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THE ORCHARD ON FIRE
 
FICTION

Ruby came in with her sleeve and her hair sparkling in dew where she had brushed against the hedge. She had a pair of her dad's socks folded over the tops of her gumboots, which gave her a piratical look, and a necklace which she had made from the beads I gave her. I told her that I had to polish the tables in the tea-room before I could come out. Ruby pulled a face.
'I've just been doing that at home.'
She sat watching me work, setting fire to the edge of a paper napkin and quickly beating out the blue frill of fire, before taking the Duraglit to our horse brasses.
'You'll never guess who came into the pub this morning, not in a hundred years.'
'Miss Fay.'
THE ORCHARD ON FIRE'How did you know?' Ruby was indignant.
'Call it a woman's intuition if you like,' I said, quoting from a book.
'I had to go out of the bar of course but I was watching from behind the door. You should have seen my dad. "Oh do have a sweet sherry, Miss Fay, on the house. Wonderful thing, education, Miss Fay, I'm all for it, course I'm a graduate of the University of Life myself, Miss Fay. Kids nowadays don't know how lucky they are."'
Then Ruby turned into Miss Fay.
'"Such a pity you couldn't come to our Christmas concert, Mr Richards. Ruby put her heart and soul into that mince-pie song and dance."'
'Did she really say that? Doesn't sound much like Miss Fay to me.'
' "Oh I really shouldn't, Mr Richards. You'll get me squiffy and that would never do." '
'Perhaps she's taken to the bottle to forget Major Morton. She has got a broken heart, don't forget.'
'Probably. Oh flip. Here comes Mr Greenidge with Liesel the Weasel.'
'Glass is falling,' said Mr Greenidge, stamping his feet.
We giggled, Ruby pretended to drop a glass, but I felt uneasy, knowing he was wishing that she wasn't there.
'More snow on the way, I'll be bound,' Mr Greenidge prophesied, hanging his coat and hat on the hat stand and taking off Liesel's coat and touching my face to show how cold it was.
'You ought to get her some boots. Two pairs – she'd look really cute,' Ruby said.
'You could,' I said. 'I saw some dolls' wellingtons in a shop in London. I could ask my gran to get them for you.'
'I don't think so, thank you, Liesel's feet are perfectly well adapted to the weather. She is, after all, a hunting dog, as Herr Brock would confirm.'
'Her claws are certainly sharp enough,' said Ruby, showing the swelling pink weals on her leg where Liesel had leaped up affectionately to greet her.
'Which of you two charming waitresses will be kind enough to convey my order of a pot of coffee and a selection of pastries to the kitchen? How about you, Miss Ruby, in your pretty necklace, if you'd do me the honour?'
When Ruby had gone through he said, 'The dragon's off to her sister's again on Wednesday. While the cat's away, eh?'
'What?'
He wagged his finger playfully at me.
'Now now, don't play the innocent.'
We heard Peter starting to cry.
'I've got to look after my baby brother.'
His voice dropped to a pleading tone. 'Please, dearest, you won't let me down again, will you?'
'OK.'
When Ruby brought the plate I bit into a rock cake, one I had made myself with burned raisins that tasted like coal. His calling Mrs Greenidge the dragon filled me with alarm and I saw two grey mice scampering on the pink quilt of the Greenidge's bed.
'Penny for 'em,' said Mr Greenidge.
'People always say that but they never give you a penny,' Ruby remarked. I could see that she liked Mr Greenidge now, as he was being nice to her.
'I was just wondering if it is going to snow.'
Snowdrifts blocked the doors of the Copper Kettle and banked up against the windows and all was cosy while a blizzard howled outside.
'Here you are then, a silver sixpence apiece. How's that?' said Mr Greenidge.
'Gosh, thanks,' Ruby said.
'Thank you,' I mumbled.

'I've got sixpence, pretty little sixpence,
I love sixpence better than my life.
I spent a penny of it, I lent a penny of it,
I took nothing home to my wife,'

Mr Greenidge sang and Ruby joined in the second verse,

'I've got nothing, pretty little nothing
I love nothing more than my wife.'

'Sounds very jolly in here.'
Percy came in with Peter held against his shoulder, dancing a slow glide between the tables, whistling 'Pedro the Fisherman'.
'Join me in a cup of coffee, Percy,' said Mr Greenidge.
'Don't mind if I do.'
When I brought a cup and saucer for Percy he was telling Mr Greenidge about his dream of the old men THE ORCHARD ON FIREof the village playing chess in the garden of the Copper Kettle under the stars. Mr Greenidge looked doubtful.
'No harm in building castles in the air though, is there?' Percy said dejectedly.
'None at all, old chap. Where would we be without our pipe-dreams, eh?'
Mr Greenidge took out his pipe and his oily green tobacco pouch.
'Come on, Ruby. Let's go.'
'Doreen Vinnegar's ears have gone septic. She might have to have them off,' Ruby told me.
'Good, serves her jolly well right.'
'Don't be so spiteful. She only got those earrings for Christmas. What's up with you today? Why've you got the hump all of a sudden?'
'I haven't.'
We lay on my bed, head to toe, reading. I had Black Beauty and Ruby had Anne of Green Gables.
'It's not fair,' she said. 'I wish I was an orphan and could go and live with Matthew and Marilla.'
'You've got red hair.'
'That's what I mean. It isn't fair, some people have all the luck.'
'She could grow her hair long.'
'Who?'
'Doreen.'
'She'd have to, but she'll still be deaf, won't she, without any ears? I wonder if she'll have to go to the special school on the bus?'
'I suppose so.'

The clock in the hall whirred and struck three. I could hear Mr Greenidge's heart's loud ticking through his pullover as he held me in his arms.
'You didn't tell anyone you were coming?' he asked anxiously.
'No.'
How could I have? At this very moment Ruby might be standing in our kitchen saying, – 'Can April play?' and Betty answering in surprise, 'I thought she'd gone to call for you.' And Mrs Greenidge might leap snarling from behind a door, breathing fire like a dragon.
'How about a nice mug of drinking chocolate to thaw you out?'
The kitchen seemed safer than the bedroom so I said yes, but we sat at the table in the dining-room where I had not been before, with our earthenware mugs of chocolate on mats with hunting scenes, on the lace cloth. It was a cold dark-panelled room with brown-and-white photographs of rows of men in school caps, and a framed map of Stonebridge in the olden days. Tiny brown bubbles burst on the surface of the hot chocolate and the garden shivered outside the window.
'It's nicer than cocoa, isn't it?'
I couldn't think of anything else to say and he was gazing at me through the steam. The clock struck quarter past three.
'Quarter past already,' I said.
'Sup up lassie, I've got a surprise for you.'
I followed him dumbly from the dining-room thinking, I'm not going upstairs again, I don't want to, why should I?, scared of the silent rooms and the ticking clock, which had been restored to life, but he led me into the sitting-room.
A television set was standing in the corner.
'A television.'
'Yes. My birthday present to Mrs Greenidge, but I really bought it for you.'
'For me? How?'
I felt dreadful, as though I had spoiled Mrs Greenidge's birthday. I hadn't even known it was her birthday. It was horrible that she thought he had bought it for her.
'Now you've got the perfect excuse to come here as often as you like.'
'But it's not fair…'
'Don't be silly. Aren't I going to get a kiss to say thank you?'
'Thank you. Can we watch it?'
'There's nothing on now. Come on, where's my kiss?'
I reached up to kiss his lowered cheek.
'Do you want to come upstairs to play with the pretty things?'
'No thank you. I've got to go in a minute.'
'Just for a wee while?'
'I don't want to.'
'Why not, my darling? You enjoyed yourself last time didn't you? Tell me you did.'
'Some of the time,' I had to mumble truthfully, because I had liked playing with the beautiful cabinet.
'There you are then,' he said triumphantly, but I had planted my feet firmly on the carpet and he couldn't make me go upstairs without carrying me.
He sighed and sat down in a big chintz armchair. He patted his knees.
'Come and sit down for a minute.'
Reluctantly I crossed the room and sat awkwardly on a bony knee.
'Let's get comfy; that's better isn't it?'
I felt like a big, stupid doll sitting there with a red face and stiff, itchy legs as he jigged me up and down in the way we did with Peter, to 'Ride a cock horse', or 'This is the way the ladies ride.' I would have died if anybody could have seen me being that enormous baby.
'That's enough of that,' said pushing me off his knee and reaching for his pipe from a little table, knocking over a card-board tube of the coloured spills he used for lighting it some-times. The thin pink wood flared with a sweet-scented blue flame as he held it to the tobacco with a shaky hand.
'You'd better get your coat and hat and run along.'
I picked up a handful of the spills.
'Can I have these?'
'Yes, yes, whatever you like. Take them all.'
I didn't know what I had done to make him cross. When I was putting on my coat he came into the hall.
'Darling April, you won't tell where those spills came from, will you? You could get us both into trouble. Promise me?'
They were a pink and green and blue and yellow spikey fan in my hand. I could use them to make something.
'I promise.'
'That's my girl. Will I see you tomorrow?'
'All right.'
'Not if I see you first, so you can put that in your pipe and smoke it!' I said defiantly as I cycled away on the slippery road. The wind whipped my ears and I realised that I had left my pixie-hood behind. It made me feel sad. I felt sorry for not liking it when Granny's friend had knitted it from red wool and Granny had wrapped it in tissue paper. I felt sad about Mrs Greenidge's birthday, and foolish and sly because I knew I had done something wrong.

Ruby was doing some washing, scrubbing the collar of one of her dad's shirts with a nailbrush. A two-handled pan of handkerchiefs boiled on the stove like a witch's cauldron.
'Look what I found. Somebody must have dropped them on the road.'
I showed her the spills, saying, 'We could make something with them.'
'No we couldn't.'
My vague idea of a coloured construction like Grandpa's Crystal Palace splintered.
'Keep them though. They'll come in useful when we go back to our camp.'
I never wanted to go back there since we had found the handkerchief, and I had never mentioned it to Mr Greenidge. I saw his bearded face, spying through the window of the railway carriage.
Lex's handkerchiefs were bubbling like some snails I had once tried to keep as pets in an empty beer barrel. I had a sudden thought. 'Hey, where are the pullets?'
'What pullets?' said Ruby.
Our own house smelled of damp and scorched washing when I got home. Peter's things were draped THE ORCHARD ON FIREover the fireguard, blocking out the heat.
'Can we get a television?' I asked.
'When pigs fly,' came the reply.
Early the next morning I slipped out without telling anybody. I had been woken by Peter when the sky was still dark and starry and hadn't been able to go back to sleep properly for worrying about my hat. Supposing Mrs Greenidge should have come back and found it? 'You could get us both into trouble.' Mr Greenidge's kind blue eyes grew hard and cruel, terror bulged against the closed doors of the silent rooms. I had dressed quickly, feeling cold and ugly, the brush tangling in my hair.
Mr Greenidge opened the door in his dressing-gown over pyjamas.
'April, my darling, what brings you here so early? What a wonderful surprise.'
'I forgot my pixie-hood.'
His face fell.
'Ah yes, of course. Come in.'
He shut the door behind us.
'It's in the kitchen, come through.'
The house smelled of cold stale pipe smoke but the kitchen was warm. The Times, a half-eaten boiled egg and triangles of toast on a toast rack showed that he had been having breakfast.
'Care to join me?' I could pop another egg in, that would be fun, wouldn't it? We could play that we were an old married couple having breakfast.'
'What about Mrs Greenidge?'
'Damn and blast Mrs Greenidge! Why do you drag her into everything? Can't we just be happy together for a few minutes? Damn Mrs Greenidge to hell! I wish she was dead!'
His face was dark red and his eyes bulging. I backed towards the door. He came towards me with outstretched arms.
'April, don't look so frightened, I beg you – you must never be afraid of me. It's only that I love you so very much.'
'I've got to go. I didn't say I was going out.'
I was still scared of him and shaking with shock at what he had said.
He sighed heavily.
'There's your hat, on the chair.'
He tied it gently under my chin.
'Off you go then, Little Red Riding Hood.'
Then he bared his teeth and snapped them saying, ' "What big teeth you have, grandmother!" "All the better to eat you with, my dear." '

The milkman was in the café having a cup of tea with Titch Vinnegar who had taken to riding on the milk float and helping to deliver the bottles.

To be continued...


 
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