Sunday, May 19

Mulled Wine Still Makes Me Young

MAY I REMIND YOU, in a small village, the school’s Guy Fawkes Night is an occasion for which the entire population leaves its warm houses and courses through the streets for. In the cold darkness of night, the school, even to my nine-year-old eyes, is an alien place; a place I do not know; yes, I recognise some of the shapes but that is it. Even the textures are something to be reconsidered. Is that indeed the youth centre? The steps?
My family – having walked the distance – were now confronted by the scene. The bonfire had been lit and was running its thin fingers underneath belly of the heavens. They were golden.
We walked in through the gate. I didn’t recognise a great many things that I saw because it was dark and I was used to seeing everything in the daylight.
‘This is not my school.’
The crowd could be heard and against the fog their shadows were cast by a spectacular bonfire. Guy Fawkes had been tortured, died, and had been burned three-hundred-and-ninety times. By the time we got there, he was just a shaky old white yellow man you could hardly distinguish upon the lump of donated garden cuttings & lumber.
One had to tread carefully not to trip on the playing field. In the autumn and winter they closed it off, so that it became soft and no-man’s land. The grass squelched. Only the soil around the lips of the bonfire was dry and there was Guy Fawkes distractedly poking it with a stick (from Ms. Cartwright’s bush that she’d been meaning to trim for months before she actually got round to it on a particularly lazy Saturday evening).
Popcorn was sold in greased paper bags from a stall at the top of the hill; served by a teacher; scooped out by a couple of students (who are probably chairmen or drug addicts by now). The popcorn was kept in large black sacks and their sweet smell congregated around.
Fireworks ejaculated.
Their scattered colours changed, fizzed, puffed, feathered, disappeared.
A choir of ‘Oh’s.
Even the children who ran behind the crowd yonder stilled to take in the gunpowder; little noses & cheeks angled upwards; lit momentarily by a thousand burning filaments.
In the crowd there was no wind; just Fellow Man Warmth.
When it ended everyone walked back through the streets. Universal direction down the High St. then to branch off.
A night over for many, but not for us.
While we’d been enjoying ourselves, a man down our cul-de-sac was preparing a fireworks display of his own. It was our fireworks display, our cul-de-sac. He was a gun-nut who would be forced to hand them all over after Dunblane (still to bleed over the country, still to change everything, childhood & law & life).
Five housefuls of people gathered out. Everyone knew each other and was very close. On Christmas mornings we’d go from house to house exchanging gifts. Know that then the scent of mulled wine was in the air. When I think back, that hot smell in the cold air is what I remember most. ‘Here’s some,’ said my mother, handing me a cup. I drank it quickly so that it didn’t get cold. It warmed my belly. I didn’t know that in years to come red wine would be the fuel my body ran off. It was the most sacred thing to pass my lips. It was nostalgia, thirsty & holy.
One neighbour, however, never emerged.
He was our home’s next-door neighbour. He was a tightly-wound bastard who ruled his household through fear. Not a hair grew on the top of his head and he blamed my brother & I for a great many crimes that we had not committed, and my mother fought fiercely for her children’s’ innocence. No, he locked himself and his family away from the festivities. To be sure, he covered his plastic windows in tarpaulins so that they would not be damaged by any poorly-aimed firework. His children would always try to peep out but they never saw anything.
The fireworks set off. Safety was disregarded, even laughed at. Such distance had separated us from the flashes at the school’s event! but now they were right there, they took off from our noses and exploded, godly & majestic, over our heads. All the grown-ups got more & more drunk. The children ducked & dived to get as close to the action as they could; we made note of where the fireworks blew so that the next morning we could retrieve their bodies.
Everyone got more & more drunk. The fireworks ran out. Then, with limp legs, they crawled home. And that was that.
The next morning there was litter in our cul-de-sac and, hello you, the daylight revealed the fallen carcasses of exploded fireworks; cardboard tubes, dark at one end; lying as cold as a corpse.

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