“Can we go today, Daddy? Oh, please say we can.”
6-year-old Ruby turned her big brown eager eyes to her father, who was standing beside her looking out of the kitchen window.
“Don’t see why not,” he replied kindly, lifting his daughter up so she could see into the garden better. “The sky’s brightening up and the sun’s beginning to shine.”
“Daddy,” interrupted Ruby. “Look there, the leaves are going all yellow. Does that mean they’re not going to be green anymore?”
“They’re changing colour, Ruby. Do you remember in God’s story about how he made the world, where he created the trees? He decides that now, in the autumn the leaves will turn to yellows and reds and oranges-”
“Can we go see the horses now? You said, you promised.”
“Yes, of course,” laughed dad. “Come on, let’s go.”
Dad and Ruby were the only ones at home now. Ruby’s mum died when she was very little and Dad had never married again. They did a lot together and shared a love of animals and nature. This being a sunny, calm autumn Saturday, it was a perfect time to visit the horses in the paddock next door.
The long grass left streaks of rain on their boots as they pushed their way along the overgrown path and soon they were leaning over the paddock gate and feeding the horses with the apples they had brought.
“Can I learn riding, Daddy?” enquired Ruby, as they admired the beautiful animals. “Oh, please! Can I, can I?”
Once again Dad laughed. “We’ll see, Ruby, we’ll see...”
Ruby frowned. She knew that ‘we’ll see’ meant: usually never.
“Tell you what,” said Dad brightly, changing the subject. “Let’s go into the wood and see how many colours of leaves we can find. If they’re on the ground we can collect them and take them home to make a picture.”
“Oh, goody!” Ruby clapped her hands, already interested. “Come on, I’ll race you.”
Setting off at top speed she reached the nearby woods before her dad and soon they were finding a multitude of coloured leaves. The wind of the night before had quietened down and all was peaceful as they ventured deeper into the wood. Ruby’s pockets were full to overflowing. As she looked up to see if her dad could carry some for her, a strange building above her caught her eye. A small house, made haphazardly of wood, was balancing in the large oak tree over their heads and as she looked she recognised a young boy’s face looking down on them.
“Hello,” she said. “What you doing up there?”
“Oh hi Alan,” called Dad as he greeted his 11-year-old nephew.
“Come on up!” cried Alan, disappearing from the window and reappearing at the top of a rope ladder which swung precariously nearby. “Come on, Ruby. You can do it.”
Ruby laughed with delight and immediately ran to put her welly-clad boot on the bottom rung. Dad stood close behind her and soon she was climbing into the little wooden house to join her cousin, looking down on her father from her high vantage point.
“Come on, Dad,” she called. “You can do it too.”
But Dad was too big for the rope ladder and unable to climb up and join her.
“Not possible,” he declared firmly. “Never mind, Ruby, come on down and we’ll carry on with our walk....”
“Oh can I stay here, Daddy, oh, please, can I...can I?”
“She’ll be safe with me,” smiled Alan, giving his little cousin a hug and already showing her his collection of tree roots and bark he had stored there.
Dad also smiled.
“OK Ruby,” he replied, giving a little shrug. He felt he could safely leave Ruby with Alan, who was sensible and like a big brother to her. “Is your dad in, Alan?” he asked, as started to turn away. “I think I might go visit him and then I’ll come back for Ruby. Is that OK, Ruby?”
Ruby hardly heard him. She loved her big cousin Alan fiercely and to be left on her own with him was a huge treat for her.
“I didn’t know you had your own house,” she said shyly, suddenly feeling the mystery of it all. “How long have you been living here?”
Alan laughed and gave her a friendly push. “ I don’t live here,” he exclaimed, making her feel a little stupid. “My mum helped me build this in the holidays—you and your dad were away somewhere and I was bored and-”
“But we could live here,” came the exuberant reply. “We have a roof and a door and windows.”
Her gaze wandered over the wooded landscape below them. The beautiful colours of reds, oranges and yellows, the freshness of the green leaves that hadn’t yet turned, the roof of the stables in the horse paddock, glowing gently in the sunlight.
“What’s that?” she asked suddenly, pointing at a grey blur hanging almost invisibly over the paddock.
Alan leant over, only mildly curious, and then suddenly stiffened.
“That’s smoke,” he said softly and then, more forcibly, as the realisation hit him. “Smoke! Fire! The paddock’s on fire! Come on, we’ll get my dad, come on!”
As quickly as she could Ruby followed Alan down the rope ladder. Going down was more difficult than the going up had been and a couple of times her wet boots slipped on the rungs and she was left hanging there. But Alan was keen to help her and soon they were running deeper into the woods, where Alan’s dad lived in his forestry cottage.
“Fire!” shouted Alan as they raced in through the front door. “Quick, come quick, it’s the paddock...”
“And our house is next to the paddock,” declared Ruby’s dad, jumping from his chair and grabbing his jacket. “Ruby, climb on my back, it’ll be quicker this way.”
Running through the wood to get home was very different from the leisurely walk they had taken just an hour before. The colours of the leaves were now just a blur and the peace of the morning was broken by their sudden apprehension. Ruby, her arms wrapped tightly around her dad’s neck and her head down to avoid the whipping branches, could hardly think such was the speed of it all.
But she could smell.
Acrid wafts of smoke reached them and, as they came closer, they could hear the whinnies of the panicked horses as they careered around the paddock.
“Look out!” shouted Dad, as a distressed horse leapt over the surrounding fence and came bolting towards them. A stable hand came riding behind, on a stronger, younger animal and now, as they neared the paddock, all became clear. The roof of the stable block was on fire and people were running around with buckets of water in their efforts to put out the blaze. The noise of crackling straw and timber almost drowned out the sound of the approaching fire engine and the overpowering fumes were almost too much for the neighbours who were running to help.
“Ruby,” commanded Dad. “Run to Auntie Catherine. Look she’s waving at us from her front door. Go on, I’ll help with the fire. Come on, Alan.”
But the boy had already run ahead with his dad. Their next-door neighbour Catherine was very nice but Ruby felt she had rather been put to one side, out of the action.
She could help. She had a bucket in her sandpit. But Catherine was taking her indoors and plying her with orange juice and biscuits and no opportunity seemed forthcoming.
“I’m just going out to grab my washing in,” she called to the young girl over her shoulder, as she passed through the kitchen door and into her back garden. In a flash, Ruby was behind her. Auntie Catherine was struggling to retrieve some big sheets and now was Ruby’s chance. Quickly, while Auntie wasn’t looking, she squeezed through a hole in the fence, grabbed her bucket, filled it from the garden tap and ran towards the fire.
“Oh no you don’t, my girl,” came Auntie Catherine’s voice as Ruby felt her hand on her coat collar. “You’re coming home with me.”
Later, as Ruby curled up on Auntie Catherine’s sofa under a blanket, she whispered coyly, “I didn’t think you’d seen me. I thought…”
“I know what you thought, Ruby,” came her aunt’s gentle reply. “But fire is very dangerous and you must never go near it.”
“Your daddy’s here now,” came the reassuring reply, as auntie saw Dad coming up the garden path.
“Daddy!” cried Ruby, jumping from her seated position and running to the front door.
“Oh, Daddy,” she exclaimed as he came into the hall. “Daddy, you’re all black!”
Auntie handed him a cup of tea but Dad wanted to get home. After they had successfully managed to put out the fire he was now blackened from head to foot and his throat and chest were sore from the fumes and smoke.
“Thanks, Catherine,” he replied hoarsely, “I think I’d better get Ruby home. Come on, Ruby, we’ll be going now.”
Thanking Auntie Catherine for her help, he and Ruby returned to their kitchen where their day had begun.
“I’ve been very naughty, Daddy,” whispered Ruby as they sat together at the kitchen table.
Dad looked at his daughter in surprise. She was normally so bubbly.
“I ran towards the fire. I’m sorry, Daddy, I know it was wrong.”
“Fire is very dangerous,” replied Dad and he put his arm around her, “and you must never go near it. God made it look beautiful but it can also hurt you very badly. Whatever happened today, you can tell me another time. Right now, I’m going to have a shower and then we can make our leaf picture together.”
“So God made fire as well as the leaves?” continued Ruby. “Oh, and can I have a tree house like Alan’s? Please Daddy, can I, can I?”