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07 - 13 Apr , 2012
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THE ORCHARD ON FIRE
FICTION

'I wish the baby would hurry up and come. Granny, does it hurt very much to have a baby?'
'Not worse than going to the dentist. You clear the table while I wash up, and tell your grandpa we're going shopping and we'll be back presently.'
'I've got to buy my Christmas presents but I haven't got much money.'
'Let's not worry about that.'
I went into the bar. Grandpa wasn't there. 'George, can you tell Grandpa we've gone shopping?'
'Pardon Mrs Arden?' said George, a friendly Geordie with a Hitler moustache that wouldn't grow properly over the scar on his lip.

'Pardon Mrs Arden
Me chicken's in your garden.
If it wasn't for his liver,
THE ORCHARD ON FIREI'd drown him in the river,'

I said, reminded of the school playground and Ruby.
'Please can you tell Grandpa we're going shopping?'
'OK, Toots,' said George. 'Don't do anything I wouldn't do. Buy me something nice for Christmas, won't you?'
With sinking heart I added George's name to my Christmas list. Even with the two shillings from Mr Greenidge I hadn't got nearly enough money. A ten-shilling note was sticking out of the open till; a flock of butterflies beat their wings inside me. George had gone down to the end of the bar and was stacking crisp packets. I could hear Mrs Lynch the cleaner's carpet sweeper in the saloon.
'April!'
Granny Fitz saved me from becoming a thief but I sat miserably beside her in the bus, sure that she could tell that I was the sort of girl who would rob her own grandparents. I felt guilty, although better at the same time when she took a ten-shilling note from her purse and told me to put it in mine. We went to Bon Marche in Brixton, a grand emporium of delights, and we were sitting with a pot of tea and eclairs after we had finished our shopping when I suddenly remembered Ruby's black eye, when Gloria and Lex had accused her of taking money from the till, and I went hot and cold.
'Granny, if you think of doing something wicked but somebody stops you from doing it, does it still count?'
'Oh I expect so. Depends. Look at the way your jumper's sticking out of the sleeves of that coat. How long have you had it now?' I had unbuttoned my coat, which had once been a shade called Old Rose, with wine-coloured piping. When I stood up my skirt hem hung below it.
'Committing adultery in your heart,' said Granny Fitz.
'I've missed the school play.'
'Never mind. Perhaps you can do it at home for Grandpa and George and me.'
'I don't think so.'
I thought of Ruby doing the Mince-Pie Dance by herself. They would have to change the words of the song, and I knew I would never have dared to sing by myself in front of an audience.

We are the Mince Pies
Sugar and Spice.
Warm us up
And we taste nice.
A sprig of holly
in our tum.
We are the Mince Pies
Yum yum yum.

Then we had to lead the plum pudding, the turkey and the yule log into:

Down the chimney
Who will come?
Jolly Old Santa Claus!
Filling stockings
One by one!
Jolly old Santa Claus!

Miss Fay had written the play herself, about a greedy boy, played by Titchy Vinnegar, who wakes up to find his stocking filled with ashes and soot.

'Betty's been taken in,' Grandpa Fitz informed us on our return. 'Five o'clock this morning. No news yet.'
'Give us a brandy, Gerald, and a bottle of pop for April.'
'I'd love a Babycham,' I said.
'A chip off the old block,' said Grandpa, winking.
'That's enough of that, here's to our little girl,' Granny knocked back her brandy.
A blue haze of smoke hung over the tables, dominoes clacked and a sad-faced woman with wispy hair sitting at the bar raised her frothy glass of milk stout saying, 'To our little girl, God bless her.'
'Take your pop upstairs, April,' Granny said.
It was not until I put on the new coat Granny had bought me, navy blue with a velvet collar, that I realised how cold I had been. I twirled around in front of the long mirror in my grandparents' bedroom admiring myself in the coat, and its matching hat which I knew I would never wear at home. The very thought of the comments it would attract made me cringe and think of Miss Fay's haunting account of a knight running the gauntlet. Her lessons were so full of things I wished I didn't know.
Something woke me in the middle of the night, a dream perhaps, that left me feeling frightened. I put my feet onto the cold linoleum and then padded along the corridor, still half asleep, to Granny and Grandpa's room. Their bed was empty, the bed-clothes pushed back. I groped my way down to the public bar. Granny was there in her dressing-gown and Grandpa with a cardigan over his pyjamas, and George wearing a purple silk dressing-gown and Arabian Nights slippers. The fairy-lights were twinkling round the bar.
'Here she is!' said Grandpa. 'Come and wet the baby's head.'
'You've got a lovely little baby brother,' Granny hugged me, her face wet with tears.
'Is Mummy all right?'
'Both doing fine. She and Daddy send their love.'
I had a fleeting sense of miles between us, the distance to a blurred nativity scene.
Grandpa was singing, "It's a boy, it's a boy, it's a something, something boy."
He poured cherry brandy into a liqueur glass and handed it to me. I sipped liquid fire. George went over to the piano and struck up, singing along,

'Sweetest little fellow anybody knows.
Don't know what to call him
But he's mighty like a rose – '

He broke off. 'Why don't they just call him Rose?'

'Smilin' at his mummy
With eyes so shining blue
Makes you feel that heaven
Is comin' close to you.'

Granny joined in and Grandpa said, 'Weighed in at 7lbs 12oz. What a little champ, eh?'
Bittersweet melting cherries slid down my throat and happiness unfolded in the petals of a crimson rose and the sun blazed out in my head.
'Hey, everybody, I've got a brother!'
'No more lonely only,' said George.
A red jewel flashed in my chest and fairy-lights flicked off and on, dappling our faces with soft puffs of colour and the shining foil garlands swayed and twisted gently and I felt pure diamond-faceted joy.

Twelve
Peter was a little marzipan boy; he was like the eskimo on the Christmas cake, with his face peeping out of his white shawl; he was a vanilla ice-cream, Peter Nicholas Harlency. From the beginning he was in danger of being cannibalised.
'Look at those little legs!' cried Granny Fitz. 'Couldn't you just eat them?' And Betty took playful bites from his talcum-powdered bottom as if it were a doughnut smothered in icing sugar. We were all head-over-heels in love. Peter's dark fuzz of hair was like thistledown when you kissed his head.
Granny and I arrived at the Copper Kettle on the morning of Christmas Eve. She had to get the train back in the afternoon, and Percy had arranged for the taxi, from the Three Brewers.
I stood in my new coat and hat and gasped at the beauty of our room, the Christmas tree and paper garlands, before falling into my mother's arms. Percy had met us at the station and as we walked past the Rising Sun I begged to stop to say hello to Ruby.
'Plenty of time for that later,' Percy said.
I gave the lone cry of the peewit but Ruby did not appear.
'I'll see her at the crib service anyway,' I said. 'We can still go, can't we?'
'Don't see why not, just you and me though. I don't think your baby brother's up to singing carols yet.'
'Bless his little cotton socks,' added Granny. There were just two clouds in my frosty, sparkling sky. One was in the shape of the turkey which I had unfortunately won in the Drovers Tavern Christmas raffle, a huge pink thing that Granny had insisted on bringing with us. It had been beheaded and you could see dark pockmarks in its goose-fleshed skin where the feathers had been plucked out, and its claws had been cut off leaving yellow stumps filled with dried blood. The other cloud was a red-brick house called Kirriemuir. I had a hard red rubber bone in my bag, Liesel's Christmas present, which squeaked when you rubbed it on your front teeth, and smelled of the dentist's. But when to deliver it? Perhaps I would push it through the letterbox and run away.

Percy and I stood at the back door of the Rising Sun. Lex opened it, in a white shirt with sleeves rolled high and tight over his tattooed biceps and his belly bulging.
'What d'you want?'
I held Percy's hand tightly.
'We wondered if Ruby was coming to the crib service,' he said.
'What? No, she isn't, it's Christmas Eve, in case you hadn't noticed, and I've got a pub to run.'
He started to shut the door.
'Hang on a minute,' Percy put his foot in the door. 'That's why we're here, because it's Christmas Eve. There's a special service for the kiddies at the church and I'm sure Ruby would like to be there.'
THE ORCHARD ON FIRE'Oh are you? Well, you can mind your own bloody business. You've got a nerve coming here, trying to turn my kid against her family, giving her ideas. I know your game, mate. Bleeding commie!' He was squeezing Percy's shoe in the door.
'Just a minute, mate. Who are you calling a commie? If you paid your own kid a bit of attention instead of…'
Percy was forced to withdraw his foot. He was as thin as a curly-haired elf compared with Lex, who was giving off gusts of angry, stale sweat.
'Merry Christmas to you, too, pal! Come on, pet, I'm sorry you had to witness that. Effing B, pardon my French. Not fit to have a child on the premises – some people shouldn't be allowed to have children.'
I had to run to keep up with him, on the sparkling pavement, past white hedges, under bright holy stars, past the Co-op's enchanted cave. The bells of St Michael and All Angels were ringing, and people walking to church called out greetings to each other.
'Put your hat on, April,' said Percy, taking his off at the church door.
'I can't, somebody might see.'
Hundreds of night lights placed all around the church, on the rood screen and under the stained-glass windows and round the font, dipped and doubled through my tears, the candles and the brass chandeliers dazzled and fused the aisle into an avenue of rainbows. It was the most special night of the year and Ruby wasn't there. When Mr Oswald led the choir through the church singing 'Once in Royal David's City' a grey salty sob racked my chest. Boys became angels walking in clouds of incense through the cold air that smelled of wax and mysteries, processing to the choir stalls past the thatched stable on the steps where Mary and Joseph knelt with the shepherds and ox and ass, and I understood that Jesus in the manger had been a baby just like Peter.
I could not speak when we stood outside after the service. Mr Oswald was in the church porch shaking people's hands and wishing them a happy Christmas. I smiled shyly at children I knew, embarrassed at having been crying.
'Very touching, wasn't it?'
The Greenidges, Mrs Greenidge tapping the frosty paving stones with a silver-headed stick, walked right behind us.
'I saw that our little April was quite moved,' Mr Greenidge went on. 'Had to pipe m'own eye, I don't mind telling you.'
'I hear congratulations are in order,' said Mrs Greenidge. 'A little boy just in time for Christmas.'
'Yes indeed. Well done old chap. Got your pigeon pair now!'
Mr Greenidge clapped Percy on the back.
'You might take my arm, Clement, this path is like an ice rink. I think you'll find that "a pigeon pair", strictly speaking, refers to twins.'
Like Professor Scoley and Professor Scoley.
'Merry Christmas, merry Christmas,' people were saying. Mrs Vinnegar's voice came through the darkness. 'Get off that grave or I'll brain you. Right, I'm telling Santa Claus not to come. I've warned you!! I'll give you "While Shepherds Washed Their Socks by Night"!'
'Pop in sometime over Christmas April, Liesel's got a little present for you,' said Mr Greenidge.
'Has she?' said Mrs Greendige. 'She didn't tell me.'
Bobs and Dittany caught up with us.

'Torches, torches,
Run with torches
All the way to Bethlehem'

Dittany sang, swooping the light of her torch in circles. They were wearing knitted hats and scarves and Bobs had stuck a sprig of holly in her lapel.
'Oh, it's all such a wonderful mixture of the pagan and medieval! One feels just like a druid cutting the sacred mistletoe and yet one falls on one's knees before the crib in the simple unquestioning faith of one's rude forefathers! "Welcome Yule, Thou Merry Man",' she sang.
'Are you going to hang up your stocking, April?' Dittany asked. 'We are.'
Worried for them, I looked up at the sky, but the stars were so bright it was easy to believe in Father Christmas and his sleigh shimmering and jingling over the rooftops.
The Rising Sun looked as pretty and inviting as an iced gingerbread house and sounds of mirth and jollity, 'Good King Wenceslas' on the old joanna, came through windowpanes shiny as sweets. Ruby's bedroom window was dark.

A thin cry, that expanded like a concertina, woke me in the middle of the night. There was something heavy at the end of the bed and glimpsing a reindeer's antlers by the door, which was ajar, I shut my eyes tight. I couldn't believe it and yet my heart was pumping wildly in restored credulity. In the morning while it was still dark I jumped out of bed and switched on the light. Where the reindeer had stood was a pale-green bicycle. I cycled, with difficulty, the short and narrow road to my parents' room with my bulging stocking draped over the handlebars. Their light was on and Betty was propped up on pillows feeding Peter. We all had breakfast in the big bed with Christmas carols on the radio. Everything in my stocking was magical, from the tiny gold candlesticks, the china horse, the glass tube of little silver balls that you used to decorate cakes, coloured pencils, a diary, a seagull brooch, pale-green angora gloves that matched my new bicycle, to the glass snowstorm ball that made a blizzard when you shook it, that drifted over the tiny house inside, and a pearly handled penknife. Betty was thrilled with her bottle of lavender water and the stocking Granny Fitz had helped me choose and Percy was delighted with his socks. I had also cajoled a bottle of cherry brandy from Grandpa for them to share.

To be continued...


 
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