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THE ORCHARD ON FIRE
FICTION

Ruby stared into the glass ball.
'What bruises? What did Dr Barker say?'
'I got them when I fell down the cellar steps, fetching some lemonade.'
She wouldn't look at me.
'That's why they bought me the bike, so people would think they were nice.'
'Did you fall down the cellar steps?'
She raised her head at last.
'I wish we lived in the little house in the snow. Just the two of us, and Peter. No grown-ups. Nobody could get us through the glass.'
'Ruby!' came Gloria's voice. 'Come along, and mind those stairs!'
'Have you still got the bruises? Let me see.'
She shook her head. 'I'm not allowed to.'
'Get a move on, Ruby, I can't stand here all day, I've got a pub to run.'
A sudden flash of sunshine turned Gloria's hair to spun gold and her voice was dripping like a golden THE ORCHARD ON FIREhoneycomb over her teeth as she tightened the elastic band on one of Ruby's plaits saying, 'Thanks ever so, Mrs Harlency. It's good to know who your friends are. Come on, sweetheart, or Dad'll be wondering where we've got to.'

'What a dreadful business,' said Betty when they had gone.
'What?'
'Oh – never you mind. I dare say it'll all blow over soon. Gossip is a terrible thing, April. It can lead to all sorts of unhappiness. You have to feel sorry for Gloria.'
'I don't think Ruby did fall down the stairs, I bet they pushed her and locked her in the cellar.'
'What?' Betty looked upset. 'Of course they didn't. That's exactly what I've been trying to tell you, talk like that is dangerous and wicked. It can destroy people's lives. Go and give your father a hand in the tea-room.

'She's had a poison pen letter,' I heard Betty tell Percy later.
Poison pen? It sounded evil and yet more exciting than the invisible ink Ruby and I made from onion juice. I imagined a fountain pen speckled like a snake squirting venom from its nib, and the recipient of a letter falling to the floor, with the poisoned paper crumpled in her hand. It obviously hadn't worked with Gloria though. Who in Stonebridge could possess such a pen?
'Smacks of a witch-hunt to me,' said Percy.
The thought of Gloria as a golden-haired witch on a broomstick, hunting up the village street, made me shiver.
'Mind you,' he went on, 'I wouldn't trust that tub of lard Lex further than I could throw him, which isn't very far.'
'It breaks my heart to think of that poor little bruised mince pie doing her little song and dance,' said Betty.
'A real little trouper.'
And what about me? I couldn't even be a mince pie, thanks to some people. A trouper, a witch and a tub of lard. Confused, thoroughly miserable and irritable, I went out to the shed to clean the spokes of my bike. My jumper was itchy and the cold wind hurt my hair. I leaned the bicycle against the wall and sat on the saddle pedalling backwards, until the chain came off. I bruised my knuckles putting it back on and got oil all over my hands.
I went inside and said I was going to see Bobs and Dittany; Betty was changing Peter's nappy.
'Put your coat on then, your old one,' she said with a pin in her mouth. 'And don't be long.'
My pink coat felt thin and silly now, with my checked skirt hanging down in a frill below it. I stomped THE ORCHARD ON FIREalong in my wellies. Needles from the Christmas tree had sewn themselves into my cuffs and were pricking my wrists.
'That tree's shedding at a rate of knots,' Percy had remarked. 'Roll on twelfth night say I. Get the brush and dustpan, April.'

Dittany was at the kitchen sink, washing dishes, wearing a man's shirt streaked with paint over a black sweater and trousers, men's socks bulging over black ballet slippers.
'You look thoroughly out of sorts,' she said.
'I am'
'Just give this wassail bowl a wipe, will you. You'll find a dry tea towel on the Aga.'
She lifted an enormous painted china bowl dripping bubbles onto the soggy wooden draining board. The sad bright sound of jazz came from the sitting-room.
'Professor Scoley, Lionel, that is, has given Bobs some of Linus's revivalist jazz records, which was very generous of him in the circumstances.'
'He had a dicky ticker. It could have happened any time. He was like a time bomb just waiting to go off, my dad says.'
'Oh yes, that's the party line, I know. But I can't help feeling that if we hadn't invited him to Beulah House…' Dittany wrenched the plug from the sink making a bitter gurgling sound as the water ran away.
'Please don't say "dickey ticker" again, April. It sounds so – so knowing and unchildlike.'
Rebuked, my eyes stinging, I went into the sitting-room where Bobs was kneeling among scattered records in brown paper cases.
'Mind your feet,' she said, too late, as a black crack exploded under the toe of my boot. Our horrified eyes met.
'Never mind, put it in the waste-paper basket quickly and we won't even look at it. Don't cry, it doesn't matter.'
I knew it did matter.
'Do you like this music?'
I nodded tearfully.
'My dad likes jazz, Be-bop.'
Bobs shuddered.
'Why does everything have to be so horrible after Christmas?' I said.
A sticky date, fluffy with dust, lay in the bottom of the waste-paper basket.
'What kind of music does Betty like?'
'Lots. Songs. Opera. Concerts. She could've sung in opera.'
'I'm sure she could have,' said Bobs.
A picture she had painted was on the wall, among many others, of an old black barn held up or pulled down by the ivy that covered it and its door sagging open to show a spilt sack of cattle cake and a heap of old car tyres. You could almost taste the brown nugget of cow cake, hard, dry and dusty in your mouth and impossible to bite through.
Pinned up too were delicate water-colours of mushrooms and toadstools, mauve, purple, orange and lemon, pale umbrellas on slender stalks, fans, frills and wafers on lichen, speckled tree stumps, stalks clumped with leaf mould and gills radiating in soft wheels.

'Basin Street
Is the street
Where all the light and dark folks meet.
Down in New Orleans,
The land of dreams…'

Bobs sang.
'Look at this,' she said, handing me an old black photograph album, with a stippled cover and spider's web paper between its black pages. 'I found it in the attic. It's Beulah House when it was still an orphanage.'
There, on a faded photograph, was the white house with its bell tower and a blur of white wings and fantails round the dovecot.
'Look at this one.'
A group of small children in pinafores, graded by height, were sitting on the grass. The smallest had their legs in knitted stockings and hobnail boots sticking straight out in front of them and all their hair was very short and they stared into the camera with big sad eyes.
'Are they boys or girls?' I asked.
'Both,' said Bobs.
There was a photograph of older boys in knickerbockers and stockings and collars, like the picture on the Fry's Five Boys chocolate, and bigger girls in pinafores with butterfly sleeves over dark dresses, and a bunch of children swinging their black legs over the sides of a wagon in an orchard of white blossom.
'That could be our orchard!' I said without thinking.
'Which orchard?'
'Oh, just a place I saw once.'
'These are the best,' said Bobs taking a postcard from the back of the album. Fairies and elves with tinted wings capered, holding Chinese lanterns among toadstools and glimmering glow-worms, and all the fairy folk had the cropped hair and hurt faces of orphans.
'Elfin Revels,' said Bobs.
'I wonder what became of them all.'
'Oh, some of them in churchyard lie, and some are lost at sea,' said Bobs lightly, closing the album. Seeing my face, she added, 'I expect they all got married and lived happily ever after. Actually, I believe old Miss Brindle in the almshouses was a Beulah girl. The last of the orphans were sent down under not so very long before we bought the place.'
'Down under? Buried?'
'Of course not, sent to Australia.'
'Transported?'
'No, don't be silly. They went to kindly Antipodean folk who wanted children of their own. It was a wonderful opportunity for them, sailing away to a new life.'
'Supposing their parents came back to look for them and they couldn't find them because they'd gone to Australia?'
'They were orphans, April. You are in a morbid mood.'
'But if their parents were ghosts'...'
'I'm sure that ghosts would know where to find them. Anyway, they wouldn't be ghosts, they'd be angels watching over their children.'
Suddenly, it seemed a sad house with the wind howling in the chimney. I thought of the orphans on the deck of a liner on the vast grey ocean, and I wanted to be at home, with my own family.
'I don't think Ruby got anything in her stocking. I don't think she even hung it up,' I told Bobs. 'They've got all their decorations up in the pub, and the Christmas tree, and none at all in the house.'
THE ORCHARD ON FIRE'Oh, dear. Well, at least she's not an orphan.'

Thirteen
It was a mild, damp morning, green and gold like the Christmas decorations at the Drovers, where the sun struck drooping laurel leaves and prickly sparkling holly hedges. I was waiting outside Crosby's with the pram while Betty was shopping. The sunshine had put us both in a good mood, but when she came out she looked flustered. Mrs Vinnegar drew up alongside us with her old pram.
'Morning, Mrs H.'
'Morning, Mrs Vinnegar.'
Mrs Vinnegar leaned over Peter and pinched his little chin in the ravelled thumb and finger of a grey glove.
'I'll eat you up, yes I will! Yes I will!'
It was already clear to me that Peter had done something extraordinarily clever by just having been born a boy, and all he had to do was lie there in a pale-blue knitted helmet and even old Ma Vinnegar worshipped him.
'I've just been talking to Mrs Edenbridge-Dwyer. Have you ever heard of this "churching of women" lark she was on about?'
'You don't want to take no notice of her. She tried that one on me after I had little Juney. Churching, I said I should cocoa, I haven't done nothing to be churched for, thank you very much.'
'But she is the President of the Mother's Union,' said Betty.
'So what?'
When Mrs V. had gone into the shop Betty said to me, 'The point is, Mrs Edenbridge-Dwyer is the sort of person who ought to be coming into the Copper Kettle. It's all very well for old Vinegar Bottle, I mean Mrs Vinnegar, to take that attitude. Some of us are trying to make some social headway in this village.'
'Oh, no. There comes Miss Fay, quick let's cross over.'
Too late. Miss Fay was dismounting from her tall bicycle and neatly kicking the pedal onto the kerb to make it stand up straight. She was wearing a blue peaked hat-and-scarf in one tied under her chin, headgear known to Ruby and me as a Fayhat.
'So this is little Master Harlency, who disrupted our Christmas concert.'
Miss Fay stripped off one of her cycling gauntlets to poke Peter's tummy through the blanket, telling him off before he'd even started school.
'Such a pity they have to grow up,' she said, with a bitter look at me. 'Mrs Harlency, I wonder if I might have a word?'
'Oh, certainly, Miss Fay. April, you walk on ahead with the pram and I'll catch you up.'

'What did she say? Was it about me not being a mince pie? Did you tell her it wasn't my fault?'
I was terrified by what tales Miss Fay might tell, or that I had done something dreadful which I had forgotten about. Betty took over the pram.
'Nothing much. Nothing to do with you. Why, got a guilty conscience?'
'No.'
'You don't want to worry about it, she's got nothing better to do with her time than impose archaic ceremonials on the working classes. We can do without her sort,' said Percy when Betty told him about Mrs Edenbridge-Dwyer.
'But can we?'
Percy had been passing his time with a copy of the Daily Worker delivered by Mr Silver, while we were out. Joe Silver ran the local Communist Party; he had tried to save the Rosen-bergs too. They had two little boys, and they were sent to the Electric Chair. He was like a kind uncle to all the children and some people called him Uncle Joe after Joseph Stalin who had died the year before, and good riddance, said Percy. Joe and his wife Molly and their three sons lived in the old Paper Mill, a wooden building weathered like Dittany's beehives, which stood on an island in the river overlooking the deep, wide pool made by a stone dam where water roared in a boiling white waterfall in the winter. Joe Silver was businessman who owned, among other establishments, a button factory in the East End, Harlequin Buttons, and the Silvers were known for many acts of kindness to people whatever their affiliation. Molly regularly drove old folks from the almshouses to the hospital and she had spoken up for the Vinnegar twins at the juvenile court more than once. Nevertheless there were those, such as Mr Oswald, and Mrs Edenbridge-Dwyer and Lex Richards, who despised the Silvers. Ruby and I had once watched, through a gap in the hedge, two beautiful Indian ladies in saris, like butterflies playing tennis, visitors in shimmering wings from another world, and as they fluttered in that glamorous moated garden which we would have liked so much to enter, bracelets of gold and silver and coloured glass rolled up and down their arms with each shot and return of the ball.

The three Silver boys travelled by train to a grammar school, wearing claret and navy blazers and caps. I was always pleased on the rare occasions when Leo, the youngest, accompanied his father on the Daily Worker round. Leo was dark and skinny and looked a bit like a monkey with his soft crew cut and straight legs. He wore glasses and was very brainy. Although he was older than I was, twelve or thirteen, he was friendly, unlike most boys of his age. Myrna Pratt had a crush on his brother Alexander and was always hanging about outside their gate. The eldest boy, as tall as a man in his school uniform, was Karl. I love all their names.
'That's the Mothers' Union gone for a Burton then, 'Betty said to me when we were unpacking the shopping and Peter from his pram.

'She may be weary
Women do get weary
Wearing the same shabby dress…'

She sang softly as she unbuttoned Peter's little blue coat and found that everything was soaked, even his vest and the sheet.

To be continued...


 
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