Guy Fawkes’ Night Fireworks
by David Heulfryn

 

Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot,
We see no reason,
Why gunpowder treason,
Should ever be forgot!

 

Standing facing the bonfire, the heat blazed over my body. I was close enough that the heat almost became painful. It was an intriguing sensation, my face burning hot while my back felt the bitter chill of the November breeze.

The conical pile of wood, broken branches and old unwanted household furniture stood nearly nine feet tall; the flames licked their way up the sides, creating a plume of smoke that swayed with the wind. Alone, I watched the flames, intoxicated by their seductive dance, while the festivities went on, seemingly oblivious to my presence.

Somehow I got caught up in the village’s excitement in preparing for this day. I can’t precisely remember volunteering for anything, but I had well and truly been roped in. I suppose it was just their attempt to give a poor lonely young man something to do. Their fussing never really bothered me, I was happy on my own and keeping myself to myself, but they kept trying to draw me out into village life. My neighbours were the worst, perpetually asking if I was all right and inviting me over for coffee or dinner. A few times, I accepted the offer, but these days I would decline as they would make me feel like I was on display, and I had to explain why I was still single. I know they meant well, but they were beginning to get a little suffocating, especially when almost every conversation with them contained the phrase, ‘you should get out more’.

The husband never really took an interest in me, but it was his wife, Jean, who was always trying to do the right thing and be the friend to everybody in the village. I must have been her pet project for the past year or so, trying to assimilate me into the village. I suppose it kept her busy and distracted from the dull life she must lead. It was her idea to organise this big event.

“It would be nice to get the whole village together instead of all those disappointing little parties. And it is a big anniversary year.” And so the months of preparation started.

This year marked the four hundredth anniversary of the failed Catholic conspiracy ‘Gunpowder Plot’ to blow up King James I and his parliament. I was never a big celebrator of Guy Fawkes’ Night, not since I had grown up, although I remember some great times when I was a kid, the bonfire, the fireworks and the toffee apples that nearly glued my jaw shut. As I thought about the day, I wondered exactly what was being celebrated, the fact the plot was foiled or the attempt itself. But the reason the day is celebrated is, I suppose, peculiarly English. It’s the sheer audacity of the attempt we admire and long forgotten is the gruesome fate that met the conspirators, being hung, drawn and quartered.

Jean’s two young teenage sons made the effigy of Guy Fawkes out of their father’s clothes and got the straw stuffing from an adjacent farm, I hoped they had asked permission but I doubted it. They also cobbled together a cart with old pram wheels and paraded the effigy, dressed in what looked like a relatively new Ben Sherman shirt, around the village, proclaiming ‘penny for the guy’ before adding that all donations helped fund the event.

My contribution was wood. I had been volunteered to go round knocking on doors collecting the old furniture and dismantling it, removing the nails and screws ready for the bonfire. Thankfully someone else built the thing as I had no idea how to, and quite frankly, when he explained the dynamics and structure of a good bonfire, I found myself stifling a yawn.

Tonight seemed the perfect night for it. The sky was clear, so the stars created the ideal canvas for the fireworks display, and the night was cold, so we all wrapped up warm with scarves and gloves. The adults tried to warm themselves up with mugs of hot soup while the kids kept warm by running about or playing with sparklers, drawing lines in the air and hoping the light trail lasted long enough to write their name or draw a funny face.

I ripped myself away from the blaze and dawdled over to get some soup. Jean handed over the mug.

“I hope you’re enjoying yourself? It’s turned out quite well, hasn’t it? Everyone seems to be having fun?”

Her questions didn’t seem to warrant any answers, but as she beamed a smile at me, I said. “You’ve done a great job, Jean. I hope you get a chance to enjoy it rather than helping out all the time.”

“Oh, I’m having a ball, Pete. Don’t worry about me.”

Slurping the soup, I smiled at her and returned to the bonfire, wondering how long I should stay. I would have been enjoying myself more, but I had no-one to share it with. I showed my face and looked happy but kept trying to decide when I could slip away unnoticed.

Gradually I began to realise just what an effort today must have been for Jean. Not just raising funds but approaching the Parish Council to get permission to hold it on the Village Green, sorting out the firework display, the food. I wondered if there had to be any insurance, what with today’s litigious society and the many companies encouraging people to sue for whatever reason.

I blinked as a stray cinder blew into my eye, and I told myself to stop worrying about insurance and try to enjoy myself.

“Would you care for some bonfire toffee?”

The voice behind me was soft and eloquent. I turned to see a young man holding a metal try of bonfire toffee, broken into shards by a hammer more used to pounding nails that toffee.

I smiled at him and picked up a sharp piece. “You could do some damage with this.”

“Only to your teeth. I don’t think anyone’s been killed by being stabbed by bonfire toffee. I’m Neale. Jean sent me over. Said to keep you company.” He grimaced when he mentioned her name.

“Oh.”

“She’s my aunt, and please feel free to say what you like about her. I know she’s a busy body. In fact, tell me to bugger off if you want, at least then I can report back that I’ve tried and found you,” he affected the voice of an old matriarch, reminiscent of Dame Edith Evans’ Lady Bracknell, “a very rude young man.”

I chuckled. “No, it’s alright. I already have more in common with you than anybody else. Jean.” I stressed her name.

“Wait here while I ditch this tray of murder weapons. And chuck that vile soup on the fire; I’ll bring over a couple of proper drinks.”

Realising I still held the splinter of hard golden toffee in my hand, I tossed it into the fire but kept hold of the soup as, although it tasted like cardboard, it was doing an excellent job of warming my hands.

“Here you are, Pete.” Neale held a polystyrene cup at arm’s length, waiting for me to take it. As I had not introduced myself, I must have looked confused. “Don’t worry, Jean’s told me about you.”

Tossing the soup into the fire, I grabbed the foam cup and sniffed the liquid.

“This’ll warm you up more than any soup.” Neale sipped.

Whisky. The pungent aroma went into my lungs. I sipped and smiled at Neale. This was good stuff, I could tell. Not the cheap blended stuff but a decent single malt. The peat used to fire the distillery permeated the amber liquid to give it a distinct flavour. I was no expert, but I knew a good whisky when it passed my lips.

“There’s nowt like a good drop of usquebaugh to warm ye on a cold night.” He spoke in a mock Scottish accent.

“Thanks. If I’d known there was a bar, I would have hit it earlier.”

“Forward planning,” Neale said and retrieved a silver flask from inside his coat. “I knew if I were to survive this, I would need some encouragement, and here it is.” He raised his foam cup in a mock toast.

“So, what has Jean been saying about me. It’s probably all true, but I’d like the opportunity to deny it anyway.”

“Oh, not much, she just worries. She can’t understand why you live on your own, so she will always try to match you off with someone. Lord help those two little brats when they start having girlfriends.”

“Is this what this is? A match?” I furrowed my brow.

“Got it in one, Tiger. She may look like your stuck up Women’s Institute upper-middle-class housewife, but she’s got no problem with getting two blokes together. She’s even been known to talk about sex.” He raised his eyebrows. “Don’t worry, though. Just stick with me, and we can get each other through this, and after tonight we never have to see each other again. She’s done this to me too many times.”

“Why do you go along with it?”

“Haven’t you heard her nag?” Neale sounded worn down. “She’s a fighter, and if she can’t win by force, she’ll win by attrition.”

Smiling at him, I sipped my drink.

“But at least I live a fair distance away from her. You live a few hundred yards away. Must be hell, and I bet you didn’t get off lightly in helping with this.” His arms surveyed the green, encapsulating all the people and the stalls of food and games.

“Yeah, I was roped in to help with the bonfire.” I wanted to say more as I was conscious that he was doing all the talking. I didn’t want to come across as rude.

I couldn’t understand what was so captivating about this young man. He seemed to speak incessantly, almost afraid of the silence, but not nervously. I felt increasingly foolish standing and sipping my drink while he rambled, but I didn’t want to stop him. His voice held my attention, and I caught myself hearing his words rather than listening to him speak. His words were beautifully formed, every syllable clear and every letter impeccably pronounced. A sweet sound not effected by any ridiculous notion of class as I could still hear the trace of his regional accent. My gaze shifted from his dark eyes to the motion of his lips, forming those words I heard.

“Let’s go find a seat.” He must have seen me fade as his hand rested on my shoulder to bring me back.

“Uh, sure.” Was all I could grunt, and he hooked his arm around mine to led me away from the bonfire.

I wanted my head to come down from the clouds, and I screwed my eyes tight. My mundane way of coping meant me asking a load of stupid questions: What do you do? Where do you live? Which he answered and then politely threw the same questions back to me.

When he glanced at his watch, I thought he was now bored with me, wondering how much longer he would have to suffer my company.

“Only half an hour to the big display. Let’s go find a nice spot to watch.”

The occasional small firework was let off to keep the kids amused throughout the night, but the big display was saved for the end.

“Wait here.” Releasing my arm, he dashed over to Jean, and I watched as he whispered into her ear. I detected a faint smile from her, and then he disappeared under the trestle table, which held the buckets of soup.

I never saw him emerge. My eyes never left the spot from which he vanished, until out of the corner of my eye, I saw him jogging slowly over to me, a blanket under his arm. He found a sheltered spot under a tree and laid down the blanket. He was about to sit down when I stopped him.

“Neale.” He straightened his back and looked at me. I gripped his shoulders in my hands and pulled him closer to me. My lips parted slightly and pressed against his. His hands scrapped my flanks as he wrapped them around me, pushing our hips together.

We lay on the blanket staring up at the stars, our fingers entwined, waiting for the inevitable disappointment of the fireworks. No fireworks could come close to those of our first kiss.

 

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