In Shena Mackay’s The Orchard on Fire the story starts with a middle-aged April Harlency making plans to revisit the Kentish village of Stonebridge where she grew up. The adult April, a teacher, is living alone in London: “I chose this place to live, believing that I would find anonymity among those who did not care if the plaster and glass and paintwork of rented house splintered and decayed, who were not reproached by gardens gone to seed and rotting sofas. In that hope, as in most things, I was proved wrong. People in the shops, who are living real lives, even if you aren’t, start to recognise you.”
Unusually for Shena the story is told in the first person, and it is difficult at times to forget this is April’s story rather the writer speaking directly to us. Sometimes it seems too real to be fiction, but that is perhaps part of Shena’s special genius.
Most of the book is set in 1953 and into the new year, when April was 8, and the family had moved to Stonebridge. Her parents took on the Copper Kettle tearooms in the village, escaping from a gloomy gin palace in Streatham and rented rooms in Tooting.
The 1950s, Shena (or April) says defiantly, were “politically, intellectually and artistically exciting.” And the pair share a “weakness for the gawdy and tawdry and ephemeral”. A similar sentiment recurs in the lovely story Crossing the Border where Flora Loney is researching the life of her Great-Uncle Laurence, a poet who like her “was moved by ephemera and junk and saw eternity in a plastic flower and the human condition in the brittle pink Little Princess Vanity Set in the supermarket, whose tiny mirror flashed a fragment of a dream.”
There is in The Orchard on Fire a particularly vivid description of the local Co-Op’s Christmas window display: “You could almost smell the French Fern soap and talc, the Cusson’s Apple Blossom, the Bromley Lemons, the baskets of fruit soaps ...” This is exactly the sort of thing that would stay in the mind for more than forty years, as are the mentions of individual fruit pies, lost propelling pencils, and jumble sale purchases of books.
April’s time in Stonebridge is coloured by magical moments, and the story is inhabited by some of Shena’s most appealing characters. The two artists who live in Beulah House, Dittany and Bobs, the Misses Rix and Codrington, are particularly enchanting, and the story of their planned weekend of lectures is priceless, crowned by the local church warden Mr Seabrook yelling at their guests: “Call yourselves artists. You couldn’t creosote a fence, none of you.”
The stars of the story though are April’s parents, Percy and Betty Harlency, who are so beautifully sketched, so sympathetically shaded. And perhaps best of all they seem good people, even if life is a constant struggle.
Percy is cast as someone with socialist leanings, who joins the local branch of the Labour Party, takes the Daily Worker, and likes be-bop. His principles and beliefs are a calmer, kinder variation of John’s parents in An Advent Calendar with their house filled “with sixpenny Penguins and pamphlets and Pelicans”.
Whatever their failings these parents have made books available to their children. Shena’s own parents, she has said, were socialists and gave her the gift of poetry, music, and art. In her own way, she has honoured this by being quietly and consistently militant in her writing, seeming to promote politics of a personal kind, with nebulous aspects of Christian kindness thrown in. That may be pure projection, but it is the way her values come across.