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09 - 15 June , 2012
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THE ORCHARD ON FIRE
 
FICTION

There were African men in bright striped robes over striped trousers with round matching hats, and a tall woman in a patterned garment and high head-dress. She was eating pink candyfloss and wore gold sandals. The men's ankles were bare above black polished shoes. I didn't think any of them was Paul Robeson.
'Aren't they lovely?' said Ruby.
Bobs and Dittany came up with two Indian ladies in saris, as pleased with themselves as if they'd caught two rare butterflies. Doreen was looking covetous. She collected dolls in National Costume, but so far she only had a Welsh lady.
'Have you been on a donkey yet?' asked Bobs.
'Not yet. There's so much to do, we don't know where to start,' I said.
'I can recommend the toffee apples,' Dittany told us, so we headed in that direction. I won a glass salt-THE ORCHARD ON FIREand-pepper set with red tops, on the hoop-la stall.
'I'm going to give it to my mum.'
'Excuse me,' said Ruby, 'but don't you happen to live in a café?'
'Oh yes, never mind.'
It was such a beautiful day that nothing seemed to matter much. We had a go on the roundabout, sitting in a car with our knees sticking up and little Juney going round on a gilded cockerel behind us. Leo Silver, wearing a checked shirt and corduroy trousers, watched us climb out and asked if we wanted any strawberries.
'We've got heaps,' he said. 'Some are a bit squishy though. And cherries. Do you want to come and get some?'
'OK.'
'Are you going in for the races later?' he asked,
'Dunno. Are you?'
'I might.'
'So might we.'
The strawberries were piled on punnets on a trestle table draped with greengrocer's grass and Molly Silver stood behind it now spooning them into frilly paper jelly dishes and frightening off wasps with a flywhisk made from a beaded handled horse's tail. To her right, under the flat blue branches of a cedar tree, a group of coloured musicians in wide-brimmed hats and blue suits with trousers as baggy as a clown's were setting up drums and unpacking brass instruments that flashed in the sun. We saw Mr Reeves with his youngest child on his shoulders holding a balloon like a soap bubble on a string in her hand.
The three of us, Leo, Ruby and I, were at the coconut shy. The man in charge was singing, 'I've got a luvverly bunch of coconuts' and Ruby had the ball in her hand, swinging it back to take aim. A hairy tattooed arm closed on her neck from behind, choking her scream, and swinging her off her feet. The ball fell from her hand. A woman shrieked.
'Put her down, you brute.'
Leo rushed at Lex battering him with his fists, trying to grab the arm round Ruby's neck while she kicked and clawed at it and the dirty vest, her face squeezed scarlet.
Lex swiped Leo to the ground with his free hand. 'Bugger off out of it, Four Eyes.' He started walking with the struggling Ruby still dangling.
'Let her go,' I was screaming. Then Joe Silver leaped on Lex from behind, and he let go of Ruby who tore off blindly across the garden. Lex whirled round and Joe smashed his fist onto his chin knocking Lex's head back, and then Molly Silver was between them beating them both with her flywhisk and people were picking Leo up from the grass. I raced after Ruby, dodging through the crowd, jumping bushes and running through flower beds.
'Ruby! Wait!'
She wouldn't stop and I couldn't catch her and she dragged her bike from the hedge and jumped on it and pedalled over the bridge. Lex was charging towards me. I had to stop him. I dragged the gate shut and pulled on it with all my weight from the outside. Joe Silver and several other men came pounding after Lex and if I could hold the gate they could catch him. Lex wrenched the gate from my hands, bruising them and shoving me into the hedge with its impact and thudded up the lane skittering on loose stones. Ruby was out of sight. The men ran to a halt.
'Where's the little girl?'
THE ORCHARD ON FIRE'She's gone. She had her bike.'
We saw Lex suddenly fold in half as though he had a stitch and sit down by the side of the lane in the goosegrass.
'Drunken sod. Do we go after him?'
'The kiddy's got away safely at least.'
'For now,' said Joe Silver. 'I'll call round there later. Do you think she's gone home, April?'
I shrugged. 'Search me. I shouldn't think so. She might have gone to my house. I'd better go and look for her.'
Leo had joined us and his father put his arm round him.
'I'm proud of you, my boy. All right, April? I'm sorry your afternoon had to be spoiled.'
'My glasses are broken, Dad.'
'Don't worry, my son. I'll fix them.'
Lex had his head on his knees. He got up and started shambling on up the lane.
'Sure you'll be OK, April? Don't go near that ugly brute. I think I'll give Constable Cox a ring.'
The other two Silver boys and Mr Reeves had arrived now, and I felt so envious of them all as they turned back in a group to return to the party. I was alone on the wrong side of the moat again. Lex ought to be put up against a wall and shot.

Ruby had not gone to the Copper Kettle.
'I'm not having you going anywhere near the Rising Sun. I'm sure Ruby will turn up in her own good time. She's probably feeling embarrassed about what happened,' Betty said. 'Poor kid. Well, it's gone far enough. I'm going to report him if no one else does.'
'Mr Silver's going to ring Constable Cox.'
'Good job too.'
I was secretly relieved to have been forbidden to go looking for Ruby at the Rising Sun because the prospect terrified me. Then as the afternoon wore on into evening, I began to worry. By ten o'clock I was demented. I kept getting up from bed to peer out into the moonlight, listening for Ruby's call, and then lying down again with Bobbity. I was on my knees praying that Ruby was not in a dark corner of the cellar, that she was not dead, when I heard footsteps and a knocking on the back door.
I crept half-way down the stairs to listen.
'I'll have my daughter, if you don't mind.' It was Gloria.
'You'd better come inside.' said Betty.
I shifted down to the foot of the stairs.
'What do you mean, she's not here? She must be.'
'When did you last see her?' asked Percy.
'She was home at dinner time. Then she ran off to that garden party and my husband went after her to bring her home, but she ran off again, on her bike.'
'You mean to say that you haven't seen your daughter since dinner time and you wait till eleven o'clock at night to come looking for her?' said Percy angrily.
'Well, we had a busy night. You know how it is,' Gloria whined.
'No, we don't know how it is,' Betty snapped.
'Well, where is she then? My husband's frantic with worry.'
Percy laughed bitterly.
'Oh is he? Did he happen to mention what happened at that garden party? Did he tell you what he did to his daughter? That he disgraced her in front of everybody and terrified her out of her wits?' Betty said.
'She's a very naughty girl. She was told not to go out and she deliberately disobeyed. I'll tell you something else. That April of yours is a bad influence on Ruby. She–'
'Shut up!' said Percy. 'This isn't getting us anywhere. Don't you realise your daughter is lost? Out there, somewhere in the dark. Anything could have happened to her.'
'I don't know what her dad will say.'
The door opened on me crouched on the stairs. I expected to be in trouble for eavesdropping but Betty said, 'April, have you any idea where Ruby could be?'
'No.'
'Liar!' said Gloria. 'I bet you've got her hidden upstairs.'
'Don't you call my daughter a liar.' said Betty.
'Would she have gone to any other friend's house?' asked Percy.
I shook my head.
Gloria dabbed her eyes with a hanky.
'Any secret hideouts or camps? Think.'
'No.'
Suddenly I knew where Ruby was. I would go there first thing in the morning and take some food.
'Come on, we're going to the police,' said Percy.
THE ORCHARD ON FIRE'How could she do this to us?' wept Gloria.

'You're shivering. Do you want some cocoa?' Betty asked.
'Yes please.'
She tucked the gossamer shawl round my shoulders although it was a warm night.
'Are you quite sure you don't know where Ruby could be?'
I almost betrayed Ruby over the steam of my cocoa.
'No. I mean I am quite sure.'
There was that old blanket in the railway carriage, candles and matches. And spiders and possibly ghosts, and a murderer and Rodney Pegg.
'Mum, I know–'
'Know what?' Betty asked sharply.
'I know Ruby wouldn't be in a haystack.'
There had been a case in the local paper of a tramp who had fallen asleep in a haystack and been cooked.
'I certainly hope not.'
I sipped wretchedly, not meeting her eyes. Betty picked up her knitting. After a few moments she clucked, as if she had dropped a stitch.
I tried to stay awake until Percy got back, but I woke to early sunshine and instant recollection of Ruby's escape. I dressed and crept downstairs. They were all in the kitchen, Percy, Betty and Peter. Betty was making tea and toast. How could I get out now?
'What's the time?'
'Six. Jim Cox is organising search parties.'
'Can I come?'
'No, pet. You stay and help your mother.'
'Will Lex go?'
'That… serve him right if–' He broke off. 'No, I didn't mean that.'
Major Morton. Professor Scoley. Ruby?
'Well, I'm off. Take care of yourselves.' Percy finished his tea and toast and kissed us all.
'Bring her back safely,' said Betty.
Percy nodded and went out.
'Do you want a boiled egg? I'm doing one for Peter.'
The thought of it made my stomach heave. Betty dipped strips of toast into Peter's egg and he sucked them, getting yolk on his chin. I sat, playing with my toast, torn apart by panic and guilt. Gloria was right. I was a liar. All those people out there searching. I was the only one who could tell them the truth, and the only one who could save Ruby from them.
'I'm just going out on my bike.'
'No you're not.'
'I've got to. I've got to go somewhere. To the shop, there's something I need.'
'At half-past six in the morning?'
'I meant later. I promised to get something for Mrs Greenidge.'
'Well you can get it on the way to school, can't you?'
'School? I didn't think I'd be going to school!'
'I just don't know what to do for the best,' said Betty.
'It might be better if I did go to school,' my heart began racing.
'I think I'd rather you stayed at home today. Miss Fay will understand, and Mrs Greenidge.'
'They won't. Nobody can.'
'They'll find Ruby all right. They'll bring her back safely, you'll see.'
Then she suddenly put her arms round me, half-crouching so that our faces were level.
'If you do know something, April, please say, now. Ruby's life could depend on you.'
I was about to speak when someone knocked on the back door, so I never knew what I might have said.
'Perhaps there's some news.' Betty rushed to the door. 'Oh, Bobs, it's you. Come in,' she said flatly.
'We're going out to join the search. I just wondered if April had any ideas where we might look. I mean, Ruby could be trapped somewhere.'
My dream of Ruby trapped in the burning orchard flashed into my brain.
'April?'
'No.'
If Ruby was found she would get into the most awful trouble with all those people looking for her. And so would I. We would both be sent to an approved school. I had to find her before they did so that we could run away together. Please God don't let Ruby be murdered or trapped by fire before I get there.
'Tell everybody there will be tea and sandwiches here if they want them. I can't think of what else to do… oh dear, I just wish they'd hurry up and find her. I can't bear to think of her out there, somewhere alone.'
'Will they have bloodhounds?' I asked,
'There may be some police dogs, Alsatians I expect.'
Wet pink tongues beaded with saliva flapping over jagged teeth, panting after a runaway slave. Myself running across the fields pursued by baying dogs, accidentally leading them straight to Ruby's hiding place.
As Bobs left, a policeman and policewoman arrived.
'Could we have a word in private, Mrs Harlency?'
'Oh, my God!'
'No, it's all right. We hope…'
'April, take care of Peter for a minute.'
Peter was crawling on the floor. I captured him by the back of his vest and carried him just out of sight.
'We have to prepare ourselves for the worst, Mrs Harlency. We've found the bicycle.'
I heard Betty gasp and cry out, 'No.'
'Of course it may not necessarily mean anything at this stage. I wonder if we could ask April some questions. I gather that she's the missing child's best friend.'
'That's right. They're inseparable.'
'OK, let's have her in then. We'll be as gentle as possible,' said the policewoman.
'Did you and Ruby have any special places you used to play in? Any hideouts or hidey-holes, a secret camp perhaps? I know when I was a little girl I had a camp in an old hollow tree.'
She could never have squeezed into a hollow tree now.
'One of your school friends said she thought you have a secret…'
'What friend?'
'It doesn't matter who it was. All that matters is finding Ruby and bringing her home safely, isn't it?'
'Yes.'
'So why don't you tell us where you think Ruby might be hiding, mmm?'
'I don't know. In the rec maybe, or she could've taken sanctuary in the church. She might have climbed into the belfry and got stuck.'
In the midst of all this drama what could I do but lie to the police, to the kind policewoman?
'Where was Ruby's bicycle found?' I asked as they were leaving.
'Where do you think it might have been found, April?'
'How should I know? I don't know! I wish everybody would stop asking me all these questions.'
The baker and the milkman came next and I ran upstairs to pack a few clothes and Bobbity in a carrier bag. I would have to steal food when I got the chance and some money from the till. Ruby's bicycle lay on its side with its wheels spinning. Perhaps she had abandoned it to throw them off the scent, to make it look as if she'd been kidnapped. I hid the bag under my bed and looked round my bedroom through tears. There was my white sugar peepshow Easter egg, piped in pink icing, too precious to eat, and all my treasures that I would never see again.

To be continued...
FICTION
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