It was the beginning of September, and the early harvest was safely gathered in, with only the squashes and pumpkins to ripen, and the onions and brassicas left in the ground to overwinter. Jason had insisted - on Bob’s advice - on leaving the parsnips in until after the first frost, which would make them all the sweeter; perfect for Christmas dinner. For now, though, the hard work was done, and for the tenants of the Lovers Lane allotments in Holby, there was nothing left to do but tidy up the straggling growth on their plots, and enjoy the fruits of their labours.
Or so Serena thought. She and Bernie had been on shift together, and had finished work at the same time for once. It had been a long day, and they were still aching from their final clearing sting at the allotment a couple of days previously, so it was with weary elation that they fell into the locker room, debating whether or not they had the energy for a quick round at Albies, or if they should go straight home for a bath and an early night. Raf was already there, looking disgustingly fresh and vigorous.
“I’d go for the early night if I were you, boss - you’ll need your strength for tomorrow if you’re coming?”
“What’s happening tomorrow? I’m not working - I made sure of it. Sorry Raf, whatever you’ve got planned will have to happen without me - I’ve got a date with my duvet.”
“And with me,” Bernie murmured, not quite as sotto voce as she intended, and Raf grinned unabashedly.
“Well, cancel it,” he said boldly. “It’s the big day at the orchard - didn’t you get the letter?”
“If it came in a brown envelope, probably not,” said Serena, who had still not got out of her habit of ignoring them, despite Jason’s patient coaching (and occasional sprint to pick up the post before Auntie Serena had a chance to throw out anything important).
Raf looked at her quizzically. “It might have done - I can’t remember. But you’ll want to be there - it’s the highlight of the year - or that start of it, anyway. Surely we’ve told you about Apple Day before now?”
Serena was shrugging her coat on, and paused, one arm in and one arm out. “I thought that was in October?” she said.
“Oh - Apple Day itself is, yes - but there’s work to do before then! Apple Day’s on October the twenty first, or the nearest weekend to. That gives us six weeks to make the cider ready for the festivities.”
Bernie suddenly perked up. “Cider? Why didn’t you lead with that! I haven’t made cider for years! Oh, let’s do it, Serena! What time do we need to be there?”
And so Serena Campbell, renowned connoisseur of fine wines with a marked preference for the noble shiraz, found herself agreeing to get up early on her precious day off to pick, crush and press several hundredweight of apples to make scrumpy.
Serena and Bernie had made good use of the early night, which hadn’t necessarily equated to early sleep, and were aching in a much more satisfying way by the time they woke early on Saturday morning. Serena groaned as she turned over in bed.
“Did we really say we’d go to the allotment this morning?” she asked, a hand scrubbing across her eyes, the other reaching blindly for Bernie. But Bernie was up already, and sitting on the edge of the bed fully dressed and holding a cup of coffee for her partner who, she knew, would be fit for nothing until she had drunk it.
“We really did,” she said with a smile, “and we’re really going to. Come on, get outside that coffee and stir your stumps - I can’t wait for this!”
Serena reached for the coffee with what Bernie laughed and called grabby hands. Why had she had to go and fall for a morning person?
As instructed by Raf, they had dressed in layers: it was going to be a long day if they stuck it out, and they would be working hard, but there would also be a bit of standing around, so they were prepared to layer up or down as the moment dictated. They had brought along the seemingly eclectic list of items he had stipulated, too: an old blanket, as many buckets as they had been able find, scrubbed and washed and even run through the dishwasher this morning, to Jason’s consternation. Bernie had dutifully fetched a couple of lengths of two-by-four from the local hardware shop - untreated wood, or they’re no use at all - and rather more intuitively, a picnic basket full of dishes to share with the whole gang.
Bernie parked her Land Rover as near the gate as she could manage: she was healing well from her injuries, but there was no point carrying this lot any further than necessary. Once they had unloaded the vehicle they headed up the path, but instead of veering off to the right where their beloved plot seventeen lay, clear and tidy after all their work earlier in the week, they hauled everything up the slope to where a rustically painted sign proclaimed that they were now entering the Lovers Lane Community Orchard.
Raf and Fletch had arrived early to put the mighty cider press together, and it stood in the clearing between the trees, its strong oak frame and cast iron thread gleaming dully in the sun. The trio set to under the watchful eye of Fletch, who directed them as to where all their bits and pieces should go. By the time they had sorted it all out, various other people had turned up: Claire and Louise had brought their scruffy rescue dog Doris with them, and once off the lead, she went sniffing around the base of every tree, and overwriting whatever she found there with her own personal message.
“Don’t worry,” Raf laughed, seeing Serena’s look of distaste, “She can’t reach the apples!”
The couple who kept bees on their plot were there as well, and Jason made straight for Matthew to quiz him about how they would look after the bees over the winter. Jo Carrington, the ex-Army nurse who had founded Dig For Victory turned up a few minutes later, and she greeted Bernie with a hearty handshake that turned into a back-thumping hug. She nodded at Serena, with whom she had finally reached a kind of truce, and set down a heavy bag that clinked promisingly.
Raf had finished organising all the equipment now, and had co-opted help from the group in laying out all the blankets beneath the trees.
“Are we starting with a picnic?” Serena said, confused. “We’ve brought things for lunch, but…”
“Watch and learn, boss,” Fletch said with a grin, and grasping the trunk of the nearest tree, he shook it vigorously, ducking his head down between his shoulders to protect himself from the apples that fell around him. “Anything that comes down first flush is ripe - might even be overripe. So we get them out of the way first, check ’em over for mould, wasp damage, all that sort of thing. Then we pick whatever’s left by hand.”
“It looks very therapeutic,” Bernie said thoughtfully, and Raf laughed.
“It is! Imagine the tree’s a particularly difficult patient - or pick a politician, and shake the heck out of them!”
“Spoilt for choice,” Serena said drily. “And if all else fails, there’s always Guy Self - I’ve wanted to throttle him often enough.”
Once Tanni and Celia arrived, Jason gladly gave up his tree shaking to sit with Celia and start sorting through the apples that the others were collecting, and they sat together with buckets ranged before them to sort the apples into. Any that had rotten bits, or had been eaten into by wasps or bugs were tossed to one side: a friend of Jo’s would collect these at the end of the day, to be fed to his pigs. Jason and Celia’s romance had run its course, and although there had been some worry on everyone’s part about whether they would still want to work on the allotment together, they were still good friends, and Celia listened to Jason as he told her all about a girl he’d met, smiling encouragingly. Greta sounded just right for him.
The tree shaking was every bit as cathartic as Bernie had predicted, and it warmed them up as well. Within minutes, jackets and jumpers had been discarded, and the group of friends worked away happily in the bright early autumn sunlight. The still air rang with chatter and laughter, and the soft thud-thud-thud of falling apples provided a percussive soundtrack.
There was a sudden break to the rhythm, though, when a voice rang out above the peaceful chatter.
“Oi! You there! What do you think you’re doing! Stop that right now - this is private property!”
The allotmenteers looked up more in curiosity than in shock, and Serena rolled her eyes when she saw the source of the hullabaloo.
“Well, if it isn’t Robbie the Bobby,” she said. “Good morning, Mr Medcalf - oh, I beg your pardon, Inspector Medcalf. Didn’t expect to see you here again so soon.”
A sullen flush suffused his face, but he jutted his chin out pugnaciously. “It’s a public right of way - no reason I shouldn’t be here. More to the point, you’re damaging private property and I’ve got a responsibility to report you for it.”
Raf stepped in quickly, feeling that Serena was perhaps not the ideal person to defuse an already ridiculous situation.
“Och, no, you’re fine, mate - it’s not private property - it’s a community orchard, look,” and he pointed to the sign, then gestured round at the group - “and we’re the community. Do you not remember from when you were here? Anyone holding an allotment here has a share in the orchard - and we’re not damaging the trees, we’re picking the apples - here, try one!” And he tossed a healthy looking specimen over to their former allotment neighbour who caught it with a slight fumble. It was only as Robbie bit into it, having first examined it suspiciously, that Raf realised his mistake. Robbie’s face scrunched up as though he’d accidentally downed half a pint of vinegar, and he spat his mouthful out with a curse.
“Sorry - sorry!” Raf called out, trying not to laugh. “I should have thought - these ones aren’t eating apples - here, Louise, give him one of yours to take the taste away, those little russets are delicious.”
But Robbie was disinclined to believe him, and he glared round balefully at the little gathering, turned on his heel and stalked off up the footpath, with a promise that he’d be keeping an eye on them.
“What did Raf mean?” Celia asked Jason, looking at the buckets of apples before them, “Aren’t all apples for eating?” Jason explained that there were lots of different varieties of apples for eating, cooking and making cider in the orchard, and unfortunately, the tree Raf was working on produced cider apples. When juiced and processed they would make a tasty batch of scrumpy, but they were as sour as anything eaten raw. To make a good cider, he said, you needed to use a blend of different apples, but it was good to use lots of the hard, sour little cider apples in the blend.
Once the apples had stopped falling easily, they switched to picking by hand. For the apples higher up and out of reach, Jo had brought along several useful tools which were basically long sticks with a little claw at the end that tugged the apple from the branch into a sturdy net fixed beneath it. A fishing net with teeth, she said with a grin.
They certainly made the job easier, and throughout the morning the nets were in high demand. There were a few step ladders as well, and there was much to-ing and fro-ing, trading ladders for nets, and borrowing people with a longer reach to get at the highest fruit. They stopped for coffee and cake, enjoying half an hour of well earned rest, then threw themselves back into the job.
“Remember, we don’t want to strip the trees completely,” Raf called out. “We want to leave plenty of apples for the birds over the winter.”
Bernie and Serena, who had been rather competitive about their work, looked at each other guiltily and sidled away from their respective trees.
“Right!” Raf was addressing the troops again “Who’s up for a bit of wet work?”
Bernie and Jo looked at each other aghast before realising that their understanding of wet work was radically different from Raf’s. He waggled a little plastic canister in the air.
“Campden tablets! We’re going to give the apples a quick wash, and these make sure we get rid of the worst of the nasties. Mikey, come on - this is a job for you if ever I saw one! Ella can help you out. Look, I’ll mix up the stuff for you, then Ella can drop the apples in, and you can fish them out, stick them in a clean bucket and bring them over to us, over here, ok?”
Mikey grumbled, but as soon as he and Ella got going, they remembered how much fun splashing about on a warm day could be, and soon the buckets started lining up by the plastic half barrels.
Fletch was ready to show them the next stage. “You thought shaking the trees was a good stress reliever, just wait until you try this,” he said with a grin at Bernie. “Next bit is crushing the apples - my esteemed colleague Mr di Lucca tells me it’s properly called scratting, but since when have I ever been proper, eh? Bernie, you got those two-by-fours?”
The lengths of wood were about four foot long, as stipulated, and holding one of them vertically, Fletch lifted it up until his hands were about head height, he brought it down with a heavy smash! into the tub of apples. Pulp and juice sprayed up, the droplets shining like jewels in the sun, and Fletch laughed with glee.
“That’s why you don’t fill the tubs right up - this stuff goes everywhere! You want to try and keep as much of it as you can in the barrel, alright? Now, this is pretty heavy work, so we’ll take turns - off you go!”
Serena piped up. “Why are we doing all this manual labour when we’ve got this magnificent contraption?” She gestured at the cider press, so far standing idle. “I thought this did all the juicing?”
“The juicing, yes, but it’s much easier to turn if the apples are scratted first,” Raf explained, “and we get loads more out of them. It’s worth it, honestly.”
“And Fletch is right,” Bernie called over to her, “this is great fun!” She brought the wood down with a satisfying wet smush into the tub, relishing in the heavy work that would have been too much for her only a few months earlier.
Fletch had been right about it being hard work, too, and as much as she was enjoying it, Bernie knew not to overdo it. The whole team swapped in and out, in and out, with some managing just a few minutes, and others refusing to stop until they could hardly raise their arms. They had several barrels on the go at any one time, and as they drew nearer lunchtime, Fletch found himself working opposite Jo. Unwilling to stop before she did, he kept going, ignoring the lactic acid in his shoulders, but unfortunately for him, Jo knew a fragile male ego when she saw one, and determined to crush it as thoroughly as the apples in her barrel.
The pair of them worked like piledrivers, barely breaking eye contact with each other as they pulverised the fruit that Mikey kept topping up. Fletch saw a glimmer of hope as Jo rested her beam in the tub for a second, but it was only so she could strip off her shirt. Beneath it she wore a cotton vest that revealed glistening shoulders that made Serena think of Nicola Adams, and the onlookers laughed at the look on Fletch’s face as he shook his head and brought his two-by-four down with one last thud.
“Okay, okay - you win! Blimey, you ever want to come back to nursing, I’ll give you a job - we won’t need all that fancy lifting gear, we’ll just get you in!”
She laughed with him and gave him as high a five as he could manage with his weary arms.
“You did alright,” she said in an off hand kind of way that from the taciturn woman was high praise indeed.
With that last marathon session, the scratting was done, and they broke for lunch.
They had provided a fine spread between them, and much of the picnic was made from their own produce, from fresh salads, to quiches jam-packed with roasted vegetables, to crisp little courgette fritters spiked with mint from the herb garden that Bernie had established on plot seventeen. Tanni and Celia had made bottles and bottles of lemonade - “We didn’t grow the lemons ourselves,” Celia said, “but we have got some little lemon trees in the polytunnel - maybe next year we’ll be able to use our own!” There was elderflower cordial too, made from the blossoms of the trees that grew around the allotments, and they feasted like kings and queens.
Bernie lay flat on her back on one of the blankets, her knees raised to flatten her spine for comfort and relief. She gazed up at the blue sky through the leaves of the apple tree and nudged Serena’s elbow.
“Look,” she said, “That cloud up there. It looks like a wolf, don’t you think?”
Serena leaned over and squinted up at the sky. “You’ve got a good imagination,” she said. “A little dog, maybe - a labrador puppy.”
“Oh, now there’s a thought,” Bernie said with a winning smile. “We should get a dog! Oh, can we?”
“What’s all this we? You can get one if you like, but there’s not much room for a dog in that flat of yours.”
“Hmm, no - I suppose not,” Bernie said a little sadly. “Ah well. We’ll just have to enjoy hanging out with Doris instead.” And hearing her name, the scruffy mongrel pattered over, and finding a playmate already on the ground at her level, she set to licking Bernie’s face clean, just in case there were any remnants of lunch there for her. Bernie squirmed and put her hands up to her face to protect herself but she was laughing and petting the dog all the while.
“You needn’t think I’m kissing you now,” Serena said with a huff, and Bernie sat up immediately, scrubbing at her face with her sleeve, and leering over at Serena, pouting her lips in a parody of a kiss. They dissolved in a heap of giggles, Doris piling on for good measure.
Now came the real business of the day. The ever efficient Jo had spent her lunch break lining up the component parts, and lining the wooden frames with cheesecloth ready to start packing. Once she had everyone’s attention, she sent through the naming of parts.
“Alright, folks, we’ve got the cider press for the day - it’s going over to Dunnock Fields tomorrow, and it will be doing the rounds of half the orchards in the county over the next couple of weeks. Here’s how it works: the apples you crushed this morning are now in a state we call pomace - that’s just the apple pulp. The press we’re using alternates layers of pomace with layers of straw to filter the juice, though more modern ones use wooden slats. We’re going down the traditional route today.”
She slapped a ready made pallet of straw on the bed of the press, then laid an empty wooden frame on top of it. “The cheese cloth goes in the frame - lots of surplus over each edge, like this. Then we fill the frame with pomace, like this - nice and full, not too tightly packed.” She shovelled apple pulp from the half barrels into the frame, then laid the cheesecloth over it carefully, wrapping it over all four sides before removing the frame.
“Then another layer of straw, then pomace again, and we repeat that until we’ve used it all up. You can see the juice is already starting to run out from the tap here - we need to keep an eye on the bucket and swap it in for a new one as soon as it’s full - I don’t want to seem a drop of this juice wasted!”
It had been three or four years since Jo had been invalided out of the RAMC, but there wasn’t a soul there who didn’t need to fight the urge to snap to attention.
Jo picked up a wooden spindle, beautifully turned, and worn and polished with use.
“Once the cheese - that’s the name we give to the entire stack of pomace and straw - is up to the top of the press, we lay the pressing block down: the spindle slots in like so, and then it’s a case of turning it until the whole stack runs dry. It’s a long slow job, but the press makes light work of it. All the hard work’s done - or it will be once we’ve got the cheese ready.”
The picnic turned into a pressing party now, as they took turns packing the frames and folding the cheesecloth around the pomace, and layering them with the clean, sweet smelling straw. As they stacked the layers higher and higher, the juice started running out more freely from the weight alone, and one the heavy wooden block had been placed on top of the stack it poured out. The first turn of the spindle led to a torrent that filled the first bucket, and another was quickly swapped in.
As Jo had said, turning the spindle wasn’t hard work at all, but quite slow and repetitive, and taking it turns not only broke up the monotony, but also let everyone feel that they had a hand in every stage of the process. An extraordinary quantity of juice came out of the stack of apple parcels, and watching the sweet dark juice foaming into the buckets was mesmerising.
As the stack became more and more compressed, a bit more effort was required to turn the spindle, and Fletch and Jo resumed their former rivalry, but it was when Bernie put her shoulder to the wheel that Serena really paid attention. There was something unbelievably sexy about seeing her lean her whole weight into the job, a look of determination on her face, and for a moment Serena imagined her as the captain of a pirate ship, leaning into the wheel to weather a storm, or steer into the thick of a fleet of ships bearing Spanish treasure. Something distracted her and she snapped out of it, laughing at herself - maybe that was a thought for another time.
“Oh, what now?” she heard Tanni say with a groan. Looking round, she saw what the disruption was - for there was Robbie the Bobby again, coming back along the public footpath, looking more like a policeman than ever.
“So, you’re making cider, is that it? You needn’t think you’re going to sell it without a licence. There are heavy penalties for unregulated sales of alcohol, you know - very heavy penalties indeed!” He loomed menacingly over the little group lounging on the blankets while Bernie was taking her turn, and Serena could picture him tapping a truncheon in his hand like Dixon of Dock Green - but he lost his height advantage when Fletch, bucket in hand, stepped in.
“Sell it? We’re not going to waste any of this nectar on anyone else, mate, this is for us and us alone!”
Robbie cast his eye suspiciously at the number of buckets, and the still oozing stack of pomace cheese.
“You’re trying to tell me all of this is for private consumption?” he scoffed.
Fletch laughed in his face this time. “Mate, we’ll be lucky if this even sees us through Apple Day! It all gets divvied up between whoever wants it from the allotments, not just us lot. Seriously, chill out about it all. You had your chance, you blew it, just - let us live our best allotment lives in peace!”
Robbie teetered for a moment, evidently trying to decide whether to push it or not, then shook his head with a huff.
“Apple Day, hmm? Huh, we’ll see.” It was evidently supposed to sound menacing and threatening, but came across as pure petulance, and even as he strode off again, Bernie couldn’t help but honk her great laugh at his childishness, and his shoulders stiffened, but he didn’t look back.
“Why won’t Robbie leave us alone?” Jason asked, worried at being at the centre of a policeman’s disapproving attention.
“Oh, forget him, the big bully,” Serena said. “He can’t bear to see other people making a success of something he failed at, that’s all. He’ll forget all about us once something else catches his eye, don’t you worry.”
As the last few buckets filled, anyone who had any energy remaining helped carry them into the shed at the back of the orchard, tipping the juice into plastic barrels that someone had scavenged from a local factory. They would be left to ferment overnight, but there was one more thing to do first.
“Right - show of hands time,” Raf said. “We get to decide if we want scrumpy or sparkling cider, for the more refined among us,” and he flashed a cheeky grin at Serena. “Hands up for sparkling?”
As he had predicted, Serena’s hand went up, as did several others.
“So about half and half - everyone happy with half flat, half sparkling? Good! Serena, you might as well do the honours, then.” He handed her several sachets labelled Champagne yeast, and she followed his directions in scattering the contents into one of the barrels and giving it a good stir with a long handled paddle.
“I feel as though I’m stirring up the Christmas pudding!” she said, and when she was done she marked the barrel with chalk so they would remember which was which.
“Okay everyone - good work!” Raf called out finally. “That’s everything done for the day - and now, we wait! Jason’s very kindly offered to help me monitor the alcohol levels, and Fletch and I will deal with siphoning it off and bottling it when it’s ready, so we should have a decent brew by Apple Day. Let’s get the press dismantled and cleaned, then anyone who fancies it back to ours for pizza!”
Many hands made quick work, and by the time Jo’s friend came to retrieve the press and to take the damaged apples and dry pomace for his pigs, they were ready to load everything up and head off.
Serena and Bernie joined the exodus to the Fletcher-di Lucca home, but everyone had had a long day and it was hardly a riotous affair. After filling themselves up on pizza and garlic bread, it wasn’t long before heads started to nod, and they made their excuses early for a bath and an early night.
Jason kept them informed about how the cider was coming along, and Bernie was as enthusiastic as he was about his little notebook of readings, though it left Serena slightly baffled. Over the next few weeks, she developed the skill of tuning out brewers’ talk, and besides, she had other things to think about.
When Apple Day finally came around, they were relieved to see that it was a perfect crisp autumn day, with deep blue skies and hints of gold and garnet in the trees along Lovers Lane. The clocks would go back the following weekend, and evening drew in all too quickly, and by the time everyone had gathered at the orchard, the sun was sinking in the west, and the first few stars were twinkling overhead.
More of the allotment keepers were here than had been at the picking and pressing, and there was quite a buzz. Someone had brought along an accordion, and guitars and fiddles seemed to magic themselves out of the trees. Matthew and Judith, the beekeepers, were keen folk musicians and had brought friends along to join them. One of the pigs who had benefitted from their cider making had, alas, also fallen victim to it, and Jo and her farmer friend were serving up a fine hog roast from an oil drum barbecue. And a bonfire, built painstakingly by Mikey with help from his dads, was crackling away merrily, and Serena beamed as she set up their camping chairs next to it.
“A picnic blanket’s all very well,” she said, “But damp grass on an autumn evening? No thanks! Oh, this is the life!” She settled back in the chair, pulling a warm blanket over both their knees, and she and Bernie held hands beneath it, smiling at each other like the lovestruck fools they were.
As a song drew to its close, Raf clanked a couple of bottles together to get everyone’s attention.
“Ladies and gentlemen - and Fletch,” he added with a wink, “The moment of truth is upon us. It’s time to see how our cider’s turned out - but first - the first bottle is for the trees!”
With great pomp and ceremony, he uncorked one of the bottles, and as a single fiddle played a traditional air, he solemnly poured a little of the cider at the foot of every tree in the orchard.
That done, he uncorked a second bottle. “And the next one is for us!” he cried, and upending it, took a long swig. The gathered crowd held their collective breath as they awaited his verdict. He swallowed, licked his lips, and after a moment’s overacted thought, declared, “It’s good!”
A great cheer went up, and there was a rush for the bottles as everyone filled the mugs and tankards they had brought along. Bernie had snagged a bottle of the sparkling and brought it back over to their little spot, and was about to open it when a bright flashlight swept across the party.
To the surprise of literally no-one, it was Robbie Medcalf, red faced from racing up from his house a couple of streets away, and a vein throbbing at his temple.
“No bonfires!” he roared. “There are no bonfires allowed on the allotments - that’s it! You’re nicked!”
There was a moment of stunned silence, and the allotmenteers looked uncertainly at each other, waiting for someone to mask the first move. It was Jo who calmly put her mug of cider down and addressed him.
“You’re quite right, Mr Medcalf. There are no bonfires permitted here - between April and September. Which is fine, because it’s October now. And I don’t think we are nicked, are we? Because you need to be a serving police officer to do that. And my good friend Jonesy from the Holby South station told me something interesting the other day - he said he’s got a new bunch of PCSOs just started.”
“What’s a PCSO?” Jason whispered loudly, and in an equally indiscrete whisper, Fletch replied.
“A Police Community Support officer - not a copper at all.”
Robbie paled in the firelight, and the torch drooped in his hand.
“He told me it’s a mixed bunch - a couple of lads who didn’t make the entrance exam for the Wyvernshire constabulary this year, getting in some volunteer hours; a divorced woman who’s loving actually doing her own thing now, and -”
“Oh, don’t, please don’t,” Robbie whispered, but Jo’s tone was sympathetic rather than unkind as she finished.
“And a retired DI who’s missing work more than he thought he would, and whose experience is proving invaluable with his new colleagues. Robbie, you don’t need to be doing all this snooping round the allotments - there’s plenty of real policing to be done out there. Look - why don’t you put the torch down and step away from the allotment by-laws - here, have a drop of this. It’s good stuff - and you’ve had an allotment this year, so some of this is yours by right.”
She poured a mug of scrumpy and handed it to him, and for the second time that night, the allotmenteers held their breath.
Robbie stared around at the faces glowing in the firelight, and looked at the mug in his hand. Slowly, very slowly, he brought it up to his lips, and drained it in one go.
“That’s - that’s - that’s actually really good!” he said in a wondering tone. “Don’t suppose I could have another, could I?”
And from among the trees, the music started up again, and as the cider went down, the sparks from the fire flew up, and the figures dancing and flitting between the trees seemed to have more shadows than they should, as though the trees were dancing, too.
Bernie still held the bottle of sparkling cider, and she opened it now with a very satisfying pop. Doris, the scruffy little rescue dog who followed Bernie slavishly whenever she saw her, went haring off after the cork, barking in excitement. The cider bubbled up beautifully in their mugs, and they clinked them together in a toast.
“I was thinking,” Serena said at length. “You remember saying you thought we should have a dog?”
Puppy eyes were turned upon her immediately, and she laughed. “Well, I think you’re right. I think we should get a rescue dog, like Doris. But there really isn’t room for a dog at your flat, it wouldn't be fair. So there’s only one thing for it,” she carried on, her eyes gleaming. “You’ll have to move in with me and Jason. What do you think?”
“I think you have the best ideas,” Bernie said, and kissed her soundly.
The party went on late into the night, growing more and more mellow. As the embers of the fire died down, the last few partygoers sat round it tucked beneath their blankets, draining their cups ready to start trudging home. Somehow Robbie had turned into an actual human being over the course of the evening, and Claire and Louise had offered to let him help out on their plot if he promised not to use any fancy gardening gadgets, and he was like a man converted, and overjoyed to be welcomed back into the fold. It was Fletch who made the final toast of the day.
“Another great Apple Day, friends - what a day! We’ve got a lot to be thankful for - food to eat, cider to drink, and good friends to share it with. Ladies and gentlemen, there is more rejoicing in heaven over the lamb that was something or other -” he was starting to lose his thread a little now, but he gathered himself again.
“Raise your glasses, please - to Robbie the Hobby Bobby!”
“Robbie the Hobby Bobby!” echoed across the slope of the orchard, and Robbie Medcalf peered around the circle, beamed stupidly and fell off his chair.
Bernie and Serena slipped away among the hilarity. They would collect their chairs and mugs the next day, but for now they tiptoed away, and pausing for a moment at the gate of the Lovers Lane allotments, they kissed in the moonlight.
“Let’s go home,” whispered Serena.
And they did.