• 13 Apr - 19 Apr, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

‘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 Greehidge’s. April’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 cone.

Doreen put her arm around Myrna, who lifted he 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 hut 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 cruet set.’

I laughed with relief, but there were problems which could not be melted like ice.


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.

Miss Rix was tall, with a pale, oval face and black hair drawn into a loose knot from a white centre parting and she wore fabrics with zigzags, dots and squiggles.

‘Matisse is my God,’ she told me. ‘Who is yours?’


Miss Codrington, fair and slender, reminded Ruby and me of the Wilow Fairy in Fairies of the Trees by Cicely Mary Barker. You could just see her in a green dress, with her golden hair loose, holding onto the long green leaves while she dipped her toes in the green river, and it was easy to imagine wings like a dragonfly’s growing from her shoulders. The two artists had a Bedlington terrier, Boy, who looked like a little grey lamb, and a hive of bees, and white ducks who lived in a wooden house on the river bank at the end of the orphans’ vegetable garden.

‘I’m surprised that two such attractive girls haven’t managed to find themselves a husband,’ Betty said.

‘They’re artists,’ said Percy. ‘They live for their art. Even so…’

Miss Rix and Miss Codrington were expecting twenty weekend guests and on Sunday a professor from London, Professor Linus Scoley, was coming to give a lecture: ‘Samuel Palmer, Ancient or Modern?’ They were in a flap about having to cater for so many and had come to ask if their visitors could have their meals at the Copper Kettle, and if we would provide afternoon tea on the Sunday at Beulah House.

‘We’ve bitten off more than we can chew,’ they confessed, ‘and we’re up the creek without a paddle.’

‘We’re really more of an eggs, sausage, beans and fried slice establishment,’ Betty told them, looking worried. ‘I know it says FUNCTIONS CATERED FOR on that notice on the door, but truthfully we had tea parties more in mind. There’s been no call, up till now, and we haven’t got the facilities for anything too sophisticated like your London people would expect.’

‘Oh, please, Mrs Harlency! We simply won’t have time to be in the kitchen as well as running the classes. Some composite dish is all that’s called for a simple goulash perhaps or ratatouille…?’

Betty stared at her speechless, slowly shaking her head.

Miss Codrington bowed her own head in her hands, her fair hair falling over her fingers, a broken fairy mumbling.

‘It was a stupid idea. We’ve overreached ourselves. We’ll be the laughing stock of the art world. We’ll just have to cancel the whole thing.’

She lifted wild, despairing eyes to Miss Rix, who aid, ‘Too late for that. I suppose I suppose I could get Mrs Vinnegar in…’

That clinched it.

‘No need for that,’ Percy stepped into the conversation, ‘we can’t have you ladies being the laughing stock of the art world. We’ll cope somehow, and the Copper Kettle will do you proud.’

Miss Rix threw her long arms round him and kissed him on the cheek.

‘You darling man! Oh, bless you, bless you both! Any time you want some free tuition, painting, sketching, papier mache or burnt poker work just say the world!’

‘Beadwork and barbola,’ put in Miss Codrington.

‘That won’t be necessary,’ said Betty a trifle sharply.

Percy was still looking surprised and pleased by the kiss.

‘I do hope it won’t be too much work for you, Mrs Harlency,’ they kept saying, now that it was settled.

‘Oh, do call me Betty, and I may look like a barrage balloon on legs but I’m fit as a flea.’

‘Betty, you’e an angle! You’ve saved our lives. And you must call us Dittany and Bobs, now that we’re such friends.’

‘I hardly like to,’ said Betty after they had gone, ‘but if those are their names…’

Dittany Codrington and Bobs Rix: I loved saying those names. Bobs was short for Roberta.

Betty told Ruby to ask her mother if it would be all right for Ruby to help out as a waitress for a small payment.

‘She couldn’t care less what I do,’ said Ruby.

‘I’ll ask her then, if you like,’ Betty decided.

The visitors were allowed to make their own tea and coffee as they wished in the big kitchen of Beulah House, and cocoa and buns would be provided last thing at night.

Friday night meant supper for twenty-two, including Dittany Codrington and Bobs Rix. The café had never looked so beautiful, with all the lamps glowing in their pink shades and fairy lights looped round the picture rail. Bobs Rix had put a bottle of wine on each of the tables that were in use; she and Dittany ate at a table for two, which meant they had a bottle of wine between them, while the others shared among four. The glasses were on hire from the Rising Sun.

A grinning slice of melon with its teeth sprinkled with ginger was set at each place. The guests themselves, in their artistic colours, were brightly coloured candles wavering and flickering round the tables.

‘Too too quaint,’ I heard one say.

‘Absolutely priceless,’ a pallid man asserted, forking a square tooth of melon into his pale mouth set in a long white-and-yellow beard.

The main course was a curry which went down very well with the artists.

‘My compliments to the chef,’ a stout man in a wine-coloured jacket told me, ‘I’m an old India hand, and I can safely say this is as good as anything I tasted in Bombay.’

‘Oh, better,’ his wife, in a cardigan embroidered with tufts of wool, corrected him. ‘I could never impress on Chutney the importance of getting the right proportion of curry powder to the fried sultanas and apple and mince.’

She choked.

‘Do you think we could have some water?’ her husband twinkled.

‘What a pretty glass,’ embroidered cardy gasped, gulping her water.

‘It had St Ivel cheese spread in it,’ I explained, ‘that’s why its got those blue flowers on it.’

‘Perfect, said wine-coloured jacket. ‘Of course his name wasn’t really Chutney, it was something unpronounceable. Chutney was just an affectionate nickname. He loved it, didn’t he darling? He was our cook,’ he explained.

The meal, finished of with ice-cream and fancy wafers, was a triumph. One of the artists even licked his glass dish in a jokey way, going ‘yum, yum, yum.’ Percy, though, was conferring worriedly with Bobs Rix, whose hair was slipping from in knot and falling in curtains on either side of her rosy face.

‘When you’ve been in the licensed trade as long as I have…’ he was saying.

‘We’ll just have to adjourn to the pub,’ Bobs decided, ‘and they can pay for their own.’

People were trooping through the kitchen and out the back to the toilets. Betty reluctantly directed the more impatient upstairs to our bathroom. At last they were all gone, leaving us with precarious mountains and hills of washing up. The geyser was going fit to blow a gasket and we boiled kettles and saucepans to keep the hot water coming.

Half-way through, Percy made Betty go to bed. She looked exhausted and we all had to be up early for the breakfast. I was spreading a clean cloth on a table when something made me look up. Mr Greenidge’s face was staring at me through the window, and disappeared.

Fewer than a dozen of the guests turned up for breakfast, looking ill and bed-tempered.

‘I’ve paid for this so-called weekend and if that involves eating a fried breakfast, so be it, but I draw the line at prunes,’ said a women grimly. Her long black hair was beaded with yellow where it had trailed into the yolk of her egg. ‘I don’t know what they put in that curry last night but whatever it was, it was lethal.’

Betty, who overhead this, bristled.

‘I have it on good authority that the Rising Sun was drunk dry last night and eaten out of pickled eggs.’ The woman shuddered and her teacup rattled in its saucer. She pushed away her plate and lit a cigarette.