‘Happy Birthday, love,’ whispered Alan, and lightly kissed her ear.
Poppy lay still, didn’t open her eyes.
A finger traced the line where her thighs met, travelled up her groin and followed the rolling curves of her hip before dipping, tracking the channel of her waist, the back of his hand skimming the sump of one breast. His hand gently pushed under the folds of the flesh of her belly.
‘You need some antifungal on there, we’ll give you a shower tonight,’ he whispered. He leant over and nuzzled her ear, ‘would you like that, baby?’
He stroked her breast and the traitorous nipple responded. He kissed her shoulder twice, then climbed out of bed.
Once she heard his footsteps on the stairs, she opened her eyes and watched the wall.
Poppy runs across the fields to the back of the farmhouse and shouts through the kitchen window. ‘Mam, Mam! Tad says you’ll have to call the vet, that ewe on the top field is still going and it’s been hours, Tad’s been up to his elbows a tidy twenty minutes and he can’t get a thing.’
Mam nods, then points to the table. There sits a cake, swollen with jam and cream. One candle is stuck in the middle – Mam’s rule is that once you get to double figures, you’re old enough not to mind a single candle: or at least old enough to not make a fuss. Poppy smiles at her and runs off back to the top field. She doesn’t need to make a fuss; another rule says she’s old enough now to help out with the lambing, and she’s happy to swap a few poxy candles for the feeling of importance she gets, parading the fields for Tad.
When she heard them coming up the stairs singing ‘Happy Birthday’, Poppy sat up, readied a smile, and when they finished singing, she clapped.
‘One full English for Madame,’ Alan said, and balanced the breakfast tray on her lap. He settled beside her with his cup of tea, while Lucy sat at the bottom of the bed sipping black coffee, passing cards and presents to Poppy, to open between mouthfuls of fried egg and bacon.
‘To the best mum in the world,’ Poppy read out. ‘I love you Mum, love and hugs from Lucy. Thanks babe, love you too.’
Lucy passed her another card. ‘To the best wife in the world. I love you darling, love and kisses from your Alan. That’s lovely. Thanks, Al.’
The presents were the usual daffs and Milk Tray, but there was also a soft, dubiously mysterious parcel, which she kept for last. She thrust fried bread into the last of the egg yolk, and set her face to gracious. ‘What’s this then? Looks interesting.’
Alan and Lucy smiled at each other.
Poppy opened the wrapping and held up a black hooded top with pink cuffs.
‘It’s cotton – fresher on your skin,’ said Alan.
‘From M&S,’ Lucy said. Poppy could feel Lucy’s eyes on her. ‘We got you a 28, but they do up to size 30 now, so we can swap it if it doesn’t fit.’
Poppy smiled, put down the top and held up a pair of jogging bottoms, black with a stripe of pink down the side seams. Her smile widened.
‘They look lovely and comfy,’ she said, ‘and the pink is so pretty.’
‘I told Dad the black would be slimming on you-’
‘And I said you didn’t need anything slimming cos you’re gorgeous as you are.’ He squeezed her thigh.
‘That’s really thoughtful, thanks. Love you both.’ She kissed Alan on the cheek and blew a kiss to Lucy.
‘Dad said if you wear them on your scooter, they’ll be like your go-faster stripes.’
Mam wants Poppy to take the littlies to the shop, to get them out her hair and to fetch lemonade for tea. Poppy gathers them up and marches them duckling-fashion through the short cut; down the ditched meadow, following the sometimes-stream along to the pond. They crawl through the concrete tunnel under the drive – she has to sweet-talk Tiny Bethan – and come out on next-door’s farm. They walk further down the hill, meandering along tarmac that you can peel back on the hot summer afternoons, and on towards Hendref Lloc Village Stores.
‘You lot run on ahead if you want,’ Poppy says. ‘I’ll walk and keep the eye.’ They’re already in the distance and her legs are twitching to join them, but she keeps on walking and shouts, ‘but not too far ahead, Mam’ll have forty fits if I lose any of you.’
At the shop, she asks Mrs Thomas for two bottles of lemonade.
‘Whose birthday is it then, Poppy bach?’ says Mrs Thomas, and Poppy tells her she’s ten today.
‘Oh, I remember turning ten, you feel proper grown-up don’t you?’ Mrs Thomas laughs and Poppy frowns at the floor. When Mrs Thomas holds out the jar of lollipops she keeps for birthdays, Poppy watches the jar for a few seconds, trying to figure out what’s what, then she chooses a yellow one.
‘Thank you Mrs Thomas,’
Once they get outside, Poppy crouches down to Tiny Bethan, gives her the lollipop and lets her jump onto Poppy’s back. ‘Last one home’s a shandibang, so there for you,’ she shouts, and runs all the way home.
‘I’m off to the Co-op,’ Poppy called.
‘Wait and we’ll come with you,’ Lucy shouted down, ‘Gareth was just saying he fancied a walk.’
Poppy took her mobility scooter through the front garden and waited on the street.
‘Nice to see you again, Gareth,’ she said as the three of them set off for the shops.
‘And you, Mrs Bushell. Lucy says it’s your birthday?’
‘She’s got her go-faster stripes on, look. Me and Dad got them for her.’
Poppy pointed at the stripes on her track-suit-bottoms and Gareth nodded and smiled.
‘Well, happy birthday.’
Poppy smiled back at him.
‘It’s payday too,’ said Lucy.
Gareth looked to Poppy again.
‘Payday means steak and chips. Are you stopping for tea?’
‘Mum cooks the steaks and Dad calls at the chippy on the way home. It’s generally retarded, but I like steak and chips.’
‘Thanks, Mrs Bushell, I’d love to.’
‘I think you mean genuinely retarded, babe. And it’s Poppy, Gareth.’
‘You have a good Welsh name there, Gareth. Are your parents Welsh?’
‘No, but my Dad likes rugby.’
Poppy checked his face, then they both laughed.
The doors of the Co-op slid open and Poppy drove through. Lucy took hold of Gareth’s hand. He lifted her hand and kissed it. When they caught up with Poppy, she was staring at a row of half-empty fridges.
‘There’s no steak left.’
‘That’s retarded, Dad’ll do his mutt.’
‘Aren’t there any butchers around? At college they say it’s best to get your meat from a proper butcher.’
‘There aren’t, Gareth. And it’s his nut he’ll do, babe; mutt is a dog.’
‘What about lamb? You must like a good lamb chop, being Welsh and that?’
‘I love lamb, I was born on a sheep farm, so I was brought up on lamb. But Alan just likes his steak.’
‘Mum, it’s your birthday, we’ll have what you want.’
‘We’ll have lamb then, so there for you,’ Poppy whispered.
The vet is here so Tad says Poppy can have an hour off for lunch. She runs up to the house and round the back, where she knocks urgently at the kitchen window. Mam opens the back door wide enough to hand her jam and bread wrapped in foil, and an apple, then slams it to keep the warmth. Poppy runs through the orchard, hissing rude words at the goats, scrambles through a gap in the hedgerow, crosses the lane and up the little hill opposite. This hill isn’t just hers; it’s shared between all the kids in the village. There’s a tiny old windswept tree out top and you can sit on its lumpy roots and eat your sandwiches, looking down at the farmhouse; the dingle beyond with its emerald pines; the whole of Hendref Lloc, and see if you can spot miniature grown-ups being busy. Sometimes they spend whole days up here, playing in the bracken on the drizzly side, or sitting under the tree, talking about what they’ll do when they’re grown up. It always starts with ‘when I leave Hendref Lloc, I’ll…’
But today there is just Poppy, so she lies nestled between two roots and watches up at the sparse branches, trying to see what they mean. And when finally she understands, she tells the tree: ‘when I leave Hendref Lloc, I’ll travel the world and find a zoo to work in and I’ll look after the tigers, so there for you. And my husband will be a lion-tamer and our children will wear sparkling leotards and swing from the high trapeze.’
Lucy cut into her chop and caught her breath as the blood oozed out and turned her chips pink. She looked sideways at Alan, who glanced back at her, then at his own plate with its rivers of sweet pink mint sauce. They both put down their knives and forks and looked at Poppy.
‘This lamb is really tender. Did you grill it?’ asked Gareth.
‘Yes,’ said Poppy, looking defiantly at Alan and Lucy. ‘Preheated grill, four minutes each side.’ She fixed a smile and turned it from one to the other. ‘Eat your bloody lamb, you two.’ When she looked at Gareth and saw he was still eating, her face relaxed slightly and she returned to her own plate.
‘Love…’ started Alan.
Poppy looked up and glared at him.
‘It’s not done.’
‘Course it is. Lamb’s meant to be rare.’
‘I think mine just baa-ed,’ said Alan. Lucy giggled, then stopped.
‘Are you telling me how to cook now, are you?’
‘We’re just asking for our chops to be cooked through.’
‘Gareth’s the one at catering college; ask him how to cook lamb.’
‘Love, we’d just like them well done. No blood.’
‘Typical.’ She put her head in her hands. ‘Gareth, tell them. Rare and juicy or like the farmer’s old boots?’
‘Poppy, this lamb is just how I like it,’ Gareth said. Poppy exhaled sharply. ‘But at college they teach us to cook it how the customer wants to eat it.’
Alan picked up his and Lucy’s plate and took them to the microwave.
Tad says Poppy’s done a good afternoon’s parading and she can have half an hour before tea, so she runs to the Left Barn. The extra digit in her age is pressing on her shoulders. She climbs to the top of the dwindling stack of hay bales and lies on her back, watching the rafters and beams, trying to work them out. When everything makes good sense, she calls Shep and he comes to lie next to her and she tells him about being ten and the responsibilities of growing up. Then they jump down and she picks up her bike, pedals to the top of the steep lane and free-wheels back down, concentrating on the heart-thudding breath-holding hair-flying freedom. Then she rides back to Shep and whispers in his ear, ‘I won’t grow up after all, so there for you. At least not for a tidy while yet.’
She goes into the warmth of the farmhouse where Mam and Tad and the Littlies are waiting with her birthday tea. The single candle is lit and they all sing ‘Happy Birthday.’ Poppy blows out the candle and makes her wish.
‘I’m off home now,’ said Gareth, coming downstairs with Lucy. ‘I’ve got a food hygiene assignment in for next week.’
‘And I’m going to sleep at his tonight, leave you two to have a quiet night in.’
Poppy could feel Alan’s eyes on her.
‘Enjoy the rest of your day, Mum,’ Lucy continued, ‘make sure Dad looks after you-’
‘Hey, I always treat her like a princess!’
Alan and Lucy laughed.
‘Yes, happy birthday again, Mrs Bushell.’
Poppy smiled weakly. ‘See you soon, Gareth. Bye Lucy. Love you, babe.’
Alan locked up after them, then went into the kitchen and squeezed Poppy’s shoulders. ‘Why don’t you go and watch tv, love; I’ll finish up here.’
Poppy walked silently to the sofa, hoping Alan hadn’t seen her tears. She flicked at the remote until she found the loudest program. By the time Alan came and sat down next to her, self-control had returned.
‘Sorry,’ he said.
‘Sorry,’ she replied.
‘Happy birthday, love.’
Poppy looked at him and smiled.
‘I think you’re a great cook,’ he said.
‘Don’t think Gareth would agree. “Cook it how the customer wants to eat it,” isn’t that what he said?’
‘A year at catering college and he thinks he’s bloody Jamie Oliver. Anyway, I’ve got something here that’ll cheer you up.’ He put a Mars bar on her lap.
For a minute, Poppy watched the Mars bar; tried to work it out. But nothing made sense so she tore off the wrapper and bit into it. As she chewed, Alan stroked her cheek, her jaw. He leant over and whispered in her ear, ‘you eat that, love, then we’ll get you showered.’ She took another bite and he kissed her, licked the chocolate from her lips. She turned her head away.
‘Would you like that, baby?’ he whispered. He pulled down the zip of her track suit top, his hand continued down inside her jogging bottoms, tracing the line where her thighs met. ‘Would you?’
Poppy took another bite of her Mars bar and watched the wall.