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Teatime in the Orchard

Teatime in the Orchard - Tamara Alferroff

It's warm up on the hill today. It's only a little hill, of course, just a hump really, between the garden and the field. Wasps bumble around, heavy with the flesh of pears from the trees down the slope. The leaves of the apple trees cast patterns of shade on the long grass. Melly pulls a stalk and puts it in her mouth, nibbling at the tiny sweet core, a taste of hay. She climbs halfway up the wall, on a flat sticking-out stone that's meant for climbing on, and rests her elbows on the top of the wall. She's got a sort of pain in her tummy that doesn't exactly hurt, but is a bit like when she's hungry, a tight feeling. She can see Tanya half-way down the field, flicking her tail and shaking her head in the way ponies do when the flies bother them. Tanya pricks up her ears, looking hopeful, but Melly doesn't call, and the pony lowers her head, pulls another sheaf of grass to chew, and disappears behind a clump of gorse.

Melly looks round at her mother. She hasn't asked yet if she had a nice time with Granny today. When they got home, Mummy ran upstairs and changed her nice clothes for her old trousers, then went and got the big fork and hurried up the hill and started digging under the apple tree, really close to the roots. Melly can't see why it needs digging. The tree is alright just as it is. You couldn't plant anything there anyway. Mummy's face is red. She's ramming the fork into the ground and making a funny noise, a grunting squeaking sort of noise, and not really looking what she's doing.

Melly jumps off the wall and hops across the grass to the other apple tree. She squats down to pat Bobby, who has given up hoping for a walk and has flopped down in a sunny patch with his nose on his paws, one eye open. Then she stretches up and clasps her hands around a low branch, swings up her legs and crosses her ankles, so that she's hanging there, hair swinging, dress up around her middle.

'Look, Mummy.' No answer, not even a glance. Mummy goes on digging, the brown earth crumbling around the roots.

Melly unhooks herself from the branch and goes a bit closer, She picks at her knee, where there's a nice scab from when she fell on the gravel. She sighs, rather loudly, and scuffs at the grass with the toe of her sandal. Mummy pays no heed.

'Are you alright, Mummy?' 'Mmmmhmmm.' 'Mummy, what's the matter?'

Mummy stops digging. She straightens up and leans the fork against the tree, looking down at the mess she's made of the ground. She wipes her forehead with her forearm. 'It's alright, darling. It's just that....' Her voice tails off and her mouth goes a funny shape.

'What, Mummy? What is it?'

'Well, I had to go to Liverpool today, you know, and I had to give a divorce to Daddy.' 'What's a divorce?'

'It... it means that Daddy and I are not married anymore.' Tears come into her eyes and spill down her face. She turns away, struggling to control the sobs that threaten to burst out.

'But why, Mummy? Why do you have to not be married to Daddy anymore?' Her mother takes a deep breath. 'So that he can marry Jeanette. They have to get married because they're going to have a baby....' Her voice has gone flat. She stands there, not moving, expressionless.

Melly goes to her mother. She knows she's heard something important, something grownup, and it makes her feel important too, even if she doesn't quite understand what it means. She puts her arms around her mother's waist and holds her tight, trying to squeeze her back into her old comfortable shape. They stand like this for a while, quietly, breathing together. The sun is now almost resting on the outline of the hills across the valley, and the wall casts a dark shadow at their feet. Bobby has roused himself from his nap and is snuffling and pawing at the loose earth around the tree. The smell of apple hangs in the air.

Mummy unwraps her arms gently and takes Melly's hand: 'Would you like your tea? Marmite sandwiches? Let's go down now and have our tea.' Melly nods, smiles up at her mother.

As they go down the little path through the orchard and over the stone slab across the beck, the child wonders what it means not to be married to Daddy. Where is Daddy anyway? She hasn't seen him for ages. Not since she went to the houseboat on the river, where they had to worry about the cats falling in the water, and that must have been last summer. She wonders how you can suddenly have a baby, and whether it will fall into the water too. She knows something has happened that she can't understand, but the feeling in her tummy has changed now, gone somewhere deep inside where she can pretend it's not there.

Then Mummy makes the tea, and Melly carefully spreads butter and Marmite on the slices of brown bread. They sit at the old pine kitchen table table, just the two of them, and smile at each other. 'Did you have a nice time at Granny's today?'. Melly knows now what to do.

©Tamara Alferoff 23 November 2000

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