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11 Feb - 17 Feb , 2012
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THE ORCHARD ON FIRE
FICTION

'Granny Fitz!'
I rushed out as the tractor driver, John Cheeseman, caught the suitcase which a tiny black foot kicked towards him.
'You'll have to lift me down.' Granny Fitz was set on the pavement, where I threw my arms round her, breathing in the familiar smell of lilies o the valley and gin.
'Mind my costume! I'm all over straw as it is and I hope I haven't been bitten.'
She slapped at the seat of her neat skirt and a spray of glass violets trembled on her lapel.
'Thank you very much, young man. You saved my bacon there. Don't forget, if ever you're passing the Drovers Tavern, Herne Hill, it's on the house.'
John Cheeseman looking completely bewildered, jumped back onto his tractor and sputtered away leaving a cone of blue exhaust.
'April, let's have a look at you then.'
THE ORCHARD ON FIREShe held me at arms' length, scarcely taller than I was, and clucked.
'How do, mother-in-law.'
'Percival. Are you going to take my bag in or are we going to stand out here on the pavement all day like a music-hall turn for the entertainment of all and sundry?'
A little crowd of kids, with their sixth sense for any diversion, had appeared from nowhere. Percy picked up the suitcase.
'Oi, Ape, is that your nan?'
'April's the name, and I'll thank you not to shorten it,' retorted Granny Fitz.
'Blimey. I wouldn't want her for a nan,' we heard as we went inside.
'So this is the famous Copper Kettle,' Granny Fitz looked round the room. 'Where's your customers? It's gone eleven and the place is empty. Where's my daughter? Haven't done away with her, have you, Percival?'
'Mum!'
Betty came running downstairs and hugged Granny Fitz.
'You shouldn't be charging around like that in your condition. You ought to be taking it easy not that that's much of a problem round here from what I see. Where's all your customers, Bet?'
We were saved by the entrance of Mr Greenidge and Liesel. He raised his panama and took his usual seat. 'That's a bit more like it,' said Granny Fitz loudly as Betty led her into the back. 'One of the old school, you can always tell.'
'April, love, can you attend to Mr Greenidge?' Betty said.
He made me sit down while he drank his coffee and tried to persuade me to have a cake. He rubbed his knee against mu leg under the table. I was nervous, and wanted to see Granny Fitz.
'Granny Fitz arrived on a tractor,' I told him, as he thumbed tobacco into the bowl of his pipe.
'I'm not surprised.' Suck suck suck.
THE ORCHARD ON FIREWhen he got up to go he pressed half a crown into my hand.
'I can't. I'm not allowed to take money. For a present, I mean.'
'Call it a tip then, for the prettiest waitress in town. I won't tell if you don't.'
He winked, and left me with the big silver coin burning my palm.
Although Granny Fitz's visit came out of the blue, she was no stranger to Kent and had memories of going down 'opping as a girl. 'Farthing a bushel they paid us in them days. Big barrels of cider we had. Dancing under the stars to the old squeeze box. Laugh! We had some high old times. Fighting the gippos there was one young feller, gipsy he was oh, well this won't get the baby a new frock, will it? Let's have a look at your books then, Bet. You have been keeping your accounts properly, haven't you?'
'Of course we have, if it's any of your business,' said Percy angrily. There was a blue Challenge duplicate book with a sheet of carbon paper in the drawer. Its pages were quite blank.
'It is my business, if I remember rightly.'
Percy went into the garden slamming the back door.
'Never mind him,' said Granny Fitz. 'You show me where I'm to sleep and put my things and I'll give you a hand to get the dinner on when I've unpacked.'
'You'll have to go in with April, Mum. There is the baby's room but we haven't got it sorted yet and it's full of all sorts. We don't really have dinner, as such, at lunchtime,' she added apologetically, 'what with the café and all to think of.'
'What nonsense. I always made sure you had a cooked dinner no matter how busy we were, didn't I? No wonder that child's looking so peaky. And you should be eating for two.'
'Peaky?' April's as brown as a berry.'
'Brown as a berry she may be, but underneath, she's peaky.'
Granny Fitz handed me her black purse.
'Here. Run down the butchers and get us a nice piece of frying steak.'
'I – I can't.'
'What do you mean, you can't?'
'I can't go into Mr Boddy's shop. There's all dead things in there. He kills things.'
'Well of course he does. That's what butchers are for.'
Charmaine Vinnegar would be there in her bloody cap and apron.
'But I promised my friend Ruby that I'd never go in there. He killed all her calves and made them into sausages.'
Granny Fitz was groping in her bag for something. She pulled out a little green bottle of gin saying, 'Well get a pound then, if that's what you want. In my day children ate what was put in front of them.'
'You don't understand…'
'I understand someone's asking for a smack. Now, get along with you.' I dragged furiously along the road with one foot in the gutter. Ourside the Co-op I had a brilliant idea. It was a small brown-painted outpost of the South Suburban Co-operative Society that smelled of locust beans. Mr Barrett, neat as a Dutch doll with painted black hair, came through from the back to serve me, and gave me a free halfpenny chew.
'Boddy's was shut," I said when I got home, 'so I got these instead' producing with a mixture of triumph and trepidation, instead of a bloody newspaper parcel of sausages, a tin of peaches and a tin of condensed milk and putting them on the kitchen table.
'Well, I must say!' Granny Fitz exclaimed. 'I can see I didn't get here a moment too soon.'
'I'm going down the pub!' said Percy, making for the back door.
'But Perce, you never go…' Betty started.
'Hang on, son,' Granny Fitz called out grabbing her purse and jamming down her hat, 'I'll come with you. That Rising Sun looked a nice little place,' and they were gone.
'Fancy some peaches?' said Betty.
With Granny Fitz in my room I felt trapped. I had offered to sleep in a hammock in the garden but, 'Where are you going to get a hammock from, eh? Make it out of a cat's cradle?'
Percy had gone, crossly, on the bus into Elmford, the nearest town, to buy a camp bed, which was wedged between my own bed, containing Granny Fitz, and the window. To get out, I had to climb over Granny Fitz who was a late and noisy sleeper. I never seemed to be able to get away from Mr Greenidge now. If he wasn't taking tea or afternoon coffee, he happened to be in the shop, Crosby's or Beasley's, or the Co-op, whenever I was sent on an errand, or to be going up the church path when we came out of Sunday school.
One afternoon though, I was free, on my way to call for Ruby. Granny Fitz had gate-crashed a Darby and Joan Beetle Drive in the village hall, Betty was reading in the garden and Percy in charge of the tea-room. I was wearing shorts, I had Mr Greenidge's half-crown in my pocket to spend with Ruby, and we would go THE ORCHARD ON FIREto our secret headquarters for the first time for ages. I was whistling, my other self was turning cartwheels along the pavement.
'Hoo, hoo, hoooo.'
I whirled round. There was Mr Greenidge behind me.
'How did you know that? Our secret call?'
'Hoo hoo,' he laughed.
I was outraged.
'You've been spying on us. That's our secret call.'
'Don't look so angry. Can't I be in your secret society? I know lots of tricks.'
'No you can't. It's private.'
'Oh, go on…'
I began to be embarrassed for him.
'I've got to go.'
'Where are you off to?'
'To call for Ruby.'
He gripped my arm, saying, 'You're sure you're not going to meet any other boyfriend?'
'Of course I'm not.'
It sounded wrong, as if he thought he was my boyfriend. He looked old and sad, staring at me with his blue eyes under frowning with eyebrows, and I felt sorry for him.
'April, can you meet me this evening? About six, by the telephone box in Lovers Lane. Please say yes.'
"I don't know if I'll be able to.'
My heat started to flutter anxiously.
'Please, April, Just for five minutes.'
'OK. I'll try. I've got to go. Really and truly.'
'Thank you. Thank you.' He pressed my hand.
I walked on, deflated now, with six o'clock to dread all afternoon. Ruby's father was washing at the kitchen sink when I got to the Rising Sun, running the tap and honking his nose with a horrible sound. He scowled at me as I went past.
When we reached the orchard we found that the plums had been picked. Broken leafy twigs withered on the grass under the trees with the spoiled fruit. It was dreadful to think that people, strangers, had been in our kingdom. We raced to the railway carriage fearing the worst, but it was as we had left it. Our things were untouched.
'You know what this means?' I said. 'Now nobody will come here for ages.'
'I wish we could live here for ever. Just us. Never go home, or back to school. Just stay here always, even when we're grown up.'
'We've got to change our secret call,' I told her. 'What shall we have?'
Ruby thought. 'How about the lone cry of the peewit?'
I could think of no good reason for disappearing, especially with Granny Fitz imposing her order on our household, so at five to six I just went out to the back door into the garden and then ran as fast I could to the telephone box at the top of Lovers Lane. He was waiting, and pulled me behind the box.
'What did you want to see me for?'
'Just that. Just to see you.'
'Oh. Well, I'd better go now. I didn't say I was going out.'
'April, you know I love you, don't you?'
I didn't know what to say. I was shocked and yet I wasn't surprised.
'Do you love me?'
'Yes.'
I had to say it because he looked so pleading. Then a herd of cows came round the corner on their way home to be milked, and we were trapped against the wall as they passed, huge, jostling each other agonizingly slow. As haunch after haunch, great staring eyes and hoofs and udders and stubby horns and dewlaps undulated along in seemingly endless procession, Mr Greenidge held my hand tightly out of sight.
'This is a piece of luck,' he said.
I knew they would have missed me at home. As soon as the last tail flicked past, and the herdsman with his long stick, I raced home. If only I had a bike or roller skates.
'Whatever became of manners?' Granny Fitz demanded. 'Dashing off like that with never a by-your-leave. You'll have to pull your socks up when you come to stay with me, young lady. Is that cows' muck on your shoes?'
'What?'
'Don't say what, say pardon. You're coming to stay with your grandpa and me while your mum has the baby.'
'But but, it'll be Christmas…'
'The Drovers Tavern is famed far and wide for its festive cheer,' said Granny Fitz.
That baby chalked up another crime. Christmas away from home, away from Ruby. While it celebrated here, with Mum and Dad. 'I thought the baby was supposed to be a special Christmas present for me,' I whined.
'Be your age,' said Granny Fitz. Percy and Betty looked too guilty to say anything.
The vicar of St Michael and All Angels was Mr Oswald, remote, tall, thin and grey like a heron in his black cassock with a melancholy long-beaked face. Mr Seabrook was the verger, an irascible character who shouted at the Sunday-school children if they set foot on the grass or dared to play leapfrog over the gravestones, and he would rush out cursing any wedding guests who disobeyed his injunction against confetti. Most sets of wedding photographs had one or two pictures spoiled by his demonic brisling face and witch's broom.
The Sunday-school teacher was Mr Drew, a smooth plum of a man in suede shoes. His repertoire, like his class, was small and usually on Sundays we sang 'Loving Shepherd of thy sheep' and listened to the story of Blind Bartemeus or the Raising of Jairus's Daughter. The collection was taken in a soft purple velvet pouched bag and some put money, or whatever they might have in their pocket, in and some took money out. Titchy Vinnegar was usually to be found at Beasley's sweet shop and tobacconist after Sunday school.
One morning I plucked up courage to say to Mr Drew, remembering the beautiful Bible picture stamps I had collected in London, 'Please, Mr Drew, at my last Sunday school we used to get coloured stamps and stick them in our stamp albums. When your album was full you got an Attendance Prize.'
'We do things differently here,' he said. 'If we want stamps we purchase them at the Post Office or order them from Stanley Gibbons's catalogue.'
Nevertheless, Hastings shimmered on the horizon, blue and seagull white.
The morning of the Sunday-school treat dawned bright and fair, as in the best story books. The sun was shining through the pink and yellow roses on my curtains. I had a white dress patterned with red cherries, white socks with a red stripe, plimsolls stiff with whitener and cherry-red ribbons in my hair. Granny Fitz had risen early to make my packed lunch and wave me off; as the church clock struck a quarter to eight we rounded the corner to see two ice-cream and seaside blue Bluebird coaches sitting outside the church. Our small Sunday school had suddenly spawned two coach-loads of supporters who were climbing in already to get the best seats. I looked anxiously for Ruby in the crowd. Everybody was dressed in their best clothes, some of the girls were wearing party frocks, hair ribbons fluttered like butterflies and the boy's hair was Brylcreemed to their scalps; there were painted buckets and a tin spade had drawn the first blood. We realised that a sort of fracas was taking place. An adherent of a rival church had been caught trying to board the coach.
'Sir! Please, sir! Mr Oswald. He can't come, Mr Oswald, he's a Baptist!'
'Just a minute, you, boy.' My Oswald pulled him off the steps by the back of his shirt.

To be continued...


 
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