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THE ORCHARD ON FIRE
 
FICTION

'Well, we mustn't keep you. I'm sure you've got more interesting things to do than hang round two old crocks,' Mrs Greenidge said. 'We'll see you tomorrow.'
Mr Greenidge groaned and shifted his foot. 'It feels like a hundred red-hot darning needles.'

I had to go home to Betty and Percy and Peter who did not know that Mr Greenidge thought me cruel.
'I don't like taking Liesel out,' I said. 'Everybody calls her a sausage dog.'
'Poor old Liesel,' said Betty. 'Still, you stick up for her, don't you?'
And so we went on. On the Sunday I had to go to Kirriemuir alone and the three of us and Liesel sat watching a programme about pygmies in the jungle and eating Battenberg cake. '"Lips of Finest Fat", THE ORCHARD ON FIREeh?' chortled Mr Greenidge. 'What do you think of that for a name, April?'
'I don't know.'
The pygmies had hardly any clothes on and I was relieved when the programme finished and I thought that Mrs Greenidge was as well.
She was wearing a purple cardigan and her face was always purplish now, like an overripe peach. She got out of breath easily and seemed exhausted, perhaps from looking after Mr Greenidge.
I had to get out the words that had been buzzing like disturbed wasps inside me all afternoon.
'I can't come tomorrow. It's my mother's birthday. I'm sorry.'
I didn't dare look at Mr Greenidge.
'Run up to the bedroom, April,' Mrs Greenidge said. 'You'll find some birthday cards on the bureau. It's the second door on the left.'
'I know.'
The breath drained out of me like air from a balloon. They were staring at me.
'I mean, I don't know – what a bureau is.'
I had to cling on to the banister to get up the stairs on wobbling, tingling legs.
There was the pink bed, the turquoise-tasselled scent spray, the silver brush and comb, the cabinet inlaid with mother-of-pearl, a bird singing in the garden. I found the cards and took them downstairs worried that Mrs Greenidge would think that I had been touching her things or had stolen something.
'Which one do you think your mother would like?'
'The one of the daffodils.'
Mrs Greenidge wrote with a mother-of-pearl fountain pen in thin blue letters, 'With best wishes from Elizabeth and Clement Greenidge.'

The lone cry of the peewit woke me in the middle of the night, a desperate call in the darkness ringing in my head. Then with a shock, I knew the cry had been in my dream. Ruby shouting for help trapped in leaping flames as Deathcap Cottage burned and the thatch was blazing and crackling, except that I knew it was really the railway carriage and the scream had been forced through my own strangled throat. The room flooded with light and Betty stood there blinking.
'What's the matter? I heard you call out. Were you having a bad dream?'
She sat on the edge of my bed in her nightie.
'Where's Bobbity?'
We found him at the bottom of the bed under the covers near my feet.
'What's this?'
Betty picked up Deathcap Cottage from the floor and opened it.
'You haven't been reading this rubbish have you? No wonder it's been giving you nightmares. It's disgusting and look at it, the cover's filthy. I've a good mind to throw it in the fire.'
'No, you can't!'
'You don't know where it's been,' Betty shuddered, holding Deathcap Cottage away from her. 'It's, it's – tainted. I'm taking it. I won't burn it because I don't believe in burning books, too much like Hitler for my taste, but I don't want you to read it any more, understand?'
I nodded. Ruby and I knew it almost off by heart anyway.
'What's the time?' I asked.
'Past two o'clock in the morning. We should both get back to sleep.'
THE ORCHARD ON FIRE'Happy birthday, Mum.'

After she had gone I lay in the darkness. The French Fern talc I had bought her was safely hidden in a cardigan in my drawer with the card I had made and the Greenidges' card. Bobbity's long ears were on the pillow beside me, his glass eyes watchfully open, but if I closed mine I could see the spitting, burning thatch with sparks flying into the orchard trees and hear Ruby's frantic peewit scream.

Percy took Betty to the pictures in Elmford on the evening of her birthday. He had got up early and came back with a bunch of daffodils from the back garden and hazel catkins. Peter gave her a box of chocolates and the postman brought a card with a £5 note inside from Granny and Grandpa, and one from George. I thought she was pleased with the Greenidges' card, although she was a bit put out that I had told them it was her birthday.
She cried, as she always did when we sang happy birthday and held Peter up to see the candle on her cake. A tiny flame was reflected in each of his eyes.

When Stonebridge people went to the cinema they had to watch the end of the film first, because if they stayed until the finish of the second house, they missed the last bus. Dittany came to babysit. Bobs was at home nursing one of the doves who was sick.
'I love it when he stretches out his legs like that,' Dittany said of Peter. 'Look at the tension on that thigh, it runs right down to his toes. I must draw him. Have you got a pencil and paper?'
I remembered her sketching Professor Scoley as he lay dead in the wheelbarrow. Everybody had been shocked.
'It's just a continuation of Life Drawing,' she had said. 'Taking it to its logical conclusion. Well, not quite, but as far as perhaps one can.'
As Dittany drew, zipping through our Basildon Bond, she told me that she had discovered that the village children always used to dance around the maypole on the first of May in the olden days.
'I'm going to have a word with Mr Reeves. It would be lovely to restore some of the old customs. There must be a maypole lurking around somewhere. "Now is the month of May, when merry lads are playing. Fa la la la la la la la la, fa la la la la la la!"'
'There's no maypole at the school,' I said, alarmed. 'I'm sure I would have noticed.'
'Well it must be somewhere, such a potent totem could not simply disappear. It must be lying sleeping, waiting to be awoken like the Old Gods.'
It was obvious that Dittany was confused, muddling up totem poles with maypoles. She had brought Betty a gossamer shawl that shimmered with soft rainbows, woven by a friend of hers.
'It's beautiful, but it's too good – when would I wear it?'
'When you go dancing,' said Dittany.
'Chance would be a find thing,' said Betty. 'The last time I went dancing was on bonfire night and then I was too fat to dance and nearly got blown up by a firework into the bargain. I can hardly do this dress up even now. But thank you ever so, Dittany, both of you. It's really lovely, and I can dream, can't I?'
The buttons down Betty's blue dress were dark-blue pansies, a present from Mr Silver, who had also given her a card of spotted toadstool buttons for me and a set of little engines for Peter.
Peter fell asleep on my lap and I sat with his heavy head sending my arm to sleep while a coal split in the fire and blue-green flames shot out from the glowing chasm and Dittany went on drawing. The shawl draped over the back of a chair glimmered like a gift from fairyland and Dittany's yellow willow fairy hair spread out over her shoulders. When Betty came into my bedroom later I was half woken by her salty kiss that smelled of vinegar and chips.

I tried to bribe Ruby into collecting Liesel on her own but she said, 'You got us into it.'
'Here are your little friends, Clement,' called Mrs Greenidge.
'Go and see if you can cheer him up. He's been like a bear with a sore head all day. Men are such babies when they're ill,' she said to us. 'Worse than babies.'
'How's your head today, Mr Greenidge?' Ruby asked cheekily.
'My head? There's nothing wrong with my head. It's my blessed foot, not my noddle you should be asking about, you silly girl.'
'Sorree.'
Ruby got the giggles and had to bury her face in Liesel. I was trying not to laugh.
'Glad you find it so amusing.' He dropped his voice. 'This is where it hurts. Here!'
He struck himself on the heart.
I didn't really think it was funny but Ruby set me off, and then a nervous whinny escaped down my nose and Ruby went into hysterics, rolling on the floor with Liesel, and I couldn't stop and collapsed into a chair.
'Do share the joke. I can't remember when I last had a good laugh.'
Mrs Greenidge was standing in the doorway. I tried to speak but laughter burst out of my mouth and I was hugging my aching stomach with tears running down my face. At last Ruby was able to lift her head and gasp, 'It's Liesel, she's so funny,' before dissolving into fits again as Liesel dashed out of the room.
We had brought ourselves more or less under control when Liesel came trotting in with her lead in her mouth.
'Ha ha ha ha,' went Ruby and I fell back in my chair, helpless again, pink, wet-faced, dissolving in laughter and embarrassment.
We got out somehow, hearing Mr Greenidge's voice behind us saying 'Coming in here like a couple of hoydens,' and we leaned, writhed, against the hedge of Kirriemuir until it didn't seem funny any more.
'What were we laughing about?' I said.
'I don't know. Search me!'
We walked on, the last dregs of laughter erupting from our lips every now and then.
'What are hoydens?' asked Ruby.
'I think they're a kind of hyena.' That did it again, swamping the guilty awareness of bad behaviour, making it amusing that we had been two grey spotted animals rolling around the Greenidge's floor, sprawling in their chair.
'The laughing Jackass,' said Ruby. 'I'll just die when we have to take Liesel back, won't you?'
'We'll leave her on the doorstep, ring the bell and run away.'
THE ORCHARD ON FIREWe didn't though. I handed the lead to Mrs Greenidge, feeling ashamed.
'Have you recovered now?' she asked.
'Yes, thank you Mrs Greenidge – ah ha ha.' We made a dash for the gate.

The next day, Saturday, a gipsy came to our back door. She was selling baskets made from bars of hazel saplings and filled with pale yellow primroses growing out of vivid green moss. The baskets, with their handles made from an arched stick, smelled cold and fresh, earthy and each held a clump of spring-time. We bought one for the tea-room and I loved the rough and smooth feel of the wood, the silvery heads of the nails and the bouncy moss and damp, delicate flowers. I carried it through, and gasped. It was like walking down a sunny lane and seeing a dead bird in your path. Mr Greenidge was sitting there with a big checked slipper on his bandaged foot.

Seventeen
We were in the middle of a mental-arithmetic test when Mr Reeves appeared in the doorway with Dittany. Her hair was piled on top of her head and wound round with a purple and yellow scarf and she wore a sort of smock printed with crocuses over a long purple skirt and wellingtons and her beekeeper's veil was dangling from one hand. She waggled the fingers of her other hand in a little wave to me and I felt myself blushing as we all heaved ourselves to our feet.
'Might we disturb you for a moment, Miss Fay?' asked Mr Reeves.
'We're in the middle of an arithmetic test,' said Miss Fay, moving Mr Reeves and Dittany towards the door, which gave me a chance to sneak a look at Veronica's answers. 'Be seated, class. Hands on heads.'
'Miss Codrington thinks that you might know the where-abouts of the old maypole the school children used to dance round,' Mr Reeves said.
'Maypole?'
'Yes, you know, a tall pole bedecked with ribbons, that people danced around on May Day.'
'I do know what a maypole is, thank you, Miss Codrington. But I'm afraid you won't find one here.'
'But there was a maypole?' said Mr Reeves.
'There was maypole. But I'm afraid Major Morton burned it.'
'Burned it! But how interesting,' said Dittany. 'Did he burn it because of its pre-Christian, phallic symbolism as a totem of fertility?'
'No. For firewood,' said Miss Fay.
Dittany's face fell. Then she said, 'Never mind. Nil desperandum. I'm sure we can rig up another one. There must be some craftsman in the village who remembers the old skills. Thank you so much for your time, Miss Fay.'
'Hands off heads,' said Miss Fay. 'Twenty-seven divided by four. All those of you who copied your neighbours while my back was turned will stay in at playtime.'
Albie Fatman groaned.

I was upstairs in my bedroom reading; the clatter of teacups and voices, now emphatic, now disgruntled, now droning on, came from downstairs. Some Labour Party people were having a meeting. Because we lived in a tea-room they expected us to provide first-class refreshments, and I had seen one of them, on another occasion, prodding at a plate of biscuits and muttering, 'Well I vote it a pretty poor show.'
As I lay on my bed I heard feet on the stairs. The door burst open and Ruby stood there, panting, in the summer dress she had worn to school and her green woolly hat pulled down almost over her eyes.
'Ruby! What are you doing here? Why have you got your hat on? Are we playing a game?'
She just stood there, her face working. Then it crumpled and she flung herself on the bed, face downwards. Something slithered out of her pocket. A snake.
It slid slowly to the floor as I watched. One of Ruby's pigtails lay on the floor, still bound with a yellow rubber band and fraying out at the end where it had been hacked off.
'Ruby, what have you done?'
She didn't answer. Her back was shaking. I could see the freckled wing of her shoulder where the buttons had come off her dress.
Tentatively I pulled the bunched-up green wool of the top of her hat. Pink saw-toothed scratches criss-crossed her neck. Her right pigtail uncoiled and flipped out. The left side of her hair hushed out in a jagged mass from its parting.
'You won't half get into trouble. Oh why did you do it?'
Ruby sat up, almost spitting the words from her blotched face.

To be continued...


 
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