THE ORCHARD ON FIRE

  • 01 Jun - 07 Jun, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

‘Merry Christmas to you, too, pall Come on, pet, I’m sorry you had to witness that. Effing B, pardon my French. Not fit to have a child on the premises some people shouldn’t be allowed to have children.’

I had to run to keep up with him, on the sparkling pavement, past white hedges, under bright holy stars, past the Co-op’s enchanted cave. The bells of St Michael and All Angels were ringing, and people walking to church called out greetings to each other.

‘Put your hat on, April; said Percy, taking his off at the church door.

‘I can’t, somebody might see.’

Hundreds of night lights placed all around the church, on the rood screen and under the stained-glass windows and round the font, dipped and doubled through my tears, the candles and the brass chandeliers dazzled and fused the aisle into an avenue of rainbows. It was the most special night of the year and Ruby wasn’t there. When Mr Oswald led the choir through the church singing ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ a grey salty sob racked my chest. Boys became angels walking in clouds of incense through the cold air that smelled of wax and mysteries, processing to the choir stalls past the thatched stable on the steps where Mary and Joseph knelt with the shepherds and ox and ass, and I understood that Jesus in the manger had been a baby just like Peter.

I could not speak when we stood outside after the service. Mr Oswald was in the church porch shaking people’s hands and wishing them a happy Christmas. I smiled shyly at children I knew, embarrassed at having been crying.

‘Very touching, wasn’t it?’

The Greenidges, Mrs Greenidge tapping the frosty paving stones with a silver-headed stick, walked right behind us.

‘I saw that our little April was quite moved,’ Mr Greenidge went on. ‘Had to pine m’own eye, I don’t mind telling you.’

‘I hear congratulations are in order,’ said Mrs Greenidge. ‘A little boy just in time for Christmas.’

‘Yes indeed. Well done old chap. Got your pigeon pair now.!’

Mr Greenidge clapped Percy on the back.

‘You might take my arm, Clement, this path is like an ice rink. I think you’ll find that “a pigeon pair”, strictly speaking, refers to twins.’

Like Professor Scoley and Professor Scoley.

‘Merry Christmas, merry Christmas,’ people were saying. Mrs Vinnegar’s voice came through the darkness. ‘Get off that grave or I’ll brain you. Right, I’m telling Santa Claus not to come. I’ve warned you!! I’ll give you “While Shepherds Washed Their Socks by Night”!’

‘Pop in sometime over Christmas April, Liesel’s got a little present for you,’ said Mr Greenidge.

‘Has she?’ said Mrs Greendige. ‘She didn’t tell me.’

Bobs and Dittany caught up with us.

‘Torches, torches,

Run with torches

All the way to Bethlehem’

Dittany sang, swooping the light of her torch in circles. They were wearing knitted hats and scarves and Bobs had stuck a sprig of holly in her lapel.

‘Oh, it’s all such a wonderful mixture of the pagan and medieval! One feels just like a druid cutting the sacred mistletoe and yet one falls on one’s knees before the crib in the simple unquestioning faith of one’s rude forefathers! ‘Welcome Yule, Thou Merry Man”,’ she sang.

‘Are you going to hang up your stocking, April?’ Dittany asked. ‘We are.’

Worried for them, I looked up at the sky, but the stars were so bright it was easy to believe in Father Christmas and his sleigh shimmering and jingling over the rooftops.

The Rising Sun looked as pretty and inviting as an iced gingerbread house and sounds of mirth and jollity, ‘Good King Wenceslas’ on the old Joanna, came through windowpanes shiny as sweets. Ruby’s bedroom window was dark.

A thin cry, that expanded like a concertina, woke me in the middle of the night. There was something heavy at the end of the bed and glimpsing a reindeer’s antlers by the door, which was ajar, I shut my eyes tight. I couldn’t believe it and yet my heart was pumping wildly in restored credulity. In the morning while it was still dark I jumped out of bed and switched on the light. Where the reindeer had stood was a pale-green bicycle. I cycled, with difficulty, the shot and narrow road to my parents’ room with my bulging stocking draped over the handlebars. Their light was on and Betty was propped up on pillows feeding Peter. We all had breakfast in the big bed with Christmas carols on the radio. Everything in my stocking was magical, from the tiny gold candlesticks, the china horse, the glass tube of little silver balls that you used to decorate cakes, coloured pencils, a diary, a seagull brooch, pale-green angora gloves that matched my new bicycle, to the glass snowstorm ball that made a blizzard when you shook it, that drifted over the tiny house inside, and a pearly handled penknife. Betty was thrilled with her bottle of lavender water and the stocking Granny Fitz had helped me choose and Percy was delighted with his socks. I had also cajoled a bottle of cherry brandy from Grandpa for them to share.

‘Go on, Dad, open it, it’s the most delicious drink you’ve ever tasted. It makes you really happy.’

‘Bit early in the day for me.’ He gave me a peculiar look. ‘Well I’d better get that turkey in the oven.’

‘I’m not having any,’ I said at once.

‘To tell you the truth, I don’t really fancy it either,’ Betty said.

‘Oh well, in that case but what can we do with it? Seems wrong jus to throw it away.’

‘Give it to a poor man gathering winter fuel.’

‘Put it out for the birds,’ Betty said. ‘No, I take that back what a horrible thought. Why couldn’t you have won something nice like a cake or crackers?’

‘I tried to give it to George,’ I said, ‘but he wouldn’t take it. He said: “God knows how long those giblets have been inside it.”

I had given him a miniature bottle of whisky for Christmas, knowing he would be pleased. ‘Coals to Newcastle,’ he had said.

‘I’ll throw it in the river,’ I aid. ‘When I go out on my new bike.’

‘OK. Don’t tell anybody though, April, you do know your bike’s second-hand, don’t you? But it’s got a new saddle and a new bell and bake blocks and Daddy spent ages painting it for you.’

‘It’s the best bike in the world.’

To my amazement Ruby was standing outside the Rising Sun looking miserable and holding the handlebars of a gleaming brand-new red bicycle with flashing chrome and a saddlebag.

‘Go on, ride it up and down the street. Get out there and show the bloody thing off!’ Lex came out after her. ‘Get up on that flaming saddle when I tell you.’

He saw me and smiled, showing yellow wolf’s teeth. It was the first time I had seen him smile, and it was scary.

‘Morning, young April!’ Merry Christmas. See Ruby’s lovely new bike that she got for Christmas? Supersonic, eh?’

‘Merry Christmas, Mr Richards.’ I dismounted from my bicycle which, to my shame, had shrunk and seemed a sickly green beside Ruby’s crimson steed. I gave its saddle a reassuring pat.

‘Why don’t you girls go for a nice ride, seeing as April’s got her old bike. Dad paint it up for you, did he?’ This one cost me a packet, I’ll tell you, but only the best for my little girl, eh Ruby?’

‘I’m just going to get your present.’ Ruby leaned her bicycle against the frosty hedge. Her mouth was all rough and frayed round the edges, as if she had smeared on a pink clown’s mouth.

‘Mind the paint with those bleeding twigs,’ said Lex.

Ruby returned with a brown paper bag.

‘Come one, let’s get our of here,’ she said, putting it in her saddlebag.

‘Ruby! Don’t be late for dinner now.’ Gloria called from the kitchen. ‘Oh, April, tell your mum I’ll be round to see the new baby soon.’

Why were Lex and Gloria pretending to be nice to me? I couldn’t believe they’d bought that brand-new bicycle for Ruby. My own bicycle, unbalanced by the bag on the handlebars containing the turkey and Ruby’s Christmas present, wobbled all over the place as we rode alongside each other.

‘I like your bike.’

‘I like yours. Where shall we go?’

‘I’ve got loads of things to tell you.’

‘I’ve got to go down the river to throw this turkey in.’ I explained about the bird.

‘I know,’ Ruby said, ‘why don’t we dump it on old Boddy’s doorstep?’ Her fingers were going dead from the cold.

We tipped the turkey, tied up in greaseproof paper, onto the step of the shop and pedalled away laughing into a keen, cutting wind that tore our breath away, shouting, ‘Merry Christmas, Mr Boddy!’

‘Let’s go back to my house,’ I yelled. ‘You can see our baby.’

It was still difficult to realize that Peter was really there, and would always be here now, with his crying like an orange-coloured paper concertina.

Peter closed his hand round Ruby’s finger when she held his.

‘He loves me, look!’ she said in a tone of wonder. After a minute I wanted him and jiggled around impatiently beside her. Peter opened one eye and then the other, ‘Oh,, his little blue eyes, they’re as blue as sapphires. Look at him looking up at me, Mrs Harlency. Oh, I wish he was mine.’

‘You can come and play with him whenever you like,’ Betty said. ‘Your mouth looks sore, you should put a bit of Germoline on it. Don’t lick it, you’ll make it worse.’

‘Let’s go up to my room,’ I said.

‘Happy Christmas, April,’ Ruby took a parcel from her brown paper bag. It was wrapped up in a comic and tied with string. Inside was the box of April Violets soap and talc from the Co-op window.

‘Oh Ruby, it’s lovely. Thank you.’

‘You can red the comic and the string might be useful.’

I folded the comic carefully and looped the string into a neat figure of eight, feeling sad, and buried my face in the cold sweet fragrance of spring.

‘Here’s yours. Happy Christmas.’

‘Pretty paper. I would’ve got some only I didn’t have time.’

My absence and Peter’s arrival had made us shy with each other. We both knew that Ruby hadn’t been able to afford any wrapping paper and I couldn’t say that it couldn’t matter less.

‘Go on, open it. Shall I tell you what it is?’ I urged, knowing she would love it.

It was a jewellery set with glass beads, in separate compartments, that you could make into necklaces and bracelets.

‘They look like real jewels,’ Ruby said. ‘Diamonds and rubies and sapphires and emeralds.’ She touched each shimmering tray with awe.

I showed her my penknife. We had both hoped for a knife.

‘Did you get one?’

She shook her head.

Downstairs again, Ruby pulled something from her pocket.

‘I forgot. I’ve got a present for Peter.’ It was a woollen pom-pom, grey, brown and green, in which I recognized threads of an unravelled kettle holder.

‘It’s beautiful, Ruby. He’lllove looking at that. Let’s hang it up in his pram for him. Peter’s got something for you, too!’

Peter gave Ruby a box of Payne’s Poppets.

When Ruby had gone Betty said to me, ‘What’s up with you?’

‘Just because you like ruby and Peter better than me!’

I gave the little lamb, hanging on blue ribbon from a pale blue ring, which I had bought in Bon Marche with Granny’s money, a vicious flick.

‘Ruby’s present was special, because she made it herself. I’m surprised at you, April. I thought you’d understand.’ She stroked the hair back from my forehead. I did understand, and I wished I’d made a stupid pom-pom.

The kitchen was full of steam and the smell of roasting potatoes and brussels sprouts and chestnut stuffing. The Christmaspudding was jumping about in a saucepan, rattling the saucer Percy had put on top of its basin. The table was set with a cracker at each place, a bowl of walnuts and tangerines at the centre and sprigs of holly stuck behind the calendar, the colander on the shelf, the utensils hanging on the wall.

‘Who needs a turkey as long as we’re all together?’ said Percy.

It was only later, at tea-time, when we were all wearing paper hats and the mince pies came out of the over, that I realized I had forgotten to ask Ruby about the school play. She had said she had lots of things to tell me, but she hadn’t said much at all. I didn’t even know what she had got in her stocking.

Boxing Day brought a powdering of snow and Doreen Vinnegar and Pat Booker on new roller skates knocking on the back door to ask, ‘Can we take your baby for a walk?’

‘He’s too little to go out yet and it’s too cold,’ Betty told them. She was still in her dressing-gown, tired from looking after Peter in the night.

‘Over my dead body,’ Percy said as Doreen and Pat skittered away, holding on to each other, shrieking and falling in a heap. Doreen had had her ears pierced with gold sleepers. We were opening up because people liked to get out and about on Boxing Day. I had collected up the charms and scraps from the crackers and felt depressed and flat.

‘Don’t forget to go and see the Greenidges something today to get your present. Why don’t you go now, before we’re busy?’ Percy suggested.

‘Some hopes of that,’ said Betty.

‘All right. Get it over with I suppose.’

‘Hey, that’s not the attitude.’

The handlebars burned like ice even through my gloves.

‘Yesterday’s capon, cold with caper sauce,’ said Mr Greenidge heartily, as we went through to the drawing-room. My lip, cracked by the cold, was bleeding from his kiss when he opened the front door. ‘My darling, my darling, how I’ve missed you.’

to be continued...

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