Authors: Sharon Jones
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #General
It was a good place, a peaceful place. The kind of place where the past could lie, forever.
At the foot of the hill the lake was frozen in a dead calm, a dark mirror reflecting the clouds that rolled in above. Not that those weirdos down at the festival would be turning in any time soon. No, they’d be partying into the early hours, but still, best to do it now, rather than wait.
Do it now and get it over with.
The earth was waterlogged after two days’ rain. It would be heavy going, but that was OK.
Good, honest hard work: burying the dead.
Took an hour to dig a hole deep enough and dark enough that not even the full moon could penetrate. But still, her stiff pale hands were visible against the lacy black dress. And her eyes...her eyes were open, shining like silver coins.
Sods of clay rained down until she was properly hidden, until there was nothing but trampled-down earth to remember that either of them was ever there.
Shit. What if someone noticed she was missing?
No. It would be OK.
People got lost all the time. Especially people like her.
It was a good place for her. A peaceful place.
A place to be forgotten.
Poppy Sinclair hooked her thumbs into the back pockets of her jeans and snorted.
At the centre of the uneven half-circle of tipis, yurts, rusty caravans and nylon tents was a wicker man. Standing twenty foot tall, its body of tangled branches glowed golden-brown in the sinking sun. Ivy dripped from head and beard, and two tree branches protruded at angles, forming stag-like antlers.
In each spindly hand, the giant effigy held a three-foot wooden scythe. And if that wasn’t off-putting enough, this year someone had seen fit to give him a little – no,
Mum slammed the boot of their beat-up silver Saab, glanced over her shoulder and grinned.
‘Don’t tell me that’s where you’re going to do it?’ Poppy asked. ‘You can’t seriously be thinking of getting hitched under an enormous—’
‘For who? Porn stars? The guy’s got a three-foot penis, Mum! What happened to the goddess? Thought this Pagan lark was all about the sacred feminine, but no, it turns out it’s about a guy with an enormous willy.’
‘And there’s something wrong with honouring male fecundity?’ Jonathan asked, draping his arm around Mum’s shoulders.
Mum smiled and nuzzled her face against his unshaven chin, like a love-starved Siamese. Their matching brown curls mingled together.
‘Ugh! Get a tipi.’
‘I said, I thought we agreed that if you were going to be my stepfather you would limit your use of the F word.’
Jonathan giggled in that slightly girly way that never failed to make Mum smile.
After all the pills, the Reiki and the thousand and one other therapies Mum had tried when Dad left, it turned out all she needed was Jonathan. Ironic, given she’d sworn off men for life and nearly moved them to a feminist commune.
Jonathan untangled his arms from Mum’s shoulders and stretched. ‘Want to give me a hand with the tents?’
Poppy shrugged. ‘Nahh. I wouldn’t wanna get in the way of all the
that’s floating around here.’
The secluded field was a brightly coloured mishmash of canvas and cars. Instruments were being tuned, sound systems tested. People who in the real world wore jeans and suits were donning flowing cloaks and painting their faces with stars and flowers.
Poppy turned back to see Mum and Jonathan sucking face again. She considered reminding them that canvas was in no way soundproof and, for the sake of her mental health, she’d like her tent to be erected far, far away from the matrimonial tipi.
‘Think I’ll go and have a look round.’
‘You will come back for the opening ceremony?’ Mum asked, a note of pleading in her voice. ‘It would be nice to go as a family.’
‘No way!’ She planted a kiss on Mum’s cheek. ‘I said I’d be there for your big...thing. Although that was before I knew it was happening under a
Jonathan smirked. ‘This something we need to talk about, Pops? I never had you down as being uncomfortable with the male form.’
‘Ha! No thanks, Herr Freud. I’m out of here. You two have fun with your psychobabble tantric whatevers.’
‘Hey, hold on!’ Jonathan fished his wallet out of his shorts pocket. ‘Take this, just in case you need anything.’ He held out a tenner.
She hesitated. It still felt weird taking money from the guy, even after a year and a half of him living with Mum. ‘It’s OK, I don’t really need—’
He raised his eyebrows, and gave her his I’m-serious look. The one that was mostly followed by the I’m-analysing-every-move-you-make look. The trials of having a therapist for a stepfather.
‘Jonathan,’ a voice said.
Poppy turned to see a guy with a smooth tanned head that was shaved apart from a little tuft of green hair at his forehead. He was tall – really tall – and the Doc Martens, combat trousers and army vest he was wearing made him look like an escapee from a post-apocalyptic Hollywood film.
‘Oh, hi,’ Jonathan said. His voice remained neutral, but the way he squared his shoulders suggested he wasn’t exactly thrilled with his visitor. ‘I’m sorry, I thought we’d arranged to meet later?’
‘I need to see you now.’
‘Umm – no. I’m sorry, but I need to set up the tent.’
The guy shifted his weight from one foot to the other like he was struggling to contain some unruly emotion. Anger or despair, Poppy couldn’t tell which, but something was tearing him apart. His hands squeezed into fists and he took a deep breath as if in a last-ditch attempt to pull himself together. ‘But I really need to talk to you.’
‘And we will talk,’ Jonathan said. ‘Later.’
The guy ran a hand over his face. Then, for the first time, his gaze connected with Poppy’s. His jaw fell slack. ‘No!’ he said, shaking his head. ‘This is
happening.’ And, without another glance at Jonathan, he stormed off.
Poppy watched him go. ‘What was
When she turned back to Jonathan he shook his head and held out the tenner. ‘Take this. Unless you’ve changed your mind and really do want to help with the tent?’
‘Nahh. I’ll – er – leave you to it.’ She stuffed the note in her pocket beside her iPod and made a run for it before she got roped into a conversation about the optimal alignment for the tipi, or some other psycho-spiritual crap.
She set off across the field and was immediately enveloped by jangling bells and blacked-up faces. Yellow and black striped Morris dancers swarmed around her like a cloud of angry wasps. She picked up speed and dodged between them only to walk smack into a column of billowing red silk. Fifteen feet up, a face grinned.
‘Ahoy down there!’ the guy shouted.
She backed up and realised she’d barged into a stilt walker. ‘Sorry,’ she called, waving an apologetic hand, and dashing between his legs.
The first time she’d been dragged to one of these gigs she was eight years old and felt like she’d fallen down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. She’d thought all of this stuff pretty damned cool; crystals and auras, tarot cards and totem animals. What kid wouldn’t want to live in a world where fairies and elemental spirits were taken seriously? But that was then. Now she saw it for what it was, unlike Mum and Jonathan who seemed unable to live in the real world with normal people.
She pulled out her iPod, stuffed the buds into her ears and hit play. A line of sharp strings blocked out all the Pagan noise. Vintage Verve – the album Michael had made her download at three that morning, his text message assuring her it was going to change her world. She’d heard some of it, but she’d never really listened to the lyrics before. She must have replayed the album at least five times, until the words were buzzing in her veins.
Michael was right – the whole album was a work of crazy genius.
She fought her way to the edge of the festival ground, and found a clear passage between the woods and the backs of the various falafel vans and baked-potato sellers. Spicy smells prompted an ache in her stomach, reminding her that she’d skipped lunch. Jonathan’s tenner would come in handy.
But as a guitar picked up the second track, a lump rose in Poppy’s throat banishing all thought of food. She flicked onto the next song before
could worm its way into her brain. Michael wouldn’t have got the significance, but she had. She’d been kept awake through the early hours by a barrage of angry tears.
Angry about wanting what she couldn’t have.
That was it. No more, she told herself. She was finished feeling like that. The whole Michael thing was a phase. She’d known him her whole life; it was inevitable that at some point she would wonder whether their friendship was something...more. But it wasn’t. Time to accept it and move on.
Sighing, Poppy gave in to her grumbling stomach and took a tour of the food vans. Organic this, wholefood that – it all looked disgustingly healthy, until she reached the very last one. The chipped white trailer would have looked more at home at a travelling fair or in a layby off the A57.
Poppy caught the unmistakeable whiff of chip fat. Finally!
‘Chips please,’ she said, yanking the buds out of her ears and having to stand on her tiptoes to see over the counter. She fished in her jeans pocket for the ten pound note Jonathan had given her.
‘That’ll be two quid, love,’ a voice called back.
Still unable to lay her hands on the flaming tenner, she looked up and smiled. ‘Sorry, I—’
The guy behind the counter wiped his brow with the back of his hand, brushing a lock of black hair away from his eyes. He looked questioningly over the counter and on seeing Poppy, he grinned. ‘Salt and vinegar?’
A wave of heat billowed off the fryers, almost knocking her over. She swallowed against her dry throat. ‘Umm – maybe nothing, actually. I seem to have lost my money.’
For a moment he just looked at her, then he folded his arms on the counter and rested his chin on them so that his face was level with hers. ‘That’s unfortunate.’ His dark eyes twinkled and his cheek twitched as if he was trying to stop himself from laughing.
He wet his lips and rubbed his cleft chin against his arm. ‘Tell you what, why don’t you take the chips and pay me later.’
‘But you don’t know me from Adam. I might run off and never come back, and then what would you do?’ Wow, that almost came out like flirting. But she never flirted. She was crap at it.
His grin widened. ‘Then I’d have to come looking for you.’ It sounded more like a promise than a threat. A delicious promise. Poppy ran her hand over her hair, trying to remember the last time she’d put a brush through it.
He straightened up and began shovelling chips into a white polystyrene tray. ‘Can I get you anything else?’
She caught herself smiling. Then, over the tightly muscled and tattooed shoulder that stuck out of his sleeveless black vest, she spotted something. ‘Oh my God! You do burgers!’
‘As in dead cow? As in a slice of flesh between two hunks of bread, not a vegetable in sight?’
His eyes narrowed. ‘Is that a problem?’
‘No! Jesus, it’s a flaming miracle! I’ve never been to one of these gigs where you can buy actual honest-to-goodness dead animal. Normally it’s anaemic aubergine burgers all the way. How the hell did you smuggle them in?’
‘Friends in high places.’ He rested his hands on his hips. ‘Is this a roundabout way of saying that you’d like a burger?’
‘I think I might love you forever.’
The guy laughed and shook his head. He had the kind of laugh that was comfortable, the kind that made Poppy want to laugh too.
‘That seems like a fair deal. What would I get for cheese?’
‘That would take us to a whole other level.’
The guy took a deep breath and began building a burger. Three slices of cheese, she noticed. And a cheeky smile as he did it.
Her heart ticked like a clock that had fallen out of time. She felt giddy, slightly dizzy and not at all hungry.
She folded her arms and sneaked another glance at him. Not her usual type. He clearly spent more time lifting weights than reading books, but to each their own, right?
‘Hope you don’t mind me saying so, but you’re not like the other people here,’ he said, glancing at her from beneath eyebrows that could do with taming.
‘My mum and stepdad are having their handfasting – err – wedding kind of thing the day after tomorrow.’
‘Right. Families, huh?’ The guy handed over the burger and chips.
He smiled and Poppy thought that she could look at that smile forever. It took several moments to realise that she no longer had any excuse to be standing there gawping at him. She cleared her throat. ‘I’ll bring you the money tomorrow – if – if – that’s OK?’
‘I’ll look forward to it. I’m Tariq, by the way.’
‘It’s been a pleasure.’
She smiled and reluctantly walked away, carrying the warm glow of the van with her. Wow. Just – wow!
She’d only gone a few steps when she heard:
She turned to see Tariq had jumped down from the trailer and was jogging after her, his white apron flapping over his black jeans and vest.
He pushed a can of coke at her. ‘In case you get thirsty.’
She took the freezing cold can, unable to stop herself from grinning like a maniac.
Tariq shoved his hands in his pockets and shrugged. ‘I have to work tonight. But maybe tomorrow, after your mum’s thing, if you’re not doing anything, maybe I could buy you another hunk of dead animal?’
The festival occupied a crescent-moon of a field that hugged the pebbled beach of Scariswater, an hourglass-shaped lake that stretched out between an overhanging cliff edge on one side and a cushion of dense fir trees on the other.
Poppy floated away from the bustle of the festival ground. She needed somewhere quiet to sit and contemplate the burger, its maker and a rare moment of successful flirting. Was this it – the breakthrough?
Jonathan was always going on about the breakthroughs his patients made.
Yes! She figured out her dead grandmother was never coming back. Alleluia: finally he saw that what happened wasn’t his fault!
Was this her
moment; when she realised that she actually could fancy guys who weren’t named Michael Quinn? And here, at this flipping festival, where the fit guys were usually at least ten years too old to notice her. But Tariq could be no more than twenty-one, twenty-two? Definitely within the margin of possibility. And talk about hot! You could fry an egg on his biceps. Maybe griddle a steak on his abs...?
Before her rose the steep embankment that marked the outer edge of the campsite. The festival-goers were supposed to stick to the field, but what would it hurt to take a look at the view?
Behind her, a horn sounded. As if a blanket had been thrown over the whole crowd, a wary silence descended.
A deep sonorous voice called, ‘Hail! Spirits of this place. Ancestors, friends!’
‘Hail!’ the crowd responded.
Somewhere back there, Mum would be searching the faces around the campfire, hoping to see her. But she just couldn’t stomach it. Not when she had important, real-life stuff to think about.