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16 - 22 June , 2012
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THE ORCHARD ON FIRE
 
FICTION

Mr Greenidge came into the tea-room in his white suit and a panama hat. He had picked a white rose for his lapel as if it were just another sunny day. He looked jaunty. Out on the spree. As if he might start twirling his stick in a tap dance or make Liesel jump through a paper hoop.
'No, I haven't called in for my tiffin, Mrs Harlency. I just dropped in at the Rising Sun to see if there was any news.'
'Well?'
He looked as if he were about to say something important.
THE ORCHARD ON FIRE'The bicycle has been found.' His voice was solemn as if he were at church.
'We know, the police have been here.'
Mr Greenidge looked disappointed.
'Oh. Well then. Did they have anything to add? Any fresh clues?'
'She hadn't opened up, had she? Gloria?'
Mr Greenidge put his hand on my shoulder.
'Ah well. One must take the charitable view. Somebody has to hold the fort. Life must go on eh? Poor woman's pretty distracted to give her due. And our little April, this is a dreadful ordeal for her too.'
'Well I'm glad Gloria's keeping the home fires burning pulling pints!' said Betty.
Mr Greenidge's fingers tightened painfully on my bone, transmitting the message right through my body that he knew where Ruby was hiding.
I twisted free and looked up into his cold blue eyes, at the beard like a badger shaving brush. A white handkerchief with a blue letter C.
'Best be off. I'll keep you posted if I hear anything. Drop it, Liesel! Drop!' Liesel had Peter's rubber squeaky teddy in her mouth squeaking feebly.
'Chin up, April.' He squeezed my chin between his forefinger and thumb. 'I only wish I could be out there too.' He tapped his ankle angrily with his stick. 'Makes a chap feel so damn useless.'
There was no way I could make my escape because that day, for the first time, the Copper Kettle was as we had imagined it, full of people, even Mrs Edenbridge-Dwyer popped in, more customers than we could cope with, and Betty rushed off her feet.

To and fro I went between tea-room and kitchen with my stomach quivering like a heap of scrambled egg, serving the customers. Mr Greenidge returned just as the policeman came back into the steamed-up kitchen.
'Afternoon, Inspector. Any joy?'
'Thank you, Mrs Harlency, I could murder a cup.'
'It's a bit weak I'm afraid. We're running out of everything.'
'So long as it's warm and wet. Nothing as yet, sir.'
Behind their back Mr Greenidge mouthed a kiss at me.
'Leave me alone. I hate you,' I hissed. He recoiled as though I had spat at him.
'I was just remarking to my lady wife, Mrs Greenidge, that the police have an almost impossible task. There are so many places that a child could hide, aren't there, barns, sheds, a hollow tree, an old railway carriage, a stable loft.'
THE ORCHARD ON FIRE'What was that you said, sir? An old railway carriage?'

I was out of the house and on my bike, voices shouting behind me, along the High Street, legs hurting, pedalling on, zooming down Lovers Lane. At the bridge I threw my bike in the grass and raced across the meadow, zigzagging through cows, tripping in the rough grass over clumps of thistle and sorrel and cowpats, scrambling up and running on until a red-hot stitch seared my side and I stopped, sobbing, panting, touching my toes to make the stitch go away. Then I saw a cloud, a billowing black-and-grey plume of smoke twisting and spreading in the sky above the orchard.
A hand grasped my shoulder. I turned, into a blur of black and silver buttons. The Inspector. And then we both saw the men walking forward in a crooked line across the field. Percy, Tiny Vinnegar, Joe Silver, Mr Drew the Sunday-school teacher, fathers of the children at school, and at the centre of the line was Lex, carrying Ruby on his back.
Her face and arms and legs were black. Her gingham dress was scorched. One bare foot dangled from where a laceless plimsoll had fallen off.
'It wasn't me! I didn't tell!' I was running alongside Lex.
'I knew you wouldn't,' Ruby's smudged face said before Percy dragged me violently by the arm and caught me a slap round the head that sent me spinning with shock and grief.

Our house was dreary with a constant grey drizzle of shame and disgrace. I had that foolish feeling all the time, as if everything I did was silly, as if my body and face were naked. After all the tongues and lips and voices attacking me, all the questions, I spent most of my time in my bedroom. I tried to read Valley of Doom, to blot out my panic with fear but it made it worse. The rattling of the dice in my compendium of games was agonisingly loud as my ears strained to catch words from downstairs about Ruby. About me. The bell on the tea-room door jangled and jangled. It was summer outside and children's careless shouts sounded cruel. A ball thudded heartlessly on the road and soared dully into the blue that I couldn't see. Nobody had said I was a prisoner and yet I knew I was. Even Peter turned away from me. He was grizzly with teething but I felt that he sensed that I was tainted. George Dixon and Julia Lang sang songs for good little children on Listen With Mother. 'I'll kill myself,' I vowed. 'Then they'll all be sorry.' I hated them all but what was truly unbearable was the separation from their love. Percy and I avoided each other's eyes because we both knew this, that at the time of Ruby's capture, by hitting me in anger he had turned into Lex for a moment.
On the third day I got up while everybody was still sleeping, after a disturbed night when I had lain awake listening to their voices soothing and shushing Peter. I crept out the back door and got on my bike. The latch on the shed was silver with dew. I rode along the quiet High Street to Rising Sun and leaning my bike against the fuschia hedge, tiptoed round the yard.
'Pee-wit. Pee-wit.'
I stood below Ruby's window calling in a hoarse whisper, 'Ruby! It's me. Wake up.'
I stooped down and found a little piece of gravel and threw it at her window as Ruby would have done. It hit the glass and fell down into silence, and birdsong. I looked around the yard. No piglets. No pullets. A pile of weedy crates, broken brown bottle glass flashing as the sun struck it. I picked up a bigger pebble and flung it harder and a white spiderweb cracked in the glass.
'To whit too whooo,' I tried our old call. 'Ruby! Ruby!'
'You're too late.'
I whirled round to see the postman standing there.
'You've missed them. They've done a flit. Cleared out. Lock stock and barrel.'

Twenty
When I went back to school I took a book to read at playtime. I wouldn't speak to anybody. After a few days Veronica sidled up to me. 'Can I be your best friend now that Ruby's gone?'
I looked up from my book. 'If you want. I don't care.'

My parents made me go to tea with the Greenidges. Of course Mr Greenidge had pretended to the police that his mention of a railway carriage had just been 'a shot in the dark'. When he opened the door of Kirriemuir and tried to hug me, I kicked him in the shins and went through to the conservatory knowing that he couldn't tell. Mrs Greenidge was lying on the couch with Liesel at her feet. Liesel lifted her head and wagged her tail but she didn't get up.
'Move, Liesel' said Mrs Greenidge trying to shift her. 'You're heavy, you silly great salami. I wish she hadn't taken to lying there like a dog on a tombstone. Doesn't do much to keep my spirits up.'
I could see it was meant to be a joke but it wasn't funny so I couldn't even smile.
'Come and sit down, April. How are you? How is your baby brother? I suppose he'll be running about soon.'
'All right,' I said.
Mrs Greenidge took my hand in her purple hand.
'It's very painful isn't it? It's so hard to lose somebody you love.'
At that I felt myself lay my head in her lap, sobbing against the slipper silk while she stroked my hair and underneath my grief was surprise that Mrs Greenidge should be the only one to understand.
I heard the jiggling of teacups as Mr Greenidge put down the tray but I didn't look up.
'There,' said Mrs Greenidge, still stroking my hair. 'That's better. You run along now. Don't worry about tea.'
She gave me her own hanky with a spray of violets in the corner and a purple border, smelling of her turquoise scent.
'April, wait a minute,' Mr Greenidge whispered in the hall, 'Wait!'
I ran out into the road and sat on the bridge watching the shallow river swirling round bright stones and endlessly washing the green hair of the water weed. I was empty. Rinsed.

When the post arrived one morning, seeing it was a bill I almost left it on the mat, having learned that presenting my parents with brown envelopes only made them cross. Then I saw something white underneath. It was addressed to me in Ruby's writing. I rushed upstairs and shut my bedroom door.

The King's Arms
Market Street
Maidstone
Kent

Dear April
Sorry I couldn't say goodbye. I hope you are well and didn't get into too much trouble. I didn't mean to set the camp on fire it was an accident. Write back in invisible ink or a code. In haste.

Love from Ruby.
THE ORCHARD ON FIREP.S. Your best friend.

I started to write back at once in the Dancing Men code from the Sherlock Holmes story. It took ages, and it was only after I had posted it that I realised that Ruby would not be able to read it because I had the book. If they ever gave me any pocket money again, I would save every penny for the fare to Maidstone. After a day or two I told Betty about Ruby's letter and Percy went round to see Constable Cox to give him Lex and Gloria's address, but we never heard what happened. 'They were shamed into flight,' said Betty.
'I wish we'd done more. Poor little Ruby, even Miss Fay was concerned about her.'

Veronica was useless at thinking of things to do and trailed round after me saying, 'What shall we play?'
'I know a game called Lady Marlene,' I said once in desperation.
'How do you play it?'
'You dress up and do ladylike things.'
'Shall we play it then?'
'No.'
Veronica screamed and flapped at Dittany's bees, practically forcing one of them to sting her, and I was pleased when the drake bit her on the leg.
'You're not very kind to poor Veronica, are you?' Betty said one day. Things were almost back to normal at home now.
'She's a bore. She smells of marmite.'
I went upstairs to write another letter to Ruby. I hadn't heard from her for a while.

' "One misty morning
When cloudy was the weather,
There I met an old man
Dressed all in leather …" '

Mr Greenidge stepped out into my path on the way to school, making me jump.

' "Dressed all in leather
With his cap under his chin.
How d'you do and how d'you do
and how d'you do again?"

'How do you do, April? I don't do very well. Why have you turned against me? You cross the street to avoid me, you hardly speak to me in the tea-room. Please, April. Stop hurting me so.'
'I'll be late for school.'
'Meet me later, please. I beg you.'
'I can't.'
'Please.'
'What about Mrs Greenidge?'
'The old dragon won't know, will she? She's hardly likely to come breathing fire down Lovers Lane in her present state of health.'
'She isn't a dragon. You're an old – werwolf.'
'Werewolf,' corrected Mr Greenidge. 'You don't really think that, do you, April? You don't hate me, do you?'
A dew-drop sparkled on the end of his nose like the diamonds on the gates and fences. He looked so sad that I had to say no. I'd always thought they were called werewolves because they were wolves sometimes.
'Bless you for that, my darling. Run along to school now, I'll see you later. Mind how you go.'
Miss Elsey's playground whistle pierced the mist, and I ran. The Virginia creeper on the Rising Sun was turning scarlet again and the new landlady was sweeping the porch.
'You'll be late. Hurry up or you won't half cop it,' she called out in a friendly way as I ran past.
I couldn't care less. Sometimes out of habit, Miss Fay called out Ruby Richards when she took the register even though Ruby's name had been crossed off. Present, Miss Fay.

I had nothing to say to Mr Greenidge when we met. We walked past the Paper Mill. Leo Silver was balancing along the stone ridge of the waterfall. He saw us and waved, almost overbalancing.
'I'm in quarantine,' he shouted. 'Chicken pox.'
His face was covered in spots.
'Mind you don't fall in, young man,' called Mr Greenidge, and muttered, 'Serve him right if he does.'
'Is that your new boyfriend, April? Is that what's been going on behind my back? Have you been consorting with that spotty young hooligan, eh? I warned you against getting mixed up with that lot, didn't I, and look what happened at their so-called garden party.'
'You told the police about the secret camp! You went there spying on me and Ruby. I do hate you and Leo's my friend so there!'
'Hey, hey, now now. I didn't mean it. It's not the boy's fault I suppose. Look what I've got in my pocket for you.'
'No.'
'Three guesses.'
'No, I don't want to.'
'Is it a – toffee? Is it a – propelling pencil perhaps? No. It's a liquorice pipe!'
At the mention of the propelling pencil I had to look at him. He was grinning and dangling a black pipe with pink tobacco.
'Thank you.'
'That's better.'
'Why didn't you bring Liesel?'
'She was reluctant to leave Mrs Greenidge's side. She's been asking after you, you know.'
'Liesel has?'
'Mrs G. My better half.'
'Oh.'

I made Veronica come with me to take Mrs Greenidge a bunch of daisies the next day. I could tell that she knew that Veronica wasn't really my best friend. Veronica was scared of Liesel, and of Mr Greenidge who was not pleased to see her.

'Do you want to come truffle-hunting with us early tomorrow morning?' said Bobs on Saturday. 'Looking for fungi in the woods.'
'Yes, go, April. Better than moping around like a dying duck in a thunderstorm. Bring us back some mushrooms for breakfast,' Betty said.
'What about Sunday school?'
'It won't hurt to miss it for once, and it doesn't seem to do you much good. Anyway, you'll probably be back in time,' said Percy.

To be continued...
FICTION
CUSTODY THE ORCHARD ON FIRE

 
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