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30 June - 06 July , 2012
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THE ORCHARD ON FIRE
 
FICTION

'You must think I'm mad, out there like Nebuchadnezzar in the grass, but the thing is – I …'
'Sorry?'
'You know, Nebuchadnezzar the King of the Jews? Bought his wife a pair of shoes?'
Now he'll think I'm an anti-Semitic loony.
'I beg your pardon?' he says.
Pardon Mrs Arden, me chicken's in your garden.
'Are you in some sort of trouble? Can I help at all?'
THE ORCHARD ON FIREHis grey watered-silk eyes are kind but he is just a boy. To his left, a screen displays a collage made by Sunday-school children. There is a table of paperback books below the blue Mothers' Union banner with white fleur-de-lys.
'No. I don't think so. But thank you. You see, I've just found, I used to live here, and I've just come across the grave of my oldest, my dearest, my best…'
I run out of the church. Where the light streams through stained glass as it did onto the landing at Kirriemuir when you could change the day to gold, emerald, sapphire or ruby red by holding a sweet paper up to your eye.
I am sitting on the bench outside when I hear the iron key turn in the lock and his footsteps on the stone flags, hesitating. I could look up from the mirror of my compact but I deny him the chance to comfort me, a hard-faced woman with a mascaraed tissue crumpled in her lap applying lipstick in the cruel sunshine.

I walk past cottages leaning against each other in gardens of flowers and beans and sun-split speckled tomatoes on withered vines, past the war memorial by the river and white Beulah House with its dovecot and campanile, past the school playground with a bleached mitten unravelling on a spike of the fence, and I see Ruby everywhere. On her bicycle, by the fuchsia hedge of the Rising Sun, red and purple, and the leaves of the Virginia creeper hang limply in the heat.
The gravel of Kirriemuir has been laid to lawn, the hedge has gone and a child's bicycle lies on its side on the grass. Sometimes, in memory, that pink quilted bed is as innocuous as a rose, and I think, what Mr Greenidge did wasn't really so bad. I am as sure that he loved me as I am certain that Rodney Pegg used his bicycle for excursions to the country to prey on little girls. And then I remembered how Mr Greenidge corroded my childhood with fear and anxiety and deceit. I still dream sometimes that Liesel is alive again.
The post office is gone and the Co-op has been converted into somebody's front room, but amazingly, Belinda-Jayne is still there and the other shops are under different names, except for Boddy's where a descendant of T. D. Boddy is still butchering and purveying. The village is more or less the same and yet the last establishment I expect to find is the Copper Kettle.
THE ORCHARD ON FIREThe kettle is boiling over with pansies and trailing geraniums, the tea-room has grown a shop on its left-hand side. A wooden sign says ANTIQUES BYGONES KITCHENALIA. I stand, empty as a sieve sluiced with tears, and stare. Kitchenalia. There is a tub of wooden rolling pins, our Kitchmagig potato masher. Utensils with scorched handles of yellow banded in green, rusted bun tins that print fancy leaves on the bottoms of your fairy cakes, boxes of steel knives and forks and spoons, a St Ivel cream-cheese glass painted with blue flowers, a yellow kitchen cabinet with sliding glass doors, pale-blue Pyrex pudding dishes, a Chad Valley swan and a big tin Triang tortoise. There is the enamel Forestry Commission sign with painted flames that used to hang above the fire brooms in Tippetts Wood. I cannot bear to look inside the tea-room itself. I might catch some stranger by the arm and say, 'We used to have little pink-shaded lamps and fresh flowers on every table and fairy-lights.' People are rummaging through the boxes outside the shop, I know what they're up to, with their Kitchenalia, purchasing pieces of our lives. They are trying to buy their way into the past they think we had, they want to be snug and safe down Rabbit Lane. A thousand bus tickets faded to the colours of old ration books won't get them there and they can force all the carrots in the world through a Mouli grater, but they'll never find their way into the burrow where Bobbity and Sandy live.
Walking back to the station I pass or am passed by various imposters who imagine that they live here, but I know that the real people of Stonebridge are all about me, in Brownie uniforms or their mothers' shoes, wearing rhubarb leaves as sunhats and painting their lips red with a Smartie, pursuing their concerns as they always do. They are fishing for crayfish or preparing for a Grand Dance at the Village Hall. They are shopping at the Co-op and sewing run-and-fell seams under the tutelage of Miss Fay, whose dancing shoes are waiting in her desk, and piercing the grass with the steel tips of flimsy easels. They are racing along the High Street in a box on wheels and sitting on the bridge swinging their legs over the river shouting out rude comments to passers-by. Had yer eyeful, or d'you want the ha'penny change?
Whatever became of those glass salt-and-pepper pots with red bakelite caps that I won at the Silvers' garden party? Hoopla – they may be kitchenalia now, but Leo is standing on the ridge of the waterfall waving, 'I'm in quarantine,' invulnerable to the bomb that blew him to pieces on a photographic assignment to Cambodia for his newspaper. A balloon floats past like a soap bubble on a string.
Ruby missed Charmaine Vinnegar's wedding to John Cheeseman and the birth of Charmaine's pigeon pair, Pearl and Dean, a few months later. We thought they might have the reception at the Copper Kettle but the Vinnegars hired the village hall, luckily as it turned out, because a prawn cocktail fight broke out and Constable Cox was called. Anyway, we didn't have a licence.
I wrote to Ruby about it but my letter came back marked 'Gone Away'. It was not long after that that Percy and Betty, both of them broken with tears, told me that we were so badly in debt that we had to go back to London and lodge at the Drovers Tavern until we got back on our feet and found a tenancy somewhere.
Ruby and I lost touch.
I am sitting on the station opposite the platform where Professor Linus Scoley descended from the train. The booking hall is closed. I had to come in the side entrance, and I neither know nor care when there will be a train. White bindweed is tumbling down the fence behind me and the little pink convolvulus running around the iron feet of the bench. The advertisement for Virol has gone, undoubtedly sold as an amusing rusty Bygone. I press the clayx of a white bindweed bloom to feel the flower jump out and smell the rank green scent. Grandmother, grandmother, pop out of bed. Why did Ruby never try to contact me when we were older? There aren't so many Harlencys in the London phone book that she couldn't have located me, through Peter, after I had married and changed my name for a while. Did she write to the Copper Kettle and were her letters returned, or did she think that I just hadn't bothered to reply to her or that I had found a new best friend? Perhaps, as I did, she thought we had all the time in the world to find each other again.
Robert Coppard. I picture a big, gentle man with hair the colour of copper-beech leaves in a work shirt washing putty from his hands at a kitchen sink. He gives his children the left-over putty which they sniff, loving its smell, and roll into silvergrey balls and slap between their hands to make imprints of their small palms laced with the lines of destiny. A teller of tales. Or perhaps he is an artist rising clay from his fingers, while in his studio a head of Ruby wrapped in wet cloths waits for resurrection, a sculpture that will transcend the standard stone bed spread with a green marble quilt.
I was talked into marrying a man I did not love quite enough and we had a cottage in Dulwich Village with a white picket fence and hollyhocks. We divorced after seventeen years of amicable childless marriage jogging along in dullish tracksuits. Last year on the afternoon of the fifth of November, it was wet and THE ORCHARD ON FIREalready almost dark at three o'clock and when I was shopping in Superdrug, the shining coloured and sparkling Christmas gifts suddenly looked garish and tawdry in the fluorescent light and a male voice was slurping and droning 'In the bleak midwinter', and it felt like the end of the world.
Further up the road a council mini-van stopped outside a video shop and the sliding door opened and six or seven boys climbed out; and it was the bleakest thing. I knew that some at least of those boys did not want to be choosing videos on the afternoon of November the fifth and were taking them back to a house where who knows what goes on, and although they were dressed in padded jackets with flashes of neon pink and green, and trainers, their eyes were the eyes of the orphans of Beulah House. I walked on past Woolworth's which was boxed in with silver scaffolding and I saw him, my husband Colin, pushing a striped double buggy skilfully through the shoppers, and it was as if one of the silver scaffolding poles rammed me in the heart.
It was Peter, our proper little Bobby Buster, our cuddly Jim whom everybody wanted to eat, who did the decent thing and gave Percy and Betty four lovely grandchildren.
A train is coming up the line like a zipper knitting together the two lines of the track behind it, taking me back through the white and green and purple July to London. As I stare out of the window at the clustering suburbs I see, in the backyard of a warehouse, leaning against a wall, a row of tall coloured carpets exposed to the weather and in the sunshine they have the soft smudgy radiance of assorted chalks or pastels in the hues of hollyhocks and I feel a spasm of joy through my grief for Ruby.

Jaz is going out as I come in. She is wearing tailored shorts, subject to that law of nature which ordains that small broad-shouldered girls with pointy calves and noses must accentuate them with hems above the knee and mushroom-shaped hairstyles, and it strikes me as strange that she believes me to be a minor character in her drama while I think that she is a bit player in mine, nevertheless affection for her engulfs me in the hall.
'You decided not to stay then. How was your friend? The cats have been fine.'
'She was fine. Lovely.'
'You look a bit – I don't know. I think you've caught the sun perhaps.'
'Anyway, thanks and have a nice time wherever you're going. You all take care, y'hear.'

Bobs's and Dittany's Fungi of the Kentish Woods, Fields and Hedgerow is in my bookcase next to their pale-blue privately printed poems Dog's Mercury. Polysyllabic Dittany Codrington and brisker Bobs Rix. The coloured plates have retained their delicate and vivid colours. Had I been the destroying angel in a cotton frock and wellingtons?
Lex and Gloria's crime was that they were given a work of art and they treated it as if it was worthless with no reverence for the care that had gone into it, all that precision stippling and the rainbows in the pigtails that ended in two paint brushes of wet red hair in the rain. Ruby dips a plait into the paint water in Art and scatters an arc of tinted droplets over the blue absorbent sugar paper to the annoyance of Miss Fay, Miss Fay in her kilt with its Cairngorm pin and her criss-cross dancing shoes, after the death of Major Morton. In remembering the past one inevitably makes elisions and takes meteorological liberties: drops stitches, embroiders and unpicks. It was true that I had, as I told Jaz, kept a journal for many years but, looking back, I must admit that many of my childish entries read only 'wrote my diary'. A bowl of purple plums blooms on my table. I was unable to walk past the greengrocer's sign that said Kentish plums.
Ruby and I lost touch. In half a century we never celebrated her birthday together. Now I have to think about Ruby's extraordinary present to me, the names of her two children, and how to honour it; and as I sit in the sun in the ravaged garden in the scent of crimson roses watching the cats, I take the pint of Miss Fay's most important lesson at last: kilt up your skirts, plump up your pumps and on with the dance.

FICTION
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