That morning’s stubborn frost – the first of the year – groaned under his feet as he slogged his way up to the bonfire. A mist hung over the field. It seemed that the day hadn’t really started and yet it was already on the wane. His sense of distance was playing up; surely it was taking far too long? Too long to get to the huge pile of planks, branches and discarded furniture – a year’s worth of a village’s accumulated waste. Still, he told himself, it will be worth the effort, so he leaned into the slope pulling on the cord to drag his sled up its last hill. And there it was, looming out of the wet, grey membrane like a lost pyramid. ‘Shit! Someone’s been busy’ he thought. He wondered how the hell he was going to get the old sled to the top of what must be a fifteen foot pile of unstable debris.
What had his Dad called this – his ‘voluntary community service’? He’d explained what he wanted to do: to make a bonfire for the village fireworks night. He knew his dad was surprised, surprised by his feckless son’s enthusiasm and hard work.
Truth be told, Mike had never done the washing up, never offered to wash the car and keeping his room tidy was a joke. As for cleaning up after himself, putting the toilet seat down or washing out the bath after him – never. But this was different. This wasn’t something his parents had told him to do so that made it Ok, even if they would have approved, in their own way. Funny how his parents could have been what they were and yet still have a love for village life.
He looked up at the potential inferno and he grinned. A happily abandoned fly tipping mentality had infected the village, seems they all had something to burn, something to forget. He was part of the village now. In the last two days he’d been recognised and congratulated by those nameless faces you sort of know but don’t in a small village. They knew about his efforts and rewarded him with the respect due to a young but worth-while member of the village. Diluted respect but respect nonetheless.
‘Hey, Mike that’s quite a pile you’ve got there!’
‘Yes, but I’ve got some cream!’ And they’d laughed at his lame joke. Looked at him, seen him as if for the first time.
He remembered his parents’ house parties when it seemed the entire village descended on their semi-detached cottage and then descended again deeper, mysteriously into their cellar. And as he let each guest in the front door, he remembered the scorn on their faces. Probably the same faces that now looked him in the eye as he passed them in the village, who smiled, winked and tilted their heads almost conspiratorially as they went by. Pity he thought: that’s all it would have taken but now it was too late. Far too late. If only he could have trusted any of these erstwhile friends so he could tell them the truth about what was hidden behind his family’s perfect front.
Millie had been the last straw. The husky/border cross had been the companion of his youth and though her dotage had ended their exploration of the local countryside, their relationship had been the one honest constant in his life. One Saturday in early autumn, after a sleepless night, he’d stumbled down to breakfast where his mum had told him that Millie had been taken ill in the night and had had to be put down at the vets. Later that day he’d cycled to the vets to see her and to say goodbye. He had returned with nothing but the confirmation that his only friend had not been cut down with canine leukaemia, in fact she had not even been admitted at the vets. His parents had clearly been angry at being caught in their lie. As he watched his mum’s practiced regret flit briefly across her face, he remembered what he had thought was a dream the previous night. The familiar chants, that often invaded his dreams, were this time a bass counterpoint to a drawn out, whining that had curled up from the bowels of the house. This dream had ended in a visceral and euphoric shout at which the whining abruptly stopped.
No dream, then. Mike’s world turned.
He tipped the load, the memory of that sudden realisation giving him the strength to throw the frame from a shattered bed high onto the pyre and heft the sled so it stood balanced on its only whole runner against the staved-in side of an old wardrobe. The wardrobe’s veneer was peeling and its cheap plywood was exposed for all the world to see. He thought of the secrets that Victorian relic might have stored and of the generations who’d polished the wardrobe’s flanks. What had they hidden in its naphthalene smelling insides? The terrible rows, the false accusations, pints of spat obscenities and of course, the hours of cold indifference. All that history. All those sins. All to be burned away like old rags.
He imagined himself sitting atop the pile looking out over the village. He’d miss the places where he’d taken his first girlfriend, guiltily hiding from the meagre street lights at the centre of the village but reluctant to leave the safety of their glimmer, wary of the dark recesses of the lanes and bridleways. He remembered how he’d respected her shy pleas for restraint and walked her safely home. In the failing light he would still be able to make out the rough track, a scar amongst the trees, where he’d come off his bike, got back up, bloodied, his tear streaked face determined to make the jump this time. From the pyre’s top he would see the recycling bins in the pub car-park where he’d stood up to the bullies who tormented the vicar’s autistic daughter as she returned from church on Sundays.
If only it had all happened that way – the way he liked to remember it; the way he’d like to be remembered.
An old door, a little way inside the pile, caught his eye: knots weeping through the broken layers of lead paint, the Suffolk latch still attached, vainly reaching for the catch: old habits, it still leant almost straight barring access to the pyre’s heart . And in its hard flat surface, he saw the closed door to his parent’s room, the barred door to the cellar where he was never allowed and all the other doors slamming in his house. He saw too his friends’ front doors deaf to his knocking and the world’s opportunities shutting in his face. When he tried to tell his mum of his fears or led his dad to the topics he needed help with – nothing. They didn’t, wouldn’t get it. A parent’s scorn was a terrible thing: their disappointment in him dripped from their stares like tears and it burnt him like acid. Surely, that’s child abuse?
And in those cold boards he saw again the locked door to the medicine cabinet opening to the edge of his knife.
At least his parents were together. He stared deep inside the pyre’s heart, no not a pyre, nor even a pyramid, more like the praying hands of an old god – finger tips touching, the space between – an inverted heart. And tonight’s bonfire, toasted with local ale and cider and a hog-roast would be a fitting farewell to the village.
Others were winding their way up the hill now. It seemed everyone was on their way, snaking up through the dusk. Trestle tables appeared, local cider from Dove Farm frothing from demijohns, a fire crackled into paraffin life under a spit. Later, meat would roast. Someone with a head-torch flitted ghostlike behind the screen from behind which the fireworks would later scream.
Laughter now, sparklers ignited, neighbours joked, the cider doing its job, the smell of gently roasting pork – someone forced a glass in his hand; a hug from someone unfamiliar smelling of cold tweed and then he held a roll – the heat from the roasted pork seeping through dough, crust and paper, warming his hand. An alien feeling crept over him and threatened to overcome him. It was a sense of absolute belonging, of acceptance, of worth.
Someone swapped his glass for a burning torch – a medieval thing that fitted his grasp, and he was pushed forward through the crowd which opened to receive him like royalty. And now the people chanted down from ten. On cue he thrust the flame into the great pile and whoosh! A gasp from the crowd and then even applause. It seemed he was a natural fire maker. He was helped back from the heat as the fire took and the fireworks reached whining to heaven and fell spent into hell. The warmth of the flames melted the people into a unified whole, a village.
‘Hey, Mike that’s quite a fire you’ve made. Well done, well done!’ The playful thump on the shoulder from whoever – the butcher, Mike thought – and he lost half his onion from his roll. He struggled to remember the man’s name.
‘Sorry, son! Any’ows, it’s a pity your parents aren’t here to see this, eh?’
Jacob! That was his name. He remembered the man’s large, ruddy face serving diced steak across the counter in the butchers. He’d also seen him at the late night parties; always in the middle of a group.
Mike turned to look him in the eye, the way he’d practiced. ‘Yeah, they would have liked this a lot. Still, they couldn’t do anything about it.’
Jacob regarded him with cold blue eyes. ‘No, I suppose they couldn’t.’ And there was a smile under the opaque ice of those eyes. ‘They also would ‘ave appreciated the sacrifice. They never lost faith in you, son.’ He walked away then and joined the rest of the village as it turned almost mechanically to face Mike. Forming a giant ellipse, the village smiled at him and Mike was the eye’s dark centre.
And he wished his parents could see him now. They would be proud of what he’d become. He stared at the pyre’s heart where his mum lay wrapped in his dad’s arms, locked together in a last, warm embrace, wearing the robes they had worn in life but never in front of him; the same robes he saw surrounding him now.
That morning, before the sun had risen, he’d hauled them up the slope on the sled his Dad had made him for the snowy slopes of his boyhood. And now, after the sun had set, he missed them.