn’t understand what I’m on about.
‘You mean it wasn’t you who…’
‘… who did what? Are you sure you’re okay?’
‘Yes, I’m fine. I thought I saw …’ What now? I can’t say: “ my gran’s cat speak”.
‘I thought I saw… heard … a wasp.’ Now he thinks I’m a wimp. I have to change the subject.
‘But … er… my phone isn’t fine. I dropped it in that holly bush.’
‘No problem.’ Tom chucks over a spade. Then his garden-gloved hands grip the fence and he vaults over into Gran’s garden.
It doesn’t take him long: ‘There you go. One, rather scratched, phone.’
‘Thanks.’ I’d forgotten how helpful he was, how well we’d got on.
‘It’s a pleasure.’
A breeze ruffles his hair and he brushes his fringe out of his eyes.
We both smile.
Albert splutters and retches and coughs up a fur ball.
I feel my cheeks burn.
Seconds tick by like minutes before I manage: ‘So, how are things with you?’
‘Er, fine.’ He gestures towards the spade and waves his gloved hands. ‘Just earning some money gardening for Mum and Dad. Be handy for the holidays.’
‘I know what you mean. I babysit. Helps with trips and stuff.’
‘Mmm.’ He nods.
Another pause and he catches me staring at his muscled arms.
‘Do you still swim a lot?’ I think I’ve recovered the situation.
‘Yeah. I even made a national time for my 100m fly last month.’
‘So all that splashing about in the paddling pool when we were little was worth it then.’
‘I seem to remember you were the one doing the splashing.’ He chuckles.
I join in.
Albert scrambles up the fence, his claws scratching the wood in that grating way that makes you want to cover your ears. He struts along the top, mewing.
How come I imagined he spoke? He communicates so well without words.
Tom understands too: ‘I think he wants me to go home.’
But it’s not what I want. ‘‘Um …, fancy a drink?’
‘Sounds good.’ He stabs the spade into the soil and shoves his gardening gloves into his jeans’ pocket.
As Tom bends down to take off his muddy trainers, Albert leaps off the fence and races to the kitchen, hissing as he passes.
‘Just ignore him, he’s been odd since we arrived,’ I say.
As soon as we’re indoors I switch the kettle back on. ‘Tea, coffee, squash?’
‘Squash please. Er… can I use your loo?’
‘Sure. You know where it is.’
I open the biscuit tin – no home baking here. I’m disappointed. But it’s not surprising with Gran being the way she is at the moment. My heart sinks. I find myself hoping she gets better soon, even if I haven’t yet forgiven her for what she did to Mum and Dad.
I peer into the bottom of the container: there’s a few chocolate digestives.
Albert jumps onto the worktop.
‘Naughty,’ I say. ‘You know you’re not supposed to be on here.’
‘Never mind that,’ Albert replies. ‘Now I’ve finally got you on your own, you’ve got to listen.’
The tin slips through my fingers and clatters onto the floor. The biscuits tumble out, mostly landing on the chocolate side, of course. At least this time nothing breaks.
‘Well,’ Albert continues, ‘not a very good start to saving the World, is it?’