The Prince of the Orchard
The 22nd of June 1986 was a significant day for Ferdinand. It was his 10th birthday. It was also the day Diego Armando Maradona knocked England out of the World Cup with the infamous ‘hand of God’ goal. And it was the day his mother died quite unexpectedly whilst taking afternoon tea in the orchard.
Ferdinand was a precocious child. It is hard not to be precocious when you have been raised to speak fluently three European languages, when you have a cook, a nanny and a maid who are all oddly devoted to you, and when your full name is Prinz Ferdinand von Limburg und Friesland. Being precocious was a double edged sword at St.Albans Preparatory School for boys. The teachers generally liked Ferdinand because he amused them, and because of this some boys admired him. However, a precocious boy will always run the risk of the occasional beating at the hands of the class bully. A precocious boy whose birthday it is runs an even greater risk; birthday bumps are not administered for the pleasure of the recipient. And a beating of some description is a near certainty for a precocious birthday boy with a long German name on the day England get knocked out of the World Cup by Argentina (in the class bully’s sluggish mind Germany and Argentina are interchangeable). These were the thoughts going through Ferdinand’s mind as he reluctantly stepped out of his father’s Mercedes on the St.Albans School front drive that morning. These were the thoughts that were confirmed as the ceiling rushed towards his nose with alarming speed just before the weightless apex of his 10th birthday bump, after which he was grabbed by the elastic of his y-fronts and hoist aloft until the material tore. And these were the thoughts he was mulling over on his way through the orchard after school, when he discovered the lifeless body of his mother in her deckchair, wearing Ferdinand’s favourite pale yellow floral dress and still holding her cup and saucer on her lap in the shade of the plum tree.
Ferdinand’s mother was many years younger than his father, Graf Heinrich von Limburg und Friesland. Graf Heinrich had married just after his 60th birthday, having spent his life up until that point making merry in most of the noble houses of Europe. However, when his funds began to dwindle – agriculture and forestry in Friesland no longer provided the huge income they used to – and as he became increasingly aware that Europe’s beautiful young things no longer winked at him in the arch way they once had, he made up his mind that the time had come to settle down. He wanted to marry a young Princess, but young Princesses no longer seemed interested in sexagenarian noblemen of Estonian ancestry. And so Graf Heinrich married an impoverished young girl from Tallinn who looked like a Princess, and to hide from the shame of this ignoble match he sold his Estonian lands in Friesland and his Bohemian fiefdom of Limburg and moved to Kent where the rolling hills reminded him of home and where, at the time, large estates could still be cheaply bought.
Graf Heinrich’s marriage to Sofia was happy at first. He was enchanted by the litheness of her body which was no stranger to the podia of Tallinn’s erotic dancing clubs. For her part, Sofia was overcome with the beauty of the Kentish estate whose boundaries were demarcated in the Doomsday book. Following a fire, the house had been rebuilt during the 19th century in the gothic style. It was a tall and forbidding mansion with sharply pointed gables and many narrow red chimneys. Built on a slight hill, it commanded sweeping views over the rolling Kentish countryside. Behind the house were kitchen gardens and a vast array of glass houses through which the now rusty pipes had once pumped enough hot water to protect delicate young plants in the frostiest of winters. There were levers which had opened hundreds of glass windows at a single throw. Now most of the glass panes were broken and the levers were rusted and unworkable. Ferdinand had tried with all his strength to shift one and had come away panting and unsuccessful with the rusty word ‘Sheffield’ imprinted in the soft skin of his palm.
The pride of the estate was the orchard. It was several minutes walk from the house, along a straight path between long flower beds, then up some old stone steps and through a small doorway into an enclosure whose tumbling walls were now no more than waist high. After a thousand years of constant cultivation the soil still showed no sign of fatigue. Apple trees, damson trees, plum trees, pear trees, greengage trees, apricot trees and even a peach tree grew here in happy confusion. There were young, recently planted saplings and old leafless trunks whose dead branches were robed with climbing roses. In one corner of the orchard was a bare, burnt circle where Mr. Davis the gardener built his autumnal bonfires. Another corner, where the plum tree stood, was paved with flagstones. There was a wooden table here, and two benches, and the deck chair in which Sofia had mysteriously died.
Whilst the house was being repaired and refurbished, Heinrich and Sofia lived in one of the rooms in the village pub, on the other side of the estate but only ten minutes away by car. It was here that Ferdinand was conceived one blustery October afternoon. It was here too, a couple of months later, that Heinrich and Sofia interviewed for staff. Heinrich’s interest in domestic affairs was minimal. He pretended to care for his wife’s sake. Interviewing for maids was not such a chore: all were young and many were pretty and Heinrich ogled them shamelessly and persuaded his wife that he could tell from the feel of a girl’s hands and forearms how well she would work. So he kneaded a number of palms and squeezed a number of forearms and eventually employed a pretty blond girl from the neighbouring village who was barely past puberty. She was the first of a string of young maids who worked in the house during the first three years, until the last one left and Heinrich’s reputation for lascivious remarks and bottom-pinching had spread so widely that no young girl within twenty miles wanted to work there. Sofia, who never dared confront her husband on the subject, ended up employing an old lady by the name of Agnes who, for all her gerontic shortcomings, was obsessive about dusting.
Having found a maid, Heinrich and Sofia started to interview for a cook. However, Heinrich soon discovered that not a single cook in Kent knew how to make Sulz or Griesknockerl or even Sauerkraut, and thereafter he lost interest. For Sofia’s sake he tasted the millefeuille pastry that was prepared by one corpulent contender for the post, and he nodded appreciatively, and he agreed that it was ‘lighter than air’, but frankly he could not have cared less. Sofia engaged her on the spot. Her name was Edith. The irony that someone of such corporal mass should be able to produce pastries and mousses and soufflés of such ineffable lightness was lost on Heinrich who no longer even pretended to take an interest in matters domestic. And so, a month before Ferdinand’s birth, Heinrich informed Sofia that he wished to have no part in interviewing for a nanny. Left to her own devices, Sofia engaged the third applicant for the post, not because she was any more qualified than the other two but because, at forty, she was the oldest of the three. Her name was Dorothy.
By the time Ferdinand attained the age of consciousness, Heinrich and Sofia’s marriage had soured. His stories of the glittering post-war parties in the royal houses of Europe no longer dazzled her; she saw them for what they were, elegant veneers for lechery and licentiousness. For her part, Sofia devoted herself to her son Ferdinand and to garden and orchard in equal measure. The house itself, which had initially delighted her with its Doomsday resonances, she now found forbidding and a little frightening, and moreover, it was Heinrich’s stronghold. In the lugubrious library he whiled away the hours drawing up vast family trees of royal genealogies, or paced the darkened corridors reading aloud to himself from ancient volumes of Debrett’s. Household chores were taken care of by the triumvirate of Agnes the maid, Edith the cook and Dorothy the nanny. The three of them viewed Graf Heinrich with indulgence; since none of them were young or pretty, he treated them with an old world courtesy which flattered them.
Graf Heinrich often spoke to his son Ferdinand in French which was, he insisted, the language of the continental nobility. Since Sofia only spoke Estonian (her English was poor), and since Dorothy only spoke English, the speaking of French was something of a bond between father and son. But it was the only bond. Ferdinand preferred the garden and the orchard and his mother’s company to any discussion of royal genealogies. Unlike other boys his age, he did not even show the slightest interest in his father’s other passion, the maintenance of a gleaming pre-war sports car. Heinrich rarely left the house; when he did it was either to drive Ferdinand to school in the large Mercedes, or else on his weekly visit to the garage across the driveway, where he would remove the protective dust sheets from the shiny red open-topped 1936 Jaguar SS100. He would polish the paintwork until the lacquer gleamed like a mirror before driving around the estate at a snail’s pace, then he returned the car to the garage and shrouded it once more in dust sheets, until the following week’s unveiling.
Graf Heinrich spent December and January touring between Gstaad, Davos and Kitzbuhel. He insisted that Sofia accompany him, less for her pleasure than because there seemed little point in skiing beautifully unless there was someone to admire him. Strangely it also seemed that desirable invitations to parties and dinners were more plentiful when Heinrich was accompanied by his wife. The one year he had toured by himself, when Sofia had contracted pneumonia and was bedridden in Kent, the invitations had as good as dried up. Sofia did not enjoy these two months, but she knew they were the price she paid in order to be left in peace for the rest of the year (with the exception of a tiresome fortnight in Cap d’Antibes, when the garden most needed her). When Heinrich and Sofia were away, the triumvirate ran the house. Rules were relaxed, mealtimes were less formal. During the winter months Dorothy drove Ferdinand to school in the big black Mercedes; she had to pull the seat right up to the steering wheel in order for her legs to reach the pedals. In summer, when the weather was good, Ferdinand used to look forward to sumptuous picnics in the orchard.
Following Sofia’s death, Graf Heinrich observed the three months of mourning that is the Estonian custom. Since he always wore dark suits anyway, the only sign of his mourning was the foregoing of the weekly drive in the Jaguar. During this period it dawned on him that his new status as a widower whose beautiful young wife had unexpectedly died might lend him a desirably tragic, perhaps even a romantic air. Slowly he began to entertain thoughts of reliving his youth, touring the noble houses, exchanging arch glances and, at the very least, pinching young palms and forearms and bottoms with impunity. And so, on September 22nd, shortly after the beginning of Ferdinand’s winter term, he announced his intention to embark on a Grand European Tour, in order, so he said, to come to terms with the death of his wife and to revisit those places where once, long ago, he had been happy.
Heinrich loaded the Mercedes with his monogrammed suitcases. He packed swimwear and skiwear, linen suits and winter furs. He asked Dorothy to drive Ferdinand to school in her own purple Morris Minor and said that he would refund her petrol expenses on his return. He told Mr. Davis the gardener to keep up the good work and he instructed Edith to cook food which would make his son grow tall like a Tannenbaum. He drove Ferdinand to school in the packed Mercedes and told him in the St.Albans Preparatory School driveway that he was now the man of the house. Then he gave Ferdinand two envelopes, one full of banknotes with which to pay the staff until January (the figures were neatly calculated on the front of the envelope), and a second containing one pink fifty pound note with which to buy himself a Christmas present nearer the time. Then he touched his son’s cheek with his own three times in the Estonian fashion, turned the Mercedes around in the driveway and set off to catch the tired end of the summer on the French Riviera.
That afternoon Ferdinand climbed into Dorothy’s Morris Minor in the driveway. As she drove home along the dappled green country lanes Ferdinand announced,
‘You drive much faster than my father.’
‘Oh really? I’m sorry, does it make you feel sick?’
‘Not at all. Please just remember to obey the speed limit in built-up areas.’
‘Of course I will.’
‘Though where the national speed limit applies, I don’t mind if you exceed it, so long as you’ve had the vehicle serviced,’ and with that Ferdinand took to gazing pensively out of the window.
When they arrived home Edith had prepared steak and kidney pie and a large trifle for supper. Ferdinand ate it, though without enjoyment. Then he did his homework, after which he got out a sheet of graph paper and drew up a neat chart to indicate the meals he would like to eat on a weekly rotating basis. Holding this chart in his hand he went to find Edith who was in the kitchen chatting with Agnes.
‘Edith, I would prefer it if in future you could avoid any recipes which require internal organs, and any deserts whose texture is gelatinous. I don’t wish to appear ungrateful, but they make me feel a little nauseous. To help you I have prepared this chart,’ and Ferdinand handed her the chart which read:
Monday: Baked beans on toast Ice cream
Tuesday: Steak and chips Ice cream
Wednesday: Baked beans with puff pastry Ice cream
Thursday: Boeuf Wellington Arctic roll
Friday: Baked beans en croute Ice cream
Saturday/ Sunday: Please feel free to try out new recipes.
Note 1: You may vary the flavours of ice-cream
Note 2: No new recipes to contain internal organs or matter whose texture is gelatinous.
‘Do you think that would be okay?’ Ferdinand asked when Edith had stopped reading.
‘’Well, yes, I suppose so, but there aren’t any greens on your chart.’
‘I know. I thought it might be better for you to speak to Mr. Davis so you could always prepare a side-dish of seasonal vegetables. Eating vegetables when they are fresh is not only healthier but also an ecologically sounder policy. Would you mind doing that?’
‘No, not at all.’
‘And if you’d like to experiment with different types of pastry during the week, then please feel free to do so.’
It was an Indian summer. Ferdinand spent much of it in the orchard, either doing his homework at the table on the flagstones or, when he’d finished, reclining in the plum tree above the spot where Sofia had died. The trunk divided into two main branches and formed a convenient ‘V’ against which Ferdinand could wedge his feet. At first it worried Dorothy that the boy spent so much time in the orchard, but whenever she went to check on him she found him pensive rather than moping, meditative rather than melancholic. His eyes never appeared red or swollen and she had no reason to suspect that he’d been crying. When she sat at the table with her knitting and he reclined in the tree like a sleepy leopard cub, the questions he asked her did not indicate any morbid fixation.
‘Dorothy, do you think a pterodactyl has ever flown over this orchard, I mean before it was an orchard?’
‘Dorothy, do Eskimos never eat any fruit, ever?’
To which Dorothy used to reply,
‘Oh, I’m sure I don’t know.’
And because the weather was still so good, Ferdinand continued to eat his supper in the orchard. Edith carried it out on a tray and Agnes laid a place for him and Dorothy cleared the schoolbooks off the table and put them into the satchel.
‘Mmmm, the pastry really is deliciously light today,’ said Ferdinand.
‘Good, I’m glad you like it,’ said Edith.
‘Mr. Clesham would like it too. Today we had apple pie at school and Mr. Clesham said that he thinks he can resist every temptation apart from good pastry.’
‘Oh, well, you must invite him for supper one day.’
‘Yes, I think he’d like that.’
The weather turned in October. Rainstorms confined Ferdinand to the house where he sat by the nursery window listening to the clicking of Dorothy’s knitting needles and staring out at the sodden, wind-whipped orchard. Then he caught sight of Mr. Davis in his yellow fisherman’s mackintosh picking up the late fruit shaken from the trees.
‘I’m going to help Mr. Davis,’ announced Ferdinand.
‘Well, ok then,’ replied Dorothy who was always in favour of outdoor activities, ‘but only so long as you make sure you wrap up warm.’
So Ferdinand put on his thick Bavarian Waldjanker and a waterproof on top of that. He found Mr. Davis drying the fruit in his shed. Mr. Davis had been working on the estate since he was a boy. He had been employed as temporary help during the first war, because he was still too young for the trenches. He became sub-gardener between the wars before being sent to North Africa where he dearly missed the verdancy of the Kentish countryside. After the war he returned as head gardener. In recent years he had also taken on the roles of foreman and handyman. He was a kindly man who had recognised in Sofia his own passion for making things grow. He was happier in the company of plants than in the company of women or children; he had little experience of either. He had felt great affection for Sofia, as he also did for Ferdinand, but his inability to express it had made him awkward and tongue-tied in her presence. His other great love, aside from gardening, was birds; his shed in the near corner of the orchard was a veritable aviary full of songbirds of every shade and hue, housed in ornate Pagoda-like cages which Mr. Davis himself had built with the patience of the lonely.
‘Hello young man,’ Mr. Davis said when he saw Ferdinand in the doorway of the shed.
‘I was wondering,’ said Ferdinand, ‘how much it would cost to build a tree house with a roof and four wooden sides.’
‘Ah, well,’ said Mr. Davis, wrinkling his brow in thought, ‘it really depends how big you want it.’
‘Just big enough for me. Maybe with a bench to sleep on and a fold-out table to write on.’
‘I’d say the smallest would be about six feet by four feet. And you’d want a little window too, otherwise it’ll be too dark.’
‘I’d like a window. How much would it all cost?’
‘You could probably buy the wood and the waterproof decking for the roof and the window for, all together, about fifty pounds. Certainly no more than that.’
‘Mr. Davis, please will you build me a tree house in the plum tree in the orchard? I have fifty pounds.’
Mr. Davis thought for a moment, then he replied:
‘I’ll build you a tree house, on one condition.’
‘That you help me build it.’
A week later the wood that Mr. Davis had ordered was delivered. Mr. Davis spent the remainder of the fifty pounds on a small metal toolbox for Ferdinand, so he had his own smaller hammer and chisel and set of screwdrivers. When he got back from school he went straight to Mr. Davis’ shed where, in amongst cages of chirping songbirds, they started to build the tree house. As Ferdinand had requested, it had a bench to sit on or to sleep on, a small fold-out table, a window and a little door. At the beginning of the second week Ferdinand hit his own thumb whilst trying to hammer in a nail. The following morning he observed a bulbous red blood blister on the tip of his thumb which then darkened to black over the following days. It was still there after a couple of weeks, though it no longer hurt; he could stab it with the tip of his compass in class and not feel anything.
A month later the tree house was finished, though it was still inside the shed. Mr. Davis started taking it apart and numbering the various bits of wood in order to reassemble it in the plum tree. He scribbled down the numbers with a stubby bit of pencil which he kept wedged behind his ear. It was a clear, cold autumn afternoon when they carried the many different bits out of the shed and laid them on the flagstones underneath the tree. Using a ladder, Mr. Davis started to trim the branches here and there so that the base could be firmly planted at the top of the ‘V’ in the centre of the tree. Ferdinand held the bottom of the ladder as the sun sunk below the hills, throwing a chromatogram of reds and purples into the sky.
Since there was now much less to do in the garden, Mr. Davis spent the whole next day putting the tree house back together in the plum tree. That evening Ferdinand did his homework at the foldout desk, and he even ate his supper in the tree house, having hauled up a basket containing lukewarm boeuf Wellington (it was Thursday) which Edith attached to the end of a rope. Darkness had fallen by the time Ferdinand had finished eating, so he lit a candle and unrolled his sleeping bag. Even inside the tree house his breath was visible in the cold air and soon his teeth were chattering uncontrollably, so he climbed back down and returned to the main house walking over grass that already felt crunchy with the beginnings of frost.
The following morning the fields were white with the night’s frost. Ferdinand stood shivering in his school uniform as Dorothy opened the garage door. When she turned the key in the Morris Minor’s ignition nothing happened.
‘Oh dear, I remember the last time we had frost, it wouldn’t start then either,’ she said.
‘I’ve got a test this morning,’ said Ferdinand.
‘Let’s see if Mr. Davis can help.’
They found Mr. Davis in his shed where he was removing the insulating blankets from his bird cages. He went with them to the garage but he couldn’t start the car.
‘I could take him to school on the tractor,’ said Mr. Davis. There was an old tractor that Graf Heinrich had bought with the estate.
‘But I haven’t used it since the spring so I’m not sure it’ll start right away,’ he added.
‘Maybe we could order a taxi?’ suggested Dorothy.
‘I know,’ said Ferdinand, ‘we’ll take my father’s Jaguar.’
‘Oh now I don’t think he’d like that very much,’ said Dorothy as Mr. Davis shook his head
‘I don’t think he’d like it very much if I miss my test this morning either. And anyway, he said to me that I was in charge of the house, and I’ve decided that I want Dorothy to drive me in the Jaguar.’
Dorothy and Mr. Davis looked at each other but Ferdinand was already tugging Dorothy’s hand. ‘Come on,’ he said, ‘I know where the key is.’
Ferdinand took the key to the Jaguar from Graf Heinrich’s desk drawer. Then Mr. Davis opened the garage door and together they removed the dust sheet. Underneath the sheet the car gleamed as enticingly as it had when it was brand new, exactly fifty years ago.
‘Oh my, there’s no roof. You’ll be frozen by the time we get to school,’ said Dorothy.
‘So you’ll have to drive fast,’ Ferdinand instructed his nanny.
The two of them clambered into the shiny leather seats. Mr. Davis disconnected the battery from the trickle charger and closed the latches on the bonnet. Dorothy turned the key in the ignition and, remarkably, the engine sprung to life. Dorothy revved it a couple of times and then looked for the reverse gear whose position was not indicated on the gear stick. She found it after a couple of attempts and then edged the car slowly out of the garage under Mr. Davis’ guidance. Ferdinand waved to Mr. Davis as Dorothy pointed the car down the front drive. At first they trundled along at walking pace, but even at that speed the frosty air was so cold that their eyes were soon watering and their ears freezing. Ferdinand opened the glove compartment where he found two brown leather driving hats, one pair of old driving goggles and some fingerless driving gloves. He put on one hat and gave the other hat and the goggles and the gloves to Dorothy. She put them on at the end of the drive before pulling out onto the main road.
There was a small group of first formers beside the driveway when Ferdinand and Dorothy arrived at St. Albans. The first formers were taking turns to look at the pale winter sun through a golden brown pane of ice which they had prized from the tarmac and which had been a large puddle until the temperature had dropped overnight. As the bright red Jaguar purred up the driveway a hush descended on the group and they stared open-mouthed at Ferdinand and Dorothy in their leather driving hats. For one moment Ferdinand felt intensely happy, then in slow motion he watched the pane of incandescent brown ice slip from between the boy’s fingers and fall to the ground and explode, shattering instantaneously and sending fragments skidding in all directions across the tarmac. The faces of the three boys were frozen in surprise as they stared at the glistening icy shards. In the silence that followed Ferdinand stepped out of the car and removed the leather driving hat and grabbed his satchel. But the memory of the moment just before the ice pane broke stayed with him; it was the first time he had felt happy since he had discovered his mother’s body in the deck chair in the orchard.
‘What a car!’ said Mr. Clesham, the portly Master of Dayboys, when Dorothy arrived that afternoon to pick Ferdinand up. ‘Jaguar SS100, so called because it was the first road legal British sportscar to exceed 100mph. Off you go then,’ he said, and affectionately ruffled Ferdinand’s hair as he steered him in the direction of the waiting vehicle.
‘Who was that?’ asked Dorothy once Ferdinand had put on the leather hat.
‘That’s Mr. Clesham. I like him.’
‘He seems a very nice man, I must say,’ said Dorothy. Her face was already a little ruddy from the cold and the excitement of driving the Jaguar, so Ferdinand did not notice that she blushed slightly as she said this.
As they were driving home along the bare country lanes Ferdinand used his watch to measure the time between telegraph poles and, estimating the distance between the poles, he calculated the speed of the car. Then he checked his calculations against the car’s speedometer.
‘You know, Mr. Clesham said this car can go more than a hundred miles an hour and so far we haven’t gone faster than fifty.’
‘Well, I’m being very careful, as I’m sure you father would wish,’ replied Dorothy.
Ferdinand was silent for a few moments, then he said, ‘I’ve got an idea. From now on I’ll time you with my watch between home and school. Let’s see how quickly you can do it.’
When they arrived home Agnes, whose day off it had been, came rushing out to greet them.
‘Oh Dorothy, how terribly exciting!’ she exclaimed.
‘I know, it is rather.’
‘The only time I ever drove a car was during the war. I passed my test first time. The examiner said that was very rare. I used to drive lorries to and from the docks but we weren’t allowed to go more than twenty miles an hour. How fast does that car go?’
‘It can go more than a hundred miles an hour,’ replied Ferdinand.
‘Good Lord, it must be like flying,’ said Agnes.
On the Friday of the following week the Lord Chancellor announced the budget for 1987. Mr. Clesham gave a lecture for the whole school in which he explained what the budget meant. That afternoon Ferdinand timed the drive from school to home at eleven minutes, four minutes less than it had been the week before but half a minute slower than the day before.
‘Mr. Clesham gave a lecture today. He’s a very clever man,’ said Ferdinand as Dorothy carefully parked the car in the garage.
‘I’m sure he is. After all, he’s a teacher. What was the lecture about?’
‘It was about the budget. He said that one of the assumptions underlying the budget is the belief that without competition there can be no improvement.’
‘What a clever man.’
‘Yes, so I was thinking,’ said Ferdinand, ‘that in future I’d like you and Agnes to take turns driving me to school and picking me up. I think she’d like to drive, and the competition will make you faster.’
‘She hasn’t driven since the war you know.’
‘I know. So maybe you could give her a lesson. I’d like her to drive me all the same. I’d like you to take turns, that’s all.’
That evening Agnes and Dorothy drove around the drive a few times. From the nursery window Ferdinand could see the car come to a juddering halt a number of times. Then, the following morning, Agnes drove Ferdinand to school. Mr. Davis had to help her move the seat even closer to the steering wheel than it had been for Dorothy and the leather hat appeared a little loose on her head, but Ferdinand thanked her for driving and said he thought she’d driven very well. That same afternoon he started to time Agnes too. Since she scarcely knew the roads Ferdinand had to give directions as she drove. However, she improved very quickly and after a couple of weeks Ferdinand was shouting out brief reminders:
‘Easy left followed by chicane,’
‘Hard right, adverse camber.’
By the end of that winter term Dorothy was only half a minute faster than Agnes. Whilst Edith prepared pastry and Ferdinand did his homework before supper, the two women would discuss their most recent drives:
‘I lost at least two seconds on my way into the corner by the vicarage. I dropped into second but I know I can do it in third,’ said Agnes.
‘Possibly, but you must bear in mind that there is a slight incline after the vicarage. You really need all the torque you can get and I don’t think third gives you quite enough,’ replied Dorothy.
‘Maybe you’re right, but I also lost at least a second outside Colonel Hargreaves’ house. I can’t help coming off the accelerator to admire his topiary, it’s so lovely.’
‘I think you’re both very foolhardy,’ chipped in Edith, who’d never driven a car in her life, ‘but I’d love to drive with you one day.’
At the beginning of the holidays Ferdinand received a postcard from his father. It read:
The snow in Verbier is excellent this winter. However, I am in urgent need of your help. Please consult Debretts International on the second shelf in the far left of the study - any volume from 1912 onwards should be suitable – and look up whether Principessa Anastasia Severina di Strongoli is related in direct line to the Neapolitan House of Strongoli or whether her branch is an offshoot from the line of the illegitimate Don Antonio who was memorably refused right to the hereditary title by Vittorio Emmanuelle himself at the Council of Milan. Thank you, and Happy Christmas,
p.s. Please respond by poste restante to The Palace Hotel, St.Moritz, Switzerland.
Ferdinand consulted Debretts International from 1922, the first post war volume. He looked up the House of Strongoli and found a family tree of extraordinary complexity. He was not exactly sure how to set about discovering the piece of information his father had requested, so he decided to copy the tree itself as well as the notes beneath it. In order to fit it onto one page he had to sharpen his pencil every time he drew a line or wrote a name. After three evenings work he had completed a meticulous facsimile. This he folded and put in an envelope and gave to Dorothy to take to the post office. Then he returned the volume of Debretts International to the library and stopped in the pantry on his way past in order to sequester one of Edith’s recently baked gooey flapjacks to scoff before bed.
Christmas that year was characterised by frenzied work in the kitchen. Dorothy and Agnes and Edith wanted to make Ferdinand as happy as they could, but none of them could afford the expensive toys or the days out which his mother might have provided, or which his school friends were likely to be enjoying. However, since all food could be bought on Heinrich’s credit at the village store, the three women decided to make up for with food what Ferdinand was missing in other pleasures. Edith baked cakes and scones and mince-pies and flap-jacks and brandy-snaps. Dorothy made icing and brandy butter and treacle tart. Agnes set aside the duster and devoted herself to cleaning the kitchen from morning to night; no sooner had an ingredient been used than it was returned to its proper place. Such wholesome smells of baking and cooking and glazing, scents of cinnamon and raisin and caramel, emanated from the kitchen that Ferdinand started doing his holiday work at the kitchen table, despite the crumbs and the flour and the butter stains that inevitably found their way onto the pages of his schoolbooks. Mr. Davis took to passing by the kitchen at least twice a day, ‘just to take stock’ as he liked to say. He never left without tasting Edith’s latest sugary offering. The daytime temperature rarely rose above freezing and the nights were longer than ever, yet the kitchen was bright and warm and cheerful.
Mr. Davis was invited to Christmas lunch which Ferdinand said he wanted to have in the kitchen, not in the dining room as in previous years. Christmas crackers were pulled amongst mountains of potatoes and moats of gravy and battlements of turkey and when Mr. Davis’ plate went spinning off the side of the table like a flying saucer the look on his face was so childlike in the absoluteness of his horror that Ferdinand wanted to console him until he heard the first mirthful snort escape from Edith, and then a flood of uncontrollable laughter washed over the table.
The weather changed in the week before Ferdinand was due to go back to school. Gone were the frosty white mornings and clear blue skies and spectacular winter sunsets. Instead the world was encased in a soggy grey cloud which sucked the pleasure out of life. The drizzle never let up, smells of rotting were pervasive and the mud got everywhere. Each day was identical to the last; after just three days back at school Ferdinand felt that the Christmas holidays had never happened. Even the drive to and from school was no longer exciting: the roads were slippery with rotting leaves, the once shiny paintwork was hidden beneath a coat of dry mud and both Agnes and Dorothy were at least two minutes off their best times.
A week later Agnes and Ferdinand rounded the corner of the driveway to see Graf Heinrich’s black Mercedes parked in front of the front door.
‘Oh dear,’ she said.
No sooner had the Jaguar come to a stop than the door swung open and Heinrich came marching out, apoplexy contorting his features.
‘Agnes, I am terminating your employment right now! And as for you, Ferdinand, how dare you? How dare you? Follow me to my study!’
Ferdinand followed, though by the time they reached the study Graf Heinrich’s fury appeared to have dissipated somewhat.
‘I have had a most relaxing break and I do not intend to allow your irresponsible antics, present or future, to undermine the equanimity which I have worked so hard to achieve. Tomorrow I shall telephone the headmaster and as of next term you will become a boarder at St.Albans, do you understand?’
‘But I don’t want to be a boarder,’ said Ferdinand.
‘You will become a boarder and that is final. You may go.’
Ferdinand left the study and ran across the garden to the orchard. He climbed up into the plum tree and opened the door to the tree house. It was damp inside and there were insects everywhere – woodlice and centipedes and earwigs and spiders’ webs in the corners. Ferdinand sat on the bench and pulled out the folding table and rested his head on his hands and his hands on the table. He was not going to become a boarder.
After watching the light fade from the sky, Ferdinand returned to the kitchen. He was sitting at the table doing his homework and observing Edith at the stove when his father strode into the room.
‘Edith!’ he exclaimed, brandishing an elegant paper bag as if it he were a Mohawk with a scalp in his hand. ‘Look what I have here!’
Ferdinand also looked. The writing on the bag was in an ornate italicised script. It read Chez Lepik: Epicerie de L’Estonie. Ferdinand looked up at Edith but her face was, for once, a blank.
‘Oh come Edith,’ said Graf Heinrich. ‘Surely you know Lepik’s, the finest Estonian delicatessen in Paris? I thought everybody knew Lepik’s?’ Edith’s face still showed no sign of recognition. Heinrich continued, ‘Well, I stopped there on my way back, and I would be very grateful if tonight you would serve’ – with a flourish Heinrich withdrew two brown paper parcels from within the bag – ‘finest Estonian jellied pigs’ trotters and Baltic tripe.’
Ferdinand’s nose wrinkled and he shook himself like someone trying to expunge the memory of a bad dream. That evening, at dinner with his father, he did not eat. Heinrich entreated him but there seemed to Ferdinand a hidden malice in his entreaties: ‘Come now Ferdinand, just one jellied pigs trotter… They are so deliciously, how shall I say, gélatineux?’ And though he did not smile outright, Ferdinand thought he detected a suppressed glimmer of enjoyment in his father’s face.
Heinrich never did sack Agnes since, when Agnes told Dorothy and Edith what had happened, they both tendered their own resignations. Heinrich debated the matter but in the end he decided he would probably find it impossible, and certainly impossibly wearing, to employ three new members of staff. So Agnes stayed and Ferdinand continued to spend his evenings either in the kitchen or, once the days grew longer, in the orchard, and the days began to pass more quickly once again.
Ferdinand had started to think that his father had changed his mind about his becoming a boarder. However, Heinrich brought it up again midway through the Easter holidays, and thereafter he would not let it drop. It was obvious to Ferdinand that his father was bored and that insisting on the subject was not only an occupational therapy in itself, but in his father’s eyes it also seemed to be a necessary step in order for him to depart on his next European adventure. The logic of this seemed obscure to Ferdinand, though he knew that arguing the point would come to nothing.
‘Ferdinand, you had better set aside the things you want to take to St. Albans. Dorothy can help you pack.’
‘But I don’t want to be a boarder.’
‘I’m afraid it’s too late now. The Headmaster is coming to pick you up himself next week, so you will have a day to settle in before term starts.’
‘I’m not going.’
‘It’s all been arranged.’
‘I said I’m not going.’
‘Look here young man, whilst you live under my roof you do what I say, and I say you go to boarding school, is that understood?’ Again the purity of paternal logic seemed questionable to Ferdinand – he could not both live under his father’s roof and do what he said - but he replied:
‘Fine. So long as I live under your roof I do what you say.’
‘Fine?’ questioned Heinrich, sounding a little disappointed.
That evening Ferdinand did not come to dinner. Graf Heinrich enjoyed his starter in silence, then he began to worry that something had befallen the boy. He went to the kitchen between courses where he found Edith at the stove and Dorothy and Agnes at the kitchen table.
‘Do you know where Ferdinand is?’ he asked.
There was an awkward silence before Dorothy cleared her throat. ‘He’s in the tree house in the plum tree in the orchard. He said he wanted to sleep there from now on. He was very insistent.’
‘Ah ha, I see,’ said Heinrich. ‘Well, I’m sure he’ll come running back as soon as he gets hungry. All we must do is wait.’
But Ferdinand did not come running back that evening, nor the next evening, nor any evening after that. By day Heinrich scrutinised him as he reclined in the tree or carried Mr. Davis’ bird cages out into the garden to hang from the trees where the birds trilled so much more happily than in the relative dark of the shed. But it did not seem to Heinrich that his son was losing weight, and so he concluded that Edith must be secretly feeding him. However, despite his vigil at the nursery window, he never saw Edith carry anything suspicious into the orchard during either her morning or afternoon tea break. Lacking any evidence, he could scarcely reprimand her. What Heinrich did not realise was that a false bottom had been fitted to the box which Mr. Davis collected every day from the kitchen, and which contained bread crusts and scraps of pastry to feed to his birds. With considerable ingenuity Edith managed to pack two full meals into this secret compartment, though the famed airiness of her cooking was somewhat compromised thereby.
A week before the beginning of term the headmaster arrived together with Mr. Clesham. From his vantage point in the tree house, Ferdinand watched them knock on the front door. Heinrich opened the door himself. Heads nodded briefly then Heinrich gesticulated towards the orchard. The headmaster and Mr. Clesham made their way towards the orchard. Ferdinand had opened the door to his tree house and was seated on the ledge with his legs dangling in the air when they arrived.
‘Hello Sir,’ he said.
‘Ah, Ferdinand,’ exclaimed Mr. Clesham, puffing slightly.
‘Ferdinand,’ interrupted the headmaster, ‘I have no time for silliness. I gather your father has important commitments abroad. I myself will be here next Sunday to pick you up. Make sure your trunks are packed.’
‘I’m sorry Sir, but I won’t be coming with you. I intend to stay here, though of course I will be on time for chapel on Monday.’
The headmaster took a piscine gulp of air. Mr. Clesham interjected:
‘Now Ferdinand, it’s really for the best.’
‘Of course you’ll come, even if I have to drag you down from there myself!’ exclaimed the headmaster.
‘With all due respect Sir, at your age I must advise against attempting to climb this tree. It’s trickier than it looks,’ Ferdinand called down. He felt a brief flash of pride when he noticed Mr. Clesham suppress a smile.
‘How dare you!’ shouted the headmaster.
‘If we were in America,’ continued Ferdinand, ‘I would direct you towards the Declaration of Independence, and the rights enshrined therein. Naturally I’m aware that I am a minor; nevertheless, that fact does not in itself constitute forfeiture of my right to life. I think a similar case could be made for the inalienability of my rights to liberty and happiness.’
There was silence from the two men beneath him. Then Ferdinand spied Dorothy, Edith and Agnes climbing the three stone steps into the orchard, each carrying a laden tray.
‘Ah, tea,’ announced Ferdinand. ‘Please do stay. I asked Edith to make scones especially for you. If you don’t mind I will take my tea up here.’
‘Thank you Ferdinand, but I think we really must go,’ said Mr. Clesham. The headmaster nodded in agreement.
‘Nonsense,’ interjected Dorothy. ‘As Master Ferdinand said, Edith baked these scones especially. Now will you two gentleman sit down at the table and let Agnes pour your tea.’
‘How do you take it?’ Agnes asked the headmaster.
‘Agnes makes excellent tea,’ Ferdinand called down from the tree.
‘Huh, well, milk and no sugar, thank you,’ said the headmaster. Agnes poured the tea whilst Edith put scones and jam and clotted cream on the table and Dorothy prepared two scones to put into the basket for Ferdinand to pull up.
‘What an excellent scone,’ pronounced Mr. Clesham after polishing off his first. ‘Quite ethereal.’
The headmaster nodded in silent agreement.
‘I thought you’d be impressed. Edith is an excellent cook,’ said Ferdinand. Edith pretended to be rearranging the cups on the tray though really she was savouring the word ‘ethereal’.
‘Won’t you join us for tea?’ asked Mr. Clesham as Dorothy passed the basket of scones around for the second time.
‘We’d love to but I’m afraid we haven’t brought enough tea cups. Perhaps if you call again…’
‘Dorothy will be driving me to school when my father goes abroad,’ said Ferdinand.
‘Ah,’ said Mr. Clesham to Dorothy, ‘so maybe we can invite you to tea at the school?’
‘That would be nice,’ said Dorothy.
The headmaster wanted to point out that Dorothy would not be driving Ferdinand to school when Ferdinand became a boarder. However, his mouth was full of scone, so he let it pass.
Graf Heinrich had not been planning to leave for the Riviera until later in the summer. However, he realised that a show-down with Ferdinand was inevitable if he stayed until the beginning of the summer term, and he rather feared that it would be a show down he would lose. On the Friday before the Sunday on which Ferdinand was due to be collected by the headmaster, Graf Heinrich wandered into the orchard where Ferdinand was trying to teach Agnes and Dorothy how to bowl a cricket ball.
‘That’s not bad, but you’ve got to keep your arm straight, like this,’ said Ferdinand, rotating his arm from the shoulder with exaggerated slowness, like the sail of a windmill.
Graf Heinrich coughed politely as he came within earshot.
‘Agnes, please could you make sure my linen suits are pressed. I shall be leaving for Biarritz tomorrow morning.’ Noticing the momentary look of surprise on Dorothy’s face, he continued, ‘It’s a little sooner than I had intended but my close friend Princess Kiria Romanov informs me that the bougainvillea is out early this year. The first flush is always the most luxuriant.’
On the Sunday morning the headmaster’s secretary telephoned to say that the headmaster would not be able to collect Ferdinand and could his father drive him to school instead. Edith, who had answered the telephone, replied that Graf Heinrich had already left the country and that, as far as she knew, Dorothy was planning to take Ferdinand to school the next morning. The headmaster’s secretary said she would relay this information to the headmaster.
Edith hung up and turned to Agnes, Dorothy and Ferdinand who were all sat silently at the kitchen table. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘maybe we could have a picnic today.’
Throughout the summer term Dorothy drove Ferdinand to school in her purple Morris Minor. Ferdinand’s reputation as a wily tactician secured him captaincy of the 2nd XI cricket team; on match days Dorothy did not pick him up until late in the evening. On a number of occasions Mr. Clesham asked Ferdinand to ask Dorothy to come to the match tea which was provided for parents who were spectating. Dorothy, however, was reticent. ‘It’s not my place,’ she said in response to Ferdinand’s entreaties. That was Ferdinand’s only real disappointment of the summer term. At school things went well - Mr. Clesham in particular treated him with a degree of indulgence which seemed almost like respect and this, combined with his captaincy of the 2nd XI, helped to avoid a recurrence of the previous year’s brutal birthday bumps. It seemed that the balance had shifted, that teachers now admired him rather than saw him merely as an eccentric figure of fun. Ferdinand’s peers took their lead from their teachers, as boys do, and soon Ferdinand began to enjoy a novel sense of popularity. He was happy at home too; the days grew long and the weather was hot and on weekends they enjoyed sumptuous picnics in the countryside. He continued to sleep in the tree house and on fine evenings he ate his dinner together with Dorothy, Edith and Agnes at the table beneath the plum tree.
One Sunday afternoon, as they were returning from a picnic, Ferdinand saw the gypsies unloading their lorries in a nearby field. The gypsies came every year; usually Ferdinand was alerted to their presence by the chains and padlocks which materialised overnight on doors and gates all around the estate. Graf Heinrich had a pathological fear that the gypsies would steal everything they could lay their hands on. ‘A gypsy will steal his own toe,’ he used to say, transliterating the Estonian adage. Since infancy Ferdinand had been forbidden to visit the gypsies. In fact, he had very little idea what they did, apart from steal. So now, seeing the bustle in the field as they appeared to be putting up tents, he said,
‘Let’s go and see what they’re doing.’
‘Your father wouldn’t like it,’ said Dorothy.
‘But he’s not here. Come on, let’s go.’
Ferdinand, Edith, Dorothy and Agnes leant against the wooden fence and watched. The field contained lorries and vans and battered old cars and even a couple of horse-drawn caravans. Ferdinand had imagined the gypsies themselves to be hook-nosed and dark and malevolent. Instead they looked like people anywhere else; perhaps more of their clothing was homespun, but that was really the only difference.
Ferdinand spied two identical looking boys of about his own age doing gymnastics. One had his shoulders on the ground and his legs raised vertically in the air and he was supporting his lower back with his hands. The other boy climbed up his legs then did a hand stand with his hands on the other first boy’s feet. Then he pushed off with his hands and somersaulted before landing on his own feet. Ferdinand was entranced by the boys’ agility.
‘So, you must be Ferdinand.’
Ferdinand whipped round. The speaker was a bearded man with brown, wrinkled skin and crows’ feet around his eyes. It was hard to tell his age.
‘Yes, I am. How do you know?’ he asked.
‘I used to know your mother,’ replied the stranger. ‘She was very kind to me. She let me pick apples from her orchard; the best cider apples for miles around. I have been told she is no longer with us. I was sorry to hear that.’
The was a moment’s silence. Ferdinand did not know how to respond, so he said, ‘I live in the orchard now.’
The gypsy nodded slowly. ‘It is an ancient orchard,’ he said.
‘Yes, it’s in the Doomsday book,’ added Ferdinand enthusiastically.
‘Oh, it is much older than that. It is a holy place, though there are not many that know it.’ The gypsy paused for a moment, then he nodded towards the two young gymnasts. ‘The twins are my boys,’ he said. ‘Your mother and their mother were pregnant at the same time. Now they want to join the circus.’
‘Will they join the circus?’ asked Ferdinand.
‘They’re certainly good enough, but who knows what the future holds.’ Again the gypsy paused, and again Ferdinand did not know how to respond. In the end he said, ‘Well, if you’d like some cider apples, then please do come by the orchard.’
‘Thank you,’ said the gypsy, ‘I would like that.’ Then he turned to look Ferdinand in the eye for the first time. ‘You remind me of your mother,’ he said.
That evening Ferdinand busied himself feeding Mr. Davis’ birds before carrying their cages back into the shed. However, what he really wanted was for the gypsy to pass by. But the gypsy didn’t pass by, neither that evening, nor the next, nor the evening after that. Ferdinand began to lose hope.
The summer holidays came and midway through them Ferdinand accepted an invitation to stay with a school friend in Sussex for a week. Dorothy drove him there along leafy summer lanes whose trees met above the road; Ferdinand felt as if he were speeding through a dappled green tunnel. At the end of the week he was surprised to be picked up in the Jaguar by Graf Heinrich, recently returned from Marbella.
‘Dorothy tells me you have been dining en plein air.’
‘Tonight I would appreciate it if you dined with me, in the dining room.’
‘And I gather you haven’t started boarding yet.’
‘Well, you can’t stay in the tree house for ever you know. It’ll get very cold up there come winter.’
‘So you’ll start boarding in September.’
‘We shall see.’
Father and son drove silently down the leafy lanes in the gleaming Jaguar, at a snail’s pace.
After dining indoors with Heinrich, Ferdinand went out to take down Mr. Davis’ birdcages. He had already returned the two biggest ones to the shed when he looked up and saw a canary yellow gypsy caravan on the far side of the orchard wall. Sitting on the driver’s bench with the horse’s reins in his hand was the gypsy who had known Sofia and who was the father of the twins. He waved cheerfully to Ferdinand and jumped down from his bench. Ferdinand waved back.
‘Hello my friend,’ said the gypsy. ‘I hope you don’t mind my dropping by like this. I’m going to the West Country and I thought it’d be a pity not to say goodbye.’
‘I don’t mind at all,’ said Ferdinand. ‘Are your sons going with you?’
‘No, I’ll be going alone. They’re working with the circus now. First time I’ll be alone in the West Country since I was a young man.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ said Ferdinand as he saw the sadness in the man’s face. ‘Would you like to take some apples? There are so many in the orchard.’
‘Thank you Ferdinand, I would like that,’ replied the gypsy. Then, after a pause, he continued, ‘You know, these are the best cider apples for miles around. If you’d like I can show you how to make cider. It’s not hard but there aren’t many as does it right.’
Without waiting for an answer the gypsy opened the door in the back of the caravan and climbed inside. Then he reappeared a few seconds later with half a wooden barrel. With Ferdinand’s help he heaved it over the low stone wall.
‘Right,’ he said, ‘now we’ll gather all the fallen ones. Bruised is alright but they’re no good if they’re rotten.’
Ferdinand untied the two baskets which he used to haul food up into the tree house and in these baskets they collected the fallen apples from in amongst the dry rustling late summer grass. It was September now and the apples lay thick on the ground. Some were already brown and others hummed with the noise of insects feasting on their sweet flesh. As well as the humming Ferdinand could hear the chirruping of the songbirds in their pagoda-like cages hanging from the low branches. When the baskets were full they emptied them into the barrel, until the barrel was half full. Then the gypsy disappeared into the caravan once more and emerged carrying a wooden cudgel, like a huge pestle. He used it to pound the apples in the barrel, until they were reduced to a mush. At first bits of apple flew this way and that, though by the end the mush was confined to the bottom of the barrel. Ferdinand marvelled at how quickly the apple’s white flesh turned brown.
‘That should do,’ said the gypsy. Then he spread a sheet of white muslin on the ground and upended the barrel. The brown mush formed a mountain in the middle of the white muslin. The gypsy folded the corners of the muslin over until he’d made a neat parcel. He lifted the parcel from the ground and placed it inside the barrel, then he went back to the caravan to get the apple press. The top of the press fitted into the mouth of the barrel. By rotating the grip on top of the press he gradually lowered the thick barrel-shaped pressing plate. At first he was able to spin the grip to lower the plate, until it met the muslin bag at the bottom of the barrel. Then it became harder to turn the grip as the juice was slowly squeezed out of the apple mush and through the muslin bag. When it seemed that the plate could go no further, the gypsy waited for a minute and then tried again. Each time he was able to twist the grip a little more.
When the gypsy eventually lifted the press and the muslin bag out of the barrel, Ferdinand saw that the barrel was a quarter full of apple juice. Into this the gypsy poured a bag of sugar. Then he took from his pocket a tiny carved wooden box. He opened the box and took a pinch of the white powder inside.
‘What’s that?’ asked Ferdinand.
‘Crushed Campden tablets to kill undesirable bacteria, and a gift for you.’ As he said this, the gypsy pressed the little box into the palm of Ferdinand’s hand and closed his fingers over it. ‘As it happens, it was your mother who first suggested Campden tablets to me. Before that at least half my cider used to go mouldy before it fermented. Now you can make your own cider whenever you wish.’
‘Thank you,’ said Ferdinand.
The gypsy started to stir the juice and the sugar and the crushed tablet in the barrel. Then he got three glass demijohns from the caravan. Into these he poured the contents of the barrel, and into the mouth of each demijohn he fitted a glass fermentation lock. The gypsy handed one of the demijohns to Ferdinand.
‘One of these is for you. Store it in a cool, shady place. Fermentation will start in the next few days and will continue for a month or two. You’ll know when it is fully fermented because you will no longer see bubbles going through the fermentation lock. Then you can remove the lock and taste the cider. You won’t be disappointed, these are the best cider apples for miles around.’
‘That’s very kind,’ said Ferdinand, ‘but I don’t think I can accept it. I gave you the apples so the cider’s yours and I haven’t done anything to deserve it. And anyway, I think I’m a bit young to drink cider.’
The gypsy looked genuinely surprised, then he closed his eyes and recited:
‘You often say, "I would give, but only to the deserving."
The trees in your orchard say not so, nor the flocks in your pasture.
They give that they may live, for to withhold is to perish,’
and so saying he laid his hands on Ferdinand’s shoulders and kissed his forehead. Then he turned to pack up his things. Ferdinand carried the remaining bird cages into the shed, then he reattached the baskets to the ropes. He placed the demijohn into the larger of the two baskets and carefully pulled it up to the tree house. He was concentrating so hard on not tipping the basket that he did not notice the gypsy climb onto the driving seat of his caravan and flick the reins and goad his horse forward, and when eventually Ferdinand did look up the gypsy was already halfway across the field, heading westward.
The stalemate between Ferdinand and Graf Heinrich continued into the winter term. Father and son dined together in the dining room, mostly in silence. However, Ferdinand continued to sleep in the tree house and Dorothy continued to drive him to school in the mornings and collect him in the afternoons in her Morris Minor.
As they were driving home one afternoon in October, Ferdinand said, ‘Mr. Clesham has been made Master of Boarders now.’
‘Really?’ said Dorothy. ‘He’s a very clever man, Mr. Clesham is.’
‘Yes, and I was thinking about inviting my form to celebrate Guy Fawkes night in the orchard. Mr. Clesham could drive them down in the minibus. What do you think?’
‘I think it’s a wonderful idea. We must tell Mr. Davis to make sure the bonfire’s ready in time. We’ll ask Edith what she’d like to cook, and you’d better invite your father too.’
Over the next fortnight the preparations were made. Ferdinand used a school uniform he had recently grown out of to make the Guy. He tied the ends of the shirt and the trousers with bits of string, then he stuffed it with handfuls of straw. He used a Hessian sack for the head and drew the eyes, nose and mouth onto it using the burnt end of a cork. Despite the crudeness of the features which he drew, they bore an uncanny resemblance to his own. Then he tied his school tie around Guy Fawkes’ neck and attached him to one of the old kitchen chairs. With Mr. Davis’ help he hoisted the chair onto the top of the bonfire. Meanwhile Edith baked sausage rolls and made cakes and encased toffee apples in brittle shells of caramelised sugar.
Mr. Clesham gladly accepted the invitation on behalf of form 4A, and Graf Heinrich said he was busy but he’d try and ‘drop in’. On the 5th of November the school minibus pulled up in front of the house and spilt its load of unruly pupils into the driveway just as a red autumn sun was setting. Ferdinand asked Mr. Clesham if he could take his classmates down to the horse chestnut trees at the edge of the estate, so the boarders could fill their pockets with conkers.
‘Yes, I suppose so,’ said Mr. Clesham. ‘I’ve also brought you a Catherine Wheel,’ he continued, ‘but I think we’d better put it up before it gets dark. Where would you like to put it?’
Ferdinand thought for a moment.
‘Can you put it on the plum tree, the one with the tree house in it?’ asked Ferdinand.
‘Are you sure? The sparks might burn the tree house.’
‘That doesn’t matter,’ replied Ferdinand. ‘I’d like it best if you put it there. There’s a hammer and nails in the shed, and also some drinks for you on the table next to the tree, in case you get thirsty. Can we get the conkers now?’
Ferdinand set off towards the conker trees with the rest of form 4A. On the way he looked into the kitchen where Edith, Dorothy and Agnes were busy preparing the food.
‘Dorothy, Mr. Clesham asked whether you could bring him a couple of glasses into the orchard. He’s very thirsty.’
‘Of course,’ replied Dorothy, but Ferdinand had already disappeared.
It was dark by the time Ferdinand and the rest of form 4A returned to the orchard. Mr. Davis was splashing petrol onto the bonfire in one corner. The Catherine Wheel was nailed to the plum tree, midway up the trunk. Mr. Clesham and Dorothy sat either side of the wooden table. Between them stood a flickering candle protected by a glass wind light and the demijohn of cider which Ferdinand had left on the table, and which was now only half full. Dorothy’s eyes shone in the candle light and Mr. Clesham was laughing heartily.
‘Oh, hello Ferdinand,’ he said. ‘You certainly took your time. It doesn’t matter though. Thank you for the, um, refreshment. Dorothy tells me you made it yourself. It’s really quite delicious.’
‘That’s good,’ replied Ferdinand, ‘I haven’t tried it myself.’
‘You haven’t?’ queried Mr. Clesham. He thought for a moment, then he said, ‘Well, I suppose that’s just as well.’
A polite coughing alerted them to the presence of Mr. Davis.
‘I think we’re about ready now Master Ferdinand. We’ve just got to light a few torches’
‘I’ll go and get Edith and Agnes and the food,’ said Dorothy.
‘I’m going to help Mr. Davis,’ said Ferdinand. ‘Will you tell my father it’s ready?’
‘Yes,’ said Dorothy.
Edith and Agnes arrived with trays of sausage roles and toffee apples and mulled wine for the adults and hot chocolate for the boys. Ferdinand and Mr. Davis lit the bonfire with the burning torches. The petrol caught fire immediately and flames leapt into the night. The heart of the bonfire was soon an orange glow, though the Guy had not yet started to burn. There was still no sign of Graf Heinrich; Ferdinand decided to ask Mr. Clesham, who had stationed himself next to the sausage rolls, to light the Catherine wheel anyway. Mr. Clesham edged away from the light of the bonfire and balanced precariously on the wooden table whilst he leant across to light the wheel.
The company assembled round the bonfire turned to watch the whizzing of the Catherine Wheel. Red and green and blue sparks were sprayed in all directions and a dense acrid smoke filled the air. Mr. Clesham started to cough. Dorothy went to the wooden table on which the demijohn still stood and poured him another glass of cider. At that moment the crackling noise of the bonfire grew louder and Ferdinand turned to see the flames licking at the legs of the guy.
‘Ah ha, Guy Fawkes, punished once again for his disobedience,’ said Graf Heinrich, who had crept up noiselessly behind Ferdinand. But as he stared at the stuffed effigy he noticed the old school uniform that Ferdinand had only recently grown out of. He watched the flannel trousers blacken first and then twist and crumple as they caught fire. A couple of glowing sparks lodged themselves in the wool of the thick v-necked jumper until this too began to burn. Then, looking up, he saw the Hessian sack and the features boldly drawn on it, features strangely similar to Ferdinand’s own. Within a couple of seconds the Hessian was burning and smoke was billowing from the guy and, to his surprise, Graf Heinrich felt a lump in his throat.
‘Ferdinand, I’ve been thinking. If you don’t want to board you don’t have to. It’s ridiculous to carry on living in the tree house. You should move back into the house.’
‘Oh. Thank you,’ said Ferdinand, surprised.
Hearing the applause they both turned to look towards the plum tree where the Catherine wheel had just expired. Ferdinand could hear Dorothy giggling and, though the light from the bonfire scarcely reached into that corner, he could see that she was shyly holding Mr. Clesham’s hand.
‘Ah, l’amour entre les domestiques,’ said Graf Heinrich, ‘ce n’est jamais du joli.’
After a pause Ferdinand said, ‘Actually, if you don’t mind, I think I’m ready to start boarding now.’
Claus von Bohlen und Halbach 2006