Wednesday, June 17

Bonfire Smell & Sweat

THE FAMILY WAS all camping some miles away: aunts, uncles, partners, children, cousins, second-cousins. It was a Christian camp for inner-city children borrowed for the weekend, negotiated by my cousin who has worked there every summer for the past decade. It was set in the countryside near to where my youth emerged, soggy and soft, and on Saturday it was grey, rain waiting in the clouds and solid air beneath. Slightly dizzy from the night before, from the coffee, but feeling positive, happy for a day in the open, I arrived in the late afternoon. Most were sat, wrapped up in coats, around the bonfire, where smoke drifted straight up, logs were collected from a nearby pile, the smell of, the smell of, the smell of, locking into your nostrils and wisps of ash caught in the breeze. A bottle of wine was passed around, between which everyone spoke very tiredly though in good spirits. Around them was a mowed field with a pair of goals, rusting; over there, a forest; in the distance, a river; up a small ledge, a building containing the kitchen and showers, running water, hot, scale between the tiles. I opened a beer and grabbed some bread from the kitchen. The children were playing with the fire, burning their hands, tending to each other, carrying on. The beer was kept in a walk-in fridge and, by all accounts, would not run out. An absent cousin text my mother to tell her their dog had died.
Everybody was grubby because they smelled it and wore it. They strutted around carelessly. All of my cousin-in-laws were naked of makeup. They reclined in plastic garden furniture about the bonfire, passed the bottle of wine and laughed. In the distance the trees laughed. A few drops of rain fell.
The children were led to the river with canoes and set off from the jetty. Brown water bobbled and bobbed. Back & forth three canoes went. A dog sniffed, played, swum and licked its mouth at all the calls of her name—‘Ruby!’ They went back & forth. The children spoke of a waterfall. My penis came out in the air and pissed into some grass with a whispering sound. Running was too good, skipping over the grass when nobody was looking. A childish energy awakened in me. Around I went, playing with all the toys. A bike built for the road, with no tracks but mudguards and such, rickety. Flicking the gears, I got up some good speed. Soon I led the children to the basketball court and we rode in circles. The children told me—
‘We’re gonna catch you!’
‘No you ain’t,’ I said—‘You’ll never catch me. Not at this speed!’ and I sped up. The children sped up. We rode around in circles, imperfect circles, giggling and having fun. After an hour I grew tired so I rode my bicycle back up to the top of the hill and explored alone the rest of the countryside, taking photographs and speeding myself down the hills, nervously holding on for silly life! It was the most fun I could remember. The speed took my breath and forced it down into my neck. When the terrain unsteadied, I loosed my grip on the bars and lifted my bum into the air. So bug-eyed did I descend the path. Around me the hills rolled. Back at the bonfire my cousin asked—‘You enjoying that bike, R—?’ It was, after all, his bike. I told him—‘Yeah! I ain’t rode a bike in years!’ One of my second-cousins learned how to ride a bike, right in front of me! (Not out the tail of a cul-de-sac, my father behind me cheering me on, pedalling towards Rhiannon’s house, frantic, excited this motion and quick escape.) I rode along at his side, smiling, telling him instructions, egging him on and he took flight and we rode off together with him all happy & glad.
A simple game of hitting a ball with a baseball bat, cycling, retrieving, hitting, cycling, retrieving, hitting. I played alone for hours. My hands became sore from the bat and from their softness. A piece of skin came away from my hand and blood arrived that tasted delicious. I bit the skin off and chewed it. From one side to the other of the great field I went in my simple game. Not a thought came into my mind, but the pursuit of the exercise. When we set up for a game of rounders* I heard people say—‘I want R— on my team!’ and so quietly did I feel proud. I had a swing on me; perhaps baseball was the sport I was supposed to have played. The game went on until the sun went down and my whole body was caked in the clothes I wore, sticky with sweat.
All of us sat beside the fire as night came down. My clothes still stuck to me, besides my body ached. I sat in the plastic garden furniture and talked to my cousin and his friend, while we played games. Inside the walk-in fridge were more beers. Night submerged the land and not a star could be seen above the clotted clouds that swum in the sky. There was not a sound beyond us. Only the smoke dripped toward the ceiling, its drips lit and orange.

* Pretty much baseball, for my American readers.

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