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THE ORCHARD ON FIRE
 
FICTION

'I always feel I can worship so much more satisfyingly in the open, when I'm at one with nature, in the fields, pastures and woods, under God's heaven,' said Bobs.
'Same here,' said Betty.
'Fields are pastures,' I said.
'Back in the knife drawer, Miss Sharp,' said Percy. 'They aren't necessarily.'
Peter was banging a saucepan with a wooden spoon, sitting on the floor.
'Definite musical talent. Runs in the family,' Percy raised his voice over the din.

I hated Sunday school without Ruby to get the giggles with. Sometimes I just cycled around until it was time to go home. Doreen threatened to report me to Mr Oswald but she hadn't THE ORCHARD ON FIREyet. I went round to Beulah House and had an early breakfast with Bobs and Dittany before we set off. I showed them how to make a cobwebber from a privet stick and they vied with each other to catch the prettiest spiders' webs. We carried a chip basket apiece, mine for mushrooms, Bobs's for edible fungi and Dittany's for poisonous specimens, which they were going to draw and paint for their book. Fairies' bonnets and weeping widows lay in the basket already.
'Guess what? This'll make you laugh. The Village Players are putting on a production of Miranda and Dittany's going to play the part of the mermaid. Can't you just see her with her hair all spread out and a gleaming tail?'
'I wish Ruby could see it.'
Bobs sighed and the heavy tail flopped onto the ground with its scales dulled. We held the strands of the barbed wire apart, taking turns to climb through into the mushroom field where cows lay on their folded legs in the long wet grass glittering with a zillion diamonds.
'Look, there are hundreds of mushrooms. We'll get them after we've been to the woods, on the way back,' said Bobs.
'I read a book called Deathcap Cottage once, about a woman who poisoned her husband. He was an invalid.'
'Proper little ray of sunshine, isn't she?' said Dittany. 'Come on, race you to the wood.'
I couldn't be bothered. They ran on ahead laughing and jumping over mushrooms. 'Don't touch anything without asking first, and don't put your fingers in your mouth,' Bobs warned.
Boletus. Brackets. Blewits. I soon grew bored. There was the bright green mossy tree stump, with hollow channels from its roots, where Titchy Vinnegar had once said he could magic a beautiful golden fairy mountain if we closed our eyes while he hid behind it. This was Tippetts Wood where Rodney Pegg had got Sorrel Marlowe.
'Can we go now? Haven't you got enough yet?'
'Just a second while I get this ox-tongue.'
Dead man's fingers. Stinkhorn. Fly agaric. The leaves that we turned up with our boots smelled of mildew. Twigs cracked when nobody had stepped on them.
'I'm going to go and start picking mushrooms.' Although I would be scared to walk through the wood alone.
'OK. We've got enough now for this morning. A good haul.'
THE ORCHARD ON FIRE'Somebody's got there first!'
A bent figure was picking mushrooms into a basket.
'It's Mr Greenidge. He would! Trust him to spoil everything.'
'We're trespassers too,' Dittany reminded us quietly.
'Top o' the morning to you, ladies. I see you've had the same idea as me.' He peered into Bob's and Dittany's baskets.
'Some of these chappies don't look too appetising. Wouldn't like to meet one of them on a piece of toast on a dark night.'
'They're not. Deadly poison some of them. That destroying angel for example.'
'Destroying angel?'
Mr Greenidge looked at me. I bent down and started picking mushrooms.
'Well, best get these home for Madam's breakfast. Don't like to leave her alone for too long.'
'How is Mrs Greenidge?'
'Poorly, I'm afraid. Very poorly. One does what one can.'
He blew his nose loudly. Dittany's eyes filled with tears.
'We'll bring her a jar of our nettle-flower honey and a pat of Bob's special damson cheese,' she promised.
'That man's practically a saint,' she said when Mr Greenidge was out of earshot.

A sad and shabby circus set up its Big Top in the recreation ground. A mule was tethered to a spike in the grass, and all the kids hung around hoping it would extend its long black rubber tube, and shrieking when it did. Bad-tempered men and women yelled at you when you tried to go and look into the caravans or the wild animal's cages. We all went to the circus, and Peter screamed at the clowns and I didn't blame him because they were not at all funny. The wild animals looked like old soft toys that sat on a shelf and nobody played with any more, with grey patches where the sawdust might trickle out.
'Bertram Mills it ain't,' said Percy.
It was nothing like the circuses in Enid Blyton's books either.
Veronica was sitting beside me, where Ruby should have been.
'What did you like best?' Betty asked afterwards as we walked, depressed, out of the Big Top across the wet grass. It was getting dark.
'When that elephant went to be excused,' Veronica giggled.
'Ruby was brilliant at acrobats,' I said. 'She could've been an acrobat in a circus if she'd wanted to.'
'I can do the crab,' said Veronica.
'You are a crab,' I said.

'Isn't that Dr Barker's car?' said Betty as we walked past Kirriemuir. 'I do hope Mrs Greenidge hasn't taken a turn for the worse.'
Mrs Vinnegar came hurrying along the road with her grey coat unbuttoned over a stained apron.
'Have you heard? Mrs Greenidge's gone. I'm just going round to offer my services.' We all stared at her.
Then, 'Gone where?' asked Veronica.
After a silence Betty said, 'Gone to heaven, dear.'

'He killed her. He murdered her,' I said at home.
'Now, April. We know you're upset but I won't have that kind of talk. How can you say such things about your friend?'
'When he's been so good to you.'
'He poisoned her, I know he did.'
'That's enough. Poor Mr Greenidge is heart-broken. He's a windower now so we ought to be specially kind to him, shouldn't we? You run upstairs and write him a nice letter saying how sorry you are. A letter of condolence, it's called.'
'If Ruby was here she'd believe me.'
'Don't you remember that story I told you about the wrong man being hanged? Is that what you want to happen to Mr Greenidge? If it is you're going the right way about it.'
'I can't write a letter. I wouldn't know what to say.'
'Just make him a nice card then. Paint some flowers.'

Two days later Mr Greenidge came into the Copper Kettle with a black armband round the sleeve of his black coat and a black tie. There was a red circle round the iris of one eye, which I couldn't look at. He invited us all to the funeral, thanking me for the beautiful card which meant so much to him.
'We'd be honoured, Mr Greenidge, but I think April's a little young, don't you?' Percy said.
'Mrs Greenidge was very fond of her. I know she would appreciate it if April were to be there to say goodbye.'
I wondered if he really meant that he wanted me to be there.
'She's rather an emotional child. A bit highly strung,' Betty said. 'I really don't think it's a good idea.'
Was I? First time I'd heard of it. Miss Fay mocked children whose mothers claimed they were highly strung.
'Very well, you know best. Eleven o'clock on Friday. Afterwards at Kirriemuir.'
'We'll be there. Oh, Mr Greenidge, do you need any help with the refreshments?'
'Well, I hadn't thought. There seem to be so many things to organise.'
He blew his nose and wiped his eyes.
'Leave it to the Copper Kettle. We'll do you proud. The full monty. On the house, Mr Greenidge, I insist.'
'Percy, you're an officer and a gentleman, sir. Excuse me, don't want to blub–'
He hurried out, harrumphing into his handkerchief.
'Why did you have to say that about "on the house"?' Betty groaned. 'Oh, Percy, it's not that I begrudge but how on earth can we?'
'We'll manage somehow, won't we, my son?'
Percy threw Peter up in the air and caught him, as Peter laughed wildly. I was crying. The black armband looked so sad. Betty was crying too, Percy and Peter laughing.

Granny Fitz had a Persian lamb coat, but it was at Herne Hill and weighed a ton, far too heavy to post. Betty borrowed a black ottoman-rib coat and hat from Bobs. Peter was taken to Beulah House while Betty and Percy were at the funeral. I was to go there at the dinner hour. Dittany said Peter would earn his keep by being the model for a drawing class. We had one of her sketches of Peter and me up on our wall at home, a birthday present for Percy.
'You know when we met Mr Greenidge picking mushrooms? Well I bet he put some poisonous ones in there and gave them to Mrs Greenidge.'
We were eating parsnip soup in the kitchen of Beulah House. Peter was in an old wooden, worm-eaten high-chair that must have been used for orphans.
'Don't be ridiculous.'
'How can you say such a terrible thing?'
'No, listen.' I had thought about this so much that I was able to be calm and matter-of-fact.
'Remember when he was looking in the basket of poisonous fungi? He seemed very interested in them, didn't he?'
'Well, yes. But anybody would be.'
'You think he's a saint but I know he wanted Mrs Greenidge to die.'
'April!'
'He did, he told me, lots of times.'
'Why on earth would he want her dead?'
'So he – because – well, he did anyway.'
I couldn't tell them he wanted to marry me.
'Stop it. You don't know what you're saying. It's dreadful, with the poor woman not cold in her grave and the funeral service hardly over.'
'I wouldn't have believed it of you, April,' said Dittany. She pushed away her soup bowl. 'I'm afraid you have THE ORCHARD ON FIREa sick mind.'
Bobs rolled up her napkin and thrust it into her napkin ring as if she was too disgusted to eat any more.
Tears were splashing into my soup.
'I haven't got a sick mind. He did tell me. He wants to marry somebody else.'
'What?'
'Who?'
'I – I don't know.'
A letter had come from Ruby that morning at long last and I held onto it in my pocket. Bobs and Dittany looked at each other and I could see that they had begun to believe me. I felt scared then, at the thought of Mr Greenidge being arrested, in his black armband.
Peter picked up his bowl and turned it upside-down on his head. Bobs and Dittany were not amused. Both the Harlency children were nuisances, I felt, even though Peter was a godson. I was still starving but it didn't seem polite, or highly strung, to ask for more. Hunger was overtaken by anxiety as Bobs and Dittany whispered together at the sink. Not yet cold in her grave. I could see Mrs Greenidge lying on the couch and remembered the silk of her dress darkened by my tears. Mr Greenidge was hanging from a gallows with bulging blue eyes. He was a waxwork in the Chamber of Horrors. I put my head down on the table and wept while Peter shouted and banged his spoon.
'April, dear. What is it? Why are you crying like that? Do be quiet, Peter, there's a darling.'
'I wish Mrs Greenidge wasn't dead.'
'Of course you do. We all do.'
'Don't tell anybody what I said, please. It was a mistake. I don't really think he poisoned her, honestly.'
'There, there, do stop crying. We won't say a word. We'll forget the whole thing.'

But the whole thing couldn't be forgotten. I had already broken off pieces of the deadly fungus of gossip and shared them out among Veronica and other playground confidantes including Doreen who gave a bit to her mother, whose services in laying out Mrs Greenidge had been rejected and who was pleased to scatter the spores upon the wind that blew them through the village until it was infested with the ugly misshapen toadstools of rumour and malice.

They dug Mrs Greenidge up again at the dead of night, a group of men with spades and lanterns and ropes hauling her back from the grave. Mr Oswald, Constable Cox and policemen from Elmford, Mr Seabrook and Dr Barker, and drove her away to the mortuary.
The verdict was death by natural causes. The dicky ticker.

Twenty-One
So I stand in the churchyard of St Michael and All Angels and think, Liesel should be there too, asleep on the bottom of the bed, but she couldn't be, in body at least, because Mr Greenidge had her put to sleep soon after Mrs Greenidge's second burial. Betty broke the news to me when I got back from my grandparents' where I had been sent to stay for a few days. Why didn't he give her to me if he didn't want her? I would have looked after her, and loved her again. Although I was not present at Mrs Greenidge's disinterment I have imagined it often enough to believe now that I witnessed it from the shadows of a tree threshing restlessly in the moonlight.
Across the churchyard I see two graves that I remember now, that we used to like, lying like stone Egyptian mummies or greyhounds in the grass, so old that all their lettering has long since been obliterated. As I walk over, to look at them again I see it. The name jumps out at me, blinding me, hitting me in the heart.

RUBY COPPARD
1944-1994
ADORED WIFE OF ROBERT
MOTHER OF PETER AND APRIL
AND GRANDMOTHER

She came back. She was within two hours' reach and I missed her by just two years. I am kneeling with my arms around the stone and I hit my forehead hard against it and my tears fall on the names Ruby and Peter and April. Ruby. Sent to bed too early under that lumpy green quilt, that sharp granite quilt, when she should be out playing with her red hair flying in the sun that frazzles rainbows in its aureole. There was a funeral here, my best friend's funeral, and I should have been there. At my mother's funeral, as the cars drove slowly up the street of terraced houses, I saw through the window of the undertaker's limousine a woman cross herself, a blessing from a stranger. The chiselled letters are cold and salty as I kiss them. Peter and April. How could she, oh how could she do that to me?
At last I look up and see, through my dishevelled hair, a man carrying a bunch of dahlias walking along the grass path between the graves. He might be a boy I used to know. I go to the church to hide, half-expecting it to be locked but the iron latch lifts. Blue light is falling through the memorial window to twin airmen lost in the sky during the war, as it used to, and there is the marble plaque in the wall that says 'And God Shall Wipe Away All Tears From Their Eyes', that always made me want to cry, and the painted organ pipes, the blue light burning above the Lady Chapel. The velvet vestry curtains part and a young man is walking down the aisle towards me. I feel exposed and wonder if he saw me weeping on Ruby's grave, and almost duck into a pew and bow my head, but I stand there until he comes up to me, in his grey silky shirt front with a wisp of white collar, and realise that I have a hank of feathery grasses wound round my fingers, and my face is probably filthy. He will think I'm mad, and wonder if he should call the police or social services. I try to put him at his ease.

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

 
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