THE ORCHARD ON FIRE

by Shena Mackay Part-17
  • 08 Jun - 14 Jun, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

Merry Boxing Day, April. ‘You’re bright and early. We were hoping you would come at tea-time. Suppose I can’t offer you a festive sip of sherry?’ he said in the drawing-room. Mrs Greenidge was wearing a silky dress patterned with dull red and green diamonds.

‘I wouldn’t say no to a drop of ruby port,’ I said, like Granny Fitz. The Greenidges laughed.

‘Speaking of whom,’ said Mrs Greenidge, ‘how is your little friend? Chin Chin!’

‘Cheerio,’ said Mr Greenidge.

‘She’s very well thank you, she got a new bicycle for Christmas too, like me.’

‘Did she, egad!’

Mr Greenidge raised an eyebrow at Mrs Greenidge, who said ‘Mrs Cooper who “does” for me mentioned that Mrs Carter had told her there had been some sort of trouble at the school play?’

They were both looking at me greedily. I felt ill.

‘How should I know? I wasn’t there, was I?’

‘Hoity-toity,’ said Mr Greenidge.

‘Never mind, we’ll hear it on the grapevine eventually,’ Mrs Greenidge said.

‘Bush telegraph,’ Mr Greenidge said. I had no idea what they meant. Miserable and aware of having been rude I stared at their cards on the mantelpiece, most of which were very boring, thick and white with engraved writing and little flicks of red or blue ribbon, but I was seeing our school canteen, that smelled of dinners and trying to imagine what trouble there could have been.

‘She never said anything to me.’

The ruby port spiralled like a red glass Christmas decoration down my throat and suddenly I wanted to cry so I bent down to hide my face in Liesel.

‘I’ve brought Liesel’s Christmas present.’

Even as I pulled it out of my pocket I saw a blue rubber bone on the floor. None of us mentioned it and Liesel trotted off, to chew her new red bone, showing no interest when I unwrapped my present from her. It was a book, Black Beauty, with a beautiful coloured frontispiece and I was delighted, so my thanks were genuinely heartfelt. I had been dreading having to pretend to like some crummy present, laughing my girlish laughter.

‘Happy reading,’ said Mrs Greenidge. ‘I don’t think I ever got over the death of poor Ginger.’

I could have gazed at Peter’s sleeping face, as he lay in my arms, for ages. I wanted to run my finger along his miniature dark eyelashes and trace the coral triangle of his mouth, but the tea-room, looking a bit dusty, had to be opened for business.

‘Perhaps we should have kept that turkey for sandwiches,’ Percy said.

‘What, and poison everybody, like old Ma Vinnegar?’ said Betty. ‘And get closed down by the authorities. She’d love that. Can’t you just see her crowing over us?’

‘Anyway, who wants yesterday’s capon with cold caper sauce, whatever that might be when it’s at home. Dad, did you hear anything about the school play, about any trouble or anything?’

‘Hardly your mother and I were otherwise engaged at the time if you remember. Why?’

‘Oh, nothing, I forgot to tell you that Gloria said she’d be round to see the baby soon.’

‘Oh dear, I mean, how nice. Mrs Richards, to you.’

Percy was serving the old couple who sat like spotted lizards in walking boots at the table in the window.

‘A tasty snack? I can do you beans on toast topped with one of our special fresh pullet’s eggs, Welsh rarebit, fried Christmas pudding.’

They decided on the rarebit, being Welsh themselves. A solitary cyclist was wolfing down baked beans. I went through to make a fresh pot of tea for him and came back just as the door crashed shut. I saw a black balaclava and a bucking bicycle through the glass.

‘Funny. I could swear that was young Rodney Pegg. Yes, I’d spot that acne’d phizog anywhere. Took one look at me and scarpered. Well, good riddance. Thought we’d seen the last of him,’ said Percy.

Gloria arrived with Ruby. ‘Brought you a couple of bottles of stout to keep your strength up. Careful with them. They got a bit shaken in Ruby’s saddlebag, on her new bicycle.’

I hated the way Lex and Gloria kept boasting about Ruby’s bike, as if we hadn’t noticed it was brand new.

Gloria touched Peter’s cheek with a red nail.

‘Proper little Bobby Buster, isn’t he? I always wanted a boy, but it wasn’t to be.’ She sighed. ‘I had to get landed with a tomboy. Just my luck.’

As Ruby and I went up to my room, abandoning Betty to Gloria, I heard Gloria whining, ‘I hope you won’t take any notice of any wicked rumours, Mrs Harlency. People can be so cruel with gossip. You know me better than to believe everything you hear, don’t you?’

I stopped to listen.

‘People are spreading all sorts about us and the takings are right down. You know a kiddie was never more doted on than our Ruby. She’s the apple of her dad’s eye.’ Gloria was wheedling like a gipsy selling clothes pegs at the door.

‘You do your best for them and this is the thanks you get.’

‘Come on, April.’

I followed Ruby into the bedroom with a feeling of dread.

‘Tell me about the school play, you haven’t said anything yet. Did you do the dance on your own all right?’

’It was OK,’ Ruby mumbled. She had gone pale and her freckles stood out on her skin, puckered by the cold bedroom air. ‘Only I missed you. I felt a right lemon doing it on my own. Pat Booker was supposed to take your part but she got stage fright. The hunt stopped in our yard this morning for a stirrup cup. It was horrible. They call it the Boxing Day Meat.’

‘Why?’

‘Search me.’

‘Mrs Greendige said Mrs Carter said there’d been some trouble with the school play.’

Ruby sat down on the bed, turning my snowstorm ball over and over making blizzards, her pigtails falling on either side.

‘Mrs nosey parker Carter should mind her own blooming beeswax.’

‘Ruby! Mrs Carter’s nice. She’s our friend!’

‘Oh, all right then. Mrs Carter was helping us get changed into our costumes and she saw all these bruises on my back and arms and she called Mr Reeves and he got Dr Barker to come round the school, and now she’s spreading rumours all through the village.’

Ruby stared into the glass ball.

‘What bruises? What did Dr Barker say?’

‘Where I fell down the cellar steps, fetching some lemonade.’

She wouldn’t look at me.

‘That’s why they bought me the bike, so’s people would think they were nice.’

‘Did you fall down the cellar steps?’

She raised her head at last.

‘I wish we lived in the little house in the snow. Just the two of us, and Peter. No grown-ups. Nobody could get us through the glass.’

‘Ruby!’ came Gloria’s voice. ‘Come along, and mind those stairs!’

‘Have you still got the bruises? Let me see.’

She shook her head. ‘I’m not allowed to.’

‘Get a move on, Ruby, I can’t stand here all day, I’ve got a pub to run.’

A sudden flash of sunshine turned Gloria’s hair to spun gold and he voice was dripping like a golden honeycomb over her teeth as she tightened the elastic band on one of Ruby’s plaits saying, ‘Thanks ever so, Mrs Harlency. It’s good to know who your friends are. Come on, sweetheart, or Dad’ll be wondering where we’ve got to.’

‘What a dreadful business,’ said Betty when they had gone.

‘What?’

‘Oh never you mind. I dare say it’ll all blow over soon. Gossip is a terrible thing, April. It can lead to all sorts of unhappiness. You have to feel sorry for Gloria.’

‘I don’t think Ruby did fall down the stairs, I bet they pushed her and locked her in the cellar.’

‘What?’ Betty looked upset. ‘Of course they didn’t. That’s exactly what I’ve been trying to tell you, talk like that is dangerous and wicked. It can destroy people’s lives. Go and give your father a hand in the tea-room.

‘She’s had a poison pen letter,’ I heard Betty tell Percy later.

Poison pen? It sounded evil and yet more exciting than the invisible ink Ruby and I made from onion juice. I imagined a fountain pen speckled like a snake squirting venom from its nib, and the recipient of a letter falling to the floor, with the poisoned paper crumpled in her hand. It obviously hadn’t worked with Gloria though. Who in Stonebridge could possess such a pen?

‘Smacks of a witch-hunt to me,’ said Percy.

Gloria as a golden-haired witch on broomstick, hunted up the village street.

I shivered.

‘Mind you,’ he went on, ‘I wouldn’t trust that tub of lard Lex further than I could throw him, which isn’t very var.’

‘It breaks my heart to think of that poor little bruised mince pie doing her little song and dance,’ said Betty.

‘A real little trouper.’

And what about me? I couldn’t even be a mince pie, thanks to some people. A trouper, a witch and a tub of lard. Confused, thoroughly miserable and irritable, I went out to the shed to clean the spokes of my bike. My jumper was itchy and the cold wind hurt my hair. I leaned the bicycle against the wall and sat on the saddle pedalling backwards, until the chain came off. I bruised my knuckles putting it back on and got oil all over my hands.

I went inside and said I was going to see Bobs and Dittany; Betty was changing Peter’s nappy.

‘Put your coat on then, your old one,’ she said with a pin in her mouth. ‘And don’t be long.’

My pink coat felt thin and silly now, with my checked skirt hanging down in a frill below it. I stomped along in my wellies. Needles from the Christmas tree had sewn themselves into my cuffs and were pricking my wrists.

‘That tree’s shedding at a rate of knots,’ Percy had remarked. ‘Roll on twelfth night say. I get the brush and dustpan, April.’

Dittany was at the kitchen sink, washing dishes, wearing a man’s shirt streaked with paint over a black sweater and trousers, men’s socks bulging over black ballet slippers.

‘You look thoroughly out of sorts,’ she said.

‘I am’

‘Just give this wassail bowl a wipe, will you. You’ll find a dry tea towel on the Aga.’

She lifted an enormous painted china bowl dripping bubbles onto the soggy wooden draining board. The sad bright sound of jazz came from the sitting-room.

‘Professor Scoley, Lionel, that is, has given Bobs some of Linus’s revivalist jazz records, which was very generous of him in the circumstances.’

‘He had a dicky ticker. It could have happened any time. He was like a time bomb just waiting to go off, my dad says.’

‘Oh yes, that’s the party line, I know. Bit I can’t help feeling that if we hadn’t invited him to Beulah House…’ Dittany wrenched the plug from the sink making a bitter gurgling sound as the water ran away.

‘Please don’t say “dickey ticker” again, April. It sounds so - so knowing and unchildlike.’

Rebuked, my eyes stinging, I went into the sitting-room where Bobs was kneeling among scattered records in brown paper cases.

‘Mind your feet,’ she said, too late, as a black crack exploded under the toe of my boot. Our horrified eyes met.

‘Never mind, put it in the waste-paper basket quickly and we won’t even look at it. Don’t cry, it doesn’t matter.’

I knew it did matter.

‘Do you like this music?’

I nodded tearfully.

‘My dad likes jazz, Be-bop.’

Bobs shuddered.

‘Why does everything have to be so horrible after Christmas?’ I said.

A sticky date, fluffy with dust, lay in the bottom of the waste-paper basket.

‘What kind of music does Betty like?’

‘Lots. Songs. Opera. Concerts. She could’ve sung in opera.’

‘I’m sure she could have,’ said Bobs.

A picture she had painted was on the wall, among many others, of an old black barn held up or pulled down by the ivy that covered it and its door sagging open to show a spilt sack of cattle cake and a heap of old car tyres. You could almost taste the brown nugget of cow cake, hard, dry and dusty in your mouth and impossible to bite through.

Pinned up too were delicate water-colours of mushrooms and toadstools, mauve, purple, orange and lemon, pale umbrellas on slender stalks, fans, frills and wafers on lichen, speckled tree stumps, stalks clumped with leaf mould and gills radiating in soft wheels.

‘Basin Street

Is the street

Where all the light and dark folks meet.

Down in New Orleans,

The land of dreams…’

Bobs sang.

‘Look at this,’ she said, handing me an old black photograph album, with a stippled cover and spider’s web paper between its black pages. ‘I found it in the attic. It’s Beulah House when it was still an orphanage.’

There, on a faded photograph, was the white house with its bell tower and a blue of white wings and fantails round the dovecot.

‘Look at this one.’

A group of small children in pinafores, graded by height, were sitting on the grass. The smallest had their legs in knitted stockings and hobnail boos sticking straight out in front of them and all their hair was very short and they stared into the camera with big sad eyes.

‘Are they boys or girls?’ I asked.

‘Both,’ said Bobs.

There was a photograph of older boys in knickerbockers and stockings and collars, like the picture on the Fry’s Five Boys chocolate, and bigger girls in pinafores with butterfly sleeves over dark dresses, and a bunch of children swinging their black legs over the sides of a wagon in an orchard of white blossom.

‘That could be our orchard!’

I said without thinking.

‘Which orchard?’

to be continued...

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