A sneaky peek at chapter 1!

The Orchard Underground

chapter 1: think of the town

The day I meet Attica Stone, I don’t realise what a big deal it is because I’m worried about a tree.

I should say straight away, I don’t normally worry about trees. Trees are fine and generally don’t bother people, unless they start dropping their pine cones on the bike path or teaming up with those birds that fly down and poo on your schoolbag.

So today is a day of unusual tree-worry, because I’ve suddenly realised that the Lone Pine – my favourite tree, the only tree left in the whole valley where I live – is doomed. In two days’ time it’s going to be chopped down, bulldozed and burned, just like all the other trees that had to make way to build the roads, shops and houses of my town, Dunn’s Orchard.

And I’m the only one who can save it.

As Pri Kohli, first kid ever to live here and Official Face of Dunn’s Orchard, I should be able to save it. I’ve been the town’s pet celebrity since I was tiny. My face has been on every brochure, TV ad and website advertising the town since Mayor Dunn started building it ten years ago.

But getting adults to listen is always a problem, and in Dunn’s Orchard, when they want to bulldoze something, it’s pretty much impossible.

Take right now, for example. I’m standing in Frist Street, the main street of Dunn’s Orchard, trying to get the mayor’s attention.

‘Um, Mayor Dunn, can I just ask –’

‘Look at the wonderful choice of shops we have!’ booms Mayor Torvald Dunn.

I look at the wonderful choice of shops.

‘Sure,’ I say, ‘but can I ask you about the Lone P–’

‘And the quality of these roads!’ Mayor Dunn continues. ‘No-one does roads like Dunn’s Orchard! Just look at that asphalt!’

I look at the asphalt. It’s very roady.

‘Yes,’ I say as positively as I can, ‘but it’s about the Lone Pine. Is there a way we can save –’

The mayor treads on my foot. ‘Amazing!’ he cries, gesturing generally at everything in sight and twisting his heavy Sluggers workboot on my toe to make it clear now isn’t a good time to talk.

To be fair, it isn’t a good time. We’re surrounded by a flock of families who’ve driven out from the city to look at the Lone Pine. Well, not the Lone Pine itself, but the field it stands in. Torvald wants them to buy the houses he’s going to build there after the Lone Pine is gone. It’ll be called Last Street Estate. When it’s all built and people move into their new houses, Torvald says, the town will be complete.

As the town’s Face, it’s my job to help convince them to move here – it’s the reason I’m here at three in the afternoon instead of in school.

‘But don’t take my word for it!’ says Mayor Dunn, swiping down his silver comb-over and shuffling his boot off my foot. ‘Ask this young chap!’ He ruffles my hair, and all eyes turn towards me.

‘This town is perfect!’ I say. ‘I love it!’

I super don’t believe what I’m saying. Not anymore. I believed this town was perfect right up until yesterday, when I suddenly realised all the things that made it perfect were gone.

All except the Lone Pine. Which will also be gone in two days, unless I can save it.

Without the green wildness that used to be here, Dunn’s Orchard looks exactly like what it is: a clean, newly built town in a bowl-shaped valley, ringed with hills, filling up fast with neat, square houses.

Tidy. Neat. New.

But not perfect.

‘That’s right, this town really is perfect!’ says Mayor Dunn. He ruffles my hair again, like I’m a cocker spaniel who brought his tennis ball back. ‘And Pri should know!’ he adds, waving towards the banners fluttering high on the flagpoles lining Frist Street. Each one says, in fancy writing:

TEN YEARS OF DUNN'S ORCHARD

"THINK OF THE TOWN"!

And every one of them has a metre-tall photo of my face on it.

‘Ooo!’ the potential new residents hum. A few take photos of me with their phones.

I force a smile for them. I’m used to this. It’s my job.

I know the town better than anyone else, because I’ve watched the whole thing being built. I know what was on every spot before there was a house or shop there.

Like Pig Back Rock, which Mum and I named before it was bulldozed to make way for Second Street.

Like the overgrown hedges where I lost my stretchy Jake from Adventure Time when I was six, before they dug them up to build the supermarket.

Like the big clump of blackberry bushes I used to build cubby huts in with my former best friend, Evan Gray, which they tore up to make way for the Truly Enormous Coffees outlet.

‘Are you happy here, Pri?’ says Mayor Dunn, raising his eyebrows at me. The eyebrows say, clear as a yell: THINK OF THE TOWN.

‘I’m so happy!’ I say, feeling miserable.

‘Of course you’re happy!’ grins Mayor Dunn.

When she thinks I can’t hear, Mum calls the mayor ‘Two-Faced Torvald’. I’ve never asked why.

Frist Street is only a hundred metres long. Mayor Dunn ushers everyone quickly past Truly Enormous Coffees and Castle Dunn to the end of the street, where Dunn’s Orchard School sits at the T-intersection with Valley Drive.

The mayor leads us into the entrance hall just as the final bell rings. The fluorescent lights flicker, blink off, blink back to life. Blue-blazered kids stream past us and out onto Frist Street like a flooded river on its best behaviour as we push upstream towards a large trestle table marooned like an island in the middle of the hall. A white cloth covers something large and round on the table. 

‘You’re going to love this. Just love it,’ says Mayor Dunn, beaming as he picks up one corner of the cloth.

People always take photos at this point, so I go around the back of the table so they can get the Face in their pictures. I guess Mayor Dunn doesn’t see this, because when he theatrically whips the cloth off and throws it away, it lands on me. 

I’ve become a ghost. Outside my sheet, the potential new residents are applauding what’s on the table. I go to pull the sheet off, but actually I quite like it in here. It’s private. I don’t have to do my job for a minute. I can pretend the Lone Pine is safe and everything is still perfect like it used to be. 

‘Isn’t it magnificent?’ Torvald is saying. ‘Can you see ... yes, that’s Last Street Estate! Would you like to see the real thing? Of course you’ll all come to the Town Bonfire on Friday, but now let’s go see where your homes will be, new Orcharders!’ 

Excited oohs and aahs drift away towards the door, followed by Torvald’s jolly rushing. If I’m quick, I’ll be able to catch up to them and ask Mayor Dunn about the Lone Pine.

I pull the sheet up over my eyes, but he’s already gone, leaving me alone with the thing that everyone was so excited about. It’s a 3D sculpted polystyrene- and-cardboard model of Dunn’s Orchard and the surrounding valley, covered with a huge perspex dome. It’s actually pretty great.

‘Hi, Face,’ says a passing kid.

‘Hey, Jonty,’ I say, not looking round. I don’t have to. I know every kid in town. 

The model is two metres long and two metres wide, built in wedges like slices of cake that you can pull out and replace, and it shows in pretty good detail all the buildings and streets of the town. The Lone Pine, tallest and last tree in the valley, sticks up out of the very last green wedge. 

I stare glumly at the Town Model. I’ve seen it pretty much every day of my life. Or at least since I was a toddler. When I was little I called it the Polystyrene Universe, and I’d fly over it in an imaginary space helicopter, whooshing past my house and doing loop- the-loops over all the grassy fields around it. I hardly noticed how much it was changing, until Torvald announced the new estate and I realised all the places I used to play have been demolished – all the fields and climbing rocks, all the hiding places and wild bushes and all the trees. 

Except one.

‘Hey, Face,’ says another kid.

I wave over my shoulder. ‘Yeah, hi Kirsten.’

The last rivulet of little kids trickles past behind me, and then the hall is empty and quiet.

I lean over the model. It looks like you could blow the Lone Pine over with a sneeze.

And then chop it up and burn it on a Town Bonfire.

Which, except for the sneeze, is exactly what’s supposed to happen on Friday. 

I have to save it. 

I touch the perspex above the last treetop in town. ‘If I let them burn you,’ I say to the Lone Pine, ‘what else here is worth getting excited about?’ 

And then, one inch behind my left ear, a voice I’ve never heard before says: ‘Apple trees.’

There it is, the first chapter of The Orchard Underground. Who just said 'apple trees' into Pri's left ear?* Will he save the Lone Pine?** Will there be a happy sloth like there is on the cover?*** And why do birds poo on your schoolbag, anyway?****

Find out when The Orchard Underground hits the shelves of your favourite bookshop, Tuesday 1 May 2018!

* Attica Stone
** Not telling
*** Sort of
**** Birds eat stuff right off the ground, so their guts are waayyyyy not okay.*****

***** Also birds are jerks.