I came across the troll yesterday, quite by chance. I’d been clearing the loft, and there it was at the bottom of a tattered box containing miscellany from my youth, that impudent smile I hadn’t seen in many years. Finding it brought to mind a much larger troll, for want of a better word, an evil man every bit as real as you or me. I was thirteen when events that winter taught me a crucial lesson—one not covered by classroom curriculum, that is. A life lesson you might call it. For a moment I just stared at the little figure; then I retrieved it and smoothed its long hair with my hand. I found the old newspaper cutting in the same box, so I sat down on a dated ottoman and read it again. As I did, the memories soon came rolling back, strangely clear in my memory.
The house across from ours, number 11, was unoccupied. The Marsdens had lived there for years with a Labrador called Bramble until Mr Marsden died from a stroke. Mrs Marsden then sold up, and the new owners decided to lease the place.
It snowed the Saturday the Burrells moved in to number 11, a blast of wind-spun flakes as the light faded. Late November 1997, I watched them pull in from my friend and neighbour Nate’s bedroom window. They arrived in a rust-eaten blue Vauxhall Cavalier, its back-end almost scraping the ground like something ready for the scrapyard. Number 11’s TO-LET sign had been removed after several months, though I can’t recall exactly when. The house needed some TLC after being neglected for a time: the lawns were a mess; the windows needed a good clean and their frames a fresh lick of paint. A well-built lofty man got out and lumbered up the walk to the front door, where he hunched down, jiggling the key, struggling with the lock. He shook his head and thumped the door with his palm, and I had the impression he was set to reduce it to kindling when it finally yielded.
‘Someone’s moving in to number 11,’ I said to Nate.
He was watching Terminator 2 again. His whole room was a disordered den of sci-fi stuff, from the Alien posters on the wall to the Interzone and Starblazer magazines littering the floor. His hamster, Ripley, squeaked away inside its little wheel.
With the door open, the man stalked back down the walk to the passenger side of the car. A girl appeared from the Cavalier. She looked around my age, with shiny auburn hair, wavy like a waterslide, cascading down to her bottom. That’s what I noticed first. She wore a black coat, and a blue and yellow flowery dress, which seemed inappropriate for the season. The man—her father I assumed—made a hurry-up motion and they both went into to the house.
The streetlights blinked on. When the flurry had passed, the bullish man returned to the Cavalier’s rear seats for two large suitcases, which he hefted easily, and kicked the car’s door shut harder than necessary, as if in frustration.
The day after their arrival, a long truck rumbled up. The father and two burly movers carted chairs, sofas and beds into the house. There must have been a radio in the truck, because the father kept pausing by the passenger-side window, frowning and listening. The girl, wearing a black coat over a dress with a butterfly motif, made unhurried solo trips carrying smaller bubble-wrapped items and manageable boxes. Sometimes she appeared to have a slight limp. Mr Tayburn’s grey cat from number 24 slunk by, and the girl bent to pet her. Flakes of snow spun in the air again.
Peeking down from my bedroom window like a curtain twitcher, feeling somewhat snoopy, I was unable to stop watching her. Maybe it was the amazingly long hair, or that she was new in the street; or that she moved so dreamily, seemingly without a care; all of which, to me, made her intriguing. In any case, it didn’t take her father and the movers long to empty the truck, and it grumbled away as he and the girl went back inside. Then the threat of snow became reality and it came down the rest of the day. Perhaps the cold weather explained why nobody in the street had opened a front door to say hello.
A week later, the snow had almost cleared, though the air remained cold, the streets dirty. She sat alone outside the local store on its low wall, eating jelly cola-bottles. I’d been sent to collect gravy granules for my mother, with an eye to bartering a bar of chocolate for my efforts. Her head was bowed, her impressive hair rippling beneath a red bobble hat. Up close, I saw her black winter jacket was decorated with an assortment of badges—ladybirds and peace symbols and the like—and underneath another flowery dress, a riot of dark blues and purples. Her pale legs were crossed above little black shoes with luminous green laces.
‘Hi,’ I said.
She raised her head and smiled shyly, fixing me with narrow blue eyes. Her freckled nose was round and cute. A small mark marred her bottom lip. It looked like a cut but might have been a cold sore.
‘I’m Ben. I live across from you, number twenty-six.’
Twirling a lock of that fantastic hair, her mouth working on cola bottles all the while, she said, ‘Poppy. Poppy Burrell.’ She snapped out the syllables almost proudly, and it seemed they were all I was going to get.
‘Your hair’s really long,’ I said, shifting my feet. ‘Longest I’ve ever seen. Doesn’t it take ages to dry after you wash it?’
She giggled at that. Maybe she thought I was dumb.
I felt an impulse to reach and touch her hair, to see if it sparked with static. ‘How long did it take to grow?’
She shrugged, offering the cola bottles. ‘Long time.’
I took one—fizzy, sour as hell—making my mouth ooze with spit.
‘What happened to your lip?’ I asked.
Her smile melted, and she looked away.
‘Will you be starting school soon?’ I asked. I was curious why I hadn’t seen her at the academy. I also wondered about her circumstances: why she had moved here, where her mother might be. But these questions I felt were too intrusive.
She bounced her heels on the wall, popped another sweet in her mouth. ‘My dad says after Christmas. New year, new start.’
‘Well, if you’re wondering anything—about school I mean—just let me know. Anyway, I gotta get some stuff for my mother . . .’
She unpinned an orange-haired troll from her jacket, maybe two inches high, and handed it to me. ‘A present for you, Ben.’ She smiled two dimples into her cheeks. ‘You rub its hair for luck.’
I looked at its comically bulbous eyes and grinning face and returned her smile. ‘Don’t you need luck too?’ I asked.
‘I’ve got another one at home.’
I turned towards the store and climbed the flight of steps, the troll clutched in my hand, a pleasant glow inside me.
It snowed again that night. I opened my bedroom window around eleven o’clock, watching the flakes drift by streetlights for a while, covering cars and gardens. Poised to close the window after I got a little cold, I heard shouting across the way. The sound seemed to come from number 11, which was dark save for a single light burning upstairs. The curtains were drawn, but I knew it was Poppy’s room as I’d seen her passing the window, brushing her long hair. Forearms on the chilled sill, I listened through the snow’s blanketing silence and it sounded again—a man’s voice, deep and scolding. I strained to hear, but the words were unintelligible. Moments later the light winked out and all I could decipher was the rustle of leaves from the trees on our street.
I scurried back to bed, but memories of that angry voice—it had sounded heavily impaired by alcohol, I thought—kept me awake the rest of the night.
Monday morning, I headed next door to Nate’s before school. The world glistened, dazzling to the eye. Across the way, Mr Burrell’s Cavalier was gone, leaving a neat rectangular patch on the driveway untouched by the snowfall. Poppy, in her badge-laden jacket and navy wellies, was shovelling snow from the pathway in front of the house, her wonderful hair tumbling from the bobble hat.
‘Morning,’ I called over.
I drifted across.
She laid the shovel aside, her cheeks ruddy. ‘Dad says I have to clear the path to the door—boring. But I’m going to make a snowman.’ She clapped her mittens twice and I couldn’t help smiling. ‘Maybe he’ll take me for a ride on a motorbike, like the one on TV.’ She squinted at the winter sky and spread her arms. ‘Or maybe flying, right over the ocean to see all his snowmen friends—remember?’
‘Of course. They show it on TV most years, don’t they?’
‘Off to school?’ she asked.
‘Yup. Just going to get my friend, Nate.’ I thought about her father’s incensed voice, shuffling my feet uneasily. ‘Is everything all right, Poppy?’
‘Half right, half left.’
She smirked. ‘Never mind.’
‘I thought I heard something last night. Shouting, sort of.’
She looked away, as she had when I’d mentioned the mark on her lip. ‘Sometimes he gets angry.’ She picked up the shovel, which was nearly as tall as her. ‘It hasn’t been easy for him, since my mother died.’ She rubbed at her nose. ‘She had ovarian cancer.’
‘Oh . . . I’m sorry. So . . . you’re okay?’
She nodded, the hat’s bobble doing a slack little dance.
‘Well, I better go get Nate.’ I turned to walk away.
I looked back. ‘Gambles? On what?’
‘Mmm. Anything with legs, really.’ She shrugged. ‘He’s trying to find work around here, but I don’t think there’s much going. He’s started betting again, and when he loses he gets kind of mad.’
I didn’t know what to say. Wasn’t gambling just one long losing streak? Young gambler, old beggar, the proverb stated. She resumed working, and I felt compelled to stay and help. Then I heard Nate calling behind me, coming from his house.
‘Have fun at school, Ben,’ she said, digging her shovel into the snow.
I didn’t see Poppy for a time, not at the shops or on the street, nor at her bedroom window. I kept watch for her sometimes, but her curtains were usually closed. I figured it would likely be at the academy next year before we met again. The plastic troll with its miniature denim jacket and blaze of orange hair took pride of place on my bedside table, smiling with open arms. I guess I was still happy that Poppy had felt comfortable gifting me something so soon after we’d met. Rub its hair for luck, she’d said, but I suspected she hadn’t enjoyed much luck of her own. I felt sorry for her, as it seemed she didn’t have anyone in her corner. I wasn’t in that position myself, but I knew what it was to be an only child.
During early December, after school, I saw her putting out rubbish at the head of her drive. The day had been sunny but brisk, and now nearing twilight. I was at my living room window. Her father’s car wasn’t in the driveway. She lifted the dustbin lid, peeked inside, and disposed of the black bag before turning languidly back to the house. I almost ran outside to say hello, then reasoned she’d be gone before I got there, and that I’d probably appear somewhat desperate. As she turned to go back to the house, enough daylight remained to decipher what I thought was a purple-brown bruise on her cheek.
That weekend, Nate went away with his folks. Some family shindig. I held vigil from my room, waiting for Mr Burrell’s car to pull out of the drive. I’d begun to think he wasn’t going to leave the house that day, when he appeared wearing a beanie hat, marching down the walk in black sweater and jeans. He sported a scruffy beard, and held a small radio to his ear as he got into the Cavalier, scowling as usual, and roared off, leaving behind a haze of exhaust fumes. I watched his taillights disappear over the hill. I could guess where he was going. Nate’s older sister cashiered at the bookies in town, and word was that Mr Burrell had become a regular there.
I crossed the road and pressed the doorbell. It was completely dead, so I knocked twice. The front door had a blurry glass pane. A light glowed somewhere inside so I tried again. About to give it one last go, I heard a key turn and the door opened an inch or two. Poppy lurked there, peeking past the jamb.
The first thing that struck me was her hair: it had been cut off—hacked by the look of it—close to her scalp. I was so taken aback I almost missed the faint crescent of bruising under her eye. She stood barefoot, in a mint-green dress.
‘What happened to your hair?’
Poppy looked away and shrugged. ‘My dad cut it.’ She sounded as if she didn’t care, as if she were resigned to this sort of treatment, which made it all the worse.
She opened the door a little wider, small and frail now without the streaming hair. Nate’s hamster once climbed into a pail of water and the drenching had made it appear half the size. Poppy looked similarly shrunken and defenceless.
I wanted to reach out and hold her. ‘Does he . . . you know . . . hit you?’
‘You better go. He’s just gone to get tobacco.’
‘But . . .’
‘Please, Ben, go home.’
I stared at the unsightly tufts on her head, unable to comprehend anyone doing this to her, let alone her father. ‘Why’d he cut your hair?’
She leaned out and peered down the road, as if wary of being overheard. ‘He lost the rent money on horses. He was in a mood, said my hair looked stupid and it needed doing. Knowing him, he’ll probably try to sell it and gamble the money.’
‘You can’t let him treat you like that, Poppy . . .’
She wasn’t open to discussion. She said, ‘Bye, Ben,’ held eye contact for a few seconds, and snicked the door closed.
I had to do something. I lifted the phone in my parents’ bedroom, careful on the creaky floorboards, and stood staring at the rotary dial, listening to the tone. 999—that’s all it’d take. But the police would want to know my name, what I’d seen. They’d question me. Probably they’d come into the house. What would my parents say? Perhaps I could call the police anonymously? Or social services? I felt beyond my depth, so I replaced the receiver, deciding to check in with my father. He knew what to do in every situation. The police and social services weren’t going anywhere, I figured. Before I left the bedroom, I picked up the little troll and smoothed its long orange hair. ‘I wish Poppy will be okay,’ I said.
My dad spent lots of time in the garage, where he had a workbench and shaped wood with his lathe and router. He’d crafted the bed he and my mother slept in. The concrete floor was ever awash in chips and shavings, and so was he. He always warned me to keep away from his lathe when he wasn’t around. Once, he told me about a guy who’d got his necktie caught up while ‘turning’. Suffice to say it didn’t have a Walt Disney ending. I don’t know if it was true, of course, but he made his point sure enough.
‘Hey, son,’ he said when I creaked open the door. Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, his favourite record, was playing on his portable CD player. The mystical, otherworldly sounds of ‘Slim Slow Slider’ filled the space as I stepped through sweet-scented pine shavings.
‘Dad . . .?’
‘Hmmm?’ He brought his thumb along a length of wood he was sanding. He wore goggles and a tatty red Highland Fabricators boiler suit, and was puffing one of his roll-ups. I dug my hands in my pockets. ‘If you knew something bad was happening to somebody, should you do something to help them?’
He straightened and raised the goggles, blowing a woodchip from his mouth.
‘The details.’ He cleared his throat. ‘What situation are we talking about?’
I imagined Mr Burrell hacking Poppy’s hair. ‘Just someone who might need help . . .’
‘Uh huh. What kind of help?’
I hesitated, letting sawdust sift through my fingers like sand in an hourglass. This was going to be harder than I expected. ‘You know. If someone was being hurt by someone else.’ He puffed on his smoke, considering. ‘Well, depends on the facts. For instance, if a man was hurting his wife, say, then I’d probably tell you it’s down to her to do something about it.’
‘Even if she had no help?’
‘Even then. Adults gotta resolve these things themselves. Third parties get involved, it can backfire. Sure can. Especially these days. Can’t say or do any damned thing without offending someone.’ He sounded as if he were talking from experience. ‘Best to mind your own business, Ben. You don’t always get a second chance to make a good decision.’
‘What if it was someone younger?’
He squinted at me through stagnant smoke. ‘Somebody botherin’ you at school?’
‘No.’ ‘Listen, only one way to deal with that situation.’ He made a fist and jabbed at the air. ‘Pop him straight in the mug—hard enough to do some real damage. You understand?’
‘No, that’s not what I mean. Is it wrong to interfere with someone else’s problem? To, you know, call the police or anything?’ ‘Calling the law’s a big step, son. People don’t really take to that, rubs folk up the wrong way. You’re young. Few more years you’ll know what I mean.’ He lowered his goggles. ‘Mind you own business, son, that’s the strategy. You can stick your beak in with best intentions and still wind up being the one in the wrong.’
I wanted to scream The girl at number 11’s being hurt by her father. But the words wouldn’t make the transition from mind to mouth. Perhaps Dad was right, I thought: perhaps I should mind my own business and hope the problem would blow over.
Monday, I couldn’t concentrate on lessons. Periods dragged as I stared from classroom windows, watching rainfall drench the sports field. I pondered Poppy’s predicament. I considered my father’s words, wondering whether such advice might be irrelevant: perhaps people’s tendencies to turn away had left Poppy in her vulnerable situation—that and a psychotic old man with the world’s shortest fuse.
Heading home, Nate jabbered about which film was better, Ridley Scott’s Alien or James Cameron’s sequel. He weighed each movie’s merit and concluded John Hurt’s chest-bursting scene swung it by a nose. I nodded distractedly, only half listening.
On our street, we heard commotion from number 11, Burrell’s raised voice, shouting—all but screaming—as if he’d finally slipped a cog.
‘You hear that?’ Nate asked, slowing up.
‘I hear it,’ I said, feeling my innards contract.
Mr Tayburn at number 24, pretending to rake leaves, was glancing over. A couple of other neighbours lurked at windows. Something smashed inside number 11, a windowpane or glass vase maybe, and Nate and I started. Poppy was in deep trouble this time, of this I was deathly sure—then I heard her scream, followed by the father’s outraged voice again.
I shouldered off my school bag. ‘Watch that for me.’
‘Where you going—?’ Nate yelled as I broke into a run.
I sprinted towards the house and up the drive past Burrell’s rusty Cavalier, acutely aware how surreal the situation felt, unable to believe what I was doing, even as it was happening. My heart pumping, I barged in through the front door, which was ajar, clattering it against the inside wall.
They were in the kitchen to my right, but with all the commotion hadn’t heard me enter the house. Poppy cowed behind raised arms as Burrell loomed over her. Broken jewels of glass littered the floor. The atmosphere was thick with a stale, beery smell, like a pub cellar. Eyes wide with shock, Poppy looked too petrified to say or do anything. I crept into the kitchen warily, taut as a drum, as if entering a wild beast’s domain. Burrell suddenly struck her hard with a closed fist—I heard that awful sound—sending her small body hurtling against the refrigerator.
His towering bulk rounded on me, beanie covering his head, face flushed purple like rage personified. Big veins pulsed in his neck and forehead. Terrified, I made to pass him, trying to reach Poppy—now lying motionless on the diamond linoleum—but he roared something about trespassing and lunged, seizing my jacket hood. As I turned, squirming, babbling that I just wanted to check his daughter was okay, his fist crashed plumb into my head. I had no time to bob or weave, zig or zag—and that was the end of my attempted heroism. Lights out.
I came to in a garden chair on our front lawn, my mother patting my hand. I don’t know how much time had elapsed, but light was starting to fade. My head felt like a rotten apple, like I’d been hit by a truck. A dilly of a bruise closed my left eye. Neighbours peered from doorsteps, whispering. Two police cars and an ambulance were parked askew outside number 11. A young paramedic with a neat beard knelt by my side.
‘Ben—can you hear me?’ my mother asked, rubbing my hand. She was wearing her glossy pinny with a cartoon chef on the front. I didn’t see Nate anywhere.
‘I’m okay,’ I said.
‘Your face is bleeding!’ she wailed, high and reedy.
‘It’s not bad,’ the medic said, tending my cut. ‘Don’t worry.’
Sitting up, I could see two uniformed officers were grilling Burrell by his front door. His eyes were red and swollen with tears, and he was dragging a hand through his thinning hair repeatedly, shaking his head. Two female medics appeared from the house with Poppy on a wheeled stretcher, her face lost beneath an oxygen mask, eyes closed. I stood and stepped woozily nearer the ambulance, against my mother’s protests, looking at the tufts of hair on Poppy’s scalp, looking at her motionless body, trying to see an indication that she was breathing.
They loaded her in and drove away, siren wailing. The police firmly assisted red-faced Mr Burrell into a squad car. I wanted to find my father, to tell him this was his fault, that his shitty advice had let this tragedy happen. I knew it wasn’t strictly true, however. I’d needed someone to tell me to do the right thing, when I should’ve done it because it was the right thing to do.
My mother’s consoling arm circled my shoulder, a gesture which normally fixed just about anything. But that day it provided no comfort at all.
Word of mouth soon spread that Poppy didn’t make it. She was nonresponsive. Her father’s blows had inflicted traumatic brain injury, and she passed away that night. When my mother told me, I went straight up to my room and wept, staring across the street at her bedroom. Still concussed and nauseated, with a swimmy headache that worsened with every movement, I felt my failure had sealed her fate. I sat on my bed and picked up the troll, looking at its plastic, joyous smile through bleary eyes. What if I’d run a little faster that day? If I hadn’t hesitated inside the house? If I’d intervened before the brute had a chance to hurt her so badly?
Burrell pleaded guilty and I heard he spent time in prison. I hope it was a long time. Perhaps someone somewhere eventually paid him in his own coin. I still have a faint scar today, below my eye, left from his finger ring, a permanent reminder of that afternoon. The neighbours in our street all talked about how his gambling debts had skyrocketed. Horses, dogs, football, whatever was happening. Anything with legs, Poppy had said.
For me, it took time to come to terms with the knowledge I should’ve helped her sooner—or at least shared what I knew. I now wonder if what happened to her was instrumental in my following a career in social work.
The local paper ran a three-paragraph piece, with the headline: TEEN POPPY DIES AFTER FATHER’S STRIKE. The incident taught me to go with my gut, to trust my intuition. The price of inaction is far greater than the cost of making a mistake. It taught me you can’t always wait around to be told to do the right thing, that sometimes in life you have to make the call yourself. That sometimes you might be a person’s only hope. That sometimes, in some situations, you simply don’t get a second chance to make a good decision. I suppose my father was right about this, at least.
The day after Poppy died, my dad knocked and came into my room, rubbing his palms together. He looked sheepish and awkward as he closed the door behind him.
‘Son,’ he said. ‘I think . . . I think I know now what you were trying to ask me out there in the garage.’
I didn’t say anything.
He crossed to the rain-smeared window, scratching at his unshaven face, looking over towards number 11. ‘I guess, uh, I wasn’t really listening, was I?’
‘It wasn’t your fault, Dad.’
‘I’m your father, Ben.’ He turned away from the window. ‘When you come to me for help, I gotta make sure I try to give it to you.’
‘It wasn’t me that needed help,’ I said.
‘No. But you were asking on her behalf, I see that now.’ He sat on the bed beside me and put his hands on his knees. He smelt of sawdust. ‘I didn’t know the situation over there, you see? Me and your mother, we just didn’t know anything about it. I’m sorry, son.’
‘It’s okay,’ I said.
After a short silence, he asked, ‘Did you know her well?’
I nodded, because I felt I had. ‘She was a nice person, Dad.’
‘I heard that,’ he said. ‘I heard that. So, why don’t you tell me about her, huh? What was she like?’
I sat there a moment, thinking about Poppy, looking at the little smiling troll on the bedside table with its arms outstretched. Then, with tears brimming in my eyes, I took a breath, and I told him.
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