THE ORCHARD ON FIRE

by Shena Mackay
  • 18 May - 24 May, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

‘Everything all right, Mr Greenedige?’ Betty came through as Bobs, wearing a russetcoloured dress, walked in with a basket of mushrooms. Her hair was tied back, in a spotted scarf.

‘Ticketyboo, Mrs Harlency.’

Although it wasn’t. In some ways it seemed worse, because I would never want to go to Kirriemuir again.

‘Dittany and I have been helping ourselves to nature’s bounty,’ Bobs said, ‘and we thought you might like some.’

‘Mushrooms on toast, yum, yum.’ Mr Greenidge snapped his beak like Wise Owl in Wise Owl’s story. ‘Where did you find those splendid specimens?’

‘Just in the meadow by the river, but there are masses all over the place, this seems to be a bumper year for them. Dittany and I are going to make a study of the local fungi, we might even make a book together, illustrated with woodcuts perhaps, or watercolours.’

‘I could do you some on toast, Mr Greenidge,’ Betty offered.

‘Thank you kindly my dear, but no.’ Mr Greenidge stood up, and put some money on the table.

‘Methinks I might go ahunting nature’s bounty, myself. A little treat for Mrs Greenidge. My lady wife, alas, cannot get about as much as she would like,’ he said to Bobs.

‘I know, rotten isn’t it? Early mornings and evenings are the best times for picking. Actually there are many more edible fungi than we realize, but one has to be careful, of course.’

‘Come, Liesel, my little truffle-hunter.’

Mr Greenidge ruffled my hair on his way out. We heard Liesel snap at Boy who was sitting outside.

‘Actually,’ Bobs said, ‘I believe they use dachshunds for hunting badgers in Germany.’

‘Trust them,’ said Betty.

‘It’s not Liesel’s fault,’ I said, remembering Miss Fay telling us that Londoners had thrown stones at dachshunds in the street in the First World War. Truffle and Nougat was the name of one of the Black Magic chocolates Mr Greenidge had given me.

‘ “Samuel Palmer: Ancient or Modern?’ We’ll never know now,’ Bobs sighed.

‘Well, I suppose there’s a bit of the ancient and modern in all of us,’ Betty attempted to console. Her mouth twitched as though she were trying not to laugh.

She fried the mushrooms for our tea in bubbling black butter that soaked through the toast.

Eleven

Winter arrived on the fifth of November. The blazing bonfire on the recreation ground roasted our faces while our feet froze in our wellingtons on the muddy grass. A cold, damp pall of gunpowder hung over the village the next day as children collected the dead volcanoes, burnt-out fireworks and twisted sparklers encrusted with cold black lava. Then thick white crunchy frost sparkled everything and made lace curtains on the inside of the windows, and the afternoon sun was a low red lantern lighting the fields. Each morning we hoped that the river would be frozen overnight but although puddles crackled underfoot, the river ran on bitterly brown. Workmen were up on the slippery roof of the village hall repairing the damage done by a volley of rockets on the night of the Labour Party Grand Guy Fawkes Dance. Young Conservatives from the town were under suspicion, although the Vinnegar twins had been questioned as a matter of routine.

Betty had been sitting watching the waltzers gliding over the talcum-powdered floor to the music of Jack Frost and the Frigid-aires when it seemed that a bomb had been dropped. The lemonade leaped out of he glass as the dancers scattered. Nobody was hurt, Jack Frost’s baton pointed and the Frigidaires blitzed into ‘Begin the Beguine’ and the dance went on. Betty was quite shaken though. Percy and Mrs Morse, the membership secretary of the party, won a spot prize, a bottle of sherry which he had let Mrs Morse have. Nothing to do with her complexion as you might have thought, Betty explained to me, a spot prize was awarded to the couple caught in the spotlight when all the lights were turned off.

It got dark so early that Ruby and I couldn’t go far after school, and the long walk to an icy railway carriage was uninviting compared with eating cinnamon toast and hot buttered crumpets in the Copper Kettle. Rehearsals for the school play were underway, and I discovered the role of a mince pie was more taxing than one might have thought. We glued blobs of cotton-wool snow onto the class-room windows and made paperchains and shiny red and green lanterns and cut out holly leaves and berries to stick on Christmas cards to take home for our parents, and when you looked up from your work you thought it really was snowing because the windows looked so pretty and it felt safe and happy in side the class-room with its glowing coke stove where Miss Fay warmed the back of her skirt and dried wet gloves and socks.

On clear frosty nights the pavements sparkled with rime and rang beneath our feet, frozen plants creaked in the gardens and the sky was full of cold flashing stars that seemed as bright as the star of Bethlehem. A magical, glittering transformation had taken place in the Co-op. Ruby and I stood outside, window shopping in clouds of frozen breath, planning what we would buy. You could almost smell the French Fern soap and talc, the Cusson’s Apple Blossom, the Bronnley Lemons, the baskets of fruit soaps nestling in tinsel, through the glass; you longed to feel them heavy in your hand and sniff the sot yellow soapy bloom of the lemons, and the green pine cones and the tang of the tangerines. And there were round and rectangular tins of toffees with Father Christmas or kittens or puppies on the lid, and hexagonal boxes of rose-scented Turkish delight dredged in powdery icing sugar, dried figs and glistening dates on their bony stem in an open box whose lid, lying alongside, showed three camels black against an orange desert sky, like the camels of the three kings; and the precious gifts, in the Co-op window, the lipstick in a foil lantern that Ruby wanted for her mother, the crystallized fruits, the scent I was saving up to buy for Betty, glittered like gold and frankincense and myrrh.

Tangerine peel and walnut shells burned with green and blue flames on the red coals of the fire. Flames hat flared up like dragon’s breath to lick the grains of salt we had sprinkled on the nuts, and sputtered, sometimes a coal spat and split to show its volcanic heart and sot grey ash sifted beneath the grate. Percy was reading, Betty was reading and knitting and I was making Christmas cards. A concert was playing on the radio. My growing disappointment with my crayoned holly and Christmas trees and nativities was compounded when Percy, leaning over the table, said, ‘I like this one, of the nun doing her ironing.’

‘It’s Mary with baby Jesus in the manger!’

‘Percy, don’t tease oooh.’

Betty pressed her fist into her back.

‘What’s up, love?’

‘Ow, nothing! Just my back playing up.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘I think so.’

Percy went to make a cup of tea. When he came back Betty said, ‘That’s how it started with April. I had chronic backache for two days.’

‘But it’s not due for another couple of weeks.’

‘I know. Still, you never know…’

Nothing happened that night, but the next morning I was woken by a sweet spicy smell, and when I went down Betty had already made two dozen mince pies which were cooling on wire racks.

‘We’ve decided it would be best if I took you up to your gran’s today, pet,’ Percy said, ‘to be on the safe side. It looks as though the baby might come early.’

‘But it’s the school play the day after tomorrow! What about Ruby, she can’t do the mince-pie dance on her own!’

A baby cocooned in a white shawl, my brown crepe-paper mince-pie costume, flashed through my brain as I flung myself on Betty, clinging to her, the baby bulking between us.

An hour later I was half dragged, half-propelled through the door o the Copper Kettle. My last sight of my mother was blurred by the cotton-wool snow I had stuck to our windows as I tried finally, to behave like a big, sensible girl. The closed sign was on the door. We hadn’t had time to buy the Christmas tree.

Mr Greenidge was coming along the road with Liesel; I knew he would have been watching out for me on my way to school where Ruby was now, wondering what happened to me and Miss Fay, furious at my missing the dress rehearsal, would have marked me absent on the register. Percy put down my suitcase to speak to Mr Greenidge. I bathed Liesel’s neck with tears.

‘So we think the stork is on his way?’ he twinkled. ‘And little missy’s off to London town.’

‘I don’t want to go. I want to stay here and look after Mummy.’

Mr Greenidge slapped his forehead. ‘Stupid of me I wish I’d thought sooner April could come to us. I’m sure Mrs Greenidge would be delighted.’

I looked at Percy, not knowing what to think.

‘It’s a kind thought, but her granny’s expecting her and it’s all arranged. Wouldn’t like to disappoint her. Come on, April, or we’ll miss our train.’

‘Cheer up,’ said Mr Greenidge. ‘Look on the bright side. This way you’ll be home for Christmas.’

He took two shillings from his pocket and gave them to me, looking so kind that for a moment I wished I could go with them.

As we passed the Co-op with its window heaped with treasures, I said, ‘I don’t see why I have to go at all. It’s not as if I’m a baby. I can look after myself and you, and the tea-room.’

‘We don’t know how long your mother will be in hospital and if you’re at your granny’s I can come and go without having to worry about you. It won’t be long and when you come back your baby brother or sister will be waiting for you.’

I saw a stork flapping its big wings over the village holding a baby suspended in a white nappy in its long beak, like the stork from my christening cake, which still tasted faintly of marzipan if you licked its hollow inside. Not that I believed now that the stork brought babies, but I had no knowledge with which to replace the image. Hospital was a grey frightening word; a sign saying HOSPITAL, PLEASE DRIVE QUIETLY hinted at patients lying in high white beds, whose dying must not be disturbed.

I darted round the side o the Rising Sun and stuck a letter to Ruby through the door. Lex was crumbling scotch eggs into the pullets’ run. He glared at me, but seeing Percy waiting, called out, ‘Cold enough for you?’ to him instead of saying something nasty to me.

Mr Mullard, whom we had last seen at Professor Scoley’s inquest, gave us our tickets as the train pulled up. I was worried that he would ask for the money for the platform tickets Ruby and I never bought, but he seemed to have forgotten about them. ‘Sad business, that, about the Professor. Still, what can you expect?’ Percy had gone out to telephone Granny Fitz early and she was meeting us at Herne Hill. He was getting the next train back to Stonebridge. He had bought me some jelly babies and sat opposite me in the train, smoking and watching me.

‘Why do you bite off their heads like that?’

‘It’s kinder than eating their feet first, so they don’t feel it.’

‘Well it looks horrible.’

Hurt, I stuffed the bag of green, black, red and yellow babies in my pocket. I never asked for them in the first place.

Christmas decorations were up at the Drovers, shiny gold and silver garlands that twisted restlessly to reveal their blue and green undersides, meeting at the huge gold-foil bell hanging from the centre of the high ceiling. The bar was picked out in pointed coloured lights that flashed off and on. Half a dozen silent drinkers were scattered round the vast saloon a we went through. A couple sat at the bar behind which, his back reflected in the mirror among the lights and bottles and glasses, stood Grandpa Fitz polishing a glass. ‘Like fairyland, isn’t it?’ he said, gesturing round the room with his glass cloth.

‘Yes, Grandpa.’

Grandpa Fitz was a tall, melancholy-looking man with white hair which had a wide yellow streak, and a yellow moustache flecked with Guinness froth, and a thin cigarette, burning, or gone out, stuck to his lip and another in readiness behind his ear. He had very large ears, flat to the sides of his head but huge and intricate, and he had been deaf in one of the them since the First World War. Gerald Fitzgerald had been born in Co. Antrim, which made me a quarter Irish. He sold me a raffle ticket for the Drovers Grand Christmas Draw.

to be continued...

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