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The Orchard on Fire
Shena Mackay

The Orchard on Fire
Shena Mackay
London 1996

London 1997

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In Coronation year, Betty and Percy Harlency and their daughter April abandon the slog of running a Streatham gin palace, and move to a Kentish village to take over the Copper Kettle Tearoom, a charming but financially ruinous establishment. April meets the ginger pig-tailed and fiery Ruby; their friendship is instantly sealed when they burn loo roll together, in one of those curious destructive childhood rites. They are conspirators and allies – their secret signal the ‘lone cry of the peewit’ and their hideaway a railway carriage where they smoke Woodbines and Gold Flake, or puff on acorn stalk pipes. When April and Ruby first prise open the door of the carriage, they stand ‘in the smell of trapped time’.

The smell of trapped time, the nostalgia for remembered sensation and emotion, is expertly conjured in The Orchard on Fire. For anyone who was a child in 1953, this must be an extraordinarily evocative novel, but the environment Shena Mackay creates is so richly patterned and detailed that any reader feels intimately connected with April’s sensual world. When the family arrive at The Copper Kettle it is buzzing with bluebottles, and there is a single iced fancy on a shelf. You can almost smell the weedy insect-ridden outside loo and vividly picture the living quarters where ‘tones of meat and two veg prevailed’. Having entered April’s vivid little universe, the reader must also feel the consequent nostalgia, the desolate sense of loss for what has passed away. At the beginning of the novel, middle-aged April, in a sweet rustic image, refutes the popular idea that the fifties was a drab, grey decade:

It wasn’t grey. That’s not how I remember it at all. It was politically, intellectually and artistically exciting. I see the Iron Curtain, as I saw it then, rusting corrugated iron hung with white convolvulus.

There are unconventional forces at work in the village; April’s parents are unlikely political radicals, and there is a Bohemian element represented by Bobs Rix with her bright coloured clothes, and Dittany Codrington who is ‘like the Willow Fairy in Fairies of the Trees by Cicely Mary Barker’. These gentle and charmingly pretentious artists, in their innocent exchanges with April, make her feel plodding:

‘Matisse is my God, ‘ Bobs told me. ‘Who is yours?’
The Copper Kettle’s finest hour comes when it hosts a magical weekend party for Bobs and Dittany and their artistic guests, with fairy lights and pink-shaded lamps.

But Stonebridge is not an Eden and The Orchard on Fire, though intensely nostalgic, is not sentimental. Ruby is beaten by her boorish father, and April has to endure the jovial but increasingly desperate attentions of a ‘kindly’ elderly gentleman – Mr Greenridge. April is lured to tea at his genteel redbrick house Kirremuir, with ‘a galleon sailing in a bubbly glass sea’ on its front door and a vile daschund whose claws scrape April’s legs when Mr Greenridge is kissing her. Like Pip in Great Expectations who has to ‘play’ with Miss Haversham grimly looking on, April is forced to cavort with the dog on the immaculate lawns of Kirremuir. As with Great Expectations, the reader is deeply immersed in the child’s world – Mr Greenridge’s fumblings are embarrassing and shameful, but are given no more weight in the narrative than its other significant events. They are part of the fabric of April’s life, as much as the fear evoked by reading Valley of Doom (a ‘terrifying tale of espionage in the Balkans’ bought at a jumble sale) and her horror when she loses her Christmas present – a propelling pencil.

Nothing in April’s life, and nothing in the novel, can match up to the vivid, troubling and joyful colours of childhood, and her entire adult life is glossed over in a slightly unsatisfying way. The adult April is a shadow of her childish self, as if she has been damaged by her intense sense of her loss of childhood. As a result, the novel has a somewhat flat conclusion, but the main body of it is a glorious, heady plunge into childhood.

Reviewed by Helena Mary Smith


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