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THE ORCHARD ON FIRE
FICTION

'Where is it?' I heard myself saying, far away.
'Where's what?'
'The thing you wanted to show me.'
'Over here.'
It was a lacquered cabinet standing on the crocheted runner along the top of the chest of drawers, an edifice of glowing wood inlaid with birds and leaves and flowers and mother-of-pearl, the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, and I wanted passionately to own it and for a second the hope flared that he might give it to me.
'Open the doors,' he said.
The two sides swung outwards releasing a strange old perfume faint and musty, to reveal little shelves, opening onto drawers with tiny mother-of-pearl knobs. A green Chinese scent bottle painted with flowers stood on one of the shelves in the doors and each shelf and drawer showed something magical and miniature; black elephants with tusks of ivory, a carved walnut that unscrewed and held a blue scarab, pins with heads of coloured glass, tiny Chinese or Japanese figures, a doll-sized fan, pencils no bigger than matchsticks, shoes that fitted on a fingernail, pink and gold THE ORCHARD ON FIRErimmed cups that a raindrop would fill, more and more treasures that I gazed at with reverence and covetousness as they lay in the palm of my hand. How I wished Ruby was there to share them.
'Come over here a minute.' Mr Greenidge was sitting on the bed patting the pink eiderdown.
I stood awkwardly in front of him, holding a string of yellow beads like corn on the cob. He took the necklace from my hand and slipped it over my head and pulled me to him.
'Will you come to see me tomorrow? Please.'
I nodded again, wanting only to be outside.
'Promise?'
He looked so sorrowful and clutched my hands.
'I promise.'
'And you won't say anything to Mrs Greenidge, will you?'
I shook my head.
'We understand each other, don't we?'
But I didn't really understand. As I walked along the road I heard him shout. 'April! You forgot your chocolate!'
I pretended not to hear. I had this knowledge that Mr Greenidge wanted us to get married and I didn't know what to do with it. Then I began to feel so guilty for leaving behind the chocolate that he had bought me that I sat on the allotments gate, not knowing whether to go back for it, half-way between Kirriemuir and home, with tomorrow already a grey looming cloud.

I let myself in furtively through the back door and went upstairs to lie on my own bed with my rabbit Bobbity. Mr Greenidge loved me. I believed that, but I was tainted with the terrible shame I had felt when Titchy Vinnegar tried to pull down someone's knickers in the playground or when the boys jumped up to look over the door of the girls' lavatories. After a while I got up and found my paint box and painted red spots all over my face and went downstairs.
'Mum, I don't feel well.'
'Oh, hello, love. I didn't hear you come in. What have you been up to, did you have a nice time?'
'I think I've got chickenpox. I feel really ill.'
'You'll feel better when you've washed that paint off your face,' said Betty. 'What's that?'
She poked my chest and a hard bead was impressed on my skin. I had forgotten to take off the yellow necklace. All the painted spots on my face ran together in a blaze of guilt.
'Mrs Greenidge said I could borrow it. I've got to take it back tomorrow.'
Betty was looking at me sharply.
'Are you sure she said you could? Let's have a look.'
She pulled the necklace out of my T-shirt.
'These are gorgeous. They look like real amber. Oh I do like pretty things! Still, diamond bracelets Woolworth's doesn't sell, as the song goes.'
'I'll buy you a diamond bracelet one day,' I said. 'When I grow rich.'
'Say the bells of Shoreditch,' said Betty.
Later, when she came up to say good-night, I caught hold of her skirt and pulled her back.
'Don't go.'
'I must. I've got a huge pile of ironing waiting.'
'Just stay for a minute.'
I remembered Mr Greenidge wheedling at me to lie on the bed and shivered. Betty put her hand on my forehead to check if I really was ill.
'Mum?'
THE ORCHARD ON FIRE'What?'
'Oh, nothing.'
Betty sat down on the bed.
'Look, love, I know you don't want to go to Granny's when the baby's born but…'
'I do,' I interrupted. 'I wish I could go now!'
A hurt look shadowed her face, then she bent down and kissed me lightly on the forehead, saying, 'Well, then, you haven't got that long to wait,' with a 'Good-night' that made me burst into tears as the door clicked behind her. I took Bobbity under the covers and tried to pretend that we were cosy in a burrow with turnips hanging from the ceiling as I had when I was little, but it didn't work any more. Bobbity was named after a wild rabbit in a Ladybird Book The Runaway, who took Sandy, a pet rabbit, under his wing, or paw when he escaped from his hutch. In times of trouble I retreated underground:

Bobbity had lit the lantern,
Sandy caught his breath again:
So they finished tea in comfort,
Snug and safe, down Rabbit Lane!

Bobbity poured milk from a striped earthenware jug into the bowl which Sandy, sitting on his three-legged blue stool, held out trustingly; there were three fat red carrots on the floor and lettuce leaves for supper, but it was no good. I couldn't be a rabbit any more. Foxey was waiting at Kirriemuir and a string of yellow beads lay on my dressing-table.

In the morning as we walked to school, the hedges were covered with glittering spider's webs, exquisite nets and shimmering tents draped over leaves and twigs. We bent pliant privet twigs into loops called cobwebbers to capture them, but the webs never looked as beautiful once we had scraped them off the hedge. The diamonds fell from them, they became greyer and might hold a shoal of tiny dead flies and the cobwebber become a horrid gummy tap. I thought of the diamond bracelet I would buy for Betty one day.

'Had a good day at school?' Betty asked when I got home.
'No' I pulled a face.
It had been a grey unpleasant day. With the hands of the clock dragging inexorably towards the time when I must take back the necklace to Mr Greenidge, who probably thought I had stolen it.
'Daddy, in scripture, Miss Fay said that she had a friend who was a prison chaplain and he said that he would rather see a man hanged than flogged because when a man is flogged he loses his self-respect.'
'Oh, yes,' said Percy, 'I can just see some bloke walking to the gallows shitting himself with self-respect.'
'Percy!'
Betty came into the kitchen.
'Sorry, love. Sorry, April, but sit down, I want to tell you a story. There was a chap who used to drink in a pub called the Fox and Hounds where your mother and I were working. Jack Cornfield was his name and he was the mildest, gentlest fellow you could wish to meet. Well, to cut a long story short, this Jack Cornfield's wife and daughters were murdered and Jack Cornfield was arrested and sent for trial at the Old Bailey. Now everybody at the Fox and Hounds knew that Jack Cornfield couldn't have done it, he was a family man who wouldn't hurt a fly, but they found him guilty and they hanged him. Six months later, the lodger, who had been living in Cornfield's house, topped himself. They found him hanging in the cellar where the murders had taken place. So, you can tell your Miss Fay from me that capital punishment is a crime committed by the state, that no self-respecting country can justify. They put him in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud's, Jack Cornfield.'
I said nothing. I saw again the flypaper, studded with winged corpses, that had hung in the tea-room when first we saw it, turning gently in the warm air and I saw a man dangling by the rope around his neck, twirling slowly from a beam in a blood-splashed cellar, and a convict in a suit of broad arrows stumbling towards the gallows.
'And that goes for flogging too,' Percy said. 'It's barbaric and obscene.'
The blood had all drained out of me as from the murdered woman and girls, leaving me waxen and weak. The very name, Chamber of Horrors, made my flesh creep.
'Whatever was Miss Fay thinking of? In a scripture lesson too,' said Betty.
I could not speak of the terrible cat-o'-nine-tails Miss Fay had swished verbally before our horrified eyes. The lone cry of a peewit cut through my blood-stained thoughts.
'Come in, Ruby.' Betty looked relieved at her arrival.
'Is April coming out?'
'She hasn't had her tea yet. Have you had yours?'
Ruby shook her head.
'Well you can have something to eat with April and then you can both pop round to Mrs Greenidge's. THE ORCHARD ON FIREApril's got something to give back to her, haven't you love?'
We had our tea, listening to Children's Hour.
The smile fell from Mr Greenidge's face when he saw the two of us standing there.
'Yes?' he barked, as if we were strangers or Bob-a-Job cubs.
'I brought these back. I took them by accident.'
I held out the necklace. He stared at it as if he'd never seen it before and I remembered that Ruby thought Mrs Greenidge had lent it to me.
'I mean Mrs Greenidge said I could borrow it.'
'I'll see she gets it.'
He almost snatched the beads and slammed the door.
'Blimey,' Ruby said, 'what's up with him? I thought you aid he was nice. I think he's really bad-tempered and rude.'
Before I could stop her, she had grabbed a handful of gravel and flung it at the galleon on the front door and we were both running down the street. At the allotments I doubled over with a stitch and guilt at how hurt Mr Greenidge would be feeling.
'You shouldn't have done that,' I said.
Ruby turned a cartwheel, her legs flashing, her pigtails sweeping the road. We walked on, with Ruby hopping on and off the edge of the pavement, until we came to a group of girls playing with a ball. Ruby dashed into their circle, snatching the ball from the air, and threw it to me amid shrieks of indignation. I caught the ball and flung it hard, an outburst against the horrible day. It hit an older girl, Myrna Pratt, on the chest and she crumpled, crossing her arms protectively over her school blouse.
'Couldn't've hurt that much,' Ruby jeered, while I stood paralysed by what I had done.
Doreen put her arm around Myrna, who lifted her face and accused, 'Anyway, I'm developing, April Harlency, and now I won't ever be able to have any babies and it's all your fault!'
'Come on, Myrna, let's go and tell your mum,' said Doreen, enjoying the drama. 'Come on, Juney, we're going up Myrna's house to report April to Myrna's mum! April Fool!'
She yanked Juney by the arm and off they all trailed, leaving Ruby and me alone in the street.
'April Fool,' Juney shouted over her shoulder.

'Dad, what's developing mean?' I asked that evening.
'It's when you take a photograph and it's just a negative so you have to put it in some developing fluid to make the photograph appear, or develop the picture.'
We hadn't got a camera and I was none the wiser. I just knew that I had ruined Myrna Pratt's life, somehow, by hitting her with a rainbow-coloured rubber ball. My only hope was that, as Gloria Richards had not carried out her threat to come round and seize my mother's skirt, Mrs Pratt would not arrive on our doorstep to tell my parents what I had done. I went up to my room.
'April, can you come down here a minute?' Percy called up the stairs. I thought of running away, of hiding for ever in the railway carriage in the orchard.
'April?'
Mrs Pratt and Myrna were in our kitchen.
'I never meant the ball to hit her, it was an accident!'
'Accidentally on purpose,' said Myrna.
'Sheer spitefulness, I call it,' said Mrs Pratt.
'There you are,' said Betty, 'it was an accident. April would never throw anything at anybody deliberately. That's not the way she's been brought up.'
'I'm sure she's sorry, aren't you, love?' Percy said. 'You never meant to hurt Myrna, did you?'
'Yes, I mean no. I'm sorry.'
'She did it on purpose,' said Myrna. She simpered, 'Now I won't be able to have any babies.'
'Don't be daft,' said Percy, 'What's that got to do with it? Tell you what, how about an ice lolly? Go on, April, get a lolly for Myrna to show you want to make friends again, and one for Mrs Pratt too.'
The Pratts were beaten. They went off sucking their lollies, tossing their heads and sniffing as they passed the small audience that had gathered.
'I do think those mother-and-daughter outfits are a mistake,' Betty said. 'Makes them look like a cruel set.'
I laughed with relief, but there were problems which could not be melted like ice.

Eight
Beulah house, where Miss Rix and Miss Codrington lived, had once been an orphanage. The two-storeyed white clapboard building, with its hollyhocks flaunting bells over the white picket fence, had a campanile housing the great bell that used to regulate the orphans' lives, and a white dovecote occupied by descendants of the original brood. Now, in the Beulah School of Arts and Crafts, the soft fondant hues of the holly-hocks were compressed into pastels and chalks. Roses, violets, lemons, viridians, they were like the cocktail cigarettes Miss Rix smoked, and subtle apricots and the crimson that splashed the inside of the hollyhocks' bell around the pollen-laden clappers.

To be continued...


 
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