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Apple Blossom Time
By Kathryn Haig
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1997 Kathryn Haig
All rights reserved.
When I was twelve, a fortune teller told me I would find myself behind bars one day.
'Laura! You're going to go to prison!' gasped Kate.
None of her business. I hadn't wanted her to follow me, anyway, tagging along, grumbling and whining. She had no right to be listening to my fate. It was private, like going to the doctor and discussing your waterworks. If she wanted to find out the future, it should be her own future, not mine. I didn't mind Pansy coming in. No-one ever minded Pansy. But Kate was Kate and she was there too.
'Don't be silly,' I snapped, trying not to show that I was shaken. Behind bars? ... murder? ... blackmail? ... fornication? That was really bad, it was in the Bible. 'Don't tell me you believe in all that fortune-telling nonsense.'
'Well, if you don't, why did you waste sixpence on it, eh?'
'Because – well ...'
'... because the fête's supposed to be raising money for little black babies,' Pansy lectured, in her vicar's-daughter voice, that she only used when she really meant it. Her thin, fair-skinned face was flushed and earnest, all red and white, no normal coloured bits at all. 'And if no-one spent any money, there wouldn't be any to send to Africa, so there wouldn't be any point in having a fête in the first place, so we might as well all pack up and go home. Besides, Daddy's been working frightfully hard persuading everyone to come – Mummy always used to do that, when ... when she was able.' Pansy stopped, looked down, looked up and began again. 'So it's our duty to spend as much as we can.'
'And that includes you, meanie. You're such a miser, Kate. I know you've still got at least ninepence left, even after pigging out at the sweet stall.'
'Didn't, didn't, so there ... anyway, I'm saving it for something special ... Laura – what do you think you're going to do – murder someone?'
'Probably you ... but they wouldn't send me to prison for that. I'd get a medal from the King! Anyway, that wasn't a real gypsy. Everyone knows it's only Mrs Pagett being mysterious.'
'She looked really gypsyish to me. You never know ...'
I thought of the dim tent lit by a red lamp with chewed-looking fringes, of the velvet curtain sprinkled with faded stars, of the veiled woman with the husky voice, the sweet-and-sickly scent that seeped from her robes when she held out her hand to take mine. I didn't know anyone who smelt like that, like a vase of chrysanthemums when the water hasn't been changed.
'Of course it was Mrs Pagett. Didn't you see her shoes – no-one else has bunions like that!'
But I shivered as I spoke. You never know ...
'"Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." It says so in the Bible. And my father definitely wouldn't allow any witches at the church fête. So it was Mrs Pagett. So there.'
'Did you know that all the soldiers who died in the Great War had crosses on the centre of their palms?'
'How d'you know?' I scoffed.
'Abbie told me.'
'And how does Abbie know – did she look at them all?'
'She read it. It was in that black book of hers – you know the one with the red hand on the cover, the fortune-telling one, so it must be true.'
'Just run along and play, won't you,' I said, in a pretty good imitation of a superior big sister, 'like a good little girl.'
Kate whisked her fat little hand from mine and spiralled off, her plaits spinning out like a chair-o-plane, chanting 'Laura's going to prison ... Laura's going to prison ...'
'Shut up!' I hissed, as though anyone could possibly hear her above the racketing of the steam organ.
But she was gone, irritating as a gnat, stinging and flying. The faded pink and blue flowers of her frock blurred and blended with all the other flowery cotton frocks. As acutely as though I could hear them chinking, I knew that there were three silver threepenny bits in the pocket of Kate's matching pink-and-blue-flowered knickers. And I knew how she was going to spend them. The knowledge gave me a fierce little pain round about the place where Abbie said her indigestion always bothered her something cruel.
I didn't have to see her. I knew. Kate would giggle and wheedle and flirt with big blue eyes and Mr Doughty on White Elephants would mark down the leather camera case (Nearly New) from a shilling to the sticky ninepence that Kate would fish out of her knicker pocket – without even turning her back on him to do it.
It would be Kate who would give the case to Martin, Kate who would say, 'I'm sorry there isn't a camera in it, but I didn't have enough money for that, of course. Still, one day you'll have a camera of your own and you'll be famous and take pictures of film stars and it'll fit into this case.'
And Martin would go red and look pleased and say 'Gosh, thanks, Kate' instead of 'Gosh, thanks, Laura.'
It was all my fault, of course. I hadn't seen the case until I'd already spent threepence on a scented hanky for Mummy and another sixpence on a little mat embroidered in lazy daisy stitch to sit under the china hairpin box on Grandmother Ansty's dressing table (only her hair was short, so she didn't use hairpins, so perhaps I'd wasted my money – I wonder what she kept in the box). Then there were some aniseed balls for Pansy and pink coconut ice for me and a geranium cutting for Tom and some scent for Abbie to put on when she went to the pictures with her Frank, who ran the shop and who was courting Abbie with delicacies – 'a little bit of something nice for you,' he'd say. I was feeling really pleased with myself by the time I got to White Elephants.
When I saw the camera case, I only had sixpence left. There it was – just right – smooth, tan leather with all its straps and only one or two little scratches that would polish out with some Cherry Blossom and a bit of spit – the way Tom always cleaned his shoes and they were amazingly bright, even if his jersey was often frayed at the cuff, because Mummy couldn't thread a needle to save her life. Just right for Martin.
But Mr Doughty wouldn't sell it for sixpence. 'I really couldn't go down that far, Laura, not so early in the day, not such a nice case as this.' I could tell that he wanted to let me have it, but with Miss Casemore's gimlet eyes on him, he wouldn't dare.
'But there's no camera in it. What use is a camera case with no camera?' I had whined. Kate wouldn't whine. She already knew that grown-ups didn't give in to children who whined.
'No end of use, dear. You could keep ... well, anything in it, really ... bibs and bobs, you know, buttons or keys and so on. Lovely leather. It must be worth a shilling of anybody's money.'
'But I haven't got a shilling.'
Mr Doughty sighed. 'Come back at the end of the afternoon, Laura, and if it hasn't gone by then, maybe ... I can't promise, mind, but we'll see.'
But it wouldn't be there by then, I knew that. It was too nice. So I blued the last of my money on Mrs Pagett's palmistry and all I got for that was the threat of growing up into a convict.
I wandered around the stalls with Pansy, penniless, my hands filled with the treasures I'd bought for all the people I loved. No, not all the people. I had nothing for Martin – Martin who was going away and might never come back and wouldn't even remember me if I couldn't give him something precious that he could use every day.
'Shall we have a turn on the Hoop-la?' suggested Pansy eagerly.
I shook my head.
'Teas, then? They'll be selling the scones off cheap by now.'
Irritatingly neat still, after a long, hot afternoon, Pansy's fresh face and starched frock contrasted so obviously with my own grubby mouth and limp cotton, that just being with her made me feel more out of sorts than ever. And that made me feel guilty, because Pansy was so nice. She never minded what people said to her and that made me more irritable, and so on and so on ...
'No – you go if you want to. I say, Pansy, I don't suppose you could ...' No good. I wouldn't be able to pay her back until the new term's pocket money. She'd certainly lend me ninepence – she was my best friend, after all – but she'd probably hand it over with one of Mr Millport's many boring proverbs. 'Neither a borrower nor a lender be,' she'd say, though very likely she wouldn't mean it. She couldn't help it, any more than she could help always having a clean hankie tucked in her sleeve. It was just the way she was brought up. 'You go if you like,' I said, sulkily. 'I think I'll go home now. I've got a lot to carry.'
The field was growing quieter now. The WI cake stall had sold out long ago, before Pansy's father had even properly opened the fête – you had to be quick or ruthless or have a friend on the stall who'd put something nice under the counter for you. The bran tub was just about empty with a mess of bran on the grass where frantic little hands had scooped it. The steam organ still whirred and rattled its jaunty, old-fashioned tunes, the cymbals still clashed and the gilded figure on the front still waved his baton, but Mr Gilbert was carefully folding away the concertinas of punched cards that magically became music. This would be the last tune.
The tea ladies were trying to wash up with the last of the hot water from the urn. Damp tea towels – every tea towel in the village, you'd think – were hanging like soggy flags, pegged to the guy ropes of the tea tent. Fay and Mary Cranham were untacking their horrid, hairy little ponies that were supposed to give rides, but spent most of the afternoon with their hooves dug firmly into the grass, no matter how much Fay whooped or Mary whacked.
Trestle tables threw long, wobbly shadows across the grass. There was only a sprinkle of visitors still left. The stall holders packing up all looked happily dishevelled, hats askew, cheeks reddened by the sun, pocketed aprons bulging with money still to be counted into satisfying piles. They called jolly remarks across to each other – hadn't it all been marvellous, hadn't the weather been kind, hadn't people been generous, didn't feet or backs or both ache but hadn't it all been worth it?
Mr Millport went slowly round all the stalls saying his thank-yous. He lifted his hat at each one, showing the pale, bony scalp and fringe of white hair that made people who didn't know better think he was Pansy's grandfather.
The air was golden and dusty, thick as honey. On Garden Produce, Mother was packing overgrown marrows into cardboard boxes. So many marrows. Everyone had given one – how generous – so, of course, not one had been sold. They'd all be on Tom's compost heap by the morning, along with the box of maggoty little windfalls from Miss Casemore's unpruned tree – small, but delicious, very choice variety, she'd assured Mother. Mother's hair was sliding out of the heavy knot she wore on the nape of her neck. Her thin, bare arms were red on the upper surfaces, white as milk below.
Tom was balanced on one end of the trestle, his long, thin body bent like a half-shut penknife, his legs swinging. Helping Mother, he'd call it – that meant watching her, laughing with her, just being with her. I looked at him carefully, trying not to look as though I was looking. He seemed to be all right. It was important that Tom was all right. It had been a hot day and there had been a beer tent as well as teas. After a night of what were (diplomatically) called Tom's Dreams, the beer tent would have been a strong attraction.
His Panama was pulled well down over his eyes, but suddenly he saw me and gave me a wave that said all sorts of things. Oh, there you are. Nice to see you. Had a good afternoon? Come and give us a hand. But I pretended I hadn't noticed him after all.
The White Elephant stall was empty except for a basket with no handle (donor unknown), a china cruet set shaped like pecking chickens with holes in their beaks for the salt and pepper (one of young Mrs Gibson's wedding presents) and a set of cork table mats with pokerwork views of the Isle of Wight (from Miss Ridley whose sister lived in Shanklin so everyone knew who'd given the mats).
The pink coconut ice stirred uneasily in my stomach and expanded into a sweet, glutinous mass – stickier and far more, surely, than I had eaten in the first place. I had nothing for Martin and tomorrow he would be gone.
* * *
Tomorrow he would be gone.
In the tack room, the air was still and cold, dry enough to make me cough, somehow thin, compared with the sunlit richness in the yard. Empty pegs, like ghosts, hung round the walls, each one named – Hercules and Ajax, Talleyrand and Columbus, Sirius and Orion – as though the pegs themselves had identities. All gone. Of all the horses who had answered to those names, only one was left, old and fat and beloved.
No-one ever came here except me. I dipped the chamois leather into the bucket, then squeezed it almost dry and turned the saddle over to wipe the sweat off the quilted linen lining. The saddle was older than me, older than Mummy, perhaps as old as Grandmother. Once it had been as bright brown as a chestnut in its husk, but now it was dark old-conker brown, supple with years of Kho-Co-Line, worn thin as a glove in places, but good for a few more years yet. It smelt of all the horses on whose backs it had sat, but most of all, of Barney.
It wouldn't be for ever. Of course, I'd see Martin again. Of course, he'd come back to see his family and then Mother would invite him to tea or something, but it wouldn't be the same.
He'd always been there, you see. Not a playmate – our ages were too far apart – but just there, far above me, taller, faster, stronger, remotely kind. He'd been a listening ear when I was troubled, a friend when I thought I had none, yet young enough to tease about the down that sprouted on his upper lip. We rode together, sometimes swam together, shared silly jokes, dreamed dreams.
He was going to be a photographer, one day.
'Will you take all the pictures in Tatler,' I'd asked, 'or photograph famous people coming off the liners at Southampton?'
'Not that sort of photographer,' he'd replied with scorn, 'not pretty pictures. I want to show people what the world is really like. I want to show them streets and factories and parents working and children playing. I want to show them laughing and crying, waking and sleeping. I want people to touch and feel and smell when they look at my pictures.'
'I'm not sure people want to do that.'
Martin shrugged. 'Probably not.'
And I was going to be – well, what? Not just get married and have children. Not just sit around waiting for some man to come and get me. Then what?
'I'm going to breed cats ...'
'They seem to manage that very well without any help from you!'
'Shut up! You know what I mean. And I'm going to puppy-walk hounds, lots and lots of them. And I'm going to ride to hounds three times a week and be terribly dashing.'
'That's not being something,' Martin had objected, 'that's just doing something. What're you going to be, Laura? Something or nothing?'
'Anything I like – I just can't think of anything at the moment.'
But that had been a long time ago, when dreams were still there for the dreaming, before I discovered that one day I'd find myself behind bars.
Now Martin would be a man, a working man, and wear a stiff collar and a shiny, blue suit and maybe grow a moustache like his father and laugh with that horrible, squashed-plum laugh. I knew that photographers used dreadful chemicals and that his hands would be stained. Maybe he'd get spots where his collar rubbed his neck, or grow his nails too long to be decent for a man, as Tom would say. It was too awful to bear.
Could that happen to Martin? I hated the thoughts and I hated myself for thinking them. Horrid little prig. I knew I was a snob – Pansy would never have thought stuck-up thoughts like that, even her most secret feelings were good – but I couldn't help it. Martin was nearly grown up and everything would be changed and change was ... change was scary.
You didn't know where you were when things changed.
Excerpted from Apple Blossom Time by Kathryn Haig. Copyright © 1997 Kathryn Haig. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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