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02 - 08 June , 2012
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THE ORCHARD ON FIRE
 
FICTION

'It's time we went back to the orchard. To spring-clean our house,' Ruby said.
'No, let's not go back there.'
'Why not?'
'I don't know. I just don't want to.'
'But we've got to. It's ours. If we don't, somebody else might find it and take it for their camp. Anyway, we left some of our things there and they've been there all winter.'
'They might have gone. The farmer might have taken them away, or an old tramp might be living there. A murderer might have moved in.'
'Nah.'
'What about that man who got Sorrel Marlowe then?'
'I thought you said that was Rodney Pegg. He lives in London, doesn't he, so he wouldn't be living in an old railway compartment in Stonebridge, would he?'
THE ORCHARD ON FIRE'Oh, all right then.'

'Look!' I caught Ruby's arm.
The orchard was all white, as if millions of butterflies had settled on its branches.
'It's the garden of Eden,' she said.
We stood hand-in-hand. High above the trees a silver aeroplane trailed a white arc that bloomed and expanded into parallel tracks of cloud and dissolved into the blue. The orchard was an open fan of dark spokes frothing into white flounces, then the pattern of the rows of trees was broken as we ran towards the railway carriage through wet grass and buttercups and ladies' smocks, feeling sharp stones in the hidden furrows under our feet.
The camp was intact, untouched, in tendrils of spring growth. Ruby took a duster from her knicker leg and a miniature tin of polish, a free sample from a salesman, out of her pocket and a packet of Gold Flake. We sat in the doorway watching blue snakes of smoke coiling in the air while the sun-dried petals slicked to our legs and startled spiders ran to hide in dark corners and cobwebs as thick as wire netting behind us.

Eighteen
Dittany failed to get a maypole made even though she went round to the almshouses seeking an old craftsman, who sent her away with a flea in her ear, so Bobs said. She approached the Forestry Commission but they were no help either. We sat in our desks at school singing the coloured ribbons of the maypole dances and songs about the cuckoo whose voice we could hear through the window of the classroom that was full of the scent of bluebells and the smell of tadpole water. Down the meadows was full of flowers when we went there after school. Ruby's parents seemed to have forgotten that she wasn't allowed to play with me. Sometimes, Betty would let us take Peter out in his pram. Two or three days could went by before I started worrying about Mr Greenidge, and I started dreading that I would have to meet him secretly again, with Peter when I could have him.
One Sunday morning as we cycled past Kirriemuir on our way to Sunday school we saw Dr Barker coming out of the gate. The next time I met Mr Greenidge he said, 'Mrs Greenidge is very poorly. It might cheer her up to see a young face about the place.'
I took her a bunch of wild flowers and her eyes filled with tears. She was lying on the wicker couch in the conservatory with her tapestry on a stool beside her. I thought of Beth, when the needle grew too heavy for her fingers, and I was afraid. There were wide pale-blue circles under her eyes and blue veins on her hands. 'Hark at the birds,' she said. Her voice sounded worn out. 'Your hair suits you like that April. It shows the shape of your face.' For the first time I felt that Mrs Greenidge liked me.
THE ORCHARD ON FIRE'Come and help me make some tea,' said Mr Greenidge.
I was outraged when he embraced me in the kitchen, with Mrs Greenidge so ill.
'Mrs Greenidge isn't going to… die, is she?'
'Oh it's been such a long, long time, my darling. Too long, I've missed holding you in my arms so much. What did you say?' He said.
'Will Mrs Greenidge get better?'
The kettle was screaming.
'Who can say? Poor old girl's getting very frail. Don't forget to warm the teapot.'
I went cold. 'Very frail' was how the murderess had described her crippled husband in Deathcap Cottage. Before she poisoned him.
'I bought these specially for you.' He spread out chocolate fingers on a plate.
'Is it her dicky ticker – I mean her heart?'
If Mrs Greenidge died I would have to marry him as soon as I was old enough.
'Afraid so, my dear. Tricky organs, tickers.'
I could see myself in a bride's long white dress walking down the aisle on his white linen arm. Suppose he had put poison in Mrs Greenidge's tea? No, he couldn't have. But suppose he was secretly giving her a slow poison, deceiving even Dr Barker, and there was really nothing wrong with her heart?
'Must you light your pipe in here, Clem?' said Mrs Greenidge wearily and I intercepted his look of pure hatred.

Mrs Greenidge did get better. At Whitsun she was strong enough to walk to the war memorial and sit on a folding stool to see the Morris dancers. People sat on the bridge watching them and the hobby horse pranced and lunged into the crowd standing around. Bobs and Dittany were there and I think the white-clothed men, with their ribbons and bells and sticks, their black hats and socks and shiny black shoes, made up for the maypole. One of the dancers bopped Miss Fay on the bonce with a bladder on a stick. Peter stretched out his arms and clapped his little hands at the music. He was wearing a blue-and-white romper suit with embroidered yachts bobbing on blue waves across the yoke. Betty was carrying him. Percy was holding the fort. I saw the Silver boys and waved.
'Wouldn't it be lovely if the Morris Men came to the Copper Kettle?' I said.
'Just what I was thinking.'
They went to the Rising Sun, where Lex had put trestle tables and benches on either side of the porch.
When we got home I said, 'Hey, Dad, when are we going to get the tables and chairs for the garden?'
'All in good time.'
Then Miss Fay actually came into the tea-room with another lady, saying to her, 'I'm afraid it's the best I can offer you, but it's improved slightly since it changed hands.'
'Any port in a storm,' said her friend and asked to be shown to the ladies room. 'This is April, one of my pupils,' Miss Fay told her friend.
I took her out the back.
It was just my luck that a gang of motor-cyclists should roar up and come swaggering in unbuckling helmets and slapping gauntlets.
'What a pleasure to see you here, Miss Fay. What can I do for you?' said Percy.
'Just a pot of coffee for two and some plain cakes, Mr Harlency.'
'Very nice too,' said Percy. 'Coming up.'
The bikers had pushed two tables together and were becoming very rowdy.
'Keep it down lads, eh? There are ladies present,' Percy asked them.
'Oh, I say, keep it down chaps. There are ladies present,' one of them mocked, putting on a posh voice.
'Oh, really? I can't see anyone,' another of them said. 'Can you?'
'Nah.'
Miss Fay and her friend had gone crimson and were pretending to chat as if they hadn't heard. I was lurking in the kitchen now, dying of shame. A loud belch ripped the air. All the bikers laughed rude, ugly laughs. From the doorway I half expected Miss Fay to stand up and roar, 'Silence! Hands on heads!' It was worse to see her frightened. I had to take the plates of egg and chips to the bikers' table and as I put them down among the huge black arms and cigarette smoke, Miss Fay bit into her cake and gobbled like a turkey and put her handkerchief to her face.
'Water. Bring some water quickly,' called her friend. I ran to get it.
Miss Fay removed something from her hanky.
'This is intolerable. A plastic doll. Come, Agnes, we're leaving. I can only apologise for bringing you to this establishment. I'm sorry.'
It was John, a tiny pink baby in a nappy, 3d in Woolworth's. I had been wondering where he'd got to.
Miss Fay looked as if she were going to cry. Her friend looked embarrassed.
'On the house, Miss Fay,' said Percy placatingly.
'I should jolly well think so too. You haven't heard the last of this, not by a long chalk.'
To me she hissed, 'I hope you realise you've let the whole school down, April Harlency.'
THE ORCHARD ON FIREJohn was lying in a wad of cake crumbs. He would need a bath, a good long soak, before I could play with him again. Ruby had his twin, called Lennet.

Three days later we had a visit from two Health Inspectors in disguise. Percy spotted them for wrong 'uns right off. They didn't find anything amiss, but Percy said, 'You can bet your bottom dollar Miss Fay had a finger in this particular individual fruit pie.'
'Rotten old stoolpigeon,' said Betty.
'It's all right for you, you're not in her class,' I made the mistake of saying.
'I think you're forgetting who nearly got us closed down. I hope you realise that Miss Fay could have choked to death?'
'Good riddance to bad rubbish,' I mumbled out of earshot.
Miss Fay had put the flowers they made me take to school on Monday in the waste-paper basket.
'Better luck next time,' Ruby said when I told her what Percy had said. I remembered that Miss Fay's dried fig of hair had been caught in a May-Day net threaded with tiny coloured beads, and I felt sad.
I was lying in bed that night when a thought froze in my blood. What if I had killed Miss Fay? What if it had been my fault that Major Morton died? And Professor Scoley? Supposing Mr Greenidge was poisoning Mrs Greenidge so that he could marry me? What if even now he was sprinkling rat poison into her cocoa?
I burst into the sitting-room where Betty and Percy were listening to a play.
'We've got to get the police. Get Mr Cox. Mr Greenidge is going to murder Mrs Greenidge.'
'What?'
They looked startled, as if I had broken into their yellow lamplight evening world.
'Come on, back to bed. You've been having another of those nasty dreams, haven't you? What have you been reading now?'
Betty laid aside her knitting with a sigh, a sock on four needles.
'No, it's true. We've got to stop him.'
'Up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire, come on. Besides, we're still waiting for the telephone if you remember. How could we ring the police even if we wanted to?'
'Go round there, to the police station.'
'This has gone far enough. We're trying to listen to a play if you don't mind.'
Back in bed again, I lay in the darkness thinking, supposing I'm really the devil's daughter, and I don't know it? I got up again and switched on the light and searched until I found the palm cross we had been given at Sunday school on Palm Sunday and I stuck a drawing pin through it and hammered it into the wall above my bed with my shoe.

Nineteen
The communist invasion of Stonebridge began while the congregation of St Michael and All Angels was at prayer. The Silvers were having a garden party, and children released from Sunday school watched the convoy of comrades rolling along the High Street through the scents of honeysuckle and manure and off cooking dinners wafting out of doors and windows standing open to let the steam from the kitchen out into the heat of the day. They came in cars and vans and an old green bus.
Mr Silver had invited all our family, but only I was free to go. He had asked Ruby too and she had made the mistake of mentioning it at home. Lex had forbidden her to go anywhere near the Paper Mill: 'I'm not having you hob-nobbing with the likes of them. They ought to go back to Russia where they belong.' She would have to sneak out. Mr Greenidge had been disapproving when I told him about it. 'I'd steer well clear of that lot if I were you.'
I could see that he was jealous because I liked the Silvers.
'The man's a scoundrel. I don't know how he has the nerve to hold a garden party in Stonebridge after that filthy Burgess and Maclean business. Don't know why he doesn't go and join them. Uncle Joe Silver! He's a traitor to his country. Ought to be put against a wall and shot, the lot of them.'
'There are going to be donkey rides and a coconut shy and all sorts of stalls and races.'
'I'm disappointed in you, April. Deeply disappointed. Bitterly disappointed.'
He turned and walked away, exaggerating his limp, stopping to call back to me, 'I suppose you know they murdered their own Royal Family?'
'Yes, Miss Fay told us.'
'Sensible woman, Alice Fay. One of the old school.'
'Her name's Olivia.'
'At least it isn't Olga.'
He stumped off.
'All the crowned heads of the Communist Party will be there, so to speak,' Percy said wistfully.
'I wish we could shut up shop for the afternoon,' Betty said. 'You might even see Paul Robeson, April, Mr Silver told me he's met him. If you do, get me his autograph and tell him I'm a great fan, won't you?'
'How will I know which one's him?'
'Oh, I think he'll stand out from the crowd, in Stonebridge,' said Percy.
'Oh my baby, my curly-headed baby,' Betty sang, into Peter's straight dark quiff.
'Here's Ruby. Have a lovely time and don't forget to say thank you for having me.'
'Yes, yes, spandy nice and Meg has cologne on hers,' said Ruby.
'Cologne,' said Betty.

Joe and Molly Silver were standing at the gate on the stone bridge that crossed the moat to greet their guests under a red flag. Beyond them, the garden had been transformed into a little fairground and we heard the music of a baby merry-go-round. We joined the people strolling around eating ice-cream and candyfloss, sitting in groups on the grass. Wire netting enclosed the garden to prevent any children from falling into the river or the deep pool. Charmaine Vinnegar was led past us on a donkey, splitting the air with hysterical shrieks, her feet almost touching the ground.
'Somebody ought to tell the RSPCA,' said Ruby. 'Look at them!'

To be continued...

FICTION
CUSTODY THE ORCHARD ON FIRE FICTION


 
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