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THE ORCHARD ON FIRE
FICTION

Miss Rix was tall, with a pale, oval face and black hair drawn into a loose knot from a white centre parting and she wore fabrics with zigzags, dots and squiggles.
'Matisse is my God,' she told me. 'Who is yours?'
'God.'
Miss Codrington, fair and slender, reminded Ruby and me of the Willow Fairy in Fairies of the Trees by Cicely Mary Barker. You could just see her in a green dress, with her golden hair loose, holding onto the long green leaves while she dipped her toes in the green river, and it was easy to imagine wings like a dragonfly's growing from her shoulders. The two artists had a Bedlington terrier, Boy, who looked like a little grey lamb, and a hive of bees, and white ducks that lived in a wooden house on the river bank at the end of the orphans' vegetable garden.
'I'm surprised that two such attractive girls haven't managed to find themselves a husband,' Betty said.
'They're artists,' said Percy. 'They live for their art. Even so…'
The Orchard On FireMiss Rix and Miss Codrington were expecting twenty weekend guests and on Sunday a professor from London, Professor Linus Scoley, was coming to give a lecture: 'Samuel Palmer, Ancient or Modern?' They were in a flap about having to cater for so many and had come to ask if their visitors could have their meals at the Copper Kettle, and if we would provide afternoon tea on the Sunday at Beulah House.
'We've bitten off more than we can chew,' they confessed, 'and we're up the creek without a paddle.'
'We're really more of an eggs, sausage, beans and fried slice establishment,' Betty told them, looking worried. 'I know it says FUNCTIONS CATERED FOR on that notice on the door, but truthfully we had tea parties more in mind. There's been no call, up till now, and we haven't got the facilities for anything too sophisticated like your London people would expect.'
'Oh, please, Mrs Harlency! We simply won't have time to be in the kitchen as well as running the classes. Some composite dish is all that's called for - a simple goulash perhaps or ratatouille…?'
Betty stared at her speechless, slowly shaking her head.
Miss Codrington bowed her own head in her hands, her fair hair falling over her fingers, a broken fairy mumbling,
'It was a stupid idea. We've overreached ourselves. We'll be the laughing stock of the art world. We'll just have to cancel the whole thing.'
She lifted wild, despairing eyes to Miss Rix, whos aid, 'Too late for that. I suppose - I suppose I could get Mrs Vinnegar in…'
That clinched it.
'No need for that,' Percy stepped into the conversation, 'we can't have you ladies being the laughing stock of the art world. We'll cope somehow, and the Copper Kettle will do you proud.'
Miss Rix threw her long arms round him and kissed him on the cheek.
'You darling man! Oh, bless you, bless you both! Any time you want some free tuition, painting, sketching, papier mache or burnt poker work - just say the word!'
'Beadwork and barbola,' put in Miss Codrington.
'That won't be necessary,' said Betty a trifle sharply.
Percy was still looking surprised and pleased by the kiss.
'I do hope it won't be too much work for you, Mrs Harlency,' they kept saying, now that it was settled.
'Oh, do call me Betty, and I may look like a barrage balloon on legs but I'm fit as a flea.'
'Betty, you're an angel! You've saved our lives. And you must call us Dittany and Bobs, now that we're such friends.'
'I hardly like to,' said Betty after they had gone, 'but if those are their names…'
Dittany Codrington and Bobs Rix: I loved saying those names. Bobs was short for Roberta.
Betty told Ruby to ask her mother if it would be all right for Ruby to help out as a waitress for a small payment.
'She couldn't care less what I do,' said Ruby.
'I'll ask her then, if you like,' Betty decided.
The visitors were allowed to make their own tea and coffee as they wished in the big kitchen of Beulah House, and cocoa and buns would be provided last thing at night.
Friday night meant supper for twenty-two, including Dittany Codrington and Bobs Rix. The café had never looked so beautiful, with all the lamps glowing in their pink shades and fairy lights looped round the picture rail. Bobs Rix had put a bottle of wine on each of the tables that were in use; she and Dittany ate at a table for two, which meant they had a bottle of wine between them, while the others shared among four. The glasses were on hire from the Rising Sun.
A grinning slice of melon with its teeth sprinkled with ginger was set at each place. Brightly coloured candles were wavering and flickering round the tables.
'Too too quaint,' I heard one say.
'Absolutely priceless,' a pallid man asserted, forking a square tooth of melon into his pale mouth set in a long white-and-yellow beard.
The main course was a curry which went down very well with the artists.
'My compliments to the chef,' a stout man in a wine-coloured jacket told me, 'I'm an old India hand, and I The Orchard On Firecan safely say this is as good as anything I tasted in Bombay.'
'Oh, better,' his wife, in a cardigan embroidered with tufts of wool, corrected him. 'I could never impress on Chutney, it is very important to get just the right proportion of curry powder to the fried sultanas and apple and mince.'
She choked.
'Do you think we could have some water?' her husband twinkled.
'What a pretty glass,' embroidered cardy gasped, gulping her water.
'It had St Ivel cheese spread in it,' I explained, 'that's why its got those blue flowers on it.'
'Perfect,' said wine-coloured jacket. 'Of course his name wasn't really Chutney, it was something unpronounceable. Chutney was just an affectionate nickname. He loved it, didn't he darling? He was our cook,' he explained.
The meal, finished of with ice-cream and fancy wafers, was a triumph. One of the artists even licked his glass dish in a jokey way, going 'yum, yum, yum.' Percy, though, was conferring worriedly with Bobs Rix, whose hair was slipping from its knot and falling in curtains on either side of her rosy face.
'When you've been in the licensed trade as long as I have…' he was saying.
'We'll just have to adjourn to the pub,' Bobs decided, 'and they can pay for their own.'
People were trooping through the kitchen and out the back to the toilets. Betty reluctantly directed the more impatient guests upstairs to our bathroom. At last they were all gone, leaving us with precarious mountains and hills of washing up. The geyser was going fit to blow a gasket and we boiled kettles and saucepans to keep the hot water coming.
Half-way through, Percy made Betty go to bed. She looked exhausted and we all had to be up early for the breakfasts. I was spreading a clean cloth on a table when something made me look up. Mr Greenidge's face was staring at me through the window, and disappeared.

Fewer than a dozen of the guests turned up for breakfast, looking ill and bad-tempered.
'I've paid for this so-called weekend and if that involves eating a fried breakfast, so be it, but I draw the line at prunes,' said a woman grimly. Her long black hair was beaded with yellow where it had trailed into the yolk of her egg. 'I don't know what they put in that curry last night but whatever it was, it was lethal.'
Betty, who overhead this, bristled.
'I have it on good authority that the Rising Sun was drunk dry last night and eaten out of pickled eggs.'
The woman shuddered and her teacup rattled in its saucer. She pushed away her plate and lit a cigarette.

At eleven o'clock the tea-room was empty when Mr Greenidge stomped in with Liesel. Mrs Greenidge must have come back then.
'Why are you doing this to me?' he hissed, frightening me, when I brought him coffee.
'Doing what?'
'You know exactly what you're doing. Playing hard to get. Bringing your friend round when you knew it was our last chance to be alone. Avoiding me. How can you be so cruel? Don't you love me any more?'
'Is everything all right, Mr G?'
Percy came through from the kitchen where he, Betty and Ruby were making sandwiches for the artists' picnic lunch.
'Right as a trivet, Percy, right as rain. Lot of queer types about this morning though.'
'Bohemians,' said Percy. 'From the art school. We're doing the catering.'
'Art school, my eye,' Mr Greenidge spluttered into his coffee. 'I'd keep an eye on Missy here if I were you. Hardly the sort of company I'd care for my daughter to keep. If I had been blessed in that way.'
'Oh, they're all right. Takes all sorts, eh?'
He took a salt cellar from a table and went back to his work.
'When can I see you?'
Mr Greenidge's eyes were glittery, as if he were going to cry.
'Monday. After school.' Anything to make him go away. 'Did Liesel like her bone?'
'What? Madam's back at the residence so it's no good you coming to the house. Meet me by the phone box, we'll have to go for a walk.'
'I'll try. It's difficult. Ruby expects me to play with her.'
'Get rid of her. Make some excuse. Please, April. Do it for me.'
'Get rid of her' sounded as if Ruby were rubbish, or a stray dog that followed me around.

I had to break my promise not to enter Boddy's the Butcher when I was sent round to collect pork chops for the evening supper. Ruby understood, because she had been forced to go there herself on an occasion. Charmaine Vinnegar handed me the pieces of dead pigs in a large paper bag. Little Juney was playing quietly with a bucket and spade in the sawdust chewing something, and Sorrel Marlowe was there with her mother, who was being served by Mr Boddy in his straw boater. I hadn't seen Sorrel since the Lady Marlene incident and she stuck her nose in the air.
'Stop eating the meat, Juney, I've told you,' said Charmaine. 'It'll give you worms.'
'Well really!' said Mrs Marlowe, going pale as the slab of lard.
I ran out of the shop, my stomach heaving as if with raw meat and white fat.
Brown Windsor soup, pork chops with roast potatoes and cabbage, blackberry and apple crumble was the menu for tonight. Betty cooked the cabbage with bay leaves to take away the smell and sprinkled it with caraway seeds. From time to time the baby kicked hard and you could almost see its foot through her white apron.
The Orchard On Fire'He wants to come out and help with the washing up,' said Percy.
'Percy!'

Professor Linus Scoley was due to arrive on the 2 o'clock train from London.
'Somebody should meet him,' Dittany worried.
'We'll meet him, won't we, April?' Ruby volunteered.
'Bless you, that would be wonderful. You'll recognise him at once - he's exactly like the Henry Lamb portrait of Lytton Strachey.'
'Who's he when he's at home?' I thought, and Ruby said.
'Oh, silly of me. Professor Scoley is tall, with a beard and long tubular legs. Make sure you bring him straight to Beulah House, won't you, so that he can have some refreshments before his lecture at 3 o'clock.'
'We could take Boy,' said Ruby.
'Off you go then, girls,' Percy said at half-past one. 'And remember, this bloke's a dead ringer for Lytton Strachey.' He winked.
'If we were in a William book we'd come back with the wrong professor,' I said.
'Or an escaped lunatic,' said Ruby, clipping on Boy's lead.
A smell of Sunday dinners drifted over the High Street as we walked along with Boy capering like a little lamb beside us. I picked a dahlia from somebody's allotment and tucked it in his collar. Doreen Vinnegar passed us, on her brother Sack's bicycle and called out, 'Why weren't you two in Sunday School this morning?'
'We had better things to do,' Ruby replied cheerily. 'So there, Vinegar Bottle.'
Two lady artists, guests at Beulah House, came flying down the church path in a whirl of skirts and smocks and folding easels, spilling tubes of paint, with Mr Seabrook the verger chasing after them, waving a spade and shouting, 'Go on. 'op it! Get them pointy-legged things out of my graveyard, making holes in my lawn! Call yourselves artists! You couldn't creosote a fence, none of you!'
We were laughing with our left arms linked behind our backs and Boy's lead in my right hand, when I realised we were approaching Kirriemuir.
'Cross over the road,' I said.
But Boy started yapping and we heard Liesel going frantic running up and down the hedge barking and Mr and Mrs Greenidge appeared at the gate. She held the scrabbling Liesel in her arms.
'Poor Liesel,' Mrs Greenidge soothed her. 'Poor old girl. Never mind, then.'
Mr Greenidge just looked down at Boy's drooping dahlia and back at me. I dropped my eyes.
'Who's your smart new little friend with the gay flower in his collar?' Mrs Greenidge asked.
I remembered that she did not like dahlias.
'He's not really my friend. We've got to take him to the station to meet a professor. I still like Liesel best,' I tried to explain.
'His name's called Boy. He's a Bedlington terrier,' said Ruby.
'He is called Boy? His name is Boy.' Mrs Greenidge smiled sadly.
'Don't forget your old friends entirely, April.'
I shook my head.
'Come on or we'll be late,' said Ruby. 'What did she ask what his name was for, if she already knew?' she complained as we walked on.
'Don't ask me. I expect she's a loony.'
I saw myself in their bedroom again, playing with the magical cabinet, squeezing her turquoise scent spray; her silver brushes and combs, her yellow beads, the corner of the high bed with the rose-pink quilt reflected in the mirror.
'What's up with you?'
'Nothing.'
Station Hill smelled of leaf mould and the unripe conkers, brought down by a night of rain, that studded the broken tarmac at the sides of the road in drifts of twiggy debris. The sky was blue between gold-tinged leaves.
'You know that man with a sack and a knife who jumped out on Charmaine Vinnegar?' I said. 'Well, why did he have a sack?'
'To hide her ugly face. To stop her screaming.'
'They never caught him though, did they? He could be here now, behind a tree. In broad daylight.'
Suddenly broad daylight was a terrifying place.
The three of us tore uphill through the autumnal tunnel of trees, three harsh breaths panting across the station yard, through the booking hall and onto the platform where Ruby and I collapsed on the seat. Behind us, on the fence, was an enamel advertisement that said, 'Virol. Anaemic Girls Need It.'

To be continued...


 
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