Light up the sky with Standard fireworks
Alright then, this is a work of original fiction, the characters are mine, so please don’t take without asking first. British setting, spelling and all that. I don’t really do Halloween in quite the same way as my American cousins, but I don’t half do fireworks. So I hope you enjoy it.
If you’d like to get in touch, please do: Ceri.Lloyd@bodleian.ox.ac.uk.
Synopsis: Charlie Morgan delights in some Oxford things that aren’t about the University or the tourists, she thinks about fun fairs, fireworks and bonfires, and why some people don’t seem to like her.
There are some things in Oxford that aren’t about the University or the tourists that mob the summer, the ones who make getting round the medieval streets harder every year. September is the hiatus between the students coming back and the tourists going home, and the city celebrates with a fair: the broad street of St. Giles closed off from the Martyr’s Memorial merry-go-round to the helter-skelter church. Once about hirelings and back breaking agricultural labour, now it’s about sex and showing off, the hoodies visibly testing their mettle against the rides that almost clip the trees and the gable ends, almost dash their brains out on the tarmac and flagstones. I love the fair; I love the smell and the noise of it, the bright lights and the techno that bounces off the wedding cake walls of the Ashmolean museum. Yes, it’s tawdry and a rip off, and I’m too chicken to go on the gallopers that fail to frighten even the littlest kids, but for two days a year, the fair delights me.
It could be that I’m easy to please. I like the simple things of life, it’s true, I’m pretty uncomplicated, something that has driven girlfriends mad in the past as they tried to make me appreciate opera or Iranian cinema. I understand that other people like this stuff (although I suspect there’s an element of showing off that would make the fairground chavs proud) it’s just not for me. I’ve never got over the childlike joy of pointing at stars and crying look! Stars and fireworks. Especially fireworks. And that brings me to another thing that’s nothing to do with the University or the tourists: the annual firework display, held on the last Saturday of October, in line with half term, rather than a week later, in line with Bonfire Night.
You can get one of the best views of the Dreaming Spires from South Park; the overblown jelly mould of the Radcliffe Camera, the neo-Gothic rocket of St. Mary’s flattened and stacked up behind the houses of St. Clements. Except that at six o’clock on an October evening all you can see is street lights and tail lights, not that it really matters as everyone has their backs to the view, looking up rather than down the hill. Nor do they pay much attention to the tiny fun fair, a seriously abbreviated version of St. Giles. There might be one or two hardcore kids having a half hearted scream, but most of the pre-fireworks interest is captured by the heavy scent of frying onions coming off the burger van. And that was exactly where I was, in the queue, trying to decide if I wanted a cheese burger or a jumbo sausage (the same dilemma I have every year at the fair) when I heard someone calling my name.
It was Nicky Brent, one half of Meena and Nicky, a very well known, well established East Oxford couple; the half that always seemed genuinely happy to see me. In recognition of this, I gave her a genuinely happy smile which froze on my face when I was confronted with the other half: a permanently frowning Meena Choudry. It’s possible that Meena did sometimes smile, but I’d yet to see any evidence. Perhaps it was true what my granny said, and the wind had changed and set Meena’s face in that unfortunate expression of constant disapproval. Maybe underneath it she was pleased to see me, but somehow I doubted it. However, my attention was soon dragged away from Meena’s sour countenance by the occupant of the pushchair she was joggling. There in her bright red coat and bright pink wellies was Saffron, Meena and Nicky’s three year old daughter, who grinned when she saw me and thrust out the stuffed toy rabbit she was holding. I really like Saffron, she might biologically be Meena’s daughter but she’d inherited Nicky’s good nature, so I ignored Meena and addressed Saffron instead.
“I like your bunny. Isn’t she a beauty?”
Saffron did that toddler thing of switching from attention seeking to extreme shyness in an instant, and covered most of her face with said bunny. The only things visible were her big brown, smiling eyes. When I looked back up, I met an almost identical pair, these ones grown up but no less smiling. I felt my heart skip and my face colour.
“Charlie, you remember Meena’s sister Jay, don’t you?”
Did I ever? The Choudrys were something of a British Asian cliché: girls who seized the opportunities offered by their parents’ adoptive country, and through diligent hard work carved out success for themselves, Meena as a commissioning editor at the University Press, her little sister Jay as a solicitor who was set to make partner by thirty. I was glad my mother hadn’t met the sisters; I’d never hear the end of it. They were bright, motivated and good looking beyond decency. Admittedly, I’d always found Meena too smug to be attractive, but Jay had a self deprecating sense of humour that left me weak at the knees. Not that an over achiever like Jay Choudry would look twice at a loser like me. I drifted through my provincial comprehensive school, then my provincial university. I had a job that I neither hated nor loved. I’d made a virtue of being unremarkable, and now it was coming back to haunt me.
I was snapped back out of myself by the sound of rubber thumping insistently against plastic and was relieved to drop down to child height.
“What’s up Saff? Bored of the grown ups, huh?”
I pretended to tickle her and she squealed and wriggled even though we both knew she couldn’t feel it through her thick coat. That was too much like fun for mum, judging by the way she was tutting her tongue against the back of her teeth and the terse way she announced that if they wanted to get a decent view they’d better go now; the pushchair was swept away from me before I had a chance to say goodbye to Saffron or hello to Jay.
“You can stand with us if you like”
Nicky was clearly embarrassed, hands shoved deep in her pockets. I watched Meena and Jay’s receding backs and let Nicky off the hook.
“I should go and join my mates”
I pointed vaguely towards a group of laughing people I didn’t know from Adam, slightly disappointed by the relief that fluttered over Nicky’s face. Obviously seeing it in my face, she attempted to redeem herself.
“Listen, Charlie, we’re having a Halloween party at ours after, if you’d like to come”
“Yeah, I might pop in”
We both knew I wouldn’t.
By the time the first rocket tore up the sky and exploded into a chrysanthemum of orange light, I’d forgotten about Nicky and Meena, I’d even forgotten about Jay. Well, almost. She’s a difficult woman to forget. The first time I met her was at a New Year’s party at her sister’s; an event I’d been invited to because at the time I was seeing a colleague of Meena’s, a woman called Janice who was trying to civilise me and rapidly failing. She seemed unable to accept that all we really had was a fantastic sexual chemistry. Things would’ve been perfect if we’d never got out of bed, but instead she insisted on taking me to Covent Garden to see overpriced and unintelligible operas. Once I fell asleep during Turandot and she didn’t speak to me for three days. Meena’s party would be our last date, a fact she announced around 10:30, giving me ninety minutes to get absolutely rat-arsed before the Big Ben chimes and a far too hearty rendition of Auld Lang Syne. Actually, when the countdown reached its zenith, I was standing in the darkness of the garden, head tipped back, staring up at the frosty stars. Look! my inner child was shouting look!
“You must be freezing out here”
A voice like Meena’s except warm and concerned startled me and I spun around so quickly, I almost stumbled. The woman caught my arm and stopped me from falling. Close to she looked like Meena only kinder and still concerned.
“Are you okay?”
I nodded but suddenly felt the hot wetness of self pitying tears.
“Janice just dumped me”
I blurted it out, surprised that I was so bothered but knowing it was more likely the Famous Grouse talking than any truly heart-felt regret. The woman who looked and sounded like a much nicer version of Meena slipped an arm around me and pulled me into a hug, so that my forehead rested against her shoulder. She smelled of Comfort and Anais Anais, and it was all I could do not to rub my muzzle, dog like, into the soft weave of her sweater.
“On New Year’s Eve? What a bitch”
I nodded my head, hoping I wasn’t ingraining snot into what felt like a very expensive jumper. The faint strains of Auld Lang Syne drifted from the kitchen as the woman held me and continued to hold me until a voice that was definitely Meena’s cut through the still and quiet New Year.
“Jay, what the hell are you doing out there?”
Jay sighed and slowly released me. I wanted to cling onto her warmth as it was very cold and I was still feeling sorry for myself, but I didn’t fight it as I felt her slip away.
But I managed to forget all about Jay Choudry when I felt rather than heard the whomp that was the signal to search the sky for the enormous ordinance that seconds later would turn the already smoky sky yellow, red, blue and dazzling white in burst after burst of chemicals and gunpowder. A collective intake of breath before a round of oohs and ahhs every bit as traditional as he’s behind you. I didn’t care that I was standing alone because although it’s nice to feel someone’s woolly gloved hand in yours, fireworks never disappoint. Even if it’s just a box of Black Cat or Standard that your dad has transferred into an old biscuit tin like they tell you to on the telly; even if it’s pony Roman candles and Catherine wheels and other things that should remind you of religious intolerance and Christian martyrs, nailed to the shed door as a reminder of saintly immolation. There’s the moment the blue touch paper gets lit and you retire to the safe distance of heart-in-mouth anticipation before the rocket screeches out of the half buried milk bottle to pop over next door’s hedge. Writing your name in the time delay arc of a sparkler that more often than not fizzles out half way through, the letters C-H-A-R seared on your retina. No sparkler ever made it through the entirety of my name, but that never stopped me trying.
However, nothing my brother could create in the back garden would match the South Park bonfire, and Greg was a pyromaniac. Of course, things would’ve been different if he’d had access to fifteen feet’s worth of wooden pallets and half a park rather than a small town back garden and whatever he could pilfer out of skips. I leant my arms on the crash barrier, feeling the stupefying heat of the fire on my face, and thought about Greg, how he’d have found a way to sneak past the fences to get as close to the flames as he could, feral in the acrid smoke catching in the back of his throat and nose, his eyebrows singeing and his skin tightening. My brother never met a first he could resist trying to bend to his will. I wasn’t aware of the person standing next to me until she spoke, a voice like Meena’s but not Meena.
“It’s mesmerising, isnt’ it? Like it has a life of its own”
I didn’t turn to face Jay, still too caught up in thoughts of Greg. Jay didn’t seem to mind. She moved closer, I could feel the brush of her shoulder against mine. Her voice was soft, soothing. I cleared my throat.
“It is alive. It breathes like we do, dies if it doesn’t get fed”
“And look how it jumps and dances around like it’s happy”
I turned then, and saw the buttons on her coat turn a flickering gold in the reflected firelight. It was a city coat, somehow out of place here in a park full of duffel coats and anoraks, hoodies and denim jackets. I looked up and caught the same reflection on her sleek bobbed hair, her huge, sympathetic eyes. I tried to meet them with my own utilitarian blue but couldn’t maintain contact, my gaze drawn back to the flames that broke and leapt towards the stars. Look! I didn’t want to but couldn’t help it.
“Fire’s not happy. It’s not anything so human. It’s an monster that will consume anything that gets in its path. It doesn’t care about anything but destruction”
A hand covered one of mine that I realised was gripping the barrier so hard, the knuckles had whitened. A thumb gently stroked until the grip seemed to spontaneously loosen. When Jay spoke again, her tone was deliberately light.
“Are you always so philosophical, Charlie?”
“Only when it comes to fire. Apparently I’m too uncultured for deep thought about anything else”
We fell quiet, both staring at the flames. Jay didn’t move away, though, instead I could feel her comforting warmth, and let it absorb the sadness a little. The hand that covered mine moved so that our fingers linked. It was a nice hand: soft, warm.
“Meena and Nicky are having a party”
“I know, Nicky asked me”
She shot me a hopeful glance.
“Are you coming?”
I shook my head. The hopeful expression faded into disappointment.
“If they’d really wanted me there, they’d have invited me beforehand. Nicky was just being nice”
“So what are you going to do instead?”
“Probably go into town and have a drink”
I probably would. I’d probably go down to the Brewery Gate. It was Halloween after all, and it would be fun to look at the girls dressed as vampires or sexy little devils, to the see the boys doing dodgy drag. I’d have a couple of pints and a laugh with the landlady.
“Can I come with you?”
Jay’s voice was so timid, I was startled.
“Come with me?”
She pushed a strand of hair behind her ear, and I realised we were still holding hands. I pulled gently until the side of her body was flush to mine.
“What about Meena’s party?”
“It’ll be full of serious people making me feel inadequate”
“As soon as Saffron’s put to bed, that’ll be the only decent conversationalist gone”
“Well, yes, I can see that, but inadequate?”
“Everyone is part of a couple and they are all so self-satisfied about it. There’s only so much of that I can take”
“I can’t believe you’re not part of a couple”
“I’m not smug enough”
She took our joined hands and slipped them into the pocket of her expensive city coat.
“I can’t believe you’re not part of a couple, Charlie”
“I’m not smug enough either”
The crowd was thinning. The respectable families were going home for hot chocolate and bedtime stories, leaving the park to the fun fair delinquents, and the bonfire acolytes to stare, flushed and glassy eyed, into the heart of the Beast. It’s no surprise that Hell is conceived as fiery, any number of demons could do what they liked to this rapt and torpid assembly. If I hadn’t known better, I could swear one was poking me with its pitchfork. Instead, what I felt was Jay’s head as she rested it on my shoulder, her soft hair brushing against my cheek, and it took all my remaining will power not to bury my face in it. Not yet. Her sigh relaxed both our bodies, our hands still deep in the silk lining of her pocket. I gave in to temptation then, and turned slightly so I could gently press my lips to hair that smelled of Pantene and wood smoke, sensing rather than seeing the smile on her face. When she spoke, her voice was barely louder than a whisper.
“Don’t let’s ever be smug, Charlie”
No, don’t let’s.