Chapter 1: A nice person to know This story is all about Poppy Cock, only her, absolutely no one else.
Outside, the rain was hitting the artificially lit pavement with the force of a jet wash. The wind chill factor was freezing the joints of the vermin in the over filled wheelie bins and the passing vehicles aquaplaned skilfully along the rain soaked street. However this was completely irrelevant.
Inside, through the dirty etched windows of the Black Bull, if anyone cared to look, a young woman could be seen sitting on her own in the gloomiest corner of the empty lounge. In every respect, a pretty young woman but no one would ever know. Her long hair discreetly hidden and her beautiful face shadowed by a precisely placed black head scarf. This was also irrelevant however, this particular woman carried Poppy’s mind and soul within and that was relevant.
Exactly why Poppy should choose to spend her time here, alone and withdrawn, was known only to herself and the person she had become. On this particular evening the bleakness of her depression perfectly matched the mood of the weather outside, although to blame the weather for even a morsel of her misery would be a travesty.
Despite the ear splitting, repetitive melodies and monotonous flashing lights from the one armed bandit right next to her, she had effortlessly switched off all her senses and journeyed inattentively inwards.
When attentive, Poppy despised the nicotine stained walls and ceiling, the beer stained carpets and the heavily worn brown leather furniture. She had no intention of warming to the atmosphere or socialising with the clientele but it was altogether better to be here than in her quiet, lonely, empty flat. Here she could hide from the world, be as depressed as she felt fit and avoid getting tangled up in other peoples affairs. On the list of priorities right now was to drown, inconspicuously in her sorrows. She had killed a total of four people up to now, three intentionally and one by accident. Certainly there was no feeling of remorse for what she’d done but definitely no enjoyment either. She was aware that she had changed but hoped it wasn’t into a monster, that really would be ironic. She tried so hard to hold on to her old virtues but in truth, after all that had happened to her, her grip had weakened. All she could say is that she used to be a really nice person to know.
So… why did she return to this dreadful place night after night? Surely there was more to it than just despising her flat. Perhaps she was waiting for someone – if true, she had been waiting an awfully long time. Perhaps it was a special place because it held a special memory, begging the question, exactly what, in a dump like this? Anyhow, over shadowing these minor uncertainties, there were far more pertinent questions whizzing about in Poppy’s secluded conscious. For instance, why had all this happened to her, why had she suddenly become redundant and why was she so damn hungry?
She cast her mind back to when it all began, almost one year to the day.
Chapter 2: Date with a satellite Before Poppy was this antisocial, depressed, hungry killer, she used to love the simple things in life, things like her mobile phone for example. Certainly she was aware that it was just a small slab of metals and plastic arranged in such a way as to perform mainly as a communication device but over the weeks that she had owned it, it was something that had developed some sort of soul and therefore a friend. In its little brain it had memorised hundreds of her favourite music tracks, thousands of photos from its inbuilt camera and above all it was a telephone giving her a priceless link to home. Naturally there were other things in life that she loved such as fashion, warm sunny days, nice food, hot baths, shopping, fast cars, yoga, being centre of attention and two people: One was her mother who she thought the world of and the other was her boyfriend, Adam and what they did together – that was another thing she loved.
What she didn’t love were hot, dry countries, stuffy hotel rooms, polyester sheets, cockroaches, gunfire and being a long, long way from home but unfortunately this was in her job description. Others things specific to her job description involved performing as a foreign new correspondent. Most days were awful but one particular day was really, really awful. Besides being awful, it was a day when her life changed for the worst, forever; the memory of it was all too vivid to forget.
That day began as usual, with her mobile phone doing one of its important jobs, acting as an alarm clock. To do this, as is the way with things with souls, it was enjoying being slightly annoying. A few seconds later, slightly became moderately. And shortly after that moderately became fucking. How can such a small device, she thought, produce such a loud, irritating, penetrating sound. An old conventional alarm clock would have been tossed across the small drab hotel room by now but certainly not her lovely, slim, pink electronic friend. The annoying noise from the alarm function coincided with a heavy banging on the hotel room door and a muffled shout from the corridor outside. She had no choice but to wake up.
‘Okay, Okay, I’m up!’ she shouted in a dry husky voice.
She hated the shortened version of her name, she hated the long version too but at least that was a nice red or orange or yellow flower not a fizzy drink or a granddad. She fumbled with the ridiculously tiny buttons on her phone and simultaneously with the slightly larger buttons on her pyjama top. By luck more than skill, the alarm stopped making way for the noises of the traffic, the rantings from the locals and occasional distant gunfire outside her hotel room.
‘Yea, yea, see you down in the lobby in ten,’ replied Poppy in her blue and beige sexy pyjamas as she drew back the hideous blue and Black patterned curtains in her stiflingly hot, orange and brown hotel room.
Despite the fact that she was about to go live on a TV link to England in front of millions of viewers, if needs must, ten minutes was more than enough time to make herself adequately presentable. Her dark brown eyes contrasting against her pale blemish free skin dispensed with the need for any make up. Her tall slender but shapely body looked good in the simplest items of clothing and a quick brush of her thick brown hair rectified any defect resulting from a restless nights sleep. She so wanted to wake up in a civilised way, sipping a cup of tea in bed, watching the breakfast news for at least an hour then doing a spot of yoga on the rug until nicely supple and refreshed but for five reasons she couldn’t: she had over slept and didn’t have time, she had a pounding head and her hotel didn’t provide tea making facilities, a television in the room or a rug on the hard tiled floor.
The reason she had a pounding head was directly attributable to the night before. Her companions, Simon and Bob had collected together some unidentifiable bottles of alcohol. They assumed it was some kind of vodka as it looked like water but it wasn’t, tasted not dissimilar to high octane petrol but it wasn’t and gave off vapours which burnt the lining of your nostrils but Vicks, it wasn’t. Because of this they suspected that there would be some unpleasant consequences.
Yes, they had a good reason to celebrate; straight after the link up they would be heading home to wonderful England, away from this hellhole of a war torn township and away from this once but not now, luxurious hotel. Poppy would be going back to the people she loved most in the world, Minnie, her Mum and Adam, her sweetheart.
For three weeks she had being covering recent unsettling developments in this part of middle Africa.
It was part a part of the world that was void of oil so the rest of the world’s governments left the insurmountable problems to be tackled as best as they could by charitable organisations. It was part of the world where the leader had become old and mad and employed those with no souls to be his right hand men. And it was part of the world where the amount of diseased people was disproportionate to the amount of drugs available.
So why was Poppy here? It happened to be a well paid but dangerous assignment and Poppy Cock was naturally the best one for the job. It would result in a feather in her cap that she didn’t particularly crave for but after all she was probably the most experienced news correspondent for this kind of work – she simply had to go. Undeniably she had boosted the viewing ratings (mostly male) because she literally made love to the camera. Her cheeky smile, subliminal body language and come-to-bed-eyes, travelled at the speed of light to the millions of television sets back home. This was rather inappropriate behaviour for a country in turmoil and short of just about everything but she thought, what the hell can I do? Africa is an awfully long way away, certainly not a place I’d choose to go on holiday to and full of people who don’t appreciate the nice sunny weather they have.
Yes, it’s true, Poppy could be described as shallow, perhaps spoilt but in her defence, Poppy’s life had not been without a certain amount of distress and hardship. To give perspective, her life so far in comparison to what is to come is largely of no consequence, however, so as not to totally dismiss this expectation, here is a whole section devoted to her early life:
She was an unfortunate child, spending many months in hospital with a large spectrum of illnesses. Doctors and specialists came to the somewhat vague conclusion that she was one of two things, either a weak or just a very unlucky child. Amazingly, by the age of nine, after years of high temperatures and countless courses of antibiotics she emerged healthy, strong and almost indestructible. With her physical set backs out of the way, it was now the turn of her mental strengths to be tested. At nine and a quarter she lost her father to cancer, this left her Mother almost destitute, distraught and chronically depressed. Poppy missed her father immensely but in total contrast to her mother, refused to let this inner sadness show. Her Mother was subsequently deemed unfit to care for her child and taken into care – and so was Poppy. Care inevitably meant foster parents but because of her strong, stubborn character and an undying love for her Mother, she fought her way through several sets of temporary Mums and Dads. Three years later both were joyously reunited and both were now mentally stronger. Her Mother studied intensely and eventually became a solicitor. She could now afford to give Poppy the best education and grooming. Within a few years Poppy happened to be in the right place at the right time and landed a job in the BBC.
Fortuitous maybe, but this is only the irrelevant beginnings of her life. For the rest of it, fortuitous is a word she could never use again.
As previously mentioned, she hated her name but apart from changing it by deed pole and upsetting her Mother, there was little she could do about it. At one time she decided that her surname could be modified so as to make the ‘ck’ silent, making Cock, ‘Co’ but that was just plain foolish. No, one of the other reasons why she was so popular and well known, especially as a news correspondent, was because she was Poppy Cock. Often she failed to research properly on relevant news items or forgot her lines so she would fill in the time by babbling incessantly about her uncomfortable hotel room, the tasteless food, her lifeless hair and her aching feet. In other words, most of the time, she talked a load of poppy cock. But that didn’t particularly matter as she had one hell of a reason for it – that was her name.
Chapter 3: The Thames Embankment
The best place in the world to walk at night, approaching Christmas time, in crispy evening air, in someone’s arms, is the Thames embankment. London has its bad points but it also has its very good points. For once she hoped she wasn’t recognised. Normally it gave her confidence a boost, signing autographs on scraps of paper but now she was in Adam’s arms. They weren’t long arms but they still wrapped around her keeping her warm and protected. She knew Adams arms would not be keeping her warm or protected for quite some time after tonight. They were not walking now as that would only require one of Adams arms. Both arms were now holding her tightly and Adams lips were warming Poppy’s lips.
Poppy feigned an escape from Adam’s arms hoping he would increase his grip on her.
‘Please yourself. Plenty of men where I’m going, not to mention Simon and Bob,’ teased Poppy.
‘Simon and Bob? You may have noticed, they’re my dad’s age but fatter and balder – and they wear cardigans!’ said Adam.
‘Cardigans are cool,’ replied Poppy in a matter of fact way.
‘…As are the Hush Puppies and thick socks they wear when it’s ninety in the shade.’
They decided to walk and be quiet for a while, absorbing the moment, not wanting time to move, the river to flow or mobile phones to ring but Poppy’s did, she ignored it.
‘May have been someone important,’ said Adam.
‘It was, it was Mum.’
Poppy understandably did not want her Mother in her mind at this particular moment in time. Her thoughts revolved around Adam, a double bed, soft music and chocolates. Adam was a gentleman who would never be so presumptuous although he did have a box of Belgian chocolates ready under the bed back in his hotel room.
Adam was some sort of electronic engineer from Bristol. Poppy, as we know, worked for television and came from Ipswich. They met at a mutual friend’s wedding, fell instantly in love with each other, got married and had twelve children. Well, apart from the latter two facts, all perfectly true. Poppy heavily tipped a fortune teller for telling Adam the latter two facts. Although not true yet, one day they would be. Maybe not twelve children, ten of the children the fortune teller foresaw may well have been grandchildren. It may have appeared a mysterious arrangement, meeting either in London or Bournemouth but never in their home towns – Bristol or Ipswich but it was what they both agreed to for convenience. Adam was used to Poppy working in far off parts of the globe but the situation on the African continent was worsening daily. Every time Poppy went, it became longer, more dangerous and much better paid.
It was because of these first two reasons, the fact that he loved her and wanted to live the rest of his life with her that Adam had a question to ask Poppy linked to a little square red box in his pocket…
Chapter 4: The proposal ‘Going down to the foyer, wait for you there,’ shouted the same voice from behind the hotel room door.
‘Two minutes,’ Poppy shouted back.
Adam’s proposal still made her smile every time she thought about it. How he went down on one knee in a puddle and then asked her in front of several passers by? The ring was absolutely stunning; set in white gold was a single large diamond, sparkling quite beautifully in the sodium street light above. Yes, he messed up the words slightly but Poppy got the gist of his request. Popping the question to Poppy should have flowed easily off his tongue but nerves slightly got in the way. She instantly agreed, primarily to get his knee out of the puddle and secondly because she loved him and wanted his babies…
Then suddenly she was ready, showered, dressed and packed, but had absolutely no idea how she had arrived at this point.
Chapter 5: Madeline’s first day out
It was Madeline Bull’s first day out and on all accounts it was a beautiful April morning. The sun’s rays pierced their way through the gaps in the tree branches, not yet covered in leaves. She accepted the flashing effect of the sunlight not as irritation but one of life’s many delights. Today she had a simple task to do: drive to Tesco, buy a wholemeal loaf of bread and a one litre bottle of semi-skimmed milk.
For many, this would seem a simple act but for Madeline it would be an entirely new and substantial achievement if she could pull it off. New sights and sounds and a new independence that most take for granted would bombard Madeline’s senses like never before.
She didn’t realise it but she was being observed. Her driving skills were fine, almost text book. Maybe she should have been aware of the same car following her all the way but to Madeline, she was no car expert, one car was exactly like another. She parked perfectly in a free space as near as she could get to the store. She locked the car with the remote and then collected a trolley from the pound.
The person following her had also parked his car nearby and was relaying his observations into his mobile phone. He was clearly delighted with Madeline Bull’s somewhat apparently normal behaviour. Hastily, he got out of his car and followed her across the car park and into the supermarket.
Madeline had to find the whereabouts of the dairy products for the milk, which she did. She found the semi-skimmed milk section then selected the right size bottle and placed it in her trolley, perfect!
Madeline was purposely plain – not overly dressed but unavoidably attractive especially to the type of men who had fallen to the ways of the world and arrived at a position where they were lingering on their own with an empty basket in a supermarket. She developed an admirer who kindly asked if she needed assistance.
‘No, thanks for asking,’ Madeline replied politely.
He continued to follow her.
‘Sure you don’t want any help… Love!’ the man was not taking no for an answer.
‘Quite sure thank you.’
‘You look as though you need some help.’
‘Look, piss off, will you?!’
The man looked at her for a second, grinned and then walked the other way.
The other man following her was delighted with her response to this potential harassment and relayed the events into his mobile phone.
Now for the bread: The bakery section was, as usual, across the other side of the store but Madeline was quickly on the trail. Within no time she was standing in front of the various loaves of bread with trolley in hands. Wholemeal was identified as a brown bread with a fairly uniform crust and Madeline quickly located several examples.
Five minutes went buy, she was still standing in front of the wholemeal loaves. The man on his mobile observing Madeline was no longer at a distance but now standing a few feet away. The smugness had dissolved from his face leaving a very concerned look. Another few moments went by and then Madeline started to do what the man had dreaded. She started twitching her head up and down and then from side to side as if she was looking for something that wasn’t there. As the seconds went by her gyrations were getting more and more severe and now she was beginning to be noticed by the other customers. They began to stare, no one offering to help – after all, there was little anyone could do.
A voice came back on the mobile, ‘we didn’t tell her what size of loaf to buy! Shit! … Bring her back!’
This was going to be tricky, if not handled correctly Madeline would at best panic, at worst collapse.
‘Madeline, we’ve decided we don’t need any bread, we have plenty,’ said the man now standing next to her.
‘Yes Mike, I understand that we have plenty of bread but do we have any wholemeal bread?’ Madeline spoke very precisely considering she seemed to be having a panic attack.
‘Yes, yes plenty of wholemeal bread,’ said the man now known as Mike.
‘But is there any particular size of wholemeal bread we don’t have?’ inquired Madeline.
‘Plenty of wholemeal loaves in every size possible,’ said Mike.
‘Then I will leave the bread and just go and pay for the milk,’ said Madeline calmly.
‘No, not a good idea!’ came the reply back, ‘the confusion may have corrupted her behaviour subroutine files. Incapacitate her and bring her back.’
‘God, not again!’ said Mike.
He was used to carrying Madeline over his shoulder but not usually through the middle of Tesco.
Madeline Bull was so named because of the personification of British-ness by the name Bull – of John Bull repute. Naturally they couldn’t call her John because she was definitely all female. New first names they pondered over including Teri and Cilla but Mad Bull naturally won the day and so Madeline Bull it was.
Chapter 6: The truly evil act
The lobby in the hotel was delightfully cool, the only place with air-con but they weren’t there now, they were in a minibus without any form of air cooling. Opening the windows would have helped but most were jammed because of the dry, dusty environment. They had a ten kilometre drive to where they were to broadcast from. Ten kilometres on the M4 is barely worth talking about, hardly noticeable but ten kilometres in the searing equatorial desert heat on dusty un-metalled roads is 10,000,000 millimetres – an awfully long way! As there were only three of them, they all managed to get a window seat so they could enjoy the scenery and bake at the same time.
Twenty kilometres was originally thought to be a good safe distance from the troubled areas where sanctuary could be sought and a good nights sleep could be had but now that was no longer the case. The troubles had expanded so much that nowhere was particularly safe any more.
Where they were going to was an area where the locals were beginning to stand firm and rebel against the tyrannical regime of the government. The government had imposed a police state and the police of this imposed state had permission to shoot. This meant, more often than not, kill any troublemakers, namely anyone the bullets of their guns happened to hit. It was an extremely dangerous place to be.
The three of them said very little, they knew they had a job to do. Simon fiddled with his sound equipment and Bob cleaned the lens of his camera several times. Poppy gazed through the dusty minibus window. How could human beings do this to one another, she asked herself? They passed several burnt out cars, burnt out homes and bullet ridden signs. Where were all the men? Yes, there were a few brave women and young children carrying pots of water and bags of food on their overworked shoulders but no husbands, no men what-so-ever. Occasionally a few emaciated children attempted to run alongside the minibus to flaunt their anguish. This was a very dangerous act considering the random placement of landmines and IEDs but they were desperate.
Clearly the children had great faith in the automated land clearing machines which roamed the land for these lethal devices. These machines resembled scaled down tanks with a flailing device attached to the front. Unfortunately when these machines found a landmine they triggered it, often resulting in an inactive heap of bent metal. Replacements sent in were far cheaper remote control toy cars with a heavy stone strapped to the top of them for ballast. They did exactly the same job at a thousandth the cost! Poppy watched with amazement as, not army personnel but young children flicked the switches on their hand held remote controls, skilfully steering the toy cars through the land bordering the road. To the youngsters, it was great fun, if a car triggered a device it was a result. Unfortunately sometimes the mine was too close to the roadside and then it wasn’t just the toy car that got destroyed.
It seemed that pot holes were another problem on these roads. Road works simply didn’t happen in this country. If the hole got too big, a car would fall in it, conveniently filling up the hole albeit a few raised bits and rough edges. Presumably, this was what they drove over as all the occupants trampolined off their seats and hit their heads violently on the hard metal roof. Poppy was convinced she had mild concussion as the interior of the minibus suddenly became indistinct and Bob and Simon developed curious glowing halos. She wanted to go home now, not later, now! Sod the broadcast, sod this country and sod her job, seeing Adam was far, far more important. Simon snapped her out of this bout of wishful thinking…
‘Good God, look at the state of this place, I’m sure it’s worse than it was yesterday,’ he said with an element of misplaced enthusiasm.
This was a sign that they were nearing their destination. Most of the homes were in ruins, the rest were boarded up. An area where employment was almost non existent now and law and order didn’t particularly follow any international guidelines anymore. Corruption was the best anyone could expect but despite these lawless conditions many hundreds of people had gathered in the centre of the town.
The minibus stopped out of sight of the crowds but close to the town centre. Even with electronic miniaturisation the various bits including camera and the satellite kit for relaying the broadcast back home were deceptively heavy. All the bits had to be lugged out of the minibus quickly, carefully and vigilantly; a 3 CCD Sony pro cx3490 camera would fetch a hefty price on the African black market.
Poppy was fundamentally a lady and did not carry heavy things, period. It was a good thing that mobile phones had undergone serious miniaturisation and present fashion dictated that small handbags were in. She stepped out into even more heat.
‘God, I’ll be glad to get back home,’ Poppy continued to moan.
Simon pointed to the familiar spot where they had broadcast from yesterday. It was ideal as it had a raised area where they could set up their equipment but still be very close to the hub of the crowd activity.
This was Poppy’s style, to be next to the people. Not at a safe distance but almost mingling, almost taking part in what ever the crowds of people were taking part in. They had only two minutes to satellite link up. Bob was hastily trying to locate the satellite with the mini parabolic dish even though according to the manual, it was supposed to be automatic. Simon was busily putting plugs in sockets, wafting flies off his face and laying cables. Poppy wasn’t busy at all, nothing rehearsed, nothing written down. She had been vaguely brought up to speed with any overnight developments from a local envoy she met earlier in the Hotel Lobby. Until the moment came she hadn’t a clue what she would be talking about. It was all going to be spontaneous, this was the way of Miss Poppy Cock and that’s why people back home tuned in to watch her.
Just in the nick of time Simon locked on to the Satellite signal and Poppy heard the familiar voice from morning news television back home.
‘Good morning Poppy.’
‘So what kind of mood are the people in this morning? We can hear and see a fair amount of commotion behind you.’
‘That’s right; an excited demonstration would be a fair description. Much the same as yesterday I’m afraid. Until the people of the area get some kind of assurance from the government that the state police will relax their barbarity, they are obviously going to stay resolute, but they will…”
‘Have you heard anything yet from the government, or at least some acknowledgement of the crisis? … Sorry please finish what you were saying.’
Phil unavoidably interrupted Poppy because of the annoying satellite delay.
‘I was going to say that they are safe as long as they stay in very large groups like this… No, nothing at all has been heard or passed on from the government. If something isn’t done soon, this situation will become very ugly.’
‘Exactly what are the disruptions?’
‘Well they are far and widespread, destructive and violent but you can’t help having sympathy for these people.’
A cool London studio and two newscasters sitting on a cosy red velour sofa severely contrasted with Poppy’s level of comfort. The sun was now beginning to blister down on them and the dusty atmosphere was interfering intensely with the backs of their throats.
‘Poppy, I believe you’re heading home after today?’ Phil asked, proving he had a total indifference to the serious subject at hand
‘… Yes that’s right Phil… Hang on we seem to have a development.’
Bob panned the camera away from Poppy and across the heads of the crowd to a side street at the back of the square.
Poppy continued, ‘it appears that some sort of fire truck is driving into the crowds.’
The vehicle proceeded forwards towards them, into the centre of the square and into the hub of the crowd of people.
‘Yes, it appears to have a water cannon on the roof. I can hear the pump starting. Yes, water is being spraying over the crowds.’ Poppy’s voice went up a semitone with excitement.
‘An attempt at crowd control, I assume. I think there’s a good chance we’re going to get drenched. The people are screaming… they’re saying something… hang on… what are they saying Simon?’