Bonfire Night isn’t what it used to be. These days it’s all about the fireworks, and who has the most, the best, the noisiest. The fires themselves are tamed, organised, run by the local authority or a worthy charity. Back in the late sixties, there was a bonfire in every third or fourth back garden. The rich kids had a box of garden fireworks, the poor kids had a packet of sparklers, but it wasn’t about the bangers, the rockets, the catherine wheels and the roman candles, it was about the fire, and what was on it.
Every bonfire was a local history goldmine, piled high with the year’s debris. Back then, few people had cars, and the local tip wasn’t all that accessible. The dustmen only took what fitted in the bins. If you had something to get rid of, it got fly tipped, or it went on the fire.
In ’68, my family were invited to a ‘big bonfire’, hosted by my auntie’s neighbour. Mum made great slabs of bonfire toffee, and my sister and I made toffee apples. We were promised a big bonfire, sparklers, and maybe even some fireworks. In the days leading up to Bonfire Night, I joined the local kids in dragging a Guy around the houses, begging for a penny. Where that Guy ended up, I don’t know, he went to another bonfire, another fate.
I faced the party with a queer mixture of excitement and dread, the TV seemed to be constantly showing stories about children killed or maimed by fireworks, and I took them all to heart.
We arrived early, with the toffee apples and the bonfire toffee, mum had offered to help with the jacket potatoes. Mugs and glasses had been begged and borrowed from the neighbours, and bright bottles of pop stood on the window ledge, cherryade, limeade and Tizer.
The bonfire was yet unlit, and in the late afternoon gloom, I went to inspect it. There was a broken ladder, one side split, the lower rungs rotten, the feet black with leaf mould. There was a box of paper, I reached in and took a sheet, it was boring stuff, lists of figures, pounds, shillings and pence. Stuffed deeper inside was a flash of pink, I bent and rummaged through the bits of cardboard and tatty wooden toy blocks and found treasure, a love letter, years old. I folded it, and put it in my pocket, feeling a romantic urge to save the passionate fire of those long spent words from the flames. Higher up, a flutter of white caught my attention. A baby jacket, it looked new, hand knitted, the tiniest size. I frowned at the waste, but couldn’t quite reach it to retrieve it. I stepped back, taking in the prevalent colour of the bonfire, a deep, rich blue, mostly made up of old carpet cut into shreds, and two moquette armchairs, long past their best.
A hand on my shoulder made me jump, it was the lady of the house, she managed a smile. “Be careful, all that stuff might fall on you. It’s not a good place to be playing. Come on now, come back to the house, we’ve got some parkin fresh from the oven, let’s eat it while it’s warm. Your cousin is going to light the bonfire for me once it goes dark.”
I remembered then, the lady lived alone, something sad had happened, I wasn’t quite sure what.
Darkness came fast, and the clouds that had been threatening all day cleared away, blown by a fresh breeze. It was going to be a dry, cold, Bonfire night, the best kind. Sparklers lit, we kids gathered round the fire, watching my cousin light a long taper of twisted newspaper, and thrust it into the heart of the bonfire. It sputtered, and died. He tried again, to laughter from the older men. He was blushing, messing up this rite of passage from child to man, fumbling this offered opportunity. With the next taper, he blew on it before he thrust it into the dark depths. He held it there, waiting for a bundle of cardboard to ignite. At last, as the taper burned towards his hand, the cardboard started to glow, then to burn, flames licking up eagerly, fanned by the new breeze, reaching upwards towards the timber of the old chair.
Within minutes, the noise was overwhelming, the crackle of wood, the crashes as the bonfire collapsed in on itself, the sudden bang as the Guy’s balloon head exploded. The smoke blew into my face, and suddenly it wasn’t fun any more, the carpet was smouldering unpleasantly, and I retreated into the house.
I’d not been there before, but it was the mirror image of my auntie’s house, and was comfortably familiar in its layout. The kitchen was crammed with grownups watching the fire in comfort, through the window, chatting to each other. I couldn’t see the lady of the house. I walked into the front room, and on impulse went up the stairs, standing at the landing window, watching as fires and fireworks lit up the evening. I could see dozens … hundreds … of fires all around town. A year’s worth of discards was on fire, and the smoke was already thickening.
There was a small box on the landing window ledge, ebony and silver, with a clever little latch. I knew it wasn’t mine, and wasn’t my business, but the familiarity of the house, the way it felt just like my auntie’s place, lulled me into a sense of belonging, and I reached out to touch it.
‘Please. Don’t touch that.’ The voice came from right behind me, I jumped, and knocked the box onto the floor, where it fell open. White dust spilled out. I stepped back, narrowly avoiding it, and ran downstairs.
I carried on running, out of the back door, stumbling, almost falling into the fire, running past my auntie’s place, back home, to a locked, dark house. Fires burned all through the town, and the smell of ashes haunted me.