• 24 Feb - 01 Mar, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

Now that I am here, in Stonebridge, in the hot still breath of cornfields and the took–took–took of hens and whirring woodpigeons. I don’t know where to go. I walk, a self–conscious stranger, through the village to the church of St Michael and All Angels and up the path, petalled with confetti. If Mr Seabrook were still the verger, nobody would have dared to throw it.

The only sign that Mrs Greenidge’s grave has ever been disturbed is the addition of Mr Greenidge’s name to the stone, in 1964. As I stand in the feathery summer grasses, tracing a coralline fan of lichen with my fingers, I am jolted by an image of Mrs Greenidge, woken from ten year’s sleep, sitting up in a flowered nightdress and stretching out her arms to welcome her husband to the wormy marital bed. Mr Greenidge, rigid in her embrace, is wearing the linen suit I know so well, and I am startled by his eyes, bright as blue glass. I know that I could summon then every feature and line of his face, which had faded until Mr. Greenidge was just an empty suit of white clothes hanging in my memory.

The village of Stonebridge, set in a loop of the river Cray, has attracted many visitors over the years, hop pickers, painters, ramblers and cyclists, and settlers such as some of the residents of the council houses in Brewers Road and Manor Way. Back in 1927 a commercial artist had come to Stonebridge, attached wings to the shoulders of village children and antennae to their foreheads, and photographed them as fairies for a series of glossy sepia postcards tinted with acid yellow, pink, blue and green, that he called ‘Elfin Revels’. The names of elves can be found on the war memorial today, and the ‘Elfin Revels’ cards are prized by connoisseurs of kitsch. Stonebridge’s orchards and hop gardens, woods and hills are illuminated, their autumnal leaves enamelled by magical light, and sometimes in the evenings a white mist rises from the river and lies in layers of vapour over the fields. In 1953, the year of the East Anglian floods and the ascent of Everest, coronation year and the year of the Rosenbergs’ execution and Stalin’s death, when we came to Stonebridge, there were a dozen or so comments whose bowler hats bobbed up and down Station Hill under the massive horse chestnuts and beeches on either side. None of the village girls would have dreamed of waling down Station Hill at night, or, if they did, their dreams were nightmares, because everybody knew there was a man with a sack and a knife waiting to jump out on you. Even by day the hill was long and silent under the heavy leaves.

My parents, Percy and Betty Harlency, were brought up in the licensed trade and met and married in that profession. After Percy’s demob from the Catering Corps, we lived above a series of public houses which time has condensed into one bleak establishment with cold, stained–carpeted rooms too vast for our few pieces of furniture and a green linoleumed kitchen smelling of gas. We had left the last of the pubs, a gloomy gin palace in Streatham, after some disagreement with the brewers, and were living in a rented room in Tooting, while my parents were negotiating the lease of the Copper Kettle Tea–room in Stonebridge. The country, and a café, were a new venture for us Londoners. The Copper Kettle was a bargain, going astonishingly cheap, that it seemed we could just, with judicious borrowing, afford. I think now that my parents falling out with the brewers must have been connected with their politics. Unusually for publicans, Percy and Betty were strongly leftwing and they had pinned up a petition to President Eisenhower to save the Rosenbergs on the wall of the public bar. Their petition attracted as many perforations from darts as signatures and the President never acknowledged it. Or it might have been that they chalked up too many drinks on the slate. There is nobody to ask now. We were a scattered, deracinated family, not buyers but tenants who took out short leases on life. Grandma and Grandpa Harlency had both paid the price of their profession by this time, although Granny and Grandpa Fitz, Betty’s parents, the Fitzgeralds, were still the genial hostess and host of the Drovers Tavern, Herne Hill.

The rain started when we were in the train, and our first impression of Stonebridge was of a green, stinging, miserable place. We took the wrong turning out o the station and sheltered in a midgy, nettly little wood. Betty’s light brown hair darkened by the rain, drips from the tortoiseshell combs that hold it off her face; her red lipstick matches her red and white patterned dress. Percy takes off his jacket and drapes it over her shoulders. His white shirt, belted into flannels, and his curly hair are soaked. I’m the one in tears between them, eight years old. Hindsight blobs a blister onto a pink heel above a fallen–down sock and unplaits one brown pigtail from a lost ribbon.

We went on after a while and found the village, and the Rising Sun, a pretty little pub with a thatched porch, hung with green Virginia creeper. ‘Civilization!’ said Percy. He looks at his watch. ‘Time for a quick on I think’.

‘Give us a chance to dry of a lit,’ Betty agrees. ‘We don’t want to arrive looking like a bunch of drowned rats.’

A bag of crisps was handed to me, shivering under the porch. I took out my comic from my blazer pocket and found that it was a soggy mass with all the colours run together. Then my heart sank into my wet sandals as a piano struck up and my mother’s rich contralto rolled out ‘The Kerry Dancing’ into the rain. Oh to think of it, oh to dream of it, fills my heart with tears. I decided to find the toilets, following a sign pointing to a yard behind the pub and as I approached I could smell burning.

I saw a flash of red and green and blue and yellow flames through the half–open door of the Ladies and realized that a girl of about my own age had set fire to the roll of toilet paper. Noticing me, she tore off the burning sheet and threw it into the bowl and came out, pushing a box of matches into her pocket. I stared at her. She wore an emerald–green dress and her hair, in long pigtails with curly ends, was so red as to be almost scarlet, and the sun, suddenly blazing out, struck a fuzzy aureole of red–gold round her head and lit the freckles scattered like seeds over her face, arms and bare legs. Black, laceless plimsolls were on her speckled feet. I went inside and closed the wooden door with its big iron latch. When I came out the girl was waiting.

‘Why were you setting the paper on fire?’

She shrugged. ‘I like it. Do you want a go?’

She gave me the matches and I struck one, holding it to the burned edge of the shiny paper and stepping back in alarm as it glowed and the flames licked upwards. We watched it for a moment and drowned it.

‘What’s your name?’ she asked.

‘April. What’s yours?’

Her eyes were green, like her dress and a glass ring on her finger, and her eyelids pink as if she might have been crying recently.

‘Ruby. We’ve got some piglets. Do you want to see them?’

Inevitably, one of the curly–tailed darlings was called Percy, and there were Peter, Petunia, Primrose, Pauline, Paul, twelve of them, with perfect little snouts and hoofs and their enormous mother Pansy.

‘Can I stroke them? Can I pick one up?’ Melting with love, I wanted to clasp a piglet to my chest and tuck it in my blazer and take it home to Tooting. I wanted a piglet more than anything in the world.

‘No. You mustn’t touch them or Pansy might go for you. She could take your arm off right to the elbow with a single bite.’

‘April Where’ve you got to?’

It was my mother’s voice.

‘We’re going to live here. Probably. I’ll come and play.’

I ran to join my parents, Ruby following slowly and staring after me.

‘Making friends?’ said Percy. ‘Proper little carrot–top, isn’t she? Temper to match, I’ll be bound. You’ll have to mind you Ps and Qs with that one.’

‘Red and green should never be seen, except upon an Irish queen,’ Betty remarked. ‘Do you know, when I popped in to pay a visit the paper was all charred as if somebody had set it alight. Charming!’

I opened my mouth to speak, and closed it again. It was as if Ruby and I were already conspirators.

A giant’s tarnished copper kettle was suspended over the door of the tearoom, which was of frosted glass hung with a dingy lace curtain. Inside, the parchment shades of the electric candles on the walls above the dark oak tables and chairs were cracked and splintered: a single pink iced fancy had fossilized on a tiered cake stand and from the central light fitting a flypaper dangled, clotted with flies and bluebottles. To the left was a tiny private sitting–room, and squatting behind the tearoom, the kitchen was freckled and speckled with the dusty grease of years and led out to a garden where a smelly toilet, with rough–cut slices of newspaper impaled in a nail, and a wooden shed stood among tall mildewed weeds thick with the red insects children call bloodsuckers, and broken chairs and tables. On a shelf in the shed was that mouldy suitcase you always find, whose rusted locks threaten to spring open on something unspeakable.

Upstairs, the larger bedroom with an adjoining boxroom, filled with stained mattresses and bits of crockery, overlooked the street. In the bathroom an ellipse of pink, black–veined soap lay on the basin and a perished rubber ball bung from the end of the chain. The smaller bedroom’s window would have opened above the garden, had it not been sealed with gravy–coloured paint and throughout the living accommodation tones of meat and two veg prevailed. All in all, the Copper Kettle was a disgrace. We took it.

In the train on the way home I pictured Ruby and myself side by side in a class–room sitting at polished desks with inkwells. When we arrived at the Peggs’, where we were lodging, Rodney Pegg, the son of the house, twenty–one with bad skin, bumped his bicycle into the hall behind us.

‘Been out for a spin?’ Percy tried a friendly overture which fell flat on the lino. The Peggs hated us, and we hated them. I had been sleeping with a knife under my pillow ever since Rodney Pegg had threatened to strangle me with one of my mother’s stocking if I told anybody how he had trapped me up against the wall with his bicycle and kissed me. Mrs Pegg was in the kitchen frying mince, with her hair, not yet released for the evening, snarling in a row of pipe cleaners across het forehead.

‘Oh for a kitchen of my own,’ Betty sighed. Percy went out for fish and chips which we ate in our room, against house rules, but we didn’t care because soon we would be shot of the Peggs for ever.

When we left their house for the last time, before we were out of the gate, Mrs Pegg was hanging a notice in the window: Vacancy. No Blacks. No Irish.

No Pets.


The kettle had been taken down, burnished and rehung over the door, which was draped with a new lace curtain gathered at the waist, where it caught the sun, flashing and winking an invitation to the ladies of Stonebridge to take morning coffee and afternoon tea. Inside, a warming pan was a lesser sun and a belt of horse brasses, taken from the Princess of Teck, Streatham, hung down on either side of the fireplace, framing a screen embroidered with a crinoline lady watering holly hocks. Percy had replaced the cracked parchment with pleated shades of stiff pink paper. Our hands were sore from sugar soap and my parent’s fingers pricked from sitting up all night sewing tablecloths and there were specks of paint in our hair.

We had warm scones steaming in a tea towel, jam and thick yellow cream, fan–shaped wafers and napkins folded into fans, a buzzing fried full of ice–cream, and false knickerbocker glories and peach melbas and banana splits that looked more delicious than the real thing, a little pot of wild flowers on every table. Nobody came. It was a long, hot day of false hopes and humiliation.

At half–past five Percy was turning the sign on the door to ‘closed’ and Betty was crying in the kitchen when the bell above the tea–room door jangled, and a fat, middle–aged woman with long grey hair caught back in a dirty ribbon and a variety of coloured slides stood, looking round, with a sneering expression. No doubt it was the day’s disappointment as much as her appearance that made Percy say ‘We’re closed’ to our first customer.

‘Never mind about that,’ the woman said. ‘I’ve only come to have a look. Mrs Vinnegar, late of the Copper Kettle, and happy to be out of it. Got my own council house now.’

Mrs Vinnegar took cigarettes and matches from her dress pocket and lit up, and exploded in a fit of wet coughing.

‘Is this the kiddie?’ she spluttered. I backed away. ‘I’ve got seven of my own.’

‘They never should have closed me down,’ she said. ‘What–ever anybody might tell you, I’ve been catering functions for twenty–five–odd years with never a complaint except from certain spiteful busybodies sat you have to expect that.’

‘Closed you down?’ Percy stared at her.

‘Next time they want a Coronation Party in the

Village Hall, they can do it themselves, I told them. Food poisoning, my eye! Greed,

I call it.’

Mrs Vinnegar waddled out, giving our ‘Under New Management’ sign a contemptuous twirl and spraying ash over a tablecloth and its little vase of flowers.