Gunpowder, Treason and Plot
Crack! Whizz! Bang! Someone in Tumut is letting off illegal fireworks. When we get back from our New Year's Eve dinner at the Golf Club, we find Bella has jumped over the gate and is hiding under the car in the front garden. She rushes into the house behind us. Fireworks have always terrified her.
They bore me. We used to take the children to the NYE fireworks displays on Lake Burley Griffin years ago. We'd squeeze our picnic rug between other peoples' rugs and chairs, getting trodden on, pushed past, trying to enjoy a lukewarm glass of wine and get in touch with the festive atmosphere as we waited ages for dark to come. No sooner did the fireworks start than they were over. The bangs and bursts of sparks got progressively bigger and brighter over about 15 minutes, and then culminated in the huge, classic burst of stars. It would feel to me like an anti climax; you'd be tramping back to the car again with the crowds, lugging all your stuff, probably carrying the tired out kids,, and then there'd be a massive traffic jam to face before you got home. It was at this moment in the development of public fireworks displays that I stopped going.
As with all things, it seems, these displays could not stay the same. Nor could they - amazing thought - actually diminish in size each year. No, they had to get bigger and bigger, and more and more spectacular. I heard that they started to put the fireworks to music. Then they had 'themes". Then they were lighting up Sydney Harbour Bridge, and a whole evening's entertainment was promised. This year's Sydney fireworks display alone cost $7.2 million. (How can we possibly afford that?)
The public displays are supposed to compensate people for the fact you can't buy your own fireworks anymore. Not even sparklers. They are considered too dangerous to be in the hands of ignorant amateurs such as your Dad or your Uncle Russell. The only place you can still buy them is the slightly wild Northern Territory, which has its own ideas about most things.
Fireworks hadn't used to bore me. Years ago when they were still legal and the children were young, we used to spend a small fortune on them - Roman candles, Catherine wheels, rockets, fountains, sparklers. Bonfire Night was exciting and much anticipated . It was the Queen's Birthday weekend, the middle of winter. All the kids in the street, and for many streets around, would come and help build the bonfire on the reserve. You'd spend the weekend dragging out all your garden prunings and rubbish for the kids to take down there. They would make a guy, and tie him to the top of the centre pole. I doubt many of them knew about Guy Fawkes, and how he almost succeeded in setting fire to the Houses of Parliament with his kegs of gunpowder underground, and how he got burnt at the stake for his efforts.
It was the sight of the orange flames leaping and the sparks dancing in the dark, that was the most thrilling thing. And being out after dark, rugged up against the cold, but scorched when you got too close to the fire. And seeing the shadowy figures of neighbours and parents and friends, whose presence you could so easliy slip away from. And the shrieks and whirrs and whistles and cracks of of the fireworks, and the challenge to find ways to make them bang more, and jump higher, and to be as close to them as you dared, or as you were allowed.
The kids all went a bit wild. Of course, they were under strict instructions not to let any fireworks off without an adult present. It wasn't until years later that I learned that it was E and his mates who had let bangers off in various letter boxes around the neighbourhood. A spark famously ignited all the fireworks that a neighbouring teenager had stuffed in his coat pockets, letting off a terrifying display as he struggled out of it., unharmed, but an instant legend. The local paedophile chased the children round the bonfire and was laughed at and chased away himself. Fuel was chucked on the fire by a gung ho neighbour man to ensure the flames reached the Guy before the younger childrens' bedtime. It was a dangerous, thrilling, and memorable night.
,I lived those Bonfire nights through the children. My own childhood memories of Guy Fawkes nights in our Staffordshire village in the 50's had been almost competely erased by an incident on the last one, the one before we left for New Zealand. It happened like this.
I come out of school running at 4 0' clock. It's nearly dark. The wind bites through my coat, whips up my bare legs. The bus home is waiting, engine rumbling, but I'm running past it, dodoging puddles, dodging people , past the sweet shop without a glance. I'm going to my Auntie Molly's shop on the other side of town, and I've only got half an hour before the next bus leaves.
I'm not allowed to see Auntie Molly. My mother says she's common, because she works in a shop and dyes her hair blonde. She says she doesn't know why Uncle Eric married her. My sister Jennifer says she heard our father call Aunty Molly a tart.
'She wiggles her bottom when she walks,' she said, 'that's how you can tell.'
But Aunty Molly likes me. She calls me 'duck', and she always gives me things out of the shop. I don't risk visiting her very often, but tomorrow is Guy Fawkes Night, and her shop will be selling firewroks.
The gold letters of "Bramley's Newspapers and Tobacco" shine over the old black door of the shop. I race down the stone steps, open the brass handle,,a bell jangles, and I'm inside. Aunty Molly is behind the wide wooden counter, serving a customer, but she winks and waves at me.
It's like stepping into Alladin's cave. The smell of the newspapers, the creamy writing paper, the stacks of envelopes and pencils, the paint boxes, and piles of brand new magazines, Women's Realm and the Peoples' Friend, and Princess.
The fireworks are arranged under the front counter, in boxes, their names like a map of Fairyland. I hover around them, magic can spoil if you look at it too closely.
'Hello duck!' Aunty Molly says, and she lifts me up on the counter and hugs me. 'What have you been up to?'
'We went to Manchester,' I tell her.
'How smashing!' says Aunty Molly. She lights up a cigarette. My mother says only fast women smoke, but I love the dreamy look in Aunty Molly's eyes when she draws in the first puff, and the way she holds the cigarette between the red tips of her fingers. 'What were you up to in Manchester then?' she asks.
'We had lunch in a hotel.'
'That was a dickens of a long way to go for lunch, duck!' Aunty Molly laughs.
'We had to have an interview,' I explain.
'Oh! Is your Daddy going for another job then?'
'It wasn't for a job, it was to see if we could emigrate to New Zealand.'
Aunty Molly's mouth puckers in a little ooooh of amazement. 'You're never going to New Zealand? You're never going to leave us!'
'Mummy says it may not be forever,' I reassure her.
'It's the other side of the world duck! Do you want to go?'
'Oh yes! We're going to have a hosue with verandas and a big garden, and I'm going to have my own bedroom. We're going to live by the sea. Daddy says it will be like being on holiday all year round.'
Aunty Molly looks away from me, puffing on her cigarette. When she looks back, she's got her lovely red smile on again.
'Well duck, it sounds smashing. You make sure you come and say goodbye before you go now.'
She takes a large paper bag and puts a Princess magazine in it, and some cut-outs. Her hand hovers over the pile of The Peoples' Freind, then she puts a copy in her bag. 'That's for your Mum,' she says. 'Tell her Molly sent it.'
'She'll love it!' My mother doesn't like The Peoples' Freind, so it won't matter that I won't give it to her.
'Do you want some fireworks?'
'Oh yes, please!'
She fills the bag with two of everything.. 'One for you and one for your sister,' she says. Then she wraps me in her arms and squeezes me tightly.
'Tell your Mum to come and see me,' she says.
'I will,' I lie.
Then I'm out, clutching the bag. Night has come, and the town has become a strange place. Hurrying people hunched against the cold. Shadows lurking between the pale yellow pools of light from the street lamps. I run all the way to the bus station, but I've missed two buses, and have to wait for the next one. It starts to bucket down with rain, and I'm squashed in a crowd of people in the bus shelter.
What am I going to tell them about why I'm so late? I could say I fell asleep on the bus and finished up back in town. I could say I got on the wrong bus.
The bus is full of workers. It groans and lurches its way up Porthill, stopping at every stop, and I crouch at the edge of my seat, rehearsing my excuses over and over. The trip has never taken so long.
At last we arrive at the end of my street, and I clamber down the steps into the dark. The rain is blowing in sheets now. I take a short cut across the Green, the grass squelches under my feet. A pack of wolves hiding in the trees have sniffed me out, and are moving stealthily from tree to tree around me. I stumble onto the street, clutching the bag of loot inside my coat to keep it dry, then I'm pounding along the pavement, too scared to look, the wolves closing in behind me. They're running now too, gaining on me, panting at my heels. I burst through the front gate, race for the door, but before I can ring the bell my mother has flung the door open and I fall inside.
'Oh, thank Heavens!' she cries. I want to run into her arms, but she has darted back into the hall. 'She's here now, thank you very much. I'm sorry to have troubled you.'
She hangs up the receiver and turns on me. Her brown curls are rioting. She's not in the mood for a hug.
'I was so worried I called the police!"
This has never happened before. The police might as well be standing in the hall waiting to take me away. I'm a criminal and the game is up. None of my stories will be any good.
My father bursts in from the kitchen holding a knife and a bunch of celery.
'Where the hell have you been?' he shouts. My sister Jennifer hovers behind him; she's not going to be on my side.
'I went to Aunty Molly's shop,' I confess.
'Aunty Molly!' they howl. 'But we've told you not to go there! You know we don't have anything to do with Aunty Molly!'
'And,' my father continues, 'you're not allowed out after dark, and you're not allowed to go into town after school.' He counts off the rules I've broken with the knife.
In the lounge, the fire is blazing in the grate. The table is set for tea. I wish everything could be normal again. I could give Jennifer the fireworks, and then she might like Aunty Molly too. My parents would see they were wrong about her, and ask to come for afternoon tea. But my parents don't like to be wrong about things, and I hold the bag close inside my dripping coat.
'What on earth can you have been talking about all this time!' exclaims my mother.
'I told her about going to Manchester, she was really interested.'
'I suppose the nosey woman wanted to know why we went,' says my father.
'Oh no, you haven't told her we're going to New Zealand, have you?' gasps my mother.
Now I know I've done something terrible. Goose pimples have broken out on my legs, and I'm shivering.
'Yes,' I whisper.
'Oh God, now she'll go and tell Dad. I can't have him hearing it from her! Oh why did you have to do that?'
Jennifer suddenly says, 'I bet Aunty Molly gave her things out of the shop.'
'Did she?' says my father.
'Is that true?' says my mother.
So at last I take the paper bag out from under my coat. They all stare at it. 'She gave me some cut outs, and Princess, and...'
In one furious movement, my father snatches the bag from my hand, and hurls it into the blazing fire. 'That's what I'll do to your bloody cut outs!' he shouts.
There is a huge explosion. Yellow flares spurt up the chimney. A jumping jack leaps among the coals, shooting little glowing pieces out onto the carpet. A Golden Fountain erupts sideways into the coal scuttle. A jet of silver sparks arcs towards the settee, and my mother screams.
My father drops the knife and grabs the poker, jabbing at the escaping coals. A shower of sparks burns holes all down his trouser leg. 'Strike a light!' he yells, confusingly, and smacks at them with the bunch of celery.
He waves me back, his face is glowing like the coals. 'Go to your room now!' he orders. 'There'll be no Bonfire Night for you tomorrow, not so much as a single bloody sparkler.' The shocking B word is heard for the second time that night. 'And you're not ever to go to that woman's shop again!'
Bonfire Night. I lie in bed, holding my teddy. I can hear the bangs and whizzes of fireworks on the Green. I think of getting up and trying to see them through the window, but the wolves are under my bed. They're watching with their orange eyes, waiting for me to put my legs over the side. Then they'll pounce, and pull me down, and no one will hear my screams because they're all at the Bonfire.
I haul the bedclothes over my head, and pull out my diary and the torch from under the pillow.
'When I'm grown up,' I write, 'I'm going to wear tight skirts and smoke cigarettes like Aunty Molly. I'll be the black sheep of the family, and Mummy will cry and say I was always a difficult child, and Daddy will be sorry he was so horrid to me.'
The strange foreign smell of gunpowder, the distant yells of children, and the crackling of the bonfire up on the Green, follow me into my dreams.
I don't know what I missed that night, but I never saw Aunty Molly again.
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