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14 - 20 Apr , 2012
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THE ORCHARD ON FIRE
FICTION

'Go on, Dad, open it, it's the most delicious drink you've ever tasted. It makes you really happy.'
'Bit early in the day for me.' He gave me a peculiar look. 'Well I'd better get that turkey in the oven.'
'I'm not having any,' I said at once.
'To tell you the truth, I don't really fancy it either,' Betty said.
'Oh well, in that case – but what can we do with it? Seems wrong just to throw it away.'
'Give it to a poor man gathering winter fuel.'
'Put it out for the birds,' Betty said. 'No, I take that back – what a horrible thought. Why couldn't you have won something nice like a cake or crackers?'
'I tried to give it to George,' I said, 'but he wouldn't take it. He said: "God knows how long those giblets THE ORCHARD ON FIREhave been inside it." '
I had given him a miniature bottle of whisky for Christmas, knowing he would be pleased. 'Coals to Newcastle,' he had said.
'I'll throw it in the river,' I said. 'When I go out on my new bike.'
'OK. Don't tell anybody though, April, you do know your bike's second-hand, don't you? But it's got a new saddle and a new bell and brake blocks and Daddy spent ages painting it for you.'
'It's the best bike in the world.'

To my amazement Ruby was standing outside the Rising Sun looking miserable and holding the handlebars of a gleaming brand-new red bicycle with flashing chrome and a saddlebag.
'Go on, ride it up and down the street. Get out there and show the bloody thing off!' Lex came out after her. 'Get up on that flaming saddle when I tell you.'
He saw me and smiled, showing yellow wolf's teeth. It was the first time I had seen him smile, and it was scary.
'Morning, young April! Merry Christmas. See Ruby's lovely new bike that she got for Christmas? Supersonic, eh?'
'Merry Christmas, Mr Richards.' I dismounted from my bicycle which, to my shame, had shrunk and seemed a sickly green beside Ruby's crimson steed. I gave its saddle a reassuring pat.
'Why don't you girls go for a nice ride, seeing as April's got her old bike. Dad paint it up for you, did he? This one cost me a packet, I'll tell you, but only the best for my little girl, eh Ruby?'
'I'm just going to get your present.' Ruby leaned her bicycle against the frosty hedge. Her mouth was all rough and frayed round the edges, as if she had smeared on a pink clown's mouth.
'Mind the paint with those bleeding twigs,' said Lex.
Ruby returned with a brown paper bag.
'Come on, let's get out of here,' she said, putting it in her saddlebag.
'Ruby! Don't be late for dinner now.' Gloria called from the kitchen. 'Oh, April, tell your mum I'll be round to see the new baby soon.'
Why were Lex and Gloria pretending to be nice to me? I couldn't believe they'd bought that brand-new bicycle for Ruby. My own bicycle, unbalanced by the bag on the handlebars containing the turkey and Ruby's Christmas present, wobbled all over the place as we rode alongside each other.
'I like your bike.'
'I like yours. Where shall we go?'
'I've got loads of things to tell you.'
'I've got to go down the river to throw this turkey in.' I explained about the bird.
'I know,' Ruby said, 'why don't we dump it on old Boddy's doorstep?' Her fingers were going dead from the cold.
THE ORCHARD ON FIREWe tipped the turkey, tied up in greaseproof paper, onto the step of the shop and pedalled away laughing into a keen, cutting wind that tore our breath away, shouting, 'Merry Christmas, Mr Boddy!'
'Let's go back to my house,' I yelled. 'You can see our baby.'
It was still difficult to realise that Peter was really there, and would always be here now, with his crying like an orange-coloured paper concertina.
Peter closed his hand round Ruby's finger when she held his.
'He loves me, look!' she said in a tone of wonder. After a minute I wanted him and jiggled around impatiently beside her. Peter opened one eye and then the other, 'Oh, his little blue eyes, they're as blue as sapphires. Look at him looking up at me, Mrs Harlency. Oh, I wish he was mine.'
'You can come and play with him whenever you like,' Betty said. 'Your mouth looks sore, you should put a bit of Germoline on it. Don't lick it, you'll make it worse.'
'Let's go up to my room,' I said.
'Happy Christmas, April,' Ruby took a parcel from her brown paper bag. It was wrapped up in a comic and tied with string. Inside was the box of April Violets soap and talc from the Co-op window.
'Oh Ruby, it's lovely. Thank you.'
'You can read the comic and the string might be useful.'
I folded the comic carefully and looped the string into a neat figure of eight, feeling sad, and buried my face in the cold sweet fragrance of spring.
'Here's yours. Happy Christmas.'
'Pretty paper. I would've got some only I didn't have time.'
My absence and Peter's arrival had made us shy with each other. We both knew that Ruby hadn't been able to afford any wrapping paper and I couldn't say that it couldn't matter less.
'Go on, open it. Shall I tell you what it is?' I urged, knowing she would love it.
It was a jewellery set with glass beads, in separate compartments, that you could make into necklaces and bracelets.
'They look like real jewels,' Ruby said. 'Diamonds and rubies and sapphires and emeralds.' She touched each shimmering tray with awe.
I showed her my penknife. We had both hoped for a knife.
'Did you get one?'
She shook her head.
Downstairs again, Ruby pulled something from her pocket.
'I forgot. I've got a present for Peter.' It was a woollen pom-pom, grey, brown and green, in which I recognised threads of an unravelled kettle holder.
'It's beautiful, Ruby. He'll love looking at that. Let's hang it up in his pram for him. Peter's got something for you, too!'
Peter gave Ruby a box of Payne's Poppets.
When Ruby had gone Betty said to me, 'What's up with you?'
'Just because you like Ruby and Peter better than me!'
I gave the little lamb, hanging on blue ribbon from a pale blue ring, which I had bought in Bon Marche with Granny's money, a vicious flick.
'Ruby's present was special, because she made it herself. I'm surprised at you, April. I thought you'd understand.' She stroked the hair back from my forehead. I did understand, and I wished I'd made a stupid pom-pom.
The kitchen was full of steam and the smell of roasting potatoes and brussels sprouts and chestnut stuffing. The Christmas pudding was jumping about in a saucepan, rattling the saucer Percy had put on top of its basin. The table was set with a cracker at each place, a bowl of walnuts and tangerines at the centre and sprigs of holly stuck behind the calendar, the colander on the shelf, the utensils hanging on the wall.
'Who needs a turkey as long as we're all together?' said Percy.
It was only later, at tea-time, when we were all wearing paper hats and the mince pies came out of the oven, that I realised I had forgotten to ask Ruby about the school play. She had said she had lots of things to tell me, but she hadn't said much at all. I didn't even know what she had got in her stocking.

Boxing Day brought a powdering of snow and Doreen Vinnegar and Pat Booker on new roller skates knocking on the back door to ask, 'Can we take your baby for a walk?'
'He's too little to go out yet and it's too cold,' Betty told them. She was still in her dressing-gown, tired from looking after Peter in the night.
'Over my dead body,' Percy said as Doreen and Pat skittered away, holding on to each other, shrieking and falling in a heap. Doreen had had her ears pierced with gold sleepers. We were opening up because people liked to get out and about on Boxing Day. I had collected up the charms and scraps from the crackers and felt depressed and flat.
'Don't forget to go and see the Greenidges something today to get your present. Why don't you go now, before we're busy?' Percy suggested.
'Some hopes of that,' said Betty.
'All right. I' ll get it over with I suppose.'
'Hey, that's not the attitude.'
The handlebars burned like ice even through my gloves.

'Yesterday's capon, cold with caper sauce,' said Mr Greenidge heartily, as we went through to the drawing-room. My lip, cracked by the cold, was bleeding. 'My darling, my darling, how I've missed you.'
THE ORCHARD ON FIRE'Merry Boxing Day, April. 'You're bright and early. We were hoping you would come at tea-time. Suppose I can't offer you a festive sip of sherry?' he said in the drawing-room. Mrs Greenidge was wearing a silky dress patterned with dull red and green diamonds.
'I wouldn't say no to a drop of ruby port,' I said, like Granny Fitz. The Greenidges laughed.
'Speaking of whom,' said Mrs Greenidge, 'how is your little friend? Chin Chin!'
'Cheerio,' said Mr Greenidge.
'She's very well thank you, she got a new bicycle for Christmas too, like me.'
'Did she, egad!'
Mr Greenidge raised an eyebrow at Mrs Greenidge, who said, 'Mrs Cooper mentioned that Mrs Carter had told her there had been some sort of trouble at the school play?'
They were both looking at me greedily. I felt ill.
'How should I know? I wasn't there, was I?'
'Hoity-toity,' said Mr Greenidge.
'Never mind, we'll hear it on the grapevine eventually,' Mrs Greenidge said.
'Bush telegraph,' Mr Greenidge said. I had no idea what they meant. Miserable and aware of having been rude I stared at their cards on the mantelpiece, most of which were very boring, thick and white with engraved writing and little flicks of red or blue ribbon, but I was seeing our school canteen, that smelled of dinners and trying to imagine what trouble there could have been.
'She never said anything to me.'
The ruby port spiralled like a red glass Christmas decoration down my throat and suddenly I wanted to cry so I bent down to hide my face in Liesel.
'I've brought Liesel's Christmas present.'
Even as I pulled it out of my pocket I saw a blue rubber bone on the floor. None of us mentioned it and Liesel trotted off, to chew her new red bone, showing no interest when I unwrapped my present from her. It was a book, Black Beauty, with a beautiful coloured frontispiece and I was delighted, so my thanks were genuinely heartfelt. I had been dreading having to pretend to like some crummy present, laughing my girlish laughter.
'Happy reading,' said Mrs Greenidge. 'I don't think I ever got over the death of poor Ginger.'

I could have gazed at Peter's sleeping face, as he lay in my arms, for ages. I wanted to run my finger along his miniature dark eyelashes and trace the coral triangle of his mouth, but the tea-room, looking a bit dusty, had to be opened for business.
'Perhaps we should have kept that turkey for sandwiches,' Percy said.
'What, and poison everybody, like old Ma Vinnegar?' said Betty. 'And get closed down by the authorities. She'd love that. Can't you just see her crowing over us?'
'Anyway, who wants yesterday's capon with cold caper sauce, whatever that might be when it's at home. Dad, did you hear anything about the school play, about any trouble or anything?'
'Hardly, your mother and I were otherwise engaged at the time if you remember. Why?'
'Oh, nothing, I forgot to tell you that Gloria said she'd be round to see the baby soon.'
'Oh dear, I mean, how nice of her.'

Percy was serving the old couple who sat like spotted lizards in walking boots at the table in the window.
'A tasty snack? I can do you beans on toast topped with one of our special fresh pullet's eggs, Welsh rarebit, fried Christmas pudding.'
They decided on the rarebit, being Welsh themselves. A solitary cyclist was wolfing down baked beans. I went through to make a fresh pot of tea for him and came back just as the door crashed shut. I saw a black balaclava and a bucking bicycle through the glass.
'Funny. I could swear that was young Rodney Pegg. Yes, I'd spot that acne'd phizog anywhere. Took one look at me and scarpered. Well, good riddance. Thought we'd seen the last of him,' said Percy.
Gloria arrived with Ruby. 'Brought you a couple of bottles of stout to keep your strength up. Careful with them. They got a bit shaken in Ruby's saddlebag, on her new bicycle.'
I hated the way Lex and Gloria kept boasting about Ruby's bike, as if we hadn't noticed it was brand new.
Gloria touched Peter's cheek with a red nail.
'Proper little Bobby Buster, isn't he? I always wanted a boy, but it wasn't to be.' She sighed. 'I had to get landed with a tomboy. Just my luck.'
As Ruby and I went up to my room, abandoning Betty to Gloria, I heard Gloria whining, 'I hope you won't take any notice of any wicked rumours, Mrs Harlency. People can be so cruel with gossip. You know me better than to believe everything you hear, don't you?'
I stopped to listen.
'People are spreading all sorts about us and the takings are right down. You know a kiddie was never more doted on than our Ruby. She's the apple of her dad's eye.' Gloria was wheedling like a gipsy selling clothes pegs at the door.
'You do your best for them and this is the thanks you get.'
'Come on, April.'
I followed Ruby into the bedroom with a feeling of dread.
'Tell me about the school play, you haven't said anything yet. Did you do the dance on your own all right?'
'It was OK,' Ruby mumbled. She had gone pale and her freckles stood out on her skin, puckered by the cold bedroom air. 'Only I missed you. I felt a right lemon doing it on my own. Pat Booker was supposed to take your part but she got stage fright. The hunt stopped in our yard this morning for a stirrup cup. It was horrible. They call it the Boxing Day Meat.'
'Why?'
'Search me.'
'Mrs Greenidge said Mrs Carter said there'd been some trouble with the school play.'
Ruby sat down on the bed, turning my snowstorm ball over and over making blizzards, her pigtails falling on either side.
'Mrs nosey Parker Carter should mind her own blooming beeswax.'
'Ruby! Mrs Carter's nice. She's our friend!'
'Oh, all right then. Mrs Carter was helping us get changed into our costumes and she saw all these bruises on my back and arms and she called Mr Reeves and he got Dr Barker to come round the school, and now she's spreading rumours all through the village.'

To be continued...


 
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