• 09 Mar - 15 Mar, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

You might catch the flash of a kingfisher or the scuttle of a crayfish into a glinting tin can on the river bed, or see a water vole on a green island of crowfoot in midstream, before it ran like a shadow along the roots that laced the mud banks dappled with reflections from the water. In the distance, hop poles spiral away into the heat haze over glittering earth and the white

Conical caps of the oats house are chalky against a sky as pale blue as the scabious that grows with fragile poppies and the scarlet pimpernel sprawling over the marled furrows.

A five–barred gate, to be climbed, not opened, led into the orchard, a dark–green and purple–blue paradise where bloomy plums dropped from the low trees into your hands. The bloom rubbed off on your fingers and you bit into sweet dark–yellow flesh reddening towards a stone set in crimson. Waspa buzzed on pecked and fallen fruit, too gorged on oozing alcoholic pulp to chase you.

What made the orchard miraculous though was an abandoned railway carriage in the far corner, set down as if by magic, its wheels gone, anchored by long grass and nettles, with brambles barring its door. Ruby and I stared at it and at each other. Any enclosed space can inspire a primitive fear, of death or danger, supernatural or human. The orchard became lonely and silent as we gazed.

‘Perhaps there’s a dead body inside.’

‘I dare you to look.’

‘I dare you too.’

‘I said it first.’

We might have run away then, but the railway carriage, dark–windowed, out of place in a thicket of thorns, was the perfect hide–out, house, the camp of our dreams. We fought our way through and scratched, stung and bleeding, with clothes ripped, peered in the earthy, rain–streaked, bird–squirted, berry–smeared windows. It was completely empty, seats and luggage racks removed, except for one cushion sprouting horsehair on the floor.

Perhaps somebody had intended to live there once, or the farmer had meant to use it for some purpose, but it was evident that no one had been inside for years. We forced open the door and stood in the smell of trapped time. The spiders who had made it their home raced away from our intrusion. It belonged us us now. The headquarters of a secret society with two members. We sealed our pact never to tell anybody about it with the blood from bramble scratches.

In the days that followed we would smuggle out two cups, an army blanket of a carpet, candles, knives, matches and comics and what food and drink we could take from the Rising Sun and the Copper Kettle. There was space inside for a kitchen, a bedroom and a living–room. We could not spend all our time there, as we wanted, because we both had to help at home, and couldn’t always go too far afield.

‘Where are you going?’

Doreen, Titchy with little Juney Vinnegar, Albie Fatman and Roger Goodenough barredor way to the stile at the path by the river. Nobody could get past Albie Fatman.

‘Just down the meadows.’

‘So are we then.’

‘You’re not allowed. It’s private property.’

‘Well, nor are you then.’

‘Anyway, there’s a bull in the field.’

‘So what you going there for then?’

‘It’s all right for us, we can run fast and jump in the river if it comes after us, but you’ve got little Juney.’

‘We could tie her to the stile and come back for her later,’ Albie suggested. Juney opened her mouth to wail, showing tiny blackened baby teeth. Titchy was unbuckling his snake belt, until Doreen said, ‘Nah. Who wants to play with them anyway. Let’s go up the rec. Come on, Juney. We know where we’re not wanted. Think themselves so cocky. Serve them right if the bull gets them.’ Then she added, ‘Ruby was my best friend until you came along and took her away, Apeface.’

They trailed away and we went on, towards the orchard and the railway carriage where we were perfectly happy travelling nowhere through fields of high summer.

‘Did Doreen really used to be your best friend?’

‘Nah. I washers, but she wasn’t mine.’

We made little fires of twigs and paper, and beat them out after a few minutes lest the smoke should betray us, but we became habitual smokers ourselves, of Weights, Woodbines, Gold Flake and sweet cigarettes, or we choked on cheroots of rolled–up newspapers or leaves. I was more of a pipe man myself, preferring to clench an acorn stalk in my teeth, but Ruby really enjoyed taking little sips at a cigarette and puffing the smoke as if she were blowing out a candle.

It had happened that one morning at the beginning of the school holidays we were playing a game called Lady Marlene in Ruby’s yard with Doreen and a girl named Sorrel Marlowe who wasn’t really supposed to play with us because she went to a posh school. To play Lady Marlene you had to dress up in your mother’s old clothes, apply lipstick from a stub found in a cast–off handbag or a red Smartie and parade around in your mother’s shoes doing ladylike things. Sorrel proved an unsatisfactory recruit to the game, exposing its fundamental weakness; with questions of ‘What happens now?’ What am I supposed to do next?’ Ruby, as befitted the black taffeta skirt she as wearing, was Lady Marlene.

‘Say something ladylike’ she told Sorrel.

‘You ladies are looking very glamorous this morning.’

Mr Greenidge, with Liesel on her red lead, was standing watching us.

‘Ruby! What do you think you’re doing of? Who said you could have that skirt?’

Ruby’s mother was shouting from an upstairs window. We froze, in he clothes.

‘Get it off and get in here at once! Well, don’t just stand there gawping. And the rest of you, go on, hop it! I’ve a good mind to come round your houses and drag your mother’s best skirts in the dirt. Go on, get our of it, the lot of you. You’ve got on respect for yourselves or anybody else!’

‘I say_’ bleated Mr Greenidge but the window was slammed shut. I was shaking in my shiny blouse, Sorrel was sobbing loudly as she struggled out of a yellow dress and Doreen Vinnegar was half–way down the street. Ruby’s freckles stood out like coins on her white face and arms as. Shamed, she stepped out of the black taffeta skirt and pulled her frock over her vest and knickers. I wanted to run away too but started to gather up the clothes and shoes.

‘You’d better go,’ she said, and walked inside, head bowed, with the slippery heap of garments.

‘Poisonous woman,’ said Mr Greenidge. I could say nothing, because it was true about Mrs Richards, but she was Ruby’s mother.

There was no doubt in my mind that Mr Richards would come to our house and I could see her crashing into the tea–room, pushing my mother aside and charging upstairs to rip her Gorray skirt from its hanger and drag it round the garden.

‘Here, dry your eyes.’

Mr Greenidge handed me his handkerchief.

‘Would you like to take Liesel?’

This was what I had wanted so much but the lead in my hand and Liesel pulling me along were as nothing as I imagined the fearful scene at the Rising Sun, and Mrs Richards’s revenge.

‘Tell you what. How would you like to come to tea with me tomorrow?’

‘Can Ruby come?’

‘Another time perhaps. One visitor at a time is enough for Mrs Greenidge, I think. Don’t forget to ask your mother. About four o’clock.’

I spent the rest of the day hanging round my mother, helping in the tea–room, filling cyclists’ water bottles, expecting Mrs Richards as any moment.

‘You’re very keen on washing up all of a sudden? If I didn’t know you better, I’d think you were after something.’

‘No I’m not.’ I put my arms round her. ‘I’m just glad you’re my mum, not Mrs Richards.’

‘So am I, love.’

She unclasped my hands.

‘Listen, April. There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you.’ She stroked my hair back from my forehead. ‘You’re going to have a baby brother or sister. Won’t that be lovely?’

Pink, white–shawled shock hit me. I was pushing a pram along the High Street past the boys on the steps of the rec. I saw a squirming baby kicking in a grey nappy with a big pin on either side and a grey bib encrusted with mashed carrot.

‘Aren’t you pleased? April?’

I could see she wanted me to be pleased. ‘Yes, of course I am.’

There were girls who knocked on people’s doors asking to take their babies for a walk. I was not one of them.


‘Why? What a question! Remember when you asked Father Christmas for a baby sister or brother?’

‘When I was four.’

‘Yes, well. We thought you’d be so happy about the baby. Somebody to play with.’

‘I don’t need anybody to play with now. I’ve got Ruby. Except she’s probably locked in the cellar.’

‘What do you mean, locked in the cellar?’


It seemed they were getting this baby for me and I didn’t want it. I felt ungrateful and knew I should pretend to be happy.

‘I’m going to need your help. April. You can help give him his bath and take him out in his pram and play with him when I’m busy in the tea–room. I won’t be able to manage without my big girl.’

I looked at her in horror.

‘Will it be a boy, then?’

‘Oh, I don’t know yet. I’ve just got a feeling. She might be a lovely little girl just like you were.’

Everything she said just made it worse.

‘When is it coming?’

‘Oh, not for a long time yet. Around Christmas time. A special Christmas present for you.’

‘Mr Greenidge asked me to tea tomorrow, can I go?’

‘Yes, of course, but April… April, where are you going?’

I ran out, colliding with Percy who was coming in from the garden. I hit him hard in the stomach.

‘I suppose you knew about this all along!’

Where could I go? I dared not go to Ruby’s. I set off for the orchard, by myself for the first time. As I climbed the stile that led to the path along the river I suddenly felt afraid, as if somebody or something was waiting to leap out on me. I jumped down and ran all the way home. In our garden shed, in the smell of sun–warmed wood and earth and creosote, I started to feel a little sorry for this baby whose sister didn’t want it. I knew a boy whose birthday fell on Christmas day and he only got one lot of presents. I might be the same for the baby. I didn’t know if I was pleased or sorry about that. I went inside to pretend to be excited and to apologize to Percy, and everything was all right, only I felt already that nothing was quite as it used to be.

That night, I woke from a dream of terror, of running, in high–heeled shoes and a long black skirt, with a pram through a dark wood trying to save a piglet or a baby and Ruby’s father crashing behind me with an axe, and Rodney Pegg stepped out from behind a tree with a stocking stretched between his hands, and Mr Greenidge was there somewhere. I lay in bed feeling my heart thumping, saved, so glad it wasn’t true, but oppressed and still trembling from the nightmare. My parents’ voices rose and fell reassuringly below and I could hear faint music from the wireless. It was hot in the tangled sheets. I pushed back the covers and knelt up on my bed to open the window. The beam of a torch dazzled my eyes. I screamed.

Percy and Betty came running upstairs.

‘There’s a man in the garden with a torch.’

Percy rushed down while

Betty held me tight.

‘Get back into bed, you’re shivering.’

‘There’s nobody there, pet.

I looked all round.

You must have been dreaming,’ he said when he came in.